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Should Premier League clubs rest players for FA Cup?

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This weekend, FA Cup fixtures replace the usual league matchups.

In an incredible display of long-shot odds, there were eight Premier League teams and eight lower-division opponents in the draw, and not a single Premier League team was drawn against another top-flight side. The age-old question of squad rotation rears its head this weekend, and with the competition winding down, it’s a question of whether top-flight clubs rest players for the Cup and risk an embarrassing upset, or play the first-choice lineup and skip the chance for rest amid an otherwise busy time of year for teams still in the tournament.

So, let’s go chronologically through each matchup and look at the situation for each top-flight team.

Burnley vs. Lincoln City, Saturday 7:30 a.m. ET

Burnley sits in 12th place in the Premier League table, 10 points above the relegation zone and 11 points behind the final potential Europa League place in seventh. The Clarets take on non-league side Lincoln City, one of two semi-professional teams in the Round of 16. With little to fight for amid mid-table obscurity in league play, it would be foolish for Burnley to rest the starters and risk becoming the next victim of Lincoln City’s amazing run. They don’t have another league match until the next weekend, and aren’t in any other competition to fill up the schedule. Easy decision.

Millwall vs. Leicester City, Saturday 10:00 a.m. ET

Leicester City is in the midst of a fierce relegation battle just a season after winning the Premier League title. The Foxes still have not fallen into the relegation zone, but sit just one point above danger. By that thought, it’s clear the Foxes should rest their players. However, the win in the last FA Cup round seemed to provide a boost to morale amid a five-match losing streak in league play, and despite it not translating into points, giving the club a bigger chance to win could boost the team down the road. Still, it would seem resting the starters could be the smarter play here given the circumstances.

Huddersfield Town vs. Manchester City, Saturday 10:00 a.m. ET

Huddersfield Town is on a roll in Championship play and could give Manchester City a good run. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
Huddersfield Town is on a roll in the Championship. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

This is a tough draw for Manchester City, at least one of the tougher draws given the lower division opponents in the pool. Huddersfield is battling for a playoff spot in the Championship, sitting in third, six points clear in the playoffs and on a five-match league winning streak. Manchester City, meanwhile, is just hoping to stay within striking distance of leaders Chelsea, eight points back. They’re still in the Champions League as well, matched up with Monaco. With City on three fronts, and the FA Cup a distant third in the pecking order, they will likely rest some of the older players such as David Silva, Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, and Yaya Toure. City has a deep enough squad to rotate players and still be heavily favored against a strong Championship side.

Middlesbrough vs. Oxford United, Saturday 10:00 a.m. ET

Boro takes on League One side Oxford United, and this looks similar to the Leicester situation. With Aitor Karanka‘s side in an eight-match winless run in league play and just two points above relegation, resting the starters is smart here against a mid-table League One opponent coming to town.

Wolves vs. Chelsea, Saturday 12:30 a.m. ET

Chelsea’s in great shape in Premier League play, eight points clear of anyone else and the huge favorites to claim the title. This is an obvious choice – play the boys. Sure, an injury to a key player like Diego Costa would be rough for the title run, but they have enough cushion and squad depth to push through it, and a domestic double would truly lead to a famous season for the Blues. Do I think Antonio Conte will play crucial pieces like Costa, Gary Cahill, and Cesar Azpilicueta? No, because I think he uses the opportunity to give Michy Batshuayi, Kurt Zouma, and Nathan Ake a run. But I think he should. A loss to struggling lower-division opponents like Wolves (on a three-match league losing streak) would put a damper on an otherwise stellar season.

Fulham vs. Tottenham Hotspur, Sunday 9:00 a.m. ET

This is maybe the most fascinating matchup of the weekend. Mauricio Pochettino‘s club is in the midst of a goal drought, with just one goal in their last four matches across all competitions, and a strong lineup disappointed mightily on the road in Europa League play on Thursday. So, should Pochettino give the starters a rest having just played midweek and scheduled for yet another midweek game at Wembley just four days later? Or should he give the main men another runout to get back on top of things?

