Swansea and Napoli show Europa League nights are about to get good

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For much of the year the Europa League is scoffed at.

The bigger teams wouldn’t be seen dead competing in it, the medium sized teams use it as a reserve league for their squad players and there are a few smaller clubs who take it seriously.

Let’s face it, the Europa League lives a tough life as the UEFA Champions League towers over it, as the competition generally gets a pretty bad rep as the smaller brother.

And in case you didn’t know, the eight teams who finish third in their respective groups during the Champions League group stage are bumped down to the Europa League for the Round of 32 action. That means Europe’s second-tier continental tournament suddenly becomes awash with talented teams that didn’t quite make the cut in the UCL.

(MORE: Europa League holds draw for knockout round and Round of 16)

Such teams this season include reigning Italian champions Juventus, Dutch powerhouse Ajax and the extremely unlucky Napoli who somehow failed to qualify for the UCL knockout rounds, after becoming the only team in history to gain 12 points and not make the next stage of Europe’s top club competition.

Instead Napoli had to settle for a spot in the Europa League, and they faced a fired-up Swansea team at the Liberty Stadium on Thursday in an entertaining 0-0 draw. Yes, there were no goals. But the tempo of the game was impressive as both teams went for broke in an enthralling game.

In the first half the home side came flying out of the traps, as Swansea’s Nathan Dyer curled an effort towards the top corner but was denied, Wilfried Bony smashed over and had a shot well saved by Napoli ‘keeper Rafael Cabral, while just before the break Ashely Williams had acres of space in the box but headed over at the back post. At the other end Marek Hamsik smashed in a shot that Michel Vorm saved superbly, as the end-to-end action continued for the entire opening half. After the break Swansea’s tide of chances continued as Williams had another effort at the back post and then Wayne Routledge saw his shot saved superbly by former Liverpool ‘keeper Pepe Reina, who came on at half time following an injury to Cabral. Swansea kept pushing, but the fact that this game ended scoreless was neither here nor there.

(MORE: Much-changed Tottenham fall to Dnipro, as squad players struggle)

The cut and thrust of knockout soccer on the European stage was exciting and as goals flew in across the rest of Europe, the Europa League came to life again. For most of the group stage games, empty stadiums saw placid games play out as many teams used this competition as an afterthought. But now that some of the biggest clubs in Europe find themselves ensconced in a second-tier tournament, they don’t want to be embarrassed by so-called smaller teams, and smaller teams want to embarrass them.

If this Swansea vs. Napoli tie is anything to go by, Thursday’s between now and May mean we are in for a real soccer treat.

Reports: De Boer offered Crystal Palace manager’s spot

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Multiple reports claim Crystal Palace has offered its managerial position to Dutch boss Frank De Boer.

Palace has been without a manager since Sam Allardyce retired after the season. The Eagles finished 15th in the Premier League, five points behind eighth place Southampton and seven points clear of the drop zone.

[ MORE: Latest on Ronaldo ]

An accomplished defender at Ajax and Barcelona, the 47-year-old De Boer led Ajax in his first managerial stint before spending less than three months at Inter Milan last season.

De Boer twice won the Rinus Michels Award as the top manager in Dutch football, and would become just the second Palace manager from outside the British Isles.

He would inherit a very good group of attackers with Wilfried Zaha, Christian Benteke, and Andros Townsend. Palace also has a talented midfielders Luka Milivojevic and Yohan Cabaye to go with marauding Dutch back Patrick Van Aanholt.

Farcical officiating at end of Mexico-New Zealand match (video)

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Mexico should be counting their Confederations Cup blessings in congested Group A after a prolonged shoving match at the end of its 2-1 win over New Zealand on Thursday somehow ended with a single red card.

New Zealand is fortunate, too, but the All-Whites have already seen their hopes of the knockout round extinguished by a pair of losses in Russia.

With New Zealand counterattacking in hopes of a late equalizer, Mexico’s Diego Reyes pulled back charging Niko Boxall. It was the second pull back in minutes after Rafa Marquez went uncarded at the other end, and Boxall reacted poorly by lunging cleat-first into Hector Herrera’s calf.

Referee Bakary Gassama should’ve easily pulled two red cards there, but lost his focus in an ensuing melee that saw Herrera charge back to knock down Boxall, headbutts between Diego Reyes and Andrew Durante, and an absurd hand-throwing performance from Javier Aquino. Perhaps this lapse was understandable, which is why he had Video Assistant Referee available.

Even video couldn’t get it right, as a long and sloppy review was seemingly bungled by the referees saw a trio of yellow cards given to Boxall, Reyes, and Herrera.

All three should’ve been sent off, and otherwise Man of the Match contender Aquino and his teammate Marco Fabian should not have escaped discipline by any stretch of the imagination. If Gassama needed it to be level, Michael McGlinchey, Ryan Thomas and Durante could’ve left the match as well.

Instead, a terrific match has been left in the lurch. Will FIFA have the guts to issue supplemental discipline ahead of the important final matches of the group stage?

Oscar gets eight-match ban for petulant display in China

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Oscar‘s antics aren’t missed in the Premier League, and they won’t be missed over the next two months in China.

The 25-year-old Brazilian has been banned for eight matches after igniting a brawl between Shanghai SIPG and Guangzhou (video here) by lashing a pair of shots at defenders and then hitting the ground in comical fashion.

[ MORE: Latest on Ronaldo ]

It’s amazing Oscar lived through the vicious shove (at least this dive didn’t influence a UEFA Champions League match).

While his antics won’t be missed, his playmaking will; It comes as no surprise that Oscar has thrived in the nascent Chinese Super League, posting nine assists and a goal in 13 league matches.

Latest on Ronaldo: PSG offer readied for Perez meeting

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Cristiano Ronaldo will meet with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez at the conclusion of the Confederations Cup, according to reports, at which point a pair of cut-and-dried options could be on the table.

Paris, or the status quo.

Marca reports that Ronaldo will bring a “money no object” offer from Paris Saint-Germain into the meeting, although the same outlet says Perez will know exactly what’s coming due to an understanding between the two big money clubs.

[ MORE: Juve confirms Alves release ]

The 32-year-old Ronaldo remains in fine form at the Confederations Cup, with Portugal’s unbeaten run continuing in Russia. If Portugal is upset by New Zealand in its group stage finale on June 24, it would still stand a good chance of proceeding to the knockout rounds depending on the Mexico-Russia result.

That means the Perez-Ronaldo meeting wouldn’t occur until after July 2, which is when the Final and third-place playoff are scheduled in Russia.

In the meantime, Real manager Zinedine Zidane is said to be cutting his vacation short to meet with Perez regarding not just Ronaldo’s future but the club’s pursuit of Kylian Mbappe (which is a bit over-dramatic given the above news. Feels like a phone call could get the job done).