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Napoli top Roma to close gap to 2nd; AC Milan cruise, go 5th

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MILAN (AP) Napoli got back on track by beating nearest rival Roma 2-1, leaving Serie A leader Juventus with the biggest smile on Saturday.

Napoli remained third but closed the gap to second-placed Roma to two points.

Juventus can stretch its advantage to 10 points with a win at struggling Udinese on Sunday.

“We must be realistic, the title race was very difficult before, now it’s almost impossible,” Roma coach Luciano Spalletti said. “It will depend what Juventus do, but it’s very hard.

“When you lose these head-to-head games, your spirit also sinks.”

Napoli was all but out of the Champions League and Italian Cup after 3-1 defeats to Real Madrid and Juventus in the first legs. Alongside a home loss to Atalanta last weekend, Napoli’s season threatened to implode.

The match with Roma was billed not only as a fight for an automatic Champions League spot, but also a fight between two contenders for league top-scorer: Dries Mertens and Edin Dzeko.

Mertens came out on top with two goals.

He broke the deadlock in the first half, springing the offside trap to run onto a delightful through ball from Marek Hamsik and dink it over Roma goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.

Mertens celebrated in unusual fashion, by getting down on all fours, cocking his leg, and pretending to urinate on the corner flag.

A second score before halftime was ruled out for his push on Federico Fazio. His second came five minutes after the break, when he rushed in at the back post to tap in Lorenzo Inisgne’s cross.

His 18th league goal moved him within one of Dzeko, Torino’s Andrea Belotti, and Juventus forward – and former Napoli star – Gonzalo Higuain.

It was almost worse for Roma as Daniele de Rossi was lucky not to receive a second yellow card 20 minutes from time when he kicked Pepe Reina in the back of the leg from the ground following a collision with the Napoli goalkeeper. It was not spotted by officials but Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri was sent to the stands for dissent.

Mohamed Salah hit the left post and Roma finally scored in the 89th as Diego Perotti burst down the left and pulled back for Kevin Strootman to drive into the bottom right corner.

In five minutes of stoppage time, Roma was denied an equalizer by Reina’s incredible save of Perotti’s deflected loop, which he somehow finger-tipped onto the crossbar.

Carlos Bacca scored two goals and missed a penalty as AC Milan moved back into the European qualifying positions.

Milan moved level on points with fifth-placed Lazio, which visits Bologna on Sunday. Inter Milan can go back above its city rival with a win at Cagliari.

Chievo started the brighter but Milan took the lead against the run of play when Bacca ran on to Gerard Deulofeu‘s through ball, cut inside, and his effort was deflected in off Stefano Sorrentino’s foot.

Chievo leveled four minutes later through a contentious penalty. Mattia De Sciglio was adjudged to have pulled down Serge Gakpe.

Milan was awarded a penalty of its own in first-half stoppage time for a Bostjan Cesar handball but Bacca blazed his spot kick over the bar.

Bacca doubled his tally in the second half, and Gianluca Lapadula knocked in another penalty eight minutes from time.

Zdenek Zeman’s 1,000th match as coach was bittersweet as his Pescara team lost.

It was honors even at the break after Alberto Cerri cancelled out Bruno Fernandes’s opener for Sampdoria.

But Fabio Quagliarella restored Samp’s lead just before the hour mark and substitute Patrik Schick scored six minutes after being sent in.

Timbers sign Peruvian winger Andy Polo from Liga MX’s Morelia

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have acquired winger Andy Polo on loan from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old native of Peru played in 25 matches last year for Morelia and made six starts with two goals.

He’s also World Cup-bound, having appeared in Peru’s two-legged playoff against New Zealand in November. Peru won 2-0 on aggregate. Overall, he’s appeared with the Peruvian national team 15 times since his senior debut in 2016.

“Andy is a versatile, young player who will add another element to our attack, and we believe that he has further upside to his development,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said in a statement.

The Timbers used targeted allocation money and have a purchase option. Polo’s arrival is pending a physical and receipt of a visa.

He will occupy an international roster spot.

Can Man United still sign Sanchez without Mkhitaryan swap?

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The answer to the (first) titled question is, undoubtedly, yes.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

The latter question — the “will they?” — remains a relative unknown at this point, but if reports out of the UK are to be believed, Manchester United are just as likely to send $40 million (or so) Arsenal’s way in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, should Henrikh Mkhitaryan refuse the move by declining any contract offers from the Gunners.

[ MORE: Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies ]

The thinking, at least for the last few days since Man United somewhat unexpectedly entered the Sanchez sweepstakes, was that swapping the Armenian for the Chilean was the obvious — and, perhaps only — way forward. Call it special circumstances or an obvious audible, but that’s not necessarily the case — from the Guardian:

“It is understood that if Mkhitaryan does not leave Mourinho believes that, given the club’s robust finances, [Man United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward could still sanction a move for a player who would potentially vastly improve United.”

By the time Sanchez is signed, sealed and delivered, United will have also paid Sanchez and his agent, Fernando Felicevich, massive signing-on fees that could total another $30 million. No matter the order in which the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan saga plays out, United will come out ahead with a superior player at a massively discounted price — should Sanchez ultimately move to Old Trafford, of course.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.