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Italian Super Cup to be played against backdrop of protests

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The Italian Super Cup showcasing the Serie A and Italian Cup champions is normally regarded as a friendly. But there’s nothing welcoming or sociable about the match on Wednesday.

Because it’s in Saudi Arabia.

[READ: Wagner leaves Huddersfield Town]

Italian politicians and human rights activists have objected to the game being played in Saudi Arabia, citing the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Against this backdrop of political outrage and protests, the match between Juventus and AC Milan is still slated to go ahead at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah, and both teams are already in the kingdom.

But more protests are planned.

The game is slated to be broadcast domestically by RAI, and the Italian state TV’s journalists’ union said recently it was “absurd” and “unacceptable” for the game to be in Saudi Arabia little more than three months after Khashoggi’s killing. The union has planned a protest for Wednesday at the Saudi Embassy in Rome, in agreement with other journalists’ unions and human rights group Amnesty International, under the slogan “(hashtag)UnCalcioAiDirittiUmani” (A Kick Against Human Rights).

“The Italian league, Juventus and Milan are giving this (a kick against human rights) with the decision to go out on the field in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, for the Italian Super Cup,” read a statement. “And everyone who has chosen silence is giving this. Accomplices.”

Last June, the Italian league announced it agreed to a deal with Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority for three of the next five Super Cups to be played in the country. The deal will provide more than 20 million euros ($23 million) to Serie A and 3.5 million euros to participating clubs.

“Seven million euros,” the statement continued. “That is how much silence is worth in front of bombs which have been massacring civilians in Yemen for four years.

“In front of the enlistment of child soldiers. In front of the brutal murder … of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In front of the investigations which have singled out as direct instigator Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In front of a stadium with `sectors reserved for men.’ In front of a country where women’s rights are still crushed and many activists are in prison …”

Women were allowed into Saudi sports stadiums a year ago for the first time to watch soccer matches, although they were segregated in the stands to the “family section” away from all-male crowds elsewhere, and those rules will be applied for Wednesday’s match, prompting some female fans to decide not to travel.

One such fan, 49-year-old lawyer Maria Luisa Garatti, is set to miss her first Milan match – home or away – in years.

“They conceded that women on their own could go to the match, but the fact remains that I would still have to watch it from a certain sector, far from my friends, with whom I couldn’t sing, show my support and raise the banner of my club,” Garratti told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

“This segregation in separate sectors hurts me, and it hurts me that Italian football is accepting it.”

Tickets for the game nevertheless sold out in less than two days, with the first 50,000 sold in four hours.

The clubs are trying to distance themselves from the political issues.

“The Italian league made this contract and we have to go,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said on Friday. “And there’s been a little step forward, in that women can go to the match. Let’s look at the positive aspect.

“In any case, I believe Italy has economic and political relationships with Saudi Arabia. They told us to play there and we’re going.”

Juventus won the Serie A and Italian Cup last season – as it did in the previous three years – so the other spot was given to the Cup runner-up.

The game has been contested abroad 11 times previously, most recently in Qatar in 2016, when Milan beat Juventus in a penalty shootout. Normally the season curtain-raiser in August, the Italian Super Cup’s overseas scheduling has prompted a move to December or January, at the beginning or end of the winter break.

Report: Las Vegas police issue warrant for Ronaldo’s DNA

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A report from the Wall Street Journal states that the Las Vegas police department have issued a warrant to obtain Cristiano Ronaldo’s DNA.

The latest development comes after the accusations made by American citizen Kathryn Mayorga, who says she was raped by the Portuguese superstar in Las Vegas back in 2009.

Per the report, the warrant was issued recently and has been sent to the court system in Italy where Ronaldo, 33, currently plays for Juventus. The report states the DNA is needed “to see if it matches that found on a dress of a woman who has accused him of rape” and cites “a law-enforcement official with knowledge of the case” as the source.

Ronaldo has denied the allegations on multiple occasions, calling it ‘fake news’ during an Instagram live chat last year and he recently said he expects to be cleared of the allegations.

Mayorga filed a civil complaint in a Las Vegas court in 2017, and Las Vegas police confirmed they were reopening a case from 2009.

It is claimed that Ronaldo had sex with Mayorga in the penthouse suite of a Las Vegas hotel, then hired a team of “fixers” to obstruct the criminal investigation as they paid Mayorga $375,000 to keep quiet. The suit, filed in October 2017, asked for the 2010 and non-disclosure agreement to be voided as they claimed Mayorga was “traumatized” and could not participate in negotiations.

Der Spiegel claimed Ronaldo-signed documents admitting that Mayorga said “no” multiple times during an incident he claims was consensual.

The WSJ say that Ms Mayorga’s lawyer and the LVPD didn’t respond to their requests to comment.

Reports: Ramsey to Juventus a done deal

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According to a number of reports in England, Aaron Ramsey has a completed deal in place to join Italian giants Juventus after the end of the season when his Arsenal contract expires.

Both Sky Sports and The Guardian are reporting that Ramsey’s free transfer is complete, with The Guardian claiming he will make $46 million over the life of the five-year contract. That total would make him the second-highest paid player on the Juventus squad.

The 28-year-old has been one of the most coveted free agents this season, with Arsenal revealing they will not re-sign him. He was linked with clubs like Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, but Juventus has been the front-runner for weeks.

Ramsey, a Cardiff City youth product, moved to Arsenal from Cardiff City in the summer of 2008. He has made 356 appearances for the Gunners over the course of his career, and while injuries have often caused him to miss significant time, his presence in the midfield has proven a consistent factor for Arsenal in his tenure. Ramsey is considered a valuable two-way player adding defensive contributions but also a cutting-edge passing ability from deep in midfield.

Ramsey has 18 Premier League appearances this season, scoring two goals and assisting six others. He will join a crowded but slightly aging Juventus midfield that includes Miralem Pjanic, Emre Can, Sami Khedira, Rodrigo Betancur, and Blaise Matuidi. Khedira may leave the club at the end of the season.

Report: Higuain agrees terms with Chelsea ahead of loan

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MARCA claims that Gonzalo Higuain has agreed to a move to Chelsea.

The prolific finisher, 31, is on loan at AC Milan from Juventus and the move would reportedly be a loan with an option to buy for around $40 million in the summer.

[ MORE: PL club power rankings ]

That would almost certainly seal Alvaro Morata’s exit from Stamford Bridge. He’s been linked with Sevilla, and an in-kind loan to Milan is not out of the question.

Higuain has had success under Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri while the pair were at Napoli. He scored a remarkable 36 goals in 35 Serie A matches during the 2015-16 season, and has not bagged less than 15 league goals in a full season since 2007-08.

He’s scored six times in 15 matches this season, adding two more in Europa League. Higuain is 10 goals away from 300 in his club career, which started in 2007 at River Plate and boasts stops at Real Madrid, Napoli, and Juventus.

How high would Chelsea sit in the table with a finisher up top? It’s an intriguing question, because Alvaro Morata has scored nine times in 24 matches but just five times in the Premier League. Eden Hazard has three goals and three assists in four matches at center forward, and the Blues went 3-1 including a 2-0 defeat of Man City in which the Belgian set up both goals.

The French-born Argentine striker is the younger brother of Columbus Crew attacker Federico Higuain.

Forecasting the Top Five title races in Europe

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We’re at, near, or past the midway points of the season for the top five leagues in Europe, and only two look like complete runaways.

[ MORE: FA Cup draw ]

Let’s face it: the ideas that unbeaten Juventus blowing a nine-point lead over Napoli or Paris Saint-Germain would throw away a 13-point lead (with two matches-in-hand!!) is absurd.

But will Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool, and/or Barcelona hold on to multi-win leads atop their respective tables? Let’s dissect this a little bit.


Bundesliga

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Borussia Dortmund 17 13 3 1 44 18 26 8-1-0 5-2-1 42
 Bayern Munich 17 11 3 3 36 18 18 4-3-1 7-0-2 36
 Mönchengladbach 17 10 3 4 36 18 18 8-0-0 2-3-4 33
 RB Leipzig 17 9 4 4 31 17 14 7-2-0 2-2-4 31
 VfL Wolfsburg 17 8 4 5 27 22 5 3-3-3 5-1-2 28
 Eintracht Frankfurt 17 8 3 6 34 23 11 4-1-3 4-2-3 27

Niko Kovac’s first season at Bayern Munich has not gone according to plan, though the Bavarians have climbed back to within six points of leaders Borussia Dortmund.

The big match between the two clubs is April 6 at Bayern’s Allianz Arena, and Bayern has taken two of three matches between the pair this season. Bayern last lost a home league match to BVB in 2014, and has won the last six titles.

The pressure on BVB will be immense as the season moves toward May, and incredibly FiveThirtyEight’s forecasting model has Bayern with a 65 percent chance to win the league.

Will Christian Pulisic leave Dortmund a Bundesliga champion? (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Serie A

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Juventus 19 17 2 0 38 11 27 9-1-0 8-1-0 53
 Napoli 19 14 2 3 37 17 20 8-2-0 6-0-3 44
 Inter Milan 19 12 3 4 31 14 17 7-1-1 5-2-3 39

On one hand, Napoli hosts Juve in their second match of the Serie A season. On the other, Juve just wins everything every darn year and would likely have to drop 10 more points than the Neapolitans the rest of the way. FiveThirtyEight says it’s a 92 percent likelihood Juve wins again.

Will Ronaldo add a scudetto to his Premier League and La Liga crowns? (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

Ligue 1

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Paris SG 17 15 2 0 50 10 40 9-0-0 6-2-0 47
 Lille 19 10 4 5 29 19 10 6-3-1 4-1-4 34
 Lyon 18 9 5 4 30 21 9 6-2-2 3-3-2 32

Hahaha. Hahahahah. Hahahahahahahaha.

Yeah, just let PSG have the second half of the season off to focus on the UEFA Champions League. FiveThirtyEight has it at better than 99 percent.

“We won already?!?” — Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, probably. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

La Liga

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Barcelona 18 12 4 2 50 20 30 6-2-1 6-2-1 40
 Atlético Madrid 18 9 8 1 26 13 13 7-2-0 2-6-1 35
 Sevilla 18 9 6 3 31 18 13 6-2-1 3-4-2 33
 Alavés 18 9 4 5 21 18 3 5-4-0 4-0-5 31
 Real Madrid 18 9 3 6 26 23 3 6-1-2 3-2-4 30
 Betis 18 7 5 6 21 21 0 4-3-2 3-2-4 26
 Getafe 18 6 7 5 19 15 4 4-1-4 2-6-1 25

The draw between Atleti and Sevilla on Sunday is just the latest nice moment for Barcelona’s title hopes, as the Blaugranas boast a five-point lead on the field and a 10-point advantage on traditional rivals Real Madrid.

Really, though, the title could be sorted in a one-week stretch in late February and early March. After a Champions League first leg at Lyon, Barca goes to Sevilla and Real Madrid on back-to-back league weekends. Win both, and call it a season. It’s 86 percent for Barcelona, according to FiveThirtyEight, with three teams boasting single-digit hopes.

Barca has one really tricky stretch to navigate, and the Champions League. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Premier League

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Liverpool 21 17 3 1 49 10 39 9-1-0 8-2-1 54
 Manchester City 21 16 2 3 56 17 39 10-0-1 6-2-2 50
 Tottenham Hotspur 21 16 0 5 46 21 25 6-0-3 10-0-2 48
 Chelsea 21 13 5 3 38 16 22 6-4-1 7-1-2 44
 Arsenal 21 12 5 4 46 31 15 8-2-1 4-3-3 41
 Manchester United 21 11 5 5 43 32 11 6-3-1 5-2-4 38

We saved the best for last (with apologies to BVB and Bayern).

Four of the Top Six — no Manchester United is not really in the discussion — are still alive in the Champions League, and both Chelsea and Arsenal know they can qualify for the UCL via the Europa League crown (how about a UEL final together, draw fixers?).

Yes, Liverpool has lost back-to-back games, but they don’t play Man City again and didn’t use most of their best talents in Monday’s FA Cup loss at Wolves.

The idea that the Reds will drop four more points than Man City isn’t insane, but there are few really tricky stretches for Liverpool. They’ll face Bayern Munich and Manchester United in a five-day February span, but get Spurs and Chelsea at home.

Man City has Arsenal, Spurs, and Chelsea at home, with the Manchester Derby away, a favorable mix, while Spurs host Man Utd and Arsenal while traveling to City, Liverpool, and Chelsea (the last one Sunday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Put another way — and barring a prolonged injury issue — Liverpool losing a hold of their first PL title would be a legitimate choke job, to the tune of a Reds title being 73 percent according to FiveThirtyEight.com.

Liverpool is in pole position to win its first title of the Premier League era. (AP Photo/Jon Super)