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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

Highlights:

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

ROMA KEEP PACE AT TOP

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.

Highlights:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=av7ZiHFdeKU]

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.

THE REST OF “THE FIVE”

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.

ELSEWHERE IN ITALY

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.

Klopp hopes for speedy solution in club, fans’ ticket-price dispute

Liverpool's fans wave flags during the English League Cup semifinal second leg soccer match between Liverpool and Stoke City at Anfield stadium in Liverpool, England, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
AP Photo/Jon Super
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From his time at Borussia Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp is used to a much more positive, family-like, everyone-pulling-in-the-same-direction atmosphere at his club of employment, so the present goings-on at Liverpool understandably have the Reds’ first-year manager feeling more than a little uneasy.

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Saturday’s late 2-2 draw with Sunderland wasn’t the first time Liverpool fans have headed for the exit before the final whistle, leaving Klopp feeling all alone, but it was the first time the fans have departed from Anfield early in a pre-planned, organized manner (Klopp missed the game himself with appendicitis). The Anfield faithful didn’t walk out on 77 minutes due to their team’s poor performance — Liverpool were 2-0 ahead at the time — but in protest of steadily rising ticket prices, which were unveiled at $111 per game to sit in the 132-year-old stadium’s new main stand next season.

Klopp, coming from the Bundesliga, where a season ticket at clubs the size of Bayern Munich and Dortmund doesn’t cost much more than a single-game ticket at many Premier League grounds, understands the fans’ frustration. At the end of the day, though, he works for the club, which is why he just wants the whole thing settled quickly, for the sake of his squad — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s not what we want. What I know is everyone in the club has a big interest in finding a solution for this. We don’t want people to leave the stadium before the game is finished.”

An LFC TV appearance by Liverpool chief executive Ian Ayre, in which he was expected to answer fan-submitted questions, was consequently canceled on Monday due to the ongoing dispute.

West Ham want Payet to sign new contract for fear of losing him this summer

Dimitri Payet, West Ham United FC (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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Dimitri Payet is going to be a red-hot commodity during this summer’s transfer window, there’s no doubt about it.

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Given he’s currently contracted to one of the Premier League’s “smaller” clubs — in comparison to some of the giants which are bound to be interested — West Ham United, there’s a decent-to-good chance he could be wearing a different club’s shirt come August. Especially if the 28-year-old attacker shows up and shows out at this summer’s European Championship in his native France.

If I can foresee the interest in Payet, then so too can the executives at West Ham, which is why manager Slaven Bilic took to the press on Monday to convey his desire for Payet to consider signing a new, increased contract at his earliest convenience — quotes from the Guardian:

“We are moving, the club is moving, with the new stadium, with the revenue and everything. We have to move and the most important move is to keep your best players and to add some new players who are needed and Dimitri Payet is our best player — I have no problem whatsoever to say that. Of course, I would love to have him happy, long term, at the club.”

Of course West Ham want Payet to sign a new deal immediately — doing so would accomplish two things in the club’s eyes: 1) increase the likelihood he remains at the club next season, or 2) insure the club receives a higher transfer fee for the player if he leaves in the summer anyway. The more total money remaining on his West Ham contract, the more they can demand of a prospective buyer.

[ MORE: Ronaldo commits himself to Real Madrid through 2018 ]

From Payet’s side — unless he has absolutely zero desire to move to a club like Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester United, where he’d likely be paid close to $200,000 per week — he’d be crazy to sign a new contract at this point. Not only would it make a move this summer more difficult, but a strong showing at EURO 2016 could be worth another $15,000 or $20,000 per week on a new contract with West Ham (his current contract is rumored to be close to $100,000 per week).

With as many as five seasons still remaining on his current contract (a one-year club option can be exercised at any point), and his stock perhaps at an all-time high, the next six months could hold Payet’s last chance to get really, really paid before he hits the downside of his career.

USWNT players’ union responds in USSF lawsuit

FILE - In this Sunday, July 5, 2015 file photo, the United States Women's National Team celebrates with the trophy after they beat Japan 5-2 in the FIFA Women's World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The U.S. Soccer Federation’s original lawsuit against the union for its champion women’s national team has been sealed after the governing body realized it had disclosed the home addresses and email accounts of many players, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
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(AP) — The union that represents the Women’s World Cup-winning American national team opposed an expedited schedule in the lawsuit filed against it by the U.S. Soccer Federation last week, insisting no collective bargaining agreement exists.

The federation sued in an attempt to establish it has a contract with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association that runs through this year’s Olympics until Dec. 31. The union maintains the memorandum of understanding agreed to in March 2013 can be terminated at any time.

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The USSF filed a motion Friday in U.S. District Court in Chicago asking for an expedited schedule, and the submitted opposition papers Monday that claim “facts asserted in the motion are nowhere near accurate and are hotly disputed.”

The union also maintains the USSF knew about the disagreement since July but did nothing about it.

An initial status conference is set for April 4.

Lionel Messi to undergo tests for lingering kidney problems

FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi holds the ball during a quarterfinal, second leg, Copa del Rey soccer match against Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi is to undergo medical tests to assess a recurrence of kidney problems.

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga roundup | Barca win on Sunday

Messi missed the Club World Cup semifinal in December due to a renal colic, an abdominal ailment often related to the presence of kidney stones within renal ducts.

Barcelona says in a statement Monday that the tests to be conducted by Tuesday at the latest, are “to assess the evolution of the kidney problem he suffered last December.”

[ MORE: Champions League returns next week — KO round matchups ]

The statement says Messi will resume training with the squad on Wednesday, when Barcelona travels to Valencia for the return leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals in which it carries a 7-0 lead.