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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.

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
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The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.

PL clubs combined to pay out $200 million in agent fees in 2015

Liverpool Unveil New Signing Christian Benteke
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What a time to be an agent in the footballing world, eh? The rich just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The steady increase in transfer fees being paid for players — bad, good, great and amazing alike — has made quite a few “selling” clubs rich reach over the last decade or two, to be sure, but it’s also made another group of people obscenely rich: player agents.

As the soccer world has gone crazy with its “now, now, now” approach — managers must win now, or they’re fired; new signings must become stars now, or they’ll be sold; etc. — agents are the ones making out like bandits — no losses to be sustained on players who turn out to be flops; no future loss of wages due to taking “too long” to settle in and being labeled a flop — at the expense of clubs and, most cruelly, the players.

More than $195 million was paid out agents by Premier League clubs across the January and summer transfer windows, with Liverpool — ever the club in constant change — paying out $21.5 million in agents fees to remain top of the table for a second straight year. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were the four other clubs to top $15 million.

[ MORE: Premier League Payback — The Diego Costa era over at Chelsea? ]

Agents not only receive a fee when players change clubs through transfers, but can only be compensated again and again when one of their clients signs a new contract with their current club.

For instance, Wayne Rooney has signed at least four new contracts since joining Manchester United in 2004, the latest of which came barely three years after he was given a new five-year deal in Oct. 2010 upon handing in a transfer request in an attempt to force a move to Manchester City. Rooney’s current weekly wage is reported to be in the neighborhood of $450,000. His agent, Paul Stretford, will have received a sizable payday upon negotiating the deal in Feb. 2014.

At the end of the day, sports are little more than a business, and it’s the ones who play the game — the political game, that is — the best, and most ruthlessly, who are making out like bandits.