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.

Brooks yanked after 29 minutes on return from injury

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USMNT defender John Brooks, whose season has been largely ruined by injuries, made his first start since mid-December after finally returning from a knee injury. It didn’t last long – just 29 minutes.

It doesn’t appear to be injury related, however.

After earning a yellow card just 13 minutes in, Brooks was yanked by new Wolfsburg manager Bruno Labbadia in the 29th minute with the club down 1-0 on the road at Borussia Monchengladbach. Brooks was furious as he came off the pitch, and reports from Germany seem to suggest that his substitution was a tactical decision rather than injury-related.

Brooks has made just eight Bundesliga appearances this season, starting the campaign on the shelf with a thigh injury before his knee problem kept him off the field almost four months through the winter and into the spring.

After his withdrawal, Wolfsburg conceded two more goals before halftime as Monchengladbach grabbed a 3-0 lead via goals from Raffael and Christoph Kramer, with Lars Stindl having already given them a lead eight minutes in.

It’s understandable why Labbadia would be cautious with his more aggressive players. Wolfsburg is in danger of the drop, level with Mainz and Freiburg on 30 points with one of them almost assuredly to finish in the relegation playoff position. Still, it’s an unfortunate turn of events for Brooks after finally making his way back to the field, and he was visibly angry as he came off the pitch.

FA Cup semifinal preview: Can Mourinho win Man United another title?

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It’s been a season of highs and lows for Jose Mourinho, but he could put Manchester United on the precipice of another title this Saturday.

The FA Cup semifinals resume this weekend at Wembley Stadium, with Manchester United facing off against Tottenham and Chelsea battling Swansea. It’s a pair of great matchups with plenty of enticing storylines to watch ahead of and during the games.

[MORE: All our coverage of Arsene Wenger’s decision to step down]

Manchester United vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 12:15 p.m. ET Saturday

Jose Mourinho lost a lot of the good-will earned after Man United’s win over Manchester City as his side capitulated in a 1-0 defeat to last-place West Bromwich Albion.

Now, with a week to stew on that result, Mourinho is just two games away from raising another piece of silverware for Man United, though it won’t exactly be the trophy the fans were hoping for. At the same time, Tottenham, a team on the up and up, would love to win the FA Cup and take control fully of North London from rivals Arsenal. A trip to the final for Tottenham would be the next step in the club’s climb to greatness.

Chelsea vs. Southampton— 10:00 a.m. ET Sunday

It’s been a disappointing season for both clubs, but on different levels. Chelsea, the defending league champions, has struggled most of the season to consistently score goals and will likely finish outside of Europe – unless they make the final of the FA Cup. So there’s a lot riding on the line for Chelsea heading into Sunday’s match.

For Southampton, with Mark Hughes now in charge, it’s almost a throw-away game. If they win, they could be the first team since Wigan to be relegated and qualify for European football the next season, but it could also be a game in which the beleaguered squad could gain some confidence, beating one of the big clubs in England.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks

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It is that time of the week again, folks. Prediction time!

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ]

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Listen carefully, because this is very specific.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush” ]

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the long shots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Man City 3-0 Swansea City – (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Arsenal 2-0 West Ham United – (Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS…

Everton 1-1 Newcastle – (Monday 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Watford 2-1 Crystal Palace – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Stoke City 1-1 Burnley – (Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

 


West Brom 1-1 Liverpool – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Premier League TV, streaming schedule

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Matchweek 35 is here with just six games on the schedule due to the FA Cup semifinals.

MORE: Sign up for NBC Sports Gold ] 

The full TV schedule for the games this weekend are below, plus you can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com,the NBC Sports App and by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold.

Gold also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Premier League Download and much more.

[ STREAM: Premier League live here ] 

You can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” at for all the goals as they go in around the grounds. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App.

[ MORE: Premier League “Goal Rush” ] 

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here for the games streamed on NBCSports.com and here for the games on NBC Sports Gold.

Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.


FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday
7:30 a.m. ET: West Brom vs. Liverpool – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Watford vs. Crystal Palace – NBCSN [STREAM]

Sunday
8:30 a.m. ET: Arsenal vs. West Ham United – NBCSN [STREAM]
8:30 a.m. ET: Stoke City vs. Burnley – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM
11:30 a.m. ET: Manchester City vs. Swansea City – NBCSN [STREAM

Monday
3 p.m. ET: Everton vs. Newcastle United – NBCSN [STREAM