Premier League Preview: Cardiff City vs. Fulham

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Saturday boasts a relegation six-pointer, as last-placed Fulham travel to Cardiff City Stadium to take on the Bluebirds, who are just one point above in the standings. (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET online via Live Extra).

Both sides have struggled in the Premier League this season, and both sides have undergone changes in hopes of ensuring survival. But will new faces – both on the field and in the dugout – be enough to keep either Cardiff or Fulham afloat?

Since coming in at the beginning of January, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has guided Cardiff to just one Premier League win, during which new Bluebirds Kenwyne Jones and Wilfried Zaha scored to cancel out Norwich’s early lead. Combined with a goalless draw with Aston Villa, that’s just four points from nine games for the new manager.

Something’s gotta give, you feel, as it doesn’t seem as though owner Vincent Tan is a patient man. But while not even three points will pull Cardiff into safety – unless they manage to close the -22 goal gap between themselves and West Bromwich Albion – Solskjaer will likely sleep much better should he take what amounts to six points from Fulham.

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Fulham, meanwhile, are on their third manager of the season. Felix Magath stepped in to replace René Meulensteen a few weeks ago – strangely enough, after the Liverpool barely managed to nick all three points from their match. Fellow strugglers West Brom came back to get a draw late in Magath’s first match in charge, then Fulham fell 3-1 to Chelsea last time out.

It doesn’t much help that Fulham, in addition to their many pickups over the January transfer window, appear to have acquired a record-breaking dud. Greek striker Kostas Mitroglou, who should have been able to help Fulham collect some goals, is injured once more, leaving fans wondering if they’ll ever see him in action. That leaves the Cottagers relying on Darren Bent up top. Hey, at least the striker managed an assist to Johnny Heitinga’s consolation goal last weekend.

What they’re saying

Magath on Premier League survival: “I’m convinced that we will avoid relegation because we’ve developed in the last 14 days,” Magath said. “The team is growing together and that is what makes me sure that we can avoid relegation.” The Fulham manager continued, “I get the feeling here that everybody knows that and everybody sleeps well with the knowledge there are games ahead of us we can win.”

Aron Gunnarsson on Cardiff’s desperate need for points:  “It’s what you call a six-pointer. It’s going to be a hard game. We know they’re fighting for the three points and they need the points as well,” said the Bluebirds midfielder. “Hopefully we’ll keep on fighting and get the points we need because we desperately need them at the moment.”

Prediction

A cautious game. What’s clear is that both sides need three, rather than one, points, but the fear of collecting none at all may lead to a dull affair. With Fulham’s forward problems and Cardiff having scored just 19 goals in 28 games (and no goals in 399 minutes), a free-flowing, frenetic affair seems highly unlikely. Should the deadlock be broken, expect the hosts to nick it, 1-0. Because a streak’s gotta end sometime, right?

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday