Antonio Conte is fighting to keep a grip on his Chelsea squad as he desperately tries to salvage something from the season. Chelsea travel to seventh-placed Burnley on Thursday before their FA Cup semi-final tie against Southampton at Wembley on Sunday.
A strong finish to the season and winning the FA Cup would maintain Conte’s reputation as one of the best coaches in world football. But he has become concerned in recent weeks that his players are beginning to switch off, with Champions League qualification almost out of their reach.
Antonio Rudiger’s omission from the squad for the dramatic Premier League comeback against Southampton has raised questions over his relationship with Conte.
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Rudiger admitted that he had “probably” been dropped for being perceived to have criticised Conte’s tactics, but the Germany international is not the only Chelsea player to have questioned the Italian’s approach. Having dumped Diego Costa by text message over the summer, Conte has fallen out with David Luiz and Kenedy this season.
His repetitive training sessions, which worked so well last term, and preference for keeping his players on their toes by refusing to share his plans, has caused annoyance. Conte has picked up on the frosty atmosphere. Last week he spoke to individuals to try to find out whether there were any grievances he could address.
Having tried to stress morale was still good in his pre-match press conference, Chelsea fell two goals behind against relegation-threatened Southampton and put in a woeful first-half performance.
Conte ripped into his squad at half-time at St Mary’s, describing their performance as “s---”, before the introduction of substitute Olivier Giroud swung the game in Chelsea’s direction.
Despite the comeback, Conte appeared to acknowledge his players are not interested in trying to save his reputation when he insisted they must perform for the Chelsea badge, not the coach.
There was no great sense that the team had rallied to save Conte, whom the players expect to leave Chelsea at the end of the season.
After West Ham held Chelsea to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge, Rudiger said he did not “understand why, after 1-0, we always drop and let the opponent get more ball possession”. When he was then asked if this comment explained his omission from the Southampton league game, he replied: “Probably.”
He added: “But I didn’t mean it that way. It was a fact, it wasn’t about the tactics. I did not attack anyone personally, I meant us as a team.”
On his relationship with Conte, Rudiger said: “It’s just normal from my side. He’s my coach. I must respect him. And he’s a very, very good coach.”
Conte could suffer another setback if Marcos Alonso is retrospectively banned for the challenge on Southampton’s Shane Long that went unpunished. The Football Association is considering whether or not to take action.
Michy Batshuayi is poised to return to Chelsea for treatment after confirming his club season is over as the result of ankle ligament damage suffered while on loan at Borussia Dortmund. The striker now faces a race to recover in time to make Belgium’s World Cup squad.