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Outside noise distracting Chelsea ahead of pivotal stretch

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LONDON — Chelsea have slipped to fifth place in the Premier League ahead of their clash with West Bromwich Albion on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via as the Blues aim to not lose a second-straight home league game for the first time since 2011.

[ MORE: Chelsea announce legends match v Inter ]

The reigning champs are not in a good place with injuries to key players ravaging their squad and manager Antonio Conte under pressure amid scrutiny over new signings, his future beyond this season and his demeanor in press conferences and on the sidelines.

With Chelsea facing Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League last 16 next week, plus having games against top four rival Manchester United and runaway league leaders Manchester City coming up, it is a pivotal stretch of games as they aim to stay in the top four race and in the discussion for silverware this season.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk fresh from organizing a Chelsea legends match against Inter Milan this May, NBC Sports analyst and former Chelsea star Graeme Le Saux believes that the outside noise concerning Conte’s future at the club beyond this season, plus speculation regarding players leaving and arriving at Stamford Bridge is having an impact.

“Anything from outside is a distraction, as much as you try to block it out. Whether it is players coming, players going, whether there is talk about the manager, all of those things, they can have an impact,” Le Saux said. “But ultimately the way to answer that is showing the unity and the level of the performance you would expect from the talent that a team like Chelsea has. It’s going to be a fantastic month for them, Barcelona in the Champions League, big games against United and City. Those are the sorts of games that quality players say, ‘you know what, this is why I’m at a club like Chelsea.'”

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But what has been the main problem for the current Chelsea squad this season?

The shocking defeats to Bournemouth and Watford in their past two Premier League games (both by three-goal margins) certainly haven’t helped as Conte’s side have looked a shadow of the title-winning team from last season.

After a sloppy start to the season they recovered well and looked nailed on to challenge Man United for second place in the PL table. But right now you sense that it’s a case of one step forward and two steps back for the Blues.

“There’s some inconsistency this season and some disappointment in a few the performances which have been uncharacteristic,” Le Saux said. “Any team, you take comfort from your worst performances if they’re not too bad, if that makes sense? If you lose a game and you lose it 1-0 or a late goal or something, you’re not happy but at least you can say ‘look, we did everything right, but we were unlucky at the end of the game.’ But there have been a couple of performances more recently that are uncharacteristic of the team. The energy was down a bit, not quite firing on all cylinders. Between now and the end of the season, the club have to find that level again and finish strongly. FA Cup, they are going well in that. In the league, they are still in a strong position.”

Tore Andre Flo, another Chelsea legend who will play his part against Inter Forever in May, urged the current players to get their act together fast with huge games coming up in February and March in Europe and in the Premier League.

“It is a very big couple of months coming up now. Obviously the results haven’t been quite as good as last season. Last season was an amazing season but they are still showing they can do it and hopefully they can find the form altogether and over a period of time they can create some good results. If they can find good form now it would be super, because these big games are coming up.”

Le Saux added that the main problem for Chelsea, like the rest of the Premier League, is simply one thing: Manchester City.

“Part of the problem is that everyone is being compared to Manchester City. You can see that they are just exceptional. They are exceptional by any standard anywhere in world football this year,” Le Saux said. “When you look back in all of the seasons of the Premier League, you think, ‘has there been a team which has played with such a different identity to everyone else, in such a way which stands out?’ Looking at everybody else, they’ve all suffered losses which you can’t quite believe. The top six are judged by that standard Man City have set. It is always going to be a challenge, clearly for Antonio it is a period of time where all that noise from outside has got to be filtered and the team have to go out and show character and performance, you sort of think ‘actually, that’s the Chelsea we saw last year and were so successful.'”

Mark Hughes signs new long-term contract at Southampton

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Mark Hughes has gone from Stoke City outcast to Southampton savior in little under six months time.

The Welsh boss was let go from Stoke City with the Potters 18th in the table and headed towards eventual relegation, but he was picked up by fellow relegation candidates Southampton after the departure of Mauricio Pellegrino. He steered the club to safety, finishing three points above the drop in 17th.

With the Saints in the top flight for another season, the club has announced the signing of Hughes to a new three-year contract.

“Mark, Eddie and I are thrilled to have signed long-term contracts with the club. It was the only option we considered, having spent the last eight weeks with the club,” Hughes said of himself and his assistant coaches Mark Bowen and Eddie Niedzwiecki. “Now it is vital that we take the unbelievable support we received from the fans during the last few games into next season. The staff and the players will work hard every day to deliver the success this club deserves, and with everyone pulling together we will achieve our goals.”

Hughes guided Stoke City to three consecutive ninth-placed finishes, the highest the club had ever finished in the English top flight, but they finished 13th last year and regressed even further this campaign. The sale of playmaker Marko Arnautovic was particularly damaging, and the club scored just 35 goals in 38 games as a result.

At Southampton, Hughes took over a club that sat in 17th with just seven matches to go. He lost three Premier League games in a row to start his tenure and only won one league match with Saints the rest of the way, but managed to keep the club barely afloat.

Reports: Arsenal nearing deal for Lichtsteiner on free transfer

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According to multiple reports in England, including the BBC, Arsenal is looking to sign Juventus right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner on a free transfer this summer, potentially becoming the first signing under new manager Unai Emery.

Lichtsteiner is out of contract at Juventus this summer, having been with the club since 2011. Lichtsteiner has played in Italy since joining Lazio in 2008.

The Swiss international will captain his country at the World Cup this summer in Russia and will earn his 100th cap in his second match at the event.

