Same old Conte

LONDON — Antonio Conte has warned Chelsea he will never change his demanding ways as the FA Cup winning boss waits to discover if he will be sacked.

Conte ended a troubled season on a high note thanks to Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Manchester United in Saturday’s final at Wembley.

Eden Hazard’s first half penalty was followed by a backs to the wall display as Conte won the second trophy of his two-year reign in what may prove his final game in charge.

Whether FA Cup glory will be enough to convince Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich not to sack Conte remains in doubt after the Blues finished fifth in the Premier League and missed out on Champions League qualification.

The Italian has been embroiled in a turbulent campaign marred by his feud with the club’s hierarchy over their failure to back his transfer plans following last season’s Premier League title triumph.

Conte is also said to have infuriated several Chelsea stars with his intense personality and regimented training sessions.

But the former Juventus and Italy coach is adamant his managerial style has made him a “serial winner” who should be respected.

In a clear warning that he will never stop pushing his players or demanding boardroom backing, Conte emerged from the jubilant Chelsea dressing room to send a defiant message to his club.

Still soaked in champagne from the post-match celebrations, Conte said: “After two years the club knows me very well. If they want to continue to work with me, they know me.

“I can’t change. My way is always the same; hard work and to build a strong mentality with my players.

“I can’t change. I’m this and I think my past speaks very clear as a player and as a manager.

“You can say what you want, but I’m a serial winner.

“I showed this in England in a difficult moment for the club. To win in this way this season gives me more satisfaction than my wins in the past.”

Conte, who won three Serie A titles with Juventus, has one year left on his contract after signing an improved deal without an extension at the end of last season.

In truth, Conte may have burned too many bridges to stay with Chelsea amid speculation that former Barcelona boss Luis Enrique and Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri are Abramovich’s top targets to succeed him.

If Conte does leave, it will be despite the support of Chelsea’s fans, who serenaded him as he joined in the celebrations on the Wembley turf. — AFP


Mourinho beaten at his own game

WEMBLEY — Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho bemoaned old foe Antonio Conte’s tactics as his side failed to breakdown Chelsea’s defensive wall in losing the FA Cup final 1-0 on Saturday.

Eden Hazard’s 22nd-minute penalty ensured Mourinho’s second season at Old Trafford ended without a trophy.

Despite finishing second in the league to a record-breaking Manchester City side, Mourinho’s approach has been much-criticised this season for lacking the flair and invention displayed by City and Champions League finalists Liverpool.

“I congratulate them because they won but I don’t think they deserved to win,” said Mourinho.

“I’m curious to read today and tomorrow, to watch, to listen (to) your (the media’s) opinions.”

Mourinho and Conte have consistently clashed since the latter arrived in England just under two years ago.

But tactically they have plenty in common as despite Mourinho’s protestations, Chelsea’s defensive resistence inspired by Conte’s organisation is exactly what Mourinho has made his own trademark in a trophy-laden career.

Mourinho hasn’t been afraid to publicly criticise his players this season, most notably lambasting his squad after winning their Cup quarterfinal against Brighton in March.

However, one of two exceptions that night along with Nemanja Matic was Romelu Lukaku.

The Belgian striker has scored 27 goals in all competitions in his debut season at Old Trafford.

But even he bore the brunt of Mourinho’s frustration for only declaring himself fit enough for a late cameo appearance from the bench due to an ankle injury.

“When a player tells you he is not ready to play, not ready to start, then the question is how many minutes you think you can? How can you convince a player?,” he added.

“Chelsea are not stupid. They know our team without Lukaku does not have a presence, so putting eight or nine players in front of the box they knew they would be dominant in that direct football.” — AFP


Bittersweet Heynckes

BERLIN — Jupp Heynckes was forced to deny Bayern Munich are bad losers after their shock 3-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt in the German Cup final ruined his final game as manager.

Croatia striker Ante Rebic scored either side of a Robert Lewandowski equaliser before substitute Mijat Gacinovic tapped into an empty net just before the final whistle to delight Frankfurt fans and break Bayern’s hearts.

Eintracht coach Niko Kovac claimed his first trophy as a coach in his last match at the club. He is leaving the Frankfurt side to succeed Heynckes at Bayern next season.

However, several Bayern stars left a bad impression by storming off the playing area after receiving their runners-up medals at the Olympiastadion in Berlin.

They broke protocol by not waiting to see Frankfurt lift the trophy and Heynckes was forced to deny the “bad losers” accusations.

“That was really a misunderstanding,” insisted Heynckes.

“I would have expected that a person in charge of FC Bayern or the German FA would have told us to wait until the trophy was presented.

“At that moment, I did not even think about it, otherwise I would have asked my team to stay.”

