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Italy at the break: Five lessons from the first 17 rounds of Serie A

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It’s 2013, and Francesco Totti is still the league’s most important player

After two months sidelined with thigh injury, Francesco Totti returned to Roma’s starting lineup on Sunday, looking like his typically Tottian self. Creating five chances for this teammates, Totti was at the center of Roma’s 4-0 win over Catania, the team scoring more than twice for the first time since their talisman got hurt (Oct. 5).

With him, Roma has not lost, winning nine of 10 games. Without him, Roma also has not lost, but they’re only won three out of seven, the four draws the Giallorossi suffered between Nov. 3 and Dec. 1 allowing Juventus to build a five-point lead atop the table. In the seven games Totti missed, Roma — averaging 2.8 goals per game when Totti is healthy — has scored seven goals.

The man is 37 years old, and Roma still hasn’t found a way to live without him, a prospect that’s both thrilling and terrifying. That Totti can be this good, this important to a team at such an advanced age ads is utterly beguiling yet is utterly forgotten anytime you actually watch him play. He’s still that good.

That Roma can’t hold off Juventus without him, however, means Totti’s health may be the only thing  keeping the Serie A title race alive. And for Roma fans and Serie A followers who want a title race, that’s where the fragile 37-year-old gets terrifying.

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Sidelined for the bulk for two seasons, Giuseppe Rossi has returned to lead Serie A in goals after 17 games, scoring 14 times as he re-enters the frame for Brazil 2014. (Source: Getty Images)

GIUSEPPE ROSSI’S READY TO MAKE AN IMPACT IN BRAZIL

The €10 million Fiorentina paid for Giuseppe Rossi looked pricey at the time. After all, the Villarreal star had played nine games in the preceding 18 months, two knee injuries threatening to ruin the career of player that had developed into one of Spain’s brightest stars. Given it would be another five months before the Italian international took the field, fans had plenty of reason to ask whether Rossi was worth the risk when la Viola procured him just over one year ago.

Nobody’s asking those questions now. After a league-leading 14 goals through 17 rounds, the debate’s shifted. Now everybody’s focus is on what role Rossi should play for the Azzurri for next year’s World Cup.

On the surface, the question seems a little absurd, especially considering Rossi had been impressive for Italy in the first days of Cesare Prandelli’s tenure. Given that Italy played with Antonio Cassano in support of Mario Balotelli while making the finals of Euro 2012 (a pairing that’s unlikely to be replicated at Brazil 2014), the national team could use somebody like Rossi up top. It seems like a perfect fit, even if Rossi doesn’t end up among the 11 starting when Italy opens next summer’s tournament against England.

Only now, as Rossi’s moved three clear in the race for capocannoniere, are people starting to look beyond the comeback. For much of the fall, there’s been a kind or no-hitter jinx approach to the story, people not wanting to speak too loud lest they be blamed for Rossi’s wane. Still, the conversation is starting to pick up, with Prandelli using November’s international break to speak wishfully of a Balotelli-Rossi for Brazil 2014.

At this point, there may not be a better Italian goalscorer, let alone two. Although there were doubts about Rossi entering the season, the fall’s set us straight. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the first part of the Serie A’s 2013-14 campaign, it’s that Giuseppe Rossi’s ready for more. He’s ready to be a factor in Brazil.

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Among the most scrutinized players last season, Inter’s Ricardo Alvarez has been integral to the Nerazzurri’s 2013-14 resurgence. (Source: AP)

Ricky Alvarez IS MORE THAN a lost cause

The most maligned player in Serie A last season was Argentine Ricardo Alvarez, the then-23-year-old’s poor play distinguishing himself on a massively underperforming Inter Milan side. Whereas the former Velez creator looked like a key link between the 2010 European Champions and the group that would replace Inter’s aging stars, by 2013, Alvarez was being written off ala Philippe Coutinho, both considered Nerazzurri busts.

But just as Coutinho has proved doubters wrong after moving to Liverpool, Alvarez has resurrected his career. Under Walter Mazzarri, the five-time Argentina international has settled back into a playmaker’s role, his performances integral in countryman Rodrigo Palacio’s 10 goals in 17 games. Alvarez has added some impressive numbers of his own, his four goals and six assists crucial to the league’s second-best attack.

