File photo of Swansea City's manager Laudrup being tossed in the air by the players at Wembley Stadium in London

Swansea: quickly becoming a rising star under everyone’s noses

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Who saw this coming?

As recent as 2011, Swansea City were a member of the Championship, and were even down in League One just six years ago.

Now, only two years removed from promotion, Swansea are much more than a Premier League staple – they could be challenging for Europe.

A meteoric rise such as this should warrant more media attention than it has. Instead, Swansea are going about business as they have for their entire stay in the Premier League – completely under the radar.

With Sky Sports reporting today that Swansea have signed Slovenian goalkeeper Gregor Zabret, another piece of shrewd and positive business comes through the Welsh club with little to no fanfare.

At just 17 years old, Zabret had a trial with Swansea in February and spoke of his dream to play in England.  That dream is coming true, and for Swansea it’s a wonderful addition of youth talent for practically nothing. With current keeper Michel Vorm attracting more and more attention, it’s possible that Zabret could make appearances sooner rather than later.

That’s not all they’ve done this summer, but nobody’s taken any notice, as usual.

The Swans have also secured the services of 26-year-old holding midfielder Jose Cañas from Real Betis on a free transfer.  With the success of Swansea’s exploits into the Spanish transfer market, to get a player of Cañas’s experience (72 matches for Betis over the last three seasons) is wonderful for literally nothing out of pocket.

Cañas will join Angel Rangel, Chico Flores and Pablo Hernandez as the growing Spanish talent in Swansea gets larger.

The crown jewel of them all, also part of that Spanish crowd, may be their most important bit of business yet this summer.

So far Swansea have successfully kept hold of Michu, who arrived from Rayo Vallecano last summer for a measly £2.2 million ($3.3 million) and proceeded to crash the Premier League party with 18 goals.

That’s £120K per goal.

The summer isn’t over yet, but it looks promising for Swansea fans on the Michu front, and it’s clear the player sees what’s happening with his club.

On that same note, another wonderful bit of business by the Welsh side again involves not an incoming figure but one who they’ve managed to keep from leaving – Michael Laudrup.

Amid fervorous speculation that the manager could find a better club and contract at Real Madrid, PSG, and the like, Laudrup has stood his ground saying last week, “I have repeated it so many times in the last three months. My intention is to stay.”

Laudrup may not have the greatest relationship with chairman Huw Jenkins, but it’s enough to keep the club running at the very least, and if the last year in transfer dealings have anything to say for it, it’s much more than that.

The Danish manager reiterated the club’s transfer policy recently, preferring to do dealings behind everyone’s back and avoiding media attention. “We are continuing to work behind the scenes, in private wherever and whenever we can, to strengthen our squad” said Laudrup.  It shows.

Finally, a little more under the spotlight than the previous mentions, Swansea are on the verge of signing coveted Ivorian international Wilfried Bony.  It’s not come off yet, as his club Vitesse Arnhem are being standoffish, and Swansea still have to figure out how to pay him his wages, which are off their pay scale.

However, Bony himself stated his admiration for the Swans, saying, “Swansea is a wonderful club. It’s my chance to play in the Premier League and they also play attractive football. I understood from my agent that Swansea want to pay €12million for me and that is what Vitesse want to receive, so I hope there is some good news soon.”

If they can complete that deal, Swansea could become a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League.  They already have silverware under their belt, having won the League Cup last season, and Europe could be on the horizon.

UPDATE: Now Swansea have announced League Cup final hero Jonathan de Guzman will be returning for a second season-long loan from Villareal next year.  It just keeps getting better for the Swans.

LIVE — Sutton United hopes to upend Arsenal in FA Cup

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 20:  A pennant hangs in the Sutton United changing room prior to The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Sutton United and Arsenal at The Borough Sports Ground on February 20, 2017 in Sutton, Greater London.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Arsenal hopes to snap out of its form funk with a visit to tiny Sutton United in the FA Cup’s fifth round.

Sutton will be hoping to build on the non-league momentum provided by Lincoln City, who marched into Burnley and won 1-0 on Saturday. Speaking of the Imps, they await the winner of Monday’s match.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Sutton United vs. Arsenal ]

Arsenal, in addition to stopping the rot, wants a win to join Spurs, Manchester United, Chelsea, Middlesbrough, Leicester City, and Lincoln in the fifth round.

Manchester City and Huddersfield Town drew 0-0 on Saturday and face a replay for the right to join the quarterfinal fray.

