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Rio Ferdinand withdraws from England’s upcoming qualifiers

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The story here isn’t that Rio Ferdinand isn’t playing. His withdrawal due to fitness concerns was foreshadowed by Alex Ferguson this weekend. The story is more about how we got here, with the nine-month history of Ferdinand under England boss Roy Hodgson inverting on itself after today’s news.

Because of the particular way the 34-year-old has to manage his fitness (subtext: his bad back), Ferdinand isn’t prepared to accept Roy Hodgson’s recall to the England national team. He called the England boss today to explain the peculiarities of his situation, an explanation the Three Lions boss both bought and appreciated:

“I’m disappointed Rio will not be available but due to the detailed pre-planned training and medical programme he must follow it’s not possible,” said Hodgson. “However, I was pleased that Rio called and asked to meet with me. It was important to hear from him personally about the way he must manage his body between games.”

That must have been a remarkable conversation. Recall last summer, when Rio Ferdinand (above) shared his feelings that his exclusion from England’s Euro 2012 squad had less to do with health concerns than internal conflicts. Hodgson, heading into his first major tournament, decided to exclude Ferdinand while professing doubt about whether the veteran defender’s health would allow him to compete in a three-plus-week tournament. For Ferdinand, the exclusion had more to do with his inability to play with John Terry, who at the time faced charges on racially abusing Ferdinand’s younger brother, QPR defender Anton.

Fast forward nine months, and the tables are turned, even after Hodgson once mistakenly said Ferdinand would no longer be considered. John Terry’s retired from international duty, and thanks in part to Michael Dawson’s withdrawal from the upcoming qualifiers, Hodgson’s thin in the middle. And he’s now convinced Ferdinand’s fitness won’t be a problem.

source: Getty Images“This is not to say he cannot play back-to-back games – he can and has proven so,” Hodgson (right) said on Monday. “He’s out this time due to particular pre-planned details already in place for his programme.”

Ferdinand could meet England’s demands, but to do so, it seems he needs to be at a different point in his program. And not anticipating a callup to the national team, Manchester United’s staff probably outlined a routine assuming he’d have a week off. And that didn’t happen.

“The issue is not [the amount of games],” Alex Ferguson said this weekend.  “The issue is his whole preparation for football today. It involves treatment, it involves rest, it involves heavy days followed by some light days followed by some easy days.”

It sounds like the England callup just came at the wrong time, something Ferdinand had to explain personally.

So it is that Hodgson’s reach comes up empty-handed, but give the England boss some credit. Although he’s saying the right things and being convivial about the whole situation, Hodgson has ultimately been vindicated. It’s still questionable whether fitness concerns were the only reasons Ferdinand didn’t go to Euro 2012, but given health is keeping him out of the national team for San Marino and Montenegro, Hodgson would be justified in a “I told you so!”

But that’s not the Roy Hodgson we know.

“I must place on record how I was impressed with his commitment to playing for England,” Hodgson said. “I look forward to hopefully selecting him for squads in the future.”

The feeling is mutual.

“One thing I made clear was that my passion and commitment to represent my country is as strong as ever,” said Ferdinand. “It is disappointing that I won’t be able to play a part in the upcoming games but I told Roy that I want to continue to be available for England and I look forward to working with him in the future.”

It took a long time for them to come together, but Hodgson and Ferdinand are back on the same page. It puts the player back where he belongs – where should have been all along. We don’t see him in uniform this week, but there should be a time in the near future where we’ll see Ferdinand in all white once more.

AFCON wrap: Tunisia joins Senegal in knockout rounds (video)

Tunisia's Wahbi Khazri smiles during a press conference in Libreville, Gabon, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, ahead of their African Cup of Nations Group B soccer match against Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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Half of the field is set for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations knockout rounds, as Group B completed his final day of group play on Monday in Gabon.

[ FIFA: World Cup draw date at Kremlin ]

Senegal will move onto play Cameroon on Saturday, while Tunisia will take on Burkina Faso.

Senegal 2-2 Algeria

Leicester City’s Islam Slimani scored twice, but it wasn’t enough to get Algeria into the knockout rounds of AFCON.

Papakouly Diop and Moussa Sow answered Slimani’s goals, and Senegal enforced its hold on the group it had already clinched after two matches.

Algeria needed a win and help, and looked to get it when Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani carried over their chemistry from the Foxes of England to the Fennecs of Algeria.

Zimbabwe 2-4 Tunisia

Sunderland’s Wahbi Khazri scored of the fourth of Tunisia’s first half goals as the Eagles of Carthage emphatically clinched their knockout round spot. Tunisia lost in the quarterfinals in 2015.

Lille’s Naïm Sliti was also among the goal scorers for Tunisia, with Youssef Msakni (Lekhwiya) and Taha Yassine Khenissi (Esperance de Tunis) also netting markers.

Tendai Ndoro (Orlando Pirates) and Knowledge Musona (Oostende) scored for Zimbabwe.

Three USMNT players leave camp, two with injuries

Kekuta Manneh chases the ball during practice of the U.S. men's national soccer team Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in Carson, Calif. Manneh has become a U.S. citizen, moving the Vancouver Whitecaps forward closer to eligibility for the men's national team. U.S. Soccer announced Manneh received his citizenship Wednesday, after the opening practice of January training camp under new coach Bruce Arena. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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Less than a week from Bruce Arena’s second debut as USMNT boss, we know three players who won’t be in the Starting XI.

Injuries have felled FC Dallas duo Kellyn Acosta and Matt Hedges, while Vancouver attacker Kekuta Manneh is leaving the squad to join his ‘Caps teammates for preseason in Wales.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League Playback ]

Acosta has a mild left ankle sprain and Hedges has a mild right knee sprain.

While Manneh may have been a long shot to see significant playing time on Sunday against Serbia or Feb. 4 versus Jamaica, Hedges had a chance to start at center back and Acosta has been capped before as well.

FIFA going to Kremlin for World Cup draw in December

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 25:  Vladimir Putin, President of Russia speaks as FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter looks on during the Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at The Konstantin Palace on July 25, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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ZURICH (AP) FIFA says it will stage the 2018 World Cup draw on Dec. 1 at a Kremlin concert hall in Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been allowing FIFA to use high-profile venues for World Cup ceremonies.

In July 2015, the qualifying program draw was made on the grounds of one of Putin’s official residences, Konstantin Palace near St. Petersburg. The summer was home built at the direction of Peter the Great.

The World Cup in Russia kicks off on June 14 at Luzhniki Stadium in the Russian capital, and returns there for the final on July 15.

Jurgen Klopp discusses Liverpool’s title chances

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21: Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool reacts during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Swansea City at Anfield on January 21, 2017 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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It was a disappointing weekend for Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp.

[ MORE: New odds for title contenders ]

The German coach watched on as his side lost 3-2 to Swansea City on Saturday in the Premier League and the Reds fell 10 points behind leaders Chelsea with 16 games to go.

Klopp’s men have only won once in six outings in all competitions in January, and ahead of their EFL Cup semifinal second leg against Southampton at Anfield (they trail 1-0 from the first leg) he was asked if they still have hope of overhauling Chelsea and winning the Premier League.

Speaking to the media, Klopp revealed that his team are good enough to at least be in the top four battle.

“We fight in each game, that’s maybe the most important thing. Then we have to see what happens around,” Klopp said. “Of course, in cup competitions the target is to win the competition. In the Premier League, it’s probably the same but it’s not that easy to plan or whatever. In this case, if Chelsea win all their games – which they pretty much do – there is no chance for any other team. For us, it’s still absolutely important to finish the season as well as possible – whatever that means. We’ll see after the season.

“You can imagine we have the quality to fight for the Champions League, that’s what we should do. If we do this and we are then close enough in the decisive moment of the season, you can still fight for a little bit more. But in this moment, it’s nothing we have to think about or we should think about. We now have two games and then we play Chelsea, so that’s when I’ll think about Chelsea but not how we can get them or whatever. We fight for everything we are able to, that’s all.”

He’s right. Liverpool finishing in the top four this season would be a great achievement at this stage of his project.

Perhaps more worrying for Klopp is that his side may now capitulate and finish outside of the top four for a second-straight season.

There’s no doubting that Liverpool have exceeded the expectations of most people so far in 2016-17 but Klopp’s men faded badly last season to finish in eighth place and with no wins in their last three games in the Premier League the pressure is on.

Without leading scorer Sadio Mane, who is away at the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal, they’ve struggled to break opponents down and their defensive issues came to the fore against Swansea with sloppy mistakes costing them dear.

No team in the top seven has conceded more than Liverpool and with the Reds in fourth place and just four points ahead of sixth-place Manchester United and two points ahead of Manchester City who sit in fifth, all of a sudden they are looking over their shoulders instead of up at Chelsea.

Liverpool has lost momentum.

Boy do they need a big win in the EFL Cup against Southampton on Wednesday to regain some confidence and take that into their next PL clash, which just so happens to be against Chelsea at Anfield on Jan. 31.

Whatever he says publicly, Klopp must know that Liverpool cannot afford to lose to Chelsea. If they do and fall 13 points behind the Blues, the Kop can kiss goodbye to their title hopes for another season.