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.

PL Sunday preview: Wayward Watford welcome woeful West Ham

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In a reversal of roles, based on preseason projections at least, Watford welcome West Ham United to Vicarage Road on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) for a clash of mid-table climbers and relegation fighters, respectively.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Man Utd, Chelsea win big… so do Man City ]

Watford began the 2017-18 Premier League season in fine form, winning four of their first eight games and losing just one (to runaway leaders Manchester City, no less). In their last three games, however, the Hornets have conceded eight goals, while scoring just four themselves, and winning zero points. Coincidentally — nor not, perhaps — that three-game slide began at the same time Watford manager Marco Silva‘s name was linked with the vacant manager’s job at Everton. With Ronald Koeman fired almost four weeks ago now, Watford have rejected approach after approach from Everton owner Farhad Moshiri. Silva, for his first three months of efforts, has been roundly praised by the club’s supporters and players alike.

“Everybody could see he changed a lot of things in the team. We had quite a lot of the same players but we improved a lot,” defender Christian Kabasele said this week. “When you have somebody like this and other teams are looking for him it’s important that Watford try to do everything possible to keep him.”

West Ham, meanwhile, started the season poorly and have remained equally so in recent weeks. Slaven Bilic was subsequently fired two weeks and succeeded by David Moyes, who had been out of a job since guiding Sunderland to relegation at the end of last season. Sunday’s bout with Watford will see Moyes make his debut for West Ham, the fourth club to employ him since leaving Everton four and a half years ago. To make matters more difficult, the Hammers’ leading scorer, Javier Hernandez (4 goals), won’t be available after picking up an injury on international duty.

“It’s a clean slate for the entire squad,” Moyes said last week. “They’ve all worked very hard this week and responded in a positive manner to everything we’ve asked of them. It will obviously take time for the players to fully understand our style and methods but the initial signs are very encouraging — they’ve bought in what we are trying to do and that’s a good base for us to build on.”

INJURIES: Watford — OUT: Troy Deeney (suspension), Nathaniel Chalobah (knee), Isaac Success (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Younes Kaboul (hamstring), Sebastian Prodl (hamstring), Roberto Pereyra (hamstring) | West Ham — OUT: Javier Hernandez (hamstring), James Collins (ankle), Sam Byram (thigh), Jose Fonte (foot); QUESTIONABLE: Michail Antonio (ribs)

The 2 Robbies: North London Painted Red

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In today’s pod, the Robbies heap praise on Arsenal’s impressive performance in the North London Derby (00:30), analyze Manchester United’s 4-1 win against Newcastle on the back of Paul Pogba’s return (10:00), ask if this Man City side is the best Premier League side ever (18:25), debate where Kevin De Bruyne’s current form ranks in the league’s greatest ever players (23:45) and pick the best summer signing so far this season (27:15; hint, hint – he might be leading the league in scoring).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

La Liga: Draw in Madrid derby puts Barca 10 clear of capital rivals

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MADRID (AP) Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid played to a scoreless draw in their first derby at the new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium on Saturday, leaving both teams further away from Spanish league leader Barcelona.

Barcelona won at Leganes 3-0 earlier and ended the day 10 points in front of both Madrid clubs after 12 matches. The thriving Catalan club is seven points in front of second-place Valencia, which will try to extend its seven-game winning streak at Espanyol on Sunday.

The draw extended Atletico’s winless run at its new home to five matches. It drew three straight entering this weekend. Diego Simeone’s team has won only two of its last 10 games in all competitions.

Both teams will have to remain nearly perfect for the rest of the season to try to catch up to Barcelona, which has won 11 of its 12 league matches.

It was a tense between Real and Atletico from the start, with hard fouls from both sides.

Real had control for most of the game but was not able to create many significant chances.

Atletico had one of its best opportunities early when forward Angel Correa entered the area free from markers with only goalkeeper Kiko Casilla to beat but sent his shot wide.

Substitute Kevin Gameiro also came close in the second half, but his shot over Casilla was cleared by Real defender Raphael Varane in front of the goal-line.

Real threatened with a few runs by Isco and a couple of free kicks taken by Cristiano Ronaldo.

It was another tough night for Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann. Ronaldo has scored six times in the Champions league but only once in La Liga, while Griezmann has only three goals in 14 matches with Atletico in all competitions. The France forward was jeered when he was replaced by Fernando Torres near the end of the second half.

Luis Suarez scored twice to end a five-match scoring drought in Barcelona’s win.

The Uruguay striker found the net in each half and substitute midfielder Paulinho scored late to give the Catalan club its 11th win.