Only a few Bayern players lingered for the trophy presentation alongside Bayern’s sports director Hasan Salihamidzic.

Nevertheless, the night belonged to Kovac and Frankfurt.

In a dramatic finish, Rebic sealed the win by scoring his second goal on 82 minutes after floating his shot over Bayern goalkeeper Sven Ulreich.

The goal stood despite an intervention by the video assistant referee.

Both Kovac and Heynckes later said Bayern should have been awarded a late penalty when Javi Martinez was fouled in the dying minutes.

However, Gacinovic got the party started for the Frankfurt fans by sprinting the length of the field to tap into an open goal from a Bayern corner for the third goal just before the whistle.

“I’m proud, my boys gave their all — and I mean all. Now Eintracht can celebrate their first trophy for 30 years,” beamed Kovac after Frankfurt’s first cup final win since 1988.

The former Bayern midfielder shed tears of joy as he signed off with silverware after two years at Eintracht, who lost last year’s cup final to Borussia Dortmund.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I am an emotional person and I let the tears flow. They were tears of relief after two years fighting to be successful again,” he said.

This was supposed to be Heynckes’ farewell party.

Bayern wanted to send their 73-year-old head coach into retirement with the German cup and league double, having already wrapped up a sixth straight Bundesliga title.

“It’s a pity, but you have to be able to call up your full qualities in a game like this and we didn’t manage it,” added Heynckes. — AFP

‘Salah the new Gerrard’

LONDON — Liverpool legend Didi Hamann has told Mo Salah that he can be Jurgen Klopp’s Steven Gerrard.

Hamann, whose half-time introduction in the 2005 Champions League final helped to spark the Miracle of Istanbul, believes Salah can be the man who brings the Champions League trophy back to Anfield for a sixth time, reports Daily Mirror.

Thirteen years ago, Rafa Benitez asked the German to anchor his midfield as the Reds trailed AC Milan 3-0 after a disastrous first 45 minutes.

That allowed Steven Gerrard to work his magic — and Liverpool hit back to level before beating the Italian giants in a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

Now Hamann has challenged Salah to be Liverpool’s talisman in Kiev on Sunday after a season that has realised 44 goals, the Premier League’s Golden Boot and a double Footballer of the Year award.

“If you want to win big trophies then you need your big players to step up when it matters. Liverpool have got other big talents like Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino — but Mo Salah is the man,” said Hamann.

“In that respect, he can inspire Liverpool against Real Madrid like Steven Gerrard did when we played Milan.

“If you are a goal or two behind — or three, like we were in Istanbul — you see someone like Gerrard alongside you and you know you’re still in the game.

“If you’ve got a goal-scorer of Mo Salah’s class in your side you know you’re never out of the game. It’s like having a talisman. Steven Gerrard was one — and Mo Salah can be one.”

Despite his words of praise for Salah, Hamann is no old romantic.

And while Klopp has Salah, he worries that Zinedine Zidane has an even more potent match-winner in Cristiano Ronaldo.

Hamann said: “Everything Salah touches this season turns to goals — but in a game like this I would have to go with the old man (Ronaldo) because he’s done it so many times before.

“This is, however, an opportunity for Salah to really make his mark at the highest level.

“If Liverpool win then I think that Salah would become favourite to land the Ballon d’Or.” — Agencies


Buffon bids emotional farewell

TURIN — Talismanic goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon bid a tearful farewell to Juventus after 17 seasons at the club when he played his last match for them in a 2-1 win over relegated Verona on Saturday.

The Turin side, who clinched their seventh consecutive Serie A title a week ago, were leading 2-0 when Buffon was substituted in the 17th minute of the second half in his 656th appearance for the club in all competitions.

Amid the emotion, embraces and tears, the 40-year-old, who joined the Turin side from Parma in 2001, also lifted the Serie A trophy as it was presented to Juventus on the pitch after the match.

The 2006 World Cup winner, arguably one of the greatest goalkeepers the game has seen, handed his captain’s armband to midfielder Claudio Marchisio before hugging several teammates and rival players as he left the field in tears to a standing ovation.

He then walked around the perimeter, shaking hands with supporters in the front row.

Buffon, who won nine Serie A and four Coppa Italia titles with Juventus and had kept 300 clean sheets heading into Saturday’s match, was replaced by third-choice goalkeeper Carlo Pinsoglio, who made his first appearance for the club.

Buffon, who announced on Thursday that he would leave Juventus at the end of the season but said he might still continue his playing career, had one save to make when he blocked a shot by Mohamed Fares in the first half.

