Antonio Conte has reignited his feud with Jose Mourinho a week before the FA Cup final by claiming he will leave Chelsea in a better state if he departs this summer.
The Blues finished 10th in their last title defence, which saw Mourinho was sacked in December 2015.
Conte antagonised the Portuguese coach after reclaiming the Premier League crown at the first attempt by stating in July that he wanted to avoid “the Mourinho season” in this campaign.
Chelsea are now fifth – three places behind Mourinho-led runners-up Manchester United – and need to win at Newcastle while Liverpool lose at home to Brighton on Sunday if they are to qualify for the Champions League.
But the Italian, speaking before what is his likely to be his last Premier League game with the Blues, said: “You must know that there is this possibility, because you play in a strong league.
“For this reason, you have to know this and prepare in the right way. There are six top teams at the start of the season ready to fight for a place in the Champions League.
“It can happen. In the past, it happened the same. Don’t forget two years ago, Chelsea ended the season 10th and not in the FA Cup final, not in the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup, and they were eliminated in the last 16 against PSG in the Champions League.
“It can happen.
“Last season, after a 10th place, we won the league. It was difficult. We worked very hard, but we won. After a 10th place finish.
“Now, probably, you can finish fifth and start with a bit of an advantage compared to when you finish 10th.”
Asked if he thought Chelsea had avoided “the Mourinho season”, the Italian responded testily: “This is not my task to tell this. I’m the last person to judge my work.
“My task is to work, to do my job in the best possible way with these players for the fans.
“Other people will judge our position, judge the situation, take the right evaluation after two years of work, and then understand which is now Chelsea’s position is in in the panoramic of football.”
Conte, who still has a year left on his contract, has certainly toned down his belligerent rheotric in recent weeks to avoid jeopardising any potential payoff.
All questions about the future on Friday were met with a straight bat – even his post-season plans.
“I will go to Milan for the (testimonial) game for Andrea Pirlo on the 21st,” said the former Juventus coach. “Then we don’t know, at the end of the season, if we have friendly games. For sure, in the next week, the situation will be more clear for the end of the season.”