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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.

Seven unheralded stars of this Premier League season

during the Barclays Premier League match between A.F.C. Bournemouth and Tottenham Hotspur at Vitality Stadium on October 25, 2015 in Bournemouth, England.
Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images
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Look, it’s been a crazy year in the Premier League. Leicester City is top by five points, Chelsea is a bottom-half side, and not one of the league’s top three scorers hails from a team in last season’s Top Four.

So it follows that among the league’s other statistical leaders — advanced and traditional — are some surprisingly shining stars.

[ MORE: West Ham 3-2 Liverpool | Coutinho’s slick free kick ]

Or at least they aren’t mentioned a ton. We plan to rectify that here. By no means do we claim these statistical leaders without fault this season, but hats off to the good they’ve done (or, in some cases, the pain they’ve felt).

Most saves in a starring role

You wouldn’t know it from the goal totals these past few weeks, but Stoke City’s Jack Butland has been playing otherworldly between the sticks. His 87 saves lead the Premier League, and the Potters would be in the thick of a relegation battle if he hadn’t shone as brightly.

Ironman

Eleven players have played every minute of their side’s Premier League campaign this season (a 12th, Gareth Barry, has played all but one). Four of those 11 are goalkeepers, and six more are defenders. The only midfielder? Bournemouth’s South African standout Andrew Surman (above).

Top thief, too

Surman is also the league leader in interceptions with 92. The next seven players on the list, headed by Chris Smalling, are all defenders.

The most under-appreciated of the underdogs

Kante (Mark Thompson / Getty Images)

Leicester City has been fantastic, and people are quick to name Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy as big parts of the table-topping effort at King Power Stadium. Then, perhaps they’ll say something about goalkeeper Kaspar Schmeichel or defender Wes Morgan.

But how about the Premier League’s leader in tackles. Midfielder N'Golo Kante (right) has 115 tackles, 12 more than second-best Yohan Cabaye of Crystal Palace.

An all-expense paid journey to the massage parlor for…

Five players have been fouled more than 50 times this year, and you need to be around the ball a lot for that to happen. The four also-rans are Southampton’s Sadio Mane, Swansea City’s Andre Ayew, Everton’s Ross Barkley and Mahrez, but the man who deserved to skip to the head of the ice bath line is from Crystal Palace: Wilfried Zaha has been fouled 59 times. And that’s the amount of times the foulers were caught in the act.

Let Newcastle United’s captain climb in second, though; Fabricio Coloccini‘s 47 blocked shots are eight more than runners-up Neil Taylor (Swans) and Christian Fuchs (Leicester).

A man possessed

He hasn’t been heralded like a year ago, and most witnesses would tell you the midfielder’s been playing much worse. No, touches don’t equal success, but Cesc Fabregas‘ 2,027 credited touches are 74 more than the next player despite the fact that he’s the only player in the top four to have started less than 25 matches. He’s also completed 83 more passes than the closest competitor (Surman).

All-around stars

Advanced stats site Squawka uses an algorithm to generate statistics on who just might be the most complete player in the Premier League.

It’s certainly not foolproof, but the best player per-90 minutes would likely surprise you: Mousa Dembele of Spurs (Minimum 15 matches).

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As for who’s produced the most when numbers are averaged out over the entire game, one man rises to the top: Ross Barkley.

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Oft-targeted in the Premier League, Carvalho extends deal at Lisbon

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William Carvalho has been running through the rumor mill for ages, and Sporting Lisbon has made sure they’ll get their due if he ever stops somewhere else.

The Angola-born Portuguese defensive midfielder with 15 caps has extended his contract with Sporting through 2020, a date that carries him through his 28th birthday.

[ MORE: West Ham 3-2 Liverpool | Coutinho’s slick free kick ]

Carvalho is 23 now, and has been linked with loads of big name clubs from Manchester United to Chelsea, Arsenal to PSG.

His new buyout clause is said to be as high as $53 million, and Carvalho hopes his commitment calms his supporters.

“Sportinguistas, I say to you that I am very happy with the deal which I signed up to 2020 and that you will have total effort on my part to be champions.”

Sporting is tied with Benfica atop the Portuguese table, second on goal differential. The club leads third-place Porto by six points, and is still alive in the Europa League. Bayer Leverkusen is up next.

Klinsmann hints at Euro-heavy roster for World Cup qualifiers

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 08:  Danny Williams #14 of the United States looks on before an international friendly against Brazil at Gillette Stadium on September 8, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images
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If your favorite Major League Soccer players don’t make the cut for Jurgen Klinsmann’s next roster, don’t think you won’t see them in the red, white and blue this summer.

[ JPW: What’s the best XI for USMNT’s World Cup qualifiers? ]

Perhaps it’ll be different for the players who were a part of January camp — stars Lee Nguyen and Steve Birnbaum chief among them — but Klinsmann says the late start of the MLS season can affect fitness for the critical qualifiers home and away to Guatemala.

That means there’s a better chance to see in-form Championship midfielder Danny Williams (above) or Pachuca’s Omar Gonzalez then, say, Orlando City’s Brek Shea or Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman.

From USSoccer.com:

“We are basically looking all over the place. We monitor all the players in Europe. We monitor all the players in Mexico, and obviously we can’t wait until MLS starts as well. It’s really kind of crucial that we see everybody getting in the best shape possible, everybody getting into a rhythm and making statements.

“Then you say, ‘Is the roster you see at the end of March the same one as Copa America?’ Probably not. The end of March comes early for MLS players. The European players are in the full swing, and also Mexican players because they started already a month ago with Liga MX. So we’ll be monitoring everyone.”

We’ve already covered the obstacle that is the CONCACAF-CONMEBOL Olympic qualifying playoff occurring at the same time as the Guatemala matches, but this is still good news for players in England, Germany and other European locales seeking caps in March.

Klopp on struggling Benteke: “He wants to score and we need him to score”

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09:  Christian Benteke of Liverpool reacts as he foiled by goalkeeper Darren Randolph of West Ham United during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Jurgen Klopp had his appendix removed this weekend, but it’s doubtful he’s feeling as sore as his big Belgian striker.

Christian Benteke had the opportunity to put himself in the good graces of Liverpool fans with a number of decent chances in Tuesday’s FA Cup loss to West Ham, but couldn’t get the job done.

[ MORE: Match recap | Watch Coutinho’s slick free kick ]

In one case, Benteke put himself in a prime spot only to lash his shot wide of the post. Instead, he’s now at 11 appearances without a goal (despite ripping nine shots against the Irons).

From the BBC:

“I don’t believe in the easy goal. He has to carry on like this. It’s not the nicest moment in his career but he has to work hard. He wants to score and we need him to score. We will work on it in the days, weeks and months.”

Klopp maintained that Liverpool was “the better team” on the night — counterpart Slaven Bilic disagreed — despite conceding a pair of very similar looking goals.

The game could’ve avoided extra time through Benteke’s boots and body, but he couldn’t find his finish again.

The 25-year-old has seen his goal production drop by nearly half since joining from Aston Villa in the summer, and it’s sure to return… just maybe not under Klopp.