FC Internazionale Milano v AS Roma - Serie A

Italy: One-two battle the latest chance for Roma to show title-contending form

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Roma answered lingering questions with their win at Inter, the 3-0 result before the international break running the Giallorossi’s record to 7-0-0. It was the first major test of the Rudi Garcia era, one Serie A’s leaders passed with with unexpected ease. With a +20 goal difference through seven rounds (having conceded only once), there’s little doubt Roma’s image has now transcended its early, upstart status. They’re full-fledged contenders now.

Whether they’re favorites is a different discussion entirely, though that debate may come to a quick a resolution tomorrow. That’s when Napoli, sitting second in Italy, visit the Stadio Olimpico for the premier match of the European weekend – one that’s been moved up a day to avoid weekend protests in Italy. Combined, the two teams have taken 40 of a possible 42 points this season.

In the buildup to the match, much has been made of the relationship between the club’s two new coaches, with Garcia’s acquaintance with Rafa Benítez dating back to the latter’s time at Valencia. The stylistic differences between the two, however, could prove decisive on Friday. Benítez has become known for a type of conservative pragmatism that leads detractors to bemoan the sometimes dull results. Garcia, on the other hand, maintains the same entertaining, often open style he used with great success at Lille. Whereas Benítez is practical, Garcia remains a dreamer.

At least, you have to be a dreamer to envision Roma, a team that failed to qualify for Europe last season, could play as this level, but thanks to Garcia’s approach and the club’s typical slew of offseason changes, the Giallorossi are one of Europe’s pleasant surprises. They’re experiencing the type of success they’ve lacked since parting with Luciano Spalletti, and even under the current Zenit boss, Roma never experienced runs quite like this. Destroyer Daniele De Rossi’s been commanding in front of the defense, midfielders Miralem Pjanic and Kevin Strootman have set up seven goals between them, while Gervinho and Alexandro Florenzi have used Francisco Totti’s creativity to score seven between them.

The combination will stress Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami, the Swiss midfielders tasked with protecting Napoli’s defensive in Benítez’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Given how Roma play, the tandem could be overwhelmed in the space above the line, not only dealing with Totti’s trequarista tendencies but also contending with Gervinho, Florenzi, Pjanic and Strootman, all of whom frequently threaten that space. They’ll need help from Miguel Britos and Raul Albiol, Napoli’s likely starters in central defense, through the desire to follow Totti into midfield and help the holders could leave vital space Roma’s captain can exploit – space where Gervinho and Florenzi have thrived.

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Slovakian international Marek Hamsik has been one of Italy’s best players this season, scoring five times in as many games during Napoli’s 6-0-1 start. (Photo: Getty Images.)

The numbers dictate Benítez come up with some way to counter Roma’s threats, though if that happens, Napoli have their own advantages at the other end. The work of striker Gonzalo Higuain will ensure Leandro Castan and Mehdi Benatia are occupied in central defense, leaving De Rossi one-on-one with Marek Hamsik (five goals already this season) and a replacement left back to contain José Callejon. Federico Balzaretti, Garcia’s first choice on that side, picked up a red card against Inter Milan, leaving him suspended for tomorrow’s match. If Roma’s sterling defensive record’s about to be compromised, it may be through Balzaretti’s spot.

But this game could come down to the dreamer versus the pragmatist. Benítez may see an early season match on the road as a reason to contain, not impose. It’s an approach that may have hurt Napoli in London, where a seemingly tentative side saw Arsenal run past them in Champions League. Roma carries the same potential to overwhelm the partenopei.

If, however, Benítez can come up with a plan that can show Garcia’s dreams to be naiveté, Napoli may issue a wake-up call. Regardless, we’ll find out whether Roma are favorites or mere contenders. An 8-0-0 mark would force us to consider whether they and not Juventus are most likely to claim this year’s scudetto.

Other notes on tomorrow’s match:

  • Kevin Strootman picked up an ankle injury on international duty, creating the slight chance recovering U.S. international Michael Bradley could be thrown into the fray after his own battle with an ankle problem. Strootman, however, looks set to start, as does Miralem Pjanic, who is said to be dealing with a slight knee problem.
  • Rudi Garcia said Gervinho was also a small fitness concerned but hinted the Ivorian will play on Friday.
  • Garcia, on his fullback selection issues: “I have options on the left and on the right of defence: (Greece international Vasilis) Torosidis has done very well. I can drop Marquinho back into a deeper role or even start (Alessio) Romagnoli. Dodò? He’s getting back from serious injury, but is better now … But I’ll make my decisions tomorrow. I prefer to have to make tough selection decisions rather than have no selection decisions to make at all.”
  • Napoli have their own injury concerns, though many of which have cleared up. Gonzalo Higuaín and Raul Albiol earlier this week, but having come through recent training sessions with no setbacks, each are expected to feature in Benítez’s starting XI.
  • Fullback Juan Camilo Zuñiga, however, is out for Napoli. Look for Pablo Amero to get the start at left back.
  • With Lorenzo Insigne having played Tuesday for Italy, Benítez will likely choose Belgian Dries Mertens to start on the left side of his attack. The 26-year-old recorded two assists in Napoli’s 4-0, pre-break win over Livorno.

