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Grant: RMS Deal Was ‘One I Couldn’t Pass Up’

Published in Racing
Monday, 30 November 2020 08:59

AVON, Ind. — Justin Grant will be among the first to tell fans he wasn’t looking toward the new year expecting to run a full USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget Series season.

However, when he was approached by Dave and Matt Estep of RMS Racing, the conversation that ensued wasn’t one Grant could have anticipated.

The end result was a chance to chase the USAC national midget championship in a Toyota-powered Spike Chassis for RMS alongside Thomas Meseraull. In Grant’s eyes, it offered him a bit of a reset after two years of racing midgets part time with Rick Young’s RAMS Racing operation.

“I hadn’t really wanted to do the midget deal full time because I’d kind of gotten burnt out on it a little bit,” Grant admitted. “So I went and did the RAMS thing and it was perfect. I could go and run it when I wanted to, and it was really, really ideal. I had a lot of fun doing it for the last couple of years; it was kind of a perfect storm for the longest time for me. I started thinking that I could go full-time midget racing again this year, but with the RAMS stuff — taking care of things and running the team and doing it in the limited capacity that we did — it would’ve been very hard to do it full time, running the whole (USAC) tour.

“When this deal with the Esteps presented itself, it was a good opportunity to do that again,” Grant continued. “I talked to Rick (Young) and Jeff (Taylor) and they were in agreement and on board and excited for me to try and run a for championship and all that, which is good. I really like the RMS guys and they’re great friends of mine. But my hope with RAMS is that we’ll continue to have a relationship in racing, even if I’m not driving their midget at this particular time.”

Grant’s two-year stint in the RAMS Racing No. 4a produced a Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals preliminary night victory in 2019, as well as an Indiana Midget Week victory at Gas City (Ind.) I-69 Speedway that summer and a second USAC win in May of this year at Oklahoma’s Port City Raceway.

He, Young and Taylor — from team sponsor Rockwell Security — had a lot of laughs and solid success despite not traveling up and down the road with the USAC regulars.

What sparked the change to RMS?

“An opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” Grant explained.

“To have done a lot of the work on the RAMS cars in the past couple years, we’re so proud of that, but this deal and the people the Esteps have surrounding them allows me to put a little extra focus back into driving the car, which is always exciting,” he continued. “I’m looking forward to getting to 2021 and working with Donnie (Gentry) and Dave and Matt and Thomas. It’s really an exciting time for us.”

Asked if he felt the RAMS squad could have gone full time had he expressed a desire to do so, Grant offered an affirmative, but noted, “it would have taken a lot” to make that arrangement happen.

“I think that if I would have been adamant that that’s what I wanted to do, I feel like those guys would have tried to find a way to make that work,” Grant explained. “But we just weren’t really ever set up as a team to do that. We were set up to be a small operation, and to come in and hit where we thought we could win and then go back home, you know? So we just were never really built with that in mind or as a goal.

“I think those guys would have tried to make that work if possible, but this also worked out really well and everybody was OK with it and on the same page.”

As he looks ahead to the new season, Grant is confident he can fight among the best to win next year’s USAC national midget title, but that isn’t the only thing on his mind.

The Ione, Calif., native and longtime USAC veteran is feeling a renewed push toward trying to secure USAC’s Triple Crown by winning titles in each of the sanctioning body’s three national divisions.

He finally captured the USAC Silver Crown Series championship this season during a COVID-19 pandemic-shortened campaign, as well as contended down the stretch for the USAC national sprint car crown.

A midget title would complete the second leg of the trifecta for Grant, and he hopes to achieve that.

“I’ve been close to a handful of times on the sprint car side, and that’s one that I really want badly. I’m going to do everything in my power to get that one here as soon as I can, but this new deal with RMS definitely opens that (Triple Crown) idea up again, as far as having one of them,” Grant admitted. “A handful of guys are in the hunt right now for championships on the Silver Crown side … with the pavement aspect of that series, there aren’t a lot of guys right now that do that and run dirt sprint cars and dirt midgets. So it puts you in a smaller group of guys that are possible candidates for it.

“I’m really excited to go and chase the other two (legs of the Triple Crown). If we can get a midget title next year, that would be fantastic,” Grant noted. “That’s their (RMS’) goal as a team. And the sprint car title is something that I’ve been close to in the past and I’m still really, really aiming for. But we’ll just take this all one step at a time and see where it takes us.”

Pietro Fittipaldi Goes From Hickory Champ To Formula One

Published in Racing
Monday, 30 November 2020 09:00

CONCORD, N.C. — When Pietro Fittipaldi makes his Formula One debut for the Haas F1 Team on Dec. 6 at the Bahrain Int’l Circuit, it’ll be the culmination of a journey that started nearly 10 years ago.

Fittipaldi, the grandson of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, two-time Formula One champion and 1989 CART champion Emerson Fittipaldi, will be the substitute driver for Romain Grosjean. Grosjean was injured in a massive crash that split his car in half on the first lap of Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix at the Bahrain Int’l Circuit, resulting in a fireball that left him with burns on his hands and ankles.

A 24-year-old Brazilian, who was born in Miami, Fla., Fittipaldi didn’t set out to make a living racing open-wheel race cars. In 2011, it appeared his racing career was headed in a different direction.

A teenager at the time, Fittipaldi, who was already an experienced kart racer, ran a limited late model for Lee Faulk Racing at North Carolina’s Hickory Motor Speedway.

“When I was 14, I got the chance to test a late model with Lee Faulk Racing in 2010 at Hickory,” Fittipaldi told SPEED SPORT in 2018. “We actually did two races that year at the end of the year. Then we decided to do the full season in 2011 with the limited late model.”

The limited late model class features full-sized stock cars with less horsepower and serves as a stepping-stone division to the premier late model stock car division at Hickory. Fittipaldi won four times in 2011 en route to capturing the limited late model track championship. He was also the top rookie in the division.

Seeing how successful Fittipaldi was becoming, his family moved from Florida to Davidson, N.C., so Fittipaldi could immerse himself in the racing culture that is prevalent in the Charlotte, N.C., region.

“My whole family moved just for me to follow my racing career,” Fittipaldi said.

After winning Hickory’s limited late model championship, Fittipaldi and Lee Faulk Racing stepped up to the late model class in 2012. Fittipaldi fell short of the championship, finishing fifth in the standings and winning the season-ending Fall Brawl.

“I have to say the people at Hickory are extremely passionate about racing,” Fittipaldi said. “We’d go out almost every weekend and we’d have a race almost every Saturday, so it was almost 23, 24 races a year. There were always 2,000 or 3,000 people going to watch a race, so that was pretty cool.”

With his stock car career on the path to success, a wrench was thrown into the gears. He got an offer to go open-wheel racing.

Pietro Fittipaldi will make his Formula One debut this weekend at the Bahrain Int’l Circuit for the Haas F1 Team. (Andy Hone / LAT Images Photo)

“That was when I got the opportunity from there to go from NASCAR racing to open-wheel racing,” Fittipaldi said. “That was through a racing program called Escudería Telmex, they are involved in NASCAR Mexico (in 2018). They heard I was winning races at Hickory and Hickory was really competitive back then. You always got a good showing of late model cars there.

“That’s when I got the opportunity to go to Europe and to go from NASCAR to open-wheel racing in Europe.”

Fittipaldi explained that if he were to stay in America and continue his pursuit of a career in NASCAR, the next logical step would have been what was then known as the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. However, he didn’t have the required sponsorship money it would have taken to do that.

So when Escudería Telmex offered him the chance to switch to open-wheel racing, he didn’t have to do much thinking.

“The next step from where I was would have been to start racing K&N and I didn’t have the sponsorship to do that,” Fittipaldi said. “These guys wanted to sponsor me and bring me into their program, but to go race in Europe.”

Despite the change from stock cars to open-wheel cars, Fittipaldi continued to thrive. In 2014, he captured Protyre British Formula Renault championship and then won the 2015-16 MRF Challenge Formula 2000 championship. He continued his winning ways in 2017, adding another championship in the World Series Formula V8 3.5 series.

“I like NASCAR and stock car racing because you’re always racing somebody. That’s what’s so amazing about it,” Fittipaldi said in 2018. “What I like about the open-wheel cars is they have a lot more downforce on them. They have the wings, they have the diffuser. You have a lot higher cornering speed, you’re able to brake a lot deeper and you race on road courses. It’s completely different styles. They’re both racing, but completely different styles.”

Fittipaldi returned to America on a part-time basis in 2018, splitting his time between the NTT IndyCar Series and road racing in Europe. He was scheduled to make his debut in the Indianapolis 500 with Dale Coyne Racing, but he broke both his legs during qualifying for a World Endurance Championship race at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, forcing him to miss the Indianapolis 500.

Later that year, Fittipaldi was named a test and reserve driver for the Haas F1 Team, opening the door for him to one day make his Formula One debut.

That day is Dec. 6, when Fittipaldi will strap into the Haas VF-20 to race against drivers such as Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo at the Bahrain Int’l Circuit.

From Hickory Motor Speedway track champion to Formula One, Fittipaldi has come a long way.

The PGA Tour year concludes at this week's Mayakoba Golf Classic, with a stellar field that includes Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and defending champion Brendon Todd.

Here's a look at the odds, as of Monday morning, courtesy PointsBet Sportsbook:

6/1: Justin Thomas

10/1: Brooks Koepka

14/1: Harris English

18/1: Tony Finau, Daniel Berger, Abraham Ancer, Viktor Hovland

22/1: Russell Henley

25/1: Rickie Fowler

28/1: Will Zalatoris

30/1: Corey Conners

33/1: Joaquin Niemann

40/1: Marc Leishman, Billy Horschel, Carlos Ortiz

50/1: Gary Woodland, Brendon Todd, Sebastian Munoz

Could this be a breakthrough victory for Man United?

Published in Soccer
Monday, 30 November 2020 09:41

Manchester United fought back for a big win, Chelsea and Tottenham played it safe in the Premier League's game of the weekend, and Napoli showed their Serie A title credentials, while Real Madrid, Arsenal, PSG, Juventus and Bayern all failed to impress.

- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
- Predict results in ESPN's English Soccer Pick 'Em!
- ESPN+ viewer's guide: Bundesliga, Serie A, MLS, FA Cup and more

It's Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.

Jump to: Man United joy | Real, Zidane a mess | Napoli's title credentials | Time for head injury subs | Arsenal regress | Milan keep winning | Lessons from Chelsea, Spurs | Tuchel blasts PSG | Bayern look tired | Barca's big win | Juve's slow progress | Dortmund woes on Favre | Conte keeps complaining | Mahrez steps up for Man City | "Atletico 2.0" win

Has Solskjaer figured out the 'right' way for Man United to play?

Edinson Cavani's two-goal, second-half performance will get the headlines from Sunday's 3-2 come-from-behind win, but that should not detract from the fact that Manchester United played well throughout the 90 minutes against Southampton, even when they went two goals down in the first half.

-- Report: Southampton 2, Man United 3
-- Ratings: Cavani 9/10 in United comeback
-- Cavani apologizes for social media post

Without Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer opted for the diamond with the addition of Donny van de Beek, while up front, Mason Greenwood got his first start since November 1. It wasn't perfect, but it showed that the set-up could work and it gave United a platform to play through Southampton's aggressive press that, lest we forget, was a big part in ensuring Ralf Hasenhuttl's crew had been undefeated since week two of the season.

Greenwood struggled somewhat, but it's important for Solskjaer to get him back on the pitch and to get him minutes. He only turned 19 in October; this is how you grow. And he got to witness a master class in the performance of Cavani, the man who replaced him. The Uruguayan set up Bruno Fernandes' goal, came close once and then bagged both the equaliser and the injury time winner. Just as important, he showed you how playing a front two doesn't mean you necessarily sacrifice width: if you have the movement and the energy, you can stretch any defensive line.

Diamond midfield or wingers? The dilemma will likely accompany Solskjaer all season long, but for me, there is no argument. Unless you have some sophisticated, hyper-efficient tactical system that befuddles opponents (and United most definitely do not), you're better off getting your most gifted players on the pitch. That means going with a diamond.

You can figure out what combination of Martial, Rashford, Cavani and Greenwood play in the front two. None of them are bona fide wingers anyway. You can find ways to make up for Aaron Wan-Bissaka's lack of attacking output. (I'd consider seeing if he can play center-back and look around for a more offensively minded full-back.) You can, against many opponents, squeeze your three most technical midfielders -- Pogba, Van de Beek and Fernandes -- in the lineup. It needs to be worked on, sure, but that's what Solskjaer is there for.

Real Madrid, Zidane, can't just blame injuries for poor form

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Laurens: Marcelo is a liability for Real Madrid

Julien Laurens feels Real Madrid defender Marcelo is no longer good enough to play for the club.

You know things are bad when your only November wins come against Inter Milan, and Real Madrid's 2-1 loss to Alaves offers up few alibis. Yeah, you can parse the game and leave yourself with a bunch of "ifs" -- if Thibaut Courtois hadn't made that silly mistake, if Toni Kroos had finished better, if that hair pull on Marcelo had been seen by the VAR cameras, if Isco's shot had been a smidgen to the left -- but there's no escaping the fact that Alaves' press wreaked havoc with Madrid's build-up play or that the front three achieved little or nothing, other than the Eden Hazard run that saw him get hurt.

-- Real ratings: Casemiro 7/10 in defeat
-- Barcelona 5, Real Madrid 0 in 2010: Where are they now?

Hazard was hugely durable at Chelsea and now appears made of glass. That's just one of Zinedine Zidane's concerns right now. The absences of Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal at the back, Fede Valverde in midfield and Karim Benzema up front weigh heavily, but they can't explain being outwitted by a team that had won three of their previous 19 games. That's on Zidane. He's got mitigating circumstances, but this team has to step on the pitch fully prepared and has to at least try to impose their game on opponents of Alaves' standard.

Napoli have what it takes to contend for Serie A

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Napoli flaunt clear 'difference in quality' against Roma

Gab Marcotti breaks down how Gennaro Gattuso and Napoli were able to demolish Roma in a 4-0 victory.

Napoli's 4-0 win over Roma wiped away some of the controversy of the past week (following the Milan loss) and reminded us what this team can achieve. That they did it on such an emotional night -- their first Serie A game since Diego Maradona's passing -- and without Victor Osimhen only adds another layer to the fact that Rino Gattuso may well have the most gifted squad in Serie A, with the exception of Juventus.

Roma, littered with half-fit players, didn't put up much of a fight, but it was hard not to be moved when Lorenzo Insigne, Napoli-born, bred and buttered opened the scoring with a free kick, ran to the sidelines and kissed the Maradona jersey at the side of the pitch.

