Serie A preview: Talking through Italy’s new season – Part I

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Italy starts on Saturday, with two matches ringing in the new Serie A season. ProSoccerTalk’s Richard Farley and new PST contributor Kirsten Schlewitz (who also serves as Serie A editor at SBNation.com) walk through the storylines ahead of a campaign where Juventus is picked by many to win their third straight title:

Richard Farley: So … I suppose there’s no other way to start this. Can anybody beat Juventus? Or, should we expect anybody to keep Juve from three-in-a-row?

Kirsten Schlewitz: Three wins in a row? Three scudetti? That’s a bigger challenge. With less than two weeks left in the transfer window, Juventus have lost none of their starters and made quality reinforcements. Meanwhile, their two biggest challengers — Fiorentina and Napoli — have both lost their best player.

RF: You’re talking Stefan Jovetic and Edinson Cavani. A lot of people are still talking about Fiorentina, as if all the hipsters who ruined Dortmund last year have been told Viola’s the new bacon. Why all the buzz?

KS: Yeah, the Viola are bacon dipped in chocolate and covered in a thin candy coating. They’ve got a hot young manager (Vincenzo Montella), play in a fantastic city, have a great new striker in Mario Gomez and they play in purple — what more can a new fan to Serie A want in a team?

RF: Jovetic, probably. Seems a lot of people in England didn’t know much about him (no, he’s not a No. 9). Can you explain how big a loss this will be? Preferably without food metaphors (still recovering over here).

KS: Well, most Fiorentina supporters seem to think their side is better off now that their star has shot off to Manchester. I find that interesting, however, as Gomez and JoJo aren’t the same player. Gomez will play in the same position, but they’re very nearly opposite forwards. The manner in which he’ll produce the goals will be different.

But Gomez will still have Juan Cuadrado and, as of today, Adem Ljajic helping him out up front, which may be why Viola supporters just aren’t that worried.

And Vincenzo Montella has brought in reinforcements for those wide roles, so if Ljajic leaves, or decides to go back on his Nutella diet, there are players , such as Joaquín, to step in

RF: Nutella. I’m sure there’s a segue to Napoli here — one referencing the irresistibility of their play under Walter Mazzarri — but I can’t find it. Regardless, Mazzarri’s at Inter, Rafa Benítez is in (resisting another Nutella reference here), and Naples has experienced a small Spanish invasion. Enough to offset the losses of Cavani and Hugo Campagnaro?

source: Getty ImagesKS: Honestly, I don’t think so. In a way, Napoli lost not one but two defenders, considering all the tracking back Cavani did. I don’t think — I don’t think ANYONE thinks — Higuain is at Cavani’s level. He won’t score 29 league goals next season and he won’t rescue opposition shots off the line. But he’ll be quality.

What helps in terms of production is Marek Hamsik (right) — 13 goals last season and the orchestrator of the Napoli attack — as well as Lorenzo Insigne. Insigne didn’t start much under Mazzarri, but Rafa doesn’t have the same aversion to youth, and the forward should be given many more chances this year. He’s looked immense in preseason as well.

So, in all honesty, I think the bigger loss is that of Hugo Campagnaro. Napoli haven’t replaced the centerback. They bought Albiol, but yet there’s still Paolo Cannavaro, who’s looked past his prime for well over a season now. Napoli looked bad enough defending set pieces last season. If the preseason is anything to go by, that will continue. Supporters will continue hiding behind their sofa cushions when Napoli concede a free kick, and it won’t even need to be from the likes of Andrea Pirlo for the strike to be threatening.

RF: Napoli in decline … no wonder the hipsters have flocked to Fiorentina. And given Napoli were the only real threat to Juve last year, the Bianconeri’s additions of Tévez and Llorente seem even scarier, given the state of the peloton. What about the other big names: Milan, Inter … Roma and Lazio? And hope of contention there?

KS: Okay, as a Napoli fan, I have to say that “in decline” is going a bit too far. “In transition” would be better. They still look great going forward and questionable at the back, which is more or less what we saw last season. Just the highs will be lower and the lows will be higher for a bit.

RF: Fair enough. My bad …

… in part two, we get to the Milan clubs, Roma’s duo, and look for surprises from this year’s Serie A.


FIFA worried about government interference in Spain

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Concerned about the independence of the Spanish soccer federation, FIFA said Friday it will send a delegation to the country to investigate government meddling.

FIFA said in a statement written in Spanish that it had recently sent a letter to the federation “expressing our concern for the situation that the federation is going through and reminding (its officials) that, according to the Statutes of FIFA, all member federations must manage their affairs independently and assure that there is no interference by third parties.”

Spanish newspaper El Pais reported earlier Friday that the FIFA letter warned of a possible suspension because of the government’s push to hold elections following the arrest of federation president Angel Maria Villar in July on suspicion of corruption.

