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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.

Pique: Copa-losing Barca still “really hurting” from UCL exit

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Barcelona was the favorite to win La Liga, the UEFA Champions League, and the Copa del Rey for the majority of the season, but only claimed one.

Liverpool’s amazing comeback to beat Barca in the second leg of the UCL semifinals met Saturday’s loss to Valencia in the Copa del Rey Final to give Barca a league title alone.

[ MORE: Real, Chelsea debate Hazard fee ]

Even with that La Liga advantage being decisive — Barca carried the table by 11 points over Atletico Madrid and finished 19 ahead of Real Madrid — there’s a very dour mood and promised change for the Camp Nou set.

And Gerard Pique says it all traces back to the loss against Liverpool. From The Liverpool Echo:

“I believe that if we had gotten through at Liverpool, we would have won the treble. We would have come here [to the Copa del Rey final] with a different mood, and I’m convinced we would have won the Champions League final, but that is football. We are really, really hurting.”

There are hints of a massive clear-out at Barcelona, with Lionel Messi and Pique two of the only safe bets to stay. When will Barca get over it?

Brazilian team tangles in locker room futmesa (video)

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It was defense versus attack in the Brazil dressing room.

Neymar and Gabriel Jesus squared off with international teammates Filipe Luis and Ederson in a game of futmesa/table soccer this week.

[ MORE: Real, Chelsea debate Hazard fee ]

Neymar and Filipe Luis are used to be on different sides of the field from their time in La Liga, while Jesus and Ederson are teammates at Manchester City.

Brazil is hosting this summer’s Copa America and is the favorite to win its first tournament since 2007, when it claimed its fourth in five tries.

It’s really impressive stuff for us normal to subpar athletes, even if standard for those with such deft talent.

Quite a winner from Man City’s young striker.

Jovic could see himself in Premier League, Serie A

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Maybe Luka Jovic’s presumed move to Real Madrid won’t happen this summer.

Or at all.

[ MORE: Real, Chelsea debate Hazard fee ]

The Eintracht Frankfurt striker has been tipped for a move away from the Bundesliga after another strong campaign, and taking the center forward reins from Karim Benzema at Real Madrid.

Several outlets reported the deal as done, but Jovic isn’t speaking that way (or at least the Serbian is throwing us off the scent.

From Goal.com:

“In terms of the physique, the Bundesliga is very demanding, but after the games against Chelsea or Inter Milan, I personally had the feeling that I could feel even better [playing] in the Premier League or Serie A. … The way the teams play there suits me better.”

Jovic scored 27 times in 48 appearances for Frankfurt, adding seven assists at the tender age of 21. Ten of those came in the Europa League, and we’re not talking about flooding the nets of minnows; Jovic scored against Chelsea (twice), Marseille (three), Lazio (two), and Inter Milan (once).

Report: Chelsea, Real $38M apart on Hazard

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How much for Hazard?

Real Madrid are willing to pay $127 million, no small fee, to bring Eden Hazard from Chelsea, but that’s well off the Blues’ evaluation according to Sky Sports.

Chelsea sees Hazard’s price as $165 million. Belgian writer Kristof Terreur told Sky that Hazard wants his future sorted by June 4.

[ MORE: Bayern wins double ]

The Blues’ superstar is entering the final year of his contract, and could begin negotiating with other clubs in January and leave on a free transfer.

Hazard turns 29 in January. He recorded 19 goals and 16 assists in 51 matches this season, his best output in a Blues uniform.

The report says Chelsea feels no pressure to sell Hazard, but it would be a surprise if it dug in its heels too deeply considering the state of the Belgian’s contract.

Even for Chelsea, letting over $100 million walk out the door is wild, and for all Hazard’s won with Chelsea there’s also been consternation under several managers and a more than occasional habit of disappointing on the table.