Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

AC Milan and Napoli likeliest challengers to Juve’s crown

Leave a comment

MILAN (AP) Juventus’ six-year Serie A domination could end this year.

AC Milan has reinforced its squad, Inter Milan has had some much-needed stability after four managerial changes last season, while Napoli looks set to mount an even stronger challenge this time around.

Lazio could also be surprise contenders after Simone Inzaghi’s side withstood a late comeback to beat Juventus 3-2 and win the Italian Super Cup on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

However, Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri has warned the rest of Serie A that it will be a very different performance from his team in Saturday’s season opener at home to Cagliari.

“We cannot and must not play like that in the league,” he said. “This defeat brings us back to earth. Some of the players aren’t fully fit yet, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy … but starting on Saturday you’ll see a different Juve.”

Allegri also took encouragement from the last time Juventus played Lazio in the Super Cup, in 2015.

“We beat Lazio in Beijing for the Super Cup two years ago and then had a bad start to the Serie A season, so hopefully we’ll do it the other way round this time,” he said.

Juventus has dominated Italian soccer for nearly a decade, winning three successive league and cup doubles and it will be tricky for anyone to prevent the Bianconeri from extending their league record to seven straight Serie A titles.

Milan was the last team other than Juventus to win the title and, despite having last finished in the top three in 2013, it looks the likeliest to depose the Turin-based club.

The Chinese-led consortium that purchased Milan from Silvio Berlusconi for $800 million in April has infused the club with cash and splashed out more than 200 million euros ($234 million) in the offseason.

[ VIDEO: Giovanni Reyna’s MOTM job for USYNT ]

As well as signing Italy’s top defender Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus, Milan also brought in forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Fourth place in Serie A now guarantees qualification to the Champions League and that will be the minimum requirement for Vincenzo Montella’s team. But, if the new team gels quickly, there is the feeling that Milan could make a strong challenge for the title.

Bonucci was playing down his new side’s chances.

“Juve remains favorite and Napoli has a great chance of fighting for the title,” Bonucci said in interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. “As we are now we’re still a step below both, but we shouldn’t put limits on ourselves. After those two, I see Milan, Inter and Roma as equal.”

Napoli has finished in the top three in four of the past five seasons but even a record number of points last campaign still left it third, five points behind Juventus.

However, talk of the `scudetto’ is no longer a taboo for Napoli, which hasn’t won the title since 1990.

But, while it didn’t make any big signings in the transfer window, its biggest success of the offseason has been in keeping its band of talented players together.

It sold Ezequiel Lavezzi in 2012 and Edinson Cavani the following year – both to Paris Saint-Germain – while Gonzalo Higuain moved to Juventus in 2016.

This year Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne have signed new contracts, while Marek Hamsik is just three goals away from breaking Diego Maradona’s scoring record for the club.

Mertens was reportedly pursued by a number of clubs – both in Italy and abroad – but the Belgium international, who scored more than 30 goals for Napoli last campaign, opted to extend his stay with the southern side.

“I stayed here because the team plays very beautiful football and doing that we can get a lot of joy,” said Mertens, who scored again as Napoli beat Nice 2-0 in the first leg of its Champions League playoff on Wednesday.

Napoli played arguably the best soccer in Italy last season and its attacking flair saw it score 94 goals, but it faltered against teams in the lower half of the table and coach Maurizio Sarri is hoping to have corrected that by the time it kicks of its Serie campaign at Hellas Verona on Saturday.

More AP Italian soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Bolt unlikely to agree to terms with Australian club

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Usain Bolt’s search for a professional contract may go on a bit longer.

According to the Central Coast Mariners, the Australian club he’s been training with, they have extended Bolt a contract, but conceded a deal is “unlikely” “without the financial contribution of an external third-party,”

Reports across Europe state that Bolt is looking for a $3 million contract from any team he signs with, and the Mariners appear unable to meet those demands. “We are looking at ways to do this as the club does not have the luxury to be able to do this in the Hyundai A-League,” the club said in a statement. According to a report by the Guardian, the Australian football governing body has contributed $100,000 from its marketing fund for the contract, but would add no more than that.

Bolt scored twice in a friendly last week, and he’s been training with the club for the past few weeks, but the club announced that while talks are ongoing, Bolt will not travel with the team or attend training “to ensure that there is no distraction to the Hyundai A-League squad in preparing for this weekend’s match versus Melbourne City.”

The A-League side said in the statement that while Bolt is improving, the former sprinter requires further training to become a viable professional player. “Usain has made great progression during his time on the Central Coast and we feel that he will improve further with more individual intensive training and competitive game time.”

However, the club’s head coach wasn’t so complimentary. “Do you think he’ll get in our front three? We’ve got a very good front third,” Mike Mulvey said. Central Coast sports former Leeds United, Fulham, and Aston Villa striker Ross McCormack up front, alongside 26-year-old Australian international Tommy Oar and 24-year-old Connor Pain who has one cap for the international side.

Bolt doesn’t exactly have a ton of time to improve his game, already at 32 years of age and with a full Olympic-medal-winning professional sprinting career on his legs.

Man United hosts Juventus to headline Champions League Tuesday

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The stars align at Old Trafford on Tuesday as Manchester United hosts Juventus at the forefront of the Champions League slate.

