London: Chelsea are facing up to the fact there will be no easy, or cheap, way out of their managerial deadlock following Real Madrid’s decision to appoint Julen Lopetegui.
Lopetegui’s controversial switch, which resulted in him being sacked by Spain on the eve of the World Cup, all but rules out the prospect of a mutual split between Antonio Conte and Chelsea that would have seen him walk into another job.
With no big vacancies left and no immediate prospect of a tempting job becoming available for Conte, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is left with the clear choice between sacking the Italian and paying him up to pounds nine million in compensation, or letting him see out the final year of his contract and risk civil war.
Conte has made it clear he will not quit and, despite being left in the dark over Chelsea’s plans, has told friends he is prepared to return for pre-season training if no action is taken. It is still expected Conte will be sacked, but a decision had been delayed to see whether there was a mutually beneficial parting of the ways available for both parties.
Maurizio Sarri remains the favourite to replace Conte should Abramovich decide to pay him off, but the former Napoli manager, who is still contracted to the Serie A club, is not the only person Chelsea have been looking at.
Laurent Blanc has been put forward as a Plan B, while Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli, who was interviewed for the Chelsea job before Conte got it, still has admirers at Stamford Bridge.
Sarri’s lawyers have been working on whether an exit from Napoli can be negotiated, with Italian sources claiming the club are now prepared to let him go for around pounds 3.5 million.
While sacking Conte would be expensive for Abramovich, keeping him could be even more costly. Eden Hazard is unlikely to extend his contract if the 48-year-old remains in his job, while David Luiz and Willian would seek transfers.
There are fears Conte would seek revenge on those he believes have attempted to undermine him over the past 12 months, despite the fact there remains a recognition that he is one of the world’s best coaches.
Despite the uncertainty, Chelsea are still pursuing new signings and are in talks with a number of clubs. Nice midfielder Jean Seri, Manchester United forward Anthony Martial and Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski are all on Chelsea’s radar.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018