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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

Luke Shaw “happy” at Man United despite transfer links

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27:  Luke Shaw of Manchester United in action  during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and West Ham United at Old Trafford on September 27, 2014 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Luke Shaw wants to stay at Manchester United despite not playing a single second since November.

[ MORE: United need Griezmann

Shaw, 21, has seen his career stall at Old Trafford since Jose Mourinho arrived in the summer and the English left back has been linked with a move away in the summer.

However his agent, Jonathan Barnett, has spoke to Sky Sports in the UK and moved to quash that speculation, insisting his client is very happy fighting for a place in the first team at United.

“He is happy at the club. Manchester United are very happy with him and he’s very happy at Manchester United,” Barnett said.

Mourinho appeared to call out Shaw and his England colleague Chris Smalling earlier this season after a win at Swansea City, as he questioned the pain threshold of his players and their injuries. Shaw, of course, has returned from a horrific leg break he suffered at the start of the 2015-16 season and he seemed to be getting back to his best when he made himself unavailable for selection in November.

The report stating that Mourinho was wiling to let Shaw leave in the summer perhaps had more to do with these injury issues than his actual quality on the pitch. Shaw broke through in the Premier League at Southampton as a 17-year-old and United paid $35 million for him in the summer of 2014.

Even though Mourinho has placed Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian and even Daley Blind out of position at left back ahead of him in recent months, it appears he still has a future at Old Trafford.

That said, one thing is key for Shaw’s future: fitness. If he can get that back then the marauding left back can kick-start his United career and deliver on the promise he showed in his teenage years.

Jurgen Klopp reacts to special Cornish pasty from Plymouth

PLYMOUTH, ENGLAND - JANUARY 18:  A Giant Cornish pasty made for Jurgan Klopp by the Plymouth Argyle sponsers prior to The Emirates FA Cup Third Round Replay match between Plymouth Argyle and Liverpool at Home Park on January 18, 2017 in Plymouth, England.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
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Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp had something to chew on his way back home from Plymouth on Wednesday.

Actually he had a lot to chew on…

[ MORE: FA Cup replay roundup ]

Klopp was presented with a gift from fourth-tier Plymouth Argyle and their sponsors Ginsters after a much-changed Liverpool beat them 1-0 at Home Park in the FA Cup third round replay.

A giant Cornish pasty.

“What’s that!?” was Klopp’s bemused response when the giant snack (which is stuffed full of potato, meat and vegetables) starting coming his way in his press conference after the game.

In the south west of England pasties are the local delicacy and with Liverpool having to get a bus home over 293 miles on a chilly evening, the pasty had a little message for Klopp on there.

Ah, the magic of the FA Cup.

Fair play to Klopp for accepting the gift magnanimously and for Plymouth for spreading the gospel of the pasty. If you haven’t tried one, do it.


Gabriel Jesus available to make Man City debut

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 27:  Gabriel Jesus of Palmeiras celebrates with the trophy after winning the match between Palmeiras and Chapecoense for the Brazilian Series A 2016 at Allianz Parque on November 27, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)
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Manchester City have confirmed that new striker Gabriel Jesus is available to play against Tottenham Hotspur this Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

[ MORE: United need Griezmann

Jesus, 19, agreed to move from Palmerias in the summer for $35 million but remained with the Brazilian side for the rest of their season as he was their top scorer en route to them winning the league title.

After a few weeks training at City he is now registered in the squad and ready to feature for Pep Guardiola‘s side to help them claw back from the 10-point gap between themselves and current Premier League leaders Chelsea.

Jesus scored 28 goals in 85 games in all competitions for Palmerias and has shown great promise for the Brazilian national team, scoring four goals in his first six appearances for the Selecao in 2016.

Speaking about his arrival at City, Jesus is looking to hit the ground running.

“I want to win titles and Manchester City is a club that is used to winning,” Jesus said. “City is a Club that always competes for the title in the competitions it enters, so that was an important factor, and because of the manager, Guardiola, and the squad.”

Jesus has arrived at the perfect time to give an ailing City side a boost.

On the back of their 4-0 drubbing at Everton last weekend (City’s worst league defeat since 2008 and Guardiola’s worst-ever in the league as a manager) they need to beat Tottenham this weekend to keep alive any hopes of winning the title. City can’t afford any more slipups and their defensive unit has to improve.

Going forward Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling David Silva and Sergio Aguero have been in good form for most of the season, but adding Jesus will bring competition and Kelechi Iheanacho will also be pushing him all the way for minutes.

Many would like to see Aguero given some help up top and maybe Jesus can start alongside him in the weeks and months to come?

We all saw just how good Jesus can be during the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Now he has all eyes on him as he prepares to make his long-awaited debut against Tottenham.

Kaka hoping to stay in Orlando beyond 2017

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 08:  Kaka #10 of Orlando City SC dribbles the ball during an MLS soccer match between the New York City FC and the Orlando City SC at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on March 8, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
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Kaka is enjoying life in Florida.

The former Ballon d’Or winner is hoping to stay with Orlando City SC beyond the end of his contract, which runs its course after the 2017 season.

[ MORE: Real Madrid now winless in three ]

Kaka has been very good for the Lions, scoring 19 goals and 15 assists in 53 total matches. Reports had said he’s skip town after the third year of the deal, but Kaka refutes that idea.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“A misunderstanding because I am very happy here,” Kaká told reporters at MLS Media Day on Tuesday. “I had a three year contract, so this is the last year under this contract, but my idea is to stay here.

“Of course we never know what can happen at the end of the season or during the season, but my idea for now is to stay in Orlando and stay in the league.”

Kaka turns 35 in April, but has been consistently good even if injuries kept him to 24 MLS contests last season. If he puts forth a similar season, there’s little reason for Orlando — or another team — not to take a chance on Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite.