Abby Wambach, USWNT

U.S. Women start their Algarve Cup defense on Wednesday

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The U.S. Women’s National Team’s annual foray into the Algarve Cup starts on Wednesday when the world’s No. 1-ranked team taking on 2011 World Cup winners Japan. Also grouped with Sweden and Denmark, the U.S. is guaranteed to get three strong games during their trip to Portugal, with a potential meeting with Germany in the championship match making this the most competitive point on the team’s 2014 calendar. While the team’s return to a series of domestic, mostly non-competitive friendlies will occupy the summer, providing tepid preparation for October’s World Cup qualifying tournament in Mexico, March’s chance to claim a 10th Algarve Cup will define where they rank against the rest of the world.

If the U.S. can beat Japan (ranked third) and Germany (second) while avoiding a slip in its reunion match with former coach Pia Sundhage and Sweden (or against Denmark), the team can cruise through the rest of the year assuming it remains the best in the world. Fall to Japan or Germany, and 2014 becomes about seeing the World Cup from a challenger’s role, knowing that the last time the team faced another of Canada 2015’s favorites they came up short.

To this point, Tom Sermanni (the person who replaced Sundhage in Jan. 2013) hasn’t had any such setbacks. Last year, the U.S. beat Germany 2-0 in the Algarve Cup final, affirming their place at the top of the world’s soccer hierarchy. This year, they’re favored to do the same, but an inability to snare first place will cast the run  to next year’s World Cup in an entirely different perspective.

Format: 12 teams are divided into three, four-team groups to play a round-robin format over the tournament’s first week. The competition’s final round will see winners of Groups A and B (compromised of the tournament’s top eight team) face off in the final, with runners up going into the third place match. Third place finishers compete for fifth, while the groups’ last place teams will face teams from Group C.

The competition: The reigning Olympic champions face fellow London finalists Japan in Wednesday’s opening match, with games against Sweden and Denmark following on Friday and Monday.  Next Thursday, the U.S. will face their final round opponent, with pre-tournament expectations casting European champions Germany against the Americans in the first place match.

source: Getty ImagesWhich players are there: FIFA Player of the Year finalist Abby Wambach is, as are Sydney Leroux, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, captain Christie Rampone, and this little known goalkeeper: Hope Solo (she’s supposed to be very good). NWSL stalwarts Ali Krieger, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rachel Buehler Van Hollebeke, and Heather O’Reilly are in the team, as is Christen Press, whose three goals in 2014 lead the team.

Morgan Brian, Sarah Killion, and Samantha Mewis make up the college contingent, while Whitney Engen, Meghan Klingenberg, Tobin Heath, and Sarah Hagen are all European-based stars (with the first three bound for the NWSL later this year).

Also in the squad: Alyssa Naeher, Jill Loyden, Stephanie Cox, Kristie Mewis, Kelley O’Hara, and Amy Rodriguez.

Which players are missing: Lauren Holiday, the NWSL Most Valuable Player in 2013, was excused from the tournament for personal reasons, while Alex Morgan continues to recover from an ankle injury that has kept her out thus far in 2014

Outlook: Any doubt the 2011 World Cup cast on the U.S.’s status as the world’s best team is a distant memory. Ahead of Wednesday’s kickoff against Japan, Sermanni’s group is riding a 42-match unbeaten streak. But that last loss came to Japan in this tournament two years ago. If the U.S. needs a reminder of how fragile their hegemony can be, that 1-0 defeat in Mar. 5, 2012 could serve as motivation.

Even if the U.S. lost to Japan (or Germany), it wouldn’t be the end of the world. The Algarve Cup is a very particular kind of beast, forcing teams to play four games in eight days. Even though pride is on the line (and any loss will inject doubt), this isn’t the World Cup. This isn’t the Olympics. How the team builds towards those events is more important than where it end up Mar. 12.

Top Premier League Storylines – Week 26

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City speaks with his players during the break in extra-time in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round replay match between Leicester City and Derby City at The King Power Stadium on February 8, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Well. This weekend’s return of Premier League action was already slated to be an exciting one, but now with today’s enormous bit of breaking news, it has become even more intriguing.

[ WATCH: Previewing every match in Week 26 ]

There’s plenty to discuss at the top of the Premier League table, as Arsenal and Spurs look to heal their European wounds, but it’s what’s at the bottom that has everyone talking today.

How will Leicester City react after the firing of Claudio Ranieri?

Leicester City vs. Liverpool —  3:00 p.m. EDT Monday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Well. The Foxes had their work cut out for them coming into this match already, but now it has a whole new flavor. Claudio Ranieri has been dismissed just nine months after winning the Premier League title, and sitting just a point off the drop coming into the weekend (and inside the relegation zone coming into the match?) Leicester City will be lead into King Power Stadium by Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell.

Liverpool stopped a five-match winless streak last time out with a quality 2-0 win over Tottenham, but the Reds defense has been leaky all season, and if Leicester is to break its horrid 610-minute goalless streak, it would be here. The Foxes are without a win in five and have not scored a Premier League goal in all of the 2017 calendar year. Can they respond and begin to play for themselves rather than their former manager?

Can Dele Alli and Tottenham bounce back?

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs looked like they had rediscovered their Champions League form with a comprehensive smothering of Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup. Then, they welcomed KAA Gent to Wembley and promptly lost their heads. Dele Alli was sent off for one of the worst challenges you’ll see, and Spurs were vulnerable as a result, crashing out of the Europa League.

Now, Mauricio Pochettino must regroup the squad and get them ready to host Stoke, a team they clobbered 4-0 in the third match of the season. The squad is still healthy, and the loss of European play may actually help them in the long run. Here, however, it provides them with negative form and a short prep time. They need this one badly to solidify a top four place moving forward, can Poch turn it around?

Can Sunderland get a result against surging Everton?

Everton vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Hull City hosts Burnley. Crystal Palace welcomes Middlesbrough. With those two fellow occupants of the relegation zone playing at home against lower-half sides, the spotlight is squarely on Sunderland. The Black Cats have a tough matchup, on the road at Everton.

The Toffees haven’t lost a Premier League match since falling to Liverpool in mid-December, and have scored 19 goals in the eight matches since that blemish. With that in mind, Sunderland must get some kind of a result to pull off the bottom of the Premier League table. Can they snatch points at Goodison Park?

FA Cup final could leave Chelsea well out in front

Chelsea vs. Swansea City — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Chelsea is already eight points ahead of the pack and looks to be the clear favorite to win the Premier League title. It could get even clearer after this week. Manchester United is off, Manchester City is off, and Arsenal is off. Couple that with Tottenham struggling and Liverpool facing a desperate Leicester City side, and it’s entirely conceivable that a win for Chelsea over Swansea City could leave the Blues as far as 11 points clear at the top of the table, albeit a game ahead of some. That would all but wrap things up, wouldn’t it?

Mario Balotelli handed 2-match ban for abusing referee

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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After being sent off for referee abuse in last weekend’s Ligue 1 win over FC Lorient, Nice striker Mario Balotelli has been handed a two-match ban.

Balotelli earned his second red card of the season in the 69th minute of a 1-0 win that kept Nice within striking distance of the leaders Monaco. It was his second straight red and third sending-off of the season, having already been dismissed in reverse fixture against Lorient after a pair of yellows in the final three minutes of the game.

After the mercurial Italian’s hot start to the season, he has just one goal in the last two months, the third in a 3-1 win over Guingamp. He has not scored a point-winning goal since bagging both in a 2-1 win over Dijon back on December 18th.

Balotelli’s agent, the well-known Mino Raiola, was so frustrated with his client’s continual dismissal problems that he told French media conglomerate RMC Sport that the solution to Balotelli’s problems is to “cut out his tongue.”

