Game On: Van Persie starts as Netherlands and Argentina clash in World Cup semifinal

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The nearly 62,000 fans filling the Arena de Sao Paolo will be on their edge of their seat Wednesday evening when the Netherlands meet Argentina to see who joins Germany in the 2014 World Cup final.

For the Dutch, Wednesday’s match marks the sixth time since 1974 that the tiny nation, with a land area half the size of Connecticut, has made the World Cup semifinal. In three of the previous five semifinal appearances, Oranje have made the final but one each occasion have come up empty.

This will be Argentina’s fifth semifinal appearance in the World Cup but only their first in the last 24 years. All four previous trips to the semifinal stage resulted in an Albiceleste victory and twice (1978, 1986) they went on to win the tournament.

FOLLOW LIVE: Netherlands v. Argentina

Both nations arrived the semifinal unscathed but not untested. After a comfortable Group Stage, the Netherlands needed two goals in the final six minutes to overturn a 0-1 deficit to Mexico in the Round of 16 before drawing with Costa Rica 0-0 and winning on penalties (4-3). As for Argentina, it’s been five matches played with single goal victories in each match.

Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella has made two changes from the side that started against Costa Rica, replacing the injured Angel di Maria with Enzo Perez and swapping Jose Basanta for Marcos Rojo in defense. Dutch manager Louis van Gaal has elected to start the recently ill Robin van Persie and has made one change to the starting XI that defeated Belgium, bringing in Nigel de Jong for Memphis Depay in the midfield.

LINEUPS

Argentina: Romero; Zabaleta, Demichelis, Garay, Rojo; Biglia, Mascherano, Perez; Lavezzi, Messi, Higuain

Netherlands: Cillessen; Vlaar, De Vrij, Martins Indi, Blind; Kuyt, Wijnaldum, De Jong, Sneijder, Robben; Van Persie (c)

TALKING POINTS

Messi’s Tournament To Lose: With Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar out of the tournament, has this become Lionel Messi’s tournament to lose? Hard to argue that the way hasn’t been paved in gold with the 27-year-old healthy and in the prime of his career. Doing so would go miles not only to getting doubters of his ‘best ever’ status off his back but to replacing Diego Maradona as the country’s hero. Before that happens, though, he must lead his team past a stingy Dutch side.

Robben’s Status In World Football: After a brilliant last few years at Bayern Munich, Arjen Robben’s scintillating performances in this World Cup have the winger deserving recognition as one of the top players in the world. But where does he fit? Certainly behind Ronaldo and Messi but quite possibly ahead of guys like Zlatan Ibrahimovich, Franck Ribery, Radamel Falcao and, dare we say it, Neymar. Harsh? It’s debatable. But the number one reason Holland are in the semifinal is Robben and if he somehow manages to put his team into the final, well, it’s tough to argue that he isn’t firmly in the Top 3 with his eye on next year’s Ballon d’Or.

EXPECTATION

Van Gaal turns his dogs wild on Messi, hacking him to shreds, while Robben puts in a 10+ mile effort with just three blatant dives.

PREDICTION

With a little help from guys like Gonzalo Higuain, La Pulga & Co. persevere setting up incredible scenes for Sunday’s final at the Maracana.

New York Red Bulls introduce space at RBA for autistic families

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HARRISON, N.J. (AP) The Red Bulls have announced plans for a permanent sensory-friendly space at their stadium for families impacted by autism.

Formerly executive offices, the space overlooking midfield is a calm area that is free from the crowds and the noise of Red Bull Arena during matches. Families can use it for free.

The team announced the new space on Saturday before the Red Bulls were set to host the Chicago Fire. It was Autism Awareness Night at the stadium.

“Families deserve to feel welcome and comfortable each time they step foot into Red Bull Arena, not just one night a year,” Red Bulls GM Marc de Grandpre said in a statement released by the club. “We hope all sports teams and entertainment venues are inspired to take similar action to provide comfort for families with loved ones on the autism spectrum.”

League Two game restarted in empty stadium after fans storm field

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LONDON (AP) An English soccer game restarted in an empty stadium after a pitch invasion led to the crowd being told the fixture had been abandoned.