Daniele Rugani put Juventus ahead four minutes after halftime from a rebound when Douglas Costa’s shot was parried by Verona goalkeeper Nicolas and Miralem Pjanic added a second from a free kick three minutes later.

Alessio Cerci scored a consolation for Verona in the 76th minute.

Full back Stephan Lichtsteiner, also playing his final match for Juventus after seven seasons at the club, had a penalty saved by Nicolas in the 85th minute.

Juventus completed the 38-match campaign with 95 points from 30 wins, five draws and three defeats.

“I am sad that the captain is leaving,” defender Medhi Benatia said. “I’ve played with many champions, but Gianluigi is special, both on and off the field. His departure really leaves a hole in Juventus.”

Meanwhile, Paris St Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi has poured water on suggestions Buffon could step in to replace the French club’s No 1 goalkeeper Alphonse Areola.

“He (Buffon) is a fantastic goalkeeper, he’s very charismatic and is a true gentleman. I’m sure all the clubs want him,” said Al-Khelaifi. — Agencies


Like father, like son

MADRID — Luca Zidane, the son of Real Madrid coach Zinedine, made his debut on Saturday in goal for the Spanish giants but admitted it was “a bitter-sweet experience”.

The 20-year-old was handed his first start in Real’s final league game of the season which ended 2-2 at Villarreal.

“I’m happy for my debut, but the result is a bit bitter-sweet,” said Luca after Real gave up a 2-0 lead.

“My dad told me yesterday that I would play and he told me to make the most of this moment. It made me really proud to play with the best in the world.

“The guys also said just to enjoy the moment.”

Real coach Zinedine Zidane has four sons — two of them have now played for the European champions after Enzo featured in midfield in 2016 before moving to Alaves and then Lausanne in Switzerland.

“He was the only one of the squad who had not started this year,” said Zinedine as he justified picking his own son to start on Saturday.

“He is a player like any other in the squad and in the end he played, he did well.”

However, Luca was quick to dampen expectations of emulating his famous World Cup-winning father.

“When I play, I’m Luca, not Zidane,” said the French Under-20 international.

Luca joined Real’s academy when Zidane was playing for the club in 2004 and has been a regular presence in the squad this season.

He was born in May 1998, a month before his father inspired France to win the World Cup.

On Saturday, he had little chance with Villarreal’s first goal when Roger Martinez unleashed a stunning strike into the top corner.

But the young keeper hesitated when Samu Castillejo struck the equaliser five minutes from time. — AFP


Balotelli returns

TURIN — New Italy coach Roberto Mancini on Saturday recalled Nice striker Mario Balotelli to the Azzurri fold for three upcoming friendlies as he begins the job of reviving Italian fortunes.

Mancini was appointed last Monday, six months after Gian Piero Ventura was sacked following the four-time world champions’ failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958.

The 53-year-old, who left Zenit Saint Petersburg to take the job, unveiled his first 30-man squad for matches against Saudi Arabia, France and the Netherlands.

Mancini takes charge of his first game against the Saudis in St Gallen, Switzerland next Monday.

As expected, the 27-year-old Balotelli was included for the first time in nearly four years.

Balotelli has scored 13 goals in 33 appearances for the Azzurri but has not played international football since Italy’s humiliating group-stage exit from the 2014 World Cup.

Balotelli was last called up by coach Antonio Conte in November 2014 but did not play because of injury.

He has now been given another chance by Mancini, who coached him at both Inter Milan and Manchester City.

Balotelli has resurrected his career since joining Nice in 2016 after less successful spells with AC Milan and Liverpool, scoring 26 goals in all competitions this season, without any of the bad-boy behaviour that previously dogged his career.

Italy are not spoilt for choice with forwards so Balotelli’s success with Nice could not be overlooked by Mancini.

As a youngster, Balotelli was part of the Inter side coached by Jose Mourinho that won the Champions League in 2010.

He also won three Serie A titles with Inter before switching to Man City and helping them claim the Premier League crown in 2012.

Meanwhile, Mancini’s squad was without goalkeeping great Gianluigi Buffon who this week confirmed he would not play again for the national side.

In his absence, Mancini has recalled Salvatore Sirigu, who has had a successful season since joining Torino, alongside AC Milan teenager Gianluigi Donnarumma and Genoa’s Mattia Perin.

The captain’s armband is expected to go to AC Milan centre-back Leonardo Bonucci.

Five players have been given a first call-up — Chelsea left-back Emerson Palmieri, Torino midfielder Daniele Baselli, Crotone midfielder Rolando Mandragora, Sassuolo striker Domenico Berardi and Atalanta defender Mattia Caldara.

Along with defenders Alessio Romagnoli and Daniele Rugani, midfielder Lorenzo Pellegrini and strikers Federico Chiesa and Federico Bernardeschi are among the promising youngsters who are expected to put Italy back on the road to victory.