MLS Cup Playoffs: D.C. United 2-4 Montreal Impact (video)

CORRECTS DATE - Montreal Impact forward Matteo Mancosu, back, celebrates his goal with Ignacio Piatti (10) during the first half of an MLS playoff soccer match against D.C. United, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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The game in 100 words (or less): There are epic playoff collapses, and there is the MLS Cup Playoffs abomination put forth by D.C. United on Thursday. Playing host to a Montreal Impact side that won just two of its last eight regular-season games and crawled over the finish line, United — winners of four of their last five and one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch — no-showed Thursday’s knockout-round tie, and their season is deservingly finished. Laurent Ciman put the Impact ahead inside the first five minutes, and United never recovered or seemed the least bit urgent with their season on the line. Matteo Mancosu bagged a brace either side of halftime to make it 3-0, and Ignacio Piatti, who was his usual brilliant self — so good, in fact, he made you forget Didier Drogba was unavailable due to injury/dispute over his role as a substitute — added a fourth not long before full-time. Lamar Neagle grabbed a late consolation goal for United, bringing them back to 4-1 before Taylor Kemp fired a laser past Evan Bush for 4-2 late in stoppage time, but that’s as close as they’d get. Up next for the Impact, it’s the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals, beginning Sunday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three moments that mattered

4′ — Ciman slots home from a corner for 1-0 — An absolute dream start for Montreal, as Ciman gets front side of his marker and benefits from a fortunate bounce after he scuffs the shot.

43′ — Mancosu slams home Piatti’s cross for 2-0 — Someone tell DCU that the knockout round is most definitely win-or-go-home. Horrific defending. Ball-watching all over the place. This is not the same team that won four of their last five in order to host this game.

58′ — Mancosu heads home at the near post for 3-0 — Steve Birnbaum has not had the greatest end to the 2016 season. Stay healthy, John Brooks and Geoff Cameron.

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

Men of the match: Matteo Mancosu

Goalscorers: Ciman (4′), Mancosu (43′, 58′), Piatti (83′), Neagle (90′), Kemp (90+4′)

FOLLOW LIVE: 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round

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)
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The knockout round of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs concludes on Thursday, as four teams vie for the final two places — one in the Eastern Conference, one in the Western Conference — in the conference semifinals, which begin on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round ]

Up first, the East’s fourth-seeded D.C. United welcome the five-seed Montreal Impact to RFK Stadium for the two sides’ third meeting of the 2016 season. Each of the year’s first two clashes finished a 1-1 draw, in July and August. Didier Drogba is expected to be unavailable for the win-or-go-home tie. United finished the regular season with four wins in the last five games, while the Impact won just two of their last eight.

[ MORE: Preivewing Thursday night’s knockout-round games ]

In the nightcap, the West’s fourth-seeded Seattle Sounders will take on the five-side, Sporting Kansas City, at CenturyLink Field. Sporting were victorious in both regular-season meetings this year — 1-0 on opening day, and 3-0 in late-July, the day the Sounders essentially quit on Sigi Schmid. Since that blistering hot day in KC, the Soudners have lost just twice in 14 games (eight wins, four draws).

Thursday’s MLS Cup Playoffs schedule

D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC — 10 p.m. ET

Cristiano Ronaldo says Ashley Cole is the toughest player he faced

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Cristiano Ronaldo has faced the best defenders in the world during his time with Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team.

He has also caused fits for most of those defenders with goal after goal for club and country. But, there have been some players who have at least made it difficult for the all-time leading goal scorer in Real Madrid and Champions League history.

According to Ronaldo, former Chelsea and Arsenal defender Ashley Cole was the toughest player he has faced in his career.

[ MORE: VIDEO: Incredible Pelle goal in China ]

“Over the years I had some great battles with Ashley Cole, he does not give you a second to breathe,” Ronaldo told Coach Mag. “He was such a tenacious player when he was at his peak, quick, tough in the tackle. You knew it would never be an easy game.”

During his time with Manchester United, Ronaldo faced Cole on numerous occasions while Cole was with Arsenal and Chelsea. The two have also faced off in international competition between Ronaldo’s Portugal and Cole’s England.

It’s certainly high praise for Cole, who now plays in MLS for the LA Galaxy. At the age of 35, Cole has started 25 matches for the Galaxy this season, scoring one goal.

Phil Neville praises Juan Mata’s play to Manchester United

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Juan Mata has appeared in 116 matches for Manchester United since moving to Old Trafford in 2014. In that time, Mata has scored 29 goals and recorded 18 assists.

Despite his performance for the team, some thought Mata would be moved when Jose Mourinho came to town, including former United player and assistant coach Phil Neville.

Neville told Sky Sports, “I actually thought he would be the first out of the door when Jose came, but he’s actually becoming one of the most important players.”

Neville praised Mata’s contributions and versatility for United. “He is never injured, he provides a lot of assists, he plays in two or three different positions, and he scores important goals.”

Manchester United has lacked an identity under Mourinho and recently faltered in the Premier League as the team is winless in its last three matches.

[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]

Could Mata be the answer to some of United’s problems?

The Spaniard is a classic No. 10 with the ability to dictate his team’s attack and create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Mata can also put the ball in the back of the net as evidenced by his winner against Manchester City in the EFL Cup.

Mourinho has options in the center midfield with the likes of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick in addition to Mata on the roster.

However, given the team’s Premier League struggles, it could be worth giving Mata a chance as the team’s No. 10.