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European weekend: Five (random) matches to watch

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Last time we did this, it was easy – not that it’s difficult when you have one of the world’s great intra-city derbies, a cup final, and a one versus two battle in one of Europe’s best leagues. It’s just that in our last edition of five to watch, we had Barcelona. We had Juventus. We had big, glamorous, self-explanatory names.

This week, the matches are no less interesting, but things being a little less self-explanatory, I have to do a little bit more writing, starting with the rivalry:

5. Austria Wien vs. Rapid Wien, Austrian Bunesliga, 10:00 a.m. ET, Sunday

Austria’s two most successful, most popular clubs saw their rivalry get some unfortunate international attention last year when pitch invaders caused a May meeting to be abandoned. If you look at the numbers and organization of police in this video, you can’t help but think these type of incidents (or the potential for them) is pervasive in this derby:

Let me be clear: That kind of nonsense is no reason to watch. It’s reason to be thankful that this part of the world has a soccer culture that precludes idiots forcing matches to be called off. Knock on wood.

Since last May, three Wien derbies have been waged, making Saturday’s the 300th meeting between the clubs. Rapid will be looking for the 125th win, while Austria sits on 109.

More important: Both clubs are chasing Red Bull Salzburg for the Bundesliga’s title. Rapid are only one point back with seven matches left, and with Salzburg facing a tough Saturday visit to Sturm Graz (fifth place), the Green-Whites could find themselves first at day’s end.

For Austria, it’s a must win match. Five points back of first, the Violets can’t afford to lose any more ground on the leaders.

Player to watch: Last season with Sturm Graz, Roman Kienast finished second in goals to Austria’s Ronald Linz (19 to 21). He moved to Austria in the winter window but has been unable to replace the goal output of the departed Nacer Barazite (who moved to Monaco in January). With only one score in 10 league appearances, Kienast has been an early bust.

4. Zenit vs. CSKA Moscow, Russian Premier League, 11:00 a.m. ET, Saturday

This match is difficult to resist, even if Zenit has put the RPL to bed. In this transition season that’s been played over 18 months (as Russia moves to a fall-spring schedule), Zenit has pulled away from their Muscovite adversaries, sitting 11 points clear with six matches remaining.

Unfortunately, the achievements of Luciano Spalletti’s side are being overshadowed by a story that has become ridiculously common to Russian soccer. Earlier this week, Zenit was fined after fans directed monkey noises at Lokomotiv Moscow’s black players.

On the field, it’s a potential great news, bad news scenario for CSKA. The bad news: Captain and best defender Sergei Ignashevich will miss the match with a broken toe. The potentially great news: One of the world’s best goalkeepers, Igor Akinfeev, could return after a long-term injury absence stemming from a controversial fall collision with Spartak attacker Welliton. The 26-year-old’s return from major knee surgery could be a huge boost to Russia’s Euro 2012 hopes.

Player to watch: Sergei Semak could also be in frame for Euro 2012, if Russia head coach Dick Advocaat sees things like Aleksandr Kerzhakov. The Zenit attacker claims his 36-year-old teammate could help the national team this summer, and looking around at Advocaat’s other deep-lying midfield options, you can see the logic. The former national team captain has three goals in his last eight appearances, and against his former club on Saturday, Semak could continue making his case.

3. PSV vs. AZ, Netherlands’ Eredivisie, 12:45 p.m. ET, Saturday

Possibly the most interesting title race in Europe was dealt a blow mid-week when AZ was drawn at home by Twente. The result meant the league’s second and third place teams lost ground on pace-setting Ajax, who’ve rode the crest of an up-and-down year to a three-point lead.

The circuit’s other traditional power, PSV, has also been on a roller coaster. At one point, the club was storming through Europa while sitting in control of league. Since the calendar turned, however, things have fallen apart. Valencia rolled them out of Europa while the club fell to fifth in the table, leading to Phillip Cocu to replace Fred Rutten as head coach. Since, PSV has claimed the Dutch Cup, though nobody will be satisfied finishing so low in league.

AZ, however, has been the Netherlands’ most consistent team (on Thursday, Johan Cruyff went as far as to call them the best in Holland), and on Saturday, they’ll take the league’s best defense to Philips Stadion. In August’s reverse fixture, goals from Maarten Martins, Nick Viergever and Jozy Altidore led AZ to a 3-1 victory, and while the bookmakers have PSV big favorites ahead of Saturday’s rematch, don’t be surprised if Gertjan Verbeek’s side creates another dip in PSV’s rollercoaster.

