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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

After 2015 World Cup success, Australian women stood for better wages — and won

MONCTON, NB - JUNE 21:  Australia celebrates the 1-0 win over Brazil during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 round of 16 match between Brazil and Australia at Moncton Stadium on June 21, 2015 in Moncton, Canada.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images
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Long before the U.S. women’s soccer team filed a federal complaint over wage discrimination, the Australian women fought for better pay.

And won.

The Matildas, as they are known, will be among the 12 women’s soccer teams playing in Brazil next week when the Olympics get underway. Their strike following a successful run in last summer’s Women’s World Cup in Canada was significant as female athletes across sports fight for recognition and respect – including their American counterparts.

“In terms of being trailblazers, I’m not really sure. I think we just sort of went about it how we thought was necessary,” Australian defender Steph Catley said. “We felt we deserved more.”

The Matildas have made a quick ascent as one of the world’s elite teams. They gained national attention last year when they became the first team from Australia – male or female – to win a World Cup knockout round match by upsetting Brazil 1-0 and advancing to the quarterfinals.

The United States went on to win the World Cup with a 5-2 victory over Japan in the final.

Afterward, the U.S. women scheduled a pair of exhibition matches against Australia as part of a victory tour. But the Australian federation withdrew from those matches after the Matildas walked out of training camp and the players’ union said contract talks with the national federation had stalled.

The Matildas, whose contract had expired, said they had not been paid for two months heading into the walkout.

The salary for a national team player was equivalent to $14,475, based on a six-month playing period. That meant many of the players needed to have other jobs to make ends meet. Some players worked two club seasons, one at home in Australia and the other in the United States with the National Women’s Soccer League, meaning they played year-round.

The players were asking for a salary increase to $28,000 a year, as well as other benefits including improved accommodations and bonuses for international matches. The demands were part of larger bargaining that included the men’s national team and A-League players, and the Football Federation Australia at one point claimed the Matildas were being used as a pawn in the negotiations.

But there was a groundswell of support for the women, who have seen their popularity rise in Australia along with the team’s stature on the national stage.

American stars Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd, former player Julie Foudy and Canadian forward Christine Sinclair were among those who expressed support for the Australians. There were change.org petitions to support the team.

“The Matildas are courageously fighting for what is right. (hashtag) priclessrolemodels,” Lloyd posted to Twitter.

The deal that was eventually struck in November included a pay structure that puts the salaries for top players at $30,700 per year and those at the next level at $22,400. The contract calls for a 10 percent raise each year and improved bonuses and other benefits.

“Our elite female players deserve a full-time professional career path in football and this agreement represents a solid foundation we can build on,” players’ association chief executive Adam Vivian said at the time.

Striker Kyah Simon said the move made the team stronger.

“The Matildas’ story is standing up for what we believe in and standing up for our brand and our culture. I think at the end of the day it brought the team closer together,” Simon said. “It’s something we can look on with pride, and something that’s hopefully a positive future for our sport and for the new generation of players.”

The victory came well before a group of U.S. women’s national team players filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging wage discrimination. The women claim they make far less on average than their male national team counterparts. The complaint in late March came as the players seek a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer.

Heading into the Olympics, the Matildas are ranked No. 5 in the world.

They leapfrogged Japan and Korea in the AFC qualification tournament to earn the trip to Rio along with China – scoring 17 goals in five matches.

Australia is in a tough group in Brazil that includes No. 2 Germany, No. 10 Canada and Zimbabwe. It is the only group with three teams ranked in the top 10. The top-ranked Americans play in a group that includes No. 3 France, New Zealand and Colombia.

Australia opens the tournament on Wednesday against Canada in Sao Paulo.

“After the World Cup everything sort of started to change. When we came home there was so much media attention and so many people that were interested in what we were doing and really proud of the success we had,” Catley said of the team’s rising profile. “I think people always knew there was a national team, but I don’t think they realized how high in the rankings we were and how much better we were getting as a team.”

Conte: “I don’t know” if Diego Costa will be a Chelsea player this season

VELDEN, AUSTRIA - JULY 20: Diego Costa of Chelsea looks on during the friendly match between WAC RZ Pellets and Chelsea F.C. at Worthersee Stadion on July 20, 2016 in Velden, Austria. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)
Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images
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Antonio Conte sent “silly season” into overdrive (all over again) when he admitted on Saturday that he himself doesn’t know whether or not Diego Costa will remain a Chelsea player this season.

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Speaking after his side’s 3-2 defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the International Champions Cup, Chelsea’s first-year manager confirmed the reason for Costa’s continued absence this preseason — an injury — but went on to say the Brazilian-turned-Spaniard’s club future remains up in the air just 14 days before the 2016-17 Premier League season kicks off — quotes from the Sun:

“I can say that today Costa is a Chelsea player. He didn’t play in these games because of injury and if he solves the injury and I see in training he’s in good shape it can be possible to see him in the next game against Milan. But I can tell only this.

“I speak for today and today Costa is Chelsea’s player. Tomorrow if you ask me if Costa will remain with us, I don’t know.”

Costa, who signed for Chelsea from Atletico Madrid two summers ago, has regularly been linked with a return to the Spanish capital. However, Atleti announced on Saturday the signing of Sevilla striker Kevin Gameiro, who scored 68 goals in three seasons (all competitions) with the three-time defending Europa League winners, reportedly for nearly $40 million.

Atleti would hardly be the only suitors for a goal-getter who has netted 32 times in two seasons in the Premier League, including 20 times in 26 games during his 2014-15 debut campaign.

WATCH: Julian Green bags first-half hat trick for Bayern Munich

Julian Green, Bayern Munich (Photo credit: Bayern Munich / Twitter: @FCBayernEN)
Photo credit: Bayern Munich / Twitter: @FCBayernEN
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Julian Green celebrated his 21st birthday six short weeks ago, which is context that’s easy to forget when a player goes to the World Cup and scores a goal at the age of 19.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Putting another way, he’s still extremely young and far from a finished footballing product. On Saturday, in the penultimate friendly of Bayern Munich’s preseason, the Tampa Bay-born German-American attacker bagged a first-half hat trick against Inter Milan.

From the deftest of touches on the first goal, to the outside-of-the-box power and precision (with his left foot) on the second, to the authoritative slam home on the third, Green might just be working his way into a regular substitute’s role behind star striker Robert Lewandowski this season.

Saturday marked the second exhibition in which Green scored a goal this preseason, having netted in Ancelotti’s first game in charge, against German fifth-division side SV Lippstadt, two weeks ago.

MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 5-1 Colorado Rapids (video)

New York City FC's Frank Lampard reacts after scoring during the second half of an MLS soccer game against the Montreal Impact, in Montreal, Sunday, July 17, 2016. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP)
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): No David Villa? No problem, apparently. Playing without their star man — and 2016 Golden Boot leader (13 goals – yellow card accumulation) — New York City FC cruised to a 5-1 drubbing of the Colorado Rapids, who entered Saturday’s contest 15 games without a loss (last loss: April 9). Frank Lampard bagged the first hat trick in NYCFC history, giving the Chelsea legend 10 goals on the season (in just 11 games played). It’s just the fourth home win of the season for NYCFC, who have won more points (19) away from home than any other team in MLS this season. The victory increases NYCFC’s hold on the Eastern Conference’s top spot to five points above the New York Red Bulls. The Rapids, meanwhile, have left the door wide open for the LA Galaxy, winners of four straight, to go second in the Western Conference with a victory over the Seattle Sounders on Sunday.

[ MORE: Previewing the weekend in MLS ]

Three Four moments that mattered 

28′ — Lampard turns it home at the far post — Few, if any, of Lampard’s goals this season have been beauties, but he just keeps on scoring. Nothing else really matters, especially as NYCFC keep winning.

37′ — Azira sees a second yellow — There was little question about the card-worthiness of Michael Azira’s open-field take-down of Jack Harrison, and just like that, the Rapids found themselves a goal down, and a man down.

42′ — Taylor beats Howard for 2-0 — One chance, two chances, three chances. The Rapids seemed content on allowing the home side however many looks they needed to make it 2-0. Eventually, Tony Taylor finished the job.

81′ — Lampard finishes a counter, and the beat-down — So, that thing I said about the “quality” of Lampard’s goals this season. Scratch that thought.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Frank Lampard

Goalscorers: Lampard (28′, 81′, 84′ – PK), Taylor (42′), Mendoza (75′), Gashi (90+2′)