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


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.)


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.



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.


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.


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.

Alexis Sanchez discusses Man United struggles

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Alexis Sanchez appears to be struggling with his disappointing start to life at Manchester United.

The Chilean star, 29, became the highest-paid player in the Premier League when he arrived from Arsenal in January in a swap deal for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but Sanchez has scored just one PL goal.

Sanchez has failed to make his mark on a consistent basis as United have also crashed out of the UEFA Champions League.

What does Sanchez put his lack of form down to?

In an Instagram post he left a caption saying that he was mentally exhausted: “I know you are tired. I know you are psychologically and emotionally exhausted. But you have to smile and continue”.

Speaking to the Chilean media ahead of their friendly against Sweden in Stockholm on Saturday, Sanchez revealed he has been struggling with the lack of impact he has had at United.

“The change of club was something that was very abrupt – it was the first time I’ve changed clubs in January – but many things have happened in my life that are difficult… As I am self-demanding, I expected something better. After my arrival at United, it was hard to change everything very quickly. I even hesitated to come here [to Sweden].”

Sanchez has looked better in a central role behind Romelu Lukaku but he hasn’t been used there often enough by Jose Mourinho.

At Arsenal he had the license to roam free in the attacking third but in Mourinho’s more defensive, rigid system he appears to be struggling to get on the ball in the right areas in and around the box. Sanchez has cut a frustrated figure out on the left wing and has given the ball away on multiple occasions as he tries to make the difficult passes and open up opposition defenses.

It appears that Sanchez is perhaps trying to hard to impress United and given his all-action displays, that is not easy to do.

United need more of him in the final third than out wide or tracking back to help out his own defense if they’re going to seal their top four spot and win the FA Cup to see out the final months of the season.

There’s no doubting Sanchez’s quality as we all know just how good he can be from his four seasons at Arsenal.

Yet, as he acknowledged himself, something at United isn’t quite right.

Premier League player Power Rankings

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With the Premier League players on international duty this week before the league resumes on March 31, now seems like a good time to take stock of which stars are shinning brightest.

[ MORE: Power Rankings archive ]

Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham were all in action over the past week, with four Premier League games and four FA Cup games taking center stage. The likes of Manchester City and Arsenal weren’t in action, so none of their players can be involved.

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections.

  1. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – Up 8
  2. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham) – New entry
  3. Willian (Chelsea) – Up 1
  4. Riyad Mahrez (Leicester) – Down 2
  5. Romelu Lukaku (Man United) – Down 2
  6. David De Gea (Man United) – Up 4
  7. Heung-Min Son (Tottenham) – Down 1
  8. Nemanja Matic (Man United) – New entry
  9. Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham) – New entry
  10. Sadio Mane (Liverpool) – Up 1
  11. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool) – New entry
  12. Jamie Vardy (Leicester) – Down 3
  13. Erik Lamela (Tottenham) – New entry
  14. Junior Stanislas (Bournemouth) – New entry
  15. Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace) New entry
  16. Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea) – New entry
  17. Cenk Tosun (Everton) – New entry
  18. Theo Walcott (Everton) – Up 1
  19. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Southampton) – New entry
  20. Alvaro Morata (Chelsea) – New entry

Dutch police detain 25 England supporters for violence

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AMSTERDAM (AP) Dutch police say they detained 25 English soccer supporters overnight after drunken fans threw beer bottles at officers ahead of a friendly match between the Netherlands and England.

Police say riot police were deployed to downtown Amsterdam to deal with the rowdy supporters. Police detained the England fans for offenses including public disorder.

England will play the Netherlands at the Amsterdam Arena on the southern edge of the Dutch capital. Police say they plan to beef up security before and after Friday’s match.

About 1,500 England fans traveled to the Dutch capital for the match.

LA Galaxy announces Zlatan Ibrahimovic signing

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LA Galaxy have confirmed that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has signed for them.

The Swedish veteran, 36, is the new No.9 for the Galaxy and in the video below he is shown alongside a lion and simply says: “Los Angeles, welcome to Zlatan!”

Classic Zlatan. The fact he announced his arrival in Los Angeles by taking out a full page ad in the LA Times on Friday also says it all.

[ MORE: Where will Zlatan rank in big-name players?

Major League Soccer now has a new icon as Ibrahimovic continues his glittering career in the USA after he terminated his contract with Manchester United earlier this week.

“I decided to sign with the Galaxy because I decided it was the best place for me. I have a lot to give. I can help them a lot. They are the best team in the U.S. There were no doubts,” Ibrahimovic said. “Hopefully it goes like I want and we can all share the happiness by winning. I feel good. I am training very hard. I need to play games to go in the rhythm. The more I play, the better I will be.”

With that positive update on his own fitness following some recent setbacks, Ibrahimovic was asked what he wants to achieve in MLS.

“I want to accomplish as much as possible,” Ibrahimovic said. “Wherever I went, I won. I played in the best clubs in the world, different countries, and I won. I am coming with this objective. I come to win. I want to win. I think it’s in my DNA that I am winning my trophies. It is no luck, no special moment. It is just me. Different place but same Zlatan.”

LA confirmed that Ibrahimovic has arrived via Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) as they currently have filled all three of their Designated Player spots.

It is believed Zlatan has joined on a two-year deal reportedly worth around $3 million per year. He could make his debut against new crosstown rivals LAFC on Mar. 31.

No doubt he will probably score the winner late on after jumping off the bench, then declare himself the Mayor of LA…