FA Cup fifth round results

Burnley 0-1 Lincoln City — RECAP | REACTION
Huddersfield 0-0 Manchester City
Millwall 1-0 Leicester City
Middlesbrough 3-0 Oxford United
Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-2 Chelsea
Fulham 0-3 Tottenham HotspurRECAP
Blackburn Rovers 1-2 Manchester UnitedREACTION

Appeals rejected, Neymar will stand trial

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 02:  Neymar of FC Barcelona leaves the National Court on February 2, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. Neymar was giving evidence over allegations of corruption and fraud surrounding his transfer to FC Barcelona.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images
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Neymar, his family, Barcelona, and Santos are headed to court.

Not a great Monday for the Brazilian superstar and his clubs. They stand accused of hiding a portion of the transfer fee that helped Neymar head from Santos to the La Liga powerhouse Blaugranas.

[ MORE: Atlanta United from start to now ]

No appeals remain for Neymar, his mother, and their family brand N&N.

From Sky Sports:

The case stems from a complaint by Brazilian investment group DIS, which owned part of Neymar’s transfer rights and alleges that it received less money than it was entitled to when Neymar made the switch.

Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi was found guilty of tax fraud this summer, and is unlikely to serve his 21-month sentence.

Atlanta United: From scratch to the pitch

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 07:  (L-R) MLS Atlanta owner Arthur Blank and former professional soccer player Darren Eales attend the MLS Atlanta Launch Event at SOHO on July 7, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for MLS Atlanta)
Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for MLS Atlanta
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Darren Eales needs to get himself some game time.

Atlanta United’s president hasn’t watched his side play a league match yet, and it’s a solid 17 months since he left Tottenham Hotspur to help Arthur Blank start his MLS expansion team.

Even training Eales a touch emotional.

[ MORE: High praise for Yedlin ]

“Last Thursday in practice, I was welling up to see the guys in Atlanta training tops with Tata coaching them,” Eales told PST earlier this month. “I’ve had over two years without any games. I hadn’t experienced the highs and lows of why we’re all in this game. Come the fifth of March, it’s going to be a quite an emotional time.”

Not just for Eales, but for an Atlanta market which has proven quite rabid for the sport. United has sold almost 30,000 season tickets, a record for an expansion team.

The excitement isn’t simply a matter of a shiny new toy for sports fans in Georgia. Eales, along with technical director Carlos Bocanegra and manager Tata Martino, have constructed what, at least on paper, could be a monster.

There’s the Designated Player trio of Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, and Hector Villalba, young guys Miles Robinson and Andrew Carleton, MLS mainstays Michael Parkhurst and Tyrone Mears, and Chilean veteran Carlos Carmona.

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 07:  Darren Eales speaks onstage during MLS Atlanta Launch Event at SOHO on July 7, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for MLS Atlanta)
(Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for MLS Atlanta)

None of those assets were there when Eales, 44, bought into owner Arthur Blank’s vision in September 2014. And that’s what gave the gig its allure.

[ MORE: Wenger treatment “unacceptable,” says Pep ]

“You talk about soccer being a global game, and it’s very rare you get a chance to start a whole new club from scratch,” Eales said. “To do it with an owner like Arthur Blank who is committed to the City of Atlanta, committed to the community, and committed to a winning team just made it an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Eales wasn’t a stranger to America, a former Ivy League Player of the Year from his playing days at Brown University. He later went home to England where he became a director at West Bromwich Albion en route to his executive job at White Hart Lane.

So, yes, the acumen is there. And Eales’ admiration for MLS is a lot higher than many American critics suspect.

“I dealt with MLS from the other side of the fence with Robbie Keane to LA, Jermain Defoe to Toronto, and Clint Dempsey to Seattle,” Eales said. “Fresh perspective when you come from the outside, you look at how teams have built their teams and you can look at it with a fresh pair of eyes.

“The one thing I was clear on from the start, was I felt MLS, globally outside of America, it almost gets more respect from other countries than it does in America. I’ve seen that with players like Simon Dawkins. When I was at Tottenham, we loaned him to San Jose, he developed as a player and we were able to sell him off to Derby. It’s a global league, the standard of football is getting better all the time. I really felt the time was right where you could try to get players in their prime and sell it to them as career development, not a dead end.”

Blank contacted Eales, and convinced him that Atlanta United wasn’t a vanity play. The soccer team wasn’t going to be the Atlanta Falcons’ “little brother”, but a major part of the community.

Plus, time was on their side.

