Sarri says Chelsea were nervous; Kante praised but must improve

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LONDON — Chelsea got the win against Fulham to keep them among the chasing pack at the top of the Premier League table, but Maurizio Sarri knows his team must improve drastically to become genuine title contenders.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

An early Pedro goal set Chelsea on their way against their neighbors in west London, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek struck late on to seal the 2-0 win after Fulham had fought their way back into the game.

Speaking after the game Sarri acknowledged that Chelsea weren’t at their best and his players were a little nervous after their 3-1 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur last weekend.

“I think that today it was really very important to get a result,” Sarri said. “We started very well, then after the 1-0 I think the players on the pitch had a very good level of application, attention but without trying to kill the match. We needed to kill the match before. I think today we were a little bit tense. Of course it wasn’t easy, the days after Tottenham for me and the players. We have talked too much about that match. We lost a match after three-and-a-half months. It can happen. Today it was important to react.”

Ahead of their massive clash with Manchester City at Stamford Bridge next Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) one of the main areas Sarri has talked about is improving his central midfield duo of Jorginho and N'Golo Kante.

The latter won the ball and set up Pedro for Chelsea’s opener and had a superb game overall against Fulham. After Sarri recently criticized Kante as he’s played him out of position in a more attacking central midfield role rather than as a holder, he praised the French star for his display on Sunday. But once again he said he must improve tactically.

“I think he played very well, he defended very well,” Sarri said. “He needs to improve a little more from the tactical point of view but it is natural. In the national team he usually plays with two midfielders. In the last season sometimes with two players, sometimes with three midfielders but in the central position. I think it is normal that he needs to improve.”

Although Sarri admitted Kante was better at getting in and around Jorginho — the man who has replaced him in the lone holding position in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation — on Sunday, he reaffirmed his belief that Kante still needs to work hard to make the partnership work.

“Today was better, because when the ball was on the other side of the pitch I remember only one mistake in the first half,” Sarri explained. “With the ball on the other side he has to stay very close to Jorginho. Otherwise for us it is a big problem because Jorginho is able to cut passes to the opponents but he is not really very good in the defensive phase with open spaces. We need Kante very close to him.”

Chelsea remain seven points off leaders Manchester City heading into a busy few weeks, but they’re in the top four and responded with a solid enough win against Fulham on Sunday. It was hardly vintage stuff from Sarri’s men in a game they were expected to win, but Kante’s display was a huge positive.

The fact his side were “tense” and “nervous” does suggest that they are still a little fragile despite losing just once so far this season in all competitions. That doesn’t exactly send out a positive message ahead of their biggest test of the season when Man City roll into town next week.

Serie A: Atalanta, Inter snatch UCL places on wild final day

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s final-day action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Chelsea, Real Madrid remain $38 million apart on Eden Hazard deal ]

Sampdoria (9th) 2-0 Juventus (1st)

With their eighth straight scudetto long since clinched, Juve slumped their way to the season’s finish line without a win in their final five games (three draws), including Sunday’s 2-0 loss away to Sampdoria. It was 0-0 for 83 minute, until Gregoire Defrel (84th) and Gianluca Caprari (91st) bagged late goals for the victory.

Atalanta (3rd) 3-1 Sassuolo (11th)

Atalanta completed their fairytale season and finished third in a hugely dramatic, chaotic way befitting their rapid rise to Champions League relevance. They finished 17th and avoided relegation by three points in 2015.

First, they fell behind when Domenico Berardi scored in the 19th minute. They were level by the 35 minute, thanks to Duvan Zapata’s equalizer. Then, things got weird.

Berardi was sent off during a massive skirmish between the two sides while leaving the field for halftime. With the score 1-1, and both Inter Milan and AC Milan ahead after 51 minutes, Atalanta were headed for a fifth-place finish.

Alejandro Gomez put Atalanta ahead three minutes later, though, and Mario Pasalic doubled the advantage in the 65th.

Inter Milan (4th) 2-1 Empoli (18th – relegated)

At that 51-minute mark, Keita Balde’s opening goal put Inter ahead of Empoli, but the visitors equalized in the 76th, briefly dropping them to fifth.

That lasted all of five minutes, as Radja Nainggolan put Luciano Spaletti’s side back in front, where they would finish the season. The top-four finished the day exactly as it began — Atalanta in 3rd and Inter Milan in 4th, each on 69 points.

SPAL (13th) 2-3 AC Milan (5th)

For those five glorious minutes, AC Milan were headed back to the Champions League for the first time since 2014, and were set to do so at the expense of their local rivals.

Finishing fourth, but behind Inter, would have been fine, but finishing fourth and ahead of Inter would have been a dreamland outcome. Alas, it’s a fifth-place finish on 68 points and another season in the Europa League for the Rossoneri.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Bologna (10th) 3-2 Napoli (2nd – Saturday)
Frosinone (19th – relegated) 0-0 Chievo (20th – relegated – Saturday)
Roma (6th) 2-1 Parma (14th)
Torino (7th) 3-1 Lazio (8th)
Cagliari (15th) 1-2 Udinese (12th)
Fiorentina (16th) 0-0 Genoa (17th)

Chelsea’s Kante to miss Europa League final with new injury

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N'Golo Kante is set to miss Chelsea’s Europa League final showdown with Arsenal on Wednesday after suffering a knee injury during a training session this weekend.

[ MORE: Chelsea, Real Madrid remain $38 million apart on Eden Hazard deal ]

Kante missed Chelsea’s two most recent fixtures — their Premier League finale and the second leg of the UEL semifinals — due to a hamstring injury suffered on May 5, but was on course to be fit and available from the start when the London giants meet in Baku, Azerbaijan. Now, though, the Frenchman’s latest injury has all but ruled him out with one final piece of silverware on the line.

According to a report from the Guardian, the injury occurred when the 2018 World Cup winner made a challenge to win the ball during Saturday’s training session. He left the field in “clear discomfort” and will undergo the requisite examinations to determine the severity of the injury.

[ MORE: USWNT wins final match before World Cup (video) ]

In the unfortunate event that Kante’s injury turns out to be serious and keeps him out of action into the start of next season, the Blues would find themselves in a world of trouble. The club’s season-long transfer ban would prevent them from signing even a single replacement for one of the Premier League’s most influential figures.

Antonio Rudiger (knee), Callum Hudson-Odoi (achilles) and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (achilles) will also miss out on Wednesday’s final due to long-term injuries.

Transfer rumor roundup: Chukwuese to Liverpool, Gomes to West Ham

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As fallout begins from Barcelona’s losses in the UEFA Champions League semifinals and Copa del Rey Final, players are being linked with moves away from the Camp Nou.

Andre Gomes, 25, already spent a year away from Barca, playing around 2000 minutes on loan to Everton this season.

[ MORE: USWNT wins final World Cup tune-up ]

The Times says that Everton would like to keep the player, but West Ham has made a $22 million bid for the EURO 2016 winner.

Meanwhile, Metro says that Xherdan Shaqiri could be one-and-done at Liverpool, making room for another Reds’ buy.

Samuel Chukwuese is the name, and the 20-year-old Nigerian plies his trade at Villarreal.

The Yellow Submarine flirted with relegation this season, taxed by the Europa League, and Chukwuese was a bright spot. He scored seven goals and added three assists in 38 matches across all competitions.

USWNT wins final match before World Cup (video)

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Tobin Heath, Mallory Pugh, and Christen Press all scored and then United States women’s national team was rarely threatened in a 3-0 win that stands as the final tune-up for the World Cup in France.

The U.S. will meet Thailand, Nigeria, and Chile in Group F play beginning on June 11.

[ MORE: Real, Chelsea debate Hazard fee ]

The match was barely 10 minutes old when Heath took advantage of terrible miscommunication between Mexican goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago and Rebeca Bernal.

There was still work to do when Heath got the ball, finding the angle to make it 1-0.

Carli Lloyd nearly slid a ball home after dribbling Santiago in the 48th minute, but was defied by a goal line clearance.

The second goal came when Lloyd dribbled toward the near post from a tight angle, sliding a pass to Pugh for a 2-0 lead.

Press completed the scoring with a classy finish in the final minutes.