Player to watch: If you’re going to watch this one, you’ll likely tune in to see Altidore. I can’t blame you, but if you have time for one more player, keep an eye on PSV’s 22-year-old midfielder Kevin Strootman. Already in the plans of the national team, Strootman gives Bert van Marwijk a decidedly less violent, more creative option in the pivot.

2. Udinese vs. Internazionale, Italian Serie A, 2:45 p.m. ET, Saturday

This is really happening. This Inter Milan zombie may really get back into Europe.

The Nerazzurri sit in seventh, their 48 points only two back of Roma in fifth (otherwise known as a Europa League spot). Their seven points in three matches have converted a fews believers to the Andrea Stramaccioni movement. Now, the six-point gap to third doesn’t look so big, particularly with a season-closing match at Lazio. With six matches left, maybe Champions League isn’t out of the question after all.

Udinese’s won once in their last seven matches, and while they’re only three points out of that Champions League spot, the parade of big names behind them force the Bianconeri to be mindful of a fall. If Inter hand Udinese their second home loss of the season, Udinese could be in seventh come Sunday night.

Player to watch: With Walter Samuel suspended, it will be up to Lucio to handle Udinese’s Toto Di Natale, Italy’s second leading goal-scorer. Having conceded seven times since Stramaccioni took over, Inter desperately needs somebody at the back to assert themselves.

1. Olympique Lyon vs. Olympique Marseille, France’s Coupe de la Ligue final, 3:00 p.m. ET, Saturday

In addition to being ninth-place Marseille’s last chance for Europe, Saturday’s final is a snapshot of the changing face of Ligue 1. Well, perhaps describing it as the “face” is wrong. With former perennial titlists Lyon fighting for their Champions League lives while a club as big as Marseille regresses to mediocrity, this match is more France’s disappearing jawline than its face.

The game also see rivals at different ends of the form table. After being eliminated from Champions League by APOEL, Lyon has won six, drawn one in seven games, registering victories over Rennes, PSG, Lille as well as winning their derby at Saint-Étienne. Marseille, one the other hand, has not won a lead match since Jan. 29 and have lost 11 of 12.

Form aside, this is still two of the biggest clubs in France, and they’re playing for silverware. Given it’s the last chance for Didier Deschamps’ side to salvage anything from a horrible season, expect the best l’OM has to offer.

Player to watch: Lisandro Lopez is always worth watching, but during Lyon’s resurgence, the talisman has six goals in seven. Having struggled through injuries all year, the Argentine attacker appears to have hit a run of form that could carry OL into Champions League.

Also worth following: Schalke 04 vs. Borussia Dortmund, Germany, 9:30 a.m. ET, Saturday; Benfica vs. Gil Vicente, League Cup Portugal, 3:45 p.m. ET, Saturday

El Tri striker Pulido fought kidnappers, used cell phone to call police

HYERES, FRANCE - JUNE 01:  Alan Pulido (no.19) of Mexico celebrates his goal during the Toulon Tournament Final between  Mexico and Turkey at Stade Perruc on June 1, 2012 in Hyeres, France.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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More details have been released regarding Alan Pulido’s kidnapping in Mexico.

The Mexican international and Olympiakos striker was taken at gunpoint early Sunday morning in Tamaulipas. He was then freed on Monday after a police “rescue operation.”

Seen leaving the police station with a bandaged hand, officials have now given information on how Pulido was injured.

[ MORE: PSG defender Aurier arrested ]

The 25-year-old striker cut his hand while punching through a glass pane in an attempt to escape. Officials also said Pulido fought his kidnapper, doing enough to grab a cell phone and notify police of his whereabouts.

From BBC News:

State prosecutor Ismael Quintanilla said the masked gang had taken Pulido to a house in Ciudad Victoria where he eventually found himself alone with one of his abductors.

“They traded blows. He takes it [the phone] and calls [emergency number] 066. It all happened very quickly,” Mr Quintanilla told Imagen radio.

An official report of the calls Pulido made to the emergency operator, obtained by the Associated Press, revealed that he threatened and beat the kidnapper while on the phone, demanding to be told where they were.

In one of the calls, Pulido said police were outside and starting to shoot so he described what he was wearing to avoid being mistaken for a kidnapper.

A wild situation, but the most important thing is that Pulido is safe while one arrest has been made.

Juanfran pens letter to Atleti fans after missing penalty in UCL final

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  Juanfran of Atletico Madrid shows his dejection during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Atletico Madrid lost to Real Madrid in the Champions League final for the second time in three years this Sunday, falling 5-3 on penalty kicks.