“I have already found the solution: you have to cut out his tongue,” Raiola said bluntly. “To play soccer, there is no need for language! In all seriousness, he knows he made a big mistake and he has no excuse. He knows he needs to improve that. He is very sad for him, for the team.”

The suspension leaves Balotelli on the sidelines for tomorrow’s match against 11th placed Montpellier and then on March 4th at 17th placed Dijon. Nice sits in third, level on points with 2nd placed PSG and three back of leaders Monaco.

The leading names to take over for Claudio Ranieri

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 07:  FC Internazionale Milano head coach Roberto Mancini looks on during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale Milano and Empoli FC  at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 7, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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The wounds of Claudio Ranieri‘s firing are still healing, but it’s now up to Leicester City to move on without him. Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell will take over on an interim basis, but they need a permanent replacement.

So who are the early frontrunners?

The early favorite is former Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini. The Italian won the league in 2011/12 with City, but was harshly sacked the following season with the club in second place in the Premier League and reaching the FA Cup final. He since has been in charge of Turkish side Galatasaray and also returned to Internazionale where he managed before moving to England. The 50-year-old has been out of a job since departing Inter in August.

After Mancini, the names start to seriously thin out. Alan Pardew is the second-favorite, having been fired in late December with Crystal Palace in a freefall. Frank de Boer is also high on the list, with the Dutchman finding himself on the unemployment list after just 85 days at Inter, sacked after a run of four defeats in five. Former Birmingham City manager Gary Rowett is also mentioned, after he was unexpectedly let go in December with the club 7th in the Championship table.

Even further down the list is Avram Grant, an Israeli who last spent three years in charge of the Ghanan national team and has prior Premier League experience during short stints with Chelsea and West Ham. Mark Warburton has been mentioned, without a job since his hotly contested departure from Rangers earlier this calendar year, with the club saying he resigned after falling well behind Celtic in the title race, but Warburton claiming that was not the case.

While the names mentioned aren’t exactly inspired given Leicester City’s recent history at the top of the Premier League table, the immediate goal is to avoid relegation. Whoever comes in will have the difficult job of following in Ranieri’s footsteps, given his aptitude for charisma and appreciation by fans and the media. If they can do the job, however, they’ll not only write their own names into the Leicester City history books, but also validate the decision by ownership to part ways with the beloved Italian who brought them a title. The board has to get this one right.

17-year-old Donnarumma in contract dispute at AC Milan

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 13:  AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma gestures during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and AC Milan at Stadio Olimpico on February 13, 2017 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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AC Milan has developed a teenage sensation, but they might not be able to keep him.

Young goalkeeping sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma could find himself on the open market this summer after reports that his agent Mino Raiola has balked at AC Milan’s contract offer.

Donnarumma is just 17 years old and has been hailed as the successor to Gianluigi Buffon’s goalkeeping throne, earning the first-place job at one of Europe’s biggest clubs this season. However, according to Italian publication Calcio Mercato, Milan offered Donnarumma just $2.6 million a year, while Raiola is reportedly seeking twice that.

Milan’s caution is understandable given Donnarumma’s extreme youth at a position that usually sees players rise and fall at a later age, but the teenager has already become a sensation in Italy, and Raiola is looking to capitalize on his popularity.

However, it’s not just sensationalism that Raiola is hoping to pounce on. According to Squawka Statistics’ Performance Index, Donnarumma has performed as the second-best goalkeeper in Serie A this season behind Wojciech Szczesny. If AC Milan doesn’t wish to pay its young star, it’s likely that someone out there will – rather handsomely.

Premier League money could be enticing for both the player and his agent who has already made a fortune negotiating big-money deals for the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Mario Balotelli, and plenty others. Manchester City could be after a young goalkeeper to challenge the struggling Claudio Bravo, while the Manchester United sticks could be left vacant if David De Gea ever makes his way to Spain as is annually rumored.

Either way, Donnarumma deserves to be paid, based both on his fantastic performances this season at the San Siro and the subsequent popularity he has gained as the successor to one of the games great goalkeepers.