[ MORE: Jose Mourinho thinks Man United played poorly in 3-0 win ]

With Spurs reeling, a loss here is a decent possibility against a possession-heavy Championship side, especially if Slavisa Jokanovic deploys his starters at Craven Cottage, which is admittedly unlikely with the Whites holding an outside shot at the playoffs and needing every point possible in league play. Also consider Pochettino rested Christian Eriksen and Heung-Min Son against Gent, although both were needed off the bench in the eventual 1-0 loss. It will be interesting to see his, and Fulham’s, lineup come Sunday morning; Pochettino’s high-pressing style is a bad matchup for counter-prone Fulham no matter who is on the field, so maybe the boss believes that will win him the game even with fringe players.

Blackburn vs. Manchester United, Sunday 11:15 a.m. ET

As the Premier League top four continue to falter and Manchester United continues to perform, suddenly the Red Devils have Champions League life. However, trophies have become more precious to Manchester United fans as the steady flow has dried up following the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. This is the dilemma for Jose Mourinho as he travels to Ewood Park. Against a club fighting for its Championship lives at the bottom of the table, it’s likely that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David De Gea, Paul Pogba, and other essential players could see the bench. However, also consider that United’s 3-0 win against St. Etienne on Thursday means that next week’s Europa League second leg presents yet another opportunity to rest starters, meaning the usual suspects could see the field in FA Cup action. Mourinho will have to pick and choose when to rest what players, and we’ll get a view into his mind when seeing the lineup card on Sunday.

Sutton United vs. Arsenal, Sunday 2:55 p.m. ET

This is a no-brainer for Arsene Wenger. Amid the turmoil surrounding the Gunners, with calls for Wenger’s job and the disaster at Bayern Munich, a loss to non-league Sutton United would send the North London club into absolute chaos. While the Gunners hang on for dear life in the Premier League top four, Wenger is forced into playing his starters. Should he rest players and the club loses, it would truly release the hounds, something the club cannot afford as it reaches the stretch run of Premier League play. Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, and the rest of the regulars must play, especially with little riding on the midweek Champions League second leg as the matchup is all but over.

Pique: For first time in career, Barca star feels “inferior to Madrid”

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Gerard Pique does not have the sort of personality that makes admitting defeat an easy proposition.

The longtime Barcelona center back is raging after his side was beaten 5-1 over two legs by rivals Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup.

[ MORE: Barca releases statement on terror attacks ]

And for the first time in his life, he thinks Barca is a step behind its El Clasico enemies. From The Telegraph:

“This is a long process and there is room for improvement but in the nine years that I have been here, it is the first time that I feel inferior to Madrid,” Piqué said. “We are not in the best moment, either as a team or as a club. We must stay as close as possible and keep moving forwards.”

Barcelona looked very poor in the second leg of the Super Cup, though the club did hammer the woodwork on multiple occasions. Real is the best team in the world, which makes being its rival a real hassle.

In fact, both clubs have been 1-2 in the world for some time, which has to make it extra perplexing when you’re No. 2 to only the club you despise more than any other.

Bundesliga preview: Schalke, BVB chase Bayern Munich

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The last time Schalke spent a season outside of European football, the celebrated German club finished second in the league en route to a Champions League semifinal the following campaign.

That’s one of the only silver linings from last season’s disappointing 10th place finish, 19 points behind fourth place Hoffenheim.

[ MORE: Schalke’s teen American impact ]

“Naturally, nobody is happy about not playing international this year,” center back Benedikt Howedes told ProSoccerTalk. “During the week we currently have more time to focus on the next opponent. We will battle the European positions with many teams this season. I think, the race is up in the air. The Bundesliga is very balanced.”

World Cup winner Howedes has 334 appearances for Schalke (Getty Images).

Schalke’s tumulutous 2016-17 season started poorly and never really found its footing. The club lost its first five league matches under Markus Weinzierl, who was fired in June, and saw marquee transfers Naldo, Breel Embolo, and Coke miss a lot of time through injuries.

Enter 31-year-old Domenico Tedesco. Don’t let the age fool you, he’s the boss not a player, and youth will be part of the team as well. Schalke still has Embolo, Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka, American teen Weston McKennie has been promoted to the first team, and Amine Harit has arrived from Nantes.

From the outside, that puts an emphasis on veteran leadership. Fortunately for Schalke, it has living club legend Howedes and ex-Man City defender Matija Nastasic amongst others in the fold.

“The spirit, if you could be in the locker room, it’s amazing,” McKennie told PST. “It doesn’t matter how old you are.”

[ MORE: Guide to two promoted Bundesliga teams ]

In the case of Nastasic, who won the Premier League with Manchester City in 2013-14, his 24 years carry a lot of experience. He’s thrived at Fiorentina, become a staple of the Serbian national team, and rebounding from his injury-hit time at City and is a leader at Schalke.

