Re­fusal to sell Van Dijk cost Pel­le­grino his job

His reign could end badly, but Barcelona’s Valverde do­ing just fine

The New Age (Free State) - - SPORT - LON­DON SOUTHAMP­TON

AN­TO­NIO Conte has said he will con­sult his play­ers ahead of Chelsea’s Cham­pi­ons League clash with Barcelona to­mor­row – and af­ter the game he might do bet­ter to seek out Ernesto Valverde.

Both coaches faced chaotic start­ing points this sea­son but only Valverde heads into this last 16 sec­ond leg at the Camp Nou with his do­mes­tic cam­paign still very much in­tact.

Each be­gan the cam­paign at the end of a fren­zied sum­mer in which key play­ers were sold, less wanted ones bought and with the feel­ing over­all of a squad weak­ened rather than bol­stered.

Asked in Septem­ber to re­flect on the club’s trans­fer deal­ings, Conte said: “This ques­tion is very dif­fi­cult to an­swer. I think we have to wait un­til the end of the sea­son and then we’ll see.”

Valverde was even less diplo­matic: “The best thing about this win­dow is that it is now closed.”

Each had un­ex­pect­edly found a gap­ing hole in at­tack as Ney­mar was lured by Paris Saint-Ger­main while Conte was only too happy to let Diego Costa leave, but then watched Manch­ester United walk off with Romelu Lukaku, the in­tended re­place­ment.

Barcelona bought Ous­mane Dem­bele, the club’s most ex­pen­sive sign­ing, who limped off 55 min­utes into his de­but and would not re­turn un­til Jan­uary.

Chelsea, mean­while, plumped for Al­varo Mo­rata, who lacked con­fi­dence and gump­tion. And then in Jan­uary, Olivier Giroud, who had al­ready been fail­ing to get into the Arsenal team.

But eight months on and with the sea­son’s end now in sight, one coach al­lowed the frus­tra­tion to fes­ter and deepen, while the other has en­sured it is all but for­got­ten.

Barcelona sit eight points clear at the top of La Liga and are un­beaten af­ter 28 games. Chelsea are fifth, four points adrift of the Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fi­ca­tion spots and might need to win the tour­na­ment to play in it again next sea­son.

The Blues could cer­tainly beat Barca. They were un­for­tu­nate to come away from the first leg with a 1-1 draw.

They could still sneak into the Pre­mier League’s top four but they are 25 points be­hind Manch­ester City and their mis­er­able ti­tle de­fence is likely to mean Conte de­parts in May.

What Conte has com­pli­cated, Valverde has sim­pli­fied. Barcelona are more func­tional this sea­son, play­ing 4-4-2 as well as 4-3-3 and tighter at the back.

They have con­ceded only one more league goal than Atletico Madrid. When Valverde was asked about the pos­si­bil­ity of Ney­mar re­turn­ing last week, he brushed it off. And he has kept Messi happy, with five goals in his last four games. Conte, mean­while, is yet to find a so­lu­tion to his strik­ing prob­lems, and has given oxy­gen to his con­flict with the club’s hi­er­ar­chy and has also suc­ceeded in alien­at­ing his best player, Eden Haz­ard. Af­ter Barcelona edged out Atletico 1-0 ear­lier this month, Diego Sime­one said Messi was the de­ci­sive fac­tor but also had paid trib­ute to Valverde’s calm and his cal­cu­lated Barca re­vival. – AFP SOUTHAMP­TON’S re­fusal to sell de­fender Vir­gil van Dijk in the close sea­son had dis­rupted their Pre­mier League cam­paign which ul­ti­mately led to man­ager Mauri­cio Pel­le­grino be­ing sacked, for­mer club cap­tain Matt Le Tissier said.

Southamp­ton dis­missed Pel­le­grino on Mon­day af­ter just one vic­tory in 17 league games un­der the man­ager. Satur­day’s 3-0 de­feat by New­cas­tle United had left them a place and a point above the rel­e­ga­tion zone and sealed the Argentine’s fate.

Le Tissier sug­gested that the tur­moil sur­round­ing Dutch­man Van Dijk’s fu­ture amid in­ter­est from Liver­pool and Manch­ester City had af­fected the team’s per­for­mances early in the sea­son.

Van Dijk even­tu­ally moved to Liver­pool in Jan­uary for £75m (R1.2bn), ac­cord­ing to Bri­tish me­dia re­ports.

“I think that was prob­a­bly some­thing that, look­ing back with hind­sight, the club would prob­a­bly re­gret, try­ing to keep him in the sum­mer,” Le Tissier, who scored 209 goals for Southamp­ton dur­ing his 16 years at the club, said.

“They tried to do the right thing by said.

“When I was in Dort­mund I was play­ing ev­ery three days but now I play once a week or have a long time be­tween games. It is not easy, that’s life. I have the fans, in terms of not sell­ing their best player ev­ery sea­son, but sadly that did ap­pear to back­fire and that sit­u­a­tion prob­a­bly didn’t help the per­for­mances in the first half of the sea­son.”

Southamp­ton have lost a large num­ber of play­ers to their do­mes­tic ri­vals in the past few years and club chair­per­son Ralph Krueger said ear­lier in the sea­son that they were keen to end the per­cep­tion that they were a sell­ing club.

“That’s life, that’s foot­ball, those de­ci­sions were made with the best in­ten­tions and it didn’t turn out right,” LeTissier said.

“It’s now time to move on, ap­point a new man­ager and get out of the trou­ble we are in at the mo­ment.”

Welsh­man Mark Hughes was firm­ing as the book­mak­ers’ favourite to re­place

STAR TURN: Lionel Messi poses a huge dan­ger to Conte’s hopes tonight.

DE­LAY: Vir­gil van Dijk was ini­tially pre­vented from join­ing Liver­pool.

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