Can reigning champions Chelsea handle the pressure?

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Repeat after me Chelsea fans: “This is not the summer of 2016. This is not the summer of 2016.”

It isn’t, of course, but similarities between the last time Chelsea were defending champions of the Premier League and this time are starting to crop up.

There is legitimate reason for slight concern among the Chelsea ranks as largely the same group of players who struggled drastically following their last title campaign may have to wrestle their minds to stop them from getting into a similar situation once again.

Antonio Conte was short and sharp with the media following Chelsea’s defeat to Arsenal on penalty kicks in the FA Community Shield at Wembley on Sunday. He looked like a man with a lot on his mind, and rightly so.

Conte’s debut season in the PL couldn’t have gone better with a record 30 wins from 38 games as he left the Blues to the title. Many times throughout their run to the title last season Conte revealed that nobody expected Chelsea to win the PL given their incredible collapse the season before. He was right. Everyone through it would be a two to three year rebuild and there was no pressure on the Italian coach and his staff.

Now the pressure is real and cracks have started to appear ever since the end of last season.

First the way in which his side lost the FA Cup final to Arsenal in May grated with Conte and over preseason plenty of things seem to have chipped away at him.

Diego Costa‘s impending departure seems to be making Conte uneasy with Chelsea’s top scorer not returning to preseason training and totally banished from the first team. His replacement Alvaro Morata comes with a club-record price tag but Conte has already issued a warning to the Spanish striker that he needs to work on his fitness just a few days before the new season. Star playmaker Eden Hazard is recovering from ankle surgery and will miss the start of the season.

Add in to that shaky defensive displays against Bayern Munich and Inter Milan in preseason, plus a less than a stellar performance in the Community Shield, and there are definite issues for Conte to iron out, especially with Chelsea expected to push for the UEFA Champions League this season after their return to Europe.

That in itself will provide more tests for a Chelsea side who only had to focus on domestic competitions last season with a smaller squad than their PL rivals. It perhaps explains why Conte is pushing for more transfers in each and every press conference he appears. He needs plenty of top quality additions, and fast.

Virgil Van Dijk, Serge Aurier and Danny Drinkwater have all been mentioned as potential incomings in the next few days but don’t forget that last season Conte decided to make moves for David Luiz and Marcos Alonso on deadline day so Chelsea may decide to not do any business for the opening weeks of the season.

It’s not all doom and gloom with the starting XI still packed with quality, N'Golo Kante running the show in midfield, Willian buzzing around in attack and Gary Cahill standing tall, but the preparation for Chelsea’s title defense has been far from ideal. There’s no getting around it.

With Morata not up to speed, Chelsea’s two other new signings aren’t ready either with center back Antonio Rudiger returning late in preseason after Germany’s Confederations Cup success and new holding midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko recovering from a minor injury.

That means Conte will be down to the bare bones of his squad when the season kicks off this weekend against Burnley at Stamford Bridge with no Costa, Hazard, Bakayoko and now Nemanja Matic sold to Manchester United.

Yes, Chelsea’s business model of selling off talent at top prices when they no longer need them is admirable, plus their ability to sign talented youngsters to long-term deals and loan them out looks great but Nathaniel Chalobah leaving permanently for Watford, Nathan Ake sold to Bournemouth and Ruben Loftus-Cheek joining Crystal Palace on loan shows they were never going to be given a chance. Surely all three would have got more minutes this season given the increased number of games?

Circumstances allowed Chelsea to dominate last season and they did just that after the switch to a 3-4-3 formation defined their season.

But this season much more than formation change will define their title defense and success in Europe.

Conte not only has to contend with star players departing under a cloud (Costa) new players getting off to a slow start (Morata) and frustrations in the transfer market (Romelu Lukaku), but he must also realize that the likes of Luiz, Victor Moses and Pedro may not perform anywhere near the level we saw last season and they could return to their mean.

It’s highly unlikely the 2017-18 campaign will follow the same pattern of the 2015-16 season which saw Chelsea towards the relegation zone midway through the campaign and Jose Mourinho fired. Still, just two years removed from that nightmare it’s easy to understand why Chelsea’s fans are starting to wiggle around a little uneasily in their seat.

They’ve seen this script before and they don’t like it.

Man City’s attempt to block UEFA investigation denied in court

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MONTREUX, Switzerland (AP) Manchester City lost its attempt Friday to block an investigation into allegations it deceived UEFA while violating rules that monitor soccer club finances.

[ MORE: Berhalter: No “like-for-like” replacement for Pulisic ]

The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that City’s appeal against UEFA’s handling of the investigation was inadmissible. The two-time defending Premier League champions tried to stop UEFA’s club finance panel from handling a referral by investigators to impose a punishment.

“At CAS we can only hear appeals against final decisions,” said Matthieu Reeb, the court’s secretary general.

UEFA investigators had called for a severe penalty — that City be excluded from the Champions League for one season.

The file will now proceed to UEFA’s club finance judges. Any sanction they impose can also be challenged at CAS.

The latest UEFA investigation started after leaks of City’s internal correspondence and documents to German news outlet Der Spiegel last year.

The leaks implied City deceived UEFA for several years, including by hiding information that revenue from potentially overvalued commercial deals came from the club’s owners in Abu Dhabi to curb losses.

[ MORE: Report: LA Galaxy want Cavani to replace Zlatan ]

City has never disputed the authenticity of the documents.

“There was absolutely no examination of the merits,” Reeb said of the three-judge panel’s ruling. “We cannot say whether the decision of the alleged breach of financial fair play rules are real or not.”

Friday’s ruling extends a long-standing conflict between City and UEFA in the era of “Financial Fair Play” rules which began in 2009 after consultation with clubs. The project was intended to protect clubs from reckless overspending.

UEFA rules limit cash injections from wealthy owners, which critics say penalize emerging clubs with big ambitions. Commercial deals such as shirt sponsorships that are suspected of being inflated are also assessed for the fair market rate.

City was deducted $22 million of Champions League prize money by UEFA in 2014 in the first round of FFP judgments.

Report: Bruce hopes to bring Xhaka to Newcastle in January

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Steve Bruce has prioritized a loan move to bring Granit Xhaka to Newcastle United in January, according to a report from Sky Sports.

[ MORE: Berhalter: No “like-for-like” replacement for Pulisic ]

Xhaka, now the former captain of Arsenal after his recent confrontation with the club’s fans, is expected to leave Arsenal in January and Bruce hopes that Fabian Schar, a longtime teammate of Xhaka with the Swiss international team, will be able to persuade the 27-year-old midfielder to choose the Magpies over what will surely be a long list of clubs desperate to acquire his services.

According to the report, a number of clubs in Italy have already expressed an interest in signing Xhaka — whether or loan or permanently — therefore Bruce and Co., are likely to face plenty of competition. However, the chance to remain in the Premier League and prove his detractors — many of them Arsenal fans — wrong could be appealing to Xhaka.

[ MORE: Report: LA Galaxy want Cavani to replace Zlatan ]

Xhaka, who is not currently injured, hasn’t made an appearance for Arsenal since the incident occurred late last month. Schar recently said that he “can’t wait to give [Xhaka] a hug” next time the two players see each other.

VIDEO: Each PL team’s best and worst player of October

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PST’s Joe Prince-Wright looks at the best (and worst) player of October for each Premier League team as the league enters its final international break of 2019.

[ MORE: Berhalter: No “like-for-like” replacement for Pulisic ]

With Liverpool and Leicester City flying high, picking the Reds’ or Foxes’ best player presented plenty of worthy candidates. As for terribly underperforming sides like Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United and Southampton, it was a challenge for the opposite reason, though JPW wasn’t short on options when it came to worst performers.

Hit Play on the above video to see who graded out well — and not so well — for your club, and feel free to agree or disagree all you want in the comments below.

Unhappy in Madrid, Bale ‘more excited’ to play for Wales

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Thanks to the ongoing FIFA-mandated international break, life is currently pretty good for Gareth Bale, who says he “definitely have a bit more excitement playing for Wales” compared to when he’s playing — or not playing — for his club, Real Madrid.

[ MORE: Sterling backs Gomez after boos were heard at Wembley ]

Bale confirmed on Friday what the entire world has known for a couple of years now: that he’s thoroughly unhappy at not being allowed to leave Madrid this summer; that he never truly adapted to his home since the summer of 2013; and that his on-field performance has suffered for those reasons, as well as his extensive injury history — quotes from the BBC:

“With Wales, I’m speaking my own language and feeling more comfortable. I definitely have a bit more excitement playing for Wales.

“I’ve been with most of the players, especially the older ones, since we were in the Under-17s. It’s like playing with your mates down the park on a Sunday.

“But it still doesn’t change what I give on the pitch. I always give 100 percent wherever I am, and that’s what I always strive to do.”

As for how Bale has been painted by the Spanish media, he says he only pays attention to the negative coverage when his friends since him “funny pictures or whatever they write,” but it’s clear he feels like an outsider and that’s a key reason he was so keen to leave the club and country when a(n even more) mega-money offer came from China this summer.

“I’ve heard some stories but I don’t really take notice. My friends tend to send me some funny pictures or whatever they write.

“I find it hilarious to be honest, especially some of the pictures and stuff my friends send me. On one, it said ‘triple bogey’ and I’ve never had a triple bogey. At least give me an albatross! It’s funny.”

Unfortunately for Bale, he’ll have to continue playing nice with manager Zinedine Zidane, until January at least.