The future of Chelsea was shrouded in uncertainty on Thursday night after a day of stunning revelations — as Laurent Blanc emerged as a serious candidate for the managerial job.
Less than a fortnight after winning the FA Cup and what was their 15th major trophy under the ownership of Roman Abramovich, the club halted work on their new £1billion stadium project and appeared to shelve plans to appoint Maurizio Sarri as their new manager.
Blanc, who has been out of work since leaving Paris Saint-Germain two years ago, is now a prime candidate for the role.
Blanc would obviously be available should Conte now leave, although it is understood Avram Grant remains a key member of Abramovich’s inner sanctum.
If the search for a new manager remains a struggle Chelsea’s owner knows he can turn to the Israeli who guided Chelsea to the 2008 Champions League final following the shock departure of Jose Mourinho.
The Russian is on the verge of changing his manager for the 14th time in 15 years, if you include caretaker bosses, and the current uncertainty around that appointment is also creating a sense of anxiety when other clubs are pressing ahead with summer transfer plans.
Chelsea are expected to move into gear when director Marina Granovskaia returns from a break next week but Sarri no longer appears to be first choice to succeed Conte amid concerns about his past.
The situation with Sarri was already complicated by a £7million release clause at Napoli but Chelsea are now more alarmed by an exchange the Italian had with new Italy manager Roberto Mancini.
Mancini accused Sarri of hurling homophobic insults at him during a touchline row when he was Inter Milan boss. Sarri was fined €20,000 and banned for two Coppa Italia matches.
At a time when Chelsea are dealing with historic abuse and racism claims, there is understandably no desire to appoint a controversial manager.
Meanwhile, Abramovich has put plans for a new 60,000 seater stadium at Stamford Bridge on hold after the Home Office delayed renewing his visa at a time of major political tension between Russia and Britain.
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The billionaire Russian oligarch decided to take Israeli citizenship which enables him to visit his family home in London but does not allow him to work, with reports in Israel claiming he has now withdrawn his application for an investor visa in the UK.
On Thursday, Abramovich responded by putting the brakes on what would have been a huge cash injection into the UK economy, even though plans for a new ground were at an advanced stage.
A Chelsea spokesman refused to elaborate on a short statement that was issued by the football club on Thursday.
But sources close to Abramovich, who has lived in London since buying Chelsea in 2003, suggested on Thursday that he has no intention of pumping a huge slice of his £7billion fortune into a capital city that has suddenly made him feel so unwelcome.
He is said to have been particularly unhappy that he was unable to watch his team win the FA Cup against Manchester United last month because of his visa difficulties.
The statement by the club said: ‘Chelsea Football Club announces today that it has put its new stadium project on hold. No further pre-construction design and planning work will occur.
‘The club does not have a time frame set for reconsideration of its decision. The decision was made due to the current unfavourable investment climate.’
Having already failed to secure Champions League football for next season, stadium expansion at Chelsea was considered essential to keep pace with their major rivals in the Premier League.
Plans were in place for Chelsea to play at the current Stamford Bridge stadium for two more seasons before demolishing it to build the new ground on the same west London site.
But staff at the club have been left in shock after a team of more than 50 people working on the stadium project at Stamford Bridge were suddenly told to stop work despite discussions with stakeholders and construction companies also being at an advanced stage.
It raises the question of whether Abramovich wants to quit the UK altogether and sell his club.
Only last week this newspaper posed that question to Chelsea amid rumours of possible investment from China and was met with a firm denial. One reason given for why there was no truth in the claims was Abramovich’s commitment to building a new stadium.
On Thursday, insiders maintained that their Russian owner has no desire to walk away from Chelsea after overseeing an unprecedented era of success for the club, including a Champions League victory and five Premier League titles.
On Thursday, there were also reports that Chelsea had terminated contract talks with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
But insiders insisted that Courtois has made it clear he does not want to discuss new terms until after the World Cup, so talks have actually not yet started.
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