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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.

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′)

MLS Snapshot: Vancouver Whitecaps 3-3 Colorado Rapids (video)

COMMERCE CITY, CO - JULY 23: Tim Howard #1 of the Colorado Rapids stands in the goal against the FC Dallas at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on July 23, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): And … exhale. Realistically speaking, the Colorado Rapids probably watched their hopes of catching and passing FC Dallas in the race for the Supporters’ Shield when they blew not one, not two, but three leads away to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday, settling for a 3-3 draw in the end. Dominique Badji put the visitors 1-0 up after eight minutes, which was also the halftime score. The final 39 minutes would feature five goals, and a red card. Kendall Waston brought the hosts level in the 51st minute, then was sent off in the 56th minute, and Shkelzen Gashi made it 2-1 from the penalty spot a minute later. Pedro Morales scored for 2-2 in the 70th, but Gashi hit an inch-perfect free kick for 3-2 just five minutes later. Erik Hurtado scored in the 93rd minute for 3-3. The Rapids are safe in the Western Conference’s playoff places (currently second), while a draw is nowhere near enough to save Vancouver’s season. At least it was exciting, though.

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

Three Four Five Six moments that mattered

8′ — Badji rolls it into an empty net for 1-0 — Marlon Hairston took one for the team when he clattered into David Ousted, but was a quick enough thinker to lay the ball off for Badji, who made no mistake with his wide open chance.

51′ — Waston rises above the crowd for 1-1 — Kendall Waston … still really big, and dangerous on set pieces.

57′ — Waston sees red, Gashi converts the PK — Kendall Waston … red card. That’s Kendall Waston bingo, right? Gashi converted the ensuing penalty kick, and the Rapids were 2-1 ahead.

70′ — Morales finishes a quick move down the left — Erik Hurtado flashed the skill, Giles Barnes provided the cut-back, and Morales kept his wits about him on the finish. A man down, but back on level terms, for now.

75′ — Gashi hits a free kick pure as can be — Gashi couldn’t have picked the ball up, carried it to goal, and placed it over the line anymore perfectly than he hit this one.

90+3′ — Hurtado bring Vancouver level one last time — To come back from a goal down, and a man down, twice … that’s pretty impressive. It’s far more demoralizing, though, for the Rapids.

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

Man of the match: Shkelzen Gashi

Goalscorers: Badji (8′), Waston (51′), Gashi (57′ – PK, 75′), Morales (70′), Hurtado (90+3′)

MLS Snapshot: DCU 4-1 Orlando City | Red Bulls 1-0 Impact (video)

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 20: Nick DeLeon #14 and Lamar Neagle #13 celebrate a second half goal by Fabian Espindola #10 of D.C. United (R) against the Colorado Rapids at RFK Stadium on March 20, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): On Friday, I billed D.C. United vs. Orlando City SC as something a “win to remain in the playoff race” matchup. On Saturday, DCU were the only side to show up to RFK Stadium hoping to further their case for a place in the postseason. Patrick Mullins bagged a brace for Ben Olsen’s side, bringing his tally to seven goals since being acquired via trade in late July, while Lloyd Sam found paydirt for the second time since also being acquired via trade, in early July. Juliao Baptista pulled a goal back for the Lions, 3-0 down by that point. Julian Buescher restored the three-goal lead in the 90th minute, and that was that. Now level on games played with the New England Revolution, DCU currently sit a point ahead of the Revs for the sixth and final playoff place in the Eastern Conference (New England are away to Columbus Crew SC on Sunday).

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

Three moments that mattered

34′ — Mullins taps home to make it 1-0 — Mullins’ instincts inside the penalty area are exceptional. He’s one of those guys who always knows where to be, and exactly when to be there.

51′ — Sam heads past Bendik to double the lead — With the entire Orlando defense seemingly asleep, Sam was left all alone seven yards out.

53′ — Mullins goes far post for 3-0 — The window through which he had to slot this ball was quite small, but no problem for Mullins.

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

Man of the match: Patrick Mullins

Goalscorers: Mullins (34′, 53′), Sam (51′), Baptista (72′), Buescher (90′)


The game in 100 words (or less): The Eastern Conference is no more discernible today than it was on opening day of the 2016 season. After nearly seven months of games, the New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC and New York City FC all sit on 48 points (TFC with a game in hand) after the Red Bulls’ 1-0 victory over the Montreal Impact at Red Bull Arena on Saturday. Daniel Royer scored the game’s only goal, right on the hour mark, when it was beginning to look like a breakthrough would never come, for either side. That’s 13 games without a loss for Jesse Marsch’s side (just six wins), who along with the other two sides on 48 points, has secured a place in the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs berth.

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

Three moments that mattered

9′ — Piatti blazes wide after a long run — Ignacio Piatti did brilliantly until the finish. He also had Drogba making the underneath run to the far post.

41′ — Bush denies Royer from inside the six — Royer got on the end of this Chris Duvall cross, and had he put it either side of Evan Bush, he’d have made it 1-0 to the home team.

60 ‘ — Royer heads it past Bush to break the deadlock — Duvall once again served up the tantalizing ball from the right flank, and Royer did the rest to bag his first MLS goal.

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

Man of the match: Daniel Royer

Goalscorers: Royer (60′)

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC 1-1 Philadelphia Union (video)

Toronto FC's Jozy Altidore, center, shields the ball from Philadelphia Union's Richie Marquez, left, as Ken Tribbett looks on during first half MLS soccer action in Toronto on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): Another week goes by, and the world remains clueless with regard to the top three places in MLS’s Eastern Conference. Toronto FC entered the weekend with a two-point lead on the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC; then, NYCFC won big on Friday to go a point ahead. With RBNY still to face the Montreal Impact on Saturday, all three sides could finish the weekend on 48 points, a three-way tie atop the East, following TFC’s 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union at BMO Field. The home side went down a goal in the first half, via Alejandro Bedoya’s firt MLS goal — a chipped beauty (WATCH HERE) — before Justin Morrow played the role of unlikely hero, snatching TFC’s equalizer in the 70th minute. Saturday’s game marked TFC’s third without Sebastian Giovinco (quad/adductor injuries). TFC have won five of a possible nine points without the reigning — soon-to-be-back-to-back? — MLS MVP.

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

Three Four moments that mattered

25′ — Bedoya chips Irwin for 1-0 — It was just about the most difficult route to goal, but Bedoya wasn’t fazed one bit. Poor Clint Irwin, he was hardly even off his line. (WATCH HERE)

43′ — Irwin makes the point-blank save on Herbers — Reaction saves from point-blank range don’t get much better than this one by Irwin. Keeping his side in it.

70′ — Morrow slots home to bring TFC level — Jonathan Osorio did brilliantly to keep his composure with ample opportunity to take a difficult shot toward goal. Instead, he played Morrow through, and the full back finished the chance like a world-class striker.

90+3′ — Altidore hacked down in the box, no PK given — Ismail Elfath had long ago swallowed his whistle, apparently, because Jozy Altidore was hacked down inside the penalty area by C.J. Sapong, and TFC were absolutely bewildered by the no-call.

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

Man of the match: Alejandro Bedoya

Goalscorers: Bedoya (25′), Morrow (70′)