The World Cup qualifying effort is back on track

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Was it all a bunch of wasted worry? Was all the teeth gnashing, nervous tummy tumbling and nail biting all so unnecessary after all?

The United States’ World Cup qualifying effort, looking unsteady and unbalanced for a few days, is back on solid ground following a 1-0 win over Jamaica in Columbus.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s men were dominant for 65 minutes. In fact, dominant doesn’t tell the story as the United States completed a stunning 91 percent of its first half passes against a Jamaican team that sat in a surprisingly passive and defensive crouch. An otherworldly combo of post- and crossbar-rattlers (three of them in the first 45) and spectacular stuff from Reggae Boyz goaltender Dwayne Miller kept the United States out of goal before the break.

(MORE: Highlights from last night’s match)

Finally, Herculez Gomez scored unquestionably his biggest goal in a U.S. shirt – and probably the biggest U.S. goal since Landon Donovan’s late strike against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup. That was the breakthrough – and the United States is now tied atop the group once again, along with Guatemala and Jamaica.

(MORE: U.S. Man of the Match, Herculez Gomez)

The job isn’t done, but Klinsmann’s kids do have two winnable matches remaining, at Antigua and Barbuda and then back at home against Guatemala. Both games are in October.

More on those later. For now, here are 10 talking points on Tuesday’s massive win.

1.  – If U.S. fans feel a bit conflicted about this one, it’s about those final 20 minutes, when the United States lost initiative, backing off following the breakthrough goal. Some was down to Jamaica pressing higher, but the response just wasn’t as convincing as it needed to be.

2.  – Clearly not satisfied with his things from last Friday, Klinsmann made five changes in the lineup, introducing Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Danny Williams, Graham Zusi and Jose Torres.

3.  – Check marks on the U.S. side for Geoff Cameron, Cherundolo, Fabian Johnson, Williams, Zusi and Herculez Gomez. All had convincing nights. Cameron’s work was particularly unimpeachable, and Cherundolo was near-perfect against Luton Shelton, a man much faster that the U.S. right back.

4.  – Torres, a polarizing figure among U.S. fans, did nothing like the night he needed. The U.S. left-sided midfielder wasn’t bad – but it simply wasn’t enough in a night of U.S. dominance. And isn’t this (“not enough”) always the story with Torres? Klinsmann even said as much last week. For all the U.S. possession, Torres just never manufactured the big moment in the final third. Zusi, playing Torres’ equal on the opposite side in the U.S. 4-4-2, managed to make things happen in ways Torres never did. Plus, the ball often slows down when it reaches Torres (and Jermaine Jones, too, for that matter.) Torres was removed after 65 minutes. If he was running out of chances before, where does leave him now?

5.  – Jones? What does Klinsmann see in him? Please submit answers to ProSoccerTalk HQ.

6.  – Even before Gomez’s crucial goal, his free kicks were impressive, creating threatening U.S. chances. His first-half ball into Jones (Jones!) was deadeye perfect; The U.S. midfielder whiffed on the header from top of the six-yard box when he had perfect inside position on his man. (Seriously, Jones is still more liability than asset. The only way the United States was ever going to lose was for Jones to do something stupid and red-card worthy. I said on Twitter in the first half that exact thing – and put the chances at 27 percent.)

7.  – The Cherundolo-Zusi combo was flat out devastating in the first 45. They looked like they had been playing together since YMCA soccer in grade school. Zusi had the first U.S. chance, banging one off the cross bar in the 6th minute. Meanwhile, Cherundolo was adding so much more push up the right side that just wasn’t there on Friday.

8.  – Williams was the primary holding man in a 4-4-2 and had his best night in the U.S. shirt by a long way. That shouldn’t be so surprising since that’s his position in Germany; Klinsmann, with a wealth of central midfielders has usually played Williams out wide. I think we just saw that change. If so, one of the usual central midfielders is odd man out, either Jones, Maurice Edu or Kyle Beckerman.

9.  – Not so sharp? Clint Dempsey did what he could, but his touch and timing are clearly not Dempsey-esque. You really have to wonder about the choice to play him all 90 minutes Tuesday, especially after he went all 90 tough minutes on Friday. That man was wiped out by the 60th minute in Columbus by the look of it.

9a.  – Bocanegra was similarly stale. Not bad, just not World Cup qualifier sharp, with a bad choice here and there while bringing the ball out of the back. And he got dragged out of position once, stranding Cameron behind him as Jamaica buzzed in dangerously.

10.  – In the last 20 minutes the United States looked nervous as schoolboys at the junior high dance. Credit for the three points, which was always the bottom line. Still, you’d like to see the American manage things better late, more convincingly nursing home the 1-goal margins. Maybe that’s a nitpick, but it’s not much of one.

Money from Wembley replay will ‘support Rochdale for two or three years’

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Worst-case scenario for Tottenham Hotspur: drawing League One side Rochdale in Sunday’s FA Cup fifth-round clash; best-case scenario for the Dale: drawing the Premier League giants and forcing a replay at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

For a club the size of Rochdale — 10,200-seat stadium, and never been above the third tier of English soccer — the financial impact of raking in half of the game’s gate receipts “will support the club for the next two or three years,” according to manager Keith Hill — quotes from the Guardian:

“I don’t know how much it is worth but a lot of money has gone into the new pitch. That was a heavy investment for us. Hopefully the money we make will support the club for the next two or three years. We will cut our cloth accordingly and we won’t be in debt.”

