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Antonio Conte says Chelsea struggles exacerbated by negative press

Antonio Conte says Chelsea struggles exacerbated by negative press

ESPN

The "Special One" is trying to become the "Perfect One" as Jose Mourinho looks to become the Premier League's best behaved boss.

The Manchester United manager's touchline histrionics have been well documented over the years, leading the Portuguese to regularly clash with football's authorities.

But Mourinho is making a focused effort to change tack at a time of refereeing scrutiny, such as Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp's anger towards officials after last weekend's frenetic 2-2 draw with Tottenham.

"I am fully committed to win the award this season of the best-behaved manager on the touchline,'' Mourinho said. "I am serious!

"There are so many awards -- performance of the week, manager of the month and this and that -- they should give one [to] the guy that behaves best on the touchline and it should be the fourth official to vote.

"I'm pretty sure that I would win. I'm serious! I didn't create one problem to one fourth official on a touchline, apart from my red card at Southampton when I put a foot on the pitch.

"I'm serious, I prepare myself, I'm really happy. I'm not free of losing my temper, my control in one match. I'm not perfect.

"I'm not going from the Bad One to the Perfect One, no way, but I try, I make an effort and I'm happy with the way things are going.''

Mourinho is also largely happy with the state of modern refereeing, despite Klopp's anger last weekend and Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola's recent frustrations.

The United boss believes English football traditions are "really beautiful,'' even if eyebrows were raised by some of the treatment new boy Alexis Sanchez got during his home debut against Huddersfield.

"Maybe his manager needs to cry a little bit more?'' he said ahead of Sunday's trip to Newcastle. "I don't know, I always liked English football.

"I feel that English football has some cultural heritage, tradition, and there are some qualities I really like in the game.

"But I have to cry a little bit, I have to try to protect my players because, really, you can see the way Alexis was welcomed!

"Yes, he's a tough boy, he's a pure guy. He copes with that, and at Yeovil too in difficult conditions with some bad tackles like against Huddersfield, and the referees have just to... I don't like the word protect the players because it looks like they have to protect only the top players -- and I think on the pitch every player is the same.

"They can't look at a player and say this guy is very talented so I have to protect him. No, they have to protect them equally.

"They know the rules and if the cards come, the referee will be in control of it.

"What do you want the defenders to do? To let the top players play with freedom? I think it's the nature of the game that the more you fear the more you target.

"You fear the most-talented players so it's normal there will be an approach with those players. But for the referees, every player must be treated the same and according to the rules.

"The red card comes, the yellow card comes, the second yellow card comes -- we don't need managers to be speaking about this when it's an obvious thing that the referees must take care of it, which I think they try to do.''

In the other dugout, Rafa Benitez insists he does not miss the mind games he and Mourinho have played through the years.

The two men have enjoyed a frosty relationship and have repeatedly butted heads during careers which have taken both to Spain and Italy as well as the Premier League.

However, as he awaits Manchester United boss Mourinho's arrival at St James' Park on Sunday, Benitez insists all the talk off the pitch is largely irrelevant.

He said: "For you [the media], the mind games are more important. For me, it was preparation of the games. I was not worried about the mind games, I was worried about my team.

"If you say something and the other manager says something and you win the game, the assumption is that you are winning the mind games. No, sometimes your team is better or the other is better and that is it.

"Even making mistakes or losing the mind games, you can win the game. It is like this.''

LONDON -- Antonio Conte claimed that Chelsea are finding it harder to rediscover their best form because people are exaggerating the extent of their struggles this season.

Damaging back-to-back defeats against Bournemouth and Watford have left Chelsea fifth in the Premier League heading into Monday's clash with West Brom at Stamford Bridge, 22 points adrift of leaders Manchester City.

Conte's future, the subject of speculation ever since he signed an improved rather than extended contract last summer, is also in serious doubt after a run that has seen the Blues win two of their 10 matches in all competitions in 2018, failing to score on four occasions.

But in a press conference on Friday, Conte suggested that the level of pressure being applied on Chelsea is unwarranted.

"We are talking about a team that is [fifth] in the league, that is preparing to face the game against Barcelona," he said. "We are in the FA Cup, and we reached the semifinals in the Carabao Cup.

"I think we understand that, when you lose two games in a row, the situation is not simple. But maybe we are increasing the difficulty of this team [recovering]."

Asked what he meant, Conte replied: "Because it seems like we are fighting for the relegation zone. There are a lot of rumours and speculation, despite [the fact that] we are keeping our expectations. I don't think that anyone trusted us to win the title this season. There were two teams fighting for the title, both from Manchester. Also last season, we started behind [them].

"For this reason, there are too many speculations around this club, around me, around this team. I think that, maybe, you have to find a bit more balance. I understand that we have to live with this pressure, and it's OK for me. It's OK for me and my players."

Even if he survives Chelsea's current slump in form, Conte is widely expected to leave Stamford Bridge at the end of the season following months of tension with the club hierarchy about transfer policy.

Winning major silverware could change the equation, but Conte does not believe he should be judged on trophies.

"In my opinion, you continue to work with a manager or coach not because of what he achieves in one season, but because you trust in him," Conte explained. "Then you build something with him.

"But it doesn't mean you have to win something, because that's not simple -- especially in England, it's not simple. In my vision, you can win but, at the same time, the club might not be happy to stay with you. For this reason, it's right to send the coach away.

"At the same time, you can trust in a coach and his work and continue with him even if you don't win, and try and build something important. There are two ways [to run a club]. There is a stupid way and an intelligent way."

Asked which way Chelsea are pursuing, he added: "This is my opinion. At the same time, I have great respect for every opinion. If the club decides to send me away, I don't know when, it'll be because they're not happy with my work."

Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.

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