It's not lost on anybody that without the forfeited game against Juventus (and ensuing one-point penalty) this team would be second in the table. That's the belief and energy Gattuso has to channel if they're going to challenge for the title. The pieces are all in place.

Jimenez, Luiz incident shows need for head injury substitutions

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Marcotti: Football needs concussion substitutes

Gab Marcotti thinks football should allow temporary substitutions when players are being treated for a head injury.

The collision between David Luiz and Raul Jimenez at the Emirates on Sunday was a frightening moment. It resulted in Jimenez losing consciousness and being taken to the hospital with a fractured skull. David Luiz played on with a bad cut, blood seeping through his bandaged head, until he too was finally substituted.

-- Jimenez suffers fractured skull vs. Arsenal

It seems pretty evident something is wrong here. Both medical staffs no doubt followed protocol, but it seems foolish that in 2020 we have to see the game interrupted and players lying on the pitch while doctors feverishly decide what to do and patch their players back up.

The logical thing to do is to allow temporary substitutions for head injuries. It would have allowed the game to continue 11 vs.11 while doctors calmly assessed the players. In David Luiz's case, presumably, it would have given them time to properly bandage his head so he wouldn't look like a Brazilian Terry Butcher. Or, better yet, it would have given them time to realize that he couldn't continue.

The counterargument has always been that allowing temporary substitutions might lead teams to "game the system" by having players fake injury so they can come off. This is simply idiotic. Head injuries (thankfully) are rare, and even if you believe that somebody is going to gain a huge advantage with an extra substitution, it's a small price to pay for player safety.

Arsenal are regressing, which is bad news for Arteta

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Leboeuf: Arsenal are not the club they used to be

Frank Leboeuf questions what's going on behind the scenes at Arsenal after their 2-1 defeat to Wolves.

Arsenal have taken four of a possible 24 points from their last six Premier League outings. They've scored one goal from open play in that time frame. In each of those six games, they lost the Expected Goals battle, too.

You can't help but feel Mikel Arteta is sliding backwards.

-- Ogden: Where have Arsenal's goals gone?

Yes, Thomas Partey is injured, but he can't suddenly be the answer to all their problems. This team is getting overrun in midfield while creating little up front. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a shadow of the player he was, and Alexandre Lacazette can't get on the pitch except for cameo appearances.

Arteta, evidently, recognises this and is working on it, hence the switch to the back four (though it didn't really help matters on Sunday). I go back to this, but giving Aubameyang and Willian enormous contracts is what you do when you're ready to double-down and go for silverware, not when you're rebuilding. They're now locked into these players and Arteta needs to reach them to make a difference. It's a situation that's only made his job that much more difficult.

Milan win again despite key absences

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Michallik credits Donnarumma for leading without Zlatan

Janusz Michallik was impressed with how Milan handled the pressure of facing Fiorentina without Ibrahimovic.

Milan extended their lead at the top of Serie A with a 2-0 win over Fiorentina despite three high-profile absences: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Stefano Pioli and Ismael Bennacer. Obviously the focus will be on the former (when is it not?), but in some ways Bennacer's was more significant. He's been Milan's leader in midfield and the metronome who keeps things ticking over. The fact that he was seamlessly replaced by Sandro Tonali is a reminder of the club's depth and quality in that position.

The win takes the Rossoneri's unbeaten streak to 21 games in Serie A, dating back to March 8. In all competitions since lockdown, they've lost just once. They continue to grow and, while Zlatan obviously helps, they're increasingly proving they can succeed without him too.

Lessons learned from Chelsea 0-0 Tottenham

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Robson: Tottenham must start dominating games

Stewart Robson believes Jose Mourinho must change tactics if Tottenham are to win the league.

Chelsea's scoreless draw with Tottenham on Sunday means Spurs stay top of the table. It also revealed how, deep down, both managers likely felt the damage of a defeat outweighed the benefits of a victory.

-- Chelsea need more from summer signings Werner, Havertz

Spurs played on the counter and were effective in shutting out Chelsea, primarily in the first half. The way Moussa Sissoko and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg occasionally dropped into the backline between central defender and full-back, as needed, blunted Chelsea's attacking impetus and were evidence that when it comes to defensive shape and tactics, Jose Mourinho knows what he's doing.

Could Tottenham have done more to try to win? Sure. But this was the right approach. Mourinho knows all too well that sometimes you have to take what the opposition gives you. Chelsea didn't give them much, and so he got little.

As for Frank Lampard, this set-up -- with Tammy Abraham up front and Mason Mount in midfield -- has given him stability (they had won six in a row before Sunday) and a platform on which to improve. Within this framework, you can make tweaks -- like the returning Christian Pulisic for Timo Werner, who isn't going through a great spell, Olivier Giroud for Abraham, or Jorginho for Mateo Kovacic -- but this is likely the way forward. Chelsea could have been a bit more adventurous, but again, they could have done it within this framework. (And, even then, Giroud had the best chance of the game at the very end.)

Where does this leave Kai Havertz? Not in the starting XI right now, and that's not a tragedy. He's supremely gifted, but he's 21 and in a new league and he arrived late, without the benefit of a preseason. There is no reason to shoehorn him into the lineup until he's ready.

Things going from bad to worse for Tuchel, PSG

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PSG showed a 'lack of efficiency' vs. Bordeaux

Julien Laurens breaks downs PSG's "strange" performance in the 2-2 draw with Bordeaux.

Thomas Tuchel knows all too well that despite reaching the Champions League final last season and delivering two Ligue 1 titles (on a relative shoestring budget, no less), he likely won't be around next season. But if he's going down, he's going down swinging.

Tuchel read Paris Saint-Germain the riot act after a lackadaisical second half performance that allowed Bordeaux to get back into the game and hold them to a 2-2 draw. PSG still top the table, but Lille, Lyon, Monaco and Montpellier are all just two points behind them and if Marseille win their two games in hand, they'd go top.

PSG are in a Champions League dogfight with Manchester United and Leipzig in Group H, they've had injuries and no preseason. There are mitigating circumstances, sure, but the worst thing they can do right now is be so focused on Europe that they take the league for granted. It's all hands on deck.

Will Bayern's magic run out as injuries pile up?

Bayern are a team running on fumes right now. They beat Pellegrino Matarazzo's bright young Stuttgart side, 3-1, to remain top of the Bundesliga, but don't let the scoreline fool you. Their goals are coming either from long-range (note Robert Lewandowski's screamer) or in transition. Defensively, they continue to concede: without Manuel Neuer's heroics and with better finishing from Stuttgart, they could have conceded three or four.

Bayern are winning right now because they have (far) better players than most of their opponents and, especially, guys who can create out of nothing. The absence of Joshua Kimmich (and the departure of Thiago Alcantara) means it's tougher for them to dominate and create in possession. Hansi Flick's high-intensity style has been toned down to accommodate for the fatigue and injuries. That was a necessary step, but it has also made them less effective off the ball.

It's a tough period, and one they need to weather until the injured stars return.

Barcelona take pressure off with big win

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Hislop: The game of football is in good hands with Messi

Shaka Hislop says Lionel Messi's Maradona tribute was a touching tribute to his fellow countryman.

You don't want to read too much into beating Osasuna 4-0 because, well, it's Osasuna, but Barcelona's win at least keeps the demons and controversy at bay for a few more days. And there are plenty of positive takeaways. Oscar Mingueza looks like he can hold his own at this level (which is especially important since Clement Lenglet had to come off injured as well). Antoine Griezmann scored a stunning goal and delivered perhaps his best performance of the season. Philippe Coutinho, the forgotten man, got on the scoresheet.

-- Messi honors Maradona in big Barca win

And then, of course, there was Lionel Messi. He scored the fourth goal, and it was highlight-reel stuff. When he then removed his jersey to reveal the Newell's Old Boys vintage kit Diego Maradona wore when he returned to Argentina, you couldn't help but get goosebumps. And when you saw this video comparing Messi's strike with Maradona's for Newell's, you'd need to be pretty hard-hearted not to be fully moved.

At least for a few days, the narrative at the Camp Nou won't be about crisis, but rather about honouring Maradona in the most fitting way.

Juventus progressing slower than Pirlo would like

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Marcotti: Give Pirlo time to implement ambitious plan at Juve

Gab Marcotti urges patience with Andrea Pirlo as he tries to steer Juventus in a different direction.

Juventus have played 12 games this season (not counting the 3-0 forfeit win over Napoli because, well, they didn't actually play). With Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch, they won five of seven. Without him, they've won one of five, including Saturday's 1-1 draw with newly promoted Benevento.

The classic knee-jerk reaction is that Juve are over-reliant on Ronaldo and struggle without him. Leaving aside the obvious point -- any team will be worse off without their best player -- I'm not sure to what degree it's true. Juve's underlying numbers, from Expected Goals difference (1.1 with him, 1.0 without him) to shots on goal, are comparable. Some of the metrics Andrea Pirlo values, like recoveries in the opposition half, are actually better without him.

The reality is that after a decent first half, they took their foot off the gas against Benevento. Paulo Dybala, arguably last season's MVP, had another poor game. They lacked intensity and, perhaps, they lacked leadership, only here it's not down to Ronaldo; guys like Leo Bonucci and Giorgio Chielini were also out.

This team is not Ronaldo-dependent, but they do remain a work in progress. And progress is slower than Pirlo would like.

Dortmund drop more points and this time, it's on Favre

Considering the run of play, Borussia Dortmund were the better team and should have beaten Cologne. Consider reality and mental errors and tactical flaws, and they fully deserved to get beaten by their opponents, who hadn't won in 18 Bundesliga games. Bonehead moves on set pieces, the sort where the same guy is totally unmarked at the far post twice, are so egregious that you don't deserve to win.

What's disappointing here is that for all Dortmund's youth, those goals were on the defensive leaders -- Mats Hummels, Axel Witsel and Emre Can -- all of whom are highly experienced veterans. Erling Haaland did miss a late sitter to make it 2-2, which may draw the headlines and the clips. But equally, Dortmund were let down in their build-up for much of the game as both Jadon Sancho and Julian Brandt had off-days and Lucien Favre's team were predictable and one-paced.

Hate to say it (again), but while it's the players who make mistakes, the buck stops with him.

Conte's complaining isn't distracting from Inter's inconsistency

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Antonio Conte 'got the reaction he wanted' out of Inter

ESPN FC's Gab Marcotti delves deeper into Antonio Conte's tactics in Inter's 3-0 win over Sassuolo.

Inter bounced back from their Champions League debacle against Real Madrid to beat Sassuolo 3-0. They played well with Lautaro Martinez and Alexis Sanchez leading the line, though it's obviously a whole heck of a lot easier to look good when the opposition gifts you two goals inside the opening 15 minutes.

Antonio Conte was beating the "club under siege" drum, talking about how promoting negativity about his team helps the media (read: TV and newspapers) make money. Whatever works for him, I guess, and if his players buy it and they play better, great! But let's be clear. Newspaper sales and media revenues go up when a team is doing well. If there's negativity around his team, it's because they've won two of their past seven games, they are dead last in their Champions League group and because they looked better a year ago. It's not because there's a vast profit-driven media conspiracy against him.

Is it Mahrez's turn to lead Man City while other stars find form?

Given Manchester City's recent record against Burnley, perhaps the fact they won 5-0 (again) shouldn't tell you that much. In fact, I think it provides a bit of a platform on which to build. For a start, this is as many goals as City have scored as they managed in all their Premier League games since September combined. For a side that were shooting plenty but not finishing, it's a confidence boost.

-- Is this the big win to get Man City going in the league?

Riyad Mahrez's hat trick matters too. Apart from Kevin De Bruyne, City's creative forces have stuttered this season, for different reasons, whether it's Bernardo Silva or Raheem Sterling. Somebody needs to take some of the load off De Bruyne and sometimes, the benefit of having a deep and talented squad is that different players can get hot for you and pop up at the right time. Knowing which ones to trust (and when) is going to be key for Guardiola. Maybe it's Mahrez's turn to help carry this side while others regain their mojo.

Another winning weekend for 'Atletico 2.0'

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How Simeone is getting the best from Atletico

Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens say a switch of formation has Atletico Madrid flying ahead of facing Bayern.

The difference against a young Valencia side was an own goal, but Atletico Madrid nevertheless made it six wins in a row in La Liga. They're now second, a single point behind Real Sociedad, but with two games in hand. And for the past three-and-a-half weeks, they've been without Luis Suarez.

Diego Simeone's de facto shift to a back three has given him a platform that does exactly what tactics should do: get the best out of the personnel at hand. The extra spot at the back allows him to play Mario Hermoso, who has been a revelation, while freeing the wing-backs -- Kieran Trippier on the right and either Renan Lodi or Yannick Carrasco on the left -- to stretch opponents and deliver chances from wide areas. There's no natural holding midfielder, which is fine because you have the extra central defender and because Saul, Koke (who is having his best season in years) and Marcos Llorente are all hard workers. That trio also allows you to emphasize possession far more than Atletico did in years past, while the natural width offered by the wing-backs gives the likes of Angel Correa and Joao Felix freedom to operate inside or outside as they see fit.

Plenty has been said about Diego Simeone's shift to "Cholismo 2.0" and a more forward-thinking Atleti. The shift in formation, at least in certain games, looks like it's going to be a key to this transition.

Despite bad day, Cam won't apologize for winning

Published in Breaking News
Monday, 30 November 2020 09:28

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton threw what could have been a backbreaking interception late in the fourth quarter Sunday and didn't eclipse 100 yards passing, but he focused on the silver lining of his subpar performance -- a victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

"I'll be the first person to say I didn't play my best game yesterday. But let's be totally clear: I don't play this game for statistic benefits. I don't play this game for any type of individual accolades. I play this game to win. I'm not going to apologize for winning," Newton said Monday morning on his weekly interview with sports radio WEEI.

Newton finished 9-of-18 for 84 yards with no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 23.6 passer rating. He added nine rushes for 46 yards.

"It's a strange feeling, but at the end of the day, I've had games where quarterback rating, statistics and everything, effort and all that, amounted to a loss. And I've had games like yesterday where you did everything to try to lose and you still win by the grace of God," he said.

In recapping his performance on Monday, Newton called his fourth-quarter interception -- in which he threw the ball directly to Cardinals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick -- a "reckless" decision.

It could have cost the Patriots the game, if not for the Patriots' defense forcing the Cardinals to attempt a 45-yard field goal, which kicker Zane Gonzalez missed.

That opened the door for a short final Patriots drive -- aided by a questionable Cardinals unnecessary-roughness penalty -- that culminated in Nick Folk's 50-yard field goal with no time left.

After the game, Newton could be seen on the Fox broadcast mouthing the words "I'm sorry, man" to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. He explained the exchange in his radio interview.

"It was just a culmination of everything. You don't know when the camera is on you. ... It was just a dialogue between me and Josh, man, and everybody was happy, as was I. I just knew I jeopardized the team, in a way," he said.

Newton and the Patriots (5-6), who are clinging to long-shot playoff hopes, visit the Los Angeles Chargers (3-8) on Sunday.

Gonzaga still No. 1; Nova, UVa tumble in AP poll

Published in Breaking News
Monday, 30 November 2020 09:28

The first Associated Press men's college basketball poll of the regular season remained steady at the top.

The rest, predictably, was filled with change as teams exceeded or failed to live up to preseason expectations.

Gonzaga and Baylor remained Nos. 1-2 in the poll released Monday. The Zags received 57 of 63 first-place votes from a media panel and the Bears had six first-place votes. They were the only two teams to hold their places from the preseason poll.

Gonzaga kept the top spot by a commanding margin with impressive wins in Fort Myers, Florida. The Zags (2-0) rolled over Kansas 102-90 and crushed Auburn 90-67 the next day.

"We feel we can score on anybody," said Gonzaga's Drew Timme, who had 28 points and 10 rebounds against Auburn. "We've got great coaching. If we execute our offense and move the ball and not get stymied, we feel we can score on every team."

Baylor was forced to drop out of the "Bubbleville" tournament in Uncasville, Connecticut, after coach Scott Drew tested positive for COVID-19. The Bears (2-0) adjusted their schedule and had no trouble playing under assistant coach Jerome Tang, routing Louisiana-Lafayette and Washington.

Villanova fell nine places to No. 12 after losing to Virginia Tech, which moved into the poll at No. 16. Virginia also took a big tumble after losing to San Francisco, dropping 11 spots to No. 15.

The two losses allowed Iowa to move up two spots to No. 3, with Wisconsin and Illinois rounding out the top five. The Illini are in the top five for the first time since reaching No. 1 in 2004-05.

JAYHAWKS BREAK RECORD

Kansas dropped a spot to No. 7 after the loss to Gonzaga. The Jayhawks still managed to move atop the all-time consecutive polls list.

Kansas was ranked for the 222nd week, breaking the record set by UCLA from 1966-80.

No. 6 Duke has the second-longest active poll streak at 85 straight weeks.

HAWKEYES CLIMB

Iowa has its highest ranking since the 2015-16 team reached No. 3.

Luka Garza had a lot to do with it.

The preseason All-American kicked off his senior season with 26 points and 10 rebounds in a win over North Carolina Central, then scored 41 points on 14-of-15 shooting in a rout over Southern.

"Whenever I get the ball, I feel like I can score," Garza said. "Sometimes you have those days where you're just making shots. I put enough work into each shot that when I put it up, I have a strong feeling that it's going to go in."

HOKIES MOVE IN

Virginia Tech was picked to finish 11th in the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason poll.

The Hokies may be better than expected, based on their opening week.

Virginia Tech (3-0) opened the season with an easy win over Radford, then pulled off an upset by knocking off then-No. 3 Villanova in overtime in Bubbleville. The Hokies closed out their week with an 18-point victory over South Florida after their game against Temple was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.

RISING/FALLING

Virginia and Villanova had two of the biggest drops in the opening regular-season poll, but there was plenty of other movement.

Houston climbed seven spots from No. 17 after knocking off No. 17 Texas Tech, which dropped three spots from last week.

No. 8 Michigan State climbed five spots after beating Notre Dame and Eastern Michigan.

No. 20 Kentucky fell 10 spots after losing at home to Richmond. The win was the Spiders' first on the road against a top-10 team and helped them enter the poll at No. 19.

No. 25 Arizona State also fell seven spots following two wins and a loss to Villanova.

MOVING OUT

UCLA dropped out of the poll after losing to San Diego State and needing triple overtime to beat Pepperdine.

LSU fell out from No. 26 following a loss to Saint Louis.

Colts punter to have cancerous tumor removed

Published in Breaking News
Monday, 30 November 2020 09:28

INDIANAPOLIS -- Rigoberto Sanchez will miss an unspecified amount of time to have a cancerous tumor removed, the Colts punter announced on Instagram Monday.

"So grateful to be surrounded by doctors that helped me catch the cancerous tumor before it spread all over my body," Sanchez wrote on Instagram. "... Unfortunately, there are things you can't control in life and this is one of them. No plans or preparations would have gotten me ready for this kind of adversity, but like I told my wife, we can't flinch. ... Makes me sick that I'll have to miss some time playing beside my brothers, but I know they will hold it down."

Concerns about Sanchez's health emerged after he didn't handle his normal kickoff duties in Sunday's loss to Tennessee. Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship kicked off, while Sanchez only punted against the Titans.

