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.

Watch Live: Swansea host Manchester United

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Swansea City welcome Manchester United to the Liberty Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with Jose Mourinho’s side aiming to stay top of the Premier League table.

[ STREAM: Swansea v. Man United ]

Yes, it’s early days, but the Red Devils were imperious in their thumping 4-0 win against West Ham United to open their season. Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic dominated and Mourinho’s men are now a powerful, well-oiled machine.

As for Swansea, they struggled at Southampton but came away with a draw, however the main storyline surrounding the South Wales side this week has been losing Gylfi Sigurdsson to Everton for over $60 million. Paul Clement will have to act fast to spend that cash wisely, but there is no doubt the Swans will miss their Icelandic playmaker.

In team news Swansea bring in Kyle Bartley and Roque Mesa as they line up in a 3-5-2 formation with Jordan Ayew and Tammy Abraham up top.

Man United are, unsurprisingly, unchanged.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski; Fernandez, Bartley, Mawson; Naughton, Mesa, Fer, Carroll, Olsson; Ayew, Abraham. Subs: Nordfeldt, Rangel, van der Hoorn, Fulton, Narsingh, Routledge, McBurnie.

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Jones, Blind; Matic, Pogba; Mkhitaryan, Mata, Rashford; Lukaku. Subs: Romero, Lindelof, Smalling, Fellaini, Herrera, Lingard, Martial

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.