The hard work is just about to start for Antonio Conte.
Top of the English Premier League since early November, Chelsea can complete its serene march to the title by picking up three points over its next three games, the first of which is at West Bromwich Albion on Friday.
With the other two matches being at home to out-of-form Watford and already-relegated Sunderland, it’s surely a formality for the Blues.
In public, Conte won’t be thinking further ahead than his team’s trip to The Hawthorns but a coach as thorough and hard-working as the Italian will surely have one eye on the offseason and beyond.
First of all, will Conte want to continue at Chelsea? Weekly stories linking him with Inter Milan, which on Tuesday fired coach Stefano Pioli, might be wide of the mark despite the Italian team’s Chinese owners reportedly offering 12 million euros ($13 million) a year. Yet, his wife, Elisabetta, and young daughter, Vittoria, still live in Italy and Conte said recently that it “is not easy” living away from his family.
Leading Chelsea into the Champions League should be enough of a lure for Conte, who has two years left on his contract.
However, being back in Europe’s top competition presents its own challenges. Conte has been able to use a settled side in the Premier League without the extra playing demands of Europe _ a point that has been raised by Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho _ so next season will be more of a slog.
At former club Juventus, Conte had two seasons in the Champions League: Juve reached the quarterfinals in 2012-13 before being swept aside by Bayern Munich, and then failed to advance from its group the following year. After his second try, Conte bemoaned the difference between Juventus and the top European clubs, saying: “When you sit in a restaurant where a meal costs 100 euros, you can’t think about eating with just 10 euros.”
Virtually the same Juve team went on to reach the Champions League final the following year under Massimiliano Allegri, however.
Conte will have to strengthen the Chelsea squad to cope with Europe and his work in the transfer market is sure to be scrutinized, with Conte having been frustrated in his dealings last summer.
Top on the list of his concerns could be his strikers, with Diego Costa potentially set to leave for China this summer. Costa has his critics but he has led the line brilliantly for Chelsea this season, scoring 20 league goals, and won’t be easy to replace. Meanwhile, is the rarely used Michy Batshuayi good enough as a second-choice striker?
There are very few weaknesses in Chelsea’s squad, but with long-time club captain John Terry set to leave because his contract is expiring and Branislav Ivanovic recently departed, the team’s leadership group will be hit.
Other concerns for Conte might be the fact that opponents have got used to his side’s 3-4-3 formation and might be able to handle it better. Chelsea, as champion, won’t start the season under the radar like it did last August _ the telling statistic remains that no team has retained the title since Manchester United in 2009.
For now, though, Conte will want to enjoy the winning the league for the fourth season in a row at club level. And it would be a surprise if it didn’t happen on Friday, with West Brom having gone six games and almost two months without a victory in the league.
TOTTENHAM vs. MANCHESTER UNITED
If Chelsea drops points at West Brom, Tottenham _ seven points behind in second place _ will need to win its final game at White Hart Lane after 118 years to keep alive the title race. The stadium is being demolished and a new one, with a capacity of 61,000, is being built on the same site.
A victory would also guarantee a second-place finish for Tottenham.
With two games left, Hull, Swansea and Crystal Palace look to be battling it out to avoid being the third team relegated along with Sunderland and Middlesbrough.
Third-to-last Hull is on 34 points, one fewer than Swansea and four fewer than Palace. Hull visits Palace on Sunday, while Swansea is away to Sunderland on Saturday.