If Antonio Conte was waiting for one ‘told you so’ moment to fling in Roman Abramovich’s face then Tuesday night produced it.
Then the lid came off via Andreas Christensen’s boot, Cesc Fabregas’ hesitation, and Cesar Azpilicueta’s lunge, as Chelsea proceeded to swat themselves in the foot.
The 1-1 draw was nevertheless a personal victory for Conte. The Italian extracted every drop from his players, but there’s only so much he could squeeze out of the inexperience that blights his squad.
Conte’s relationship with Chelsea’s board, at best, has been simmering almost since the day he arrived nearly two years ago because the club operate on a long-term view for everything apart from the coach.
The only men to have managed for longer than 100 games since Abramovich swept into west London in 2003 is Jose Mourinho (in two stints) and Carlo Ancelotti.
While the kings come and go, the empire keeps acquiring more glory, too: under Abramovich, Chelsea have never gone more than a season without collecting a trophy.
No wonder Conte is seen as expendable – Roberto Di Matteo, whose last stint in management was a wholly unsuccessful one with Aston Villa two years ago, managed to win the Champions League after all.
But that side did not need the ministrations of a world-class manager to become winners. Though hardly a vintage crop, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Dider Drogba and John Terry – except for the final – were its battle-hardened cornerstones.
In contrast, Conte has precious few old heads to lean on and the consequences of that took shape on Tuesday.
It is harsh to blame the 21-year-old Christensen for his blunder, having arguably been Chelsea’s best player this season. To include him in the same starting XI against Barcelona as 24-year-old Antonio Rudiger, who has as much composure as a chainsaw, was a disaster waiting to happen.
There were strong suggestions that Rudiger, who arrived from Roma, was far down on Conte’s wish-list over the summer. Imagine instead what Conte could have done with a leader like Leonardo Bonucci – who instead went to AC Milan.
Conte also failed in his pursuit of Juventus left-back Alex Sandro, who does everything better than Marcos Alonso except for taking a mean free-kick. Nemanja Matic was described as a ‘huge loss’ in centre of midfield after fleeing to Man United, and it was bizarre that a club of Chelsea’s stature did not make at least a half-hearted pursuit for Alexis Sanchez. Pedro would not have instilled half the amount of fear into his old club.
Just one or two of these types of additions would have given Chelsea a shot in the arm against a jaded Barcelona who are clearly not the ultimate force of old.
High up on chief transfer negotiator Marina Granovskaia’s check list, perhaps superceding all else, is resale value. After spending upwards of £160 million on Tiemoue Bakayoko, Danny Drinkwater, Alvaro Morata and Rudiger, all 27 or under, it’s unlikely she’d get anywhere near even recouping that amount.
With every superpower looking at least a shade below their best except for Manchester City, this was the season to reinforce wisely. Instead, Abramovich will have gone to bed on Tuesday night wondering just how wise his transfer policy is.
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