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Conte: Chelsea better off than when I arrived

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It’s possible — if not highly likely — that Antonio Conte will take charge of his final game as Chelsea manager on Sunday when the Blues visit Newcastle United (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com), and that has the Italian seemingly already defending his legacy at the club before walking out the door.

[ MORE: Neymar told PSG teammates he won’t be back next season ]

When Conte arrived at Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2016, Chelsea were fresh off their worst season in 20 years — a fact of which he’ll forever be quick to remind you — a 10th-place finish just 12 months after winning the Premier League title. Jose Mourinho had been fired seven months prior, and the squad was dubbed expensive and aging.

Conte spent the next 24 months haggling with owner Roman Abramovich over a transfer budget which the former believed to be nowhere near large enough for a club of Chelsea’s size and ambition — quotes from the Guardian:

“We worked two years, and worked very hard, to try to build something, to create a base. I think we did this. There are six top teams at the start of the season ready to fight for a place in the Champions League. It [not qualifying for UCL] can happen. In the past it happened. Don’t forget two years ago, Chelsea ended the season 10th and not in the FA Cup final, not in the semifinals of the Carabao Cup and they were eliminated in the last 16 against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.”

“Last season, after a 10th-place finish, we won the league. Now, probably, you can finish fifth and start with a bit of an advantage compared to when you finish 10th.”

Average age of the 15 first-team regulars inherited by Conte in 2016 (excluding new arrivals, his first signings, that summer): 26.1 years old.

Average age of the 17 first-team regulars used by Conte during the 2017-18 season: 28.2 years old.

While it was under Conte that some of the club’s most senior players — John Terry (36), Branislav Ivanovic (33), Loic Remy (30) and Nemanja Matic (29), to name a few — were moved on, so, too, was Mohamed Salah (24), who went on to thrive at Roma before fetching quadruple the fee they had paid one year later. The likes of Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro are all 1) two years older than when Conte arrived, and still first-team stalwarts; 2) now on the wrong side of 30 years old after having been handed significant minutes once again this season.

[ MORE: Ronaldo back on track to be fit for Champions League final ]

The likes of Andreas Christensen (22), Tiemoue Bakayoko (23) and Alvaro Morata (25) featured with varying degrees of irregularity throughout the season and should provide a bit of hope looking forward, but they’ve hardly been handed the keys to the car the way Conte would have you believe.

It’s entirely possible for each of the following to be true, even if you disagree with one or the other, or both: 1) Chelsea’s squad is better positioned, now, for the coming years than when Conte took over; 2) the rest of the PL’s top-six has improved just as much, if not more, during that time and the Blues have actually fallen behind the league’s other elites.

La Liga: Real Madrid disappoint in home draw with Valladolid

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Liverpool bests wobbly Arsenal at Anfield | Player ratings ]

Real Madrid 1-1 Real Valladolid

With Barcelona losing on the season’s opening day, and now Real Madrid dropping points on Saturday to the side that finished 16th last season, the 2019 La Liga title race appears to be wide open.

Karim Benzema put Real Madrid 1-0 up after 82 minutes, and Los Blancos appeared to have avoided a disappointing start to their home campaign. However, Sergi Guardiola (no relation to Pep) had other ideas when he bagged an unlikely equalizer in the 88th minute.

Eden Hazard remained out with a thigh injury and the $113-million Belgian isn’t expected to make his Madrid debut until after the season’s international break which takes place the first full weekend of September. James Rodriguez made his return to Real Madrid after two seasons on loan to Bayern Munich, but the Colombian was subbed off after 57 minutes to be replaced by Vinicius Junior.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Celta Vigo 1-0 Valencia
Getafe 1-1 Athletic Bilbao
Osasuna 0-0 Eibar

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Mallorca v. Real Sociedad — 11 a.m. ET
Alaves v. Espanyol — 11 a.m. ET
Leganes v. Atletico Madrid — 1 p.m. ET
Barcelona v. Real Betis — 3 p.m. ET

Serie A: Juventus edge past Parma; Napoli-Fiorentina thriller (video)

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Liverpool bests wobbly Arsenal at Anfield | Player ratings ]

