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Chelsea face make or break four games as Conte's future hangs by a thread

To suggest that Antonio Conte has three weeks to save his job as Chelsea manager would be stating the obvious considering the fixtures facing his team over the next 20 days, but focusing solely on the Italian's future risks overlooking the bigger problems looming large at Stamford Bridge.

As the man in charge of the team, the security of Conte's position has now become a matter of debate after each result in recent weeks.

He was on the brink after back-to-back defeats against Bournemouth and Watford earlier this month, but then billed as a tactical genius after masterminding a 1-1 Champions League draw at home to Barcelona last week.

Sunday's 2-1 defeat against Manchester United at Old Trafford has shoved Conte back onto the precipice, however, with the setback leaving Chelsea in fifth position, two points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham, in the race for Champions League qualification.

No Champions League will mean no job for Conte at Chelsea next season and the former Juventus and Italy coach knows that. Yet he also projects the image of a man who is not losing any sleep over his fate. He is a realist and that is how managing Chelsea works. If you win, it is simply a fulfilment of the basic premise of the job. If you lose, the game is up.

And whether he looks backwards or forwards, it is difficult for Conte to find reason to be optimistic about his position at Stamford Bridge.

Since the turn of the year, Chelsea have won just four games out of 14 in all competitions, but it is the next four -- against Man City, Crystal Palace, Barcelona and Leicester -- which will make or break not only Conte, but potentially his team, too.

If the landscape looks barren for Chelsea in three weeks' time, after that run of four fixtures, Conte's future will not be the only one on the agenda.

If Chelsea miss out on Champions League qualification, how will they hold onto Eden Hazard or Thibaut Courtois? How will they then attract a world-class manager or the world-class players required to take the club back to the top?

Conte's situation has masked the other issues currently bubbling under the surface, but they will come to a head if the next four games go badly.

Having faced Barcelona and United over the past week, Chelsea are already in the middle of a crucial period, but the screw is now beginning to turn.

Next up is a trip to Manchester City in the Premier League on Sunday and that has become a game that Chelsea must win to stay in touch with the top four. A game at home to Crystal Palace on March 10 should be one that Chelsea win, but the Eagles have won on their last two league visits to Stamford Bridge, so that fixture is clearly a dangerous one for the reigning champions.

And then comes the Champions League round of 16 second-leg against Barcelona at Camp Nou -- a tie which carries enough significance on its own, without the added pressure of having to win it because the Premier League route via the top four is closing down.

If Conte remains at the helm after that game, then the FA Cup quarterfinal with Leicester at the King Power Stadium on March 18 could be his date with destiny.

Chelsea and Antonio Conte have a massive few weeks ahead.

Jose Mourinho's second spell in charge ended with a defeat at Leicester in December 2015 and, if Chelsea crash out of a second competition in the space of four days at the King Power, Conte may well suffer the same fate.

Yet while the future appears inevitably bleak for Conte, the club will face a challenging summer if they miss out on the Champions League again.

Hazard has yet to sign a new contract, with his deal due to expire in 2020, and Real Madrid are reportedly ready to hand him the chance to move to the Bernabeu and compete for the biggest trophies with them. Goalkeeper Courtois is another who is stalling on committing his future to Chelsea, with the Belgian also a target for Real.

Would either be willing to extend their stay at Chelsea if next season offers nothing more than a diet of Europa League football under a yet-to-be identified new manager?

Chelsea need strengthening, regardless of where they finish this season, but doing so would be much more difficult if they had to start by replacing their best player and goalkeeper.

They may also need a new centre-forward if Alvaro Morata's form slump deepens and the Spaniard, who has admitted that he regards living in London as "stressful," begins to cite homesickness as a factor for his poor performances.

Conte will almost certainly be long gone by the summer if he fails to deliver Champions League qualification, but the upheaval is unlikely to be limited to the manager's position. If the next three weeks go badly, uncertainty will run through every area of the Chelsea squad from that point onwards.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

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