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MLS All Star Game preview: Surprise us, please?

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I’ll just say it: I’d rather watch Real Madrid play almost any singular MLS playoff team in a friendly than spy Wednesday night’s MLS All Star Game in Chicago.

Realizing that it’s a terrific event for Chicago and not a bad thing for some younger All Stars hoping to catch the eye of new fans or suitors — cough, Miguel Almiron and Kellyn Acosta — I have a hard time thinking casual sports fans are aiming to lock themselves in for two hours or even 45 minutes of TV time.

[ MORE: Costa to Atleti through Milan? ]

It’s not even particularly special for the All Stars themselves. Nemanja Nikolic played against Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League last season. David Villa has lined up across from Real on numerous occasions, and the same can be said for Giovani dos Santos, Kaka, and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Heck, ol’ Basti knocked Real out of the UCL, period:

So forgive me if my excitement level for watching the match on television is linked directly to my pleasure at having a live match to monitor during my PST shift (and for that early August opportunity, MLS, I applaud you). Now in person? Heck yes, live soccer!

I’m neither the fun police nor a hater of All Star Games in general, but honestly I think we’re past this.

Consider this same premise, but now conducted intra-league. Sure it’s going to be harder to fill up a giant venue, but you’re still talking about Kaka, Villa, Schweinsteiger, and Giovinco in the same building, a clarion call for MLS, soccer, Germany, Brazil, Spain, Italy, and American fans.

Now would I prefer Real vs. the MLS All Stars in a Best of Three super series with the All Stars given more than five minutes to train together? Sure.

[ MORE: Adu pulls out of trial after manager’s blast ]

Would I sign up for an in-game gimmick that leads to must-see TV? Yeah, sure (How about: if the All Stars win, they get to actually participate as Real in the club’s first group stage game against a European minnow. Almiron, get ready to meet FC Astana of the Kazakhstan Premier League!).

I don’t blame MLS for having the event, but I’m far past the point of “This’ll be great.” And I think 99 percent of American soccer fans and a strong number of sports fans are past the point of needing primers on who Real Madrid is, or will be sold on this game “mattering” as some sort of MLS litmus test.

Major League Soccer is so, so much better than when Michael Parkhurst, a 2017 All Star, trotted out for the All Stars’ 2-0 win over Celtic in 2007. Much better. It’s even much improved from the highly-publicized waxings doled out by Manchester United in the 2010 and 2011 editions.

I get why Real Madrid wants to play the game and boost their global brand. I get why the host cities want in, and why MLS feels like “It ain’t broke so we won’t fix it.”

Yet as those of us who watch MLS regularly can often wonder how Toronto FC or New York City FC might fare in meaningful matches against low-tier teams from the Bundesliga, La Liga, or the Premier League, or as part of a ‘our best 20 versus your best 20’ showcase against the Football League Championship or 2.Bundesliga, I can guarantee you even the biggest MLS honk doesn’t think anything about this game merits projecting the result in a single meaningful way.

Pardon me for not shining my shoes.

Now I suppose this year is as good as any to project MLS All Stars rebounding from a loss to Arsenal to claim a fourth win in six years. The men are in better shape and form thanks to the unorthodox MLS season, Cristiano Ronaldo is not available, and Real didn’t exactly shrink from the weekend’s Stateside Clasico versus Barca.

Being one week from Tuesday’s UEFA Super Cup Final against Manchester United in Macedonia, Zinedine Zidane will have his eye on putting his squad in well-oiled order, so perhaps that will provide more fire in Real’s belly.

Call it 3-2 to the All Stars, and we’ll see you in Astana.

Eden Hazard suffers fracture ahead of Man City in UCL, El Clasico

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Eden Hazard is set to miss the Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League first leg against Man City with a broken fibula.

Hazard had only returned to the lineup for two matches following a three-month absence with an ankle injury.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The 29-year-old has made just 15 appearances for Real since arriving in a big-money move from Chelsea, scoring once with five assists.

He has never appeared in less than 30 league matches over the course of his career, five times missing one or zero matches.

Of course, all of his absences show that Real is very comfortable playing and winning without Hazard. Zinedine Zidane’s men lost Sunday to drop behind Barcelona in La Liga, but that was just its second loss of the league season.

Real will be taxed in depth like its rivals, with Wednesday’s visit from Man City followed by an El Clasico at the Bernabeu on March 1. Barcelona hosts Napoli on Tuesday.

Whether you like the playmaker or despise him, there must be some sense of sympathy for his latest ailments (even if Man City and Barca fans will likely offer a Jerry Seinfeld-esque, “That’s a shame”).

Watch Live: Manchester United, Wolves host bottom three battlers

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A pair of Premier League basement dwellers face stiff tests in their bids to win another season in the top flight.

Manchester United hosts Watford on NBCSN while Wolves welcome Norwich City on CNBC as both home sides aim to improve the health of their top four hopes in 9 a.m. ET kickoffs.

[ WATCH: Man Utd-Watford | Wolves-Norwich ]

Lineups notes from both matches:

LINEUPS

Manchester United

Watford


Wolves

Norwich City

Three Serie A matches suspended due to virus deaths in Italy

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ROME (AP) Three Serie A soccer matches scheduled for Sunday in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto were suspended late Saturday after the deaths of two people infected with the virus from China.

On orders from the Italian government, the games called off were: Inter Milan vs. Sampdoria, Atalanta vs. Sassuolo and Hellas Verona vs. Cagliari.

