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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.”

Rapids hire Patel as director; Highest ranking female exec in MLS

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The Colorado Rapids have hired Ena Patel as their new director of player personnel. She becomes Major League Soccer highest ranking female executive, according to the Denver Post.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s MLS coverage ]

According to the Rapids, she’ll report to club GM Padraig Smith and “oversee player contracts, salary budget, regulatory compliance, and soccer operations protocols.”

The move comes about a month-and-a-half after Sporting KC hired Megan Cameron as an assistant director of player personnel, the first woman hired to an MLS team’s technical staff.

Patel’s resume is outlandishly strong, though this is her first foray into the sports world. Here are some words from Smith, from ColoradoRapids.com:

“Ena’s hiring is the final piece of the puzzle for us on the front office side,” Smith, the Rapids executive vice president and general manager, said in a statement released by the club. “Bringing in a sharp, legal mind who can oversee our contractual processes and complex league mechanisms is a really important part of ensuring that we’re fielding the best possible team. We can’t wait for her to get started.”

Guardiola happy to reach final, knows Man City to be judged by hardware

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Bristol City made its interesting late with a pair of goals, but Manchester City’s League Cup destiny was never in jeopardy in a 3-2 second leg win at Ashton Gate Stadium on Tuesday.

[ RECAP: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

That sent the club into the Feb. 25 final with a 5-3 aggregate win, and it’s very difficult not to leap to the story line that is Pep Guardiola‘s chance at a first significant title in his reign at Man City.

The closest City came to hardware last season was being bounced by Arsenal in the FA Cup semifinal. This time, City is the favorite to win at least three of its four entered competitions: the Premier League, the League Cup, and the FA Cup.

But to hear Pep say it, for now the club is just happy to have earned one final berth. From the BBC:

“We are so happy to be there, to reach this final. We played an amazing game until 2-0 and then we lost control, these type of games never end until the end. This is a lesson for next weekend in Cardiff in the FA Cup and especially for the Champions League.

“It’s not for me, it’s for Manchester City, a club who are trying to reach another level. … I know that we will be judged by trophies we win but we are so happy. Nobody can take away what we have done, but Chelsea or Arsenal are strong teams.”

Guardiola was serious about not overlooking the Robins, as he rolled out a very similar lineup to the full-strength bunch that beat Newcastle United 3-1 at the weekend. That may have cost City late, but it had already built a 4-1 aggregate lead with two superior away goals.

Yes, Guardiola is a man who measures himself by the way his club plays but also by winning in that attractive fashion. Expect a determined club to stride into Wembley late next month.

Chelsea and Arsenal square off Wednesday at the Emirates Stadium for the right to match up with Man City, who won the tournament in 2014 and 2016. Even year dominance?

Man City into League Cup final (video)

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  • City outshoots Bristol 28-5
  • Sane, Aguero put MCFC up 2-0
  • Pack, Kent pulls two back for Bristol
  • De Bruyne answers in stoppage
  • City wins 5-3 on aggregate

A pair of late goals put a scare into Man City, but the Premier League leaders scored just before and right after halftime to insure its first leg lead en route to a 3-2 win over Bristol City at Ashton Gate Stadium on Tuesday.

City wins 5-3 on aggregate in the League Cup semifinal, with Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane, and Kevin De Bruyne scoring in the second leg.

Pep Guardiola moves to within 90 minutes of his first significant title as Man City boss, and will face either Chelsea or Arsenal on Feb. 25 at Wembley Stadium.

Marlon Pack and Aden Flint scored for Bristol City.

[ MORE: Full stats, box score ]

Sane scored in the 43rd minute and Sergio Aguero struck less than four minutes after the teams returned from the halftime break.

An errant John Stones clearance helped Bristol to the scoreboard in the 64th minute, with Pack scoring the goal.

Flint then nodded home in stoppage time to give the Robins hope for a miracle win, but new contract hero De Bruyne scored within a minute to burn those hopes to the ground.

Bristol would be in the Football League Championship playoffs if the season ended now, sitting in fifth place.

Midfielder Lassana Diarra joins PSG on short-term deal

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PARIS (AP) Paris Saint-Germain has made its first signing of the winter transfer window by hiring midfielder Lassana Diarra on a short-term deal until June 2019.

The 32-year-old holding midfielder will once again try to revive his career in the French league after a successful stint at PSG’s bitter rival, Marseille, that ended last year.

The much-traveled Diarra, who was born in Paris, then played for a few months with United Arab Emirates club Al Jazira.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Diarra, a former Chelsea, Arsenal and Real Madrid player, won English and Spanish league titles in 2006 and 2012. He has 34 caps for France and featured at the European Championship in 2008.

His strong performances with Marseille earned him a recall from France, but he eventually pulled out of Didier Deschamps’ squad for Euro 2016 because of a left knee injury.

“I am very happy to have signed for my hometown club,” Diarra said. “Paris Saint-Germain represents a lot to me and, with the international dimension the club has taken in recent seasons, it is every player’s dream to play here. I am lucky enough to make this dream come true.”

Diarra joined on a free transfer and his signing won’t affect PSG’s bank accounts, which are under UEFA’s scrutiny.

PSG is under pressure to sell players to balance the books after splashing out 402 million euros ($473 million) on forwards Neymar and Kylian Mbappe last year. That led to Qatari-owned PSG being placed under investigation by UEFA for potential breaches of Financial Fair Play rules.