Watford v Brighton & Hove Albion - npower Championship

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.


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.

Agent: “There’s no hatred” between Bale, Ronaldo

Gareth Bale & Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid CF
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Gareth Bale doesn’t at all dislike Cristiano Ronaldo — or vice versa — despite what may seem a lukewarm on-field relationship between the two Real Madrid superstars, insists Jonathan Barnett, agent of Bale.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Instead, Barnett insists that the two men with very different personalities have a healthy relationship, and competition, that pushes each Galactico to be the best player he can be.

Barnett, on Bale’s relationship with Ronaldo — quotes from the Guardian:

“They don’t go out eating every night together, but it’s fine. There’s no hatred there. Gareth is a quiet guy. They’re complete opposites. But I think Gareth can learn a little bit from Ronaldo as well, interacting maybe a little bit. But he wants his own life and he lives it. Gareth is a great footballer, he doesn’t want anything more. He has some very good endorsements but his whole life is to be the best footballer in the world. I don’t think he wants to be the best model in the world or the best underwear seller. That’s not him.”

That’s a hilarious closing quote from Barnett, but he knows exactly how some folks are going to interpret it: “Bale thinks Ronaldo loves himself too much.”

[ MORE: Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott ]

There’s nothing better for the ultimate success of a team than healthy, friendly competition between teammates who are spectacularly talented as Ronaldo and Bale. The former will only be around to perform at his current level for so much longer, but at what point does the latter officially take the torch and supplant Madrid’s biggest star, and how accepting will he be of passing that proverbial torch?

Olivier Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott

Olivier Giroud, France
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Is it just me, or does the press really only ever get noteworthy quotes from players during international breaks?

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

I suppose it’s not surprising, given Premier League players get away from the mean ole British press, go back to their respective homelands and speak with journalists they’ve likely known since their early playing days, thus feel more comfortable opening up about key issues.

Anyway, today we have Olivier Giroud essentially calling himself out for having lost the starting striker’s job at Arsenal because he’s been outplayed of late by Theo Walcott. As discussed before, this is bad news for Giroud because he’s now falling down the depth chart for France with next summer’s European Championship on the horizon.

[ MORE: Aguero admits he wants Guardiola link-up ]

Giroud, on losing his place at Arsenal — quotes from the Guardian:

“At Arsenal, I am in competition with Theo for the striker position. But he is doing well at the moment, so there is no reason to change.

“Whether it was at Tours, Montpellier or Arsenal, I have never experienced a situation like this, I have often played from the start. I need to take positives and to harden myself mentally. It is something new for me.

“I was in [Walcott’s] place in previous seasons at Arsenal. I imagine what he must have been thinking. But I feel that the coach believes in me.”

Giroud goes on to cast into doubt his own confidence, stating in very certain terms he needs “to believe more in [his] abilities.” Giroud’s always come across as a bit of an existentialist, but it’s always strange to hear players publicly call themselves out — particularly their confidence — as if that’s not going to increase the pressure currently weighing down on them.

[ MORE: Rodgers reportedly chosen to take over at Aston Villa ]

The next eight months are going to be monumentally important in Giroud’s career, as the 29-year-old attempts to prove he’s worth keeping around at Arsenal and deserving of a place in the national team squad for next summer’s EUROs, which are to be played in France.