LONDON • Antonio Conte is keen on leaving Chelsea after this season and has instructed his advisers to find him an Italian club, according to The Times, which quoted sources close to the manager.
And Saturday's 0-1 Premier League home defeat by early pacesetters Manchester City only served to heighten the speculation.
The newspaper also noted that the 48-year-old's decision reflects his long-standing dissatisfaction at the level of support he has received from the London club's board.
The Italian had seriously considered resigning in the close season despite leading Chelsea to the league title in his first season.
Disputes over the summer recruitment, the inaccessibility of Roman Abramovich and the owner's senior executive Marina Granovskaia, as well as the promotion of academy players, were all important factors in Conte's thinking.
The Italian repeatedly refused an offer to extend his contract, instead agreeing to a deal that increased his pay without extending his commitment to Chelsea beyond 2019.
According to friends, only a severe financial penalty clause in his original three-year contract dissuaded the former Juventus and Italy coach from walking out.
Chelsea's policy on managerial appointments has been to include a multi-million pound "claw-back" clause to prevent early exits.
The contract of Conte's predecessor, Jose Mourinho, included a £20 million (S$36.5 million) termination penalty, with the Italian understood to have been bound by a similarly amount last summer.
Conte granted an interview to the Italian state broadcaster Radio 1 last week, stating that there was "not a doubt in my mind that I will be home before long".
He added: "I miss Italy, that's beyond doubt, so once I have had some important and life-changing experiences, I will be back."
On Saturday, Conte admitted that Chelsea had lost "the complete player" after Kevin de Bruyne scored the decisive goal against his former club to return City to the top of the league.
The midfielder's second-half winner left Pep Guardiola acclaiming him among the world's elite footballers and Conte facing questions about Chelsea's decision to sell the Belgian during Jose Mourinho's second spell at Stamford Bridge.
Conte chose his words carefully to make sure they could not be construed as criticism of Mourinho but acknowledged it was Chelsea's loss.
"I don't know, honestly, what happened in the past," the Italian manager said. "But for sure we are talking about a top player, the complete player. He's good - technical, fast, and he works hard for his team. He is the complete player."
De Bruyne's goal capped one of the more impressive City performances of the Guardiola era and made it eight straight wins in all competitions.
"He is doing a lot of great things," the City manager said. "Last season he hit the post 12 or 13 times and this season they are going in. He can do absolutely everything. With the ball he can assist short and long.
AIMING TO RETURN
I miss Italy, that's beyond doubt, so once I have had some important and life-changing experiences, I will be back.
ANTONIO CONTE, in an interviewer with Italian state broadcaster Radio 1 last week.
"Without the ball, he's the most humble person, the most shy guy. He says, 'If I have to run 100km for the team, I will do that, no problem.' It is not easy to find that (work ethic) with this type of talent."
City's 1-0 victory moved them back above Manchester United - 4-0 winners at home to Crystal Palace earlier - at the top of the league on goal difference, with a five-point gap opening up to Tottenham in third position.
"It's still only September," Guardiola said. "We still have United and the Harry Kane team (Spurs). That (United) are a Jose Mourinho team. With Jose, it will be so tough.
"But it's important to show we can play like that. We showed in the first minute that we were coming here to win and Kevin showed, once again, how good he is."
Following the goalless draw with Arsenal, Chelsea have now failed to score in back-to-back league games at Stamford Bridge for the first time since November 2012.
"We played against a really good team," Conte said. "We created chances but didn't take them and in this type of game it's very important to score first. Great compliments to Manchester City."
He maintained his players were fatigued after only 30 minutes as it came three days after they won at Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. Compounding the issue, Alvaro Morata, their top scorer with seven goals, left with a muscle injury after 32 minutes.
Even though Michy Batshuayi and Pedro Rodriguez came on in the closing stages, the Blues could not get back on even terms.
"When you have to play a massive game only (three) days later, you must consider the fatigue... in the legs of your players. It's impossible to press box to box and after 30 minutes you don't have the energy to continue to play this game," Conte said.
THE TIMES, LONDON, THE GUARDIAN