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Asian WCQs: Japan slips, fails to clinch; Australia held to draw at home

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Even after looking at all this information, I still don’t think I understand that context of today’s upset in Amman. Jordan beat Japan 2-1 in Asian World Cup Qualifying, and because Japan is so far ahead in their five-team group (up six points with two rounds to play), part of my mind’s shutting off. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism, tuning out the utter shock that would otherwise be pulsing through my head.

Japan should have won this one and clinched their spot for Brazil 2014. Instead, they fell to a team they beat 6-0 last June in Saitama.

The Samurai Blue are clearly the best team in Asia right now, while Jordan was expected to have trouble in a group that also includes Australia, Iraq, and Oman (top two clinch Brazil, the next goes into a playoff … to play in a playoff for a spot in the World Cup). With a squad comprised of almost exclusively domestic-based players, Jordan had a -7 goal difference through five matches, though they had recently defeated a struggling Australia at home. Japan, with a squad split between their domestic league and Germany (with a few other players sprinkled throughout Europe), were 4-0-1 in the final round, had scored 13 times and only conceded twice.

They’d dominated. The reigning AFC champions should have become the second team to clinch a spot in Brazil.

Because they didn’t, the game turned into an admonition: Getting qualifying results on the road is hard. Maybe a lot less so in Europe, and there are always countries whose familiarities form habits, but when Japan is playing 5,600 miles away from Tokyo, the trip’s always going to seem a little foreign. Even when the Samurai Blue have been handing around the Middle East for a week (playing Canada in Doha on Thursday).

Only in the perverse world of FIFA confederations could the Pacific Rim and the Fertile Crescent be part of the same region, so when one team has to travel from one end of that blob to the other, you get results like a 6-0 in Saitama. And a 2-1 in Amman.

As with most upsets, the game had its fair share of luck, timing, and just deserts. The game looked destined to go into halftime scoreless before an injury time corner kick was converted by Khalil Bani Ateyah. Despite controlling the game, the visitors were sentinto the dressing rooms down a goal.

That dominance turned to urgency in the second half, but a great individual effort from Ahmad Ibrahim doubled Jordan’s lead on the hour. Shinji Kagawa (pictured) pulled one back, and veteran Yasuhito Endo looked set to draw Japan even with a late penalty kick, but when Amer Sabbah saved the try, Jordan had their second win of the group.

They may not have been picked to come out of Group B, but after six games, the Jordanians are in second place. Australia, sitting third, still have a game in hand, and Jordan will have to go to Melbourne for their next qualifier, but with time running out on Asia’s last round, Jordan looks a good bet to at least claim a playoff spot.

Australia plays in Japan on June 4, a game the Samurai Blue now care about, while Jordan closes qualifying on June 18 hosting Oman. The same day, the Socceroos host Iraq.

If the Socceroos lose in Japan, Jordan control their own fate. Get a result in Melbroune then win at home and the nation will qualify for their first ever World Cup.

Even if the Socceroos get something in Saitama, Jordan’s home game against Oman gives them an inside track on the playoff spot.

source: Getty ImagesAnother stumble for Australia

When Australia breezed through AFC qualifying four years ago, there was a sense that they’d caught their new confederation by surprised Their set piece prowess and reliance on Joshua Kennedy and Tim Cahill on the end of crosses made their first trip thorugh Asian qualifying an easy one. Not overly talented and or doing anything complicated, Australia were just winning individual battles and taking victories. The simplicity of it seemed to leave opponents asking “is that it” as the Socceroos moved on to South Africa.

Of course, that’s just a hypothesis, but it’s one that’s gathered supporting evidence this cycle, where the Australians have struggled to keep up with Asia’s other powers. Japan, who Australia lost to in the final of the last Asian Cup, has left them in Group B’s dust, while the Socceroos are stuck on one win. With Jordan’s surprise success, Australia’s a doubt for Brazil. At a minimum, their qualifying campaign’s become unexpectedly complicated.

