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Saint-Etienne’s proud defensive record faces a Neymar test

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PARIS (AP) Saint-Etienne is the only team in the French league not to concede a goal so far ahead of Sunday’s trip to play Paris Saint-Germain.

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Whether that remains the case after defending against Neymar remains to be seen.

Neymar has made a strong start to his PSG career since joining from Barcelona. It was somewhat expected considering he cost a world record 222 million ($262 million), but the speedy way he has adapted and the seamless high quality of his play have perhaps even exceeded expectation.

“I don’t know if there’s a way of stopping him,” said Toulouse striker Andy Delort, who witnessed Neymar’s destructive brilliance first-hand when PSG routed Toulouse 6-2 last weekend.

Somewhat modestly, Neymar puts his instant success down to the players around him helping him to settle in smoothly.

“The team has a Brazilian style of play and that makes it easier for me,” Neymar said. “The presence of Daniel Alves, of Marquinhos, of the South Americans is very important. We can laugh and joke together.”

Opponents are not finding it funny playing against him.

Neymar has been involved in eight of PSG’s nine goals in the two games he’s played, scoring three of them. He touched the ball 118 times against Toulouse, scored twice and was directly involved in the four other goals.

“He’s phenomenal, an artist. He’s just like Ronaldinho was, you just never knew what to expect when he got the ball,” Delort said. “The only good thing is that we only have to play against him once more this season.”

The comparison with Brazilian ace Ronaldinho – who made the reverse journey, leaving PSG to join Barcelona in 2003 – is an apt one.

Like Ronaldinho, Neymar has an unpredictable edge to his game. Although not as explosive and direct as Ronaldinho – a former Golden Ball winner – Neymar’s electric pace and speed of thought make him a nightmare to defend against.

Neymar’s second goal against Toulouse was among the best solo goals the French league has seen in recent years. A blur of quick feet, astonishing balance and exotic dribbling moves, it left his spectators and teammates alike in awe.

“He scores goals you see in cartoons,” midfielder Marco Verratti said, while Edinson Cavani – scorer of a whopping 49 goals for PSG last season – added that “for us it seems crazy, but for him it’s just normal.”

Neymar’s starting position is on the left flank, but he rarely stays there. His eye for goal often takes him into more central positions, where he can use his skill and glue-like ball control to attack the heart of the defense at speed.

As the team’s center forward, Cavani also needs that central space to flourish. Therefore, signing Neymar came with an element of risk in that they might get in each other’s way – or that Neymar would eat up the space needed by Cavani.

Yet in two games so far, they have switched positions with relative ease, and even set up goals for each other.

There seems to be none of the confusion that sometimes appeared in recent years, when Cavani had an awkward time alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic – PSG’s all-time top scorer with 156 goals in just 180 games.

In fact, the early signs are encouraging that Neymar and Cavani – who is still in his prime at 30 – are highly compatible.

Potentially, PSG has a dream partnership in the making, and that’s unwelcome news for Saint-Etienne.

6 clubs fined, risk FIFA transfer bans for debts to players

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ZURICH (AP) Clubs from Russia and Qatar are among six fined by FIFA and warned they risk one-year transfer bans for failing to settle debts to players.

[ MORE: Steffen to England? ]

FIFA says the clubs also face deductions of six league points if they fail to pay the debts in 30 to 90 days.

The clubs are: Kuban of Russia; Al Arabi and Al Kharaitiyat of Qatar; Zamalek of Egypt; Al Jazira of the United Arab Emirates; and Mersin Idman Yurdu of Turkey.

FIFA says all failed to comply with rulings by FIFA or the Court of Arbitration for Sport “to pay significant overdue amounts of money to players.”

They were fined between 15,000 and 30,000 Swiss francs ($15,000 and $30,000).

FIFA says national soccer federations face disciplinary cases if they fail to enforce the verdicts.

Premier League friendlies: Liverpool meets BVB; Everton in Portugal

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The Premier League is three weeks and one day from opening its 2018-19 slate, when Leicester City will visit Old Trafford for a Friday afternoon match with Manchester United.

The end of the World Cup has eyeballs trained on friendlies, with 19 Premier League teams doing work over the weekend.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

The International Champions Cup has a pair of matches on the docket.

Friday sees Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, sans many of their World Cup stars, mixing it up with Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund in Chicago.

Then Sunday will see Borussia Dortmund switching gears and time zones, tangling with Liverpool in North Carolina as Pulisic renews acquaintances with old pal Jurgen Klopp.

Manchester United takes on San Jose on Sunday, two days after facing Club America.

Other marquee friendlies of the weekend include Bournemouth facing American back Shaq Moore and Levante on Friday, with Fulham hosting Lyon on Saturday, and Everton meeting Lille and Porto on consecutive Portuguese days Saturday and Sunday.

Friday

Bournemouth vs. Levante
Burnley vs. Macclesfield Town
Burnley vs. Curzon Ashton
Cardiff City vs Torquay
Manchester City vs. Borussia Dortmund (in Chicago)

Saturday

Brighton and Hove Albion vs. AFC Wimbledon
Crystal Palace vs. Oxford United
Everton vs. Lille
Fulham vs. Lyon
Huddersfield Town vs. Real Betis
Huddersfield Town vs. Roy-Weiss Essen or Werder Bremen
Leicester City vs. Notts County
Southampton vs. Derby County
Watford vs. Fortuna Dusseldorf
West Ham United vs. Preston North End

Sunday

Everton vs. Porto
Huddersfield Town vs. Darmstadt
Liverpool vs. Borussia Dortmund (in North Carolina)
Manchester United vs. San Jose Earthquakes (in Santa Clara)
Wolverhampton vs. TBD

Transfer rumor roundup: Japan, South Africa strikers to Premier League

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Percy Tau’s name isn’t yet widely known outside of South Africa, what with Bafana Bafana absent from the World Cup.

But the 24-year-old Mamelodi Sundowns winger may soon get to test his skills on a much bigger stage.

[ USMNT: More accolades for Pulisic ]

Tau, who has five goals in 12 caps, will reportedly join Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League if a medical goes well, with Sky Sports saying it’ll will be the biggest transfer fee yet for a South African Premier League player.


Yoshinori Muto could be bringing his 25 caps to the Premier League.

The 26-year-old striker made just one appearance at the World Cup, but has had a nice run with Mainz since joining from FC Tokyo. He’s bagged 23 goals in 71 appearances.

Bild report says there have been no formal offers for Muto, but that Newcastle United and West Ham are interested in the striker. Newcastle badly needs a striker, but West Ham has been spending money and Magpies owner Mike Ashley hasn’t green lit much in recent seasons.

Open Cup draw postponed as Portland protests LAFC win

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The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup draw is not going as planned, as the Portland Timbers protest the roster of victorious LAFC.

[ RECAP: Four USOC semifinalists minted ]

Philadelphia, Chicago, and Houston were the other sides to get a place in the final four teams.

LAFC’s victory had already been marred by Adama Diomande‘s claims of a racial slur hurled his way, and now their victory may be in question altogether as U.S. Soccer issued a press release saying Thursday’s scheduled draw was postponed.

From a U.S. Soccer press release:

The decision comes as a result of a protest filed by the Portland Timbers in relation to the number of foreign players fielded by Los Angeles Football Club during Wednesday night’s Quarterfinal at Banc of America Stadium in Los Angeles, Calif.

The rule says a maximum five players without green cards can be in the 18. Portland started only two Americans, Jeff Attinella and Zarek Valentin, but have green cards for many others and rules are rules.

Will the Timbers take a semifinal berth via protest?