Italy Soccer Serie A

Italy: All of a sudden, Juventus is three points clear of Roma

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Roma’s allowed just four goals all season. They’ve scored 27 and have not lost in 14 games, yet despite putting together a 10-match winning streak to start the season, they now find themselves three points out of first. Some of that you can blame on the three-point win rule, and can put a little more on their four-match winless run. Had they taken more than four points from Torino, Sassuolo, Calgiari, or Atlanta (who they drew with, 1-1, on Saturday), Roma wouldn’t have let Juventus reclaim their place at the top of the table.

Thanks to their own four-match winning streak, the two-time defending champions have extended their lead over Roma, a last minute goal from Fernando Llorente on Sunday giving the Old Lady a 1-0 win over visiting Udinese and a three-point cushion stop Serie A. Held off the board for over 90 minutes, Juventus seemed destined to stay within one point of Roma despite out-shooting their guests 27-9. Yet with their last shot, one set up by the returning Stephan Lichtsteiner, Llorente gave Juventus their 12th win of the year, the club unbeaten since losing at Real Madrid on Oct. 23.

It’s a sobering turn for those hoping Serie A’s title might switch hands. Between Fiorentina and Napoli’s summers, Inter’s rebound, and Roma’s burst from the blocks, Juventus seemed in for a steeper fight than the past two years, a challenge which may still come. Yet as players like Paul Pogba and Llorente become more important parts of this team, contributors like Lichsteiner and Andrea Barzagli return from injury, and Gianluigi Buffon leaves his uneven summer form behind, Juventus have started to look even stronger than last year. With Carlos Tévez providing a legitimate scoring threat and Arturo Vidal one of Italy’s best players, this season’s looks like the best team of the Antonio Conte era.

That the early competition in Serie A hasn’t been able to keep them from first place doesn’t speak well for the field’s chances. Though Champions League expectations and Coppa Italia demands will take their toll, two years of building on the team that reclaimed the scudetto has left Juventus with quality depth at all levels. If Roma, Napoli, Inter and Fiorentina are going to pull the Bianconeri back, they’ll have to do it themselves and not wait for Conte’s team to wear down.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that the contenders will drop off. Perhaps Napoli and Fiorentina can be expected to maintain their current paces, but they’re nine and 13 points back (though both play on Monday). Roma and Inter, however? There’s the lingering suspicion each will cool off, even if their goal differences and their performances against Juventus hint they’re as like as anybody to stick around.

But whether you judge by form, the standings, recent success or the names on the team sheet, Juventus looks like the clear favorite. While we would have said the same thing at the beginning of the season, four rounds ago, many were whistling a different tune. Three weeks later, this race is starting to look like the last two: Juve’s to lose.

Here’s what else happened this weekend in Serie A:

Elsewhere

  • Parma 1, Bologna 1 – The teams swapped goals within the match’s first half hour, Antonio Cassano’s sixth of the season pulling back Panagiotis Kone’s 10th minute opener. In the 53rd, Frederik Sorensen saw his second yellow card, leaving the visitors to hold out with 10 for their draw.
  • Genoa 1, Torino 1 – Davide Biondini scored in the 69th minute to extend Genoa’s unbeaten run to five, with Omar El Kaddouri’s early goal having given Torino the early lead. Keeping Alessio Cerci and Ciro Immobile off the board, Genoa were able stay in seventh place despite giving up 10 shots on goal.
  • Catania 1, AC Milan 3 – Milan’s first league win since Oct. 19 means Max Allegri’s team is tied on points for eighth despite what’s been panned for their terrible start. On Sunday, Riccardo Montolivo, Mario Balotelli, and Kaká goals began the process of putting that disappointment in the past, with a 64th minute red card to Catania’s Panagiotis Tachtsidis greasing the rails for the Rossoneri.
  • Inter Milan 1, Sampdoria 1 – Renan’s 89th minute goal gave Sampdoria a result one of coach Sinisa Mihajlović’s former clubs, the Serb having steered 19th place Samp to consecutive draws after his appointment on Nov. 20.
  • Atalanta 1, Roma – A 90th minute equalizer from Kevin Strootman set up by Adem Ljajic kept Roma from their first loss of the season, the former leaders still struggling to recapture their attacking swagger without Francesco Totti.
  • Cagliari 2-2 Sassuolo – Lino Marzorati and Simone Zaza goals had the visitors up two within 20 minutes, a lead that lasted until the 72nd. That’s when Nene’s header cut the lead to one ahead of Marco Sau’s 87th minute equalizer.

Monday: Fiorentina vs. Hellas Verona, Lazio vs. Napoli

Standings
Each team with 14 games played unless otherwise noted.

1. Juventus, 37 pts.
2. Roma, 34 pts.
3. Napoli 28 pts. (13 games)
4. Inter Milan, 27 pts.
5. Fiorentina, 24 pts (13 games)
6. Hellas Verona, 22 pts. (13 games)
7. Genoa, 19 pts.
8. Parma, 17 pts.
9. Atalanta, 17 pts.
10. Lazio, 17 pts. (13 games)
11. Milan, 17 pts.
12. Torino, 16 pts.
13. Udinese, 16 pts.
14. Cagliari, 15 pts.
15. Sassuolo, 14 pts.
16. Chievo, 12 pts.
17. Bologna, 12 pts.
18. Livorno, 12 pts.
19. Sampdoria, 11 pts.
20. Catania, 9 pts.

Watford “Behind The Badge” airs third installment; Catch up on Episode 2 here

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Catch up on Watford’s look “Behind The Badge” ahead of Sunday’s third episode of the four-part glimpse into one of the Premier League’s promoted sides.

