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.


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.

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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.

Zlatan confirms Manchester United departure

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has confirmed myriad reports he’s leaving Manchester United with a perfectly-Zlatan Instagram message.

Ibrahimovic is expected to join the LA Galaxy next week.

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The words aren’t too important, but Ibrahimovic posted an old graphic of him in Greek god garb, arm-wrestling a devil. So he’s got that going for him, which is nice.

The living Swedish legend, 36, has been limited to seven appearances, one start, and one goal in returning from a season-ending knee injury, but finishes his Manchester United tenure with an impressive 29 goals and 10 assists in 53 games (deduct the seven and one for peak impressiveness).

Bale breaks Wales scoring record

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Gareth Bale has now unquestionably written his name into Wales history.

The 28-year-old Real Madrid scored a hat-trick for Wales in its 6-0 demolition of China, taking his overall tally to 29 goals, breaking Ian Rush’s record.

“It is right up there, maybe as the best,” Bale told reporters after the game. “I suppose when I was a little boy I never dreamed of being a record-breaker for Wales. It is a massive honor. I was not thinking about it, but now it has come it’s an incredible honor and one of the best things I’ve achieved in my career. On a personal note it’s great to break the record, but I could not have done it without my team-mates.”

Bale was unable to carry Wales to the 2018 World Cup, but he first became a National Team legend by helping take Wales to the Euro 2016 semifinals, scoring three goals along the way.

Here’s a look at Bale’s record-breaking goal.

Sporting KC giving away creative “Bike Opara” bobblehead

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In his ninth Major League Soccer season, Ike Opara has scored just a dozen regular season goals.

He’s known more for his physicality in the backline, for creating space for teammates on set pieces, or heading balls on to teammates with slightly more fleeter feet.

But in June 2017, it all came together for Opara in a magical moment, where he beat an offside trap from the LA Galaxy and scored an insane bicycle kick for Sporting Kansas City.

Now, to honor Opara’s ridiculous goal, Sporting KC has announced the first 10,000 fans through the gates at Children’s Mercy Park on March 31 will get a “Bike Ike” bobblehead, with him in flight kicking the ball towards goal over his shoulder.

You’ve gotta love the creativity and fun the Sporting KC marketing department is having. Hopefully, Opara can give the team another memorable goal in 2018.

Van Dijk named new Netherlands captain

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Virgil Van Dijk has had a pretty decent last three months since moving to Liverpool, and the towering defender earned a new personal achievement on Thursday.

Van Dijk was named the newest captain of the Netherlands National Team, where he’ll play under former manager Ronald Koeman. Van Dijk’s first game as captain will be against the nation where he currently plies his trade, England, on Friday.

“I am very happy with it, it is a great honor to be the captain of your country,” van Dijk said at a pre-match press conference Thursday. “Everyone knows that Koeman gave me the chance at Southampton, I am very grateful to him. This is very special.”

Van Dijk’s commanding presence in the Liverpool backline and previous stops at Southampton and Celtic make him an obvious choice for captain, taking the place of the now-retired Arjen Robben. At just 26-years old, van Dijk could carry the armband for a half dozen years if he keeps up his strong form.