There were five minutes remaining in Leyton Orient’s fourth-tier game against Colchester on Saturday when a sit-down protest was staged on the pitch by Orient fans against Italian owner Francesco Becchetti.

It forced the referee to take the players off the field. The protests lasted for more than an hour before the crowd was told the game had been abandoned and the stadium eventually cleared. The teams came out and finished the game.

Leyton Orient lost 3-1 a week after its relegation from the English Football League was confirmed after 112 years.

“A decision was taken with the police to announce that the game had been abandoned as it was felt this would help clear the pitch, which proved correct,” the EFL said in a statement. “However, it was deemed appropriate that the game needed to be played to a conclusion in order to maintain the integrity of the competition.”

La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid hold serve in tight title race

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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Super-duper Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of top 7 ]

Espanyol 0-3 Barcelona

Barcelona are doing all they can do — win — in their bid to usurp Real Madrid in the race for the title. While they entered the weekend — and still are — ahead of their El Clasico rivals based on head-to-head results this season, Los Blancos still have a game in hand which will surely decide whether Madrid claim their 33rd top-division title, or a 25th for Barca.

On Saturday, Luis Enrique’s side had more than just the title at stake — also at stake: the Derbi Barceloni, against fellow Catalan side Espanyol.

For 45 minutes, the home side held firm and refused to break, but once Luis Suarez put the Blaugrana ahead in the 50th minute, that was all she wrote. Ivan Rakitic doubled the advantage in the 76th minute, and Suarez completed the scoring 11 minutes later.

Real Madrid 2-1 Valencia

By the time the derby kicked off, Madrid had already applied the pressure and gone three points clear with a 2-1 victory that was a whole lot closer than the final score indicates.

Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring just before the half-hour mark, and Zinedine Zidane’s side was well on its way to victory. Ronaldo followed up his opening goal with a missed penalty kick 10 minutes into the second half, and Daniel Parejo pulled the visitors level with a sensational free kick just eight minutes before the end of regular time. Points looked sure to be dropped, and the door opened wider for Barca, but Marcelo was prepared to play the part of hero on the day, and the Brazilian left back bagged one of the season’s more improbable goals, a right-footed strike from the top of the box, in the 86th minute.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Las Palmas 0-5 Atletico Madrid
Real Sociedad 2-1 Granada

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Osasuna vs. Deportivo La Coruña — 6 a.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Alaves — 10:15 a.m. ET
Eibar vs. Leganes — 12:30 p.m. ET
Celta Vigo vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:45 p.m. ET

Monday’s La Liga schedule

Malaga vs. Sevilla — 3 p.m. ET

Championship Focus: It’s all about the playoff places now

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With Brighton & Hove Albion and Newcastle United having already clinched the Championship’s two automatic promotion places, all eyes turn to the four teams behind them still jockeying for playoff positioning…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s coverage of the Championship ]

3rd — Reading — 82 points, +2 GD
4th — Sheffield Wednesday — 81 points, +16 GD
5th — Huddersfield Town — 81 points, +1 GD
6th — Fulham — 77 points, +27 GD

First of all, the Championship remains the least sensible league in the world. Disagree? Just try to explain the above wildly varying points totals and the corresponding goal differentials. Go ahead, I’ll wait

As for the weekend’s results, Reading and Wednesday did themselves major favors in the race for third with victories over Wigan Athletic (1-0) and Ipswich Town (1-0), respectively, while Huddersfield, who entered the weekend in that top playoff place, played 67 minutes with a man advantage against Birmingham City, and lost 2-0. All three of Reading, Wednesday and Huddersfield have clinched their place in the promotion playoffs, which begin two weeks from Saturday, on May 13.

[ MORE: PL Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of the top 7 play ]

Given Leeds United’s 3-3 draw with Norwich City, a win would have clinched the fourth and final playoff place for Fulham, but the Cottagers dropped a pair of points themselves in a 1-1 draw with Brentford at Craven Cottage. Still, Fulham are all but into the playoffs with a three-point lead on Leeds, and a goal differential that’s 13 goals better.