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Europa glory does nothing to change Benítez’s unconvincing Chelsea tenure

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Winning silverware is nothing to take for granted, but every club has standards. Every squad has goals against which they measure performance and achievement, and for Chelsea FC, none of those goals would have included “Europa League champion” nine months ago. One of the most talented, best funded teams in the world, Chelsea started the year with Champions League, Premier League, and FA Cup glory on their minds. That they’ll finish the year with Europa League consolation is the thinnest of silver linings.

If you’re Chelsea fan, you don’t need to hear another account of your team’s 2012-13 shortcomings, but over the next our days – the time between Europa League triumph and Rafa Benítez’s final match as boss of José Mouriho’s team the Blues – it will be important to remember that context. Because already, we are seeing justifications of a man who, having inherited a team that was still in contention for all their major goals, is going to be portrayed as reclaimed for having raised a secondary trophy, as if community college honors will suffice when you drop out of your four-year school.

Benítez does deserve some credit for the job he’s done over the last three months, stabilizing a team that looked capable of again plunging out of England’s Champions League spots. But just like today’s Europa League honor, that credit requires context. Chelsea’s winter precipice was partially created by Benítez, who took a team safely in third and plunged them into a race with Arsenal and Spurs before forging safety. It’s not an insignificant accomplishment, stabilizing a talented but flawed group, but when the end result sees the team no better than when you took over (when Chelsea sat third at the time of Roberto Di Matteo’s dismissal), it’s difficult to paint a triumphant picture.

So give credit to those who will try to do so, pundits who, emboldened by Wednesday’s honor, will portray the vindication of Benítez. Never mind Chelsea were clear favorites against every team on their Europa League path: Sparta Praha, Steaua Bucuresti, Rubin Kazan, Basel, and Benfica. And never mind this is only Europa League, a competition within which no Blues coach should be judged (would you really consider Europa League a major accomplishment from somebody who managed Manchester United, Arsenal, Bayern, Real Madrid, or Barcelona – the level at which Chelsea aspires to be?). It takes a olympiad’s worth of rhetorical gymnastics to spin Europa League into a major point in Benítez’s favor. Give those pundits credit for trying.

Ultimately, while it’s very cool for Chelsea fans to round out their Europeans trophy quad-fecta, there are far more valid measures by which to judge Benítez. At best, kept Chelsea above water in league, failing to restore one of the world’s most talented teams to title contending form. He was at the helm as the team was eliminated from three other competitions: Champions League; FA Cup; League Cup. His tactics and management were responsible for three widely inconsistent winter months, during which time he continued a tete-a-tete with Blues supporters that dates back to his time at Anfield.

And perhaps most importantly: Never under Benítez’s watch have Chelsea played to their talent level. They’ve swooned, they’ve improved, they’ve answered some positional questions, and ultimately, they’ve won some games (and a trophy). But these platitudes are inconsistent with a club as ambitious as Chelsea. They shouldn’t be this far from Premier League contention, let along in Europa League.

A manager can be both good and not good enough, and after seeing Liverpool out of the old top four before a five-month disaster at Inter, Benítez needed to re-prove he was good. And he has, something we should never forget as we’re forced to offset the coming day’s excessive adulation. But for a club that is capable of drawing José Mourinho-level coaches, Benítez is nowhere near good enough.

There is, however, a job opening up in Liverpool.

Report: Milan says Nocerino sale to Orlando City to be formalized Monday

REGGIO NELL'EMILIA, ITALY - AUGUST 12:  Antonio Nocerino of Milan celebrates after scoring the goal 4-3 during the TIM pre-season tournament match between AC Milan and US Sassuolo Calcio at Mapei Stadium - Città del Tricolore on August 12, 2015 in Reggio nell'Emilia, Italy.  (Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)
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Football Italia says the sale of Antonio Nocerino to Orlando City will be completed on Monday

The 30-year-old was first whispered as a target for DC United before Orlando emerged as a destination, a move that caused some consternation due to Major League Soccer’s controversial Discovery Process.

[ SERIE A: Juventus wins 15th-straight to replace Napoli at No. 1 ]

Capped 15 times between 2007-2012, Nocerino has spent his entire career in Italy with the exception of a loan to West Ham United in 2014.

From Football Italia:

“Tomorrow we will terminate our rapport with Nocerino, who will go to play in Orlando,” Galliani told Mediaset Premium. “With that move, our transfer activity will be finished for this session.”

“Football has changed so much, until a few years ago nobody went to China or the United States. The sport is becoming more globalised.”

The reunion with Kaka obviously helps strengthen Orlando City’s midfield, and the Lions will be daydreaming of the impact Sebastian Giovinco made coming from Serie A to MLS.

Watch Live: Arsenal vs. Leicester City (Lineups, Live Stream)

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez, center, scores their third goal during their English Premier League soccer match against Leicester City at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. (Paul Harding/PA via AP)     UNITED KINGDOM OUT       -     NO SALES      -      NO ARCHIVES
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Arsenal host Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday (Watch live, 7a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) in a huge clash between two title contenders.

