A strange fit for Napoli, Rafa Benítez’s Chelsea tenure finally comes to an end

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Most Chelsea fans saw a bit of good news hit their Twitter timelines on Monday, with a picture being send around social media marking the end of the club’s Rafa Benítez era. Though some fans eventually warmed to Benítez, the vast majority were either conflicted or antagonistic, so although they knew their time of conflict would soon end, proof of its passing would have been met with relief.

At the same time, Napoli fans were forced to embrace a reality of an uncertain future, their club having officially welcomed the controversial Spaniard as their new head coach. For a team who finished second in Italy and have reason to hope they team can push on, today’s must have been sobering news.

Word of Benítez’s move to Naples had been circulating for some time, but until Benítez finished his responsibilities with Chelsea’s brief U.S. tour, Napoli supporters could try to convince themselves the deal would fall through. However, after this weekend’s match at Yankee Stadium, all that was left was to dot i’s and cross t’s. Benítez was destined to replace Walter Mazzarri.

And with this image of Benítez shaking hands with Napoli President Aurelio Di Laurentiis, the tenuous transition finally begins.

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I’ve made my newfound ambivalence toward Benítez known, but for new visitors who don’t want to go back through the PST archive, I’ll reiterate: I feel as if Benítez has earned himself another chance, one that shouldn’t require him resorting to a ‘take what I can get’ attitude. I’m not sure I felt the same before he was fortunate to find a role in West London.

He underperformed at Chelsea, Inter Milan, and in his last days at Liverpool, but over the last three months at Stamford Bridge, he showed the qualities of a man capable of forging a stable united. Were I at Málaga and looking to replace Manuel Pellegrini, I’d strongly consider him. He might work well at a place like Schalke, when he could take a talented team and establish a foundation that would address inconsistencies. Among club who don’t have obvious job openings, places like Marseille, Sevilla, Lazio, Hamburg would also be a fit for a boss with Benítez’s qualities, and if it wasn’t for the circumstances of Benítez’s past, clubs like Everton and Valencia would also fit nicely onto that list.

Napoli, however, is a very peculiar case. The departing manager, Walter Mazzarri, played almost exclusively three at the back, employing an attractive style that leveraged the abilities of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik, Goran Pendev and Blerim Dzemaili to pick opponents apart, often in transition. In contrast to Benítez’s style, Napoli’s is not one you would readily call controlling or robust. Their’s was a more open game.

With Mazzarri having moved to Inter, Napoli’s style is going to change. And if the Neopolitans lose Cavani, they’ll have to reload, a process in which Benítez is likely to have great say. As opposed to a Chelsea job that was about ostensibly about correcting course, Benítez will have to chart a new one.

At one time in his career, he was capable of doing that. His accomplishments at Valencia and Liverpool speak to it, but having painted more confounding pictures at Stamford Bridge, the San Siro, and his last year at Anfield, Benítez’s appointment at Napoli becomes a litmus test. If you feel the man is capable to recapturing the magic, there’s little reason not to hire him. If you believe the more recent evidence, he seems an bad fit for the job.

The only other time Benítez faced the tactical test of the Italian league, he drove a European champion to mid-table before walking away from Inter Milan. De Laurentiis has elected to cast this as an aberration, but for a team returning to Champions League, you can’t help but ask if they couldn’t have found a better fit.

Madrid beats Leganes 3-1 in game postponed from December

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MADRID (AP) Real Madrid overcame the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo and other regular starters Wednesday, coming from behind to defeat Leganes 3-1 Wednesday in a Spanish league match postponed from last year.

The result allowed the defending champions to regain third place from Valencia, but it did little to put Zinedine Zidane’s team back in the title race as it still trails leader Barcelona by 14 points after 24 matches. Madrid is seven points behind second-place Atletico Madrid.

[ MORE: Messi defies Conte’s successful tactics ]

Less than a month ago, Leganes jolted Madrid into a crisis by eliminating the Spanish powerhouse from the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey.

The hosts from southern Madrid went ahead less than 10 minutes into the match on Wednesday, but Madrid answered with first-half goals by Lucas Vazquez and Casemiro. Sergio Ramos sealed the victory by converting a 90th-minute penalty kick.

The league match was rescheduled from the 16th round because of Madrid’s participation in the Club World Cup in December, a competition it won.

Only in its second season in the first division, Leganes had a promising start to the campaign but has struggled recently. It hasn’t won in six matches and has lost four straight, dropping to 13th with 29 points.

Madrid has won four in a row, including 3-1 against Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 of the Champions League last week.

Ronaldo, who scored twice against PSG and has 10 goals in his last six matches, was rested on Wednesday along with goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Marcelo, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are trying to recover from injuries in time for next month’s return match against PSG in Paris.

