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Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger 'probably' dropped for Antonio Conte comments

Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger 'probably' dropped for Antonio Conte comments

ESPN

No matter what they tell you now, when the Premier League season began in August, Manchester City fans did not believe their team would walk to their third title in seven campaigns. Of course, there had been some pretty good displays throughout their preseason tour of the USA, but nothing had indicated the level at which the team would break records in the months that would follow.

As the supporters celebrate the latest crown, they are able to look back on a season that has far exceeded expectations -- even taking into accounts the disappointments felt at eliminations in the FA Cup and the Champions League.

Some have suggested that run of defeats should eliminate City from the running when it comes to comparing the best ever Premier League teams. That would be foolhardy, especially if they can finish the season so strongly that they score more goals and earn more points than anyone has managed in its 26-year history.

City's achievements far outshine their set-backs and this is the case of a campaign that has been so dominant that it's a brand new type of joy for the majority of the club's fans.

It's 81 years since City won the top flight with games to spare. The fifth title comes in the same manner as that first in 1937 -- the rest were all clinched on the final day of the campaign. It equalled a Premier League milestone set by Manchester United in 2001, as City are unable to be caught and there are still five fixtures to play.

Fans many have been in the unusual position of wanting United to have beaten West Brom on Sunday instead of succumbing to a 1-0 defeat. Normally, a comically poor performance and result against the side well off the pace at the bottom of the table would have been the source of amusement, but in this instance some thought it would be a shame for Pep Guardiola's team to be crowned champions while the boss was out golfing and while the fans were sat on their sofas instead of inside the Etihad.

When it became reality, though, the truth is few cared. While it was the tipping point, United's result wasn't the reason City won the league -- that was down to the eight months of exhilarating football the champions played.

It was down to the phenomenal 93 strikes to have hit the net this season, more than any team has managed in a complete campaign since Manuel Pellegrini managed the club to a tally of 102 in 2014, when they also won the league. Between now and the end of the season, you'd expect that total, along with Chelsea's record of 103 in 2010, is well within Guardiola's sights.

It was also down to a record-breaking run of 18 straight wins that ran from a 2-1 victory at Bournemouth in August to a 1-0 success over Newcastle the following December, ending in a goalless draw at Crystal Palace. If a team can put that sort of incredible sequence together, don't let anybody tell you that it was Jay Rodriguez's header that was the crucial moment in the season.

Clinching the title without playing just means that City have done the heavy lifting in the weeks and months beforehand. They've been sensationally good and have ended up coming out the other side of their worst week of the season by wrapping up the league.

Having been disappointed by the performance in the Champions League exit to Liverpool, either side of losing 3-2 in the Manchester derby, City could have been like rabbits in the headlights against Tottenham at Wembley. Spurs, a team that have seemed to have some sort of voodoo hold over the club in the past, are not an ideal opponent for Guardiola, especially when the squad is feeling a little fragile.

Yet they waltzed around Wembley like they owned the place, quickly rifling into a two-goal lead and holding out under pressure when the hosts dragged it back to 2-1. Despite the best Spurs efforts to level it up, City's defending was resolute, not allowing a second-half shot at Ederson's goal until very late, and their counter-attacking was on point to earn the 3-1 victory.

All of that without key players in Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero, too.

Of course, nobody expected West Brom would get a result at Old Trafford. It was the cut-adrift against the best-of-the-rest. So when it happened, there were United fans that tried to console themselves by suggesting it would have upset their rivals to have been denied a victory in the derby and then denied the chance to finish the job on their own ground against Swansea.

City have been there and done it, when they snatched the title from United's hands with Aguero's late winner in the 3-2 victory over QPR in 2012. They've also finished the job calmly on the final day of the season, beating West Ham 2-0 at the Etihad in 2014.

This is a new type of title win for the vast majority of City's fans. This is utter domination from week one, their team comprehensively better than everybody else in the top flight. Nobody is disappointed the coronation happened because United lost a game -- it only happened because City have been awesome.

David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney

The Premier League title race is over already, but what can the chasing pack to do change things around next season? ESPN FC's club correspondents discuss one thing their clubs need.

MAN UNITED: Consistency is key

Jose Mourinho's team have to be more consistent if they want to win the title next season. The last week has summed up the entire campaign -- beat Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium then lose to bottom side West Brom at Old Trafford. The quality is there: United have beaten City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham this season. But there have also been some dire performances: City at home, Huddersfield away, Tottenham away and Newcastle away.

