Eden Hazard worth to Chelsea outweighs Antonio Conte
Days are passing slowly for Chelsea supporters right now. Their frustration at the inertia that has gripped the club manifests itself 24 hours a day, across multiple time zones.
Thousands of words have been written about the whys and wherefores of the Blues' repeated capacity to rapidly turn triumph into adversity. The analysis has fuelled feverish debate among fans, which borders on being divisive.
Despite the ongoing arguments about who is to blame for the "crisis" blighting Stamford Bridge that has seen the champions of England alarmingly bypassed by Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham, there is something approaching consensus.
Chelsea fans are unified by the desire to see the club move forward. The key protagonists marking time and holding up the process right now are owner Roman Abramovich, manager Antonio Conte and star player Eden Hazard.
Abramovich's thought process may well have been side-tracked by Chelsea's stadium redevelopment plans, but unless success is restored -- the minimum being continued participation in the Champions League -- the all new Stamford Bridge could become the biggest white elephant in football.
Rows and rows of empty seats at the Emirates for Arsenal's 3-0 Premier League defeat to City provided a glimpse of what can happen when a big football club stagnates and becomes uncompetitive. Under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal went 10 years without a trophy but Abramovich would never tolerate such perceived failure. A year is about all the Russian can tolerate, and Conte has lurched into the zone of impatience.
The joyful memories of last season's Premier League triumph have long since dissipated. Transfers, training, tactics and team selection have come under close scrutiny and support for the Italian has gradually waned in the wake of poor results and the scandalous and continued misuse of Hazard as a False No. 9.
Understandably, the 27-year old playmaker, courted by Real Madrid for several years, is stalling on signing a new contract. Settled in London, it's quite probable Hazard is waiting to see what happens in respect of the Conte situation. It's improbable the Italian will be in charge at the Bridge next season; his position as Chelsea manager appears untenable. The football philosophy of Conte's replacement will therefore be key to Hazard's decision as will Champions League qualification.
While supporters will always tell you that no player is bigger than the club, losing one of world football's brightest stars because of mismanagement would be a bitter pill to swallow for Chelsea fans already irate at the sight of former Blues Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne lighting up the Premier League for rival clubs in Liverpool and City. Salah and De Bruyne's talent was squandered by Jose Mourinho during his time as Chelsea manager. To see Hazard go the same way because of Conte would be inexcusable.
Clearly a change is required at the Bridge and that change involves Conte leaving. What the catalyst for the Italian's departure will be remains to be seen, however a glance at the fixture list suggests the tipping point may not be that far away.
Saturday's home Premier League game with relegation-threatened bogey side Crystal Palace has a pivotal feel to it. Defeat would likely see the five-point margin to Spurs widen and with that Abramovich might decide enough is enough and sack Conte ahead of Chelsea's decisive second leg round-of-16 tie with Barcelona at the Camp Nou next Wednesday.
Victory over the Eagles might provide a stay of execution for Conte, but only for a matter of days should the Blues be ousted from the Champions League. Of course, should Conte somehow mastermind an unlikely victory in Catalonia, short term circumstances might change but they could change again a few days later at the King Power where Leicester City will do their level best to knock Chelsea out of the FA Cup.
It's a sorry scenario for supporters, who ordinarily would have been relishing the prospect of this run of fixtures and what might lie ahead. Instead, they are left contemplating the undignified exit of a man who was a hero to one and all but like those who have gone before, has rapidly lost his way and ended up alienating those who championed him.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco