Italy: Napoli, Roma stay perfect as top five pulls clear

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Rafa Benítez’s hot start to his Serie A return had failed to draw huge trumpets through three rounds, mostly because an easy slate of opening fixtures gave the new Napoli boss little chance to impress. This week, however, that changed drastically, with a Champions League visit from Borussia Dortmund and a trip to AC Milan guaranteed to test one of Italy’s last two perfect sides. If Napoli won both those games, there’d be no denying their place amongst the best clubs in Europe, right?

As it turns out, not all wins are created equal, and while the Neopolitans deserve credit for posting successive 2-1 wins, each require some more context. On Wednesday, a first half red card left visiting Dortmund with 10 for the second half, and while Napoli were already up by the time Roman Weidenfeller handled outside his area, the sending off amounted to a huge what if. What if last year’s Champions League finalists had got to halftime at full strength? Would some of the push we saw at match’s end have been better-rewarded?

Sunday’s caveats were different, but there were still caveats. Napoli went up early on a set piece through Miguel Britos, controlled much of the first half, and saw a Gonzalo Higuaín blast through Christian Abbiati give them a two-goal lead early in the second half. But somewhere along the way, Milan had gained control, with Mario Balotelli becoming game’s focal point. Stressing a defense that was thought to be Napoli’s weak spot before the season, the Milan attacker slowly made the game into a question of whether (and how often) he’d break through.

But a penalty stop by Pepe Reina, the first miss in 22 career tries by Balotelli, hinted there’d be no breakthrough. Another blast off the woodwork midway through the second provided confirmation, as did a penalty appeal denied by Luca Banti. Despite 12 shots on goal and a late consolation tally (a nice finish by the Italian international), Balotelli was unable to dent Napoli’s perfect start, eventually earning a second yellow card for a post-whistle altercation with Valon Behrami.

Milan would end up with big advantages in all the main indicators — shots (22-9), shots on goal (8-3), and possession (56-44) — but most of that was due to Napoli’s early lead. On the road against one of Italy’s most talented (if injury-riddled) sides, the partenopei’s win was a strong one, even if Batoletti seemed determined to take it from them. On another day — if the penalty goes in, if Balotelli’s a little more precise earlier in the match, if Abbiati doesn’t concede a soft one to Higuaín — Napoli’s willingness to give Milan so many cracks many have bitten them. On Sunday, it served as confirmation their defense could hold out.

In that sense, it wasn’t the most resounding of victories, but it was still a good one. And with Rafa Benítez on the sidelines, Napoli fans are going to have to get used to this type of game management. But given the team’s won five in a row and sit near the top of the league, it’s hard to nit-pick too much. If Rafa’s style continues to produce these results, we’ll soon hear those trumpets


source: Getty Images
Francesco Totti, who signed a contract extension through 2017 mid-week, assisted on Sunday’s first goal as Roma win this year’s first Rome Derby. (Photo: Getty Images.)


If you do want to nit-pick, Napoli’s not actually at the top of the league. At best they’re joint top, but if one team were to be singled out, that honor would belong to Roma, whose 2-0 victory over rival Lazio moves them first on goal difference. Along with Napoli, Barcelona, and Atlético Madrid, they are one of four perfect teams remaining in Europe’s top five leagues.

Like Napoli, part of their climb has been fueled by a kind fixture list, one that should have become decidedly more difficult with today’s Rome Derby. Yet to a Roma defense that had only allowed one goal all year, the Aquile offense never presented a problem. Morgan De Sanctis went untested in the Giallorossi goal, leaving the match to be decided by Rudi Garcia’s attack.

For one half, Roma were no more effective than their rivals, but when Francisco Totti set up Federico Balzaretti’s left-footed volley just past the hour, the game was all but decided.



Between their decisive round two loss to Juventus and today’s underwhelming derby performance, Lazio looks like they’ve taken a step back from the team that won last year’s Coppa Italia. It may be too early to write them off, but it’s not too early to note something’s wrong. Through four rounds they’ve collected six points, but they were a combined -5 against Juve and Roma.

The Giallorossi, on the other hand, have claimed 12 and are part of a quintet that look poised to pull away from the league. In a season they were expected to compete for Europe and little more, Rudi Garcia may be slotting his team along side Inter as surprise competition for the league’s three favorites. A controlling win over their fiercest rivals hints Roma may be destined for greater things.


After this weekend’s action, that quintet of Roma, Napoli, Inter Milan, Fiorentina and Juventus have pulled a full game clear of Livorno and Torino (sixth, seventh place). Inter did so with a 7-1 demolition of newly promoted Sassulo, giving them 13 goals through four games (with only one allowed). Fiorentina got another goal from Giuseppe Rossi in their 2-0 win at Atalanta, while Juventus had to come back from one down to take full points from Verona in Turin. Each team is 3-0-1, two points behind Roma and Napoli.


