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.


Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday