Italy: Roma unable to close gap after Juventus draw

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Two Derby della Capitali and Lazio couldn’t muster a single shot on goal, but look carefully at the differences between Saturday’s 0-0 draw at the Stadio Olimpico and Roma’s 2-0 win in September and you’ll see a microcosm of Giallorossi’s regression – small changes that have seen the team lose track of Juventus at the top of the table.

In early fall, Roma established a pattern of dominating first halves before breaking through in the second. Against Lazio, those goals from Federico Balzaretti and Adem Ljajic, Lazio conceding the second from the spot just before full-time. Hogging 64 percent of the ball, Roma held their chief rivals to eight shots, none of which tested Morgan De Sanctis. Claiming the fourth of what would become 10 straight wins to start the season, Rudi Garcia’s team provided the first major warning that they could be Champions League contenders.

On Saturday, there was no second half breakthrough. There were no fullbacks stepping up to get unexpected goals. There were no red cards, late penalties, or any of the other breaks that helped Roma to their one hundred percent start. Instead, the constant pressure that used to wilt opponents never found a way to beat Lazio goalkeeper Etrit Berisha. Despite only three shots and 34 percent of the ball (both worse than the season’s first Derby), Lazio held on for a 0-0 draw.

It’s not that Roma’s any worse. For the most part they’re not. It’s that they’re no longer getting the kind of breaks every team needs to claim 30 of 30 points. They’re no longer the surprise team, the unknown commodity. Unwilling to bet Roma will revert to last year’s Giallorossi, opponents are paying them the honor of conceding as few openings as possible.

As Gervinho had a goal waved off, Miralem Pjanic pushed for an opener, and newly arrived Michel Bastos tried to steal the match late, Lazio lived off the counter. Having lost their leader (Hernanes) to Inter just over a week ago, Edy Reja’s side did well to keep their rivals of the board.

Ultimately, they never got a shot on De Sanctis. They didn’t have a real chance at three points, but by accepting the underdogs’ mantle, Lazio played a game they exemplified why Roma’s come back to earth. With luck evening out and opponents discarding their naiveté, Roma sit nine back of Juventus, unable to take advantage of a rare Bianconeri misstep.

[MORE: Juventus drop points at the death in draw with Verona]

The race for third

source:  The title race may be over, but with Fiorentina on third place Napoli’s heals, Serie A has a race that appears destined to last through May. On Saturday, both teams responded to Round 22 losses with multi-goal wins, giving the faint impression  Roma can still be pulled into a battle for the league’s last two Champions League spots.

Fiorentina’s meeting with visiting Atalanta was one of two matches to kick off the weekend, allowing Josip Ilicic to become the round’s first goalscorer when his curling free kick from 26 yards out put La Viola up in the 20th minute. Still without Mario Gomez, still without Giuseppe Rossi, Vincenzo Montella’s side were given a man advantage in the 81st minute when Luca Cigarini saw a second yellow card. With his team up a man, substitute Rafal Wolski secured the 2-0 win that temporarily pulled Fiorentina even with the Neopolitans.

Coming off last weekend’s 3-0 loss to Atalanta, the Partenopei were looking to rebound against visiting Milan, an outcome that was cast in doubt when Adel Taarabt scored eight minutes into his Rossoneri loan. Napoli’s response was quick, however, getting an 11th minute goal from Gohkan Inler’s deflected shot. A second half brace from Gonzalo Higuaín capped what ultimately became a one-sided game, with Christian Abbiati forced to into 11 saves to limit Milan to a 3-1 loss.

[MORE: Taarabt scores eight minutes into his Serie A debut]

If there were any doubts about Napoli after last week’s disappointment, a convincing performance against Milan assuaged them. The Rossoneri still aren’t clicking under Clarence Seedorf, but they still possess enough talent to challenge. That Napoli was able to absorb Taarabt’s early blow and still claim a comfortable win speaks to their staying power.

But whether they can hold off Fiorentina may depend as much on health as form. Gomez has resumed training. Rossi will come back this spring. If a limited Fiorentina can stay without three while their scorers recover, a full strength team may be able to bridge the gap over the seasons’ final months.

