Italy: Napoli, Roma stay perfect as top five pulls clear

Leave a comment

Rafa Benítez’s hot start to his Serie A return had failed to draw huge trumpets through three rounds, mostly because an easy slate of opening fixtures gave the new Napoli boss little chance to impress. This week, however, that changed drastically, with a Champions League visit from Borussia Dortmund and a trip to AC Milan guaranteed to test one of Italy’s last two perfect sides. If Napoli won both those games, there’d be no denying their place amongst the best clubs in Europe, right?

As it turns out, not all wins are created equal, and while the Neopolitans deserve credit for posting successive 2-1 wins, each require some more context. On Wednesday, a first half red card left visiting Dortmund with 10 for the second half, and while Napoli were already up by the time Roman Weidenfeller handled outside his area, the sending off amounted to a huge what if. What if last year’s Champions League finalists had got to halftime at full strength? Would some of the push we saw at match’s end have been better-rewarded?

Sunday’s caveats were different, but there were still caveats. Napoli went up early on a set piece through Miguel Britos, controlled much of the first half, and saw a Gonzalo Higuaín blast through Christian Abbiati give them a two-goal lead early in the second half. But somewhere along the way, Milan had gained control, with Mario Balotelli becoming game’s focal point. Stressing a defense that was thought to be Napoli’s weak spot before the season, the Milan attacker slowly made the game into a question of whether (and how often) he’d break through.

But a penalty stop by Pepe Reina, the first miss in 22 career tries by Balotelli, hinted there’d be no breakthrough. Another blast off the woodwork midway through the second provided confirmation, as did a penalty appeal denied by Luca Banti. Despite 12 shots on goal and a late consolation tally (a nice finish by the Italian international), Balotelli was unable to dent Napoli’s perfect start, eventually earning a second yellow card for a post-whistle altercation with Valon Behrami.

Milan would end up with big advantages in all the main indicators — shots (22-9), shots on goal (8-3), and possession (56-44) — but most of that was due to Napoli’s early lead. On the road against one of Italy’s most talented (if injury-riddled) sides, the partenopei’s win was a strong one, even if Batoletti seemed determined to take it from them. On another day — if the penalty goes in, if Balotelli’s a little more precise earlier in the match, if Abbiati doesn’t concede a soft one to Higuaín — Napoli’s willingness to give Milan so many cracks many have bitten them. On Sunday, it served as confirmation their defense could hold out.

In that sense, it wasn’t the most resounding of victories, but it was still a good one. And with Rafa Benítez on the sidelines, Napoli fans are going to have to get used to this type of game management. But given the team’s won five in a row and sit near the top of the league, it’s hard to nit-pick too much. If Rafa’s style continues to produce these results, we’ll soon hear those trumpets

Highlights:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovErYfcPVsY]
source: Getty Images
Francesco Totti, who signed a contract extension through 2017 mid-week, assisted on Sunday’s first goal as Roma win this year’s first Rome Derby. (Photo: Getty Images.)

ROMA KEEP PACE AT TOP

If you do want to nit-pick, Napoli’s not actually at the top of the league. At best they’re joint top, but if one team were to be singled out, that honor would belong to Roma, whose 2-0 victory over rival Lazio moves them first on goal difference. Along with Napoli, Barcelona, and Atlético Madrid, they are one of four perfect teams remaining in Europe’s top five leagues.

Like Napoli, part of their climb has been fueled by a kind fixture list, one that should have become decidedly more difficult with today’s Rome Derby. Yet to a Roma defense that had only allowed one goal all year, the Aquile offense never presented a problem. Morgan De Sanctis went untested in the Giallorossi goal, leaving the match to be decided by Rudi Garcia’s attack.

For one half, Roma were no more effective than their rivals, but when Francisco Totti set up Federico Balzaretti’s left-footed volley just past the hour, the game was all but decided.

Highlights:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=av7ZiHFdeKU]

Between their decisive round two loss to Juventus and today’s underwhelming derby performance, Lazio looks like they’ve taken a step back from the team that won last year’s Coppa Italia. It may be too early to write them off, but it’s not too early to note something’s wrong. Through four rounds they’ve collected six points, but they were a combined -5 against Juve and Roma.

The Giallorossi, on the other hand, have claimed 12 and are part of a quintet that look poised to pull away from the league. In a season they were expected to compete for Europe and little more, Rudi Garcia may be slotting his team along side Inter as surprise competition for the league’s three favorites. A controlling win over their fiercest rivals hints Roma may be destined for greater things.

THE REST OF “THE FIVE”

After this weekend’s action, that quintet of Roma, Napoli, Inter Milan, Fiorentina and Juventus have pulled a full game clear of Livorno and Torino (sixth, seventh place). Inter did so with a 7-1 demolition of newly promoted Sassulo, giving them 13 goals through four games (with only one allowed). Fiorentina got another goal from Giuseppe Rossi in their 2-0 win at Atalanta, while Juventus had to come back from one down to take full points from Verona in Turin. Each team is 3-0-1, two points behind Roma and Napoli.

ELSEWHERE IN ITALY

Manolo Gabbiadini scored twice late at Calgiari, both equalizers sandwiched around Daniele Conti’s goal, as Sampdoria got a 2-2 result on the road … Serio Pellissier and Luca Rigoni had turned around a first-minute deficit by halftime as Chievo defeated visiting Udinese, 2-1 … Catania and Parma played to a 0-0 … A late first half red card to Bologna’s Cesare Natali proved decisive as Alessio Cerci’s penalty gave Torino the 2-1 lead they’d keep through full-time.

Germany’s ‘golden generation’ primed for World Cup defense

Getty Images
Leave a comment

BERLIN (AP) Germany coach Joachim Loew is brimming with confidence just over three weeks before what he calls the country’s “golden generation” begins its World Cup defense against Mexico.

“I have a very good feeling,” Loew said at the team’s training camp in South Tyrol, Italy. “I don’t know what will happen with this golden generation after the tournament. It’s possible there will be a break-up. But all the players are on fire for the World Cup.”

Germany is one of the favorites in Russia despite the retirements of Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose since winning the tournament in Brazil four years ago.

Players like Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Mats Hummels and Thomas Mueller have grown into leading figures with the side, which wrapped up qualification with 10 wins from 10 games and 43 goals, a record number of goals for a European team in qualifying.

Now they are charged with attempting to make Germany the first team to retain the title since Brazil in 1962.

“I don’t have to coax new craving or new enthusiasm from the players,” Loew said in comments reported by news agency dpa. “The craving and ambition are still there, even among those who became world champions.”

Germany’s only worries concern the fitness of captain Manuel Neuer, defender Jerome Boateng and midfielder Mesut Ozil. Neuer hasn’t played since September with a hairline fracture in his left foot after being injured in training. Boateng is still recovering from a thigh injury sustained in the Champions League semifinals. Ozil missed Arsenal’s last few games of the season with back problems.

Team doctor Hans-Wilhelm Mueller-Wohlfahrt gave Ozil the green light to start training with the team and he was to decide Friday if Boateng should stay in Munich for further treatment or join the squad.

“We don’t want to make any mistakes,” Loew said of Boateng. “I think he’ll be able to at least take part in some team training next week.”

Neuer, too, is being given every chance to prove his fitness. Loew named four goalkeepers in his 27-man preliminary squad and is hoping that the 32-year-old Neuer won’t be the one sent home before FIFA’s June 4 deadline for final squads to be submitted.

“He can tolerate all the strains, even the most strenuous strains like jumping,” Loew said. “If he has the feeling he can perform at 100 percent he can be at the World Cup.”

Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen will keep the No. 1 spot if Neuer doesn’t recover fully.

Ter Stegen was to join the rest of the squad on Friday, along with Bayern’s Hummels, Mueller, Joshua Kimmich and Niklas Suele, as well as Chelsea defender Antonio Ruediger.

“It’s clear to everyone that the training camp is to get the required strength and power for the tournament. The fuel has to be there,” said Loew, who also hopes it boosts team spirit. “Everyone has to know that he is just a puzzle piece for success. Nobody can be world champion on their own.”

Loew recently signed a contract extension through the next World Cup in Qatar in 2022. The 58-year-old former assistant coach took over after the 2006 World Cup and has led Germany to the semifinal stage or further in every major tournament since.

Germany has two warmup matches, against Austria in Klagenfurt on June 2 and Saudi Arabia six days later in Leverkusen, to iron out any pre-tournament issues.

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Klopp hails Real Madrid; plots upset in UCL final

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jurgen Klopp has placed all of the pressure on Real Madrid ahead of the UEFA Champions League final in Kiev, Ukraine on Saturday.

[ MORE: UCL final projected XI’s ]

The Liverpool manager spoke to the media on Friday ahead of the showpiece final and revealed his admiration for Zinedine Zidane and his superstars, with Real hoping to win a third-straight UCL trophy and a record 13th European title.

Liverpool (five-time winners themselves) are the slight underdogs but the way Klopp was talking suggested this final was a proper David vs. Goliath battle.

It seems as though the pressure is off his players, as Klopp (who has lost all five of his major finals as a manager) believes the experience of Real is key but still thinks his players are quite capable of causing an upset.