Parma 0-1 Juventus

Juventus’ quest to win a ninth straight Serie A title began with a win away to Parma on Saturday, but only just barely. Giorgio Chiellini scored the game’s only goal in the 21st minute, redirecting Alex Sandro’s half-volley past the goalkeeper after a corner kick wasn’t fully cleared. The victory sets Maurizio Sarri‘s side (Sarri wasn’t in charge of the team on Saturday as he continues to recover from pneumonia) on its way in a season that figures to feature multiple challengers to the throne, with Napoli and Inter Milan each strengthening their squads considerably in the summer. Sarri will also miss out on next weekend’s heavyweight clash between Juve and last season’s runners-up Napoli at Allianz Stadium.

Cristiano Ronaldo had a goal taken off the board after the video-assistant referee picked up on the narrowest of offside calls.

$85-million center back Matthijs de Ligt was named to the bench, where he remained for the entirety of 90 minutes, with veterans Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci preferred to the 20-year-old. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon joined De Ligt on the bench in his return to Juve after spending last season at Paris Saint-Germain.

Fiorentina 3-4 Napoli

Napoli’s 4-3 victory over Fiorentina was a truly wild ride. There is no other way to describe it.

Napoli went from a goal down inside the first 10 minutes, to 2-1 up just before halftime, level at 2-2 in the 52nd minute, 3-2 ahead just four minutes later, level at 3-3 in the 65th, and finally 4-3 ahead just two minutes later.

Dries Mertens (38th), Lorenzo Insigne (43rd and 67th) and Jose Callejon (56th) got the goals for Carlo Ancelotti’s side.

Hirving Lozano, who joined Napoli for $44 million on Friday, wasn’t yet available to make his debut but will only add another level of quality to what has proven to be an already impressive attacking unit.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Udinese v. AC Milan — 12 p.m. ET
Roma v. Genoa — 2:45 p.m. ET
Sampdoria v. Lazio — 2:45 p.m. ET
Cagliari v. Brescia — 2:45 p.m. ET
Verona v. Bologna — 2:45 p.m. ET
SPAL v. Atalanta — 2:45 p.m. ET
Torino v. Sassuolo — 2:45 p.m. ET

Messi to miss Barcelona’s next game; Suarez, Dembele also out

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi has been left out of Barcelona’s squad to face Real Betis in the Spanish league on Sunday.

[ MORE: Liverpool bests wobbly Arsenal at Anfield | Player ratings ]

Messi returned to training this week after recovering from a right calf injury picked up in preseason, but the Argentina star was not included in the list of players available for the team’s home opener at Camp Nou Stadium.

He missed the team’s 1-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao in the league opener last weekend.

Coach Ernesto Valverde is also without forwards Luiz Suarez and Ousmane Dembele because of injuries.

Klopp preens after Liverpool win: ‘Our identity is intensity’

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Liverpool and Arsenal entertained on Saturday, with the Reds earning a deserved 3-1 win and keeping the Gunners off-kilter for most of the day.

Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds pushed the tempo for much of the match and overcame some wobbly moments at the back to cruise to the win.

[ MORE: Liverpool-Arsenal recap | 3 things ]

They were tough, fiery, and deserved every bit of the win. And Klopp knows it, and knows that you know it. From the BBC:

“Our identity is intensity, and we showed that today. … We were a bit surprised by their system. We couldn’t know that they would play a diamond, but we switched things around and coped very well.

“The last 10 minutes I saw the possession – 53 to 47 or something like that – but over 80 minutes it must have been completely different. For 80 minutes we were completely in charge of the game. We are not Disneyland, we do not need to excite everyone in every second.”

This guy is an absolute beauty. Even those who despise him have to admit that we are lucky to have him.

Klopp’s men lapsed late and allowed a Lucas Torreira goal. The defense has been wobbly over the first three weeks of the season, and preseason was just as rough. Klopp would’ve loved a clean sheet for the first time since the first week of preseason, but he’s happy with the performance.

“I would have loved to have it, but things can happen. They’re a quality side, Arsenal. I didn’t see that many chances, but we were really in charge today and completely deserved the win.”

Liverpool is off to Burnley next, and then will enjoy the international break.