England’s relegation battle: What changed on Saturday

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Barring two highly improbable runs (and help from almost everybody around them), Reading and Queens Park Rangers are going to be relegated. Each sit on 23 points, eight points adrift with just over a month left in the Premier League season. If they recover, the story will be their miraculous turnarounds, not our assumptions it won’t happen.

That leaves six teams trying to avoid the last relegation spot: Norwich City, Stoke City, Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Sunderland, and Wigan.

Aston Villa came into the day in 18th, but after two late goals at the Britannia, the relegation battle’s in flux. And with the continued disappointing results of Stoke and Norwich, the picture’s becoming even more cluttered.

Here’s where the teams stand after Saturday’s results.

(MORE: Rosicky revitalized with brace at West Brom)

Relegation battle – England

Pos. Club GP Pts.
13 Norwich City 32 35
14 Stoke City 32 34
15 Newcastle United 31 33
16 Aston Villa 32 33
17 Sunderland 31 31
18 Wigan Athletic 30 30
  • Aston Villa increase pressure on Wigan, Sunderland

Of course it’s three huge points. When you start the day in 18th, any points are, and with Saturday’s 3-1 win at Stoke City, Aston Villa have climbed all the way to 16th, a status that could be temporary.

Thanks to that result, Wigan now need a Sunday win at QPR to return to safety. Sunderland need to spring an upset at Stamford Bridge to guarantee they’ll stay above the drop.

Wigan do have a game in hand, but even if Roberto Martínez’s men are able to climb on Sunday, Villa’s win should sound an alarm. Having floundered for most of the season, Aston Villa now seem capable of getting a few surprise results. While Stoke’s quality is in question, Paul Lambert’s side showed an admirable resiliency in finding two late raod goals.

The team that joins Reading and QPR in the Championship will be the one that flounders most. If Villa prove as resilient over these next six weeks, somebody else will volunteer to go down.

Right now that looks like Sunderland. It could be Wigan. Maybe Stoke will supplant them both. But based on what we say on Saturday, it probably won’t be Villa.

  • Reading, Southampton’s fates sealed

source: Getty ImagesWhat a bitter day for Nigel Adkins. The new coach at Reading saw Mauricio Pochettino guide his former club to their third straight win and 11th place. That spot in the table makes it highly unlikely every team between them and 18th will out-play them over the season’s last six rounds.

Most galling to Adkins will be the ease with which Saints got their win. In a must win game at home, Reading offered little. Adam Le Fondre had a chance to put them up early, after which Southampton controlled the game, with basic passing around an ineffectual midfield maintaining their hold on the match.

Reading are last place with 23 points through 32 rounds. Seven points back of Wigan, they’d need an unprecedented comeback to survive. Unfortunately, they showed no sign they’re capable of turning things around.

  • Stoke City, Norwich City making things too interesting

source: Getty ImagesNorwich City may be five points clear, but after today’s 2-2 draw at home with Swansea City, the Canaries have two major problems. First and most important, they’re not getting results, winless in five while being out-scored 8-3. Second, their goal difference is terrible. At -19, they’re unlikely to win a tiebreaker against anybody but Aston Villa. Their only saving grace right now is their run-in, a schedule that features visits from Reading, Villa, and West Brom.

Stoke’s in a similar situation. Although they don’t have Norwich’s goal difference issue, they’re only four points clear after a season where relegation was a blur in the rearview. They’re winless in six and have only one league win since December. They’ve been hel scoreless three times in their last five matches and have scored a league-low 28 goals.

Both Stoke and Norwich have played so poorly that their previously comatose relegation worries have been awakened and emboldened. Having allowed themselves to be pulled into this fight, there now needs to be a sense of urgency, the type of intensity we’ve seen from Southampton, Aston Villa, and Wigan.

Stoke doesn’t have that. Neither does Norwich. Their only saving grace may be Sunderland, an even more inept squad that sits lower in the table.

But all it takes is one Black Cats result to pull Stoke in. And the Canaries would be right there, too. Neither side can afford to take anything for granted.

Chile bests Portugal on penalty kicks to reach Confed Cup final

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Chile is on its way to the Confederations Cup final after a thrilling battle with Portugal on Wednesday afternoon.

The Chileans edged their European opposition, 0-0 (3-0 on penalty kicks), at Kazan Arena in Russia after goalkeeper Claudio Bravo made a trio of saves during the penalty shootout.

Arturo Vidal hit the post in the 119th minute from close range, before Martin Rodriguez’s rebound smashed off the crossbar and stayed out of goal to the dismay of the Chileans.

Chile had a legitimate claim for a penalty kick in the second half of extra time as Jose Fonte stepped on the foot of Francisco Silva inside the Portuguese area, but the referee opted to play on.

The South Americans thought they had picked out the lead just a few minutes into extra time when Alexis Sanchez’s header glanced just wide of goal.

Cristiano Ronaldo had several quality chances to break the deadlock during regulation, but none better than in the 72nd minute when the Real Madrid star had his deflected effort narrowly miss the top corner.

Chile began to find more of a rhythm during the second stanza, and Eduardo Vargas nearly gave his side the lead in the 59th minute when he acrobatically shot on goal, forcing a reaction save out of Rui Patricio.

Vargas had the first big chance for the South Americans in the sixth minute when he found himself in on goal against Patricio, but the Portuguese goalkeeper stood tall and made the save.

Meanwhile, Claudio Bravo found himself in a similar situation on the other end just a minute later, when the Manchester City keeper kept Portugal off the scoreboard.

Chile will meet the winner of Thursday’s contest between Mexico and Germany, while the Portuguese will await the loser of the match to decide third place.

Tite: Brazil would have benefited from playing Confed Cup

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KAZAN, Russia (AP) Coach Tite says it would have been good for Brazil to be playing in the Confederations Cup to give himself and his players more experience going into the World Cup.

[ MORE: Joachim Low wants clarity on Russia doping claims ]

Tite made the comments before watching Portugal play Chile in Kazan in the semifinals of the eight-nation World Cup warm-up event on Wednesday. He is in Russia to watch the tournament’s final stages and scout possible training bases for Brazil during next year’s tournament.

“I would have wanted to play in the tournament because it would have allowed me to have more time to work with the team, to get to know the adversities, the different situations that we will have to face,” Tite said. “It would have been important to be here.”

Tite has only coached Brazil for 11 games as coach, with 10 wins and a loss to Argentina in a friendly this year.

Brazil was the first team other than host Russia to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

He said he sees the Confederations Cup as a valid tournament, although it might need some changes to its format in the future.

“It’s an important competition in its broad context,” Tite said, adding that he would choose to play in the competition even if he couldn’t bring his top players.

Brazil intends to set up its World Cup base in Sochi, but details have not been finalized yet.

“The priority will be quality and privacy so we can do our work,” Tite said.

The coach said he supports the video review system because it brings “justice” to the game.

“It looks to me a little bit old-fashioned to be talking about technology,” he said. “It seems so natural to me. What will have to be done? Adjustments, yes. In the end (of the tournament), to have a situation analyzed more quickly. ”

Tite said he has been “following the news” about doping allegations in soccer, but won’t be reaching any conclusions until “there’s any evidence” about what really happened. He said that anyone found guilty must be heavily sanctioned to guarantee the game’s integrity.

Tite also said Brazil is considering a friendly against Russia.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup

A leader at 23, Draxler mentors inexperienced Germany squad

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) The youngest captain to lead Germany into a tournament in 105 years, Julian Draxler has effortlessly taken on the task of mentoring an inexperienced squad.

[ MORE: Aubameyang to China? And more transfer rumors ]

All while displaying the versatility linking up attacks that has helped to steer Germany into the Confederations Cup semifinals.

If Germany coach Joachim Loew learns one thing from the World Cup dress rehearsal, it’s that the 23-year-old Draxler is a strong contender to one day assume the armband from injured goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.

“The way he is coordinating the young team is very good,” Loew said Wednesday. “He is turning into a personality who is in a position to assume responsibilities. He’s taking care of younger players and trying to integrate them into the team.

“He is always keeping his mind on what matters on the pitch but also off the pitch he is very sociable with other players as well.”

Draxler is far from the youngest player in the squad, but he’s the most experienced on the international stage. The semifinal against Mexico on Thursday will be Draxler’s 34th appearance for Germany. He is also one of only three members of the World Cup winning squad from 2014 who were included in the experimental group in Russia.

Shkodran Mustafi is another, and the defender is delighted to see Draxler’s progress from being a bit-part squad member in Brazil to an integral member of the team in Russia three years on.

“He has got a really bright future in front of him,” Mustafi said on the sidelines before training in the southern Russian coastal resort of Sochi. “Talent sometimes is not enough but I think he has the character and the talent, the head, to be the next superstar for sure.”

Don’t take Germany’s word for it. Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio spoke Wednesday of his admiration for Draxler’s role as Germany’s “connector” and the way he finds space in midfield to be the link-man to the forwards.

What Draxler offers Loew is variety. The Paris Saint-Germain player is comfortable on both feet and he is given the freedom to roam across the pitch.

“Julian is a very fast, technically refined player with the ball,” Loew said through a translator in the Fisht Stadium in Sochi. “He can travel through longer distances with no problem while keeping the ball and he has very good scoring capabilities.”

In the opening win over Australia at the Confederations Cup, Draxler netted his fifth international goal from the penalty spot. In the final group match on Sunday, Draxler’s slick back-heel set up Kerem Demirbay for Germany’s opener in a 3-2 victory over Cameroon.

Not since the 1912 Olympics there been a younger German captain at a FIFA or UEFA tournament.

“He’s not the loudest guy but on the pitch you could see his quality in the three games now and he’s talking to the players,” midfielder Emre Can said. “He wants to help. He has a lot of experience and he’s doing it very well.

“You can see he wants always the ball, he wants always to create something on the pitch and he wants to always score always. You can see that in every game.”

Draxler has traveled to Russia after finding some stability in his club career after leaving Wolfsburg for PSG in January for 47 million euros (then about $50 million).

“He is very ambitious,” Loew said. “He is a very classy player.”

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

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup

Germany coach wants clarity on Russia doping claims

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Germany football coach Joachim Loew wants more clarity from sports leaders following speculation that doping of Russia’s 2014 World Cup squad was covered up.

[ MORE: 2017 Confederations Cup news ]

The World Cup-winning coach urged the World Anti-Doping Agency and FIFA to be transparent and identify players implicated.

“If there really are names there, they shouldn’t be hidden at all,” Loew said Wednesday at a news conference in Sochi, where his team plays a Confederations Cup semifinal.

“I can’t prove it and no one apparently can if we are not having the facts here on the table,” Loew said through a translator. “And if players have been doped, well, they have to be removed, they have to be suspended.”

Loew was asked by German broadcaster ARD about the World Cup claim and other new allegations that state-backed Russian doping went deeper into football than was previously suspected.

Earlier Wednesday, the broadcaster released an interview with WADA investigator Richard McLaren who said FIFA is aware of 155 potentially suspect samples given by football players in Russia that await analysis.

McLaren told ARD he suspected Russian authorities kept a bank of clean urine samples from footballers to replace tainted ones – a similar system to evade positive doping tests as was used at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

FIFA declined to comment Wednesday on ARD’s report.

The Canadian lawyer’s sprawling investigation of the Olympic doping conspiracy implicated more than 1,000 athletes across many sports. It included evidence in emails and documents of at least 35 football cases for FIFA to prosecute.

The evidence had few details, though included a June 2014 document apparently linked to the squad Russia sent to the World Cup in Brazil. FIFA acknowledged being aware of the document this week after a report by a British Sunday newspaper.

FIFA has not formally identified any players under suspicion, nor imposed provisional suspensions.

“We have the report from WADA but we are not supposed to be disclosing any names,” FIFA secretary general Fatma Samoura said Wednesday, in Kazan for the Portugal vs. Chile semifinal. “Until we got the final decision from the laboratory we cannot elaborate.”

Football leaders in the 2018 World Cup host nation consistently dismiss suggestions of a problem.

“There hasn’t been a single doping incident in Russian football in many recent years,” Alexei Sorokin, CEO of the World Cup organizing committee, said this week of the British report. “We do not regard this as any serious matter.”

Germany’s Loew was speaking in the Sochi stadium which hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the much-criticized Winter Games.

He urged WADA and FIFA to “just call a spade a spade, and then we know what is going to happen from there.”

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni in Kazan, Russia, contributed to this report