Owner Roman Abramovich has already been angered by Conte’s constant moaning over transfers, his handling of Diego Costa’s departure last season, and his treatment of misfit defender David Luiz.

The Chelsea hierarchy believe Conte will force a departure at the end of the season and would prefer to wait until then instead of axing the unhappy Italian, in order to save money on any compensation deal.

But Wednesday’s disastrous 0-3 defeat by struggling Bournemouth – the worst result of Conte’s reign – has thrown doubt on those calculations, with the prospect of failing to qualify for the Champions League now a real possibility.

Abramovich is still likely to hold fire, but Chelsea’s last-16 Champions League clash with Barcelona, with the home leg on February 20, starts a potentially crucial spell.

Chelsea face crunch away games at top-four rivals Manchester United then title favourites City before the return leg at the Nou Camp. A poor set of results could persuade Abramovich to act even though Chelsea could by then be in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and still in the race for a top-four finish.

Former Barca coach Luis Enrique, available and top of the succession list, is the favourite to succeed Conte, with former Chelsea defender Juliano Belletti alongside him in some capacity.

Express Sport can reveal Chelsea’s players felt preparation for the Bournemouth game was unusually chaotic for the normally meticulous Conte. Michy Batshuayi was used as the central striker in the sessions, even though he was likely to depart on deadline day, which he did.

Chelsea then employed a totally different system during the match, which some players felt unsettled the team, with new boy Ross Barkley not yet fully schooled in Conte’s methods.

Some players also feel Conte is working them too hard. There have been seven hamstring injuries this season, the latest suffered by defender Andreas Christensen on Wednesday.

One problem for Abramovich is that if he does axe Conte, virtually the whole of the backroom staff would go with him, which would cost large amounts in compensation. Nine staff members, including Conte’s brother Gianluca, are on the payroll and would most likely go, leaving no one to step in as caretaker with Steve Holland now with England. Under-18 coach Jody Morris is the only senior Englishman on the coaching staff, along with loan liaison chief Eddie Newton.

Chelsea splashed out £51m in January on another three players, on top of £190m spent last summer, and feel they have proved they are backing Conte.

He still claims he has little say in who arrives, but insists he will not walk away and that he is doing a good job.

Former Chelsea hero Gus Poyet urged Abramovich not to pull the trigger too soon.

“I would leave the manager to finish the season,” he said. “It is very important not to create another issue with another manager with another system and another mentality ahead of a massive Champions League game.”

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