Leganes, ninth in the standings, had its chances early in southern Madrid but couldn’t beat Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Suarez opened the scoring in the 28th after Leganes goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar dropped the ball in front of the goal after a cross by Paco Alcacer. Suarez’s second in the 60th was a rebound shot after Cuellar parried a shot by Lionel Messi. Suarez hadn’t scored in more than a month.

“What mattered to me was that I was feeling good and was helping the team, and today the goals helped us get the three points against a difficult rival,” Suarez said. “We always try to play better, but it’s not always possible.”

Paulinho sealed the victory in the 90th after a pass by Messi, who was on the ground fighting for the ball when he tipped it back to the midfielder.

Leganes, playing only in its second season in the first division, wore a specially designed purple shirt to promote the fight against gender violence.

“We had our opportunities, but in the end we knew that we were playing against the best team in the world, and with very little they can score on you,” Leganes midfielder Ruben Perez said.

Sevilla recovered from its loss to Barcelona in the previous round by beating Celta Vigo 2-1 to move back to fifth place.

Celta got on the board first through Maxi Gomez, but the hosts rallied with goals by Luis Muriel in the first half and Nolito in the second.

It was the fourth win in five matches for Sevilla in all competitions.

Markel Bergara and Jorge Molina scored in the first 10 minutes to lead Getafe to a comfortable 4-1 win over Alaves at home.

It was the 10th league loss for Alaves, which remains in 18th place. Getafe is 10th.

“Our performance was embarrassing,” Alaves coach Gianni De Biasi said.

Bundesliga: Bayern running away (again) after slow start

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BERLIN (AP) Robert Lewandowski scored twice to help Bayern Munich stretch its lead in the Bundesliga to six points with a 3-0 defeat of Bavarian rival Augsburg on Saturday.

It was the 500th league win for Jupp Heynckes as a player or coach and extends the 72-year-old’s winning start to eight games across all competitions since he returned for his fourth stint.

“That’s a surprise for me. I don’t bother with statistics and numbers,” Heynckes said on being told about his winning landmark. “But it’s an impressive number (500). I had a long career as a player, and now as a coach. It wasn’t planned.”

Heynckes was coaxed out of retirement to take over from the fired Carlo Ancelotti on Oct. 5. Bayern was trailing then-leader Borussia Dortmund by five points at the time. Now the side is nine points ahead of Dortmund, which hasn’t won in the league since Sept. 30, and six ahead of Leipzig, held to a draw at Bayer Leverkusen.

Bayern midfielder Arturo Vidal broke the deadlock after half an hour, swiveling to fire home the rebound from a difficult angle after Mats Hummels’s effort was blocked and the ball ricocheted off Niklas Suele.

Vidal turned provider seven minutes later, playing Lewandowski through on a counterattack to shoot past Marwin Hitz.

The Poland striker claimed his league-leading 13th goal of the season early in the second half with a perfectly struck volley to Joshua Kimmich’s precise long cross from the right.

Vidal headed against the crossbar just afterward before Bayern conserved energy for Wednesday’s Champions League game at Anderlecht.

The win stretched the side’s unbeaten record to 28 games at home.

Winless Cologne’s terrible start to the league continued with its 10th defeat in 12 games, while the discussion over video assistance in the league will continue after two mistakes by referee Felix Brych.

Daniel Brosinski’s penalty before the break was enough for a 1-0 win for Mainz against Cologne, but how it came about will ensure the controversy over video assistance goes on.

Brych pointed to the spot when Pablo De Blasis fell under Frederik Sorensen’s challenge. He then consulted the video assistant, who had the benefit of studying replays in Cologne, and stood by the decision – despite television showing that Sorensen made hardly any contact with the Mainz player.

Brych later sent off Mainz’s Giulio Donati for what he perceived as striking Leon Bittencourt after a tussle between the two. However, Bittencourt’s foot struck Donati in the face beforehand. Donati, who was lying on the pitch clutching his face, brushed the Cologne player away when he went to lift him up.

Following controversial decisions in previous games, the German soccer federation said video assistants were only to step in when there was “a clear wrong decision.”

Ten-man Leverkusen came from behind to salvage a 2-2 draw at home against second-place Leipzig.

Timo Werner’s early penalty put the visitors in front before Leon Bailey equalized before the break.

The home side’s hopes took a blow when Benjamin Henrichs was sent off for handball on the line and Emil Forsberg scored the resulting penalty, but Kevin Volland equalized again with a quarter-hour remaining.

Wolfsburg defeated Freiburg 3-1 at home to give coach Martin Schmidt his first win after he started with seven draws.

On loan from Bayern, Serge Gnabry did brilliantly to set up Mark Uth for Hoffenheim’s injury-time equalizer in a 1-1 draw with visiting Eintracht Frankfurt.