Manolo Gabbiadini scored twice late at Calgiari, both equalizers sandwiched around Daniele Conti’s goal, as Sampdoria got a 2-2 result on the road … Serio Pellissier and Luca Rigoni had turned around a first-minute deficit by halftime as Chievo defeated visiting Udinese, 2-1 … Catania and Parma played to a 0-0 … A late first half red card to Bologna’s Cesare Natali proved decisive as Alessio Cerci’s penalty gave Torino the 2-1 lead they’d keep through full-time.

Andrija Novakovich: “It’s a good feeling” to earn USMNT call up

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As the U.S. Men’s National Team continues its transition towards qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, a new face has emerged for the Stars and Stripes ahead of its upcoming friendly against Paraguay.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Kekuta Manneh to roster ahead of Paraguay friendly ]

Striker Andrija Novakovich earned his first call up on Sunday when U.S. manager Dave Sarachan named the Telstar player in his squad, which will play the South American side on March 27 in Cary, North Carolina.

The 21-year-old forward has been nothing short of brilliant in his first season with the Dutch second-division club, scoring 18 league goals for Telstar — who sit fourth in the Eerste Divisie.

“It’s a good feeling to get the call-up and hopefully it will be a very good experience,” Novakovich said. “They [the U.S. national team] sent the club and myself an email saying that I was on the preliminary roster and we were just waiting, and then this week I got another email saying I was on the final roster.

“I called my Mum right away and she’s proud, she’s happy.

“I’m just there for the experience — of course I want to play, of course I want to get the opportunity and hopefully that will happen, It’s an honour to be called up and I’m very proud and very happy.”

Novakovich, a Wisconsin native, is currently on loan at Telstar from English Championship side Reading.

The young USMNT player moved to England back in 2014 to join Reading’s academy, despite originally planning on playing for Marquette University following high school.

Despite this being his first senior-team call up, Novakovich is familiar with the U.S. national team setup. Novakovich has previously represented the Under-17, U-18 and U-20 national teams.

Lionel Messi suggests 2018 will be his final World Cup

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Lionel Messi’s track record as a professional has encompassed just about every imaginable accolade, but one that has eluded he and his Argentina national teammates is winning the World Cup.

[ MORE: Kekuta Manneh added to USMNT squad ahead of Paraguay friendly ]

The Barcelona star has played a significant role for the Albiceleste since debuting for Argentina back in 2005, and even helped guide the South American power to the 2014 World Cup final, however, harsh criticism from local media could push Messi and many of his teammates towards not returning to the national team.

This wouldn’t be the first time Messi has contemplated international retirement, though.

Following the 2016 Copa America Centenario final — which resulted in a Chilean victory over Messi’s Argentina — the Blaugrana attacker announced his retirement from the Albiceleste. While he has since returned to the international scene, it appears Messi is once again considering a halt from representing Argentina.

“It’s just the feeling that this group of players has. It seems that having reached three straight finals didn’t mean anything,” Messi told La Cornisa TV. “Obviously, we depend on results and unfortunately, we reached three finals and we didn’t win them.

“A lot was said about us. The criticisms hurt back then. But the demand is going to be there for this group to get it done. We think that if we don’t do it, we are going to get a lot more [criticism] and we are not going to have another possibility.”

Argentina has fallen in three consecutive major finals dating back to 2014, including two Copa America competitions and the World Cup.

Messi says these shortcomings have weighed heavily on him, and that winning a World Cup is still the one goal that has left him hungry.

“I’ve cried many times for lost finals,” the Barca forward said. “I cried for not being able to fulfill the dream of our nation. My desire is the same as every Argentine, which is to lift the World Cup.”

He continued: “To win a World Cup is not easy. It doesn’t happen often. The last time we did things well but due to minor details we didn’t get it done. We are very enthusiastic and eager to lift the cup for our country. I hope God helps us and it happens.”

Messi has scored 61 international goals in his international career for Argentina, the most of any player from his native country.

Brazil to play Austria in final warmup game for World Cup

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VIENNA (AP) The Austrian soccer federation says Brazil will play its final warmup game for the World Cup against Austria on June 10, a week before the five-time world champions take on Switzerland in their Group E opener.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Kekuta Manneh to roster ahead of friendly ]

The match will be played in Vienna at Ernst Happel Stadium, the same venue where both teams last met in a 2014 friendly, which Brazil won 2-1.

Brazil has further build-up games against World Cup host Russia (March 23), world champion Germany (March 27) and Croatia (June 3) ahead of the June 14-July 15 tournament, where it also meets Costa Rica and Serbia in the group stage.

Austria failed to qualify for the World Cup but will also play friendlies against Russia on May 30 and Germany on June 2.

Fiorentina renames training ground for Davide Astori

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Fiorentina’s training ground has been renamed “Centro Sportivo Davide Astori” in honor of the club’s deceased captain.

[ MORE: Manneh added to USMNT squad ]

Davide Astori died in his team hotel room on March 4, shocking the Italian soccer world and triggering tributes around the world of soccer.

The respected Italian national team center back has had number retired by both Fiorentina and former club Cagliari.

Thousands packed a Florence piazza to salute the player en route to his funeral, and the club won its first match after his passing following vivid pre- and in-match tributes.