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Serie A: Napoli win to stay top of the table ahead of winter break

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Napoli will go into the delayed winter break top of Serie A after beating relegation-threatened Hellas Verona 2-0 on Saturday.

Kalidou Koulibaly and Jose Callejon scored as Napoli stayed one point clear of second-place Juventus, which won 1-0 at Cagliari in the late game.

Juventus has won the title in each of the last six seasons, while Napoli is bidding for its first since 1990.

“We know that Juve has years of experience,” Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said. “We know they can easily surpass the 90-point mark, while we can’t say the same thing about us.

“But we also have players who can make the difference in matches, such as Callejon and (Lorenzo) Insigne … our job is only to put them in the best conditions to express themselves.”

Roma could have moved level with third-place Inter Milan, which is nine points below Napoli, but lost 2-1 at home to Atalanta and is fifth.

After playing over the festive period for the first time, Serie A will resume on Jan. 21.

Napoli had ended 2017 and the first half of the season as winter champions, but was eliminated from the Italian Cup on Tuesday following a surprise quarterfinal defeat to Atalanta.

Sarri’s team dominated from the start against Verona and had several chances, with Dries Mertens and Insigne hitting the woodwork.

Mertens also had a goal ruled out for offside before Napoli finally broke the deadlock in the 65th minute, when Koulibaly headed in Mario Rui’s cross.

The goal was awarded after checking with the video assistant referee but Verona coach – and former Napoli player and assistant – Fabio Pecchia was dismissed for his protests.

Napoli all but sealed the match 12 minutes from time when Callejon rushed in at the far post to volley in Insigne’s cross from the left.

Verona remained two points from safety.

Ciro Immobile netted four goals and moved top of the scoring charts as Lazio won 5-2 at struggling Spal to move fourth.

Mirco Antenucci had converted a penalty for Spal to cancel out Luis Alberto‘s opener before Immobile’s first-half hat trick.

Immobile got his first in the 19th, running onto Luis Alberto’s flicked pass over the defense and lifting the ball over Alfred Gomis.

The Italy forward doubled his tally seven minutes later, firing home Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s through-ball, but Spal reduced the deficit almost immediately, with Antenucci grabbing his second of the match.

However, Immobile headed in Dusan Basta’s cross four minutes before the break to complete his hat trick.

The Spal defense left Immobile completely unmarked six minutes after halftime and he drilled in a corner for his 20th league goal of the season, two more than Inter Milan forward Mauro Icardi.

Spal hit the post, had the follow-up cleared off the line and also had a goal ruled out.

AC Milan defender Leonardo Bonucci scored his first goal for the club in a 1-0 win over Crotone – although the Italy international knew little about it.

Milan broke the deadlock nine minutes into the second half when Crotone goalkeeper Alex Cordaz flapped at a corner, sending it onto Bonucci’s back and the ball rebounded into the back of the net.

“2018 couldn’t have started better,” Bonucci said. “People had been asking me for a while when I would score and the goal finally arrived.

“But what matters is the spirit we showed in the first half and the willingness to all suffer together at the end.”

Bonucci joined Milan from Juventus in the offseason for a fee of more than 40 million euros ($45 million).

Franck Kessie thought he had doubled Milan’s lead but it was ruled out on video review as he had fouled Rolando Mandragora.

Milan had also hit the woodwork in the first half as Cordaz fingertipped Suso’s effort onto the post.

Ten-man Atalanta beat Roma 2-1 after first-half goals from Andreas Cornelius and Marten De Roon, who was sent off in the 45th for a second yellow card.

Edin Dzeko grabbed one back for the hosts 10 minutes after the break.

Juventus kept the pressure on leader Napoli after finally breaking through Cagliari’s defense with a 74th-minute goal from Federico Bernardeschi. Juve dominated the game with 14 shots to Cagliari’s five attempts.

After waiting 19 rounds for a first Serie A victory, Benevento made it two in two matches as it came from behind to beat Sampdoria 3-2.

It remained bottom of Serie A, eight points from safety.

Elsewhere, Walter Mazzarri got off to a winning start in charge of Torino as he steered his new side to a 3-0 win over Bologna.

Genoa beat Sassuolo 1-0.

While PSG has won the title, Areola’s playing for his future

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PARIS (AP) Although Paris Saint-Germain has easily won the French title, Alphonse Areola still has plenty to play for.

The next four games could be crucial in deciding whether PSG keeps the goalkeeper or tries to sign a big name in the transfer window, possibly Thibaut Courtois. The 25-year-old Areola is the same age as Courtois, but has nowhere near the international standing of the Chelsea keeper.

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It is hard for Areola to stand out, however, in a team noted almost singularly for its attacking prowess. While PSG has already scored more than 100 league goals, and remains on course to reach 100 points this season, Areola has rarely been talked about.

The common perception is that PSG will thrash teams in the French league, so letting in a goal or two is irrelevant.

However, Areola has been one of PSG’s most consistent players this season, and last Sunday he made a personal record of eight saves in a 1-0 win at Bordeaux.

He was also one of the few PSG players to come through the loss to Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League with any credit. Without Areola’s shot-stopping, and particularly his bravery rushing off his line, the 5-2 aggregate loss would have been bigger.

With 104 goals, PSG’s attack is the best in the league by far and has netted 25 more than deposed champion Monaco.

But PSG’s defense is also the best and Areola has conceded only 21 goals in the 31 he has played. Although PSG has dominated most of those, losing only twice all season, he has still made on average four saves per game.

