Coppa Italia: Napoli dismantles Roma, joins Fiorentina in final

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A debate sparked two weeks ago about which team sat in better stead played out resoundingly in Napoli’s favor, with a Roma side that failed to perform to type routed Wednesday at the San Paolo. With goals from José Callejon, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Jorginho, the Partenopei reversed the 3-2 deficit they carried into their Coppa Italia second leg, with a 5-3 aggregated victory clinching their chance to win a second cup in three years.

The 2012 champions are set to face Fiorentina in May’s final, with La Viola clinching their spot after yesterday’s 2-0 win over Udinese in Florence. Turning around the 2-1 edge the Bianconeri earned in Udine, Vincenzo Montella’s team took the first step toward ensuring the battle Fiorentina and Napoli are waging for Italy’s last Champions League spot will carry over into the Coppa final.

The Neapolitans did their part on Wednesday, albeit not without a little help from Roma. Rudi Garcia’s team, up one-goal at kickoff, adopted an uncharacteristically passive stance at the onset, an approach that saw the normally possession-dominant Romans cede control to their hosts. While the tactic gave Napoli a few scares on the counterattack, José Callejon saw Rafa Benítez’s side in front in the 33rd minute, heading home a cross from Christian Maggio to give Napoli the edge on away goals.

Six minutes into the second half, the match was essentially over. Gonzalo Higuaín increased his team’s lead to 4-3 with a 48th minute header, while Jorginho added Napoli’s third of the night three minutes later. With 39 minutes left, Roma needed two goals to force extra time. When Kevin Strootman was sent off in the 79th minute, Roma’s hopes of returning to the Coppa final evaporated.

For a team that’s had so much success controlling games, it was curious to see Roma content to let Napoli keep the ball, yet on the road, in the second leg of a semifinal, and protecting a one-goal lead, you can see why Garcia gave in to temptation. As Roma’s early forays forward showed, there was always a chance Napoli’s push for their go-ahead goal would open the Partenopei up for a counter. Unfortunately for Garcia, the home side struck first, forcing Roma to re-find their normal selves despite trying to be something else.

At halftime, the Giallorossi brought on Maicon at right back. Francesco Totti was only put on after they were down two. By that time, against a team of Napoli’s quality, it was too late. Rafa Benítez was already starting to make his adjustments.

Those adjustments helped ensure Napoli joined Fiorentina in May’s final, by which time the two clubs  will be vying for two honors. Though Coppa  represents silverware, the greater reward may go to the team that finishes third, thus qualifying for UEFA Champions League. For Benítez and Montella, however, the proposition doesn’t have to be an either-or.

VIDEO: de Bruyne delivers gorgeous assist on Lukaku goal

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It took a little bit of patience, but Romelu Lukaku finally got on the scoresheet at the 2018 World Cup, thanks to a delicious assist from crosstown club rival Kevin De Bruyne.

The Manchester City playmaker delivered a spectacular outside-of-the-boot cross into the box, where Lukaku’s head met it and guided it towards the far post for Belgium’s second goal of the day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Arsenal close in on Leno; Man City near Jorginho signing, and more

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Arsenal looks like it will have a new man between the pipes for next season.

According to a report from German publication SportBild, Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Bernd Leno will be introduced as an Arsenal player on Tuesday, after a reported $23-29 million transfer fee. The 26-year-old was on Germany’s 35-man pre-World Cup squad, but was one of the last cuts as Joachim Low went with Manuel Neuer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Kevin Trapp in Russia.

Leno became the full-time starter for Leverkusen as a 20-year-old, and has held the position of the No. 1 for the last six seasons, earning plenty of Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League experience along the way.

It’s unclear what will happen to current Arsenal No. 1 Petr Cech. The 36-year-old Premier League legend experienced one of his worst seasons in net for Arsenal and he could begin the season as a backup, unless he moves to a new club. He reportedly has a contract through 2019.

Here’s some more transfer rumors from around the Premier League and Europe.

(more…)

VIDEO: Mertens scores wonderstrike for Belgium

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After a frustrating 45 minutes, it took only two minutes for Belgium to finally get on the board, even if it was a goal sprinkled with magic dust.

Off a partially cleared ball on the right side of the box, Belgium attacker Dries Mertens whalloped a shot that arced over Panama (and former LA Galaxy) goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, giving Belgium a 1-0 lead.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Croatia’s Kalinic sent home from World Cup

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It’s only been five days, and we have our first World Cup dismissal.

According to a bombshell report out of Croatia, Croatia National Team head coach Zlatko Dalic has sent home striker Nikola Kalinic from the team’s camp, after the AC Milan player reportedly refused to be a substitute during Croatia’s 2-0 win over Nigeria.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

[Update: The Croatia FA confirmed the decision, releasing this statement from Dalic. “During the Nigeria encounter, Kalinić was warming up and was supposed to come on in the second half. However, he then stated that he wasn’t ready to come on due to a back issue. The same thing happened during the Brazil friendly in England, as well as before the practice session on Sunday. I have calmly accepted that, and since I need my players fit and ready to play, I have made this decision.”]

The report states that Kalinic refused to come on due to an injury, but Dalic had said recently that his team had no injuries that would keep players out, potentially meaning that Kalinic used the injury claim as an excuse.

Croatia’s FA is expected to confirm the news on Monday.

After a rough season at AC Milan, with just six league goals in 31 Serie A appearances, Kalinic, at 30, is likely finished with the Vatreni. He scored three goals in World Cup qualifying but hasn’t started for Croatia since a 2-0 win over Peru in March. Kalinic did score against Spain in Croatia’s shock 2-1 win exactly two years prior to Saturday’s match.

He was deemed second choice to Mario Mandzukic as the center forward up top, but was reportedly asked to spell Mandzukic during Croatia’s match against Nigeria, and Kalinic reportedly refused.

If true, Croatia will continue with 22 players for the remainder of the tournament.