Shipped from abroad, Italy: When Juve-derived confusion buries third-place’s lead

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The last time Juventus made out like world beaters, I sang their praises, noting a four-goal win over Roma was the type of performance we’d been waiting for – the type of performance that would overshadow all the misgivings that’d formed during a very vincible season of being Invincibles.

Then came their mid-week win over Cesena – where the Old Lady needed a late goal from Marco Boriello to claim all three points from a relegation-embattled side – and I completely regressed, indulging in all the hyperbole you’d expect from somebody violently flopping from one side of the fence to the other.

With that pattern you’d expect another pendulum-esque swing following Juventus’s 4-0 Sunday thrashing of Novara, but no. I guess I’m finally starting to learn. After Boriello and Arturo Vidal complemented a Mirko Vucinic double, I’ve finally stopped trying to describe Juventus as anything but undefeated and on course to claim Serie A.

Before, when they were clawing their way to draws and 1-0s, I wanted Juventus to be a paper tiger. Juventus is more resourceful than good, I could write. I know that story.

When they posted dominant victories, I could write about how Juventus was growing into the title. Now, as we enter the season’s final match days, the Old Lady is playing the part their record dictates. They were a sleeping giant all along, that story goes.

It’s all so lazy. Instead of watching Juventus and writing what I saw, I took in the performances and asked “which archetype does this fit?”

Which of the X number of team-types in my mind does Juventus conform to? I decide which one, write some variation on that theme, and hope the next week I seem prescient.

This year, that way of going about things has failed me time and time again. This year’s Juve isn’t a type to be categorized with all the teams that’ve come before. They’re a team to be taken in and appreciated on their own merits. They are their own side.

Whereas I’d previously (if implicitly) bemoaned the squad’s inconsistency, now I see them as capable of both greatness and resourcefulness. If I’d previously wondered if they truly were Italy’s best, now I absorb Juve’s performances independent of anything Milan’s done.

After Sunday’s win, Juventus has finally carved out their own, distinct place in my mind. I’m not comparing them to any pre-constructed types. I’m not wondering if they meet whatever standard I’d created for a league champion or undefeated team.

Juve just are, and and with three matches left in the season, they’re still undefeated, still three points clear of the rest of the league.

Elsewhere in Italy

All results
Palermo 1-1 Catania
Cagliari 0-0 Chievo
Roma 2-2 Napoli
Bologna 3-2 Genoa
Inter Milan 2-1 Cesena
Atalanta 2-0 Fiorentina
Novara 0-4 Juventus
Siena 1-4 Milan
Lecce 1-2 Parma
Udinese 2-0 Lazio

Races

Champions League: Juventus (77 points/35 games), Milan (74/35), Napoli (55/25)

Europa League: Udinese (55/35), Internazionale (55/35), Lazio (55/35)

Stuff that stuck out:

  • All of a sudden, Serie A’s gotten amazing. There’s a four-way tie for the last Champions League spot.
  • The first tiebreaker is points amongst tied teams. Napoli has 11 points from games among the four teams, three better than Udinese.
  • The run-ins for each team:
    • Napoli: Palermo, at Bologna, Siena
    • Udinese: at Cesena, Genoa, Catania
    • Inter Milan: at Parma, Milan, at Lazio
    • Lazio: Siena, at Atalanta, Inter Milan
  • Neither of Roma’s clubs have won over the last three match days. Lazio’s four-match winless run as seen them fall from third to sixth. Is the streak a factor in Lazio freezing out the press after their weekend loss, a purported protest over Udinese’s second goal (they claim should have been disallowed after whistles were heard on the pitch)?
  • With two goals on Sunday, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is up to 26 for the year, four ahead of Edinson Cavani for Serie A’s capocannonieri. However, he is also on pace to finish on a non-first place team for the first time since his 2002-03 season with Ajax.
  • But the real story from Milan’s match: The full return of Antonio Cassano. The Milan forward posted a goal and two assists.

Up next: Mid-week action sees two Tuesday matches (including Napoli’s hosting of Palermo) ahead of both title contenders taking the field on Wednesday. If Milan loses and Juve wins, the title goes to Turin.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP
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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.

Conte feels pressure, but “most important thing is to work”

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Chelsea has sputtered a bit in its bid to repeat as Premier League champions, though this isn’t quite “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

The Blues sit fifth in the Premier League table with 13 points, nine behind leaders Manchester City, and tossed away a 2-0 lead before rallying to draw Roma at midweek.

The Blues host fourth-placed Watford to kick off Saturday’s Premier League action at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

[ MORE: West Ham 0-3 Brighton ]

And while fans are frustrated with the plan, Chelsea was in 15th at the end of October during Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated follow-up to the 2014-15 Premier League title.

Still, manager Antonio Conte feels their pain, although he’s satisfied with the effort. From Chelsea’s official site:

“Do I feel the pressure? Every manager feels pressure, but I try to give all of myself into my job, so I’m happy when I go home because I know in every moment I give all of myself for the fans, the players and the club. In football you know anything can happen, but the most important thing is to work.”

Chelsea may not look as good as Man City or Manchester United, but is still well-positioned to finish amongst the leaders and is leading a very difficult UCL group with Roma and Atletico Madrid. Things are fine, but the gossip storm just won’t leave Conte and his future at Chelsea alone (Thanks, Italian press).