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.

source: Getty Images
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.

College Soccer Update: Stingy Kentucky picking up speed; Cal Poly’s overhead wonder (video)

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Three-hundred thirty-two minutes and 26 seconds. That’s how long it’s been since an opponent has managed to put a ball into the goal behind the University of Kentucky men’s team.

It’s a statistic which not only makes an impression, but carries hope; Hope that the Wildcats will improve upon last season’s tournament work that saw them exit their conference tourney and the NCAA tournament early.

“If you go back to last year we had a really good run, but got knocked out in our conference tournament and then in the first round of the NCAA Tournament,” said fourth-year head coach Johan Cedergren. “Peaked too early and got a little overconfident.”

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The Wildcats are atop Conference USA with a 3-0 record in league play, having knocked off a strong New Mexico side this weekend. They’ll face Evansville and Ohio State the following two Wednesdays before meeting fellow CUSA 3-0 squad South Carolina.

It’s all according to plan for Cedergren, who is experiencing the senior years of his first recruiting class. One of those is goalkeeper Callum Irving, who is one clean sheet away from making program history for the most blankings as a Wildcat.

It’s helped having a versatile team to help out. Despite injuries to a pair of key backs, junior center back Jordan Wilson and senior holding mid Kristoffeer Tollefsen have combined with Irving to keep the side well-organized.

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“Over here you are very stat focused and Callum wouldn’t have these numbers without (Wilson),” Cedergren said. “And Tollefsen plays that holding mid role that is very hard to quantify. He made third team all conference last year, but he’s one of the best players and he’s playing at 75% percent.”

Cedegren also credits Hermann Award watch lister Napo Matsoso, who leads the team in shots, with keeping teams off-balance. And between Irving and the attack, the coach hopes that this season is the year the Wildcats will peak at the right time.

Three stars

  1. Oregon State — The Beavers opened PAC-12 play with a pair of 1-0 wins, knocking off UCLA with a Timmy Mueller (remember the name goal) before knocking off San Diego State by the same score. Next weekend? Cal and Stanford, both on the road.
  2. Nick DePuy, UCSB —  The 6-foot-4 junior forward has only been held off the score sheet thrice this season, and fired off 10 shots including three goals this weekend. Two were road game-winners at UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge.
  3. Chase Minter, Cal Poly — All three stars stay on the West Coast, thanks to Minter’s work setting himself up for this bicycle kick goal.

Other notes

— Creighton is back as the unrivaled No. 1 in the country amongst men’s Division I sides, claiming all 24 votes.
— Only one change in the Top 10, as Virginia moves up a spot to No. 10 and Elon falls three spots to No. 13. Leaping into the Top 25 after not receiving any votes last week is Oregon State. Kentucky, Butler and Syracuse move from receiving votes to Top 25.
— There s a single player who is in both the D-1 Top Ten in goals and assists, and his name will be familiar to those who read this space: Buffalo’s Russell Cicerone has eight goals and six assists after a 2+3 performance at St. Bonaventure on Saturday night.
— Also No. 1: Midwestern State (Men’s D2), Franklin & Marshall (Men’s D3), North Carolina (Women’s D1), Gannon (Women’s D2), Messiah (Women’s D3)

Samir Nasri rules out return to France squad; Likes MLS over Ligue 1

Manchester City's Samir Nasri celebrates after scoring during the English Premier League soccer match between Everton and Manchester City at Goodison Park Stadium, Liverpool, England, Sunday Aug. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
AP Photo/Jon Super
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When Samir Nasri is done with his time at Manchester City, he doesn’t want a return to Ligue 1. We knew that. He’s said it in March, and again over the summer.

But his willingness to stay away from home goes for club and country, as he’s not interested in a return to the national team fold. Heck, they could hire his family and he’s scoff at the idea.

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Nasri played in Marseille from his age 10 year through 2004, when he headed to Arsenal. He also scored five goals in 41 caps before being removed from the French fold by Didier Deschamps.

That hurt.

From Sky Sports:

“Even if my dad is coach, I will not return,” he said on French television. “I’ve suffered with the selections… missing a World Cup destroys you a bit. After 2012 I wanted to stop but my father told me I had to play the World Cup. I tried to be good.

“I do not see myself returning to Ligue 1. I love the Premier League. I like my life in England,” said Nasri. “I see myself going to play in the MLS, to discover something other than France.”

That makes at least three times Nasri has proffered a “come get me… eventually” plea to American powers-that-be.

Nasri is a bit of a loose cannon, but he’s also the sort of player who could punish defenses in MLS if given the chance to operate as the focal point of an attack. Perhaps with Didier Drogba in Montreal?

No, his time at the Etihad Stadium isn’t nearing an end just yet but… Yes, please. Maybe Nasri is one of those “In the league but not at the risk of my favorite team” players, but yes, please.