With results like today’s 2-2 at home against Oman, the Australians have brought this on themselves. They can take solace in having found back from a two-goal deficit, scores by Tim Cahill (pictured) and Brett Holman pulling back the lead built by Abdulaziz Al-Muqbali and a Mile Jedinak own goal, but falling two down to Oman at home is indictment enough. In both form and standing, the Socceroos are in trouble.

“It was definitely not what we expected. We had different hopes going into that games but unfortunately the first half was not according to plan and we almost paid dearly for that,” he head coach Holger Osieck said after the match.

“We always passed backwards, we delayed our game, there was no penetration, there was no quick ball up into the centre. So we basically played to their cards. That’s the reason we didn’t do well in the first half.”

Next up is Japan, a team against whom they needed a 70th minute penalty conversion to draw last June. Thankfully, the Socceroos don’t need a result this time. With June home matches against Jordan and Iraq, Australia can hold serve at home and qualify for Brazil.

Uzbeks still on top of Group A

With their 1-0 home win over Lebanon, Uzbekistan — who have never qualified for a World Cup — still lead their group. South Korea’s 2-1 win over Qatar keep the Koreans one back with a game in hand, but the important number for the Uzbeks is four. That’s how many points they have on third place Iran (who also have a game in hand). Finish ahead of them and fourth place Qatar, and Uzbekistan’s going to Brazil.

Their result came from a bit of luck, but having already suffered their fair share of qualifying mishaps, the Uzbeks deserves a little evening of the scales. In the 66th minute, a shot from Server Djeparov took a heavy deflection before going in for the game’s only goal.

While fortune intervened to guide the ball past Abbas Hassan, the Uzbeks were the better side throughout, earning three points and their third consecutive 1-0 victory. Their June 11 trip to South Korea likely ends that run, but with a June 18 match at home against Qatar, Uzbekistan will likely be able to earn their spot in Brazil 2014.

Electricity restored at Maracana after some late bills paid

This Feb. 2, 2017 shows Maracana stadium with a dry field in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Stadium operators, the Rio state government, and Olympic organizers have fought over $1 million in unpaid electricity bills and management of the venue. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rio’s electricity utility has turned the power back on at the famous Maracana stadium after it was shut off for almost a month in a dispute over $1 million in unpaid bills.

The utility on Thursday said power had been restored after the stadium operator paid 1.3 million reals ($430,000) in late bills from November through January. It was shut off on Jan. 26 in the dispute.

The utility said it is still negotiating for 1.8 million reals ($600,000) in unpaid bills from the organizing committee of last year’s Rio Olympics. Rio 2016 organizers still owe millions to companies which helped prepare the Olympics and Paralympics

The stadium has been vandalized over the last month with seats torn out, televisions stolen and the grass field left untended.

VIDEO: FC Dallas youngster Kellyn Acosta unleashes howitzer goal

Arabe Unido goalkeeper Miguel lloyd (1) reaches up to block a shot from FC Dallas as defender Rigoberto Nino (2) and FC Dallas' Kellyn Acosta (23) watch in the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals soccer match, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 in Frisco, Texas (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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With FC Dallas taking on Panamanian club Aribe Unido in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta grabbed a second for the Major League Soccer club 10 minutes past halftime.

It wasn’t just any old goal. It was a STRIKE.

The Texas native trailed the play, and with Roland Lamah shut off in the box by solid man-marking on the ball, Acosta was there to provide an outlet, and he blasted a vicious strike into the top-left corner. The find by Lamah was a smart one with a host of defenders closing in, and his calm demeanor was rewarded as his teammate launched a rocket into the back of the net.

The goal is a fodder for those who believe Acosta, who has played full-back for much of his career, should be a midfielder instead. His positioning and ability to trail the play with deadly accuracy is what makes this goal so special.

Acosta would bag a third in the dying minutes of the game, giving FC Dallas a 3-0 lead to take on the road as they travel to Panama for the second leg on March 1st.

Top Premier League Storylines – Week 26

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City speaks with his players during the break in extra-time in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round replay match between Leicester City and Derby City at The King Power Stadium on February 8, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Well. This weekend’s return of Premier League action was already slated to be an exciting one, but now with today’s enormous bit of breaking news, it has become even more intriguing.

