Chelsea is not standing still after capturing the Premier League title in its first season under manager Antonio Conte.
Some time this month or in
early June he is expected to sign a new contract that will extend his association with the club to 2021, two years longer than the deal currently in place, and pay him approximately $12.5 million per
season. Interest from a few foreign clubs, including Inter Milan, has surfaced in recent months, but primarily the club is rewarding Conte for not only winning the Premier League title in his first
season in the league -- which only three other managers have done -- but also setting a record for victories (30) and nearly eradicating the stain left last season when Jose Mourinho was fired
and the club finished 10th.
“My situation is very clear: I have two more years’ contract with the club,” said Conte on the eve of the FA Cup final against Arsenal.
“Then, if the club give me the possibility to stay here and to extend my contract, for sure I am available to do this. We have the same idea about the future and we’ve started to work for
next season. For sure, we’ll try to improve our squad because we have to face an important competition in the Champions League. But I think the club and me, we have the same point of view on
this. I hope to stay here for many years.”
Conte will visit Italy briefly during the summer, and in addition to ramping up his English lessons is preparing to move his family --
wife, Elisabetha, and their daughter, Vittoria – to England before the start of the 2017-18 season. His future in England looked rather tenuous in late September; after Arsenal ran
Chelsea off the park in a 3-0 pasting, owner Roman Abramovich paid a visit to the club’s training facility and spent three days observing.
“But he watched our
sessions, saw our video analysis and stayed with us, supporting me,” said Conte. “He never showed me he was angry. I think the club always saw my job, during pre-season and in that period,
and trusted in me. I never thought the club was thinking about sacking me. Honestly.”
Conte is also honest about his own uncertainty regarding the season just completed. Several
players -- John Terry, Eden Hazard, Nemanja Matic -- had performed poorly as the team lurched home 10th, and the return of David Luiz two years after he’d been sold
to Paris St. Germain added another unknown to the equation. Conte instituted a three-back system, which he’d used to win three Serie A titles with Juventus and take Italy to the 2016 European
Championship quarterfinals, and a season very much shrouded in doubt burst to life.
Chelsea ran off 13 consecutive victories to climb atop the standings and withstood a strong challenge
from Tottenham, which won nine straight on its own, to capture the crown by seven points and with two games to spare.
“But it was very difficult to think we’d arrive at the
end of the season and be celebrating winning the league back then,” he said. “Not impossible but very difficult. In that period we had a lot of big problems to solve and to find the right
solution quickly is not easy. In fact, at the start of the season, if you’d said we could qualify for the Champions League, I’d have signed for that. But then I found great players,
players who could implement our ideas and changes, and we were able to change our season.”
With a return to the Champions League looming, Abramovich has pledged money to upgrade the
squad and replace players such as Terry, who bade farewell to the club and its fans near the end of the season finale last Sunday, a 5-1 rout of Sunderland. Bournemouth, Swansea City and West Brom
have reportedly shown interest in Terry, as have clubs in China.
Monaco midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko could be the first reinforcement to be signed and the club is also interested in
Southampton defender Virgil van Dijk. The Champions League will demand a larger and better squad, but the Premier League projects to be tougher than in past years dominated by the Big Four.
Tottenham has joined the big boys, as has Liverpool, and in his first season at Manchester United Mourinho has steered it back into the Champions League by winning the Europa League. The competition
for players and points is sure to be fierce.
“I hope this is the start of something,” said Hazard, who points to a fresh wave of talent such as Player of the Year
N’Golo Kante and Marcos Alonso and Pedro as major characters for the next chapter to be written in the team's history. “We have this new manager, we have a couple of
young players, so everything is ready to build. The last 10 years in Chelsea were great. The team won a lot of trophies but now it’s like a new generation.
Lampard is finished, Didier Drogba is finished, Ashley Cole, now John Terry. All gone. So it’s a new generation and we want to prove that the club is one of the best in
the world. We have to be ready for that.”