[ MORE: UCL Tuesday preview ]

“Building a roster, putting in the academy, building a training ground, an affiliation with the Charleston Battery, all of these things can’t happen overnight,” Eales said. “There’s been a lot of thoughts and strategy that’s gone into building the roster.”

Not to mention time zones, travel, surfaces, calendar, salary cap, the popularity of other leagues… Eales wanted to find a technical director with both positive vision and MLS wisdom. Enter Carlos Bocanegra, the USMNT captain who had started and finished his playing career in MLS before performing well overseas with Fulham, Rangers, and Rennes.

“What I didn’t want to do was come in from the Premier League and say, ‘Everything European is the way we should do it and Americans don’t know anything about soccer.’ Clearly that’s not the case and I knew that.”

NYON, SWITZERLAND - AUGUST 06:  Tottenham Hotspur director of football administration Darren Eales (R) after the UEFA Champions League play-off draw on August 6, 2010 in Nyon, Switzerland. The play-offs are played over two legs on 17/18 and 24/25 August. The ten play-off winners will join the 22 automatic entrants in the UEFA Champions League group stage, the draw for which will be held in Monaco on 26 August 26, 2010. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/EuroFootball/Getty Images)
(Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/EuroFootball/Getty Images)

Eales said Bocanegra is a good friend in addition to the perfect man for the job. He added that both men didn’t take long to embrace the city, and that the Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl didn’t hurt sports fever in the Peach State.

Now Georgia will turn its attention to the red and black of Atlanta United, a team brimming with talent and experience. One of the early bets for Eales and Bocanegra was that it wouldn’t be about older big names. When asked about the successes of Sebastian Giovinco at Toronto and Nicolas Lodeiro in Seattle, Eales almost bristles at the thought that the moves inspired him. Young and fast was already entrenched in his model.

[ MORE: Clattenburg’s PL time not over ]

“It’s been a long time planning,” Eales said. “We were already going down this model. Lodeiro has been fantastic in Seattle and Giovinco is by far and away the best player in the league. He was that first one where someone was taken not over 30 and it showed, despite what the Italian national team manager said at the time, you could come here, play your game and get your career back on track.

“We felt we could go even further was to get those younger players. We’ve got Miguel at 22, Hector at 22, and Josef at 23. You’ll see increasingly now it will be a chance for us as a whole league to bring in top players and get bigger and better, year on year.”

While Eales has not had the fun of match day and won’t really have that experience until March 5’s visit from the Red Bulls, he’s had fun keeping an eye on his last two Premier League clubs and their top half success.

“I have to laugh because I still talk to a lot of my colleagues back at Tottenham and when they say ‘We’re doing well since you left’ I tell them it’s all about building the foundation,” Eales said.

“Chelsea have had a great season but Tottenham with the young squad they’ve got and the manager they’ve got in Mauricio Pochettino, they are going to be titlists in the near future. And West Brom, I love West Brom. It’s a great family club and it’s really exciting to see them solid in the top half of the table. It’s a testament to the guys, Tony Pulis and the team, how they built with a plan year on year to become a solid Premier League club. They have a strategy and they stuck to it.”

So, too, does Eales and United. The roster he’s assembled and his legendary manager combine to give the look of an instant playoff contender.

Yet Eales, like MLS, is going to have to see it. The difference is that United’s president already believes it. Bring on the chills.

“Killers in the box” – Guardiola prepares to face Monaco (video)

MONACO - NOVEMBER 22:  Radamel Falcao (L) the captain of Monaco leads his team onto the field during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between AS Monaco FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC  at Louis II Stadium on November 22, 2016 in Monaco, .  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Pep Guardiola has a lot of admiration for the latest obstacle in Manchester City’s path to the UEFA Champions League final.

The club begins its Round of 16 on Tuesday with a visit from Monaco, and Guardiola will match wits with Leonardo Jardim.

[ MORE: UCL Tuesday preview ]

The Premier League boss loves the way Monaco plays, but doesn’t adore the idea of staring them down.

From ManCity.com:

“As a spectator it’s so nice to see them. I’m really impressed how good they are.

“Their fullbacks play like wingers, the wingers play like attacking midfielders. Their strikers are fighters, Falcao, Germain, they are killers in the box. Both holding midfielders are intelligent, physical, strong. They arrive to the box.

“A complete team. The most successful team in Europe in terms of scoring goals. It’s a tough draw.”

Center back Vincent Kompany is out for the home tie vs. Monaco, and Guardiola has not decided who will start between the sticks.

The manager also praised the hiring of Marcelo Bielsa at Lille, calling the veteran manager “the best in the world”.