Having replaced Kevin Trapp as No. 1, Areola has missed only three league games all season. It represents a reversal for both.

When Trapp was signed by former coach Laurent Blanc in 2015-16, Areola went on loan to Spanish club Villarreal. He established himself as regular in Villarreal’s side and gained further experience in the Europa League. Spanish media were largely impressed by his consistency and his agility on the goal-line.

He returned to PSG and battled with Trapp for the starting position last season. But coach Unai Emery seemed unsure who he really preferred, with Trapp starting 24 games to Areola’s 14. PSG ended up losing the title to Monaco.

But the hierarchy is much clearer now and the error-prone Trapp, once hailed by Blanc for his passing out from goal, is the one expected to leave.

Areola has further incentive to do well with the World Cup coming up. He is challenging Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda to be France’s No. 2 behind Hugo Lloris in Russia. For now, Areola is a squad member but has yet to make an international appearance under coach Didier Deschamps.

But he has done well at every level for France, starting with the under-16s a decade ago. He got his first taste of international success when he helped France win the Under-20 World Cup in 2013.

While Paul Pogba was one of the stars of the tournament, Areola’s crowning moment came in the final itself. France drew 0-0 with Uruguay and he saved two shots in the penalty shootout. Prior to the shootout he had a word with France’s designated penalty takers, confidently telling them “do your job and I’ll do mine.”

With Emery almost certain to be replaced next season, it promises to be a frenetic offseason of buying and selling at the club.

But whoever replaces Emery should perhaps think twice before letting Areola leave. The Parisian-born Areola came through the youth ranks at PSG, as did center half Presnel Kimpembe and midfielder Adrien Rabiot.

Star-studded sides like PSG often import their best players and fans are happy to see them arrive, because it shows ambition. But they nevertheless identify more closely with homegrown talents such as Areola.

More AP Ligue 1 coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/Ligue1

Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire

Infantino has ‘full confidence’ in Samoura amid ethics issue

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA President Gianni Infantino says he retains “full confidence” in secretary general Fatma Samoura after an attempt to embroil her in an ethics investigation.

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Samoura has expressed irritation at “totally ridiculous and baseless” claims she broke FIFA rules by not declaring an alleged conflict of interest in the 2026 World Cup bidding contest.

FIFA has not specified the exact nature of the complaint or the progress of any ethics investigation after it was alleged she was a relative of former Senegal player El Hadji Diouf, who is an ambassador for Morocco’s bid.

Samoura insisted on Wednesday the former Liverpool forward “is not a member of my family and therefore everything is crystal clear.”

FIFA’s top administrator received a public show of support from Infantino.

“I can confirm my full confidence in Fatma Samoura to lead the FIFA administration,” Infantino said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday.

The former United Nations official was hired by Infantino in 2016 months after he was elected as Sepp Blatter’s successor.

Morocco is due to take on a joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico in the June 13 vote for the 2026 World Cup host.

Photo: Flamengo supporter tattoos club jersey on body

MAURÍCIO DOS ANJOS VIA VICE
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A supporter in Brazil has taken fandom to a whole new level with a piece of body art that shows his devotion to the club.

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Maurício dos Anjos, a passionate Flamengo fan, has been a life-long supporter of the Rio de Janeiro-based club, and has the tattoo to prove it.

While it may look like body paint, Dos Anjos has a tattoo on the upper-half of his body depicting the Flamengo jersey, and it’s pretty awesome.

“People ask me if I don’t find it strange that I’m always wearing a Flamengo shirt. And I just don’t,” dos Anjos told VICE. “To me, it’s normal. But it doesn’t seem like anyone I talk to about it actually dislikes my tattoo.”

In total, Dos Anjos says the body work took over 90 hours and 30 sessions to complete the tattoo.

Has the perception of MLS really changed?

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When David Beckham arrived in Los Angeles back in 2007 his presence changed the complexion of Major League Soccer for all the right reasons, and the perception of the growing league changed.

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Over the years, MLS has strived to move into the upper-echelon of the global game, in an attempt to compete with the likes of the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga, but naysayers still indicate to this day that the United States’ top flight lacks the quality of the aforementioned.

Phrases like “retirement league” and “uninspired” have been used to describe MLS in the past, particularly when it comes to the league’s willingness to spend boatloads of cash on notable players well past their prime.

Examples such as Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard and Rafael Marquez have at times dampened the perception of MLS due to the lack of quality on the pitch from those players, along with several others that had previously boasted extensive resumes.

Now, we’re at a time where MLS has picked up its scouting, with clubs focused more on younger, more skilled talents from South America and Europe.

That has led to major signings over the past several years, such as Ezequiel Barco, Miguel Almiron, Diego Rossi and Jesus Medina, to name a few.

Has that changed the overall complexion of MLS though?

On Thursday, Kevin De Bruyne‘s agent, Patrick de Koster, suggested in an interview that the Belgium international would likely “finish” his career in MLS.

“For now, he’s very happy at this club,” De Koster said. “We always look what the best solution for the player, both financially and football wise. Kevin’s future? I can see him finish at Los Angeles.”

This comes on the heels of a 36-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic joining the LA Galaxy in a move that has sent shockwaves across the league and the world because of the Swede’s great presence on a global scale.

It’s not to say that players like Ibrahimovic, or previous signings like David Villa and Didier Drogba cannot help the overall growth of MLS, because they certainly bring an awareness to the matches and draw attention to their respective clubs.

However, the long-term viability of MLS has been and will continue to be sustained on youth players succeeding in the league, as well as being able to draw promising young talents into the top flight of the U.S.