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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.

Joe Hart, Torino down Roma 3-1 in early Serie A game

BERGAMO, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 11:  Goalkeeper of FC Torino Joe Hart gestures during the Serie a match between Atalanta BC and FC Torino at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia on September 11, 2016 in Bergamo, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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In today’s early Serie A game, Joe Hart and Torino held down Roma to win 3-1 at Stadio Olimpico to move into the top half of the table.

Roma dominated the stat sheets, holding 69% possession and out-passing Torino 466-174, but were wasteful in front of net, only able to put just five of their 21 their shots on target.

Andrea Belotti scored just eight minutes in to put Torino ahead, and Iago Falque bagged a brace with goals 13 minutes apart in the second half to seal it. For all its possession and movement in the attacking half, Roma could only manage a goal on a penalty, scored by Francesco Totti, his 250th career goal, all coming for one club.

Manchester City loanee Joe Hart commanded a solid performance by Torino’s back line, with the home side managing a whopping 22 tackles and 33 clearances. Roma actually out-performed Torino on the expected goals front, proving Hart’s influence.

The win, the club’s first since late August, pushes Torino up to eight in the Serie A table on eight points. They have conceded just a single goal – the Totti penalty – in their last three matches. It’s a far cry from the 2-1 loss to Atalanta in Hart’s debut, in which a mistake by the England international allowed Atalanta to score the winning goal.

On the other side, Arsenal loanee Wojciech Szczesny made a mistake to gift Torino their early goal. The result for Roma is a big blow to their hopes at challenging for the title, dropping them five points back of leaders Juventus and four behind Napoli.

Championship match features nightmarish halftime shenanigans

DERBY, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Nigel Pearson, manager of Derby County looks on during the Sky Bet Championship match between Derby County and Blackburn Rovers at iPro Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Derby, England. (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)
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On Saturday, Derby County fell at home to Blackburn 2-1, with all three goals scored in a furious four-minute span midway through the second half.

It’s been a nightmare start to the season for both clubs, with the clubs in 20th and 22nd on a combined three wins.

That, however, was not the most disturbing thing on display at Pride Park Stadium. The halftime show featured a show with a character from a child’s bad dream. A man in a fish suit swallowed a person whole then spit him back out sans clothing. But don’t take our word for it:

Have fun sleeping tonight.

After a pair of La Liga draws, all is not well at Real Madrid

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 21: Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF grimaces in pain during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Villarreal CF at Santiago Bernabeu stadium on September 21, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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It’s amazing how results go hand-in-hand with off the field mood for the top teams in the world.

There is no club where that seems to be more true than Real Madrid. The team has drawn two in a row, first a 1-1 finish against Villareal at the Bernabeu that saw Los Blancos pump out 23 shots, but put only six on target. Then, they drew 2-2 Saturday with this year’s darlings Las Palmas out on the Canary Islands, crumbling at the back by blowing a pair of leads.

All this still leaves them atop the La Liga table, a point above Barcelona, and yet the wheels appear to be coming loose.

Things always start with Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, and that was the case on Saturday, when the superstar was withdrawn by head coach Zinedine Zidane in the 74th minute, and appeared to be visibly upset with the decision. Zidane told media after the game he was looking ahead to Tuesday’s Champions League matchup with Borussia Dortmund, saying, “He [Ronaldo] always wants to play and be out there on the pitch, but I’ve also got to think about the player and he needed to rest and think about Tuesday.”

Ronaldo did not speak to the media following the match.

Always in his teammate’s shadow is Gareth Bale, but things aren’t going well for him either. According to a report by The Sun, Bale has increased security after his fiance’s family has reportedly been targeted for arson attacks by a drug gang. In addition, Bale is reportedly unhappy after being substituted himself in the 70th minute of the draw with Villareal, according to reports in Spain. There have been reports for a while that his agent is shopping the Welshman to top clubs like Manchester United.

“We’re relaxed,” Zidane said after the Las Palmas draw. “We are working hard and focused on what we’re doing. We have to realize that you can’t always win, but we’re on the right track.”

MLS Snapshot: San Jose Earthquakes 1-2 Sporting KC (video)

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
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The game in 100 words (or less): Too many teams qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs. There, I said it. Because MLS rules are written as such, two of Sporting Kansas City, Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders will likely make it this year, and that’s two too many. On Saturday, the former most narrowly outplayed an even worse San Jose Earhthquakes side, to the tune of 2-1, to go fifth in the Western Conference and move eight points clear of the 7th-place Sounders. The worst part about the current playoff structure: one of the above mentioned sides will almost certainly get hot in the postseason, after doing very little over the course of 34 games to establish themselves as one of the league’s elite. You know, just like the Timbers did last year. Anyway, Dom Dwyer, Simon Dawkins and Kevin Ellis scored the goals on the night. Neither side is any good, nor should they be in the playoffs. That’s MLS.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

7′ — Dwyer heads home for the early opener — The ball from Paulo Nagamura was inch-perfect, and the header by Dwyer was unstoppable.

42′ — Coelho whiffs, Dawkins makes it 1-1 — That’s just unlucky, if you’re Nuno Coelho.

81′ — Ellis bundles the corner kick home for 2-1 — A fitting winner to this game.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Tim Melia

Goalscorers: Dwyer (7′), Dawkins (42′), Ellis (81′)