And those young guys can learn from Nastasic, who’s seen it all at 24.

“When I just arrived in Italy I was only 18 and it was the first year out of my country,” Nastasic told PST. “I didn’t expect at the beginning that I would play that much. Then I changed to England, and it was totally different. Italy is more tactical. Football in England is physical with a lot of tempo and running. I was young also without so much experience but when I was fit I think I played good.”

Schalke will need its young attack to find more goals. Its defense was Top Five in goals conceded last season, but its 45 goals was mid-table.

“Everyone knows that last season was not as good as we had expected,” Howedes said. “With our new coach, we want to improve our game and make our fans happy again. We are training hard and I am sure, that we will be more constant and improve our performances this season.”

[ MORE: First female ref to make Bundesliga debut ]

“From the team I expect a much better season than last year,” Nastasic adds. “We are not playing international games so maybe that’s an advantage for us. We can concentrate on the Bundesliga.”

Both Nastasic and Howedes heaped praise on McKennie, as well as American teammate Haji Wright, who will spend the season on loan to Sandhausen, and the game overseas in general.

“Haji Wright started spectacular,” Howedes said. “For young players the most important thing is to play. On loan in Sandhausen the chance is greater than here. I rejoice for him he get this opportunity. The step in the 2.Bundesliga can be a good beginning of his career.

“The American soccer is really developing the last years. It is no coincidence that a lot of great players like Kaka and Gerrard joined Major League Soccer. And who knows, I also can imagine to play there some day in the future.”

Different champs (but probably not different champs): Bayern Munich will neither have Xabi Alonso nor Philipp Lahm this season, but that doesn’t mean they are runaway favorites to claim its 27th title and sixth-straight since Borussia Dortmund’s two-year reign ended with the 2011-12 crown. Carlo Ancelotti has reloaded with James Rodriguez and Corentin Tolisso, and will be favored to hold off BVB for the crown.

Here’s to the new Bosz: USMNT phenom Christian Pulisic is already making an impact in the mind of his new coach, Peter Bosz, and the manager will be pleased to note that reports say Pulisic has no interest in looking into his future until after the 2018 World Cup.

Sleepers? Eintracht Frankfurt dropped into 11th last season, and may benefit from not finishing in a European place. The club has added Mexican national teamer Carlos Saucedo, Dutch star Jetro Willems, and well-traveled Jonathan De Guzman for its new season.

Americans Abroad:
John Brooks (Wolfsburg)
Julian Green (Stuttgart)
Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)
Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach)
McKennie (Schalke)
Timothy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Bobby Wood (Hamburg)
Aron Johannsson (Werder Bremen *expected to be sold)
Caleb Stanko (Freiburg)

Old faces, new places:
Serge Gnabry (Hoffenheim, on loan from Bayern Munich)
Mahmoud Dahoud (Borussia Dortmund, from ‘Gladbach)
Mathew Leckie (Hertha BSC, from Ingolstadt)
Sven Bender (Bayer Leverkusen, from BVB)
Marcel Heller (Augsburg, from Darmstadt)
Kyriakos Papadopoulos (Hamburg, from Bayer)
John Brooks (Wolfsburg, from Hertha)
Paul Verhaegh (Wolfsburg, from Augsburg)
Holger Badstuber (Stuttgart, from Bayern)

New faces, new places:
James Rodriguez (Bayern Munich)
Jonathan Klinsmann (Hertha BSC)
Reece Oxford (Gladbach, on loan from West Ham)
Harit (Schalke)
Jonathan de Guzman (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Jetro Willems (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Viktor Fischer (Mainz)

Opening weekend
Bayern Munich vs. Bayer Leverkusen — Friday
Hamburg vs. Augsburg — Saturday
Hertha Berlin vs. Stuttgart — Saturday
Hoffenheim vs. Werder Bremen — Saturday
Wolfsburg vs. Borussia Dortmund — Saturday
Mainz vs. Hannover 96 — Saturday
Schalke vs. RB Leipzig — Saturday
Freiburg vs. Eintracht Frankfurt — Sunday
Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Koln — Sunday

FC Barcelona releases statement after terror attack

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FC Barcelona found tragedy at home on Thursday when a terrorist plot unfolded in Las Ramblas, killing 13 and injuring more than 100.

Las Ramblas is just a 20-minute ride from the Camp Nou, and the Catalan club hosts Real Betis on Sunday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

A terrorist-driven rental van was driven at 50 mph through a crowded plaza. As of post time, two men had been arrested but the driver remained on the loose.

Saying it was sickened by the attack, FCB announced it will fly flags at half-mast, wear black arm bands during the match and hold a minute’s silence.

Here’s the full statement:

FC Barcelona wants to express its profound sorrow and utter disgust at the terrorist attack that has hit the heart of our city, la Rambla de Barcelona. The Club wishes to send our support and thoughts to the victims, their families and friends as well as the people of Barcelona and its visitors.

As a mark of respect, the flags will fly at half-mast at the Club’s facilities and the players from both teams will wear black armbands in all the Club’s matches this weekend.

On Sunday, before the 2017/18 La Liga opener against Betis, the Camp Nou will hold a minutes silence in recognition and memory of the victims.

AC Milan and Napoli likeliest challengers to Juve’s crown

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MILAN (AP) Juventus’ six-year Serie A domination could end this year.

AC Milan has reinforced its squad, Inter Milan has had some much-needed stability after four managerial changes last season, while Napoli looks set to mount an even stronger challenge this time around.

Lazio could also be surprise contenders after Simone Inzaghi’s side withstood a late comeback to beat Juventus 3-2 and win the Italian Super Cup on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

However, Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri has warned the rest of Serie A that it will be a very different performance from his team in Saturday’s season opener at home to Cagliari.

“We cannot and must not play like that in the league,” he said. “This defeat brings us back to earth. Some of the players aren’t fully fit yet, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy … but starting on Saturday you’ll see a different Juve.”

Allegri also took encouragement from the last time Juventus played Lazio in the Super Cup, in 2015.

“We beat Lazio in Beijing for the Super Cup two years ago and then had a bad start to the Serie A season, so hopefully we’ll do it the other way round this time,” he said.

Juventus has dominated Italian soccer for nearly a decade, winning three successive league and cup doubles and it will be tricky for anyone to prevent the Bianconeri from extending their league record to seven straight Serie A titles.

Milan was the last team other than Juventus to win the title and, despite having last finished in the top three in 2013, it looks the likeliest to depose the Turin-based club.

The Chinese-led consortium that purchased Milan from Silvio Berlusconi for $800 million in April has infused the club with cash and splashed out more than 200 million euros ($234 million) in the offseason.

[ VIDEO: Giovanni Reyna’s MOTM job for USYNT ]

As well as signing Italy’s top defender Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus, Milan also brought in forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Fourth place in Serie A now guarantees qualification to the Champions League and that will be the minimum requirement for Vincenzo Montella’s team. But, if the new team gels quickly, there is the feeling that Milan could make a strong challenge for the title.

Bonucci was playing down his new side’s chances.

“Juve remains favorite and Napoli has a great chance of fighting for the title,” Bonucci said in interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. “As we are now we’re still a step below both, but we shouldn’t put limits on ourselves. After those two, I see Milan, Inter and Roma as equal.”

Napoli has finished in the top three in four of the past five seasons but even a record number of points last campaign still left it third, five points behind Juventus.

However, talk of the `scudetto’ is no longer a taboo for Napoli, which hasn’t won the title since 1990.

But, while it didn’t make any big signings in the transfer window, its biggest success of the offseason has been in keeping its band of talented players together.

It sold Ezequiel Lavezzi in 2012 and Edinson Cavani the following year – both to Paris Saint-Germain – while Gonzalo Higuain moved to Juventus in 2016.

This year Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne have signed new contracts, while Marek Hamsik is just three goals away from breaking Diego Maradona’s scoring record for the club.

Mertens was reportedly pursued by a number of clubs – both in Italy and abroad – but the Belgium international, who scored more than 30 goals for Napoli last campaign, opted to extend his stay with the southern side.

“I stayed here because the team plays very beautiful football and doing that we can get a lot of joy,” said Mertens, who scored again as Napoli beat Nice 2-0 in the first leg of its Champions League playoff on Wednesday.

Napoli played arguably the best soccer in Italy last season and its attacking flair saw it score 94 goals, but it faltered against teams in the lower half of the table and coach Maurizio Sarri is hoping to have corrected that by the time it kicks of its Serie campaign at Hellas Verona on Saturday.

More AP Italian soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA