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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.

‘Ravens’ challenge soccer orthodoxy in Belarus

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MINSK, Belarus (AP) Less than three years ago, Alexander Skshinetsky’s soccer career seemed over.

The former under-21 international found himself unemployed after his career stalled, and was working on construction sites when an offer came. Would he consider joining an amateur team that had been playing seven-a-side soccer but now wanted to go pro, founded by a small group of fans staking thousands of dollars of their own money to build a club from scratch?

Two seasons and two promotions later, the 26-year-old midfielder is a key player in one of European soccer’s most unlikely success stories. In only its third professional season, Krumkachy Minsk is playing top-flight soccer, beating established names and challenging the economic orthodoxy in one of Europe’s most closed-off countries.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Krumkachy – “Ravens” in Belarusian – has soared into the country’s top league with a shoestring budget but an enthusiastic and growing fan base of hipsters, families and others turned off by the stagnation of soccer in the ex-Soviet nation. Before a recent run of losses, it was even challenging for Europa League qualification.

The secret has been finding talented players on the verge of leaving the game, or even those who have already quit, “people who have been underestimated and put down,” in the words of co-founder Denis Shunto, who set up Krumkachy with friends in 2011. “We get those guys and we can really make them into a team.”

After starting out in recreational competitions, Shunto and his friends decided to aim higher. Belarusian soccer has a three-tier league system packed with clubs backed by various government agencies and state-run factories in the country’s Soviet-style economy, a set-up which prefers predictability over ambition and can give rise to conflicts of interest. With a spot open in the third tier, but without a state patron, Krumkachy scraped together a few thousand dollars to apply. Each subsequent step up the pyramid brought predictions of imminent financial collapse.

“Everyone said we wouldn’t have the money, we couldn’t take part,” said Skshinetsky, the midfielder. “We played for free in the second division, and in the first division it wasn’t much. Maybe $100 for a win in the first division and salaries maybe $150 (a month).”

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

On a freezing Friday night in Minsk, the crowd was small and the game scrappy. Goalkeeping errors helped to hand Krumkachy a 2-1 win which all but ensured the club’s top-flight survival for 2017 in the Belarusian league’s calendar-year system. Financial survival is always a trickier question.

“We’ve got the smallest budget (in the league) and we’re still putting money in ourselves,” said Shunto, who wonders if the approach of going without government funding may be “too romantic.”

At Friday’s game, commercial tie-ups were prominent and Krumkachy’s shirts were covered in a myriad of small logos from various businesses which have chipped in as sponsors, while opposition Granit Mikashevichi bore only the logo of its backer, a state-run quarry. Consumerism may be the norm in most European leagues, but in Belarus’ state-dominated economy, it’s the mark of the plucky underdog.

After ending a nine-game wait for victory, the players came over to celebrate with the sparse crowd. An hour later, the reserve players were still sharing the field with fans and their children having a kickabout.

“It’s an atmosphere like home, very warm. It’s been helping the guys not to give up,” said Vasily Khomutovsky, one of Krumkachy’s two co-coaches.

At a recent away game, “a woman with two children who went there, with two small kids 7 and 10 years old, she made each player a little souvenir by hand and signed it, something different for each player,” Khomutovsky said.

There’s a family atmosphere within the club, too, with Shunto’s brother serving as a backup goalkeeper and Skshinetsky’s wife in charge of fitness training.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Going to the playoffs edition ]

Vladimir Harlach, one of the team’s supporters, said Krumkachy reminds him of AFC Wimbledon, the English club founded by fans after owners relocated its previous incarnation to another town, and which has since shot up several divisions.

“That’s a bit different, there was history,” Harlach said. “Here, it’s from scratch. History is being written in front of our eyes. You could compare it to other countries 100 years ago, when (soccer) was all being created.”

Krumkachy’s average home attendance of about 1,500 is tiny by European standards, but enough to put it comfortably above all but the biggest clubs in Belarus, as well as higher than that of FC Minsk, the city government-run club whose stadium Krumkachy is using.

Some at the club wonder whether European qualification might be possible next year, another improbable step up, but the top spot in Belarus appears far out of reach. Able to outspend rivals with cash from occasional Champions League appearances, BATE Borisov has just sewn up its 11th straight title.

Khomutovsky welcomes the comparison to Leicester, a team which was promoted to top division in England, survived one season, then won a wildly unlikely title the following year.

“I hope next year,” Khomutovsky said, “we do what we can to become the Belarusian Leicester.”

MLS Cup Playoffs Weds. preview: Toronto, LA host openers

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco, right, celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against the New England Revolution during first-half MLS soccer game action in Toronto, Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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Here we go, sports fans.