Three other matches in Genoa, Turin and Rome on Sunday are going ahead as scheduled.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

A dozen towns in northern Italy effectively went into lockdown on Saturday after the deaths of two people infected with the coronavirus from China, and a growing cluster of cases with no direct links to the origin of the outbreak abroad.

“The government is working on urgent measures to decisively confront and contain the cases of coronavirus contagion,” read a letter from Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora to Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Malago shortly before midnight local time on Saturday. “Those measures also include the sports world in order to prevent risks and to better take care of the health of those involved in the events and competition.

“Following measures taken by the cabinet for protective reasons and maximum precaution, on orders of the government I’m asking you to suspend all sports events of every level and discipline planned for the Lombardy and Veneto regions on Sunday.”

The secondary contagions prompted local authorities in the Lombardy and Veneto regions to close schools, businesses and restaurants and to cancel sporting events and Masses.

The mayor of Milan, Italy’s business capital and the regional capital of Lombardy, shuttered public offices.

A 78-year-old man infected with the virus died in Veneto. A postmortem on a 77-year-old woman in Lombardy came back positive, though it wasn’t clear if illness from the virus caused her death.

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

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf

PL Sunday preview: Wolves, Man United, Everton, Arsenal in action

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures promise to have a wide-range of action, as Wolves, Manchester United and Arsenal all take the field.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live ]

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Norwich City  — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBC Gold and NBCSports.com

Wolverhampton Wanderers are heading into Sunday’s match against bottom dwellers Norwich City with fresh, positive inertia.

On Thursday, Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men thumped Espanyol 4-0 in the knockout stages of the Europa League, giving Wolves a much-needed boost of confidence. The club, who has yet to win in Premier League play since January 18, ended a two-game streak without generating a goal against the Spanish side.

Wolves are the clear favorites heading into Molineux Stadium on Sunday. But on the other side stands a well-rested and hungry Norwich, who before going to winter break, showcased class and discipline against Liverpool in their last league showing.

Daniel Farke‘s side are eight points out of the safe zone but time is running out. The sense of urgency is at an all-season high for the Canaries, believers of their under-appreciated strengths.

“They (Wolves) are playing in Europe, they have kept three clean sheets, they have individual quality and it is a huge task,” Farke said. “But I don’t see any easy fixtures at this stage. It is about us. We always have a chance if we are good at our topics.

“People can write us off and say we have no chance to close the gap. But I don’t agree. It is possible.”

INJURIES: Wolves — OUT: Ruben Vinagre (hamstring) | Norwich — OUT: Timm Klose (knee), Sam Byram (hamstring)

Manchester United vs. Watford — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

History and data say Watford, who have never won a league game at Old Trafford, stand no chance against Manchester United on Sunday.

But if one victory inspired a mostly-lethargic Hornets this season under Nigel Pearson it was the 2-0 win over United at Vicarage Road. The second-to-last side went on a six-match unbeaten streak following the said victory. It brought the club back to life, lifting them out of the bottom three.

Watford have since faltered and dropped back below the red line, but Pearson promises to stick to his philosophical guns.

“We approach every game in a very similar way and that is to try and be as positive as we can,” he said. “We’ll go out there and we’ll do what we can to win the game, we’ve not changed our approach, it’s just that results sometimes change how people perceive things.”

United will certainly look different, as Odion Ighalo is expected to make his home debut against his former club following his arrival in earlier this month.

United, who stand in the seventh spot with 38 points, have a clear window of opportunity to surpass fifth-place Tottenham with a victory. Prior to Sunday’s match, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer addressed questions regarding consistency.

“It is team selection – you’ve got to maybe rotate in Europe like we’ve done, then maybe go back to what we were at Chelsea this week,” Gunnar Solskjaer said. “I feel that Bruno [Fernandes] and Odion [Ighalo] coming in will get more goals in the team. That’s been lacking. The games we’ve lost – West Ham, Burnley, Palace, Bournemouth – we’ve had chances but we haven’t scored goals.”

Perhaps Ighalo could finally contribute towards a win at Old Trafford with Watford jerseys on the field.

INJURIES: Manchester United — Paul Pogba (ankle), Axel Tuanzebe (thigh), Marcus Rashford (back) | Watford — OUT: Daryl Janmaat (knee), Tom Cleverley (match fitness)

Arsenal vs. Everton — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Subplots reign supreme ahead of Everton’s visit to the Emirates.

Mesut Ozil, who missed the Gunners’ 1-0 Europa League victory, and Andres Gomes, 16 weeks after an ankle dislocation and fracture, are both expected to return to action. Meanwhile, Mikel Arteta and Carlo Ancelotti will meet for the first time after being linked to each other’s position before the start of the new year.

Perhaps the most significant one, however – at least to Everton – is that it’s been 24 years since the Toffees won at Arsenal. If they can pull it off this time around, the Liverpool-based side will be one step closer to the European dream.

“We have to be focused on Arsenal,” Ancelotti said. “Then there are very important games after. There’s [Manchester] United, Chelsea, Liverpool. After these four games, we can see what is going on for Europe.”

“This is a really important game against a strong team, away, but we have to have confidence to do our best and try to win. We’ve got 13 games to go and have got ourselves in a decent position,” he said. “It gives us the platform to have a decent season. I think we’ve done okay. We’ve had huge problems over six weeks and fair play to the squad for showing that resilience.”

Everton have picked up 17 points out the 24 possible under the Italian, while Arsenal have only experienced two wins under the Spaniard.

INJURIES: Arsenal — Cedric Soares (knee), Kieren Tierney (shoulder), Callum Chambers (knee), Sokratis Papastathopoulos (knee) | Everton — OUT: Jean-Phillipe Gbamin (thigh)