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5 teams in tight race for Serie A trophy

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MILAN (AP) In one of the tightest Serie A title races of recent seasons, there is one noticeable absentee.

AC Milan was expected to be back at the top after spending more than 200 million euros (nearly $250 million) on new players in the offseason.

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However, it approaches the halfway stage a lowly 11th in the standings, and there have been claims over the financial stability of the Chinese-led consortium that purchased the club from Silvio Berlusconi for $800 million in April.

Milan fired coach Vincenzo Montella in November and replaced him with former player Gennaro Gattuso but there has been little change in fortunes.

Gattuso’s first match in charge was a draw against Benevento, which had not picked up a single point until that moment, and he has lost two of his three league matches since then.

To make matters worse for the Rossoneri, they have been forced to watch as bitter neighbor Inter Milan has proved itself a surprise contender for the Serie A title.

Champions League qualification was seen as the minimum requirement for Milan this season, especially with Italy sending four teams to Europe’s premier club competition next year, but it is 14 points off the final berth.

Indeed, Milan is closer to the relegation zone than the top four as only nine points separates it from the bottom three of Crotone, Hellas Verona and Benevento – which still has just that point it earned against the Rossoneri.

After 18 of 38 rounds, a closer look at the first half of the season:

TITLE RACE

This could be the season that Juve’s stranglehold on the Serie A title is ended.

Juventus has won the Italian league in each of the last six seasons but there are several challengers to its crown this year, and just nine points between the top five sides.

Napoli leads the pack, with 45 points, one ahead of Juventus and five above Inter. Roma has 38 points, two more than Lazio, but both the capital sides have played a match less than the top three.

However, while Juventus undoubtedly has the experience and capability of withstanding a tough title battle, there are question marks over its rivals.

Napoli, whose only league defeat was against Juventus, does not have much strength in depth and has already had several players ruled out with long-term injuries.

Inter’s problem is its staying power: it was in a similar position last season but collapsed and eventually finished seventh. There are signs a repeat could be on the cards as Inter, which was the last unbeaten team in the league, has lost its past two matches.

PICK OF THE PLAYERS

Lorenzo Insigne wasn’t even born when Napoli last won the Serie A title. He could now fire his hometown club to its next league trophy.

Insigne has been at the heart of most of Napoli’s goals this season and coach Maurizio Sarri believes the 26-year-old is as important to the team as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, respectively.

Insigne made 60 consecutive starts for Napoli in all competitions before his injury against Juventus and it was no coincidence the team struggled to create goals while he was on the sidelines.

The Italy forward has scored two goals in three matches since his return and Sarri will be hoping he stays injury-free if Napoli is going to win its first Serie A title since Diego Maradona led the club to its only two championships in 1987 and 1990.

EMERGING TALENT

Lucas Torreira, a 21-year-old defensive midfielder for Sampdoria, leads the league in balls won and is also the most fouled player in Serie A – not to mention he scored the second goal in a 3-2 win over Juventus in November.

Winger Federico Chiesa and striker Giovanni Simeone have shown second-generation talent for Fiorentina. Chiesa’s father, Enrico, was a prolific scorer, while Simeone’s dad, Diego, was a standout Serie A player and is the current coach of Atletico Madrid.

Vanja Milinkovic-Savic, Torino’s 20-year-old goalkeeper, pushed a 30-yard free kick off the crossbar in the Italian Cup last month then saved a penalty from Edin Dzeko in a 2-1 win over Roma to reach the quarterfinals.

Also, Lazio midfielder Luis Alberto has shown himself to be a capable assist man, and Udinese midfielder Antonin Barak has scored four goals in his last three matches.

SURPRISE TEAM

Lazio would not have been on many people’s lists for title contenders.

However, an impressive start to the season has left it in fifth place. Indeed, if it wins its match in hand, Lazio could move to within a point of third-place Inter and six below leader Napoli.

Lazio has already beaten Juventus twice this season, in the Italian Super Cup in August and in the league in October.

Leading goalscorer Ciro Immobile netted four goals in those two matches. The Italy forward has scored 16 in as many league matches so far this season.

Young coach Simone Inzaghi has the team playing attractive football and the capital side is challenging on three fronts this season. It is also in the semifinals of the Italian Cup and in the knockout stages of the Europa League.

POINT TO PROVE

There was much fanfare when Leonardo Bonucci joined Milan in July and he was immediately handed the Rossoneri captaincy.

The fee for Bonucci’s surprise move from Juventus topped 40 million euros (nearly $50 million), and he signed a five-year contract worth up to 10 million euros (nearly $12 million) per season – making the 30-year-old the highest-paid player in Italy.

Bonucci started poorly and it was figured he just needed some time to adapt to his new surroundings at Milan after seven seasons at Juventus, most of which was spent alongside Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini for club and country.

However, there has been little improvement and Bonucci was even sent off in a 0-0 draw against Genoa for elbowing a defender in the head, causing him to miss two matches.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

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Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

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Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.