Major League Soccer starts its playoffs with a pair of knockout round games on Wednesday and another two on Thursday.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. ET

The Union are back in the playoffs for just the second time in playoff history, the same amount as Toronto. The difference is that Toronto has made the postseason in back-to-back season and isn’t entering the second season on a brutal cold streak.

Philly has lost three-straight and five of seven, making the playoffs on goal differential and — as Brotherly Game points out — has the lowest points-per-game of a playoff team since 2006.

That’s probably not going to fly at the new, loud BMO Field, where TFC’s supporters will finally get a home playoff match. Sebastian Giovinco is close to full fitness, Jozy Altidore has been on fire, and Michael Bradley isn’t exactly a player who shirks the big game spot light.

But it’s going to be players like Drew Moor and Clint Irwin who keep TFC calm under the bright lights. They’ve been here before. In fact, Moor has actually been at BMO in the playoffs, when Colorado trumped FC Dallas for a 2-1 win at MLS Cup 2010.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Real Salt Lake at LA Galaxy –10:30 p.m. ET

Before the season began, LA looked like it had an embarrassment of riches that could challenge for one of the best records in MLS history. Between Giovani Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole, Nigel de Jong, Steven Gerrard, and Gyasi Zardes — let alone the rest of the crew — the Galaxy were terrifying.

CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 11: Robbie Keane #7 of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates his goal with Giovani dos Santos #10 to take a 4-1 lead over the Orlando City FC at StubHub Center on September 11, 2016 in Carson, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Dos Santos and Keane (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

About 700 miles northeast was a team expected to do, well, not much. Real Salt Lake had its mainstays in Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, but had the club done enough to make up a 10-point playoff deficit from 2015?

Injuries and defections stopped the Galaxy from reaching its potential, while RSL rode a hot start into the playoffs. Both teams finished their seasons in cold fashion; In Real’s case, ice cold.

The Galaxy only lost one game at the StubHub Center this season, and it’s realistic to think that trend will continue on Wednesday. But there’s something about RSL and the playoffs — and the potential absences of not just Zardes but Keane and Gerrard — that lead us to believe something strange could be coming by the time Thursday morning hits the East Coast.

USMNT’s Zardes nearing return for LA… but not this week

CARSON, CA - FEBRUARY 09:  Gyasi Zardes #11 of Los Angeles Galaxy attemps to break away from Leiton Jimenez #30 of Club Tijuana at StubHub Center on February 9, 2016 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
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Gyasi Zardes waits on X-rays, and it’s not just a matter for LA Galaxy concern.

Yes, the MLS side is chasing its sixth Cup and has as many as two playoff matches coming in the next five days.

But Jurgen Klinsmann has regularly called upon the 25-year-old attacker for the United States men’s national team who, in case you haven’t heard, have two of the toughest World Cup qualifiers on their slate in the next few weeks.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

There’s good news and bad news. First, the good, from

Gyasi Zardes, returning from a broken foot this past August, happily took to the field with his teammates in a sign of a potential return in time for the postseason. The offensive favorite spent a little under an hour with the team, not quite completing a full training session, but definitely close to returning to his usual fitness.

Now the less good: Zardes cannot return until his next scheduled X-ray on the aforementioned broken foot.

That X-ray comes next Thursday – well after Wednesday’s game and any weekend matches.

Will a fit Zardes instantly reclaim a spot in Klinsmann’s 23? Wingers have had strong performances in his stead, and the coach’s take on that position is a bit unknown as we anticipate the United States and Mexico in Columbus on Nov. 11.

Juventus CEO: agent to earn $30 million for Pogba transfer

VERONA, ITALY - JANUARY 31:  Paul Pogba of Juventus celebrates the victory after the Serie A match between AC Chievo Verona and Juventus FC at Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi on January 31, 2016 in Verona, Italy.  (Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)
Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images
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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus CEO Giuseppe Marotta has revealed that Paul Pogba‘s agent will be paid 27 million euros ($30 million) for the player’s record transfer to Manchester United.

Pogba returned to United in August for a world-record fee of $116 million.

Marotta was quoted by Italian media as telling Juventus’ shareholders meeting Tuesday as saying “27 million (euros) will be paid to (Pogba’s) agent Mino Raiola. So the total net gain for Pogba was 72 million ($78 million)” after other fees are taken into account.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Marotta says that Pogba joined Juve from United in 2012 for a bargain price of 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million).

Marotta adds that Juan Cuadrado‘s two-year loan from Chelsea costs 5 million euros ($5.4 million) per season and if Juventus wins Serie A this season it will be obliged to buy Cuadrado’s full rights for an additional 20 million ($22 million).