What to watch this weekend? FA Cup takes center stage as leagues around the world resume

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It’s one of the small inconveniences you accept when you buy into European soccer. Every once in a while, leagues stop for cup competitions that just don’t have the same resonance. Copa del Rey, Coppa Italia, DFB Pokal – they’re all synonyms for “not an actual league game,” especially at a point in the calendar when unbalanced matches often find the most interesting players on the bench. Some viewers have their fan’s stake in a match, but it’s difficult for most around the world to invest in an FA Cup maelstrom without a more intimate attachment.

That maelstrom takes center stage this weekend, with 32 matches making up the competition’s third round proper (as opposed to those rude qualifying rounds). It’s the point of the competition where Premier League clubs drop in, so while there are a number of Aldershot Town and Rotterdam United fixtures that won’t turn your eyes, there are a few points in intrigue amid the tumult.

Here are a few matches to keep in mind as you search for your fix, and if cup competition in England isn’t your thing, I’ve thrown in some matches from the continent (with Spain, Italy, and Mexico’s leagues all restarting this weekend):

In England – FA Cup matches to watch

Brighton & Hove Albion vs. Newcastle United (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. Eastern) – We’re starting to hear questions from Tyneside about Alan Pardew’s suitability for the Toon’s job. While he undoubtedly did well for the Magpies last year, the 2012-13 season’s been a disappointment, with Pardew’s talented (if injured) team only two points from the relegation zone.

On the other bench, Brighton’s Gus Poyet is one of the up-and-coming names in England’s managerial circles. Last year he send Newcastle out of this competition in the fourth round. If he repeats the feat this year, Newcastle owner Mike Ashley should give Poyet Pardew’s seat on the ride back north.

Manchester City vs. Watford (Saturday, 10:00 a.m. Eastern) – This will only be an good game if Manchester City’s second stringers and kids (the likes of Scott Sinclair, Maicon, Karim Rekik) fall on their faces, but the contrasts in ownership are interesting.

Manchester City is owned by a Sheikh that would build a stadium on a cloud and fly supporters to matches on hovercraft if he could. Watford is essentially the Double A club for Udinese – a reserve of players for Italian businessman Giampaolo Pozzo.

The only similarity between the teams may be their managers. Both Roberto Mancini (Manchester City) and Gianfranco Zola (Watford, pictured) are former Italian internationals. Mancini was capped 36 times. Zola: 35.

Southampton vs. Chelsea (Saturday, 10:00 a.m. Eastern) – One of four third round meetings between Premier League clubs, Chelsea’s trip to St. Mary’s only becomes important if they lose. That’s is a real possibility, given some of Chelsea’s recent, inconsistent results (low, high, low).

Swansea City vs. Arsenal (Sunday, 8:30 a.m. Eastern) – Swansea has a two-match winning streak against Arsenal, including Dec. 1’s 2-0 win at Emirates Stadium. Arsenal’s already bowed out of the League Cup, and with this tough draw, the Gunners could see the early confirmation of another trophy-less season.

Here’s a full list of the weekend’s fixtures.

Elsewhere

Napoli vs. Roma (Sunday, 2:45 p.m. Eastern) – Zdenek Zeman has Roma clicking, the Giallorossi claiming 24 points in their last 10 games. They’re only two points behind fifth place Napoli for what could be Italy’s final European spot.

Between Roma’s league-leading attack (42 goals in 18 games) and the presence of Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamsik (as well as the absence of suspended defender Paolo Cannavaro), this could turn into a shootout.

Barcelona vs. Espanyol (Sunday, 1:00 p.m. Eastern) – It’s derby day in Catalonia, with Spain’s eventual champions facing an inner-city rival slowly climbing out of the relegation zone. Former Mexican national team coach Javier Aguirre has Espanyol up to 18th after a four-match unbeaten streak, a run that will come to an end on Sunday.

Chivas vs. Toluca (Sunday, 6:00 p.m. Eastern) – Liga MX starts their Clausura this weekend, but Guadalajara’s already playing to type. The Goats fired head coach John Van’t Schip last night, a move that’d been coming ever since the club parted was with Johan Cruyff (who had been serving as a special advisor). Benjamin Galindo has two days to prepare his new team for a visit from the Apertura’s regular season champions.

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.

Diego Costa injured, but will stay with Spain squad for friendly

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Chelsea striker Diego Costa pulled up in Spain training on Sunday, and with the Blues in first in the Premier League and Costa in great form, there were obvious concerns.

With Costa struggling with leg and ankle injuries, the RFEF informed Chelsea that there was an issue, and Costa was pulled from training and sent for tests. X-Rays at the local hospital in Madrid were negative, and he’s rejoined the squad.

According to the RFEF, doctors will continue to monitor the 28-year-old and he will continue with the national team for the rest of the international break. With a World Cup qualification win over Israel already in the books and just a friendly against France to go on Tuesday, it’s odd that Spain would risk Costa moving forward, but they will continue to keep him around.

Costa has scored 18 goals this season to lead the Blues, and he scored in the win over Israel. Spain takes on France in Saint-Denis on Tuesday, with both teams leading their World Cup qualification groups. Spain has a goal-differential lead on Italy with both teams miles above the rest of the Group G, and France is ahead of Sweden by three points in Group A, with the Netherlands back in fourth.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.