FC Internazionale Milano v Juventus - Serie A

Italy: Perfection becomes elusive as Inter, Juve draw; Napoli sits top

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Italy had only given us two matches to judge Inter Milan and Juventus, so it was difficult to know what to expect ahead of the season’s first Derby d’Italia. The Bianconeriperfect through two rounds, had lived up to their status as preseason favorites, while Internazionale, perfect and un-scored on through two games, had been surprisingly convincing early in Walter Mazzarri’s tenure. If this Nerazzurri side was for real, Inter could only give Juventus their first blemish but also establish themselves as surprise contenders in Serie A.

But Inter was not the only team off to a surprisingly strong start. Roma are also perfect and un-scored upon through two games, their own new coach (former Lille boss Rudi Garcia) making an immediate impact. Fiorentina and Napoli had also failed to drop points, and while their starts may not have been surprises in the strict season, they did round out a strong pack at the head of the table, one which sparked hopes Serie A could provide a new level of intrigue this season.

Inter’s start Saturday at the San Siro fit that theme. Mazzarri’s side may not have taken complete control of the match, but they quickly established that Juventus were not going to dictate affairs. For a team that finished ninth last season, being able to go toe-to-toe with the two-time champions was validating. That they went to halftime having created more chances was threatening.

That threat manifest in the 73rd minute, with the Ricky Alvarez revival playing another, unexpected show. The most maligned player from last year’s squad, Alvarez is experiencing a resurgence that rivals Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey’s, except the Argentine attacker is three years older. But in both cases,  young players thought to be key parts of their clubs’ futures started to hear doubts only to see 2013-14 start with multiple game breaking performances.

The highlights start with Alvarez’s latest contribution, setting up countryman Mauro Icardi for Inter’s only goal.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mD5OtC4JUgM]

Juventus’s immediate response — and the fact they nearly took full points minutes later — left the defending champions feeling confident with a 1-1, and with good reason. If Inter truly becomes a fringe contender, and everything we’ve seen so far says they will, then Juventus’s 1-1 result on the road is a good one. Perhaps it runs counter to the invincible Juve meme that’s fostered over the last two years, but that’s for the fans. In terms of results, this was a good one for the Old Lady.

source: Getty Images
Walter Mazzarri finished a four-year run at Napoli with a second place finish. In his first season at Inter, the 51-year-old has led to Nerazzurri to seven points in three games, including Saturday’s draw against Juventus. (Photo: Getty Images.)

The only doubt worth some thought is how Conte’s team continues to match up against Mazzarri’s setups. Juve’s won three of their last eight meetings with Mazzarri’s Napoli, and while the Partenopei only won two of those games, they were one of the few (only?) teams in Italy able to consistently complete with Juve (taking the 2012 Coppa Italia from them). The three central defenders, wing back-formation (which went through different looks) that Mazzarri employed was thought to be part of that, able to match Conte’s similar set up. With Inter taking a result in their first Derby using Mazzarri’s approach, those suspicions will only grow.

With the draw, however, both teams are left chasing Napoli and potentially Roma, should the Giallorossi win at Parma on Monday. Do so, and they join Rafa Benítez’s team at 3-0-0, Mazzarri’s successor keeping his side perfect with a 2-0 win over 10-man Atalanta. Fiorentina, the league’s other perfect side coming into this weekend, conceded late, allowing visiting Cagliari to take a point out of the Artemio Franchi.

Elsewhere in Italy: Milan needed two goals in the last 10 minutes, including a 97th (!) minute penalty conversion by Mario Balotelli to scrounge a 2-2 draw at Torino. Kaka started but left the game after 70 minutes, his team down 2-0 … Lazio bounced back from their thrashing at the hands of Juventus to post a 3-0 at home against Chievo … Alessandro Diamanti and Antonio Di Natale traded late goals as Udinese drew Bologna, 1-1… Genoa routed Sampdoria 3-0 in the Derby della LaternaLivorno and Verona each posted 2-0 home wins over Sassuolo and Catania, respectively.

Seven unheralded stars of this Premier League season

during the Barclays Premier League match between A.F.C. Bournemouth and Tottenham Hotspur at Vitality Stadium on October 25, 2015 in Bournemouth, England.
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Look, it’s been a crazy year in the Premier League. Leicester City is top by five points, Chelsea is a bottom-half side, and not one of the league’s top three scorers hails from a team in last season’s Top Four.

So it follows that among the league’s other statistical leaders — advanced and traditional — are some surprisingly shining stars.

[ MORE: West Ham 3-2 Liverpool | Coutinho’s slick free kick ]

Or at least they aren’t mentioned a ton. We plan to rectify that here. By no means do we claim these statistical leaders without fault this season, but hats off to the good they’ve done (or, in some cases, the pain they’ve felt).

Most saves in a starring role

You wouldn’t know it from the goal totals these past few weeks, but Stoke City’s Jack Butland has been playing otherworldly between the sticks. His 87 saves lead the Premier League, and the Potters would be in the thick of a relegation battle if he hadn’t shone as brightly.

Ironman

Eleven players have played every minute of their side’s Premier League campaign this season (a 12th, Gareth Barry, has played all but one). Four of those 11 are goalkeepers, and six more are defenders. The only midfielder? Bournemouth’s South African standout Andrew Surman (above).

Top thief, too

Surman is also the league leader in interceptions with 92. The next seven players on the list, headed by Chris Smalling, are all defenders.

The most under-appreciated of the underdogs

Kante (Mark Thompson / Getty Images)

Leicester City has been fantastic, and people are quick to name Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy as big parts of the table-topping effort at King Power Stadium. Then, perhaps they’ll say something about goalkeeper Kaspar Schmeichel or defender Wes Morgan.

But how about the Premier League’s leader in tackles. Midfielder N'Golo Kante (right) has 115 tackles, 12 more than second-best Yohan Cabaye of Crystal Palace.

An all-expense paid journey to the massage parlor for…

Five players have been fouled more than 50 times this year, and you need to be around the ball a lot for that to happen. The four also-rans are Southampton’s Sadio Mane, Swansea City’s Andre Ayew, Everton’s Ross Barkley and Mahrez, but the man who deserved to skip to the head of the ice bath line is from Crystal Palace: Wilfried Zaha has been fouled 59 times. And that’s the amount of times the foulers were caught in the act.

Let Newcastle United’s captain climb in second, though; Fabricio Coloccini‘s 47 blocked shots are eight more than runners-up Neil Taylor (Swans) and Christian Fuchs (Leicester).

A man possessed

He hasn’t been heralded like a year ago, and most witnesses would tell you the midfielder’s been playing much worse. No, touches don’t equal success, but Cesc Fabregas‘ 2,027 credited touches are 74 more than the next player despite the fact that he’s the only player in the top four to have started less than 25 matches. He’s also completed 83 more passes than the closest competitor (Surman).

All-around stars

Advanced stats site Squawka uses an algorithm to generate statistics on who just might be the most complete player in the Premier League.

It’s certainly not foolproof, but the best player per-90 minutes would likely surprise you: Mousa Dembele of Spurs (Minimum 15 matches).

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As for who’s produced the most when numbers are averaged out over the entire game, one man rises to the top: Ross Barkley.

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Oft-targeted in the Premier League, Carvalho extends deal at Lisbon

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William Carvalho has been running through the rumor mill for ages, and Sporting Lisbon has made sure they’ll get their due if he ever stops somewhere else.

The Angola-born Portuguese defensive midfielder with 15 caps has extended his contract with Sporting through 2020, a date that carries him through his 28th birthday.

[ MORE: West Ham 3-2 Liverpool | Coutinho’s slick free kick ]

Carvalho is 23 now, and has been linked with loads of big name clubs from Manchester United to Chelsea, Arsenal to PSG.

His new buyout clause is said to be as high as $53 million, and Carvalho hopes his commitment calms his supporters.

“Sportinguistas, I say to you that I am very happy with the deal which I signed up to 2020 and that you will have total effort on my part to be champions.”

Sporting is tied with Benfica atop the Portuguese table, second on goal differential. The club leads third-place Porto by six points, and is still alive in the Europa League. Bayer Leverkusen is up next.

Klinsmann hints at Euro-heavy roster for World Cup qualifiers

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 08:  Danny Williams #14 of the United States looks on before an international friendly against Brazil at Gillette Stadium on September 8, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
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If your favorite Major League Soccer players don’t make the cut for Jurgen Klinsmann’s next roster, don’t think you won’t see them in the red, white and blue this summer.

[ JPW: What’s the best XI for USMNT’s World Cup qualifiers? ]

Perhaps it’ll be different for the players who were a part of January camp — stars Lee Nguyen and Steve Birnbaum chief among them — but Klinsmann says the late start of the MLS season can affect fitness for the critical qualifiers home and away to Guatemala.

That means there’s a better chance to see in-form Championship midfielder Danny Williams (above) or Pachuca’s Omar Gonzalez then, say, Orlando City’s Brek Shea or Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman.

From USSoccer.com:

“We are basically looking all over the place. We monitor all the players in Europe. We monitor all the players in Mexico, and obviously we can’t wait until MLS starts as well. It’s really kind of crucial that we see everybody getting in the best shape possible, everybody getting into a rhythm and making statements.

“Then you say, ‘Is the roster you see at the end of March the same one as Copa America?’ Probably not. The end of March comes early for MLS players. The European players are in the full swing, and also Mexican players because they started already a month ago with Liga MX. So we’ll be monitoring everyone.”

We’ve already covered the obstacle that is the CONCACAF-CONMEBOL Olympic qualifying playoff occurring at the same time as the Guatemala matches, but this is still good news for players in England, Germany and other European locales seeking caps in March.

Klopp on struggling Benteke: “He wants to score and we need him to score”

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09:  Christian Benteke of Liverpool reacts as he foiled by goalkeeper Darren Randolph of West Ham United during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Jurgen Klopp had his appendix removed this weekend, but it’s doubtful he’s feeling as sore as his big Belgian striker.

Christian Benteke had the opportunity to put himself in the good graces of Liverpool fans with a number of decent chances in Tuesday’s FA Cup loss to West Ham, but couldn’t get the job done.

[ MORE: Match recap | Watch Coutinho’s slick free kick ]

In one case, Benteke put himself in a prime spot only to lash his shot wide of the post. Instead, he’s now at 11 appearances without a goal (despite ripping nine shots against the Irons).

From the BBC:

“I don’t believe in the easy goal. He has to carry on like this. It’s not the nicest moment in his career but he has to work hard. He wants to score and we need him to score. We will work on it in the days, weeks and months.”

Klopp maintained that Liverpool was “the better team” on the night — counterpart Slaven Bilic disagreed — despite conceding a pair of very similar looking goals.

The game could’ve avoided extra time through Benteke’s boots and body, but he couldn’t find his finish again.

The 25-year-old has seen his goal production drop by nearly half since joining from Aston Villa in the summer, and it’s sure to return… just maybe not under Klopp.