Mihai Pintilii

European Qualifying roundup: England triumphs, Romania wins big, Ronaldo bags hat trick

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With just three matches left in Europe’s World Cup 2014 qualification, there are many matches around the continent that have massive implications going forward.  Teams can make or break their road to Brazil with each point gained or dropped.

If you are new to the European qualification procedures, each group has six teams.  The group winners automatically qualify, and eight of the nine runners-up play a knockout match for four spots. (Group I is the exception, with only five teams).

Here’s a roundup of who grabbed the bull by the horns and who suffered major setbacks:

GROUP A:

Macedonia 2-1 Wales:

Gareth Bale, still gaining fitness after recently completing his world-record transfer to Real Madrid, watched from the bench as Wales fell on the road.  It’s a relatively meaningless game as Group A is already all but locked up by Belgium and Croatia, but Bale remains a storyline as he clearly isn’t fit enough to play for his country, so it may be a while still until he makes his Madrid debut.

Macedonian goalscorers were Aleksandar Trajkovski and Jovan Kostovski, while Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey bagged a goal for Wales on a penalty.

Scotland 0-2 Belgium:

Everton’s Kevin Mirallas scored and so did Steven Defour to put the Belgians all the way up to 19 points atop Group A.  This one’s pretty much over, but it remains to be seen whether Croatia can catch the Belgians for the automatic qualifying spot.

Serbia 1-1 Croatia:

Serbia needed a win to give themselves any hope of making Brazil 2014, but they couldn’t get it done and are all but eliminated from contention.  Mathematically they could still make it, but they’d need to win out, hope Croatia falls in all three, and they’d need to make up 6 goals in goal difference as well.

Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic put the Croatians up early after the halftime break, and Aleksandar Metrovic leveled things soon after.  Each side had a player sent off as well.

GROUP B:

source: Getty Images
Italy’s Alberto Gilardino put his country in firm position atop Group B

Czech Republic 1-2 Armenia:

A more comprehensive match recap can be found here.  The Armenians made Group B incredibly interesting, with the possibility of a three-way tie for third place after play completes tonight.

Italy 1-0 Bulgaria:

Alberto Gilardino scored for Italy to establish a foothold at the top with a four-point lead on the group. The Italians and Bulgarians both hold a game in hand, so it’s not disaster for Bulgaria, who remain in second place with 10 points.  The three teams below them will need a bit of help to make it into the top two, all sitting on nine.

Malta 1-2 Denmark:

The Danes pulled into a three-way tie for third with the win, as a Malta own goal by Ryan Camilleri proved the difference.

This group warrants keeping an eye on, not only to see who gets into second place, but also to see if that second-place finisher has enough points to move on.  Only eight of the nine group runners-up can make the knockout stage, with the deciding factor being points not including those against the 6th place finishers.

GROUP C:

This group – with Austria, Sweden, and Ireland all tied for second behind Germany coming into today – is possibly the most interesting group in European qualifying at the moment, so you can check out the Group C action in its own post here.

GROUP D:

Romania 3-0 Hungary:

The Romanians are without question one of the biggest winners on the day, having come into their match with Hungary a point behind their opponents for second place.  There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the win puts them now two points up and into a qualifying position.

Striker Ciprian Marica wasted no time getting the Romanians on top, scoring in just the second minute.  Marica, who last played with Bundesliga side Schalke, will do himself well with the goal, as he is currently a free agent looking for a team.  Mihahi Pintilii (pictured, top) put his team 2-0 before halftime, and Cristian Tanase iced it at the death for the 3-0 scoreline.

Estonia 2-2 Netherlands:

The Netherlands were almost shocked by fifth place Estonia, but they pulled out a draw to earn a point and remain in firm control of Group D.  With three matches remaining, including two against Turkey and Andorra, the Netherlands would need a massive choke to lose their leading spot.

Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben put the Dutch 1-0 up in just the second minute, and a questionable penalty was slotted home by Robin van Persie in the fourth minute of stoppage time to cancel out a brace from Estonia’s Konstantin Vassiljev.

Turkey 5-0 Andorra:

Poor Andorra remains on zero points after their thrashing in Turkey.  The Turks with the win are in a decent position to challenge for the group’s second spot, although plenty of work remains to be done.  They now sit in fourth with 10 points, just one behind Hungary and three back of Romania.  They play Romania next, and have Estonia and the Dutch left.

Galatasaray striker Umut Bulut picked up a hat-trick for Turkey, and his club teammate Burak Yilmaz also scored.

GROUP E:

Switzerland 4-4 Iceland:

A wild match ended with Switzerland choking away a 4-1 lead, as Iceland stormed back and denied Switzerland a vital three points.  The Swiss are still at the top of the group, sitting on 15 points, but other results mean their lead is much much less comfortable.

Johann Berg Gudmundsson, a former teammate of Jozy Altidore at AZ Alkmaar, opened the scoring for Iceland in just the second minute, but a first-half brace from Stephan Lichsteiner meant Switzerland had a 3-1 lead going into halftime.  They added one more on a penalty after halftime.  However Gudmundsson collected two more after that, including the equalizer in stoppage time, to complete both his hat-trick and the comeback.

Norway 2-0 Cyprus:

A comfortable win for the Norwegians means they now sit just one point back of Switzerland in second place.  The two teams remain the clear favorites to come out of the group, with the third and fourth spots clustered a bit back, but now it remains a battle to find out who will get the automatic qualifying spot and who will be left to the wolves in a knockout game.

Slovenia 1-0 Albania:

The Albanians come out of today’s qualifying rounds as one of the biggest losers.  With Switzerland’s choke job, Albania had an opportunity to follow Norway in their climb to just below the Swiss.  Instead, a goal by young midfielder Kevin Kampl means the Albanians continue to wallow back in third place with 10 points, with Norway now four points ahead in second.

GROUP F:

source: Getty Images
Cristiano Ronaldo secured his first hat-trick for Portugal in just 16 minutes as his side completed a monstrous comeback.

Northern Ireland 2-4 Portugal:

Insanity. That’s the only way to describe this one.  With Northern Ireland winning 2-1 and Portugal a man down thanks to a straight red to Helder Postiga, it seemed the Portugese were in serious trouble.  Then Cristiano Ronaldo took over.  The Real Madrid star grabbed his first-ever hat-trick for Portugal, and did it in a 16-minute span to lead Portugal to all three points.  He was helped when Chris Brunt found himself his second yellow, and substitute Kyle Lafferty also received marching orders from referee Danny Makkelie.

The win puts the Portugese into first place by two points, although the problem for Portugal is Russia and Israel lurk below with a game (or two for Israel) in hand.  The Portugese take on the Israelis next in a crucial match.

Russia 4-1 Luxembourg:

Alexander Kokorin collected a brace – including a goal in just 20 seconds – as Fabio Capello’s side remained on pace, two back of Portugal with a game in hand.  They do not play Portugal again, although do have to play Israel early next week.  The Israelis have a tough road, but if they are to qualify they will have earned it against the top two teams in the group.

GROUP G:

Bosnia-Herzegovina 0-1 Slovakia:

The Bosnians picked a terrible time to see their three-match winning streak come to an end, as their Group G lead evaporated thanks to a 77th minute goal from Viktor Pecovsky.

The win puts the Slovakians four back of the top spot, but the bigger implications fall on Bosnia.  With a three-point lead heading into today, the Greeks have caught them.  Both teams get to play basement dwellers Liechtenstein once, but the Greeks and Bosnians don’t play again so it will be a shootout to the finish.

Liechtenstein 0-1 Greece

Olympiacos striker Kostas Mitroglou gave Greece a huge win with his 77th minute goal after each side had been reduced to 10 men.  Greek defender Jose Hoelbas and Liechtenstein midfielder David Hasler each received a second yellow within six minutes of each other before Mitroglou’s goal.

Greece are now level with Bosnia at the top of the group, with Slovakia four points back.

Latvia 2-1 Lithuania

Neither team have a prayer of qualifying, but the Lithuanians were officially eliminated with the Latvian victory.

GROUP H:

England 4-0 Moldova:

source: AP
Rickie Lambert got his second goal in as many games for England to continue the storybook start to his international play.

Rickie Lambert’s England dream continued as England dispatched Moldova to put them atop Group H by a point.  The Southampton striker put England 2-up with a tap-in header after Steven Gerrard put the hosts ahead early.

The win is important as the English are now a point above Montenegro, with a crucial matchup against the Ukraine coming up next.  England will be without Manchester United striker Danny Welbeck for that tie, as he received his second yellow card – a mindboggling one – after firing a shot over the bar a fraction of a second after the whistle had gone.  Welbeck did atone a bit by scoring just a minute later, but his absence will be huge against the third-place Ukrainians, with Rooney, Carroll, and Sturridge all out.

Ukraine 9-0 San Marino:

Yeah, San Marino aren’t very good. The newly FIFA-sanctioned country still are without a point as they got slaughtered by a Ukranian team looking for a goal-difference advantage.  San Marino haven’t even scored a goal in this round of World Cup qualifying, now sitting on a goal difference of -38.

Poland 1-1 Montenegro:

Robert Lewandowski equalized for Poland in the 16th minute and that was all she wrote on the scoresheet as Montenegro pulled level with England at the top of the group, albeit England have a game in hand.  Poland sit back in fourth place with 10 points, but certainly aren’t out of things with away matches against England and Ukraine still to come.

GROUP I:

Georgia 0-0 France

France are the other massive losers out of today, as they failed to grab a goal against lowly Georgia.  In the only group with just one qualifying spot, they failed to keep pace with Spain and are now three points back of the leaders without a chance to play them again.  French striker Karim Benzema was a ghost most of the match, and was replaced in the 62nd minute by Andre-Pierre Gignac.

Finland 0-2 Spain

The Spaniards capitalized on the French failure by firmly beating Finland.  Goals from Jordi Alba and Alvaro Negredo mean Spain move to 14 points while France sit on 11.  Both teams have matchups with Belarus remaining, and Spain get Georgia while France play Finland.  The French will need a Spanish slip-up to directly qualify for the World Cup, or else they will look to make the knockout round on points.