First-place Leicester have a five-point lead over third-place Arsenal going into this one and the Foxes have won three on the spin, including a huge win at Man City last weekend.

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As for the Gunners, they won for the first time in five last week and their offensive stars seem to be purring once again.

In team news Arsenal have Danny Welbeck on the bench after his long spell out through injury, while Leicester is unchanged.

LINEUPS

Arsenal: Cech, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ozil, Alexis, Giroud. Subs: Ospina, Chambers, Flamini, Elneny, Campbell, Walcott, Welbeck

Leicester City: Schmeichel, Simpson, Morgan, Huth, Fuchs, Mahrez, Kante, Drinkwater, Albrighton, Okazaki, Vardy. Subs:Subs: Schwarzer, King, Gray, Ulloa, Dyer, Wasilewski, Chilwell

La Liga: Ronaldo scores twice, Neville gets 1st win as a manager

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and Athtletic Bilbao at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Cristiano Ronaldo scored two goals to lead Real Madrid to a 4-2 win over Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, provisionally lifting it into second place in the Spanish league.

Ronaldo opened the scoring in the third minute before Javier Eraso quickly leveled for the Basques in a back-and-forth first half at the Santiago Bernabeu that finished with James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos giving Madrid a 3-1 lead at halftime.

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Madrid defender Raphael Varane, whose error led to Eraso’s goal, was sent off in the 83rd after earning identical bookings for twice thrusting his forearm into Aritz Aduriz’s head while contesting a high ball.

Despite being a man down, Ronaldo found the net again in the 87th to move past Barcelona’s Luis Suarez as the competition’s leading scorer with 21 goals this season.

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Gorka Elustondo headed in Bilbao’s second goal in the 90th.

Madrid’s fourth win in as many home matches under coach Zinedine Zidane – by a combined score of 20-3 – lifted it two points ahead of Atletico Madrid before it visits Getafe on Sunday.

Leader Barcelona is one point ahead of Madrid with two matches to play: against Celta on Sunday and at Sporting Gijon on Wednesday.

Zidane will make his European coaching debut on Wednesday when Madrid visits Roma in the Champions League’s round of 16.

Ronaldo’s goals were his 31st and 32nd in 30 games across all competitions this campaign, a season in which he has been criticized by some for failing to score against important rivals.

“About Cristiano, what can I say?” Zidane said before employing an expletive in Spanish to describe how good he considers the forward’s form.

“We are ready for the match against Roma. We are in shape, playing well, and very pleased with how we played today against a very good rival. We are prepared for Wednesday.”

Also Saturday, Villarreal strengthened its hold on fourth place and the last Champions League spot with a 1-0 win at home over Malaga thanks to striker Roberto Soldado‘s 18th-minute goal.

Ronaldo gave Madrid a brilliant start when he received a pass from Karim Benzema, used a deft dribble to wrong-foot Xabier Etxeita and fired a right-footed strike just under the crossbar.

But Bilbao was undaunted and quickly leveled in the 10th when Eraso pounced on Varane’s poor backpass that goalkeeper Keylor Navas did well to stop from becoming an own goal but left for Eraso to finish off.

Aduriz went close twice to putting the visitors ahead with a header saved by Navas before the striker hit the bar.

Rodriguez turned the flow back in Madrid’s favor with an excellent strike with his left foot from outside the area that curled around outstretched goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz in the 37th.

Kroos put Madrid in full control heading into the break when he took a pass from Ronaldo in the area and sent a shot that deflected off a defender past Iraizoz in first-half injury time.

“We leave with the feeling that we had a good first half. Maybe we missed a great opportunity today,” said Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde, impressed by Madrid’s “extraordinary firepower.”

Ronaldo hit the upright before finally getting his second goal from a pass by substitute Lucas Vazquez.

Valencia hosts Espanyol later, while Real Betis visits Deportivo La Coruna.

Juventus win 15th straight to take Serie A lead from Napoli

Juventus' Simone Zaza, second from right, celebrates with is teammates after scoring during a Serie A soccer match between Juventus and Napoli at the Juventus stadium, in Turin, Italy, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Massimo Pinca)
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(AP) — Substitute Simone Zaza scored two minutes from time and Juventus beat visiting Napoli 1-0 on Saturday to take the Serie A lead from the southern club.

[ MORE: Napoli fans support racially abused Koulibaly ]

Seeking its fifth consecutive title, Juventus moved one point ahead of Napoli with 13 rounds remaining in the Italian league.

Near the end of a match in Turin that had been characterized by few chances for either side, Zaza’s goal came with a long, curving shot that deflected slightly off defender Raul Albiol.

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[ MORE: Chelsea’s next manager? Juve GM tells Allegri to “think twice” ]

It was Juventus’ 15th straight win, moving the Bianconeri within two victories of the Serie A record established by Inter Milan in 2006-07.

Earlier, Daniel Ciofani scored twice as promoted Frosinone beat Empoli 2-1 for its first away win in the top division. Also, Chievo Verona and Sassuolo drew 1-1.