Elsewhere

  • Udinese 3, Chievo 0 – The Flying Donkeys took il Derby Del Nordest to halftime scoreless before Toto Di Natale, Bruno Fernandes, and Emmanuel Badu helped claim Udinese’s second straight win.
  • Torino 1, Bologna 2 – Three huge points pull the Rossoblu four clear of relegation, with Jonathan Cristaldo’s first half double overcoming Ciro Immobile’s 12th goal of the season.
  • Sampdoria 1,  Cagliari 0 – Daniele Gastaldello’s 11th minute goal proved all the home side would need, with Cagliari falling to their fourth loss in five.
  • Parma 0, Catania 0 – After seeing last week’s game in Roma rained out, Parma has their four-match winning streak snapped with Sunday’s scoreless draw. Roberto Donadoni’s team still hasn’t lost in league since Nov. 2.
  • Livorno 0, Genoa 1 – Luca Antonelli’s 10th minute goal held up despite Livorno outshooting their guests 19-6. Genoa jumps into the table’s top half.
  • Verona 2, Juventus 2 – Carlos Tévez’s double wasn’t enough as second half goals from Luca Toni and Juan Gomez Taleb allowed Hellas steal a point in stoppage time.
  • Inter 1, Sassuolo 0 – Bouncing back from last weekend’s Derby loss to Juve, Inter got an early second half goal from veteran Walter Samuel to push Sassuolo into 19th.

Others
Lazio 0, Roma 0
Fiorentina 2, Atalanta 0
Napoli 3, Milan 1

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Juventus 23 19 3 1 56 18 38 11-0-0 8-3-1 60
Roma 22 15 6 1 45 11 34 9-2-0 6-4-1 51
Napoli 23 14 5 4 47 27 20 8-3-1 6-2-3 47
Fiorentina 23 13 5 5 42 24 18 7-3-1 6-2-4 44
Inter Milan 23 9 9 5 40 27 13 6-5-1 3-4-4 36
Verona 23 11 3 9 39 37 2 8-1-3 3-2-6 36
Torino 23 8 9 6 36 30 6 5-5-2 3-4-4 33
Parma 22 8 9 5 32 27 5 5-5-2 3-4-3 33
Lazio 23 8 8 7 29 29 0 6-3-2 2-5-5 32
Genoa 23 8 6 9 24 28 -4 5-3-3 3-3-6 30
AC Milan 23 7 8 8 36 35 1 5-4-2 2-4-6 29
Sampdoria 23 7 7 9 27 32 -5 4-4-4 3-3-5 28
Atalanta 23 8 3 12 24 32 -8 7-2-2 1-1-10 27
Udinese 23 8 2 13 25 32 -7 5-1-5 3-1-8 26
Cagliari 23 5 9 9 21 32 -11 5-4-3 0-5-6 24
Bologna 23 4 9 10 22 39 -17 2-6-4 2-3-6 21
Chievo 23 4 6 13 16 32 -16 2-2-7 2-4-6 18
Livorno 23 4 5 14 22 41 -19 3-3-6 1-2-8 17
Sassuolo 23 4 5 14 23 49 -26 3-1-7 1-4-7 17
Catania 23 3 7 13 16 40 -24 3-5-3 0-2-10 16

Report: Wenger ready to pay Ozil, Sanchez club record deals

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Arsenal knows its departure from the UEFA Champions League has to be a short one, and that keeping its two best attackers around is imperative.

That’s why Arsene Wenger is preparing to make Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez the top paid players in Arsenal history, according to a report from The Telegraph’s Jeremy Wilson.

The contract status of both players has been a touchy one this season, and Sanchez especially has been linked with some of the biggest clubs in Europe (including London neighbors Chelsea).

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

But perhaps the Gunners’ FA Cup triumph over Chelsea has Ozil and Sanchez feeling good vibes about the Emirates Stadium set, and Arsenal is ready to pounce. According to the report:

Wenger has told the board that he thinks he can win the Premier League if this group stays together and is supplemented by no more than two or three key additions. Ozil is understood already to have been offered more than £250,000 a week and the club are ready to go to around £280,000 for both him and Sanchez.

The Gunners need both players healthy and happy heading into next season, and appropriate additions as well (A top striker is a must. Again). Wage structure is important, but Arsenal will have a blessing in disguise if another player can make a legit case he deserves to be paid like Ozil and Sanchez any time soon.

West Ham, Everton, and the superstar striker’s need for the Champions League

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Come up with a list of active elite level strikers, and it’s likely to be a short one filled with names from UEFA Champions League clubs.

