LONDON • Chelsea have stepped up their pursuit of Antonio Conte amid growing confidence that the Italy coach could be persuaded to sign a contract before this year's European Championship finals.
Conte, 46, is understood to be happy to negotiate with Chelsea, having emerged as the front-runner among several remaining contenders to fill the post that has been occupied by Guus Hiddink on an interim basis since Jose Mourinho's departure in December.
Two middlemen are understood to have approached Chelsea about Conte's availability and interest.
Reports in Italy on Tuesday claimed that a deal between Chelsea and Conte had been agreed and was awaiting ratification by Blues owner Roman Abramovich. Chelsea officials did not comment on the matter.
Other sources have indicated that candidates will continue to be sounded out - including Jorge Sampaoli, the former Chile coach, and Massimiliano Allegri, of Juventus, who distanced himself from Chelsea on Monday. But it is believed that a move for Atletico Madrid boss Diego Simeone is unlikely.
While Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo was in Italy on Tuesday, his only confirmed movements involved a visit to Turin to watch Juventus take on Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba has been a long-term target for Chelsea, although they will face fierce competition from other leading clubs in England and potentially in Spain as well, should he be made available at the end of the season.
Conte is understood to be willing, in principle, to sign a deal with Chelsea before Euro 2016 in France, after which his contract with the Italian football federation will expire.
Should he do so, the expectation is that Chelsea would be free to make an announcement sooner rather than later in the hope that, with the uncertainty removed, the scrutiny on Conte will lessen before the summer.
The 46-year-old former Italy international has already been learning English.
Conte helped to restore Juventus to the top of the Italian game, winning the title in each of his three seasons at the club until he left to succeed Cesare Prandelli at the national team in 2014. He is intense, obsessive about the job and extremely demanding of his players. He has no time for big egos in the dressing room. Abramovich will be aware of his ability to create well-drilled and charismatic teams.
Conte will travel to Euro 2016 with confidence after leading Italy through qualification unbeaten.
THE TIMES, LONDON, THE GUARDIAN