The turnaround is just a reminder of how bad things had gotten at Inter. From Mourinho’s heights to Benítez, Gasperini and Stramaccioni, with a little Leonardo and Rainieri in between, Inter’s had six different coaches since Alvarez was bought in 2011. From title contender to mid-table irrelevance, Inter had squandered Massimo Moratti’s commitment. Only now, having lured Mazzarri, do the Nerazzurri seem to have some semblance of stability.

Of all the positives Mazzarri has brought to Inter, revitalizing Alvarez is among his most remarkable. A player that was panned as one of the worst in the league last year is now one of the circuit’s most productive, with a bright future having been restored for the still 25-year-old star.

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CEO Barbara Berlusconi saw Adriano Galliani’s transfer policies as causing Milan’s downfall. Problems, however, persist at every level of Milan’s organization. (Photo: Getty Images)

Milan WILL not turn this around

First, let’s define what “turn this around” is. It’s getting into Champions League. This is a club that defines itself by continental success as much as domestic, so there’s no way a season where a seven-time European champion misses Champions League for the first time since 2008-09 can be considered successful. It can’t even be considered acceptable, or a push. Milan, currently in 13th place (having won four of 17 league matches), needs to finish third to meet expectations. And that’s not going to happen.

Beyond being 17 points back of third place, the mere competition between that spot and theirs means next year’s Champions League will start without the Rossoneri. Max Allegri’s team would have to drastically outplay all of Napoli, Fiorentina, Inter and seven other teams to claim that spot, and while this week’s results against Roma (2-2 draw) and Inter (1-0 loss) hint they can be competitive, they’ll need to be dominant to pull off this miracle.

Allegri just doesn’t have the horses. There’s a reason the team has conceded 26 goals at the back. There’s a reason nobody’s scored more than six goals. Where they lack quality in defense, Milan also lack consistency and maturity up front. In between, the team is no better than the overall squad: Decent, but little more.

You can see why Barbara Berlusconi (pictured) is letting Adriano Galliani go, and while that may have taken some heat off Allegri by settling one debate, it won’t be long until the head coach is seen as contributing to the problems.

If 17 games have shown us anything, it’s that there’s no one quick cure for Milan. Their transfer dealings were poor. The coaching’s lack inspiration. None of the playing staff have distinguished themselves. From the top of the organizational chart to the product on the field, this may be Milan’s worst effort in 15 years. Over the course of 19 games, there is no turning this around.

source: Getty ImagesJUVENTUS IS THE BEST OF THE GOOD

After 17 rounds, seven teams in Serie A have already scored 30 goals, a statistic that happens to coincide with the entertainment value of the league. Somehow, beyond all reason and evidence on the field, the Italian league maintains a reputation for being a stuffy circuit prone to tactical deadlocks (a misconception that also gets mistakenly applied to the national team). But with Rudi Garcia’s Roma chasing goals, Walter Mazzarri haven taken his adventurous style to Inter, and teams like Napoli and Fiorentina adding scorers this summer, Italy continues to defy its long-defunct expectations. Maybe better international television deals would start to dispel old notions.

The real question is whether any of these teams are any good. I’m not talking about ‘good’ in the sense of entertainment value, or are they above average in the cosmic, absolute sense. I mean ‘are they good’ in the most naive yet applicable way possible. Are these teams good in relative to what we see at the tops of other leagues? Relative to what we see in Champions League?

It’s hard to say yes. Juventus, a team often more drilled and consistent than convincing or brilliant, went out of Champions League at the feet of a Turkish club. Napoli ended up in the wrong half of a very tough group, while Milan — the only Serie A team to advance in Europe’s biggest tournament — went through clinging for dear life in one of the draws easiest groups. Meanwhile, Roma — a team that didn’t even qualify for Europe this year, was the league’s best team for fall’s first half, while clubs like Inter, Hellas Verona, and Torino have been able to shake last year’s results (or, in Hellas’s case, stature) to be competitive this season.

And at the end of December, we’re left where we finished the last two seasons, with Juventus on top. Winners of 10 in a row, Juve finally conceded a goal this weekend, the first time they’ve done so in league since October, and while the additions of Carlos Tévez and Fernando Llorente (as well as the emergence of Paul Pogba) give the impression of an improved squad, you can’t help but wonder: How good is Serie A? And is the okay-but-not-great quality of the league the reason why Juventus, while they struggle for significance in Europe, are still on track for the third straight scudetto?