Cristiano Ronaldo returns to face his old club and his old manager, while Paul Pogba also takes on his former team as the top spot in Group H is on the line. Ronaldo is back in Champions League action since September 19 when he was controversially sent off, earning a one-match suspension he served in a 3-0 win over Young Boys.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho told the players after throwing away a late lead against Chelsea to “use the anger to motivate ourselves to play a big match.” They’ll take on a Juventus team that’s slightly banged up, missing Mario Mandzukic, Emre Can and Sami Khedira all out injured. Manchester United also has its own issues, with Alexis Sanchez unavailable with Mourinho confirming he’s “not fit” although no other injury information was given.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, Manchester City travels east to take on Ukranian club Shakhtar Donetsk. Group F is crowded through two matches, with City in second a point behind Olympique Lyon at the top. Kevin De Bruyne is in the squad after returning from injury over the weekend, coming off the bench for 32 minutes of Premier League play against Burnley. They’ll look to attack a Shakhtar defense that choked away a 2-0 lead against Lyon last time out. City has Kyle Walker available as well, announced as part of the matchday squad.

Bayern Munich visits AEK Athens having returned to winning ways over the weekend with a 3-1 victory over Wolfsburg. It’s a welcome sight for Niko Kovac, who was under fire for a terrible stretch of games, but now the Bavarians have a positive result to take with them on the road. Robert Lewandowski and James Rodriguez were both on the scoresheet, with the Polish international grabbing a brace.

Ajax takes on Benfica in Amsterdam as the Dutch side looks to extend its lead at the top of Group E. They’re tied with Bayern on points, but hold a slightly superior goal differential. Since falling to PSV Eindhoven in Eredivisie play, they have blown out Fortuna Sittard, AZ Alkmaar, and Heerenveen 11-0 over their last three games. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar already has 10 goals this season across all competitions, and former Southampton attacker Dusan Tadic is right behind him with 9.

Real Madrid has its best chance to turn around the poor run of play as they host Czech club Viktoria Plzen. Madrid has not won since September 22, a run of five matches that consists of four defeats. The club broke a scoreless streak of over 450 minutes last time out in a 2-1 loss to Levante, but the pressure has only increased on head coach Julen Lopetegui.

Other matches

Young Boys vs Valencia
AS Roma vs CSKA Moscow
Hoffenheim vs Lyon

Puel, Schmeichel fume at referee after Leicester loss to Arsenal

Leave a comment

While the world looked on at the performance by Mesut Ozil in awe, Leicester City manager Claude Puel and Foxes goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel were left stewing after the match at a first-half decision which they believed changed the game completely.

Had the referee awarded a penalty for a Rob Holding handball in the first half with Leicester City up 1-0, the game would likely have turned out very differently. Holding, already on a yellow card, would have likely been sent off and Leicester City would have a chance from the spot to go up 2-0.

“I think [the first half was] our best half since the beginning of the season,” Puel said after the match. “We deserved to score more goals and make the difference in the first half. I didn’t understand why the referee didn’t whistle for the penalty, because in this moment it was a penalty, it was a second yellow card and so a sending off for the Arsenal player. This situation can change the finality of the game.”

Puel said that once the call was not made, and Arsenal was able to equalize before the break, Leicester City’s level of play dropped enough for the Gunners to pounce.

“I regret a little our beginning of the second half. We lost a lot of balls and we gave them the ball too easily to put us under pressure, but we have had the chances to score and to be leading in the game with the header from Ndidi. A lot of regret in this game because we showed a lot of quality and we were not lucky with the refereeing decision.”

Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was in agreement with his manager about the key first-half decision. “We got no help from the official,” Schmeichel said. “I’ve never seen a clearer penalty. It’s tough to take because we were so good in the first half but in the second we’ve got to do a lot better than we did.”

At halftime, the replay showed the ball clearly hitting Holding’s forearm while above his head. However, the NBC studio crew argued that the penalty was not called because Holding’s arm was hit into the ball by the Leicester City attacker who attempted a header, and that although his arm was above his head, it was not in an unnatural position due to the natural human instinct to balance the body while jumping into the air.

Emery still searching for improvement after Arsenal win

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Arsenal won its 10th match in a row across all competitions with a 3-1 victory over Leicester City, with Mesut Ozil playing the starring role.

Still, Unai Emery isn’t fully pleased with the performance.

[ WATCH: Ozil sets up 2 beautiful goals in Arsenal win over Leicester City ]

Arsenal fell behind 1-0 thanks to a Hector Bellerin own-goal, and the Gunners boss is concerned about his assessment of the 90 minute performance. “Different halves, every match is difficult,” Emery said after the match. “First half we didn’t control the match with possession and positioning.”

Ben Chillwell got behind Bellerin and sent in a cross to the middle of the box, to which goalkeeper Bernd Leno reacted, but the cross clipped off Bellerin’s foot and past the wrong-footed goalkeeper. Arsenal responded with a 3-goal wave, as Ozil scored the first and set the next two up in brilliant fashion.

“We are happy because we are progressing. We need to play with organization but also with heart. We are beginning to play with heart. When you continue to improve your demands are very high. We need to control the matches more than we are doing now.”

The win pushed the Gunners to fourth in the Premier League table, above rivals Tottenham on goal differential. Emery said in order to have success long-term and maintain their Champions League positioning, the players need to be flexible.

“First half we didn’t play well but then we played with quality and heart. This feeling together is very good. We need the number 10 position sometimes with Mesut Ozil and sometimes with Aaron Ramsey. We can’t play with both sometimes. Last match was away and we played it with two strikers. Today Mesut was very good but I believe in every player and different positions for the players.”