Antonio Conte makes Chelsea claim and fires a dig at Jose Mourinho

Team in better shape, even without Champions League, says manager
• Blues coach in the dark over Chelsea’s end-of-season plans

Antonio Conte believes Chelsea are in a far stronger position than when he arrived as José Mourinho’s permanent successor almost two years ago, even if they fail to secure Champions League qualification.

The FA Cup finalists travel to Newcastle on Sunday retaining only faint hopes of a top-four finish, and with Conte expected to depart in the summer. The Italian had inherited a squad who had finished 10th under Mourinho and, from December 2015, the interim stewardship of Guus Hiddink, and spoke last summer about his desire to avoid enduring another “Mourinho season”.

Yet, despite a difficult campaign, he has suggested his second year should not be considered a write-off. “We worked two years, and worked very hard, to try to build something, to create a base,,” Conte said. “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] 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 semi-finals of the Carabao Cup and they were eliminated in the last 16 against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.”

Asked whether missing out on Europe’s elite competition would hamper Chelsea, Conte said: “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.”

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