[ PL PREVIEW: Chelsea vs. Southampton ]

According to El Pais, FIFA is concerned that the government’s interest in federation elections could be considered outside meddling and break its rules. If the national federation were to be suspended, Spain’s team would not be allowed to play at next year’s World Cup.

FIFA’s statement made no mention of a suspension or other punitive measures.

But the scare was big enough for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to say that Spain will not miss soccer’s biggest event.

“I am sure that Spain will go to the World Cup in Russia and that it will win it,” Rajoy said at a news conference in Brussels.

FIFA added in its statement that “in the coming days” it will send a delegation, which will include representatives from UEFA, to Madrid to “observe and analyze the situation” of the Spanish soccer federation.

The federation said in a separate statement that its interim president, Juan Luis Larrea, had spoken with FIFA and UEFA officials at the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 and that he had passed on their “enormous concern” to Spain’s minister of education, culture and sport.

The Spanish federation said it was waiting for the ministry to set a date for a meeting.

Spanish police arrested Villar, his son, and two other soccer officials in July on suspicion of improper management, misappropriation of funds, corruption and falsifying documents.

Villar was replaced by Larrea, the body’s treasurer for three decades. Critics of Villar argue that elections are needed to make a clean start for the institution that has been tarnished by the scandal.

Newcastle linked with targets as Benitez begins transfer quest

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Newcastle United’s players have canceled their Christmas party, as manager Rafa Benitez admits he’s working on January gifts for the St. James’ Park set.

The Magpies have one point from their last eight matches, and face Arsenal, West Ham, and Manchester City in the run-up to the New Year, closing off a run of five matches in 16 days with Brighton and Stoke.

[ PL PREVIEW: Man City vs. Spurs ]

Benitez says he’s begun talks with managing director Lee Charnley about the January window. The team is expected to make moves whether Mike Ashley completes a reported sale of the team or not. From Sky Sports:

“At this time it is just to talk about ideas,” he said. “You might say ‘I would like to sign this player’ and someone will say ‘£40m’ – maybe it is not realistic.

“The main thing, we had this conversation, then we have to move forward quickly. I don’t know the details but at least we were talking about that. We have to progress and it is so obvious that we have to improve things.”

Newcastle has been linked with a number of notable names a few weeks from the start of the January market, including Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, prolific Besiktas striker Cenk Tosun, as well as Liverpool’s Danny Ings and Manchester United’s Luke Shaw.

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Crystal Palace

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  • Leicester leads all-time 26W-18D-23L
  • Foxes 3W-1D vs. Eagles since Oct. 2015
  • Palace won at Leicester in Feb. 2015

The Claude Puel revolution at Leicester City has the Foxes surging up the Premier League table, and Saturday’s visitors from Crystal Palace are making moves of their own (Watch live Saturday at 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Leicester has won four-straight matches, the latest a 4-1 beatdown of Southampton at St. Mary’s, and returns to King Power Stadium with a chance to make a dent on the five-point deficit between the Foxes and the Top Four.

 

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After beginning the season 0-7, Crystal Palace has claimed 14 of 30 points to move from 20th to 18th on the table. Roy Hodgson’s men have two wins and four draws in their last six matches.

What they’re saying

Leicester’s Harry Maguire on the task at hand:

Palace’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek on his high-flying loan spell from Chelsea: “It’s what you aspire to be when you’re younger. Right now it’s a case of trying to improve as much as I can and to keep the performances up. As long as I’m enjoying it I think I’ll do well, so I’m really happy. The experience of playing week in week out and the physical side of things, getting my body used to playing games – sometimes three in a week – has been a massive thing for me, especially when I haven’t played for two years regularly. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to get away from Chelsea, to play regular football, get my body used to it, get more robust and I think once you have that then it’s a platform to play better.”

Prediction

This could be a fun one, with names like Zaha, Townsend, Loftus-Cheek, Vardy, Mahrez, and Gray ready to bless the match with pace and creativity. Goals have come in bunches when Leicester’s on the pitch, and we’ll call it 2-1 to the Foxes.

RBNY’s Grella heads to Columbus (through Colorado)

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Mike Grella didn’t get to pick No. 20 of the MLS Re-Entry Draft, but that didn’t stop Columbus from getting their hands on the New York Red Bulls veteran.

Colorado selected Grella with the third overall pick, then sent him to Columbus for a second round pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft.

[ MLS: Ousted “blacklisted” by MLS? ]

The only other pick was made by Minnesota United, who took Tyrone Mears from Atlanta United.

Grella, 30, is a well-traveled Duke product who has played in England and Denmark. He scored 18 times with 13 assists in 89 matches for the Red Bulls, but missed most of the 2017 season with a pair of knee injuries.

It’s a good gamble for the Crew, and an extra draft pick for 2019. Second-round picks have become long odds to make MLS rosters, with Tommy McNamara and Aaron Long the last impact players to come out of the round. That was in 2014, and both needed changes of scenery before hitting their MLS strides.