Antonio Conte humble, yet eager to dine at Premier League’s top table

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LONDON — Two of the brightest and most highly-regarded managers in world soccer square off on Saturday at the Etihad Stadium as Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte collide.

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Manchester City vs. Chelsea (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) is eagerly anticipated as many people’s title favorites lock horns in what should be an intriguing tactical battle with Guardiola and Conte both already stamping their authority on their teams just a few months into their reign.

Speaking at Stamford Bridge on Friday before Chelsea hopped on a train from London to Manchester Conte spoke to the media in a humble manner, playing down his own importance and revealing his admiration and respect for Guardiola not only as a coach but as a player when they met the one time in Italy towards the end of their careers.

With Conte having success at Juventus, plus with the Italian national team despite winning any title, the 47-year-old coach was asked who was more popular; himself or Guardiola?

“For sure Pep,” Conte laughed. “Because Pep won a lot in his career, he won trophies internationally, not only in Spain but also in Germany and now he’s in England. For sure Pep. I think now he is the top.”

When you look around the Premier League at the top managers currently working in big clubs (Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Mauricio Pochettino and many others) that’s high praise indeed from Conte. Yet, you get the sense that he and Guardiola aren’t so different and aren’t so far off one another.

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Talking after Liverpool beat Chelsea in September at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool’s manager Jurgen Klopp referred to Conte as the “Guardiola of Turin” for the work he did with Juventus, leading them to three-straight Serie A titles from 2011-14.

What did Conte make of that comparison to Guardiola?

“I think this is a great compliment,”Conte said. “I thought that Klopp said this because I had the possibility in three years to build a clear idea of football with Juventus. It was a good compliment for me.”

Humble is word which sums up Conte well.

He is still getting to grips with his English and is improving every week but he still looks rather sheepish and almost embarrassed when he is talked about in the same breath as Guardiola and the great coaches currently managing in England.

Where does he rank himself among the elite coaches in the Premier League.

“Yeah, but for me it is difficult to give a judgement on myself. It is very difficult. I prefer the other people to be the judge,” Conte said. “I know me very well. I know that I put a lot of pressure, I study a lot of football to create and find solution. I know I put a lot of the time of my day in my work. I know this. Then I don’t know if I am up in this table or at the bottom of this table.”

Conte is clearly not at the bottom of the table but in England his fame has yet to translate to the street. In Italy he would be mobbed for photos while out at a dinner or shopping due to his success with Juve and the Azzurri, however in west London he doesn’t get bothered much. And he quite enjoys that.

“In England it is very different if you compare with Italy. Here they ask with great education to sign a photo. In Italy you can find lots of friends who say ‘come with me, take a photo, come on’ and you are eating at your table and the fans come and sit with you and want to eat with you!” Conte said, laughing. “This is the big difference. I am pleased that when I go for a walk and people ask me to sign a photo, I am pleased and able to take the photo every time.”

Photos aside, Conte has hit the ground running at Chelsea and had just a few days of vacation this summer as he transitioned straight from Italy’s penalty shootout heartbreak in the quarterfinals of EURO 2016 to taking charge of Chelsea and managing in the Premier League for the first time in his career. He has taken to Chelsea quickly and the fans have taken to him, with his name sung loud and proud around Stamford Bridge by home fans in recent weeks as his rapport with them has been built by signals to get behind the team and jumping in and celebrating with them when the Blues score.

But does Conte have to win a title, or even a UEFA Champions League, at Chelsea to get to the same level of admiration that Guardiola has globally?

“I don’t know if you win a league and what you can reach. I have to work with my team to reach the best results for us. I remember our first press conference. Not many people trust in Chelsea and our work,” Conte said. “This must be a great strength for us. To continue to work and change the opinion of the people. For me, I never think of myself. I always think for my team and my club. We win and we lose together.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 15: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea celebrates the goal scored by Diego Costa of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Chelsea and West Ham United at Stamford Bridge on August 15, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

With Chelsea on a seven-game winning streak and conceding just one goal in that stretch, Conte’s side are in-form and one point ahead of Guardiola’s City ahead of Saturday’s game. Following their 10th place finish last season as their title defense went horrendously wrong, not much was expected of Chelsea this season under Conte. They’ve exceeded expectations, thus far.

As for Guardiola, plenty was expected of his expensively assembled squad and City have faltered in recent months, winning just three of their last seven Premier League games.

Conte isn’t sure if Guardiola is under more pressure than he is, but he does know that he will continue to put massive pressure on his shoulders and, gradually, on the shoulders of his players who currently sit top of the remier League.

