Paulo Di Canio brings his fire to Sunderland

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Former Swindon Town boss Paolo Di Canio has been appointed head coach of Sunderland. The 44-year-old agreed to a two-and-a-half-year deal with the Black Cats to succeed Martin O’Neill, who was sacked by chairman Ellis Short following Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Manchester United.

Di Canio enters the fold with seven matches remaining and one clear objective – keep Sunderland in the Premier League. At just one point above the relegation zone and with a challenging remaining schedule (Chelsea, Newcastle, Everton, Aston Villa, Stoke, Southampton and Spurs), the job won’t be easy. But Di Canio, who has no-top flight managerial experience, is well-known for a firey passion that Short believes is the key ingredient for his club’s success.

“Paolo is hugely enthused by the challenge that lies ahead of him. He is passionate, driven and raring to get started,” Short said. “The sole focus of everyone for the next seven games will be to ensure we gain enough points to maintain our top-flight status. I think that the chances of that are greatly increased with Paolo joining us.”

Former Sunderland defender Michael Gray echoed Short’s words, admitting he is pleased to see the animated 44-year-old bring his zeal to the Stadium of Light. “He is bonkers but great for the Premier League and I hope he gets it right,” Gray said. “It’s going to be entertaining if nothing else and if he can get a win in the Tyne-Wear derby it could be like Jose Mourinho running down the touchline.”

After a stunning 23 year playing career, Di Canio was hired at Swindon in 2011 and spent 21 months at the club. Last season he secured promotion out of League Two and when he stepped down in February 2013 (citing off-the-field issues) he left the club in a League One play-off position.

Following his stint at Swindon, Di Canio proclaimed himself ready for the next level. “I believe I am at a stage now where I am a Premier League or Championship manager,” the Italian said. “I have already proven my ability in League Two and League One, where there are many arrogant and average players and I was able to turn [around] their mentality and help them become better footballers.”

The turn around will have to come quick if Sunderland are to avoid the drop. The Black Cats have gone eight matches without a win and recently suffered a huge blow when captain Lee Catermole and leading-scorer Steven Fletcher were ruled out for the season. Confidence, rather than arrogance, appears to be Sunderland’s biggest problem.

Di Canio’s hiring did not arrive without controversy as Sunderland’s vice-chairman and non-executive director, David Milibrand, immediately resigned from his post stating, “In the light of the new manager’s past political statements, I think it right to step down.” The political statements Milibrand refers to arise out of a 2005 interview that Di Canio gave to Italian news agency ANSA where he admitted to having fascist leanings. “I am a fascist, not a racist,” Di Canio explained.

Whether those two positions are mutually exclusive is debatable. But one thing’s for sure, things just got a lot more interesting at Sunderland.

LAFC selects Urena, 4 others in MLS Expansion Draft

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Los Angeles FC selected five players in the MLS Expansion Draft, including Costa Rican national team star Marco Urena.

Whether they’ll make their way to the City of Angels is another story.

The first pick from general manager John Thorrington was goalkeeper Tyler Miller from Seattle Sounders.

[ MORE: Benitez on NUFC struggles ]

Going next was Latif Blessing from Sporting KC, an electric attacker who netted thrice with an assist last season.

Next was Urena from San Jose and the Costa Rican national team, a huge addition, and then Columbus left back Jukka Raitala before closing up the draft with Raheem Edwards from Toronto FC.

LAFC has already announced the signings or acquisitions of Carlos Vela, Walker Zimmerman, Carlos Alvarez, Monday Etim, and Guillermo Vizcarra.

The club will also loan Omar Gaber from Basel and Rodrigo Pacheco from Lanus.

WATCH LIVE: Three Premier League matches

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Chelsea visits the John Smith’s Stadium to face Huddersfield Town in one of three Premier League fixtures this chilly Tuesday in December (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Blues are now 14 points back of Manchester City, and three points clear of fifth place.

Meanwhile there are a pair of matches on NBC Sports Gold: Burnley looks to keep pace with its Top Four ambitions when it hosts struggling Stoke City, while in-form Crystal Palace seeks a home win that would move it out of the drop zone. In its way? Dangerous, attack-minded Watford.

Burnley vs. Stoke City — 2:45 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]

Huddersfield Town vs. Chelsea — 3 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]

Crystal Palace vs. Watford — 3 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]

FIFA bans Colombia midfielder Cardona 5 games for gesture

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA has banned Colombia midfielder Edwin Cardona for five matches for making a discriminatory gesture with his eyes toward a South Korean opponent.

FIFA will allow Cardona to serve the ban in friendly games, so he should be available for Colombia’s World Cup opener against Japan on June 19.

[ MORE: Pep on post-derby celebrations ]

Cardona has also been fined 20,000 Swiss francs ($20,150) because of the incident last month in a friendly in Seoul.

Cardona apologized at the time, saying he “didn’t mean to disrespect anyone, a country or a race, but if anyone felt offended, or interpreted it in that way, I am sorry.”

Spurs’ Alderweireld won’t return until February

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Spurs finally got a bit of good news this weekend with a blowout of Stoke City.

That was a followed by a tough draw against Juventus in the UEFA Champions League, and bad news on an old injury.

[ MORE: Benitez on NUFC struggles ]

Center back Toby Alderweireld is going to be gone into February, extending his time on the sidelines with a hamstring injury suffered Nov. 1 against Real Madrid.

Spurs were 6-2-2 in league when Alderweireld went down, and are just 2-2-2 since the injury. The Belgian has missed losses at Arsenal and Leicester, draws against Watford and West Brom, and wins over Crystal Palace and Stoke.

Tottenham did win both of its UCL matches since the injury.