Staying golden: The U.S. prevail over Japan to clinch fourth Olympic gold medal

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The U.S. finally gets one back against Japan with a resounding 2-1 victory. If this indeed the end of a cycle, what a way to go out.

Wembley Stadium played host to an Olympic gold medal match between well-balanced rivals that is jam-packed with talking points. Here are five such notes:

Love her or hate her, Hope Solo’s got real substance behind all that gruff talk. Sure, Solo can be something of a rabble-rouser, but tonight the attention is squarely on her job and how well she does it. As she’s been known to say, goalkeepers don’t win games, they save them. She did just that today. That 83rd minute leap to keep out Tatsuya Tanaka’s effort on goal? Wow. That save almost certainly prevented another penalty kick shoot-out and preserves her status as the world’s best.

Carli Lloyd has silenced the doubters. The U.S.’s number 10 has been known to polarize a segment of the USWNT’s support base, but even her most fervent faultfinders have to applaud her performance today. Lloyd had what was perhaps her best game in a national team shirt yet. Her brace (just the second in Olympic final history) capped off an unstoppable performance. Lloyd set the tempo with her opening goal just a few minutes into the proceedings when she powered in Alex Morgan’s pass from short range. It was a harbinger of positive things to come. Her second effort was textbook Lloyd: a surging solo run through the center of the park topped off with a cannon blast of a shot.

Lloyd lost her once-sacred starting spot heading into the tournament. It seems that was the catalyst for such the stark turnaround in form. She’s been a robust and productive force in midfield throughout her stint in the United Kingdom. As Pia Sundhage beamed in her post-match comments, “She proved that I was wrong and that I’m not that perfect.”

Another jaw-breaking stat? Carli Lloyd has now scored every one of the USWNT’s three goals in their previous two Olympic finals.

It’s entirely appropriate to flag up (and gripe about) the blown calls. Let’s leave the U.S./Canada furor to one side for a moment. The United States were the beneficiaries of a couple major non-calls. Tobin Heath committed a blatant handball in the first half that should have led to a penalty kick. Rachel Buehler’s egregious bear hug on a Japanese attacker in the box also went unpunished. Head official Bibiana Steinhaus is arguably the most preeminent referee in the women’s game. That both she and her assistant referees missed said incidents is a tad surprising. Let the debate rage on.

Simply put, Japan are class. And that extends way beyond their eye-pleasing soccer. It’s the Nadeshiko’s grace in defeat to the non-existent remonstrations over the non-calls to the modest bows upon being substituted off. Granted, it’s probably cultural as much as it is sporting, but it’s still a pleasant sight. Let’s just hope these players have done enough to get first dibs on first class seats on the flight home. They deserve nothing less, despite the result today.

The sequel was better than the original.Let me dish out an early caveat here and say one should avoid becoming a prisoner of the moment. Still, after bearing witness to two exhilarating women’s soccer matches in four days, it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment.

Today’s match may not have featured the controversy or heart-stopping suspense that compel some to grant the U.S./Canada semifinal ‘greatest of all time’ status. And of course there was last year’s World Cup final with its steady supply of star-making performances and plot twists. But in terms of the sheer quality shown by both teams tonight, this match was special.

Possession see-sawed back and forth as both teams earnestly tried to outwit their opponents through varied means. Japan clung to their patented patient build-up play while the U.S. weren’t shy in imposing their physical advantage. Japan hardly lost their composure, even while facing a two-goal deficit. Passes weren’t hurried; reckless fouls weren’t committed; players refused to be gripped by panic. The U.S. also looked tighter and more polished than they did in the World Cup final one year ago. They were certainly more clinical, which is the ultimate difference maker.

Tremendous goalkeeping, some dandy goals (Japan’s included), and an enthused near-capacity crowd at Wembley added to the momentum of the occasion.

Make no mistake: these are the two best women’s soccer teams in the world. Today’s result just means we have a new (and familiar) number one.

Money from Wembley replay will ‘support Rochdale for two or three years’

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Worst-case scenario for Tottenham Hotspur: drawing League One side Rochdale in Sunday’s FA Cup fifth-round clash; best-case scenario for the Dale: drawing the Premier League giants and forcing a replay at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

For a club the size of Rochdale — 10,200-seat stadium, and never been above the third tier of English soccer — the financial impact of raking in half of the game’s gate receipts “will support the club for the next two or three years,” according to manager Keith Hill — quotes from the Guardian:

“I don’t know how much it is worth but a lot of money has gone into the new pitch. That was a heavy investment for us. Hopefully the money we make will support the club for the next two or three years. We will cut our cloth accordingly and we won’t be in debt.”

As for Steve Davies’ 93rd-minute equalizer, Hill was adamant that it was nothing short of what they “deserved”:

“It was a feeling of reward, not relief, because the performance deserved at least the opportunity for us to go to Wembley for a replay. I’ve always wanted to do that against a Premier League team and manager. Why not take them on and try to win? It could have been football suicide but I thought we gained their respect and to score the goal we did was tremendous. The players were magnificent.”

Tottenham Hotspur, soccer philanthropists.

Try, try again: Messi seeks 1st goal vs. Chelsea in 9th attempt

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LONDON (AP) As unlikely as it sounds, Lionel Messi is still waiting to score his first goal against Chelsea after drawing a blank in eight previous Champions League matches.