“Experience is very important. I am pretty sure in the second before the game Real Madrid will be more confident than we are but the game doesn’t end in that second, it only starts. When you see Real Madrid play you say ‘wow they are really strong’ but they never played us,” Klopp said. “But we are here because we are Liverpool. We are not only a really good football team. This club has it in its DNA that it can really go for the big things.

“Nobody expected us to be here, but we are here. Because we are Liverpool. Because we have the games we had in the Champions League, the most exceptional run to the final, the most goals, I cannot believe that it is true… but it’s us. We scored the most goals, we had exceptional results away and at home, all of that stuff. The experience they have is a big advantage. 100 percent. To feel confident, or whatever, but in the game experience doesn’t help all the time.”

Wow. Okay.

Klopp is clearly trying to take the pressure off his players and the fact that he also lavished praise on Zidane ahead of the final shows how much respect Liverpool have for the team who have won the most European titles in history.

But are the Reds going too far here? Klopp added the following as he continued with the underdog theme.

“We have to make it as difficult as possible for them. That’s the plan of course,” Klopp said. “We cannot try to fight on their level but tactics in football are there to bring a better opponent on your level. When they are on your level you can beat them. That’s hard to do, but I think it’s worth a try.”

This just seems like Liverpool are giving Real a little too much respect ahead of the game. After all, no team has scored more goals than Liverpool in the UCL this season plus they have the hottest player in the world in Mohamed Salah on their side.

It’s tough to question Klopp given what he has achieved in the UCL this season but he does seem to have gone a little over the top here as he portrayed his Liverpool side as massive underdogs in the final.

List of most valuable European clubs released

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Auditors KPMG released its ranking of the most valuable clubs in Europe over the past year and the Premier League once again dominated with six teams in the top 10 and Manchester United leading the way ahead of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Overall, the key stats to emerge from KPMG’s study is that there’s an aggregate growth of 14 percent among the top 32 clubs in Europe. While the English clubs in the top 32 list account for a staggering 42 percent of the total value, while Lyon, Sevilla and Tottenham are the big climbers in the list.

The top 14 clubs remain in the same positions as last season, but there is plenty of movement after that.

Manchester City are fourth, while Arsenal are in fifth, Chelsea in sixth, Liverpool in seventh and Tottenham stay in the top 10 as their progression on and off the pitch continues.

Leicester City are in 15th, West Ham United are newcomers to the list with the Hammers in 16th as their move to the London Stadium has increased their value substantially, while Everton are in 19th as nine of the most valuable 19 clubs in Europe are from the PL.

Below is a look at the top 32 via KPMG, while you can read the report in full here.


How will Liverpool, Real Madrid line up for UCL final?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

With just over 24 hours to go until the UEFA Champions League final in Kiev, Ukraine, excitement is building as Liverpool and Real Madrid lock horns in the battle to become Champions of Europe.

[ LIVE: Champions League final ]

Jurgen Klopp and Zinedine Zidane both possess an embarrassment of riches in attack but both coaches know they have weaknesses in defense.

With that in mind, we are expecting attack-minded starting lineups from both coaches. But who will get the nod for the XI?

Below is a look at my projected starting lineups for the final in Kiev, as well as analysis on the gameplan for both teams.


LIVERPOOL

—– Karius —–

— Alexander-Arnold — Lovren — Van Dijk — Robertson —

—- Milner —- Henderson —- Wijnaldum —-

—- Salah —- Firmino —- Mane —-

Analysis: At this point, there are no real surprises in Liverpool’s squad as Klopp is without the likes of Joe Gomez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain through injury and the back five pick themselves. The only real dilemma will be in midfield but even then the duo of Emre Can and Adam Lallana have been out injured and aren’t fully fit, so James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum are likely to start alongside Jordan Henderson in a midfield three. Then, up top, well, Salah, Firmino and Mane will start with Danny Ings and Dominic Solanke on the bench.


REAL MADRID

—– Navas —–

— Carvajal — Ramos — Varane — Marcelo —

—– Kroos —– Casemiro —- Modric —–

—- Isco —–

 —- Benzema —- Ronaldo —-

Analysis: Like Liverpool, the back five pretty much select themselves for Zidane with Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane a talented central defensive duo but marauding full backs Dani Carvajal and Marcelo will leave plenty of gaps for Salah, Mane and Firmino to expose. In midfield the silky duo of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric will pull the strings, while the robust Casemiro will look to stop and Salah and Co. from getting at Ramos and Varane. The forward three is the biggest dilemma for Zidane with Cristiano Ronaldo certain to start centrally, but the likes of Marco Asensio and Gareth Bale could well find themselves on the bench with Isco and Karim Benzema likely to get the nod, plus Lucas Vazquez pushing hard for a starting spot. Having Bale (in fine form with four goals in his past three games) fresh to bring on from the bench may well just prove to be the difference if the game becomes tight and tense in the second half.