Chelsea will find it tougher this time

PATIENCE is not a virtue at Stamford Bridge. It never has been during the Trotsky-like 'permanent revolution' era of Roman Abramovich. But it is patience Chelsea fans need right now.

For a club that cruised so comfortably to last season's title, the summer has morphed from mild unease to mounting frustration. The 'captain, leader, legend' has finally left and only a 'dodgy' reserve keeper has arrived.

In fact, things started to drift before the previous campaign ended. The unexpected failure to add the FA Cup to the Premier League crown – at the hands of Arsenal, of all people – was a reminder that complacency can creep in even under a general as combative as Antonio Conte.

Since then the changes to the troops have been less than reassuring. Amir Begovic was an excellent No.2 keeper but wanted first team football and his replacement, Willy Caballero, 35, was deemed inferior to Claudio Bravo at Manchester City.

There have been other departures – less excruciating than the long goodbye to John Terry but disquieting nonetheless. Blues were sorry to lose Nathan Ake, who followed Begovic to Bournemouth, and Bertrand Traore, sold to Lyon.

They were two more of a long list of academy products who had shone brightly elsewhere but were never been given a proper chance at the Bridge. It's not so much a failure of the youth system but a reminder that the road to the first-team remains blocked.

Then came the unaccountable and seemingly unnecessary 'textgate' row with Diego Costa. Casting a player adrift in such a manner is as cowardly as it is cruel and felt wholly out of character for Conte.

Costa was an indispensable part of last season's triumph, popular in the dressing room and a cult figure among the fans. Dirty, yes, but for all his peccadilloes, the Blues were nowhere near as formidable without him. And fans' fears about life after their favourite warrior were magnified when the name of his likely replacement was mentioned.

Romelu Lukaku heads the lengthening list of stars that Jose Mourinho jettisoned prematurely. A magnificent physique and with an eye for goal, he can bully any defence when the mood takes him. But £100 million?

That is what newly-enriched Everton want for the Belgian which strikes many as way too much for a player who has still to convince that he's not a flat-track bully. Too many disappearing acts against the bigger teams have raised these doubts about his commitment.

This was precisely why Mourinho sold him although if he can't sign Alvaro Morata he may want him back! If a poll were conducted on the Shed, Costa would be the preferred choice but Chelsea must be careful they're not left with a lone wantaway striker.

Nor do any of the other prospective recruits have exactly had fans doing the Conga down the King's Road. Alex Sandro, Antonio Rudiger and Tiemoue Bakayoko are all said to be "close" to being snared but for a combined £120m? It seems only a marginal upgrade at extortionate cost.

The emphasis on defenders reflects the Italian manager's default setting although Monaco's midfield dynamo Bakayoko may be more of an attacking presence than Nemanja Matic who is – or was - being sold off to Manchester United.

Sandro's liking for going forward suggests Conte will continue to use his wing-backs as auxiliary attackers, but the world record £60m that Juventus are demanding for the defender seems over the top.

Sadly, the choice of Rudiger as a ready-made squad replacement for Terry suggests that yet another youngster, Andres Christiansen, is not to be trusted at senior level despite earning rave reviews on loan at Borussia Dortmund.

Successive Chelsea bosses – there have been 12 under Abramovich - have ignored the academy grads which is why some 38 of their talented colts are scattered throughout Europe. But rather than blame the men whose "life expectancy" is a mere 18 months, it is their executioner who must carry the can.

We are always told it is the owner's profound wish that the first team will one day be flooded with graduates from the academy that his fortune has financed. But this will never happen as long as his managers fear for their jobs. It is a conundrum that only the Russian can solve.

Worries that Conte himself would jump before he is pushed were allayed when most of the top Italian jobs were filled early in the summer but he will be well aware that even a storming rookie season is no guarantee of security.

With both under-performing Manchester clubs expected to spend massively, the pressure will be on and even Arsenal, if they can hang on to Alexis Sanchez, could be a force now they've landed the lethal Alexandre Lacazette.

Liverpool appear to be addressing their weaknesses while Spurs' youthful side is maturing impressively so the top six will once again be the toughest mini super league in football.

On paper, Chelsea still have the best squad, the form and – based on last season - the best manager. But if they don't get the recruitment right, cracks could appear. No one is predicting a meltdown of 2015 proportions but, given the ferocity of the competition and the size of some of their rivals' budgets, they will have to be even better this time around.

They will also have the small matter of the Champions League to deal with. Freedom from midweek distractions was a crucial factor in Chelsea's imperious march to the title.

Under Abramovich, managers are often afflicted by second season syndrome which is why the Blues are not the antepost favourites last season's superiority would suggest. And why some fans feel the Chelsea rollercoaster might be due a dip.

But Conte defied all the doomsayers last season and now he will be even wiser to the vagaries of English football. We underestimated him then – it could be just as perilous to do so again.