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Serie A reluctantly tries English model: festive fixtures

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ROME (AP) For a competition that has always held holidays as sacrosanct, Serie A is taking a big break from tradition this week.

Following the successful example of the English Premier League, the Italian league will play Serie A and Italian Cup matches over four of the next five days.

“The concept is simple. Professional soccer is an entertainment product and offering it during the holiday period is a great opportunity for those in charge,” Roma general manager Mauro Baldissoni told The Associated Press.

“The Premier League has shown that it works to offer this product during the holidays – both in terms of stadium attendance and international TV viewership.”

The opening two matches of the week will be held in the country’s two biggest stadiums: Lazio hosts Fiorentina in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday in the Italian Cup quarterfinals, then it’s a Milan derby at the San Siro in another quarterfinal a day later.

On Friday, in Serie A, league leader Napoli visits Crotone. On Saturday, there’s a slate of nine league matches, beginning at 12:30 p.m. local time (1130 GMT) with Fiorentina vs. AC Milan, and concluding with evening matches featuring Inter Milan hosting Lazio and Juventus visiting Hellas Verona.

More Cup matches are scheduled for Jan. 2 and 3, then Serie A again on Jan. 5 and 6.

Veteran coach Fabio Capello believes the scheduling is already problematic because of too many night matches – starting with the week’s first game, Lazio-Fiorentina, at 9 p.m. local time (2000 GMT).

“It’s too late,” Capello told Italian daily La Repubblica. “That means leaving the stadium at midnight in the cold with many people having to work the next day. If you’re going to play on a holiday, you’ve got to start earlier and help the fans out.”

In the past, Serie A’s winter break began before Christmas and lasted until after Jan. 6, which is Epiphany, a major Catholic feast day and the end of the holiday period in Italy.

This season, the break will be from Jan. 7-20.

“It doesn’t change much for the players,” Baldissoni said. “They’ll still have a break in January.”

Still, the Italian schedule has not gone quite as far as the Premier League, which has no break at all and games on Dec. 26, 27, 28, 30 and 31, plus Jan. 1, 2, 3 and 4 – meaning teams will play three matches in little more than a week.

“In England, the last match on Boxing Day (Tuesday) starts in late afternoon. It would be good not to just copy but also improve on the copied product,” Capello said.

But for a league struggling with attendance, fan violence and racism, Italy is providing an opportunity for families to go to the stadium while school is on break.

An average of 22,177 fans attended Serie A matches last season, ranking the league fourth in Europe behind the Bundesliga, English Premier League, and La Liga.

The German, Spanish, and French leagues still won’t play during the last week of the year. But other sports like the NBA and NFL do.

“Not taking advantage of this period and leaving it to other leagues means losing competitively in the international market so we’ve decided to get involved during this period,” Baldissoni said.

It’s a timely move, considering the Italian game is in dire need of a boost after the Azzurri’s failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in six decades.

“It’s a way to try and boost the brand value of Serie A,” Baldissoni said.

It also coincides with the most competitive Serie A in years. The top four clubs – Napoli, six-time defending champion Juventus, Inter and Roma – are within seven points of each other.

Serie A recently made a switch and assigned its international TV rights for the next three seasons to IMG for 370 million euros ($440 million) per season, nearly double the value of the previous deal with MP and Silva.

Next month, the league is planning to assign a new deal for its much more lucrative domestic rights with a price tag expected to exceed 1 billion euros.

So feedback on attendance, TV viewership, and advertising for the holiday games will be highly scrutinized.

“It’s an experiment,” Baldissoni said. “Let’s see if it works here like it does in England.”

VIDEO: Sporting KC’s Medranda scores wonder goal in win over Vancouver

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Sporting KC showed again on Friday night why they’re the rightful leaders at the top of the Western Conference, pulling four points ahead of the LA Galaxy and the Vancouver Whitecaps with a dominating 6-0 win over the Whitecaps at home.

Scottish forward Johnny Russell bagged a hat-trick in the game, all by the 48th minute, but the highlight of the night came off the foot of 24-year-old Jimmy Medranda. The Colombian scored an absolute worldie from a ridiculous angle, taking the space given to him outside the top-left corner of the box and sailing it over the head of Vancouver goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic and into the back of the net.

It was, of course, massively beneficial to Sporting KC that Vancouver went two men down in the 40th minute after a huge skirmish that saw Yordy Reyna and Efrain Juarez both sent off. Reyna earned his marching orders for throwing Russell to the ground, while Juarez reportedly used unacceptable language.

Still, KC was already up 3-0 when the incident occurred, and credit must go to teams that take advantage of what has been handed to them. Sporting KC certainly did that as Russell becomes the first Scotsman to score an MLS hat-trick since Colorado’s John Spencer in 2001, and Medranda’s wonder goal sealed the deal past the half-hour mark.

Jurgen Klopp already wants a piece of Man City next season

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Manchester City may have run away with the Premier League title this year, but Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp can’t wait for a clean slate to try and challenge City’s title defense next season.

The Reds are into the Champions League semifinals and also looking to finish the Premier League season strong in a battle for positioning in the top four, but when asked about next year, Klopp was giddy.

“Of course I don’t fear the challenge,” Klopp said in his prematch press conference ahead of Liverpool’s Premier League visit to West Brom on Saturday morning.

The German made it clear he wants a piece of Manchester City next season. “This year, if City plays a normal season – which they didn’t do – then it would have been really close until the end because we are now all close together.”

“United is four points ahead [of Liverpool], Tottenham is two points behind. It’s a real fight for these positions. All big six pretty much delivered this year but City delivered the best. We will see. It’s difficult to deal with success as it is difficult to deal with other things in football but I’m pretty sure they will be strong again.”

Liverpool is one of only two teams to beat City in league play this year, with Manchester United being the other. Klopp and company torched the City back line in a wild 4-3 victory that ended City’s 22-match unbeaten run. Ultimately, though, Klopp knows they have to look at the entire season as a whole to best the defending champs next year, not just their matches against each other.

“It’s not important how good City will be, it’s about how we can get all the other points, plus the points we got so far again,” he said. “That’s the job to do. That is why it is always possible that it is closer. But are they able to dominate? They don’t have a limit to spending and all that stuff so I don’t know.”

VIDEO: Goalkeeper sends Memphis Depay flying with skillful touch

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Former Manchester United attacker Memphis Depay has one of the brightest spots for Lyon this season that sees them battling with Monaco and Marseille for 2nd place behind a dominant PSG. He has scored 15 goals and assisted 11 others this Ligue 1 campaign, adding to his tally just four minutes into Friday’s 5-2 win over Dijon, the sixth win in a row for the club that pulled them within a point of Monaco.

However, there was a moment to forget for Depay in the victory as well.

With the score still at 1-1 in the 19th minute, Depay was sent high up the pitch to press Dijon goalkeeper Baptiste Reynet, owner of the leakiest net of the Ligue 1 season. Nevertheless, sometimes the underdog prevails, and that’s what happened as Depay flung himself at the ball to put Reynet under pressure.

One silky touch by the netminder was all it took for Depay to end up on his backside.

The 24-year-old Dutch winger has had a fantastic season and one that could potentially propel him back to the biggest stage and a bigger paycheck, but for now, we can all poke fun at his misery in the moment.

Dortmund admits interest in signing Batshuayi permanently

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Michy Batshuayi might be out for the season with a serious ankle injury, but he may have already done enough to earn a permanent move to Borussia Dortmund.

The Chelsea striker moved on loan to the Bundesliga side in January and made an immediate impact, scoring two goals on his debut, and ultimately wound up with seven goals in 10 Bundesliga games before his ankle injury brought his season to a close. Now, the Dortmund front office is speaking very highly of the Belgian goalscorer, not so subtly hinting that they will take an aggressive approach this summer.

The interest to sign him is there,” said Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke. “But first we have to wait and see who will be Chelsea’s coach next season. Then we’ll start looking.”

Chelsea has Antonio Conte currently at the helm, but there are strong rumors that the Italian will depart at the end of the season as the Blues sit comfortably outside the Champions League places. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is known for his quick trigger, and despite Conte winning the Premier League just last season, this year’s disappointment will likely not be tolerated.

That yet-to-be-determined future has a significant impact on Batshuayi’s future, as Watzke mentions. The new Chelsea boss could take a liking to Batshuayi, which could complicate his permanent move. In addition, it’s possible that current players on the Blues roster could depart, like Alvaro Morata, Olivier Giroud, or Willian, making Batshuayi’s place at Chelsea more tenable.

There’s plenty to be sorted out in the coming months, but with Batshuayi’s 10-game performance at Westfalenstadion at the forefront of Watzke’s mind, it’s clear there will be potential here as the summer draws near.