[ WATCH: Previewing every match in Week 26 ]

There’s plenty to discuss at the top of the Premier League table, as Arsenal and Spurs look to heal their European wounds, but it’s what’s at the bottom that has everyone talking today.

How will Leicester City react after the firing of Claudio Ranieri?

Leicester City vs. Liverpool —  3:00 p.m. EDT Monday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Well. The Foxes had their work cut out for them coming into this match already, but now it has a whole new flavor. Claudio Ranieri has been dismissed just nine months after winning the Premier League title, and sitting just a point off the drop coming into the weekend (and inside the relegation zone coming into the match?) Leicester City will be lead into King Power Stadium by Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell.

Liverpool stopped a five-match winless streak last time out with a quality 2-0 win over Tottenham, but the Reds defense has been leaky all season, and if Leicester is to break its horrid 610-minute goalless streak, it would be here. The Foxes are without a win in five and have not scored a Premier League goal in all of the 2017 calendar year. Can they respond and begin to play for themselves rather than their former manager?

Can Dele Alli and Tottenham bounce back?

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs looked like they had rediscovered their Champions League form with a comprehensive smothering of Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup. Then, they welcomed KAA Gent to Wembley and promptly lost their heads. Dele Alli was sent off for one of the worst challenges you’ll see, and Spurs were vulnerable as a result, crashing out of the Europa League.

Now, Mauricio Pochettino must regroup the squad and get them ready to host Stoke, a team they clobbered 4-0 in the third match of the season. The squad is still healthy, and the loss of European play may actually help them in the long run. Here, however, it provides them with negative form and a short prep time. They need this one badly to solidify a top four place moving forward, can Poch turn it around?

Can Sunderland get a result against surging Everton?

Everton vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Hull City hosts Burnley. Crystal Palace welcomes Middlesbrough. With those two fellow occupants of the relegation zone playing at home against lower-half sides, the spotlight is squarely on Sunderland. The Black Cats have a tough matchup, on the road at Everton.

The Toffees haven’t lost a Premier League match since falling to Liverpool in mid-December, and have scored 19 goals in the eight matches since that blemish. With that in mind, Sunderland must get some kind of a result to pull off the bottom of the Premier League table. Can they snatch points at Goodison Park?

EFL Cup final could leave Chelsea well out in front

Chelsea vs. Swansea City — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Chelsea is already eight points ahead of the pack and looks to be the clear favorite to win the Premier League title. It could get even clearer after this week. Manchester United is off, Manchester City is off, and Arsenal is off. Couple that with Tottenham struggling and Liverpool facing a desperate Leicester City side, and it’s entirely conceivable that a win for Chelsea over Swansea City could leave the Blues as far as 11 points clear at the top of the table, albeit a game ahead of some. That would all but wrap things up, wouldn’t it?

Mario Balotelli handed 2-match ban for abusing referee

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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After being sent off for referee abuse in last weekend’s Ligue 1 win over FC Lorient, Nice striker Mario Balotelli has been handed a two-match ban.

Balotelli earned his second red card of the season in the 69th minute of a 1-0 win that kept Nice within striking distance of the leaders Monaco. It was his second straight red and third sending-off of the season, having already been dismissed in reverse fixture against Lorient after a pair of yellows in the final three minutes of the game.

After the mercurial Italian’s hot start to the season, he has just one goal in the last two months, the third in a 3-1 win over Guingamp. He has not scored a point-winning goal since bagging both in a 2-1 win over Dijon back on December 18th.

Balotelli’s agent, the well-known Mino Raiola, was so frustrated with his client’s continual dismissal problems that he told French media conglomerate RMC Sport that the solution to Balotelli’s problems is to “cut out his tongue.”

“I have already found the solution: you have to cut out his tongue,” Raiola said bluntly. “To play soccer, there is no need for language! In all seriousness, he knows he made a big mistake and he has no excuse. He knows he needs to improve that. He is very sad for him, for the team.”

The suspension leaves Balotelli on the sidelines for tomorrow’s match against 11th placed Montpellier and then on March 4th at 17th placed Dijon. Nice sits in third, level on points with 2nd placed PSG and three back of leaders Monaco.