As for Steve Davies’ 93rd-minute equalizer, Hill was adamant that it was nothing short of what they “deserved”:

“It was a feeling of reward, not relief, because the performance deserved at least the opportunity for us to go to Wembley for a replay. I’ve always wanted to do that against a Premier League team and manager. Why not take them on and try to win? It could have been football suicide but I thought we gained their respect and to score the goal we did was tremendous. The players were magnificent.”

Tottenham Hotspur, soccer philanthropists.

Try, try again: Messi seeks 1st goal vs. Chelsea in 9th attempt

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LONDON (AP) As unlikely as it sounds, Lionel Messi is still waiting to score his first goal against Chelsea after drawing a blank in eight previous Champions League matches.

The five-time World Player of the Year is likely to get another chance to break his duck this week and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes the past will count for little when Barcelona visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

“I hope we maintain this tradition but we are speaking about a fantastic player,” Conte said ahead of the last-16, first-leg Champions League game. “The most important thing is the present.

“We must have great respect but at the same time we must be excited to play this type of game and take on this type of challenge. It won’t be easy because we know very well this player, we are talking about one of the best in the world.”

The teams have produced some epic games in the past although they have not met in the Champions League since Chelsea pulled off a remarkable backs-to-the-wall semifinal victory over Barcelona on the way to winning the trophy in 2012.

Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at the Nou Camp as the London club overcame the first-half dismissal of captain John Terry, and a 2-0 deficit, to draw the game 2-2 and secure an unforgettable 3-2 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich hosts Besiktas in Tuesday’s other game while the following day sees Manchester United traveling to Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Roma.

Two weeks ago, the prospect of a Chelsea win over Barca would have been unthinkable after Conte’s men had slumped to successive defeats by two of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

The London club was still smarting from a 3-0 home loss against Bournemouth when it traveled to Watford and succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 reverse.

Chelsea has got back on track since then, though, easing past West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the league last Monday before swatting aside second-tier Hull 4-0 in the FA Cup four days later.

Conte has several selection dilemmas. He must choose between captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger for a place at the back, and between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud up front.

Cesc Fabregas will also be desperate to play against his former team but may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Barca has lost only once in 38 matches this season since falling in the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid in August. It has a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga and has reached the final of the Copa del Rey.

Messi is having another stellar campaign, scoring 27 times in all competitions, and he helped set up two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho is ineligible for Barca following his move from Liverpool.

Mourinho claiming injury crisis ahead of CL showdown

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The next three weeks will go a long way toward defining Jose Mourinho’s second season at Manchester United, with the Red Devils facing not only fellow top-four aspirers Chelsea and Liverpool, but also contesting their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla.

[ MORE: VAR provider admits incorrect graphic displayed on TV ]

Thus, it’s not exactly the most convenient time for the words “injury crisis” to rear their ugly heads yet again, but that’s the challenge Mourinho claims he faces ahead of Wednesday’s CL clash.

Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s FA Cup victory with a last-minute illness; Marcus Rashford is dealing with a leg injury and remains questionable, as are Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia; Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini are all but officially out, according to Mourinho — quotes from ESPN.co.uk:

“I didn’t rest one single player so we had today every player available here. I didn’t rest anyone. I brought two kids that played on Friday 90 minutes [for the under-23s] because I don’t have another player, so we arrive at this crucial moment with some problems.”

“Can we recover some of them to Wednesday? I believe so. I think Rashford, Herrera, Valencia — I think they have a chance.

“Paul, I don’t know. Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane, Zlatan — I don’t think they have any chance.”

Mourinho dealt with a similar rash of injuries very late on last season, as his side barreled its way into, and eventually won, the Europa League final, securing a place in the CL this season. With a top-four finish all but out of reach at the time, Mourinho opted to rest his bare-bones group of first-team regulars in Premier League action and prioritize Europe’s “other” competition.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

This time around, United sit second in the PL table, just four points clear of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur, and the path to winning the CL will prove far more difficult than taking on the likes of Saint-Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax.

Serie A: Napoli, Juve hold serve in 1-point title race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona now 31 games unbeaten | Real Madrid 17 points behind ]

Napoli 1-0 SPAL 2013

The battle for Serie A supremacy isn’t ending anytime soon, as Napoli and Juventus continue to match one another (nine straight wins for each side) in Europe’s only remaining major title race.

On Sunday, they even traded 1-0 victories — Napoli at home to SPAL 2013, with Juve triumphing over Torino in the Turin derby.

Brazilian midfielder Allan bagged the only goal for Napoli after just six minutes, finishing off a mesmerizing, free-flowing move that’s become synonymous with Napoli this season. The video-assisting referee came into play just after the hour mark, when Marek Hamsik headed home to make it 2-0 before the VAR wiped it away for offside.

Napoli’s current nine-game winning streak is the longest in club history.

Torino 0-1 Juventus

Juve’s victory came at something of a cost, though, as star striker Gonzalo Higuain was lost to an ankle injury after just a quarter-hour (the injury occurred after just three minutes), followed by a potentially serious knee injury for Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Higuain, in second-half stoppage time. Higuain isn’t expected to miss significant time, with the club calling it a twisted ankle.

In between the injuries came Alex Sandro‘s 33rd-minute winner, a tap-in from close range masterfully set up by Bernardeschi. One additional positive for Juve: Sunday also saw Paulo Dybala return after missing five weeks with a hamstring injury. The Argentine star entered as a second-half substitute.

“Paulo played 30 minutes at a good level,” Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri said. “I’m pleased with his and everyone else’s performance. This is a good result against a well-organized Torino side.”

Elsewhere in Serie A

AC Milan 1-0 Sampdoria
Atalanta 1-1 Fiorentina
Bologna 2-1 Sassuolo
Benevento 3-2 Crotone