City have had very few bad days and that's why they are champions. Pep Guardiola's side have set a new standard of consistency this season and could end up breaking the Premier League points record. That's the level United have to reach, because City will only improve over the summer. -- Rob Dawson

LIVERPOOL: Strength in depth required

This season is undoubtedly progression for Liverpool, but their long wait to win England's top flight still goes in. It was clear that two defeats and four draws in the opening nine league matches meant Liverpool were always playing catch up to Man City.

From Oct. 22, though, Liverpool have only been beaten twice and drawn six matches since. Jurgen Klopp has been carefully managing the fitness of his players this season to ensure there is no burnout. But due to the strength of rivals, Liverpool will need to come flying out of the blocks next season if they are to be contenders. Adding more quality depth to the squad this summer can help with that. -- Glenn Price.

TOTTENHAM: Start quicker

For Tottenham, consistency is key. Spurs have been the best team in the Premier League in the second half of the last three seasons but their relentless form from the start of winter was not enough to catch Leicester or Chelsea, while they were 21 points behind City by mid-December.

If Mauricio Pochettino can find a way of avoiding a slow start and his team's annual Autumn slump, then Spurs will be genuine contenders, particularly now that they have improved against their top-six rivals (City aside) and will have a new season for the 2018/19 season. Some new faces in central midfield, defence and even a new goalkeeper will also be needed. -- Dan Kilpatrick

CHELSEA: Sign big-name players again

Chelsea are every bit as far from being Premier League champions as they were in the summer of 2016, when Antonio Conte arrived at Stamford Bridge. The summer will bring a new head coach, a final decision on Michael Emenalo's replacement and, if all goes to plan, new long-term contracts for Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois. But while all of these decisions are key for Chelsea's future success, they are not the top priority.

Roman Abramovich needs to find a way to sign top-tier talent again. Chelsea have been adding around the edges of their core rather than strengthening it for too long, and this season has exposed their shortage of elite quality. The Blues are no longer the biggest spenders in England, so they must be the smartest. -- Liam Twomey.

ARSENAL: Sort out the defence

Arsenal look miles away from being proper title challengers, but the best-case scenario is that they only need two new centre-backs and a holding midifelder to get back in the mix. With the arrival of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the Gunners should have an attack that's good enough to compete with their rivals, as long as they are not constantly undone by the kind of naive and weak defending we've become used to seeing.

Defensive mistakes have been a chronic problem under Arsene Wenger for the last decade but it's only got worse this season. It's clear that Wenger's current players and coaches aren't capable of sorting it out, so it must be addressed in the transfer market (or by changing managers). -- Mattias Karen.

MAN CITY: Same again, please

Pep Guardiola's message to his Manchester City squad will be simple: go out and do it all again. City have been far superior to everyone in the Premier League after his squad embraced Guardiola's fearless tactics and attacking dominance to blow away sides, and the Catalan won't change his style.

Defending a title can be harder than winning it but despite a record-breaking season, the players believe that to be remembered as one of the great sides, they need to win it again and again. Guardiola will keep his side focused, even though the target will be on ending their Champions League drought more than ever, and will strengthen his squad in a bid to start an empire at the Etihad Stadium. -- Jonathan Smith.

Follow @ESPNFC on Twitter to keep up with the latest football updates.

Antonio Rudiger has said he was "probably" dropped from the Chelsea squad at Southampton as punishment for appearing to criticise coach Antonio Conte's tactics.

Germany international Rudiger was replaced by Andreas Christensen in the starting XI and not on the bench despite being fully fit, with Conte saying it was a "tactical decision."

Last week Rudiger told Sky Sports he did not "understand why after 1-0 we always drop and let the opponent get more ball possession" after Chelsea were held 1-1 draw by West Ham at Stamford Bridge -- a comment interpreted by some as direct criticism of Conte.

Rudiger said he had not intended it to be that but added that it was the likeliest explanation for his demotion from the team.

Asked by ZDF whether he thought he had been left out because of his comments, Rudiger said: "Probably. But I didn't mean it that way.

"It was a fact, it wasn't about the tactics. I did not attack anyone personally, I meant us as a team."

Rudiger said he was "a bit" surprised to have been omitted and added: "I think that I played quite a lot of games in recent weeks and months. This was a little break."

On the nature of his relationship with Conte, he said: "It's just normal from my side. He's my coach. I must respect him. And he's a very, very good coach."

Chelsea fought back from two goals down to beat Southampton 3-2, but it is likely to be too late to secure a top-four finish in the Premier League.

The FA Cup appears the only chance for Chelsea to salvage a disappointing season, with Southampton their semifinal opponents on Sunday, and Rudiger said the players owed their fans success.

"Not winning it would not be worthy of Chelsea," he said. "It's a very, very big club in England and the fans always expect you to win something.

"I think it would be a good reconciliation [with the supporters] with the FA Cup."

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

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