In some leagues, none of this matters. The league is either enjoying, watchable, entertaining, or it’s not, and to a certain point, Serie A’s gotten there. But for a circuit as steeped in tradition as the Italian league, it will always be a lingering question. How good is this league compared to others? Through half of 2013-14, it’s unclear the arrow’s pointed in the right direction.

Results

Livorno 1, Udinese 2
Cagliari 1, Napoli 1
Bologna 1, Genoa 0
Torino 4, Chievo 1
Sassuolo 0, Fiorentina 1
Sampdoria 1, Parma 1
Roma 4, Catania 0
Verona 4, Lazio 1
Atalanta 1, Juventus 4
Inter 1, Milan 0

Standings

1. Juventus, 46 pts.
2. Roma, 41 pts.
3. Napoli 36 pts.
4. Fiorentina, 33 pts.
5. Inter, 31 pts.
6. Verona, 29 pts.
7. Torino, 25 pts.
8. Udinese, 20 pts.
9. Lazio, 20 pts.
10. Genoa, 20 pts.
11. Cagliari, 20 pts.
12. Parma, 20 pts.
13. Milan, 19 pts.
14. Sampdoria, 18 pts.
15. Atalanta, 18 pts.
16. Chievo, 15 pts.
17. Bologna, 15 pts.
18. Sassuolo, 14 pts.
19. Livorno, 13 pts.
20. Catania, 10 pts.

Strange Fonte situation nears end as West Ham close in

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26:  Jose Fonte of Southampton celebrates as he scores their third goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Arsenal at St Mary's Stadium on December 26, 2015 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)
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Jose Fonte was linked with moves to Manchester United and Liverpool throughout the summer transfer window and for most of the January window.

Now a move to West Ham or West Bromwich Albion seems more likely.

[ MORE: Vertonghen injury update ]

Multiple outlets are reporting that Fonte, 33, has agreed terms with the two Premier League clubs, while West Ham are believed to be in the driving seat for Southampton’s skipper who they will pay $11 million for.

Fonte, who has been with Saints since 2010, handed in a transfer request earlier this month and is unavailable for selection until he is either sold by Southampton or the transfer window closes without him leaving.

The latter does not look likely, even if West Ham manager Slaven Bilic refused to comment specifically on Fonte in his press conference on Thursday. If the move to the Hammers does go through then it would end a strange, and sad, final chapter in Fonte’s career at St Mary’s.

He joined Saints in the third-tier in January 2010 and the center back is the only player remaining from their League One days. In seven years he has risen with Southampton and has become one of the most reliable center backs in the PL, plus got his chance with the Portuguese national team and started every game in the knockout stage as Portugal won EURO 2016 this summer.

After that triumph Fonte’s head seemed to have been turned and with his new agent Jorge Mendes (the same “super agent” who looks after Fonte’s compatriots Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho) he seemed to be eyeing a move away.

[ LONGFORM: Jose Fonte, baby ]

I was at a preseason game for Saints against Espanyol in August where Fonte turned up late (he had arrived late for preseason after his summer exploits with Portugal) and all of Southampton’s fans stood on their feet to applaud him for his success with Portugal at EURO 2016 and chanted for him to stay at St Mary’s. He rather sheepishly gave a wave but it all looked rather staged. It just didn’t feel right and there was no real surprise that the rumors about him leaving didn’t end until the end of the summer transfer window.

No clubs seemed too interested in taking him from Saints and anyway he had 18 months to run on his current, plus Southampton offered him a one-year extension and a pay raise without him even asking.

Fonte, for some reason, declined that offer and ever since then then there have been reports about him being a negative influence in the locker room and despite his play on the field not dropping dramatically he has put out cryptic message on Instagram, plus he didn’t play a single second of Southampton’s landmark UEFA Europa League group stage campaign for unknown reasons.

This situation is really nothing to do with current manager Claude Puel. He is caught in the middle and Executive director of football Les Reed finally came out and spoke about Fonte’s future two weeks ago as he revealed the Portuguese defender wanted out.

The way this has ended is messy for everyone involved but what more can Saints do?

They have a player who is adored by the fans after rising with them from the lower leagues to a sixth-place finish and European action. He is the captain of the club but is refusing to sign a new deal and has told them he wants to leave. Out of respect for Fonte, Saints will let any reasonable offer take him away from St Mary’s. Yet, it didn’t have to end like this.

If Fonte does go to West Ham, he may get an increase in his wages for the final few years of his career but then what? He would’ve had a job for life at Southampton had he played out the remaining 18 months of his current deal or then extended it for another season to take him towards the age of 36.

