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.

[ MORE: Conte or Guardiola? ]

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.

[ WATCH: Full TV, streaming schedule for Premier League ]

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.”

Still waiting for these Premier League summer transfers to hit

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They seemed like hits at the time, but some significant summer transfer buys are are struggling in the Premier League.

[ MORE: LAFC close to signing third DP ]

Whereas Mohamed Salah, Nemanja Matic, and Alvaro Morata have been solid pickups, and even lesser moves like Kurt Zouma to Stoke and Grzegorz Krychowiak to West Brom have hit the spot, some purchases just have not panned out at their new clubs.

Some aren’t getting playing time, while others aren’t hitting their stride, but here are some moves which just haven’t paid off (yet).

Andre Gray, Watford — The striker has two goals and two assists, but has had problems keeping hold of the ball and has the same amount of goals as defender Daryl Janmaat and midfielder Will Hughes despite playing about 300 percent of their minutes.

Marko Arnautovic, West Ham — The ex-Stoke player was a menace in a midweek draw against Arsenal, but Arnautovic has managed just one goal for the Irons this season. That’s equal to his amount of red cards.

Renato Sanches and Roque Mesa, Swansea City — Sanches hasn’t been able to get into the squad despite being one of the more talked about loans of the summer; Mesa may be coming around in recent weeks, but was an unused sub or not in the squad in 10 of Swans’ first 13.

Jese, Stoke City – The Real Madrid attacker was almost certain to take time to adjust to the Premier League, but his match-winner against Arsenal on Opening Day remains his lone marker.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Liverpool — His deadline day move to join Liverpool, supposedly to play centrally, seemed a head-scratcher. He’s only recently seen consistent minutes in a more central role despite Liverpool having loads of problems there. Maybe that’s on Jurgen Klopp, but we’re still scratching our heads.

Report: Galaxy close to scooping up thrice-capped USMNT keeper

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The LA Galaxy may be turning to its Cali Clasico rival for a new goalkeeper.

Reportedly denied in its pursuit of longtime Vancouver backstop David Ousted, the Galaxy are said to be close to scooping up thrice-capped USMNT keeper David Bingham from San Jose, according to ESPN.

[ MORE: LAFC close to signing third DP ]

The deal would reportedly cost LA between $200,000 and $250,000 in TAM.

Bingham, 28, lost his starting gig to Clemson product Andrew Tarbell this season, and the latter looks intent on keeping the position.

The Galaxy have not had a long-term answer in goal since Jaime Penedo left the club in 2015 (though 24-year-old Jon Kempin showed some very good things last season). Bingham would be a fine addition for a Galaxy team that hemorrhaged the second-most goals in MLS.

FIFA worried about government interference in Spain

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Concerned about the independence of the Spanish soccer federation, FIFA said Friday it will send a delegation to the country to investigate government meddling.

FIFA said in a statement written in Spanish that it had recently sent a letter to the federation “expressing our concern for the situation that the federation is going through and reminding (its officials) that, according to the Statutes of FIFA, all member federations must manage their affairs independently and assure that there is no interference by third parties.”

Spanish newspaper El Pais reported earlier Friday that the FIFA letter warned of a possible suspension because of the government’s push to hold elections following the arrest of federation president Angel Maria Villar in July on suspicion of corruption.

[ PL PREVIEW: Chelsea vs. Southampton ]

According to El Pais, FIFA is concerned that the government’s interest in federation elections could be considered outside meddling and break its rules. If the national federation were to be suspended, Spain’s team would not be allowed to play at next year’s World Cup.

FIFA’s statement made no mention of a suspension or other punitive measures.

But the scare was big enough for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to say that Spain will not miss soccer’s biggest event.

“I am sure that Spain will go to the World Cup in Russia and that it will win it,” Rajoy said at a news conference in Brussels.

FIFA added in its statement that “in the coming days” it will send a delegation, which will include representatives from UEFA, to Madrid to “observe and analyze the situation” of the Spanish soccer federation.

The federation said in a separate statement that its interim president, Juan Luis Larrea, had spoken with FIFA and UEFA officials at the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 and that he had passed on their “enormous concern” to Spain’s minister of education, culture and sport.

The Spanish federation said it was waiting for the ministry to set a date for a meeting.

Spanish police arrested Villar, his son, and two other soccer officials in July on suspicion of improper management, misappropriation of funds, corruption and falsifying documents.

Villar was replaced by Larrea, the body’s treasurer for three decades. Critics of Villar argue that elections are needed to make a clean start for the institution that has been tarnished by the scandal.

Newcastle linked with targets as Benitez begins transfer quest

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Newcastle United’s players have canceled their Christmas party, as manager Rafa Benitez admits he’s working on January gifts for the St. James’ Park set.

The Magpies have one point from their last eight matches, and face Arsenal, West Ham, and Manchester City in the run-up to the New Year, closing off a run of five matches in 16 days with Brighton and Stoke.

[ PL PREVIEW: Man City vs. Spurs ]

Benitez says he’s begun talks with managing director Lee Charnley about the January window. The team is expected to make moves whether Mike Ashley completes a reported sale of the team or not. From Sky Sports:

“At this time it is just to talk about ideas,” he said. “You might say ‘I would like to sign this player’ and someone will say ‘£40m’ – maybe it is not realistic.

“The main thing, we had this conversation, then we have to move forward quickly. I don’t know the details but at least we were talking about that. We have to progress and it is so obvious that we have to improve things.”

Newcastle has been linked with a number of notable names a few weeks from the start of the January market, including Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, prolific Besiktas striker Cenk Tosun, as well as Liverpool’s Danny Ings and Manchester United’s Luke Shaw.