After losing the 2014 final in extra-time, Atleti forced a shootout this time around, although Juanfran‘s miss allowed Cristiano Ronaldo to score the game-winning penalty for Real.

[ MORE: Simeone considering Atletico future ]

Juanfran, whose shot beat Keylor Navas but hit the post, had scored the game-winning penalty against PSV Eindhoven to advance to the quarterfinal.

The only player to miss his penalty in the final, the veteran right-back penned an emotional letter thanking Atleti fans for their support, which was posted to the club’s website.

Hello Atléticos,

I have asked the club to address all of you with this letter to tell you everything I feel.

I will never forget your displays of affection when I came to ask for your forgiveness. Seeing my tears reflected in the faces of the thousands of Atléticos that packed that end of the stadium helped me cope with the tremendous sadness I felt in those hard times. As well as the support of my teammates, coaches, and all the people that makes this big family.

I also want to thank you for always believing in us and, above all, for proving that being an Atlético is something very special, different, and that our heart beats stronger than any other.

Two years ago, I told you that we would return to a final, now, I tell you that Gabi, our captain, will lift the Champions League sooner or later, and we will celebrate it all together in Neptuno.

Despite starting his career with Real Madrid, Juanfran is adored by Atleti supporters, having made more than 250 appearances for the club since joining in 2010. Having played the full 120 minutes in the 2014 final loss as well, this result was crushing for the defender.

[ VIDEO: Akinfenwa leaves Wimbledon with epic interview after winning promotion ]

Juanfran still believes Atleti will be back, and they’ve proven over the past few seasons that they are one of the elite clubs in Europe. If the club can hold on to the likes of Juanfran and their world-class backline, he may have a third shot to win the Champions League.

VIDEO: “The Beast” leads Wimbledon to promotion; leaves club with epic interview

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Adebayo Akinfenwa’s time at AFC Wimbledon may be over, but he will never be forgotten.

The striker scored a penalty kick at Wembley on Monday deep into stoppage time to seal Wimbledon’s promotion to League One after a 2-0 win over Plymouth Argyle.

Headed to League One for the first time in club history, the win caps off a remarkable rise for Wimbledon that started in the ninth-tier of English football back in 2002.

[ MORE: Pellegrini rues Pep announcement ]

Akinfenwa, a journeyman striker in England’s lower leagues, has gained cult-hero status due to his large frame, listed at 5-foot-11-inches and weighing in at over 220 pounds, earning him the nickname “The Beast.”

Speaking to Sky Sports amid the promotion celebrations, Akinfenwa asked for other managers to shoot him a text as his contract expires with Wimbledon this summer.

It’s what dreams are made of. I’m more tired now running around [celebrating] than I was the whole game, but it’s a beautiful feeling.

Sidebar, I think I’m technically unemployed. So any managers, hit me up on the WhatsApp and get me a job.

There ain’t no better way to leave this club than to leave them promoted, it’s beautiful. For all them who said I was too big to play football, come on now.

Akinfenwa also joked about his late-match penalty, in which he was seen wrestling the ball away from teammate Callum Kennedy. When asked about the situation, Akinfenwa responded “It was just set up too beautifully, and I’m bigger than Cal, so Cal was unlucky. I’m sorry Cal K, I love you though.”

Saints to offer Shane Long new deal as Liverpool, Spurs show interest

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 08:  Shane Long of Southampton is chased down by Kyle Walker of Tottenham Hotspur during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton at White Hart Lane on May 8, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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After scoring ten Premier League goals this season, Shane Long looks set to be rewarded with a new contract at Southampton.

Despite having two years remaining on his current contract, multiple reports state he will get a new deal to fend off interest from Liverpool and Tottenham.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s EURO 2016 coverage ]

Spurs’ boss Mauricio Pochettino was in Dublin this past weekend to watch Long play for Ireland, where he was pictured sitting with the player’s agent Pat Dolan. The Saints’ striker scored Ireland’s only goal in a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands.

Liverpool had also reached out to Southampton back in January about a possible move for Long, and it is believed Jurgen Klopp is quite fond of the Irish striker.

[ MORE: Klinsmann aiming for top-four finish at Copa America Centenario ]

Having already inked Virgil Van Dijk, James Ward-Prowse, and Fraser Forster to new deals, Southampton will be eager to lock up Long before EURO 2016 kicks off.

Likely to be the top striker for Ireland at the tournament, a good showing for Long on Europe’s biggest stage could lead to even more interest in the 29-year-old.