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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.

Ranieri returns to Leicester to say final goodbyes

SWANSEA, WALES - FEBRUARY 12:  Claudio Ranieri manager of Leicester City looks on prior to the Premier League match between Swansea City and Leicester City at Liberty Stadium on February 12, 2017 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Claudio Ranieri was at Leicester City’s training ground one final time on Saturday morning as he said goodbye to members of his former staff and his former players.

Let that sink in.

[ MORE: Ranieri – “My dream died”

Ranieri, 65, was sacked by Leicester on Thursday, just nine months after delivering the Premier League title (the first top-flight title in their 132-year history) for the Foxes.

Leicester are currently languishing just two points off the bottom of the PL table, one point and one place above the relegation zone, and have lost five-straight PL games as well as failing to score in six-straight games.

[ MORE: Latest news on Ranieri

It has been widely reported that the players met with the owners to state they were unhappy with Ranieri following the 2-1 defeat in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg at Sevilla on Wednesday. Less than 24 hours he was fired by Leicester’s owners.

Speaking briefly to the media as he left the training ground on Saturday, Ranieri remained classy until the very end.

“I feel good now, because of what we achieved at Leicester,” Ranieri said. “I hope it happens again but it will be very difficult.”

He was then asked by reporters outside the training ground if it was emotional saying goodbye to his former players.

“No it was normal,” Ranieri said, before driving off.

Shortly after he departed the training ground Leicester’s Thai owners then arrived in a helicopter as they flew in for talks with the players and caretaker boss Craig Shakespeare.

His firing has sparked outrage across the soccer world as the beloved Italian manager who led the 5000-1 shots from relegation fodder to title glory last season was ruthlessly cast aside. Yes, Ranieri’s Leicester are in a relegation scrap, but surely he deserved a chance to turn it around in the final 13 games of the season?

Now, the Leicester job is a poisoned chalice with Roberto Mancini, Alan Pardew and even former boss Nigel Pearson being touted as Ranieri’s successor. Nobody seems to want to take the job.

With the players under heavy scrutiny for their role in Ranieri’s sacking they’ll be under more pressure to perform against Liverpool on Monday at the King Power Stadium (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Ranieri’s name is sure to be sung loud and proud by the Leicester fans as they make their feelings known to the players and the owners about what has happened over the past few days.

US advances in qualifying for Under-20 World Cup

LEIGH, GREATER MANCHESTER - OCTOBER 05: Tab Ramos, Head Coach of USA looks on prior to the Under 20s Four Nations Tournament match between Germany and the United States at Leigh Sports Village Stadium on October 5, 2016 in Leigh, Greater Manchester.  (Photo by Mark Robinson/Getty Images)
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The United States advanced to the second round of qualifying for the Under-20 World Cup as Sebastian Saucedo scored twice Friday in a 4-1 win over St. Kitts and Nevis at Tibas, Costa Rica.

Brooks Lennon and Jonathan Lewis also scored for the U.S., which plays Mexico on Monday and El Salvador on March 3 in the second round. The top two teams in each second-round group of the North and Central American and Caribbean region qualify for the Under-20 World Cup, to be played in South Korea from May 20 to June 11.

Lennon, loaned this month from Liverpool to Real Salt Lake, put the Americans ahead in the 16th minute with his fourth goal of the tournament, poking in Jeremy Ebobisse’s cross from 7 yards. Lewis, who is with New York City FC, doubled the lead four minutes later after Lennon’s corner kick to the top of the penalty area was volleyed toward goal by Eryk Williamson. Justen Glad missed an attempted shot from near the penalty spot, and the ball rolled to an unmarked Lewis.

Salt Lake’s Saucedo added goals in the 35th and 41st minute on a 25-yard shot and a 27-yard free kick.

Romario Martin beat U.S. goalkeeper JT Marcinkowski in the 77th after a poor American backpass. Jonathan Klinsmann, the son of former U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, started the first two games for the U.S.

The U.S. (2-1) and Group B winner Panama (3-0), which beat the Americans 1-0 last weekend, both advanced.

Bremen beats Wolfsburg to leave Bundesliga relegation zone

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL - AUGUST 10:  Serge Gnabry of Germany reacts during the Men's First Round Football Group C match between Germany and Fiji at Mineirao Stadium on August 10, 2016 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)
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WOLFSBURG, Germany (AP) — Midfielder Serge Gnabry scored twice as Werder Bremen moved away from the Bundesliga’s relegation zone with a 2-1 win at fellow struggler Wolfsburg on Friday.

Bremen and Wolfsburg are level on points and two above Hamburger SV, which is in 18th place and in the relegation zone.

It was a fifth defeat in six games for Wolfsburg coach Valerien Ismael, who won the league and cup double as a player with Bremen in 2004.

Gnabry fired the visitors ahead with a deflected shot in the 10th minute and made it 2-0 eight minutes later, controlling the ball with his chest before prodding home on the volley.

Striker Borja Mayoral, who is on loan from Real Madrid, scored with his chest following a Wolfsburg corner as Wolfsburg hit back moments later.

Midfielder Daniel Didavi struck the post with a free kick as Wolfsburg kept pushing for an equalizer.

Mancini reportedly not interested in Leicester City, De Boer says no

GENOA, ITALY - APRIL 20:  Head Coach of FC Internazionale Roberto Mancini looks during the Serie A match between Genoa CFC and FC Internazionale Milano at Stadio Luigi Ferraris on April 20, 2016 in Genoa, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Two top candidates to replace Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City have reportedly turned down any interest in the job.

Roberto Mancini, the heavy favorite out of the gates after Ranieri’s dismissal, tweeted his support for Ranieri after the news broke. “I am sorry for my friend Ranieri,” Mancini said. “He will be in the history of LCFC, in the hearts of Leicester fans and all football lovers.”

However, the fellow Italian has rebuffed Leicester’s informal advances towards his services. According to Sky Sports, Leicester sent “intermediaries” to “sound out” Mancini’s feelings towards the position, but came back empty-handed. The report states Mancini was turned off to the club after a short and unsuccessful spell there as a player in 2001.

That leaves a host of other names who have been linked to the job, with no clear favorite. One person mentioned was Dutch legend Frank de Boer, who is unemployed after an unusually short stint in charge of Inter Milan. However, De Boer’s agent went public to say he was not ever in the running.

“There is zero possibility that Frank could go to Leicester,” agent Guido Albers told Italian publication Tuttomercatoweb. “I too heard these rumors, but that’s all they are – rumors. I can affirm without doubt that Frank will not become the Leicester City manager. This will 100 per cent not happen.”

Albers explained that De Boer is only interested in joining a club in the offseason, preferring to enter a project with a blank slate rather than joining midseason with particular goals already clearly laid out. With Leicester, it seems De Boer is turned off by the notion of a relegation battle.