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15 May 2018

Newcastle United 3-0 Chelsea: Does Conte care anymore?

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Did Chelsea give up?

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A Belgian exodus this summer?

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 Can Chelsea recover for the cup final?

Reuters/Lee Smith

At St. James Park on Sunday afternoon, Antonio Conte looked like he was giving a performance of a football manager. 

Always on his feet, he was half-heartedly giving instructions to his players from his sidelines as his players were dominated by last season's promotion candidates.

Visualise last season's title win. Chances are you're thinking of the Italian's frequent rabid gesticulations from the side of the pitch, as vivid as vivid a symbol of last season's success as anything else. 

The newly implemented back three was imperious, Diego Costa led the line as only he does, Eden Hazard was back to his best. Nemanja Matic and N'Golo Kante did not let anything pass. 

The intensity of the manager was the personification of that team. Now, it's difficult not to make parallels between the meek figure in the dugout and the lethargy shown by his team.

Did Chelsea give up?

Chelsea had half a chance of making the Champions League on the final day. In the end, it didn't matter, given Brighton's inability to take three points away from Anfield, but Conte's team didn't even try to fulfil their task at hand. 

The team selection sent a message from the start. Ross Barkley was seemingly given little tactical instruction except to just be Ross Barkley, which resembled him roaming around without much of an idea, occasionally driving forward promisingly in possession but otherwise looking like a headless chicken. You suspect that Antonio Conte doesn't really know what a Ross Barkley is and nor does he care.

REUTERS/Scott Heppell

Tiémoué Bakayoko suffered another difficult afternoon as he continues to live in the shadow of Nemanja Matic but it must be especially difficult playing for a team that have downed tools and a manager daydreaming about his next project. His fortunes might turn around next season if Chelsea can cultivate a more encouraging environment.

Chelsea's best moment was when Olivier Giroud inventively flicked on a cross and nearly lobbed Martin Dubravka. It would have been a late contender for goal of the season, and up there with his scorpion kick against Crystal Palace last season. 

But as the Czech goalkeeper tipped it away, you got the impression Giroud's anguished reaction was less about scoring a potentially important equaliser for his team and more about having another cut for his highlights reel denied. 

A Belgian exodus this summer?

Eden Hazard, nominally Chelsea's game-changer was anything but that against Newcastle. 

He dropped into pockets across the forward line but was shackled throughout by Paul Dummett, Jamaal Lascelles and DeAndre Yedlin. 

Hazard has spent six years at Chelsea and played under five coaches and it may well be six next season. This begs the question: can he be bothered with another regeneration project?

REUTERS/Scott Heppell

At 27, he's fast approaching his optimal time for a move to a club that can challenge for the Champions League trophies. Champions when he arrived, it's something that Chelsea have seldom offered the Belgian, and yet again they won't be in the competition next season. 

His compatriot Thibaut Courtois was, as ever, a vocal presence at the back but he looked a frustrated figure. As Ayoze Perez sent the second and third goals beyond him, his body language looked to be asking to the question "how much longer do I have to put up with this?"

Plenty of teams will be in the market for players of their ilk this summer. PSG could still do with a world-class goalkeeper, while the rumours of Real Madrid's interest in Hazard continue to simmer. A good World Cup would help put them in the shop window. 

Can Chelsea recover for the cup final?

With Liverpool defeating Brighton yesterday, the demoralising points dropped to Huddersfield and Newcastle in Chelsea's final two games were of little consequence in terms of the final standings. Either way, Chelsea would have finished fifth. 

But after winning five games in a row, including Liverpool, they built momentum that would have been useful for their season's curtain closer, the FA Cup final. 

That's come to an end after a frustrating night's work against Huddersfield and being dominated and outclassed by Newcastle.

The performances against Liverpool and Barcelona, not to mention Manchester United already this season, have offered bright moments in an otherwise disappointing campaign. 

Are they capable of turning that back on after such a flat week?