Hitz ditches World Cup, joins Dortmund

BERLIN — Goalkeeper Marwin Hitz joined Borussia Dortmund on a free transfer on Saturday having made himself unavailable for the World Cup with Switzerland.

Hitz was out of contract at Augsburg and will rival fellow Swiss Roman Buerki to play in goal for Dortmund, who qualified for the Champions League by finishing fourth in the Bundesliga.

“I wanted to experience something different,” said Hitz, who has signed a contract until 2021.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge of playing at such a big club and especially the Champions League games.”

Hitz will replace retired veteran Roman Weidenfeller, a 2014 World Cup winner with Germany, while Burki started 33 of Dortmund’s 34 Bundesliga matches this season.

On Friday, the Swiss FA announced Hitz, 30, had made himself unavailable to coach Vladimir Petkovic for the World Cup finals in Russia, without giving any reasons.

Having made more than 150 Bundesliga appearances for Augsburg and Wolfsburg, Hitz had been expected to travel to Russia alongside Buerki and Borussia Moenchengladbach’s Swiss keeper Yann Sommer.

The Swiss open their World Cup campaign against Brazil in Rostov on June 17 and will also face Serbia and Costa Rica in Group E. — AFP


Flying start for Japan, Indonesia

BANGKOK — The battle for world supremacy in team badminton started here yesterday with flying starts from Indonesia in the Thomas Cup and Japan in the Uber Cup.

Indonesia, a nation with an outside chance of glory, made a thumping start as their men beat Canada 5-0 in Group B.

Women’s singles world champion Nozomi Okuhara crushed Louisa Ma 21-6, 21-6 in their opening Group A encounter as Japan’s women dominated Australia 5-0 to get the nation’s quest for a Thomas and Uber Cup badminton double off to a flying start.

Japan are favourites for the Uber Cup event and showed why when doubles pair Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi then blew away Australia’s Lee Yen Khoo and Ann-Louise Slee 21-3, 21-4 as the top seeds ran out comfortable winners.

The world’s 16 top nations compete for the Thomas Cup and Uber Cup every two years with matches comprising three singles and two doubles.

While China’s women have dominated, winning the Uber Cup 14 times including the past three editions, Japan have emerged with a shot at taking home both trophies at this year’s edition in Thailand.

Japan are aiming to repeat their 2014 Thomas Cup triumph but have a tough task against the likes of traditional powerhouses China and reigning champions Denmark, who became the first non-Asian winners in 2016.

Denmark boast world No 1 Viktor Axelsen but are hampered by the absence of doubles star Carsten Mogensen, who was ruled out with sickness.

Japan are led by the former world No 2 Kento Momota, who shocked China’s Olympic gold medallist Chen Long to win the Asia Championships last month.

France’s Ronan Labar predicted a wide open event after his country got off the mark 4-1 against India in Group A of the men’s Thomas Cup.

“Like always many Asian teams are strong and always tough, but in Europe and in France too we are much more consistent than in past years,” Labar said after winning his doubles against India.

“Looking at the badminton world, the level is more close now… It’s really open. It can be one team winning and the next day another one.”

The finals will be played on Sunday.


Fearless in Bangkok

KUALA LUMPUR — A fearless, never-say-die attitude is the BAM mantra for Malaysia to come full circle after 26 years of watching the Thomas Cup trophy exchange hands from the sidelines.

With fiery rhethoric, Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) president Datuk Seri Norza Zakaria wants his “team of the future” to give their Thomas-Uber Cup Finals campaign in Bangkok a sizzling start today.

He also gave his word to home fans, that as a reward for their unending support, nothing less than the Thomas Cup in the cabinet after 26 years.

“This time around, it’s a team of the future which combines the old and new faces. 

“Even though we are going in as underdogs, they can rise to the occasion as a similar team did in New Delhi 2014. 

“I want them to give ‘everything’ in one of the most important seven days of their career. Give everything, be fearless, with a never-say-die attitude,” said Norza.

Malaysia, with senior Lee Chong Wei and Co., start their Thomas Cup campaign in Group D against Russia today with the towering Vladimir Ivanov — standing at 1.97m — as their main stumbling block.

Norza added that it is actually possible for Malaysia to beat any team.

“No one is bigger than the team if they take collective responsibility that they can beat any team,” he said.

While for the fans, Norza pleaded for full-throttle support.

“We last won the Thomas Cup in 1992. It’s a thing of the past.

“To the Malaysian fans, let’s give the team full support, encouragement and pray for their victory. 

“They are our heroes. To end the 26 years’ wait,” said Norza.

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