Rout to second-straight title clearing for Juventus

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Juventus may be resorting to their old, uncertain tricks, but with their competition falling by the wayside in Italy, piddling concerns about middling form are quickly becoming irrelevant.

On Friday, Juve gave up the first goal at Cagliari and proceded to trail for 59 minutes, during which time David Astori picked up a second yellow for the hosts. It was only after the Old Lady held a man advantage that they equalized, the much-maligned Alessandro Matri pulling Italy’s leaders even on 75 minutes. Matri and Mirko Vucinic added stoppage time goals to salvage another turn back the clock (to last season) win for Antonio Conte. It’s not pretty, and the performances are starting to bely the record, but when the final whistle blows, Juventus is almost always on top.

As questionable as it’s becoming, Juventus’s underlying quality is becoming increasingly inconsequential. On one level, they’re still getting results, their Friday victory temporarily moving them 10 points clear of second in Italy. On another, nobody’s going anything to close that gap. This race may be as dead as Germany’s, where Bayern Munich took a nine-point lead on Bayer Leverkusen into the Bundesliga’s winter break.

Earlier this week, Napoli — one of two perceived title threats — were docked two points and had their captain (Paolo Cannavaro) suspended for six months after yet another instance of Italian match fixing. A former Partenopei goalkeeper had confessed to trying to manipulate a match, Cannavaro was one of two players cited for failing to report the affair, and as a result Napoli’s season has been derailed. After Juve’s win, Napoli sit 13 points back, left to scratch their way back without one of their best defenders.

Juve’s other potential challenger, Inter Milan, did their part to clear the way on Saturday against Genoa. Despite Nerazzurri control, former Bianconeri prospect Ciro Immobile put the Genovesi up 1-0 in the 77th minute. Esteban Cambiasso equalized for the hosts eight minutes later, but Andrea Stramaccioni’s side had left it too late to get full points. The 1-1 result leaves them nine back of Juventus after a week that’s taken most of the stream out of Italy’s title race.

But we do this every year. There are always leagues where teams take huge leads, and in many of them — be it from complacency, regression, or balance — the leads don’t hold up. Just last year, a big Real Madrid lead in Spain crumbled before Los Merengues finally put Barcelona away, beating them at the Nou Camp in late April. In England, Manchester United completed the biggest collapse in Premier League history by coughing up their lead to Manchester City.

While you’re sure to read “done and dusted” in other posts on this side (most likely from this author), in my more level-headed mood, I’ll simply note the path to a second-straight title has become very, very clear for Juventus.

Henry, Aguero discuss playing up top under Pep

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One great striker got another one to open up on an up-and-down year at Manchester City.

Thierry Henry — one of the greatest of all-time, it must be said — sat down with Sergio Aguero ahead of Thursday’s Manchester Derby at the Etihad Stadium, and asked the Argentine about Pep Guardiola, Gabriel Jesus, and more.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

At times, it’s a fascinating discussion on playing lone striker. Even apart from the obligatory questions regarding Jesus’ arrival at City, Henry and Aguero speak their craft in a manner you don’t see too often.

That’s helped by the fact that Henry played for Guardiola at Barcelona, and can relate to the positional demands of Man City’s boss. Consider this exchange, from Sky Sports:

HENRY: When I was at Arsenal, I played up front and if I wanted to drift out to the left, I could. But when I got to Barca, I had to stay out wide and press. Sometimes doing that can be hard.

AGUERO: The thing I’ve found the hardest has been getting into my head the fact that I have to press the centre-back and the goalkeeper in matches. That’s what Pep asks me to do. It may not be a big deal, but in terms of processing it, the two of us speak a lot. He knows what I’m like.

I’ve been gradually learning and adapting to that style of pressing over the last few months. The first thing he taught me was how to press and how to do it well. Obviously there are times when I might drift out of position or I might press in an area where I’m not supposed to be, which might make it hard for the wingers or midfielders.

In the game itself, I may not realise because I’m so immersed and you can’t stop yourself. I’ve learnt a lot from him in terms of zones. He asks me to play as a No 9 and to stay in that position. I often drift out wide during matches and he looks at me and says, “If there’s a player out wide who wants to cross it in, who’s in there? Nobody.”

HENRY: I know all about that, believe you me.

I love this, because it shows how difficult it is for an elite striker to adapt his mentality. Both Henry and Aguero found world-celebrated success by playing in a certain fashion, and Guardiola understood that and still demanded a change. Earlier this season, the manager somewhat famously spoke of improving Aguero.

Aguero has been linked with Real Madrid given the tumult at City.

PHOTO: Liverpool unveils 125th anniversary kit for next season

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Liverpool rolled out its 125th anniversary kit, featuring a special crest to celebrate the occasion.

The Liver bird has 1892 on one side and 2017 on the other, with “125 YEARS” spelled out underneath the club’s emblem.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

The red shirt with a gold crest has a white V-neck and white at the ends of the sleeves. The goalkeeper kit is green.

The jersey will be available on May 19, and was announced last month.

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Jara’s goal lifts Pachuca to CONCACAF Champions League crown

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Hirving Lozano’s dipping shot rebounded into the path of Franco Jara, who scored the goal that won Pachuca its fifth CONCACAF Championship early Thursday morning.

The Argentine’s goal was the only one of the win over UANL Tigres, and gave Pachuca its first continental title since 2009-10. USMNT veteran Omar Gonzalez played for the winners, while Jose Torres started for Tigres.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Major League Soccer teams were eliminated in the semifinals, with FC Dallas falling to Pachuca and Vancouver Whitecaps losing to Tigres.

Beginning with the 2017-18 tournament, qualified MLS and Liga MX teams will not enter the tournament until the Round of 16. The entire tournament will be held in the same calendar year.

USMNT: Brooks out with hip strain; World Cup qualifiers loom

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John Brooks is out of Hertha Berlin’s lineup “for the time being” after scans revealed a hip strain suffered in this weekend’s win over Wolfsburg.

That’s all Hertha has said, and that makes it hard to imagine whether American fans should be a little concerned or very concerned ahead of the USMNT’s World Cup qualifiers against Mexico, and Trinidad and Tobago in early June.

Brooks was unavailable for two weeks with an adductor strain in September, missing a month before returning to the starting lineup.

The U.S. center back pool isn’t teeming after Brooks and Geoff Cameron. Matt Besler, Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez, and Walker Zimmerman were called up for the last World Cup qualifiers, and Gonzalez struggled but is a Bruce Arena favorite from their time in L.A.