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa, Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski, Edinson Cavani, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Harry Kane, even Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Rarely do names like these move to a non-UCL club while in their prime, and it’s just as uncommon to see them stay at clubs which have failed to qualify for the UCL.

The money, the prestige, the endorsements; All are amplified by the world stage. Given the massive import of their domestic stage and spotlight, Premier League sides have bucked this trend on occasion — see Romelu Lukaku — but it’s the exception to the rule.

That’s what puts an ambitious club like West Ham United between a rock and a hard place. The Irons have been vocal about their desires to bring in a top-end striker, and it’s likely they’d be happy to spend what it takes to attract Alexandre Lacazette, Aubameyang, or Cavani to town.

Lyon reportedly rejected a $45 million bid for Lacazette last season, admitting that ultimately the player’s desires would determine his future. Higuain, too, was linked to chairman David Gold’s wallet before moving to Juventus. Carlos Bacca also saw his future connected to the Irons.

Instead, Gold landed Andre Ayew from Swansea, and had to hope Andy Carroll could stay healthy or Enner Valencia would deliver. Not a striker, Dimitri Payet apparently decided to skip town soon after West Ham’s Europa League exit at the hands of Astra Giurgiu.

Now it’s Kelechi Iheanacho being linked to the London Stadium, another hopeful swing from the Irons that points a strong finger at the problem: West Ham can be as ambitious as it likes, but it’s going to need a miracle to pull an elite striker to London without European football.

And it shouldn’t happen, but what if Everton is bumped from the UEL in the third qualifying round or playoff next year? Will Lukaku follow Payet’s lead and sink another team from joining the discussion? Though an argument can be made it’s better for Everton to lose those summer games, the Toffees very much need to succeed in the UEL qualifying and also show signs of strength in the early PL docket. That’s the unforgiving life of sitting on the outskirts of the powerful tier.

Every team at every level is searching for the next elite striker. Some, like West Ham, will need to luck into a young buck on the rise or a flawed striker finding his potential. And how do they hold onto that player, one who will have alerted the big boys to his arrival, without qualifying for Europe? It’s improbable.

The ability of teams like Chelsea and Liverpool to compete for a European slot in the PL standings thanks to missing out on the UCL the year before signals hope for clubs like Everton and West Ham. And five Premier League sides competing in the UCL this year could extend an invitation to stay longer in the Top Seven discussion for sides like Southampton and Leicester City, too.

So this summer’s striker captures are huge for Slaven Bilic and David Gold. This is a window the league’s “next group” won’t have open annually, and West Ham’s hopes of barging into the discussion again hinge on who shows up by August.

Toure reportedly set for another year with Man City

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Never say never.

Yaya Toure looks like his season-long peace with Pep Guardiola will stretch into a new season, with Toure’s combustible agent admitting talks with Manchester City regarding a new contract.

Dimitri Seluk is among the worst agents on Earth Toure’s agent, and said, “We are talking. We will see what happens but City is a club that is in Yaya’s heart.”

[ MORE: Barcelona names new manager ]

But Seluk has not been in City’s heart, having made numerous poor decisions on when to open his mouth, deepening a rift between Toure and Guardiola that kept the player off the pitch for some time. Earlier this Spring, Seluk also suggested that Toure could join Manchester United.

So, yeah, smart guy. Hates microphones and publicity.

Toure turned 34 this month, and became a fixture for Guardiola once he broke into the lineup. The midfielder made nine-straight starts around the turn of the calendar, scoring five goals in the Premier League.

Wolfsburg holds off Braunschweig with Vieirinha blast (video)

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Outworked and outperformed in the first half of their playoff second leg at Eintracht Braunschweig, Wolfsburg needed a wake-up call to steady its hopes of staying in the Bundesliga.

That came off the boot of longtime right back Vieirinha, as the Portuguese veteran ran onto a rebound and fired a 17-yard arrow into the goal to boost Wolfsburg aggregate lead to 2-0.

[ MORE: Barcelona names new manager ]

That would mean the 2.Bundesliga hosts would need three goals to give the second tier a third promotion this season. An 82nd minute red card to Braunschweig’s Maximilian Sauer effectively ended those far-off dreams.

Ingolstadt and Darmstadt were relegated in the season, and Stuttgart and Hannover were promoted from 2.Bundesliga.