This whole situation seems very strange and for everyone involved some sort of explanation would help with wading through the mess if Fonte does leave Southampton, as expected, in the coming days.

Amid the current situations regarding Dimitri Payet and Diego Costa in the Premier League, this one involving Fonte and Southampton has somewhat flown under the radar. It shouldn’t have. Serious questions need to be asked about what the heck has been going on.

Survivors gather as Chapecoense plays first game since fatal crash

CHAPECO, BRAZIL - DECEMBER 03:  Relatives of the members of Brazilian team Chapecoense Real pay  tribute at the club's Arena Conda stadium in Chapeco, in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, on December 03, 2016. The players were killed in a plane accident in the Colombian mountains. Players of the Chapecoense team were among the 77 people on board the doomed flight that crashed into mountains in northwestern Colombia. Officials said just six people were thought to have survived, including three of the players. Chapecoense had risen from obscurity to make it to the Copa Sudamericana finals scheduled for Wednesday against Atletico Nacional of Colombia.  (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
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CHAPECO, Brazil (AP) Slowly and steadily, Rafael Henzel will climb into the cramped space to broadcast Saturday’s friendly match for Brazilian club Chapecoense, the first since nearly the entire team was killed in an air crash almost two months ago.

Only six of the 77 passengers survived – and Henzel was one of them.

“The stairway at the Arena Conda is very steep, but I have extra motivation to be in that stadium again and see players wearing our shirt, the fans. It won’t be that stairway that will stop me,” Henzel told The Associated Press after his morning show on radio Oeste Capital.

Henzel has worked at Chapecoense matches since 2012, and is the voice of the team from the remote, southern Brazilian city of Chapeco. After 20 days in a hospital, seven broken ribs, multiple scars – one over his right eye- and worrisome pneumonia, Henzel went back to work at the radio station just over a week ago.

Now he’s making his second return – what he calls “Rafael 2.0” – in the match against Brazilian league champion Palmeiras, preparing to once again get behind the microphone at the tiny stadium.

His left foot is in a cast, but that won’t stop him.

“When I woke up at the crash site, I became aware of what had happened,” he said, recalling the crash. “Initially, I thought I was dreaming but then, shortly after, you start to realize that the plane had crashed.”

Three Chapecoense players survived – 19 were killed – when the plane slammed into the Andes mountains as it headed to the city of Medellin to face Colombian team Atletico Nacional in the Copa Sudamericana final – the No. 2 club tournament in South America.

All three hope to play again, in one fashion or another. And all three are expected for Chape’s debut on Saturday.

Defender Neto, who spent more than 10 hours in the plane wreckage before being rescued, recently took his first steps without support.

He’s already visited the club and will be an inspiration for Chape’s new players in a busy season. Their 2017 commitments include defending their title in the Santa Catarina state league, keeping the team up in Brazil’s first division, playing for the first time in the prestigious Copa Libertadores – the continent’s No. 1 tournament – and fundraising in a pile of friendlies, including one against Barcelona.

“If I didn’t believe I could recover, I will get depressed,” Neto told reporters. “Doctors said I might return this year, but I don’t know whether my knees are still up for it,” Neto said in a press conference. “I will be here to give support to the players that come. It’s not easy to represent all those who died, but I want to be fit to play so I can be more than a symbol. I want to make a real contribution.”

Winger Alan Ruschel is the player in best shape for a return. He expects to be back within six months, but no doctor says it will definitely happen.

“I will do all that I can to play again, and I will be patient to get there,” Ruschel said. In tears, he said he has no recollection of the accident.

“I was in the front seats, then I changed with a friend of ours that is now gone,” he said. “I am pretty sure that that made me survive, because our goalkeeper Jakson Follmann was next to me and he also escaped. It was Follmann who told me to sit next to him, so I guess he also saved my life. I will have to live with this feeling forever.”

Goalie Follmann will not play for Chape again. He had part of his right leg amputated and is still going through minor surgery. He is considering becoming a Paralympian and a member of Chape’s staff.

The goalie has avoided talking about the future, but is not as gloomy as many about his current state.

“I choose life over the leg,” he told doctors during his recovery. “We will manage this easily.”