Colts coach Frank Reich was vague when asked about Sanchez's health following the game. "Rigo is dealing with a physical issue that we have to get further evaluated," Reich said Sunday. "I give Rigo a lot of credit for the way he punted [Sunday] and for really coming through for us when we needed him the way that he did. Then Rod, when Rigo wasn't able to kick off, Rod stepped in there and did a great job."

Reich is scheduled to have his usual day-after media call at 4 p.m. ET on Monday.

The Colts will have to sign a punter to replace Sanchez, who is averaging 47.2 yards per punt and has landed 15 punts inside the 20-yard line this season.

Sanchez's situation is just the latest health issue the Colts (7-4) have had to deal with. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo had an MRI on his knee Monday morning to confirm whether he has an MCL injury after he left the game early in the second quarter Sunday.

Starting center Ryan Kelly (neck), linebacker Bobby Okereke (ankle), running back Jonathan Taylor (COVID-19) and defensive linemen DeForest Buckner (COVID-19) and Denico Autry (COVID-19) all missed the game against the Titans.

MLB launches wood-bat league for prospects

Published in Baseball
Monday, 30 November 2020 07:56

NEW YORK -- Major League Baseball is creating a minor league for top eligible prospects leading to the summer draft.

The wood-bat MLB Draft League is launching with five teams and could add a sixth, MLB said Monday. Teams will play a 68-game regular season that includes an All-Star break that would coincide with the draft in early July.

Teams are being awarded to communities that lost franchises as MLB moved to shrink the affiliated minor leagues from 160 to 120 teams this offseason following the expiration of the Professional Baseball Agreement, which governed the relationship between the majors and minors. MLB has planned to eliminate the separate governing body of minor league baseball.

The founding members of the MLB Draft League are located in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New Jersey: the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, the State College Spikes, the Trenton Thunder, the West Virginia Black Bears and the Williamsport Crosscutters. MLB said it is in discussions with a sixth team that it hopes to announce soon.

The season will run roughly from late May through mid-August, broken into halves. The first half will be a showcase for draft-eligible high school, college and junior college players. Following a multiday break for the draft, rosters will be restocked with the best players passed over by MLB teams who are still interested in signing.

The start of the season will overlap with the College World Series, meaning some top college players won't be able to join until after opening day, similar to other college summer leagues like the Cape Cod League.

The league will be operated by Prep Baseball Report -- a scouting, events and media organization focused on youth ball -- and former Cape Cod League coach Kerrick Jackson has been appointed president.

MLB said in a statement that players will "receive unprecedented visibility to MLB club scouts through both in-person observation and state-of-the-art scouting technology, and educational programming designed to prepare them for careers as professional athletes."

Morgan Sword, MLB's executive vice president of baseball economics and operations, calls this venture a "one-of-a-kind league'' that will allow fans to "see top prospects and future big-league stars in their hometowns." He adds that MLB is committed to "preserving and growing baseball in communities around the United States.''

MLB announced in September that the Appalachian League, formerly a Rookie-level affiliated league, would be transformed into a wood-bat college summer league.

Women's Rugby World Cup to expand to 16 teams from 2025

Published in Rugby
Monday, 30 November 2020 03:27

The women's Rugby World Cup will expand from 12 to 16 teams from 2025.

The news follows increasing calls for the event to be expanded, with women and girls now accounting for 28% of the global playing population.

Since 2006 there have been 12 teams split into three pools, including the upcoming 2021 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont called the decision a "milestone moment" for the women's game.

The decision comes too late for the 2021 Rugby World Cup which has already staged its pool draw.

However, there will be the addition of quarter-finals in New Zealand after previous tournaments saw teams progress straight from the pool stage to the semi-finals.

The Irish Rugby Football Union has backed plans for South Africa's four Super Rugby sides to join the Pro14, which would become the Pro16.

With South African teams Cheetahs and Southern Kings bowing out of the competition at the end of last season, there are currently only 12 sides competing in the league.

IRFU performance director David Nucifora confirmed that talks are at an advanced stage, and it is hoped an agreement will be reached in the new year.

Nucifora added his belief that the introduction of the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions would increase the level of competition in the league and in turn would help develop Irish rugby and its players.

"We think that Irish Rugby needs to be ambitious, we think that the Pro14 needs to be ambitious," he said.

"Challenging our teams and challenging our players, and I think that's what high-performing athletes want.

"Sending teams, be it at full strength or teams that are sending down some of the younger players to play and tour in places like Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg, playing full-strength South African sides is something I believe will hold the development of Irish players in good stead for a long period to come."

Exploratory talks to add the four Super Rugby teams began in September after the South African Rugby Union voted in favour of the move.

Three of the four Irish provinces remains undefeated in the current campaign, and the ease with which Leinster, who won every game last season, retained their title has led to questions over the league's competitiveness.

"We don't have the size and playing depth of countries like England and France, so what we do we've got to continue to do well," Nucifora said.

"We've got to expose our players at every opportunity to the highest levels of the game to make sure they're ready to come through when required."

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