London (AFP) – Antonio Conte claims he shouldn’t be criticised if Chelsea fail to qualify for the Champions League because they fared even worse under Jose Mourinho only three seasons ago.
Conte’s side are fifth in the Premier League and even if they win Sunday’s final game of the season at Newcastle, the Blues will be condemned to the Europa League if fourth placed Liverpool avoid defeat against Brighton.
That would be a depressing conclusion to a dismal title defence from Chelsea, who never threatened to challenge champions Manchester City amid mounting speculation that Conte will part ways with the club after only two season in charge.
However, Chelsea could finish the season with silverware as they face Manchester United, now managed by Mourinho in the FA Cup final on May 19.
And defending himself from blame over Chelsea’s struggles, Blues boss Conte pointedly referenced the campaign prior to his appointment in 2016, which he had previously termed a ‘Mourinho season’.
That referred to Chelsea’s implosion under Mourinho, who was sacked halfway through a season which saw the west Londoners finish 10th under interim boss Guus Hiddink.
Conte, who won the title in his first year with Chelsea, said: “We’re struggling to take a place in the Champions League. But we play in a very tough league where there are six top teams fighting for a place.
“It’s not automatic that you finish every season in the top four.
“It can happen in the past. Two years ago Chelsea ended the season 10th and not in the final of the FA Cup or semi-final of League Cup.
“They were eliminated in the last 16 of the Champions League against Paris St Germain.”
This season, Chelsea were beaten in the League Cup semi-finals by Arsenal and lost to Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-finals.
Conte insisted failing to qualify for the Champions League wouldn’t damage Chelsea’s plans to compete for major honours next season.
“If you remember, last season after 10th place we won. It was difficult. We worked very hard and we won,” he said.
“Now probably we can finish fifth. I think you start with a bit of an advantage than when you finish 10th.
“We worked for two years and worked very hard to try to build something, to create a base. I think we did this.
“I’m the last person to judge the moment of the club. There must be other persons to see the situation, to judge the situation, to take the right evaluation after two years of work.”
Despite the talk that Conte will leave after repeatedly clashing with the Chelsea hierarchy over their failure to back his transfer plans, the Italian wouldn’t comment on his future and said he had ignored the speculation.
“The time I start listening to the speculation about me, this is the moment I start to be worried,” he said.