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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.

Serie A roundup: Lazio hand 10-man Juventus first loss (video)

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Lazio’s triumphant victory over league favorites Juventus highlights Saturday’s Serie A action.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

Lazio 3-1 Juventus

Juventus are no longer unbeaten in Serie A play under Maurizio Sarri, losing 3-1 to Simone Inzaghi’s inspired Lazio.

Luiz Felipe, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Felipe Caicedo scored for the home side, who are now three points behind second-place Juventus and five behind top-of-the-table Inter Milan.

Scoreless from open play since October, Cristiano Ronaldo found the back of the net in the 25th minute to put the Old Lady in front after tapping in Federico Bernardeschi’s well-placed pass inside the box.

It was Juventus’ game to lose, which they went on to do after a series of defensive and cognitive mishaps.

Tied after Felipe’s goal right before the break, Milinkovic-Savic scored in the 74th minute. The Serbian’s goal came after Juan Cuadrado was sent off for his reckless tackle on last-man Manuel Lazzari in the 69th. Milinkovic-Savic was set up by Luis Alberto‘s assist over the Juventus defense and scored with a low shot past goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.

Ciro Immobile had a clear-cut chance to widen his red-hot goalscoring form, but the striker was denied by Szczesny from the spot. Juventus’ goalkeeper saved Immobile’s initial blistering strike, and his following second chance.

In stoppage time, however, Felipe Caicedo’s second-chance strike was too much for the Polish ‘keeper.

Juventus will have to quickly turn the page as they face Bayer Leverkusen midweek in their final match of the Champions League group stage, while Lazio travel to France to take on Rennes in their Europa League group stage finale.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Atalanta 3-2 Hellas Verona

Udinese 1-1 Napoli

La Liga roundup: Barcelona, Real Madrid remain level on points after wins (video)

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Routine wins from league favorites Barcelona and Real Madrid, highlight La Liga’s Saturday action.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Barcelona 5-2 RCD Mallorca

It was a special night at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

Fresh from winning the Ballon d’Or for a record sixth time, Lionel Messi was greeted by his three children on the field, who handed him a shinny, golden ball – given yearly to the best player in the world – prior to the first whistle.

From that point on, it was evident that it would be all smiles for everyone tied to the defending champions at the stadium (and for those watching remotely) on Saturday.

 

That was the case.

Antoine Griezmann – a topic of conversation due to lack of productivity at Barcelona this season – kicked off the game with a solo run and subsequent goal in the seventh minute, opening the floodgates.

As a celebration of his latest, individual accomplishment, Messi showcased the power and precision of his left foot at the tune of a hat-trick. The Argentine ace scored twice in the first half and another in consolation time, putting his season total mark at a league-best 12 goals.

The moment and goal of the night (possibly of the season) didn’t directly involve Messi, however. With a daring, emphatic and genius back-heel strike, not only did Luis Suarez put the home side up 4-1, but cemented himself in the ballot for best goal of the season.

With 34 and a better goal differential than Real Madrid, Barcelona remain atop of La Liga ahead of their clash with Inter Milan on Tuesday, while Mallorca hope Ante Budimir can score another brace; this time against a struggling Celta Vigo next weekend.

Real Madrid 2-0 Espanyol

With goals from Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane, Real Madrid comfortably cruised past a struggling Espanyol.

With the majority of Real Madrid in Espanyol’s final third following a recovered free-kick attempt, Benzema charged his way into the box before laying off a ball to Varane, who not a proven goalscorer whatsoever, placed the ball into the back of the net with ease.

It was the 37th minute, and the home side were up 1-0 against a poor Espanyol.

With a notable superior style at hand, Los Blancos continued to surge forward. Opportunities at goal were generated but the ball wouldn’t go past ex-Real Madrid ‘keeper Diego Lopez.

Then, in the 79th minute, Benzema registered his 11th goal of the season, finishing an off-balance pass from Federico Valverde inside the box.

Winners in their last La Liga bouts, Real Madrid now prepare for their Champions League Group Stage finale against Club Brugge midweek. Espanyol, despite being in the drop zone, host CSKA Moscow in their Europa League Group Stage finale. The Catalonian club lead Group H with 11 points after five matches.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Granada 3-0 Alaves

Levante 2-4 Valencia

Ancelotti’s future uncertain after Napoli draws at Udinese

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ROME (AP) Carlo Ancelotti’s future as Napoli coach is uncertain after his team failed to beat Udinese on Saturday in Serie A.

The 1-1 draw extended Napoli’s winless run to nine matches in all competitions. Piotr Zelinski saved Napoli with a late goal that salvaged a point for the visitors.

Amid reports that Ancelotti could soon be fired, Napoli, which had won its last six league matches against Udinese, went a goal down after a counterattack which was finished by Kevin Lasagna in the 32nd minute.

Napoli improved after Fernando Llorente replaced an uninspired Lorenzo Insigne in the second half. It equalized after a good combination between Dries Mertens and Zielinski, who wrongfooted the Udinese ‘keeper with a shot into the bottom corner.

Also, Atalanta twice came from behind after Samuel Di Carmine’s two goals to beat Hellas Verona 3-2 with a late winner from Berat Djimsiti, who volleyed home from close range.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Kyle Walker: City catching up to Liverpool ‘difficult’ after derby loss to United

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After a crushing 2-1 loss to archrival Manchester United at home, 14 is the new magic number for Pep Guardiola and company.

14 is the number of points that Manchester City trail league leaders Liverpool by, an uphill battle that is influencing many people on the outside looking in to think that City’s chances of lifting the league’s silverware for a third straight season are officially done and dusted.

That’s not the narrative that is occupying Kyle Walker‘s train of thought, however. Speaking on behalf of his City teammates and himself, the defender is keen on fighting until they’re mathematically out of contention for the title, regardless if the standings show that Liverpool have yet to suffer a defeat this season after 16 matches.

“Can’t fault the manager,” Walker told Sky Sports following City’s second Premier League loss in five games. “He has won numerous trophies. I can’t put my finger on it. It is going to be difficult, Liverpool are on fire. They [Liverpool] are getting wins and we are not. It is a big gap but we will fight until the end.”

A consolation goal from Nicolas Otamendi in the 85th minutes wasn’t enough for the Cityzens, who endured a fourth league loss this season, matching last season’s number of losses throughout 38 games.

After the dispiriting derby day performance from City, the defending champions stand at 32 points after 16 bouts, the lowest point haul for Guardiola in his 11-year top-flight management career.

No team in league history has overcome a 14-point deficit. Since late October, City are yet to record a clean sheet, an apparent issue that Walker believes he and the rest of the team’s defenders need to address in order to return to old ways.

“Us as defenders need to hold our hands up,” he said. “We need to keep clean sheets and strikers maybe need to put more away. They had a game plan and it worked. They have quick players in quick areas and they are going to hurt you on the counter. Credit where credit is due, they stepped up today. Fair play.”