Leganes opened the scoring with a goal by Unai Bustinza six minutes into the match at Butarque Stadium. The defender dived in front of the ball as Madrid left back Theo Hernandez tried to clear it from near the goal line. The ball ricocheted off Bustinza’s head and shoulder and went into the net.

Madrid equalized five minutes later with Vazquez’s low shot into the far corner from inside the area after a through ball by Casemiro, and 20 minutes later it was the Brazilian defensive midfielder who found the net from close range after a pass by Vazquez.

Ramos scored from the penalty spot after Mateo Kovacic was pushed inside the area in the closing minutes.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

LIVE, UCL – Sevilla vs. Man United, Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma

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Jose Mourinho has created a splash this morning by benching Paul Pogba despite utilizing a 3-man central midfield formation as Manchester United heads to Spain to take on Sevilla in their Champions League Round of 16 first leg meeting.

Pogba was left out of Saturday’s win over Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup due to illness, but having made the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad, it seems his omission is instead due to tactical reasons. 21-year-old academy product Scott McTominay starts in Pogba’s place alongside Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, with the Frenchman on the bench among the substitutes.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

The decision is surprising given Manchester United’s 16-point deficit in the Premier League table as they trail runaway favorites Manchester City, leaving the Champions League as the best competition remaining that the Red Devils have a shot to win.

Up front for Manchester United, Alexis Sanchez carries the creative load along with Juan Mata, with both supporting Romelu Lukaku at the striker position. Meanwhile, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof continue to work as the central defensive partnership, while Antonio Valencia captains the side as full-back, mirrored by Ashley Young on the other edge.

In the other matchup, Roma heads to the Ukraine to take on Shakhtar Donetsk, who finished 2nd in Group F three points behind Manchester City. The Ukranian side has only just returned from its winter break, with just a single game played since December 10th.

Roma, meanwhile, has pulled itself out of a rut just in time for the return of Champions League play, with three straight Serie A wins coming on the heels of a five-match winless run. They have scored eight goals over those three wins, with a pair of road clean sheets among the group. 20-year-old Turkish winger Cengiz Under is on fire over the win streak, scoring four goals over that span.


Today’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 schedule

Sevilla vs. Manchester United – 2:45 p.m. ET
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma – 2:45 p.m. ET

Reports: Mourinho to leave Paul Pogba out of Champions League lineup

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According to multiple reports across England, including the BBC, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is ready to leave Paul Pogba out of his starting lineup for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Sevilla despite utilizing a 4-3-3 formation with three central midfielders.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

The reports state that Pogba will be left on the bench in favor of youngster Scott McTominay, who will start alongside Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. Mourinho has spoken highly of McTominay recently, saying three days ago, “I think Scott deserves more than what he is getting.”

“Maybe it’s because he’s this kind of kid profile: a normal haircut, no tattoos, no big cars, no big watches, humble kid, arrive in the club when he was nine or 10,” Mourinho said in what many perceived to be a thinly veiled slap at Pogba.

Mourinho has held back from publicly criticizing his $125 million midfielder in the media, but his actions on the field suggest otherwise. The 24-year-old has failed to record 90 minutes in three straight Premier League matches, seeing his manager yank him before the full-time whistle in two and failing to make the starting lineup in the other, leaving many to speculate a rift between the two.

The decision is especially surprising given Juan Mata‘s comments earlier Wednesday that suggested Manchester United is prioritizing the Champions League, given their 16-point deficit to Manchester City in the Premier League table.

Pogba missed the 2-0 FA Cup win over Huddersfield on Saturday due to illness, but it’s hard to imagine that four days later that keeps the French superstar on the bench, especially given his ability to make the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad.

Leicester City settles Financial Fair Play dispute with Football League

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Leicester City will owe the Football League a reduced fine after coming to an agreement with the English lower-league governing body over a dispute regarding the 2013/14 season.

The Foxes, who won the Championship that season and were promoted to the Premier League, were handed an official breach of Financial Fair Play rules after accruing a loss exceeding the allowed $11 million amount. However, Leicester City argued that the deficit was due to “allowable” amounts regarding promotion and academy costs.

After talks between the two parties, the EFL announced Leicester City will owe a reduced amount of $4.33 million. They could have owed up to $18 million, the differential between the allowed amount and their actual posted loss of $20.8 million.

In an official release, the EFL announced, “The EFL acknowledges that [Leicester City] did not make any deliberate attempt to infringe the Rules or to deceive and that the dispute arose out of genuine differences of interpretation of the Rules between the parties.”

After initially receiving word of the notice back in 2014, the Foxes had legally challenged the fine, but that had been put on hold after litigation began in 2015 between the EFL and Queens Park Rangers for a similar dispute. Bournemouth was also fined after incurring a significant loss in their 2014/15 promotion season. Teams that breach rules but are not promoted face transfer bans, such as Fulham, Bolton, and Nottingham Forest received through the 2014/15 season.