[ MORE: Tottenham target trio ]

Lichtsteiner has been a mainstay in a Juventus squad that has won seven consecutive Serie A titles, but at 34 years old has been slowly phased out. He has made less than 30 Serie A appearances each of the last seasons, despite a nearly spotless bill of health since undergoing heart surgery in October of 2015. Last season, Lichtsteiner completed just nine full 90 minute performances, including just three after November. Lichtsteiner may have had an even smaller role this most recent campaign had Mattia de Sciglio not struggled with injuries for much of the season.

The Gunners have Hector Bellerin as the club’s main right-back, with the Spaniard leading the squad in total minutes played this past season. However, Bellerin’s level of performance has regressed considerably since proving one of the best young Premier League players in his first full season in 2015/16.

Lichtsteiner has also been linked with a move to Borussia Dortmund, where Lukasz Piszczek mans the right-back spot, but talks between the clubs reportedly broke down.

Report: Lampard leading candidate to succeed Rowett as Derby County boss

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According to John Cross of the Daily Mirror, former Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard is in the pole position to win the Derby County managerial position left vacant after Gary Rowett left to take charge of Stoke City.

Lampard has been linked to a host of lower-league managerial jobs over the past six months, but has either resisted those offers or been passed over for other candidates. In January, Lampard confirmed he had interest from League One side Oxford United, but said he did not feel ready to begin his managerial career.

“I don’t know what the route will be – there are plenty of different routes to become a top manager and I am working there [at Chelsea with the U18s] now to get towards that,” Lampard said in January. “You can’t just step out of something and think you can become a manager, you have to practice a lot. Thankfully Chelsea and the academy are helping me get my hours in and I am watching training at certain Premier League clubs and studying as much as I can so down the line, I hope so [to become a manager one day].”

Just four days ago, Lampard was also mentioned in connection with the open Ipswich Town position, interviewing with the club twice according to Sky Sports.

Now, The Mirror says that Derby County is in the mix for Lampard, and that he is at the top of the club’s shortlist. Lampard, who sits as Chelsea’s all-time leading scorer, has been working as a TV analyst since retiring in 2016 following a short move to Manchester City and a stint with MLS club NYCFC.

Derby has been competitive in the Championship for a number of seasons now, but the Rams have just missed out on Premier League promotion on numerous occasions. They finished sixth this past season but blew a 1-0 semifinal lead to Fulham after the first leg. They also lost in the playoff semifinals to Hull City back in 2016, and lost in the playoff final to QPR back in 2014 after a third-place finish in the table.

Championship Playoff Final preview: Fulham vs. Aston Villa

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Imagine playing in a single game where your performance over 90 minutes means the difference between over $300 million for your club or at least another year in the lower leagues.

That’s what is estimated to be on the line as Fulham and Aston Villa meet at Wembley on Saturday in the Championship playoff final at 12 p.m. ET hoping to earn the final spot in next year’s Premier League campaign.

Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce will be searching for an unprecedented fifth Championship promotion after previously guiding Birmingham City and Hull City to the top flight on multiple occasions. He is 2-0 in the playoff final, having won it previously once with each former club, taking Birmingham City to the Premier League in 2002 after defeating Norwich City in a penalty shootout, and earning the victory with Hull City in 2016 via a 1-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday. Players Sam Johnstone and Robert Snodgrass have both won playoff finals before as well.

Fulham, meanwhile, has experience of its own on the touchline, as boss Slavisa Jokanovic has taken Watford to the top flight previously, finishing second in the Championship in 2015, but he has never experienced a playoff final before.

The Whites appear to be in the better form, having nearly ended the season in historic form with 24 straight unbeaten, but lost on the final day of the campaign, missing out on automatic promotion by just two points. They play a possession-based style under Jokanovic, and while it’s taken a while for the team to grasp the tactics, they look as deadly as ever. However, the last few games have exposed the team yet again, with the loss to lowly Birmingham on the final day before a 1-0 loss to Derby County in the first leg of their playoff semifinal, a scoreline which they turned around in the second leg at home.

The Fulham midfield duo of Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen has a claim to be the best pairing in the Championship over the past two seasons, and they anchor Jokanovic’s setup behind playmaker Tom Cairney. The club brought embattled Newcastle striker Aleksandr Mitrovic to London in January, and he’s brought a cutting edge to an attack that was just missing a target man up front. Young winger Ryan Sessegnon, who just turned 18 years old on Friday, has been the club’s most heralded player, and could move to a top Premier League side this summer, especially if the Whites fall at Wembley this weekend. Finally, USMNT defender Tim Ream has led the defensive improvement of a club that conceded 83 goals three seasons ago to halve that this campaign.

They’ll take that attacking prowess up against one of the league’s most pragmatic opponents, as Villa finished the regular season with the third-fewest goals allowed and shut out Middlesbrough across both legs in the semifinals. They feature former Chelsea defender John Terry anchoring the back line, and he partners with experienced 29-year-old James Chester who has played under Bruce before at Hull. Terry himself has won five separate trophies at Wembley Stadium, experience he will surely share with the squad.

Villa’s most dangerous player this season has been Albert Adomah whose blistering pace down the right has been something for opponents to deal with. However, he’s hit a cold streak, without a goal since scoring in a 4-1 win over champions Wolves back on March 10th.

Villa is looking to go back to the Premier League after relegation two years ago, while Fulham has spent four years in the second tier after being sent down back in 2014.