Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Conte: Chelsea better off than when I arrived

Leave a comment

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.

Allegri wants VAR, Bonucci doubts ref vision on Ronaldo red

AP Photo/Alberto Saiz
Leave a comment

Sky Sports in Italy says its lip readers confirm that Cristiano Ronaldo’s sending off Wednesday was down to tugging the hair of Jeison Murillo while the Valencia man was on the turf.

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci wasn’t too impressed, even after his club went on to win 2-0 in Spain.

[ UCL: Real rocks Roma, Man City falls ]

“As far as I could see, it was a pretty normal clash,” Bonucci said. “Murillo put his hands on Ronaldo first, he reacted, but these things can happen and we must be stronger than everyone and everything.

“Ronaldo was angry, of course. The referee saw what he saw – not very well – and we overcame the obstacles.”

Juventus boss Max Allegri wants to take it a step further.

Juve is no stranger to calling for VAR, and Allegri is upset that the Portuguese megastar will miss at least one more match due to the red card (and could miss his Manchester United reunion should his suspension go beyond one match). From Football-Italia.net:

“I can only say that VAR would’ve helped the referee in this decision,” Allegri said. “Going down to 10 men in the Champions League for an incident like that is disappointing. We risked losing tonight with this and we’ll miss him for the next games too.”

It all pales in comparison to the vitriol seething out of Ronaldo’s sister, who reportedly posted on Instagram that “there will be a high price” for his tears, adding that “God never sleeps.”

Arteta: Despite loss, Man City was “ready for the game”

AP Photo/Dave Thompson
Leave a comment

Mikel Arteta might have enjoyed the opportunity to sit in the hot seat for Manchester City when the Premier League champions opened their UEFA Champions League season at home to Lyon on Wednesday, but he sure didn’t like the result.

[ RECAP: Man City 1-2 Lyon ]

With suspended Pep Guardiola watching from the stands, Man City went behind 2-0 to the French visitors. The champs could muster one second half marker in a loss at the Etihad Stadium.

Arteta said he couldn’t say whether the game would be different with Guardiola on the touch line, but doesn’t think the loss comes down to his absence. From ManCity.com:

“We missed the right pass and didn’t find consistency,” he said. “We felt under threat every time we lost the ball, that can bring the confidence lower. We were ready for the game, keen to start to Champions League because the way we ended it last season really hurt.

“The players are not perfect, sometimes they have bad days, sometimes better. I can’t fault the effort. I won’t judge them because we lost.”

He’s finding more positives than his players when it comes to the day’s mettle.

“We started slowly, and we were inconsistent in the way we wanted to play,” Arteta said. “We lost too many duels. We gave the ball away in difficult circumstances and they scored twice, but after that, the reaction from the lads was superb. We tweaked a few things to control situations better and we created chances, but at this level, it wasn’t enough.”

John Stones was at the back for both of Lyon’s goals, and admitted that halftime hit the players hard.

“Really disappointing,” he said. “To concede two goals like we did is very frustrating,. We came in at half-time a bit deflated. We picked ourselves up and played a better second half but it was frustrating.”

Report: Martino to leave Atlanta, national team job looms

Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Tata Martino’s future has been debated for some time.

Would he elect to stay with Atlanta United beyond the season? Would national team duty call? And if so, would it be the USMNT? A return to Argentina?

[ UCL: Real rocks Roma, Man City falls ]

Now ESPN is reporting that Martino will leave Atlanta United at the end of this season, opening another high profile MLS job next to the LA Galaxy vacancy.

Presuming he wants to leave Atlanta, which option is most attractive?

  • Mexico and the USMNT are both on the precipice of golden generations, assuming they pick the right shepherd. El Tri is a bit further along in the process than the U.S., and it would be an easy selection.
  • Argentina is Martino’s home, and he’s held the job before. Would the idea of melding Lionel Messi’s final prime throes with Paulo Dybala to try and claim a first Copa America since 1993 be enough?
  • Colombia would also face the test of World Cup qualifying in CONMEBOL, and is a pretty packed side. James Rodriguez (27), Yerry Mina (23), and Davinson Sanchez (22) will be around for the long haul, while Juan Cuadrado and Radamel Falcao are still productive.

Mourinho, Man Utd revel in Pogba performance

Anthony Anex/Keystone via AP
Leave a comment

Paul Pogba blessed Manchester United with a powerful performance in the Red Devils’ 3-0 UEFA Champions League win at Young Boys on Wednesday, and it was impossible not to notice his class.

[ UCL: Real rocks Roma, Man City falls ]

Jose Mourinho did, as did several of his teammates on a night the French midfielder scored twice and assisted United’s other goal.

“Solid, class and gave the team the pace we needed at times,” said Manchester United’s manager. “He controlled the tempo and of course it was a very good goal.”

Pogba again captained the side, which has won three-straight and allowed just one goal in wins over Burnley and Watford in addition to Wednesday’s win.

Luke Shaw drew a penalty that Pogba converted for the match’s second game, and loved what he saw from his captain. From the BBC:

“He gets some stick sometimes but we know what quality he has. For me, he is one of the best in the world. He is important as captain. He shows on the pitch what kind of leader he is. Hopefully he can carry that on.”

Mourinho’s praise carries a bit more weight considering he didn’t quite enjoy the competition.

“Job done,” he said. “Not phenomenal but good enough. (Young Boys) were intense, compact and had self esteem.”