Avoiding The Drop – Premier League matches with relegation implications

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With the Race for Europe sorted, let’s take a look at the bottom of the table and check in on the battle to avoid relegation.

Reading and Queens Park Rangers were both relegated after drawing 0-0 with each other on April 26th. It was a crap match and a crap way to go down to the Championship. Some might call it a crap double. But hey, you reap what you sow.

That leaves one spot in the drop zone, which six clubs are muddling around trying to avoid: Wigan (32 pts), Newcastle (37 pts), Aston Villa (37 pts), Sunderland (37 pts), Norwich City (38 pts) and Southampton (39 pts).

Here’s how the situation breaks down.

NORWICH CITY v. ASTON VILLA (Carrow Road; Sat 10:00am EST)

With both squads trudging around quicksand territory without a stick, a win for either side will ensure the victor top flight football in 2013-14. Villa will head into Carrow Road feeling like things are finally coming together after last week’s 6-1 destruction of Sunderland. But the Midland’s club won’t be taking Chris Hughton’s side lightly as the corresponding fixture saw the Canaries cruise to a 2-0 victory.

Cheeky pick for Match of the Week, this one. Look for Villa to take care of business.

WEST BROMWICH ALBION v. WIGAN ATHLETIC (The Hawthorns; Sat 10:00am EST)

Wigan travel to the Midlands in desperate need of three points. While the Latics have a game in hand on the other clubs fighting relegation, Roberto Martinez’ side can’t afford to let the five point spread between safety and doom grow any larger. For the Baggies, it will be a stress-free match with little pressure to perform except to “give our fans something to cheer about,” as manager Steve Clark so aptly noted.

History tells us we can count Wigan out. Look for the Latics to take this one.

WEST HAM UNITED v. NEWCASTLE (Upton Park; Sat 10:00am EST)

Like West Brom, West Ham has little more than pride to play for on Saturday. Defenders James Tomkins and George McCartney will likely be absent with injury giving some hope to Alan Pardew that his side can get on the scoresheet with ease. That was anything but the case last week as the Magpies were thrashed 6-0 by a Luis Suarez-less Liverpool. Three points for Newcastle in this one will take the Geordies to the magic 40 point mark.

Tough to pick Newcastle here after last week’s abomination. This one feels like a hard-fought draw.

SUNDERLAND v. STOKE CITY (Stadium of Light; Mon 3:00pm EST)

Sunderland’s Paolo Di Canio will be fancying his chances to ensure safety with a win on Monday night. But it won’t come easy. Because even though Stoke have secured a place in next year’s Prem, the Potters have one two straight and are finally enjoying their football again.

The Stephane Sessegnon injury combined with last week’s throttling at the hands of Villa makes me think Sunderland isn’t quite ready to close the book on relegation. I think the Black Cats get a result here, just not the win.

MORE: Race For Europe – Premier League matches with Top 5 implications

Pep sticking with Bravo for final: “Locker room more important”

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Petr Cech and Ederson will watch from the bench as their clubs start the League Cup Final on Sunday.

Pep Guardiola announced that Manchester City will turn to Claudio Bravo between the sticks against Arsenal, which has already appointed David Ospina as its backstop for the final.

[ MORE: Europa League draw ]

And if you think Pep, having seen his side lose to Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup, should go back to Ederson for the final, he gets it.

“You can have an opinion, I am the manager. We are here for Claudio. He saved two lots of penalties. He deserves to play in the final. The locker room is more important than the final.”

The points aren’t completely independent, of course, but at this point the final is pretty darn important as Man City could see its trophy potential drop from 4-2 in little more than a week’s time.

Bravo has played just 45 minutes in the Premier League, against Liverpool in relief of Ederson, but has been the man for each of eight League and FA Cup matches.

City has just one clean sheet in that group, but won the seven matches apart from the 1-0 Wigan defeat. Two of those, against Wolves and Leicester, came in penalty kicks.

Arsenal gets AC Milan in Europa League Round of 16

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Arsenal’s path to the UEFA Champions League just got a whole lot tougher.

[ MORE: Arsenal loses 2nd leg, advances ]

Already eight points back of the Premier League’s Top Four, the Gunners have drawn Gennaro Gattuso’s AC Milan in the UEFA Europa League’s Round of 16.

The first leg is March 8 at the San Siro before moving to the Emirates a week later.

Milan is currently 7th in Serie A despite its big-spending summer, and faces a similar problem to the Gunners; Gattuso’s men need to make up eight points on Lazio and seven on fifth-place Inter Milan.

Elsewhere, Moscovian sides CSKA and Lokomotiv got no favors with trips to Lyon and Atletico Madrid, respectively.

Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund will be pleased to see Red Bull Salzburg, while the latter’s sister club, RB Leipzig, was held apart from it by a draw with Zenit Saint-Petersbug.

Here’s the draw in full.

UEFA Europa League Round of 16
Lazio vs. Dynamo Kiev
RB Leipzig vs. Zenit St Petersburg
Atletico Madrid vs. Lokomotiv Moscow
CSKA Moscow vs. Lyon
Marseille vs. Athletic Bilbao
Sporting Lisbon vs. Viktoria Plzen
Borussia Dortmund vs. Red Bull Salzburg
AC Milan vs. Arsenal

CCL: Lodeiro from 45; Royer’s diving header — SEA, RBNY lead (video)

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After 45 minutes of their respective CONCACAF Champions League knockout-round quests, things are going unnervingly well for the Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls.

[ MORE: FC Dallas disappoint in CCL; Club America flying ]

If you’ve watched Major League Soccer teams try, try and try again — only to eventually fail in spectacular fashion — in CCL over the years, you might say things are going a little too well.

There’s still another 45 minutes to be played on Thursday — plus the return legs next week — but both the Sounders and Red Bulls hold 1-0 halftime leads, and the vitally important away goals which come with it. Nicolas Lodeiro’s 45-yard, first-time lob of the Santa Tecla (El Salvador) goalkeeper in the 15th minute has already been eternally etched into the memories of Sounders fans.

Just 15 minutes later, Daniel Royer perfectly executed the diving header and got on the end of Bradley Wright-Phillips’ curling ball into the box to Jesse Marsch’s side ahead of Honduran side CD Olimpia.

Villarreal DF Semedo charged with attempted murder

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MADRID (AP) A Spanish judge has charged Villarreal defender Ruben Semedo with attempted murder and ordered him to be temporarily detained without bail.

Court officials in Lliria say on Thursday the Portuguese player is also charged with assault, robbery, illegal detention, and illegal possession of firearms.

Semedo testified before a judge on Thursday, and left the court in handcuffs.

The 23-year-old Semedo was detained early Tuesday, accused of tying up, assaulting and threatening another man last week. Authorities say he and two other men allegedly held the victim captive while they robbed his apartment.

Semedo’s agents told Spanish media the player denies any wrongdoing.

Villarreal on Tuesday said it was investigating Semedo and would take appropriate disciplinary action.

Villarreal signed Semedo from Sporting Lisbon last summer for a reported fee of $17 million.