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From title glory to a £26m divorce: Inside Conte's tumultuous Chelsea tenure

08:00 GMT 23/01/2022
Antonio Conte Chelsea Premier League 2016-17
The Tottenham boss' time at Stamford Bridge ended in acrimony but the Italian remains the last manager to lead the Blues to Premier League glory

Chelsea’s relationship with Antonio Conte ended in court and ultimately cost the Blues £26.6 million ($36m), making it the most costly divorce in football history.

When the Blues sacked the Italian in 2018, they argued that he was not entitled to the usual severance package because of alleged breaches of contract during his second and final year at Stamford Bridge.

The judges ruled in Conte's favour, though, and he split the compensation received with his 11 staff members.

It was a shame that the coach's time in west London had ended in such acrimony, and surprising too, given it had started so promisingly.

Indeed, in his first year in charge, Conte transformed a side that had finished 10th the season before into Premier League champions.

A switch to a 3-4-3 formation, which hadn’t often been seen in England, sparked a 13-game winning run that led to his side romping to the title.

The Blues went close to pulling off a domestic double in 2017 but they were beaten in the FA Cup final by Arsenal.

However, they would return to Wembley the following year to lift the trophy following a 1-0 victory over Manchester United.

Two major trophies in two seasons would normally guarantee at least another year at the helm for a manager but Conte's tenure had already began to unravel before the end of the 2017-18 campaign.

The first signs of tension at Stamford Bridge actually appeared during the 2017 January transfer window, after Diego Costa pushed for a £25m ($34m) move to Chinese Super League club Tianjin Quanjian.

The Blues forced the Brazil-born Spain international to stay put and he played a key role in their subsequent title triumph.

However, Conte then informed Costa that he was not part of his future plans via text message while the striker was on holiday.

Costa was furious and partook in several interviews where he claimed he had been "treated like a dog".

Inside the club, many blamed Conte for his insensitive handling of the situation and believed he should have let club director Marina Granovskaia deal with Costa's exit.

Nonetheless, after their title success, which secured a return to the Champions League, Chelsea sought to strengthen a squad that Conte did not believe was sufficiently equipped to challenge for trophies in both England and Europe.

The Blues brought in several players but not necessarily all of those on Conte's ambitious wishlist.

Having already been left disappointed by seeing top target Virgil van Dijk leave Southampton for Liverpool for a then-record fee for a defender (£75m/$101m), Conte was further frustrated by missing out on Leonardo Bonucci, who left Juventus for AC Milan in the summer of 2017.

Conte was also keen on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Romelu Lukaku and Kyle Walker, while the Blues also had an significant bid turned down for AC Milan’s Alessio Romagnoli and even approached Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski during the Lecce native's time at the club.

However, for the 2017-18 campaign, Chelsea had instead brought in Alvaro Morata, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta in what many believe to be the club’s most disastrous transfer window in recent times.

Unsurprisingly, Chelsea were quickly left behind by Manchester City in the title race and, in November, influential technical director Michael Emenalo left the club by mutual consent, which was hugely significant, as it meant that the mediator between Conte and Granovskaia was removed from the equation.

What followed, almost inevitably, was a series of bitter and depressing press conferences in which Conte publicly expressed his unhappiness with Chelsea's transfer business.

Chelsea are still counting the cost of the 2017-18 campaign to this day, as the January arrivals of Olivier Giroud, Emerson Palmieri and Ross Barkley took their overall outlay that season to £234m ($315m).

The Blues did still lift the FA Cup but they finished fifth in the Premier League, which saw them fall back out of the Champions League.

It quickly became clear during the summer that followed that Chlesea wanted to bring in Maurizio Sarri as their new manager but his arrival was held up by Napoli's ultimately successful attempt to make the £57m ($77m) signing of Jorginho part of the deal.

As it was, though, Conte was actually forced to take the first three training sessions of the new season as he awaited his fate.

He arguably deserved better but, looking back at the whole affair, it would be unfair to portray either side as a hero or villain.

It was just another dramatic episode in the turbulent world of Chelsea, who have forked out around £100m ($136m) in severance pay to sacked managers since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003.

Conte, for his part, has always been reluctant to shed much light on his Chelsea tenure.

"I spent two seasons where I created a good relationship with players, staff, people who work at Chelsea," the now-Tottenham coach said ahead of the first of three meetings with his former employers this month.

“We did a really good job and I think in my position I don't have to prove anything to anyone.

"I’m a manager that has the experience to do important jobs at other teams and it’ll be a pleasure for me to come back to Stamford Bridge.”

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Many Chelsea fans have fond memories of Conte's time in charge too.

He was often warm and engaging whenever he met supporters out and about in London, and he grew to love English football after struggling to even speak the language when he first arrived.

When Chelsea sealed a 3-0 aggregate win over Spurs in the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup with a 1-0 victory at the Tottenham last week, those in the away end sang “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio!"

It wasn’t an ironic dig at Conte or his side. Of course, it is easier to profess love from a position of strength but there is still a genuine affection there for their former manager.

Chelsea fans identified with Conte’s passion, work ethic and intensity.

The Blues may have long since moved on but there remains a significant amount of respect for the so-often divisive figure who will take a seat in the away dugout at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.