LONDON • Antonio Conte questioned the desire of his Chelsea players after they ended the Premier League season with a 3-0 defeat at Newcastle and a fifth-placed finish that meant failure to qualify for next season's Champions League.
Perhaps his men are not completely at fault, given they do not know if they would even be playing for Conte after this Saturday's FA Cup final against Manchester United. In the build-up to the Wembley clash, the Blues' preparations have been hit by talk of Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino taking over at the helm next term.
To add to that, star players like Eden Hazard have refused to commit their future amid uncertainty over the club's ambitions in signing players who can make them English champions again.
British media reported on Tuesday that Pochettino is set for talks with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy over his future, and has demanded the league's third-placed side spend big in the transfer market to challenge the bigger clubs.
"I don't know if the club will be agreeing with me or not, but we are going to talk next week on what we need to do to improve," said Pochettino. "That is a little bit up to Daniel of course, to the club, to be happy with us, because after four years I think we need to assess that period.
"If we want to play and be real contenders for big, big trophies, yes, we need to review a little."
Pochettino, whose contract ends in 2021, has yet to win any silverware during his four-year tenure and rumours over a move to Spanish giants Real Madrid persist.
That has also alerted Chelsea to the possibility of luring the 46-year-old to Stamford Bridge, according to Sky Sports and several of Tuesday's newspapers.
Arsenal legend Ian Wright, now a pundit, warned that Levy must splash the cash in order to hold on to Pochettino.
"They were the words of a man who is full of frustration and saying, 'This is the last straw'," Wright wrote in The Sun newspaper.
"What Pochettino is telling chairman Levy is: 'I've got this close but we need more. I have some great players but we need a couple more'.
"And most worrying of all, what I also took from it was 'If you're not going to back me, then I could well clear off'."
If talks do not work out, Pochettino may weight his options, Chelsea possibly being one of them.
And for Hazard - Chelsea's top scorer in the league this recently-concluded season with 12 goals - it is clear that failure to secure a Champions League spot does not match his ambitions.
The Belgian forward, whose contract runs until 2020, has told Chelsea that he will commit to staying at the club only if they recruit players this summer who are capable of turning them into Premier League title challengers again.
"It's a big decision, that's why I'm taking my time. I'm waiting for new players next season. We will see. I want good players, I want to win the Premier League next season," he said. "And Saturday is a massive game, I just want to win."
Victory on Saturday would represent a silver lining as Chelsea battle the uncertainty that currently surrounds Conte and Hazard.
It might not save Conte's job but the Blues can still salvage a disappointing season, according to captain Gary Cahill, who was named in Gareth Southgate's provisional 23-man England squad for the World Cup yesterday.
"This is a different kind of feeling. This is like we are going into it to save the season," he said.
"We've fallen short in other competitions but we haven't fallen short in this one yet.
"You can't tell me the FA Cup isn't ranked high. It's right under winning the league for me."
And with Conte widely expected to move on in the close-season, Cahill wants to make sure the Italian's reign ends on a good note.
"It's been a strange season," he added. "There's been speculation here, there and everywhere. But we can win the Cup and finish on a high."
THE TIMES, LONDON, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE