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Hazard: ‘I think it is goodbye, but you never know’

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It has been no secret that Real Madrid covet Chelsea superstar Eden Hazard as the crown jewel of the squad overhaul set to take place this summer, nor has it been exactly strictly confidential news that Hazard is also quite keen on making the move to the Spanish capital.

[ MORE: Chelsea win Europa League after Arsenal capitulate (video) ]

It was widely speculated — even by Hazard himself — that Wednesday’s Europa League final, which the Blues won by thumping Arsenal, could be the 28-year-old Belgian’s final game for the club.

Mere minutes after the final whistle in Baku, Azerbaijan, Hazard was, shall we say, extremely transparent about what lies ahead — quotes from the BBC:

“We will decide in a few days and the only target in my mind was to win this final. I have made my decision already and now I’m waiting on both clubs. I think it is a goodbye, but in football you never know. My dream was to play in the Premier League and I have done that for one of the biggest clubs, so maybe now it is the time for a new challenge.”

“It was good. I think both teams were playing with a bit of stress with it being a final but when Olivier [Giroud] scored it was the beginning of a great night. We played well and controlled the game and I’m happy to leave this trophy with the boys. The manager said to carry on playing football at the break and today we showed this mentality.”

The Blues are set to begin a two-window transfer ban this summer, meaning the roughly $150 million they are expected to receive in exchange for Hazard will burn a hole in Maurizio Sarri‘s pocket — assuming he remains as manager, of course — until this time next year.

Mancini says he wants Balotelli back with Italy on merits

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FLORENCE, Italy (AP) — Italy coach Roberto Mancini says he prefers to recall Mario Balotelli for his qualities as a player, not as a message against racism.

Balotelli has not been called up by Mancini in more than a year but Italian soccer federation president Gabriele Gravina has said naming him in the squad would send a strong message after the Brescia forward was racially abused recently.

Mancini said Monday that “if Balotelli gets another chance, it will be because he deserves it from a technical point of view.”

Balotelli was included in Mancini’s first two squads but again was omitted from upcoming European qualifiers against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Armenia.

Balotelli has long said his goal is to rejoin the national team for next year’s European Championship.

The 29-year-old striker has scored two goals in seven matches this season.

Cardiff City parts ways with Neil Warnock

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Cardiff City has fired manager Neil Warnock with the 70-year-old boss in his fourth season with the club.

The Bluebirds sit 14th in the Championship table, on a six-match run that features just a single win.

Warnock’s tenure at Cardiff City featured promotion from the Championship in 2017/18 via a second-place finish in the league table. It wouldn’t last long, as they were relegated the next year, finishing 18th, two points back of Brighton Hove & Albion in safety.

“I am leaving my beloved Bluebirds after over three years of which have been some of the best days in my long football career,” Warnock said, with the club officially stating the decision came via mutual consent. “It is a shared belief that this is the right time for a new voice as we believe this squad of players is more than capable of getting success.”

“On behalf of Cardiff City Football Club, I thank Neil for his invaluable contribution to the future of this great Club,” said Cardiff City FC Chairman Mehmet Dalman in a club statement. “He not only gained promotion in his first season but played a pivotal role in uniting the fans and the club. I am personally upset by his departure and wish him the very best for the future.”

At 70 years old and completing his 17th managerial stint with 15 different clubs, it is possible that Warnock’s managerial career is complete. The Sheffield-born former Barnsley player, who turns 71 in less than a month, has taken charge of 112 Premier League games and overseen a record eight promotion campaigns in his career to date.

At Cardiff, Warnock took charge of 144 matches total, with 59 wins. He was in the position for the death of Emiliano Sala, which he called “by far the most difficult week of my career.”

Arsenal front office gives Unai Emery vote of confidence

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The Arsenal front office has publicly issued support for manager Unai Emery despite the negative run of results that has left fans wondering what is next for the Gunners.

Speaking at a pre-planned meeting with over 200 Arsenal staff members in attendence, head of football Raul Sanllehi and the managing director Vinai Venkatesham were the ones to deliver Emery’s vote of confidence.

“We are as disappointed as everyone else with both our results and performances at this stage of the season,” they said in the meeting as quoted by The Guardian and Goal.com. “We share the frustration with our fans, Unai, players and all our staff as they are not at the level we want or expect. Things need to improve to meet our objectives for the season, and we firmly believe Unai is the right man for the job, together with the backroom team we have in place.”

“We are all working intensively behind the scenes to turn things around and are confident we will. We never take our fantastic support for granted. We hope we can all stick together and get behind the team in this challenging period, as together we are stronger.”

Calls for Emery’s job have grown louder in recent weeks as the club flounders in both Premier League and Europa League competition. The Gunners have failed to win its last four league matches in a row with losses to Sheffield United and Leicester City sandwiching a pair of draws with Crystal Palace and Wolves. They also looked lackluster in a 1-1 draw against Vitoria Guimaraes in European play.

Most alarmingly, Arsenal continues to throw away winning positions, coughing up leads in both recent Premier League draws as well as the Vitoria Guimaraes match. They also threw away a two-goal lead to Watford earlier this season, and nearly lost at home to newly-promoted Aston Villa, requiring a last-gasp winner from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The Granit Xhaka affair has also blighted Emery’s time, with the Swiss midfielder looking to earn his place back in the squad after being stripped of the captain’s armband for negative gestures towards the booing Arsenal crowd.

How should Liverpool and Egypt manage Salah injury?

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Mohamed Salah has struggled with a nagging ankle injury the last month, and the recurring problem reappeared during the 3-1 win over Manchester City.

Soon after Salah scored Liverpool’s second goal in the massive victory, he was caught by Fernandinho and lay clutching his left ankle in clear pain. The Egyptian received treatment and stayed on the pitch, but was withdrawn in the 87th minute for Joe Gomez who came on as an extra defender with Liverpool looking to see the game out.

After the game, Salah was seen with ice strapped to his ankle, and an ESPN report claims that Liverpool “has major concerns” over the winger’s recurrence. With international duty coming up, it remains to be seen how both club and country maintain his health.

Last month, with the injury still fresh following a challenge by Leicester City’s Hamza Choudhury that started this mess, Liverpool reportedly requested that Egypt leave Salah out of the squad for friendlies against Botswana and Liberia. The national team begrudgingly accepted the club’s request, although there were reports in Egypt that manager Hossam El-Badry was unhappy. Now, with Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers on the horizon this international break, Egypt will very much want its star forward in the lineup. Salah has apparently chosen to report for international duty and assess his new knock with his Egypt team doctors, and the club will have no choice but to accept that decision and wait on the results.

And yet, he now appears to be walking wounded again. Should Egypt call up Salah for a massive qualifier against Kenya on Thursday, and again for the follow-up against lowly Comoros? They produced a pair of 1-0 wins in the friendlies last time out, but with a stronger opponent in this international break’s opener, Salah’s presence would be a boost. Still, if he is less than 100%, he could be a hindrance to the squad, and harming his long-term fitness could be of concern not just to his club, but country too.

Obviously, Liverpool will hope he is omitted, but the club is in a tough position having already requested he sit last break. Salah’s overall performance has dropped since initially picking up the injury against Leicester City last month, although he still does have three goals and two assists on the board across all competitions. If he does play for Egypt this week, how should the club proceed? With Premier League games Crystal Palace, Brighton, Everton, and Bournemouth coming up, it’s possible that Jurgen Klopp saves Salah for Champions League meetings with Napoli and RB Leipzig that feel more threatening. Still, leaving the club vulnerable in the Premier League risks potentially allowing Manchester City to climb back into the title race, squandering the momentum built up this weekend.

Deciding how and when to deploy Mohamed Salah could be one of the more difficult decisions Jurgen Klopp makes over the next few months, and it could seriously affect Liverpool’s chances to secure its first Premier League title. It remains to be seen how much – if at all – Fernandinho’s challenge has worsened the issue, and