Mauricio Savarese on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MSavarese .His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/mauricio-savarese

Pochettino reveals “positive” news about Vertonghen injury

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LONDON — Giving his press conference at the club offices at Lilywhite House, next to Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane home, manager Mauricio Pochettino revealed on Thursday that defender Jan Vertonghen is feeling “positive” after damaging his ankle ligaments.

[ MORE: Shaw happy at United

He also revealed the injury isn’t as serious as first feared, even though Vertonghen will miss Spurs’ huge clash at rivals Manchester City this Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) as Tottenham aim to win seven-straight league games for the first time since May 1967.

It was feared that Vertonghen, 29, could be out for between six to eight weeks after injuring his left ankle in the 4-0 win against West Bromwich Albion last weekend. The Belgian center back suffered a similar injury in the build up to Belgium’s EURO 2016 campaign last summer, plus missed a large chunk of Spurs’ 2015-16 campaign with a knee ligament injury in January 2016.

However, Pochettino confirmed that the situation regarding Vertonghen’s latest injury is looking more positive and the lynchpin of Tottenham’s defense doesn’t need surgery.

“Jan is okay, he is very positive. We are pushing him a lot,” Pochettino said. “After a few days he is spending the same time as us, 12 hours at the training ground, it is a little bit boring to see him… It is good, he is okay and we expect six weeks that it less than in the first moment, our idea. I don’t want to set the limit or the time but I think it is very positive. When your mind is okay, is good, is positive, always you can recover early from your injury.”

“It is nothing to do with the old injury that he suffered in the Euros. It is different and maybe similar, but the good thing is that in the first moment it looks really bad but this afternoon we assess him with the doctor and the scanner showed that it is not how we think from the beginning.”

So, good news for Spurs fans as Vertonghen could be back much quicker than expected and help in their quest to hunt down Chelsea who sit seven points ahead of them in the title race with 17 games to go.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

That news will likely quell any speculation that Pochettino was looking to add a central defender in the January transfer window. Reports had been linking the Argentine manager with his former captain at Southampton, Jose Fonte, who has handed in a transfer request at St Mary’s.

Pochettino emphatically denied there will be an incoming in that area of the pitch for Tottenham during the final 13 days of the transfer window.

“The only thing I can say we are not looking to add or replace a player in that area off the team,” Pochettino said. “We have plenty of players that can perform in his place and we are very happy with the squad and the players we have.”

With Vertonghen missing, Spurs could revert back to a flat back four this weekend for the trip to City.

He had been part of a three-man central defense alongside Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld in recent weeks which has been instrumental in Tottenham’s six-game winning streak in the PL. That formation has unleashed full backs Kyle Walker and Danny Rose into more attacking areas to great success but now Pochettino has a decision to make as either Kevin Wimmer or Ben Davies could step in for Vertonghen, but a tactical switch is also likely for the next few weeks.

Either way, Vertonghen’s presence and partnership with Alderweireld in Spurs’ backline is key as they look to kick on and become the biggest threat to Chelsea’s title hopes.

Luke Shaw “happy” at Man United despite transfer links

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27:  Luke Shaw of Manchester United in action  during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and West Ham United at Old Trafford on September 27, 2014 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Luke Shaw wants to stay at Manchester United despite not playing a single second since November.

[ MORE: United need Griezmann

Shaw, 21, has seen his career stall at Old Trafford since Jose Mourinho arrived in the summer and the English left back has been linked with a move away in the summer.

However his agent, Jonathan Barnett, has spoke to Sky Sports in the UK and moved to quash that speculation, insisting his client is very happy fighting for a place in the first team at United.

“He is happy at the club. Manchester United are very happy with him and he’s very happy at Manchester United,” Barnett said.

Mourinho appeared to call out Shaw and his England colleague Chris Smalling earlier this season after a win at Swansea City, as he questioned the pain threshold of his players and their injuries. Shaw, of course, has returned from a horrific leg break he suffered at the start of the 2015-16 season and he seemed to be getting back to his best when he made himself unavailable for selection in November.

The report stating that Mourinho was wiling to let Shaw leave in the summer perhaps had more to do with these injury issues than his actual quality on the pitch. Shaw broke through in the Premier League at Southampton as a 17-year-old and United paid $35 million for him in the summer of 2014.

Even though Mourinho has placed Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian and even Daley Blind out of position at left back ahead of him in recent months, it appears he still has a future at Old Trafford.

That said, one thing is key for Shaw’s future: fitness. If he can get that back then the marauding left back can kick-start his United career and deliver on the promise he showed in his teenage years.