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Ailing Mihajlovic coaches Bologna during leukemia treatment

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ROME (AP) A hospital band was on his right wrist and a bandage was visible on the left side of his neck.

Sinisa Mihajlovic was visibly thinner and his face was drawn, too.

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The once robust Bologna coach’s determination remains, though, and that was clearly apparent when Mihajlovic surprised his team by showing up for the squad’s Serie A opener Sunday in his first public appearance following a month of chemotherapy after being diagnosed with leukemia.

“He had promised us he would be here but when we saw him in the hotel, we couldn’t believe it,” Bologna midfielder Andrea Poli said after the 1-1 draw at Hellas Verona.

There was speculation that Mihajlovic would coach the team from a special box in the tribune but he spent nearly the entire game on the touchline, leaving a minute before the end to be shuttled back to the hospital.

“He spoke to us via video conference during the week and said he wasn’t 100 percent. He told us a month ago that he wanted to be here for this game, but we didn’t think he really would be,” Bologna winger Riccardo Orsolini said.

“It was a big boost. We’re just sorry that we didn’t give him the victory,” Orsolini added. “He’s lost a bit of weight, but the grit, determination and passion were the same as always.”

Mihajlovic yelled at his players as usual and gestured with his hands in protest to the officials.

“Sinisa wasn’t very happy at the end,” Bologna sporting director Riccardo Bigon said. “Actually he was angry (over the result).”

The 50-year-old Mihajlovic was a standout player for Sampdoria and Lazio – he still shares the Serie A record for free-kick goals at 28 with Andrea Pirlo – before beginning his coaching career a decade ago in his first stint at Bologna.

Mihajlovic was rehired by Bologna in January to replace Filippo Inzaghi and engineered a complete turnaround for a team that was battling off relegation, leading the club to a 10th place finish.

When Mihajlovic announced in July that he had an acute form of leukemia, the club said it would still keep him in charge.

Up next for Bologna is its home opener against Spal on Friday and it remains to be seen if Mihajlovic will appear at that match.

PENALTY ERROR

Referees director Nicola Rizzoli has acknowledged that Napoli should not have been awarded a penalty in its wild 4-3 win at Fiorentina on Saturday.

The penalty was awarded after Napoli forward Dries Mertens theatrically dragged his leg as he jumped over a defender who was already on the ground.

Lorenzo Insigne converted the ensuing penalty to put Napoli up 2-1.

“Something didn’t work in the collaboration between the referee and the VAR,” Rizzoli said Monday. “Clearly everyone has seen the error.”

Rizzoli added that he would review whether the referee and VAR official involved would sit out next weekend.

“A coach uses the players who are in the best form and the moves that we make will go toward putting them in the best condition to officiate,” Rizzoli said. “We’ll evaluate their psycho-physical conditions.”

NO FEMALE REFS

While French referee Stephanie Frappart recently directed the UEFA Super Cup in the highest-profile men’s game for a female referee, don’t expect to see any women on the pitch in Serie A soon.

“I hope it happens in two or three years,” Italian referees association president Marcello Nicchi said last week when he presented the 21 referees – all male – for this season.

Rodrigo TO RODRIGO

Rodrigo Becao’s first profession goal was all Udinese needed for a 1-0 win over AC Milan.

The tall defender headed in following a corner from fellow Brazilian Rodrigo De Paul, whose assist came on his first touch of the season – 25 seconds after coming off the bench.

Milan had no shots on goal and lost its opener for the fifth time in the last eight seasons.

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Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

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MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong

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Jose Mourinho seems to be quite happy that the Premier League will implement its first-ever winter break next month, allowing players a bit of rest and recovery time during a marathon campaign, but says its timing makes the break almost worthless for clubs competing in European competitions.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

The next four weeks will play out as follows for Tottenham Hotspur: FA Cup against Southampton this weekend; PL fixture against Manchester City next weekend; the following weekend off which results in two weeks without a game; PL fixture against Aston Villa the following weekend; Champions League first leg against RB Leipzig three days later.

In Mourinho’s perfect world, that first round of PL fixtures following the break would be held a week earlier, leaving the seven English clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with a week and a half between games before setting out once again to chase European glory. Instead, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea will all have a quick turnaround from PL action to UCL competition — quotes from the Guardian:

“It is what it is. I’m not happy that the break comes in the wrong moment. The break should be before the Champions League and, in the end, before the Champions League we don’t have the break. We have to play Aston Villa on the Sunday, playing [RB Leipzig three] days later. So we don’t really care about the break, honestly.”

Mourinho’s point is a solid one: if the winter break is going to exist — and it should — then why shouldn’t its benefits be maximized? Non-European sides — typically those with smaller squads — would still have the full two weeks between games, while those in Europe are able to better leverage their slightly larger squads with only 10 or 11 days between games — still a lengthy break relative to the rest of the season.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

It’s only the first year of the winter break in the PL, so perhaps hopefully they’ll receive Mourinho’s criticism — and that of any other managers — constructively.

Serie A: AC Milan extends unbeaten run since Zlatan’s arrival

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BRESCIA, Italy (AP) Ante Rebic scored his third goal in two matches, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb and AC Milan won 1-0 at relegation-threatened Brescia on Friday to climb into the Europa League places in Serie A.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Rebic, who scored twice in a win over Udinese last weekend, pounced on a loose ball directly in front of the goal following a cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.

Since Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan over the holiday break, Milan is unbeaten with four wins and a draw across all competitions.

Donnarumma produced several difficult saves to deny Dimitri Bisoli and Ernesto Torregrossa.

Also, Milan fullback Theo Hernandez hit the crossbar in the closing minutes.

The Rossoneri moved up to sixth place, four points behind fifth-place Atalanta.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

“Our goal is to qualify for Europe,” Donnarumma said. “We’ve got to continue like this and not rest for a moment. There’s another big Italian Cup match coming up with Torino midweek and we want to reach the semifinals.

“We’ll take it one game at a time and try to keep this momentum going.”

Brescia was without Mario Balotelli, who was suspended for two matches after protesting a booking last weekend that ended up with the striker being sent off.

Brescia remained one point above last-place Genoa.

FA Cup: Sheffield Wednesday into 5th round; Derby headed for replay

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Sheffield Wednesday became the first club to reach the fifth round of the 2019-20 FA Cup by beating Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Friday.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

The Owls took a 1-0 lead into halftime after Morgan Fox squeezed his shot past the goalkeeper from a tight angle, and Sam Winnall put the EFL Championship side 2-0 up by slotting the ball home just before full-time. QPR pulled a goal back through Nahki Wells just moments later, but it wasn’t enough and the game finished 2-1.

It’s the second time in three seasons that Wednesday has reached the fifth round after doing so just twice in their previous 17 seasons.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

Elsewhere, fellow Championship side Derby County, featuring Wayne Rooney who played all 90 minutes, couldn’t see off League Two side Northampton Town and will be forced into the dreaded replay after struggling to a scoreless draw away from home.

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.