Romania, Hungary set to revive volatile rivalry on Friday

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Romania hosts Hungary on Friday (2 p.m. ET, ESPN3.com) with both nations’ World Cup qualification chances resting on three points. Anything less than a win would put them even further behind pace in UEFA qualifying’s Group D.

Hungary currently holds the second-place spot with 11 points, and Romania is right behind with 10. Only the top team in each group receives automatic qualification — the Netherlands has all but locked that up, with 18 points — with the second-place finishers advancing to a playoff round.

They tied their first meeting in this edition of qualifying, 2-2 on March 22 in Budapest, playing behind closed doors in an empty Ferenc Puskás Stadium (pictured, right) after anti-Semitic chants at an Aug. 15 friendly against Israel forced UEFA to hand down the punishment to the Hungarian federation.

Romania has not qualified for a World Cup since France 1998, while Hungary’s drought dates back to Mexico 1986. Both nations are generations removed from their heydays, when Gheorghe Hagi’s left foot graced Romania’s squad and Puskás’ goal-scoring ability carried Hungary to the 1954 World Cup final.

source:
Translation: “The Hungarian federation reacted firmly and fined four clubs in the first two divisions for anti-Romanian scandals in the stands last weekend. ‘It can also be civilized!’ This should be the mindset of Romanian fans at the game tomorrow.”

Off the field, the countries have a volatile coexistence stemming from Romania’s annexation of Transylvania after World War I. Both countries see the territory, from the Hungarian-Romanian border to the Carpathian Mountains, as rightfully theirs, and nationalist political parties in Budapest have sought to regain the territory in post-communist years by enacting policy giving ethnic Hungarians worldwide, regardless of actual nationality, a right to vote and carry a Hungarian passport.

Hungarians are the largest minority in Romania, and a large number of Romanians speak Hungarian, especially in Transylvania. Hungarian influence in the area, where multiple towns and villages speak Hungarian as their primary language, is inescapable. (Note of disclosure: the reporter of this story, Liviu Bird, has family ties to Cluj-Napoca, the capital of the region, and his mother was born there.)

On the weekend prior to Friday’s match, the Hungarian federation fined four clubs in the top two divisions for anti-Romanian chants, but officials in Bucharest still hope for a “civilized” showing from both sets of fans (see image above).

However, Hungarian fans seem to be of a different mindset. With right-wing fans at an apparent an all-time high, crowd trouble feels almost inevitable at Arena Națională in Bucharest. Hungarian ultras gathered on Thursday night to begin the long, arduous journey from Budapest to Bucharest, singing the national anthem in Keleti station before boarding their train:

And lighting flares and chanting loudly as the train left the station:

Friday’s match will be wrought with tension. Both teams desperately need a win, as both have difficult matches in the coming months to close out qualifying. But the story in the stands could overshadow it all.

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.

Diego Costa injured, but will stay with Spain squad for friendly

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Chelsea striker Diego Costa pulled up in Spain training on Sunday, and with the Blues in first in the Premier League and Costa in great form, there were obvious concerns.

With Costa struggling with leg and ankle injuries, the RFEF informed Chelsea that there was an issue, and Costa was pulled from training and sent for tests. X-Rays at the local hospital in Madrid were negative, and he’s rejoined the squad.

According to the RFEF, doctors will continue to monitor the 28-year-old and he will continue with the national team for the rest of the international break. With a World Cup qualification win over Israel already in the books and just a friendly against France to go on Tuesday, it’s odd that Spain would risk Costa moving forward, but they will continue to keep him around.

Costa has scored 18 goals this season to lead the Blues, and he scored in the win over Israel. Spain takes on France in Saint-Denis on Tuesday, with both teams leading their World Cup qualification groups. Spain has a goal-differential lead on Italy with both teams miles above the rest of the Group G, and France is ahead of Sweden by three points in Group A, with the Netherlands back in fourth.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.