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Embrace the absurd: Say the 2014 World Cup was drawn today …

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Let me pre-empt your comment and acknowledge: I know this is completely pointless. And in a way, that is the point.

I want to embrace the absurdity of looking too deep into early qualifying results. I want to see what the world would look like if Mexico kept struggling, Ghana didn’t get out of their group, or Portugal doesn’t track down Israel in Europe.

I want Uzbekistan’s name in draw, Venezuela in a finals, and nations like Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina to breakthrough.

Most of all, I want some kind of reward for all of the international soccer we’ve been subjected to over the last five days. I want to know this is leading somewhere – that these constant jumps from the club world into this alternative reality will be rewarded. The only way for my frustrated, fatigued little mind to grasp the implications is to draw out the 2014 World Cup.

So here’s what I did: I took the current standings from qualifying tournaments around the world, assumed the teams’ points-per-game rates played out, and then “qualified” the appropriate teams for Brazil. When playoffs were needed, I went with FIFA’s higher rated team (for no other reason than to take my preferences out of the equation).

Beyond using FIFA ranking as a tiebreaker, I didn’t assume the good teams would automatically make it. Think Panama’s going to fade? Too bad. They’re in first now. Montenegro’s not going to win their group? Then they won’t part of the last time we do this exercise eight months from now. We’re living in the present, baby. Embrace the now!

Once the 32 teams were decided. I pulled out Brazil and the seven seeded teams (by FIFA ranking), and conducted the draw by normal procedures. The way it ended up after playoffs, eight European teams formed one pot, the African and South American teams formed another, while the Asian and CONCACAF teams formed the last.

And this is how it played out.

AGAIN, this is not meant to be anything other than a fun exercise. I don’t intend it to be predictive or in any way a reflection of anybody’s analysis. It’s just a goof.

Group A Group B
Brazil
France
Cote d’Ivoire
South Korea
Spain
Switzerland
Algeria
Uzbekistan
Group C Group D
England
Greece
Zambia
Honduras
Italy
Croatia
Venezuela
United States
Group E Group F
Netherlands
Belgium
Chile
Panama
Germany
Russia
Ecuador
Australia
Group G Group H
Colombia
Montenegro
Nigeria
Japan
Argentina
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Tunisia
Costa Rica

Perhaps once we’re further down the qualifying road we can put some analysis in this space, but we’re still a little too far down the road to be taking this too seriously. For now, it’s cool to seem some of the new names and potential groups …

… but for now, I leave the analysis to you.

Casemiro: “Real Madrid aren’t ever allowed to lose”

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 18:  Henrique Casemiro of Real Madrid heads the ball against Daniel Wass of Celta de Vigo during the Copa del Rey Quarter Final, First Leg match between Real Madrid CF and  Celta Vigo at Bernabeu on January 18, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images
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The pressure at Real Madrid can be overwhelming, and the players who thrive there generally have thick skin and short memories.

They also take losses pretty seriously.

That goes for the manager as well, as both Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane and Casemiro have reacted to Real’s third-straight non-win in serious fashion.

[ MORE: Real no longer No. 1 in money ]

Remember, this is coming after the first match of the “slump” — a 3-3 draw with Sevilla — was the final match of a world record 40-match unbeaten run.

Casemiro, whose record in the Real Madrid lineup is as good as anyone’s, said this (via Marca):

“Yes, it’s worrying to lose again,” he said just after the full-time whistle. “Real Madrid aren’t ever allowed to lose. The defeat against Sevilla has hurt us.”

And if you want to tell Casemiro to relax, that only one of those matches was in league play and the club still leads the table by a point with a match-in-hand on nearly everyone… well… enter Zidane.

“I’m the one responsible and I must find the solution,” he said in his post-match press conference. “I wasn’t surprised by the way Celta played, as we knew that they’re a team that can really hurt you. I’m not worried, although it’s a bad moment. We know that we can overcome it and we are going to overcome it.”

I’m far from a Real Madrid fan, and you can credit Florentino Perez’s ideas and the hanky-waving fans for a lot of that, but it’s impossible not admire how seriously Real takes the business of winning. And maybe, just maybe, the fan and board expectations occasionally help the squad.

Run-up shootouts, per-player match limits on FIFA’s agenda

Marco van Basten, Dutch football manager and former football player, poses for a photo on the green carpet while arriving prior to the The Best - FIFA Football Awards 2016 ceremony held at the Swiss TV studio in Zurich, Switzerland, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.  (Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP)
Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP
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Restricting players to 60 games a year. Replacing penalty shootouts with eight-second run-ups. Introducing orange cards to send players off for 10 minutes. Scrapping offside.

Former AC Milan and Netherlands forward Marco van Basten is using his role as technical director at FIFA to propose a series of changes to soccer to stir a debate.

[ MORE: Costa back for Chelsea ]

Rather than using his job to meddle, Van Basten highlights the need to preserve soccer as the world’s most popular sport.

“I have spoken to a lot of coaches and players,” Van Basten said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We have to promote quality instead of quantity. We are playing too much football now. We have to defend players because they have to play so much and are not fresh or fit anymore.

“That’s bad for the quality of the game. Even in June when the big tournaments are played players cannot perform to their maximum because now if players are really successful they can play up to 75 official games in the year. I think that’s a bit too much and maybe they should stop at 55 or 60.”

Although FIFA will expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams from 2026, that won’t burden players with any additional games. Instead, clubs sides would have to explore reducing the number of fixtures, potentially by reducing the number of lucrative friendly games played on tours.

[ MORE: Real Madrid now winless in three ]

“That’s all for money but we have to think about football and not money,” said Van Basten, who was hired by FIFA in September. “For a lot of clubs that’s not easy. But there is enough money in football.

“(Cristiano) Ronaldo and (Lionel) Messi are earning so much money. If they are earning a little bit less but performing better that’s good for football.”

Asked about countries like England or France no longer playing two cup competitions alongside their league fixtures, Van Basten said: “In my opinion that should be an interesting discussion.”

Van Basten knows some of radical changes he proposed to the AP could make traditionalists uneasy. But the 1992 FIFA world player of the year wants to ensure the global game has a say on its future.

“We should not just let the game be organized by those with the money,” he said from FIFA HQ in Zurich. “The big clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Real Madrid who have everything.”

“In football you need opponents, competition because if you are alone with two or three clubs controlling everything you don’t have any competition.”

Here are some potential changes to soccer proposed by Van Basten:

PENALTY SHOOTOUTS

Rather than burdening players with an additional 30 minutes of action when cup games are level after 90 minutes, Van Basten is suggesting going straight to penalties.

“I think everybody is pretty tired after 120 minutes,” Van Basten said.

Now penalties are a test of nerves with players having one chance to beat the goalkeeper from the penalty spot.

“Maybe the player should start 25 meters from goal and then you can dribble the goalkeeper or shoot early,” he said. “But you have to make a goal within eight seconds. It’s more skill and less luck. It’s maybe a bit more spectacular. It’s more football but it’s still nervous for the player.”

NO OFFSIDE

Scrapping the offside rule could make soccer more visually appealing, Van Basten advises.

“I think it can be very interesting watching a game without offside,” he said. “Football now is already looking a lot like handball with nine or ten defenders in front of the goal. It’s difficult for the opposition to score a goal as it’s very difficult to create something in the small pieces of space they give you.

“So if you play without offside you get more possibilities to score a goal.”

FOUR QUARTERS

Soccer is increasingly intense and grueling, with a single 15-minute break between 45-minute halves.

“We are trying to help the game, to let the game develop in a good way,” Van Basten said. “We want to have a game which is honest, which is dynamic, a nice spectacle so we should try to do everything to help that process.”

Introducing four quarters could be advantageous.

“The coach can have three times with his players during the game,” Van Basten said.

SINBINS

Now there is no middle ground between players being shown a yellow card and receiving a red card and then being removed for the rest of the game.

“Maybe an orange card could be shown that sees a player go out of the game for 10 minutes for incidents that are not heavy enough for a red card,” Van Basten said.

Such an instance could be when a player commits repeat fouls that didn’t warrant yellow cards or obstruct opponents. Five misdemeanors could earn a player a place in a sin bin for 10 minutes, Van Basten said.

NEXT STEPS

Any changes to the laws of the game cannot be forced through by Van Basten, however close he is to FIFA President Gianni Infantino. He said he wants to listen to the views of world before any proposals are taken to the game’s law-making body, The International Football Association Board. FIFA controls half of the eight votes on IFAB, with the other four retained by the British associations.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Manchester United back atop money table

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 02:  Marcos Rojo of Manchester United slides in as Sergio Aguero of Manchester City and Wayne Rooney of Manchester United battle for the ball as during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Manchester United at Etihad Stadium on November 2, 2014 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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Manchester United can spend because Manchester United prints money.

Maybe that’s an oversimplification, but the Red Devils earned more than $632 million this year. That’s better than second-place Barcelona and third-place Real Madrid by $60-plus million.

It’s United’s first year atop the list since 2005. Here’s the full report.

[ FA CUP: Liverpool moves on ]

The UEFA Champions League heavy list sees eight Premier League sides: United (1), Man City (5), Arsenal (7), Chelsea (8), Liverpool (9), Tottenham Hotspur (12), West Ham United (18), Leicester City (20).

Serie A is second with four clubs, while La Liga and Bundesliga have three clubs on the list. Ligue 1 (Paris Saint-Germain) and the Russian Premier League (Zenit Saint Petersburg) complete the group of 20.

The Associated Press’ stalwart reporter Rob Harris has this handy chart:

Liverpool moves on: “Job done. Let’s go home”

Liverpool's Lucas Leiva, center, celebrates scoring against Plymouth Argyle during the English FA Cup, third round replay match at Home Park, Plymouth, England, Wednesday Jan. 18, 2017. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)
Andrew Matthews/PA via AP
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Even given two youth-heavy lineups, Liverpool won’t forget Plymouth Argyle any time soon.

The Reds were held 0-0 two weeks ago as Plymouth forced a home replay in the third round of the FA Cup, and Liverpool only managed a single goal on Wednesday in advancing to face Wolverhampton.

[ MORE: Costa back for Chelsea ]

Jurgen Klopp admitted he was dreading extra time. The Reds nearly saw it when the League Two side hit a second-half post, but Lucas Leiva‘s first goal in seven years held up over 90 minutes.

Well, his first match goal in seven years.

“It’s that long? I scored last week in training,” Lucas said after the game.

Here’s what Klopp said, via the BBC:

“In the second half it was good, but then it became a bit static. We had a penalty, and 2-0, 3-0, 4-0 would have been OK, but 1-0 I’m fine with that. I was not too concerned for going through, but I thought ‘Oh my God another 30 minutes’, but it is all good, no extra-time, job done, let’s go home. As nice as it is here, we leave as early as possible, so all good.”

On a rare goal for Lucas Leiva, Klopp adds: “Every week in training we play old versus young and he is a top scorer for old, which is unbelievable.”

One thing to note: Liverpool has only scored multiple goals in one of its last six matches. Sure, two were young lineups, but they were also against League Two competitions (and one was a clean sheet).

Look for the Reds to break out soon, perhaps Saturday morning when Swansea City visits Anfield.