Stoke City v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League

Story-lines: What to watch for on the final day of the Premier League

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With a quiver of the lip and David Beckham-esque tears streaming down my cheeks, we arrive at the final day of the 2012-13 Barclay’s Premier League.

At 11am all 10 matches will kick-off but with little of the intrigue that last season’s final day provided.

We won’t be seeing last-gasp strikes by Sergio Aguero to win the title and prompt Ian Darke to wonder ‘Who is writing this stuff?!?!’ And we won’t be seeing two teams like Bolton and Queens Park Rangers fluctuate between safety and relegation only for the former to succumb to their death after drawing 2-2 at Stoke City on a late Jonathan Walters penalty.

But not to worry as there are still plenty of narratives to tickle the fancy. Here’s the complete slate of matches with some of the storylines to keep you interested.

Newcastle United v. Arsenal (St James’ Park)

We all know Arsenal need to win at Newcastle to guarantee Champions League qualification and that with some help from Everton, could even manage 3rd place and automatic qualification. Newcastle on the other hand, are just happy to be staying up.

Other story-lines:

  • Could this match be another 10 goal thriller? The reverse fixture was the highest-scoring match of the season where the Gunners destroyed the Magpies 7-3 at the Emirates.
  • Might we see another hat-trick hero in red? Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla have both managed the feat this season and Newcastle’s defensive woes make them vulnerable.

MORE: All eyes on Newcastle v. Arsenal for final Champions League spot.

Tottenham Hotspur v. Sunderland (White Hart Lane)

To have any chance of securing qualification for next season’s Champions League, Spurs must beat Sunderland on Sunday. But don’t expect the Mackems to roll over as manager Paulo Di Canio has made it clear this match will be a battle: “This is an opportunity, to test ourselves at the top level, against a top side, away from home, against top individuals. I do not accept to go there and give a cheap result away because it is not my mentality.”

Other story-lines:

  • Spurs have won 9, drawn 1 and lost 1 of their last 11 home matches against Sunderland. Can they reach double digits on Sunday?
  • Gareth Bale is the undisputed player of the year in the Premier League but with many suitors waiting in the wings, might this be the Welshman’s last match at White Hart Lane?

Chelsea v. Everton (Stamford Bridge)

The clash of the Blues at Stamford Bridge not only has Champions League implications (the Blues must win to secure 3rd in the table) but also represents the final match in charge for both managers. Rafa Benitez’s interim spell as Chelsea manager comes to a close with Jose Mourinho tabbed for a dramatic return to Stamford Bridge while Everton’s David Moyes will be succeeding Sir Alex at United, as he leaves the Merseyside club after an 11 year stint.

Other story-lines:

  • Marouane Fellaini has been in dominant form this season leading to numerous transfer rumors. Could Sunday’s match at Stamford Bridge prove to be a future destination for the Belgian? 
  • Frank Lampard scored twice to beat Everton 2-1 at Goodison Park. Will the Englishman win it again for Chelsea?

West Bromwich Albion v. Manchester United (The Hawthorns)

It will be an emotional day for United supporters on Sunday as they say goodbye to one of the best football managers to ever grace the pitch, Sir Alex Ferguson. He and his players will be given (yet another) guard of honor as Ferguson looks to motivate his troups for one final win in his 1,500th game as manager at United.

Other story-lines:

  • Wayne Rooney has not been included in the team traveling to West Brom. With the transfer requests being handed in and his displeasure at United, have we seen the last of Wazza in a United kit?
  • United have 28 wins this season. Can they make it 29 on Sunday and equal Chelsea’s record for wins in a season?
  • Are Steve Clarke’s men going to be up for this one? They’ve lost three straight including last weekend’s 4-0 embarrassment at the hands of Norwich City.

Liverpool v. Queens Park Rangers (Anfield)

It should be a walk in the park for Liverpool on Sunday as they face a relegated QPR team who they shutout 3-0 in December at Loftus Road. For Liverpool, a result will see them finish the season on a nine match unbeaten run.

Other story-lines:

  • Since arriving at Anfield in January, Daniel Sturridge has scored 9 league goals. With Luis Suarez out, might the England international hit double digits? 
  • With relegation on the loom, could this be the last match for players like Loic Remy, Chris Samba and Junior Hoilett?

Manchester City v. Norwich City (Etihad Stadium)

In the club’s second match without Roberto Mancini, City look to end the season on a high while Norwich look to capitalize on last week’s 4-0 demolition of West Brom.

Other story-lines:

  • Can the Canaries get their first ever victory at City?
  • Despite his role as a substitute Edin Dzeko leads his club in scoring with 14 goals. Might the Bosnian be playing his last match for the Citizens?

Southampton v. Stoke City (The Friends Provident St Mary’s Stadium)

Both teams are secure but a Southampton win will see them leapfrog the Potters in the table.

Other story-lines:

  • Rickie Lambert’s 14 Premier League goals put him one behind Frank Lampard for most league goals by an Englishman. Can the striker score a dramatic double to steal the honor from the Chelsea great? 
  • Stoke’s defense was incredible before the New Year, securing nine clean sheets. Since then, they’ve only had three. Will Sunday see a fourth?

Swansea City v. Fulham (Liberty Stadium)

A Swansea win and a West Brom loss will see Michael Laudrup’s men finish 8th in the table, an incredible feat to add to their coup of the League Cup. For Fulham, a victory on Sunday could see them make an incredible jump from 15th to 10th in the table.

Other story-lines:

  • Michu has been one of the best stories in the league after arriving from Rayo Vallecano for a mere £2m. Can he extend his goal haul of 18 on the season?
  • Dimitar Berbatov has 14 goals this season, giving him 89 total Premier League goals. Can he reach the 90 goal mark on Sunday?

West Ham United v. Reading (Upton Park)

West Ham will need at least a draw to hold onto their 10th place spot while Reading are returning to the Championship after a disappointing single season stint in the top flight.

Other story-lines:

  • Can Adam Le Fondre come off the bench and score yet again? He leads the league with 7 substitute goals this season.
  • West Ham has only taken two of five Premier League matches against Reading. Can they end their season on a positive note and even up the series?

Wigan Athletic v. Aston Villa (DW Stadium)

A sad day at the DW as Wigan host Aston Villa knowing that next year they will be in the Championship.

Other story-lines:

  • Villa’s Christian Benteke ensured his club Premier League survival. Can the big man add to his 14 goal haul this season? 
  • Could this be the last match in charge for Wigan manager Roberto Martinez? Numerous clubs, including Everton, have been inquiring about the manager’s services.

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.