“I must be honest I don’t know. I know that I put myself under great pressure on every situation,” Conte said. “I try to work, try to win always, also when sometimes you understand this is very difficult bu I put a lot of pressure on myself. Also I try to start to transfer this pressure on my staff and also to start to push this pressure on my players.”

With his Chelsea team written off at the start of the season, slowly expectations levels are starting to rise and many of the doubters are turning into believers of Conte’s project in west London.

“Before we are working for ourselves, our club, our fans to show we love this shirt, love this club,” Conte said.” It is normal when you are a great team like Chelsea and when you play and you are a manager of this great team, the expectation is high. Sometimes it is right to be high. Sometimes you have to wait because you are building something important. I repeat, now it is important to continue to work and show that Chelsea can fight for a place in Champions League or fight for the title and fight the best teams in the league.”

New St. Louis stadium plan calls for state land contribution

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ST. LOUIS (AP) Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has made it clear he’s opposed to state funding for stadiums, yet a revised proposal for a $200 million soccer stadium in St. Louis calls for the state to contribute land that’s potentially worth millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, a city aldermanic committee delayed a vote Thursday to advance a measure putting the proposal, which also requires city voters to approve $60 million in funding, on the April ballot.

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The investor group SC STL’s proposal calls for a 22,000-seat stadium near Interstate 64 and Union Station, a key component in the group’s effort to lure a Major League Soccer expansion team. MLS officials have expressed strong interest in St. Louis, but only if a stadium is built.

Time is of the essence: The league is expected to award two new expansion teams in the fall, with play starting in 2020.

St. Louis’ project was on life support after Greitens, a Republican who took office this month, said repeatedly that he opposed taxpayer funding for stadiums, calling it “welfare for millionaires.” SC STL had been seeking $40 million in state tax credits.

But a provision of SC STL’s revised financing plan, presented at Thursday’s meeting at City Hall, says the state would contribute the majority of the 24-acre project site, which is currently owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation, and perform some site clearing and infrastructure work.

The value is still being appraised, but given its location and the amount of land, it likely is worth several million dollars.

Greitens spokesman Parker Briden told The Associated Press in a statement that the governor “remains opposed to state funding to build the soccer stadium.” He did not immediately respond to a question about how the potential donation of land doesn’t conflict with Greitens’ hard-line stance.

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The first hint of compromise with the governor came in an email from SC STL spokesman Jim Woodcock late Wednesday, when he wrote that a “path forward” had been reached after two weeks of meetings.

“Gov. Greitens has made it clear to us that he is very supportive of adding a new professional sports franchise to the State of Missouri, and that’s a sentiment we wholeheartedly share,” the statement said.

The stadium project also requires taxpayer help from the city. The city Ways and Means Committee heard from SC STL officials Thursday, but no vote was taken on whether to ask the full Board of Aldermen to place the issue on the April ballot. The committee is expected to reconsider the measure Monday.

SC STL would be responsible for at least $95 million of the project cost, the entire $150 million expansion fee and all maintenance costs going forward.

Bundesliga returns: Will Bayern hold off competition again?

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Germany’s top flight returns to action Friday when Bayern Munich travels to Freiburg in an attempt to keep the pressure on new boys RB Leipzig.

[ MORE: Galaxy adds Portugal CM ]

For those who haven’t paid a ton of attention to the Bundesliga this season or need a bit of a refresher after several weeks away, here’s what to monitor over the next several months.

Really Big surprise Leipzig looks to keep title race going

Formed in 2009, RB Leipzig is a lot of German fans’ least favorite club after cash infusions caused a rapid rise into the top flight.

The new club is looking down at most of the haters, however. League leaders for much of the first half, Leipzig is three points shy of league leading Bayern Munich.

Bayern waxed Leipzig 3-0 before the holiday break, and the two sides won’t meet again until May 13. How long can the new boys keep up the show?

Historic relegation candidates

What does USMNT strikers Bobby Wood and Aron Johannsson share besides a national team? Both are on sides that have been in Germany’s top tier longer than the players have been alive.

Wood’s Hamburg has six national titles and hasn’t seen the second tier in 54 years. That’s the longest stretch in the league, two more seasons than Bayern Munich. Hamburg is a currently third-bottom, which would force them into a relegation-promotion playoff against the third-placed team in 2.Bundesliga.

As for Johannsson, his Werder Bremen side is just three points ahead of Hamburg. Bremen has been in the top flight for 36 seasons.

Chasing the Golden Boot

Robert Lewandowski has scored the most goals in two of the past three seasons, with Alexander Meier of Eintracht Frankfurt seizing the honor in 2014-15.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is leading the pack by three goals, but is with Gabon at the Africa Cup of Nations to help open the door for the rest of the bunch.

Koln’s Anthony Modeste is second with 13, while Lewandowski has 12. Two players, Timo Werner (RB Leipzig) and Sandro Wagner (Hoffenheim), have nine.

Can surprise Europe-chasers hold up?

Hertha Berlin was in 2.Bundesliga a few seasons ago, while Eintracht Frankfurt was there a season prior to that. RB Leipzig, as mentioned earlier, wasn’t even a club until 2009.

Eintracht made a Europa League run one year later, but neither was expected to be competing for a spot in Europe this season. As it stands, all three are in the mix.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 16 12 3 1 38 9 29 7-2-0 5-1-1 39
 RB Leipzig 16 11 3 2 31 15 16 6-1-0 5-2-2 36
 Hertha BSC Berlin 16 9 3 4 24 16 8 7-0-1 2-3-3 30
 Eintracht Frankfurt 16 8 5 3 22 12 10 5-3-0 3-2-3 29
 1899 Hoffenheim 16 6 10 0 28 17 11 4-5-0 2-5-0 28
 Borussia Dortmund 16 7 6 3 35 19 16 5-3-0 2-3-3 27
 1. FC Köln 16 6 7 3 21 15 6 4-4-0 2-3-3 25

Report: El Tri’s Chicharito to LAFC in 2018

Bayer Leverkusen's Javier Hernandez, left, and Atletico Mineiro's Mattheus Rolden fight for possession of the ball during the first half of a Florida Cup soccer match, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
AP Photo/John Raoux
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It makes a lot of sense, you know?

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez will turn 30 in 2018, not a spring chicken for a striker but still plenty productive if healthy.

His national team, Mexico, will likely be revving its engines for the World Cup, and won’t be upset to have the forward playing a bit less soccer and a lot closer to home.

[ MORE: Top 5 Premier League storylines ]

And Los Angeles FC will want to make a massive mark as it seeks to butt its head into a market dominated by the LA Galaxy (and, perhaps still then, Mexico national teamer Giovani Dos Santos).

So, tell us more, Steve Brisendine of MLSSoccer.com:

“[LAFC] are going to do everything possible to sign the current Bayer Leverkusen player, whose contract ends in 2018 and could therefore leave for a reduced fee. That’s what AS.com has confirmed with sources close to the project. LAFC hope to announce their new manager this spring and dream, a little later, to do the same with Javier Hernandez, aka Chicharito.”

Make it happen. Make. It. Happen. We’re already reserving his spot on our MLS fantasy teams.

Transfer rumor roundup: Jagielka, Begovic, Berahino, Zarate

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 13: Saido Berahino of West Brom challenges for the ball with Phil Jagielka of Everton during the Barclays Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Everton at The Hawthorns on September 13, 2014 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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There’s action all over England, from those defending the goal mouth to others striving to conquer it.

[ MORE: More transfer gossip ]

— Bournemouth wants an upgrade on Artur Boruc, according to The Telegraph, and that could come in the form of Chelsea backstop Asmir Begovic.

The Cherries reportedly had a $12.5 million bid turned down by Antonio Conte, who has Thibaut Courtois in the No. 1 seat and Portugal national team backup Eduardo in the ranks (along with three keepers on loan and young goalie Mitchell Beanie).

— Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger shut the door on acquiring West Ham wantaway Dimitri Payet according to Sky Sports’ Transfer Centre:

“We have many players offensively who can play in this position. You are interested by the quality of the player but there needs to be a need as well, and we have no need in this domain.”

— Clubs in need of experienced Premier League backs need look no further than Everton, where manager Ronald Koeman has admitted that England international Phil Jagielka could leave Goodison Park. The 34-year-old center back has 40 caps for England and has made 337 appearances for Everton. He could be a massive upgrade for Sunderland if David Moyes is up for a reunion.

— Stoke City chairman Peter Coates says a purchase of Saido Berahino from West Brom is not contingent on a sale of Bojan Krkic. The latter has been linked to Middlesbrough.

— Mauro Zarate may be returning the Premier League. Watford boss Walter Mazzarri has been largely let down by his strike corps as Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney have taken steps back this season. Could $4 be enough to bring the ex-West Ham and QPR man from Fiorentina to Vicarage Road? Zarate has four goals in nine matches for La Viola, and has nine goals in 40 Premier League matches.