The five-time World Player of the Year is likely to get another chance to break his duck this week and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes the past will count for little when Barcelona visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

“I hope we maintain this tradition but we are speaking about a fantastic player,” Conte said ahead of the last-16, first-leg Champions League game. “The most important thing is the present.

“We must have great respect but at the same time we must be excited to play this type of game and take on this type of challenge. It won’t be easy because we know very well this player, we are talking about one of the best in the world.”

The teams have produced some epic games in the past although they have not met in the Champions League since Chelsea pulled off a remarkable backs-to-the-wall semifinal victory over Barcelona on the way to winning the trophy in 2012.

Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at the Nou Camp as the London club overcame the first-half dismissal of captain John Terry, and a 2-0 deficit, to draw the game 2-2 and secure an unforgettable 3-2 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich hosts Besiktas in Tuesday’s other game while the following day sees Manchester United traveling to Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Roma.

Two weeks ago, the prospect of a Chelsea win over Barca would have been unthinkable after Conte’s men had slumped to successive defeats by two of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

The London club was still smarting from a 3-0 home loss against Bournemouth when it traveled to Watford and succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 reverse.

Chelsea has got back on track since then, though, easing past West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the league last Monday before swatting aside second-tier Hull 4-0 in the FA Cup four days later.

Conte has several selection dilemmas. He must choose between captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger for a place at the back, and between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud up front.

Cesc Fabregas will also be desperate to play against his former team but may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Barca has lost only once in 38 matches this season since falling in the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid in August. It has a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga and has reached the final of the Copa del Rey.

Messi is having another stellar campaign, scoring 27 times in all competitions, and he helped set up two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho is ineligible for Barca following his move from Liverpool.

Mourinho claiming injury crisis ahead of CL showdown

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The next three weeks will go a long way toward defining Jose Mourinho’s second season at Manchester United, with the Red Devils facing not only fellow top-four aspirers Chelsea and Liverpool, but also contesting their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla.

[ MORE: VAR provider admits incorrect graphic displayed on TV ]

Thus, it’s not exactly the most convenient time for the words “injury crisis” to rear their ugly heads yet again, but that’s the challenge Mourinho claims he faces ahead of Wednesday’s CL clash.

Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s FA Cup victory with a last-minute illness; Marcus Rashford is dealing with a leg injury and remains questionable, as are Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia; Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini are all but officially out, according to Mourinho — quotes from ESPN.co.uk:

“I didn’t rest one single player so we had today every player available here. I didn’t rest anyone. I brought two kids that played on Friday 90 minutes [for the under-23s] because I don’t have another player, so we arrive at this crucial moment with some problems.”

“Can we recover some of them to Wednesday? I believe so. I think Rashford, Herrera, Valencia — I think they have a chance.

“Paul, I don’t know. Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane, Zlatan — I don’t think they have any chance.”

Mourinho dealt with a similar rash of injuries very late on last season, as his side barreled its way into, and eventually won, the Europa League final, securing a place in the CL this season. With a top-four finish all but out of reach at the time, Mourinho opted to rest his bare-bones group of first-team regulars in Premier League action and prioritize Europe’s “other” competition.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

This time around, United sit second in the PL table, just four points clear of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur, and the path to winning the CL will prove far more difficult than taking on the likes of Saint-Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax.

Serie A: Napoli, Juve hold serve in 1-point title race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona now 31 games unbeaten | Real Madrid 17 points behind ]

Napoli 1-0 SPAL 2013

The battle for Serie A supremacy isn’t ending anytime soon, as Napoli and Juventus continue to match one another (nine straight wins for each side) in Europe’s only remaining major title race.

On Sunday, they even traded 1-0 victories — Napoli at home to SPAL 2013, with Juve triumphing over Torino in the Turin derby.

Brazilian midfielder Allan bagged the only goal for Napoli after just six minutes, finishing off a mesmerizing, free-flowing move that’s become synonymous with Napoli this season. The video-assisting referee came into play just after the hour mark, when Marek Hamsik headed home to make it 2-0 before the VAR wiped it away for offside.

Napoli’s current nine-game winning streak is the longest in club history.

Torino 0-1 Juventus

Juve’s victory came at something of a cost, though, as star striker Gonzalo Higuain was lost to an ankle injury after just a quarter-hour (the injury occurred after just three minutes), followed by a potentially serious knee injury for Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Higuain, in second-half stoppage time. Higuain isn’t expected to miss significant time, with the club calling it a twisted ankle.

In between the injuries came Alex Sandro‘s 33rd-minute winner, a tap-in from close range masterfully set up by Bernardeschi. One additional positive for Juve: Sunday also saw Paulo Dybala return after missing five weeks with a hamstring injury. The Argentine star entered as a second-half substitute.

“Paulo played 30 minutes at a good level,” Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri said. “I’m pleased with his and everyone else’s performance. This is a good result against a well-organized Torino side.”

Elsewhere in Serie A

AC Milan 1-0 Sampdoria
Atalanta 1-1 Fiorentina
Bologna 2-1 Sassuolo
Benevento 3-2 Crotone