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Conte in crosshairs for England’s mighty managers

London (AFP) – Left in the starting blocks by Chelsea’s Antonio Conte this season, the Premier League’s all-star cast of super managers will be desperate to hit the ground running in 2017-18.

The 2016-17 title race was billed in some quarters as a shootout between Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal heading the chasing pack.

Instead it was Chelsea who shot to the front, closely pursued by Mauricio Pochettino’s enterprising Tottenham Hotspur, leaving Conte as the man who must be toppled.

“He is going to have the two Manchester clubs, who are going to be throwing £300 million ($390 million, 350 million euros) to £400 million at it between them,” predicts former United captain Gary Neville, the Sky Sports pundit.

“They are hurting and they are under significant pressure next season to deliver. And if they don’t deliver there’s going to be a big problem.”

Having brought the smiles back to Stamford Bridge following the emotionally sapping final months of Mourinho’s tenure as Chelsea manager, Conte’s next challenge is to equip his squad for a return to the Champions League.

Chelsea benefited from having no European distractions, allowing Conte to lean heavily on a very tight group of first-team players, and adding depth to his squad is now of fundamental importance.

“With the right additions and a little bit of time, Chelsea can really challenge for (the Champions League), but next season it is going to be a huge burden on them,” former Chelsea goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer told the BBC.

– Wenger uncertainty –

After his City side lost to Monaco in the Champions League last 16 and fell by the wayside in the two domestic cups, Guardiola achieved his minimum objective of securing a place in next season’s Champions League.

City dazzled at times, but were also made to look remarkably vulnerable, notably in one-sided defeats at outgoing champions Leicester City (4-2) and Everton (4-0).

Guardiola seems content with his attacking set-up, particularly since the January arrival of Gabriel Jesus, but in defence and in goal, where Claudio Bravo vanished after arriving to replace Joe Hart, work is needed.

United won the League Cup, defeating Southampton in the final, and are favourites to beat Ajax in Wednesday’s Europa League final, which will yield a berth in the Champions League.

But while Mourinho has brought a bit of belief back to Old Trafford, United have looked desperately short in attack, their failure to secure a top-four place the legacy of a league-high 15 drawn games.

Wenger has endured his most difficult season at Arsenal, one which divided the cub’s support and ended without the promise of Champions League football for the first time in 20 years.

Victory in the FA Cup final against Chelsea would restore some credit, but Wenger must address the lingering uncertainty about his future before Arsenal can hope to move forward.

Liverpool looked set for a title tilt after surging to the top of the table in November, but a run of one win in seven early in the year robbed them of momentum they never rediscovered.

While Klopp’s team were often magnificent against the division’s heavyweights, finishing the season unbeaten against the other members of the top six, they were too easily frustrated by the smaller teams.

– Newcastle return –

Spurs seduced neutrals with their dashing challenge to Chelsea, only to run out of steam, and now face the wrench of playing a season at Wembley while their White Hart Lane home is demolished and rebuilt.

With Europe’s elite clubs already eyeing up Pochettino and players like Harry Kane and Dele Alli, Spurs’ biggest challenge is keeping the train on the rails.

“You don’t sit back and wait for this team to become champions because that might not happen,” says former Liverpool captain Graeme Souness, who began his career at Tottenham.

“You’ve got to add to the squad and have a right go because they are not very far away.”

Everton, who finished seventh, look the only club capable of muscling in on the top-six cartel, particularly with majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri expected to splash the cash in the close-season transfer window.

With Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Hull City going down, the northeast has lost three clubs, but the regional superpower, Newcastle United, return under Rafael Benitez.

Brighton and Hove Albion will sample Premier League football for the first time, as could Huddersfield Town, who face Reading in the Championship play-off final on May 29.

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