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]
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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.

Transfer Roundup: Chelsea on Sanchez; Malcom to Arsenal; Mignolet to leave

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Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has responded to reports that the Blues are trying to make a late bid to buy Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal.

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“I don’t know but I don’t think so,” Conte said when asked by reporters on Tuesday if Chelsea were in talks to buy Sanchez.

Reports on Monday had suggested that although Sanchez’s move to Manchester United was edging closer, Chelsea had entered the race late on.

Sanchez, 29, is said to be involved in a swap deal for Henrikh Mkhitaryan plus cash but even that deal is proving difficult with Mkhitaryan dragging his feet.

Is there hope for Chelsea? It still seems like a long shot and something would have to go drastically wrong with United’s move for Arsenal.


Bordeaux’s president,Stephane Martin, has been speaking about a potential transfer for his star Brazilian forward Malcom to Arsenal, and it appears the Gunners are a long way from buying the 20-year-old.

Malcom’s agent was in London earlier this week, suggesting a deal was close, but that no longer appears to be the case.

Martin had the following to say when discussing Malcom’s future.

“Things are clear with his agents. It has not been extended and secured this summer to give it away this winter,” Martin said. “We never had a discussion with Arsenal. From our point of view, it’s wind. They can always try, but they will have a hard time taking it from us.”

Malcom has taken Ligue 1 by storm this season and has scored seven goals and added five assists.

It is believed he is valued at over $55 million by Bordeaux and both Arsenal and Tottenham were reportedly interested in the deal. However, Arsenal are said to be the main contenders for Malcom and if Alexis Sanchez does leave, as expected, the youngster is seen as a direct replacement.


Simon Mignolet could be on his way out of Liverpool.

The Belgian goalkeeper, 29, has been speaking about his future at the club after he was dropped for the 4-3 win against Manchester City at Anfield on Sunday.

“After the game against Burnley I had a conversation with the coach, among other things about his ongoing rotation. I did not find that a healthy situation for a goalkeeper,” Mignolet said. “My place on the bench against City confirmed his words. I am not satisfied with that (being dropped) but you have to respect a decision of the trainer.”

“After everything that has happened this season, I know where I stand and the situation has become clearer. I have been in such situations before and have always come out stronger. I have to think about my future and the World Cup is coming. This situation should not last too long, that is clear. But I cannot say more about it either.”

Mignolet has started 29 of Liverpool’s 23 PL games but Loris Karius has played in the UEFA Champions League and Mignolet seems frustrated with sharing time with the German goalkeeper.

Where could he go? The likes of Crystal Palace, Southampton and Newcastle could be good landing spots for the Belgian international, while Liverpool have been linked with a move for Stoke’s Jack Butland in the summer, so maybe Mignolet could be part of the deal?

Tevez on $850k per week move to China: “It was a vacation”

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Fact: Carlos Tevez’s vacations are the most lucrative around.

The former Manchester United, Manchester City and Juventus star joined Chinese Super League side Shanghai Shenhua in 2016 from his boyhood club Boca Juniors after leaving Juve in 2015 to return home to Argentina.

It is believed Tevez was earning close to $850,000 per week, after tax, in China but in September he was criticized for being overweight and not fit for action.

Tevez left Shenhua earlier this month after four goals in 16 games.

Speaking to Argentine outlet TYC Sports on his return to Boca, Tevez had the following to say about his move to China in 2016.

“It’s fine because I was on vacation for seven months,” Tevez said. “When I landed in China, I wanted to return to Boca.”

Now, 33, Tevez’s return to Boca has been lauded by Diego Maradona and fans in Argentina as the nomadic forward returns home with a huge wad of cash after one of the best paying vacations around.

Report: Real Madrid willing to let Cristiano Ronaldo leave

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It appears that Real Madrid are finally willing to let Cristiano Ronaldo leave the Santiago Bernabeu.

A report from Sky Sports’ Guillem Balague says that Real are now warming to the idea of selling Ronaldo and cashing in on the five-time World Player of the Year while they still can.

Ronaldo, 32, has scored just four goals this season in La Liga as Real, the reigning Spanish and European champions, languish in fourth place in the table.

Per the report, Ronaldo’s former club United are the frontrunners to re-sign him but there are certain complications which come with such a huge deal for one of the greatest players in world history.

First up: Real still want $120 million for a player who turns 33 in February. Yeah, not going to happen. Also, his salary of over $60 million per year, after tax, could be problematic.

Ronaldo has scored an amazing 422 goals in 418 game since joining Real from Man United in 2009 and he’s been instrumental in winning three UEFA Champions League titles in the Spanish capital. Still, with his numbers diminishing this season, a contract which runs out in 2021 and suggestions that he’s not at his physical peak anymore, this is a lot of money for United, or anyone else, to shell out.

Yes, Ronaldo’s name will see the club he plays for rake in cash in many other ways but if his levels continue to drop on the pitch then paying this much for him doesn’t make a lot of sense.

It’s clear that Ronaldo hasn’t been too happy for a while now and it is thought he wanted a new contract last summer but Real have yet to come up with the goods.

Seeing Ronaldo back at Old Trafford and managed by his old boss at Real, Jose Mourinho, seems like something out of a Hollywood movie. Until Real drop their asking price, Ronaldo heading back to Man United will remain a fantasy.

Mkhitaryan holds key in United’s deal for Sanchez

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This is getting very, very interesting. The late bid from Chelsea and Man City’s exit from the deal aside, there’s been another twist in this saga.

Manchester United’s move for Alexis Sanchez appeared to be getting closer to completion but the agent of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the suggested makeweight in the $48 million deal between United and Arsenal, has thrown a spanner in the works.

Mino Raiola has told The Times that United’s deal for Sanchez won’t go through unless his client agrees to join Arsenal.

“Manchester United is not going to sign Sanchez unless Mkhi agrees to join Arsenal.”Raiola said. “Sanchez is part of the Mkhi deal, not the other way around.”

Wow. Okay. He’s really doing this. Now, Mkhitaryan is a good player. You aren’t named the best player in the Bundesliga and signed by Man United if you’re not. But we all know the Armenian playmaker has struggled this season and for the opening half of the 2016-17 campaign after arriving from Borussia Dortmund.

His agent suggesting that Mkhitaryan is the main prize in this deal is obvious from his point of view as he protects the interest of his client, but the rest of the world knows Alexis is the man everyone wants in January.

It is said that Mkhitaryan (who was left out of United’s squad for the 3-0 win against Stoke on Monday due to the uncertainty around his future) would prefer a return to Dortmund but the Bundesliga giants aren’t said to be willing to pay his wages.

Arsenal were interested in Mkhitaryan in the summer of 2016 but he decided to join United instead, but it would appear that getting $48 million and Mkhitaryan for Sanchez, a player who has less than six months to run on his current contract, is a good deal for the Gunners.

Mkhitaryan holds the key to United’s Sanchez deal and it doesn’t seem like he’s in any rush to sort out his future. Could his delay hand Chelsea some time to try and sew up their own deal for Sanchez?

The transfer window shuts in just over two weeks. Tick-tock indeed.