Italy: Roma still perfect, Napoli stumbles, Juve fights back at Chievo (Video)

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Europe came into its midweek matches with four perfect teams across its top five domestic competitions. On Tuesday, Spain’s pair of perfectionists emerged unscathed, with Barcelona posting a 4-1 win over scuffling Real Sociedad while Atlético Madrid moved to 6-0-0 with 2-1 win over Osasuna.

On Wednesday, it was time to test Italy’s perfect duo, Napoli and Roma, who each entered the mid-week round not only perfect in four matches but also having cleared significant weekend hurdles.  Compared with this weekend’s trip to Milan, a visit from newly-promoted Sassuolo should have been a breeze for the Neopolitans, considering Inter had just run out 7-0 winners at Sassuolo this weekend. Roma has just downed rival Lazio but were in greater danger of losing their perfect start, with a Sampdoria playing at the Luigi Ferraris theoretically more capable of derailing the Giallorossi.

[MORE: Wrapping up last weekend’s action in Serie A.] 

But for the second game in a row, Roma responded to a scoreless second half with a 2-0 win, particularly interesting considering Rudi Garcia made five chances the team to that won this weekend’s Rome Derby. Like that team, today’s was better throughout, finally breaking through via a piece of Mehdi Benatia brilliance in the 65th minute (that’s a defender doing that, below). Arsenal refugee Gervinho doubled his team’s lead two minutes from time, keeping Roma at the top of the league.

Highlights:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Cue6Oj4ISE]

The 5-0-0 record is the best start in Roma’s history; or, put more precisely, the longest into a new season they’ve maintained a perfect start. That they’ve done so while operating under a new coach after selling one of their best attackers (Erik Lamela) and best defender (Marquinhos) explains while most are surprised. Having yet to face another of Serie A’s emerging top five, there are still questions, but with 15 points from five games, Garcia and Roma are certainly building  a margin for error.

“I’m really happy with the five consecutive wins, but I’m more interested in making history at the end of the season,” Garcia told the assembled media after the match.

“It’s too early to start assessing things, but I’m happy for the team.”

That happiness was not replicated in Naples, however, as Napoli suffered their first stumble of the season, drawing a game many saw as their easiest to date. And when Blerim Dzemaili cleaned up a poor, 15th minute clearance to give the partenopei and early lead, the result did seem a foregone conclusion.

That all changed five minutes later, with Pepe Reina allowing a shot form a sharp angle from Simone Zaza to go high an under the cross-bar for an unlikely equalizer (insert credit to Zaza here, because it was a surprisingly great shot). The Spanish international would make up it in the second half, but the fact he was needed only spoke to the extent to which Napoli were off their game. The 1-1 result was a reflection of a patient, dangerous performance from Sassuolo as well as Napoli’s inability to forge a winner.

Highlights:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuWs1UcfRsc]

It was only a draw — in the big picture, not a huge deal — but it’s a result that leaves Napoli two points behind Roma. And now, only three teams in Europe’s big five remains perfect in their league campaigns.

JUVENTUS FIGHT BACK TO CLAIM FULL POINTS AT CHIEVO

When Chievo went up 1-0 in the 27th minute through Cyril Théréau, you knew what was going to happen. We’ve seen this performance before. Whether through skill or brute force, execution or fortune, Juventus was going to come back. And by the 65th minute, they had. Juve went on to beat the Flying Donkeys, 2-1.

But today’s performance, as controlling as it was after Juventus ceded the lead, still required more fortune than they would have liked. The 48th minute equalizer from Fabio Quagliarella wasn’t part of that, though, as Juve practically brute-forced the goal past Christian Puggioni. Besides, Quadliarella and Andrea Pirlo nearly had that equalizer just before halftime, going tantalizingly close on a sequence that ended when Pirlo went over the crossbar.

The winner, however, came via an Alessandro Bernardini own goal, a score that doubled-down on Chievo frustrations after their own go-ahead tally had been waved off. Earlier in the second half, the Donkeys, seemingly taking advantage of another disappointing performance from Gianluigi Buffon, had buried a ball spilt in front of goal only to see the assistant referee’s flag lifted overhead.

Still, as they have when they’ve converted other sub-par performances into results, Juventus deserve credit. As we see with Napoli’s result, it’s not uncommon for a good team to struggle and drop points against inferior competition. But Juventus avoided that fate today. By whatever means necessary, skill or fortune, they got three, not one. As a result, they’ll pulled even with Napoli on 13 points, just behind Roma.

Highlights:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VhHWjgpOz0]

ELSEWHERE IN SERIE A

  • Bologna 3-3 AC Milan: The Rossoneri again are left to fight back late, with 26-year-old Ignazio Abate’s first goal for Milan (149 appearances) giving Max Allegri’s team a stoppage time equalizer.
  • Lazio 3-1 Catania: The Aquile bounce back from derby disappointment through Ederson and Senad Lucic before Hernanes added late insurance against the 10-man Elephants.
  • Livorno 1-1 Calgliari: Andrea Luci and Victor Ibarbo trade goals as Livorno get their eighth point of the season (2-1-2).
  • Torino 2-2 Hellas Verona: Alessio Cerci’s up to three goals in two games for Torino after today’s brace, but Jorginho Frello’s second half penalty conversion allows Verona to escape with a point.
  • Parma 4-3 Atalanta: Thanks in part to a first half double from Marco Parolo, Parma went into half up 4-2 but came out of intermission made to hold on. Amauri’s straight red in the 52nd minute allowed Atalanta to control the rest of the game, but only a 79th minute goal from Marko Livaja saw the visitors make any progress.
  • Udinese 1-0 Genoa (Tuesday): Antonio Di Natale’s late restart went off Emanuele Calaio and into his own net, the own goal deciding an otherwise mundane affair 11 minutes about time.
  • Inter Milan – Fiorentina (Thursday):  Coming off their 7-0 win, Inter gets their second match of the young season against one of the league’s big five. Thankfully for them, both this and Sept. 14’s meeting with Inter take/took place at the San Siro.

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

Photo credit: Chelsea FC / Twitter: @chelseafc
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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

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SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.