The Hornets sit 11th, currently 7 points clear of relegation danger, and are giving fans a better idea of what’s been going on at Vicarage Road.

[ MORE: Behind the Badge archive

In an exclusive series, NBC Sports followed around the Hornets in a very similar fashion to HBO’s Hard Knocks which joins the preseason camp of one NFL team each summer.

Below is the schedule for the three remaining episodes on Watford, which you can watch on NBCSN and live online via NBCSports.com in the coming weeks, plus a link to watch episode one in full from last week.


First episode: Watch full episode, here
Second episode: Embedded above
Third episode: Sunday, Dec. 11, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Fourth episode: Sunday, Dec. 18, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN

Follow @NicholasMendola

MLS Cup Final preview: Seattle, Toronto battle subzero temps for first Cup

Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley walks off the field after a training session, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in Toronto, for the MLS Cup soccer championship. Toronto hosts the Seattle Sounders on Saturday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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  • First MLS Cup Final for both
  • Sounders all-time 7W-2L-2T
  • TFC joined in 2007, Seattle 2009

It’ll be in the high twenties (-1 Celsius) when Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders kick off the MLS Cup Final on Saturday night in Ontario (Kickoff is Saturday at 8 p.m. EDT).

Combine the visible breath and slight chance of snow with a BMO Field which has been relentlessly loud throughut TFC’s playoff run, and we have the makings of an all-timer.

[ MORE: PST’s MLS Cup roundtable ]

Toronto and Seattle met up at the same venue on July 2, the 1-1 draw perhaps a bit deflated by the absence of Clint Dempsey for Seattle and TFC’s American duo of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

Seattle superstar Nicolas Lodeiro wasn’t there, either, still weeks away from arriving from Boca Juniors.

This is the second MLS Cup Final at BMO Field, after Colorado defeated FC Dallas in 2010. TFC men Drew Moor and Clint Irwin were part of the championship-winning Rapids in that one.

Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris greets fans who gathered to send off the team after MLS soccer training, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Tukwila, Wash. The Sounders were scheduled to travel to Toronto later Wednesday to prepare to face Toronto FC in the MLS Cup Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle’s Jordan Morris (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

[ MORE: PST’s Michael Bradley interview ]

Toronto will bring star power to go with a challenging formation; While accolades rightly go to Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Sebastian Giovinco, the Reds’ 3-5-2 under Greg Vanney features versatile wide men in Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow.

Seattle is powered through Nicolas Lodeiro, the ex-Boca Juniors playmaker who has been nearly as effective as Giovinco (albeit with a smaller MLS sample size). Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, the ex-TFC man, has been very good at the back, but can the Sounders’ back line handle Altidore and Giovinco?

The metronomes could be the difference. Bradley’s been good for TFC, but Osvaldo Alonso gave an MLS MVP caliber performance this season.

[ MORE: PST talks with Ozzie Alonso ]

What they’re saying

Toronto FC keeper Irwin on the weather: “It’s probably the most difficult part. As a field player, you can move around. You’re warmer, more active. At this point, there’s not much we can do other than bundle up, and I’ll stay moving back there.”

Seattle forward Jordan Morris on Lodeiro“The first thing Lodeiro said to me is, ‘When I get the ball, you just run.’ I think of him like a quarterback.”

Prediction

Look to the engine rooms here. Alonso is a handful and a magnificent passer of the ball. On his day, Bradley is even better. Will it be? Neither player will shirk from pressure. We’re thinking extra time after a 1-1 match. And Toronto’s depth and home field will propel it to a 2-1 win.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Manchester City

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29:  Bacary Sagna of Manchester City clears the ball from Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester City at The King Power Stadium on December 29, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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  • Man City leads all-time 53W-29D-28L
  • Leicester took 4 of 6 pts last season
  • MCFC won previous four

To cure what ails, Leicester City has to knock off one of the top contenders to its Premier League throne: Manchester City (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. EDT Saturday on NBC and NBCSports.com).

There are some advantages for Leicester, though, as Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero are suspended for their red cards picked up the loss to Chelsea. Pep Guardiola used Pablo Zabaleta next to Fernando in the UCL draw with Celtic, and looks set for the same come Saturday.

Leicester rested the majority of its starters in a 5-0 loss at Porto this week, following up a 2-1 setback at Sunderland that left the champs just two points ahead of the 18th and 19th placed clubs in the PL.

What they’re saying

Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri on the task at hand: “I was waiting for a period like this. Now it’s important to react with a big effort together from the team. That is my focus now. We have to be focused on these matches until Christmas Day. We have to get points. We need points and we have to fight. This part of the season is our key moment. I think every match gives us an opportunity. We have to fight. I repeat, we have to fight.”

Man City’s Pep Guardiola on Zabaleta’s positional change“But I think Pablo Zabaleta can play in the middle – he is very experienced and he can play there as he did very well against Celtic. I think in the last years of his career he’ll play more in the middle and it gives us another option.”

Prediction

As much as the injuries hurt Man City, there’s certain harm in the wounded unit that fell 3-1 to Chelsea. We believe the Foxes will strike, but Kelechi Iheanacho has proven more than a suitable fill-in for Aguero. Man City 2-1.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 15

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Week 15 of the Premier League is here.

[ 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. Click play on the videos below to hear my score prediction and preview of each game.

[ VIDEO: Previews of every PL game – Week 15 ]

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 longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Chelsea 3-0 West Brom – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Liverpool 4-1 West Ham – (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Leicester City 1-3 Man City – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

Arsenal 2-0 Stoke City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Swansea City 2-3 Sunderland – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

Watford 0-1 Everton – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Burnley 1-2 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Southampton 1-1 Middlesbrough – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

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

Man United 1-2 Tottenham – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Hull City 2-1 Crystal Palace – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]