Real Madrid loses Modric and Marcelo to injuries in Malaga win

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 21:  Marcelo of Real Madrid CF comes off substituted during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Malaga CF at the Bernabeu on January 21, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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The 40-game unbeaten run seems like a distant memory.

Real Madrid had lost two straight matches before a 2-1 La Liga win over Malaga on Saturday, but despite the three points, they still did lose in a way.

Los Blancos lost both Marcelo and Luka Modric to injury in the match, and both could potentially miss up to a month of time.

Modric has been in and out of the squad this season due to injuries, and during his other lengthy spell on the sidelines, he was replaced adequately by 22-year-old Mateo Kovacic, and he was the man to replace Modric against Malaga with 12 minutes remaining. Reports say the Croatian suffered an adductor injury which can be quite painful and could keep him off the field for a number of weeks.

Marcelo, meanwhile, has been a staple in the Madrid lineup, appearing in the last 11 league matches and starting all but two of those. Marcelo was brought off just 25 minutes into the Malaga win reportedly with a hamstring problem, replaced by Isco. The likely long-term replacement for the 28-year-old Brazilian would be Nacho Fernandez, who has seen time this season on both defensive flanks.

The injuries puts not just the immediate La Liga and Copa del Rey futures of the two in jeopardy, but also could affect their availability for the start of the Champions League knockout stage which begins on February 15th against Napoli.

Watch Live: Chelsea vs. Hull City (Lineups & Live Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea warms up prior to the Premier League match between Chelsea and Hull City at Stamford Bridge on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Diego Costa has returned from his short absence as the Brazilian starts in front of the home fans at Stamford Bridge live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

Costa had missed the 3-0 win over Leicester City with what was officially tabbed as a back injury, but with reports swirling that the striker had been unsettled by a big offer from China and a bust-up with management. Now, he’s back after missing just a single match.

[ WATCH LIVE: Chelsea vs. Hull City live online at NBCSports.com ]

John Terry does not make the Chelsea squad despite returning from suspension, with Kurt Zouma on the bench in relief Antonio Conte‘s preferred back three.

Hull City is without leading scorer Robert Snodgrass, a big loss for a player who has struggled with injury problems the last two years. David Meyler returned to training this week and is on the bench.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Diego Costa, Hazard.
Subs: 
Begovic, Ake, Zouma, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Batshuayi.

Hull City: Jakupovic; Maguire, Dawson, Davies, Elabdellaoui; Mason, Huddlestone, Clucas, Robertson; Evandro, Hernández.
Subs: Marshall, Meyler, Maloney, Diomande, Niasse, Tymon, Bowen.

Arsenal 2-1 Burnley: Arsenal into second in stunning fashion

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What appeared a straightforward result for Arsenal ended in stunning fashion as a pair of penalties in stoppage time saw Arsenal through to second in the Premier League table.

A 59th minute header by Shkodran Mustafi had Arsenal 1-0 in front, and it remained that way for much of the game. Granit Xhaka was sent off again in the 65th minute, but it didn’t appear to make much of a difference to the Gunners.

Then, things exploded in stoppage time with seven added minutes due to earlier injuries. Referee Jon Moss pointed to the spot two minutes into stoppage time for a kick from Francis Coquelin, and Andre Gray buried the chance to level things up, appearing to have wrapped up a point. But in the final tick of seven added minutes, Arsenal themselves earned a penalty when Ben Mee produced a high boot to the face of Laurent Koscielny, leaving the referee no choice but to point to the spot. Alexis Sanchez cooly went down the middle, and Arsenal came out on top.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Burnley started brightly, but it was Arsenal that had the best early chance. With six minutes gone by, Alexis Sanchez broke down the left and delivered a good ball in, but Olivier Giroud‘s flick header was from too far out, and the Frenchman probably should have let it go with the ball set to arrive at the feet of Aaron Ramsey.

That chance sparked Arsenal to begin pummeling the Burnley box, mostly up the left edge with Sanchez. The visitors packed in the box, forcing the Gunners to get creative, and Mesut Ozil fired wide on the half-volley past 20 minutes.

Laurent Koscielny was needed at the back after a mistake in possession by his defensive partner Shkodran Mustafi, but the Frenchman was calm, cool, and collected to dispossess Andre Gray on the break. Koscielny had a chance on the other end as well, past the half-hour mark as he headed a free-kick on net but it looped agonizingly over the bar, settling on the top netting.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Arsenal continued to attack the packed-in Burnley box, and Sanchez whipped a shot in three minutes before halftime that swerved just wide of the post. The Gunners kept at it right out of the break, as Grioud fed Ramsey with a header, but the Welsh international tried a scorpion kick, and it went over. Sanchez fired a fizzing shot on net on 50 minutes, but it curled just beyond the top right corner. Arsenal should have had a penalty, with Mustafi going down under a silly challenge from Gray, but no call was awarded.

The hosts finally and deservedly broke through in the 59th minute as Mustafi expertly headed in off a corner. The header was from a very tight angle, as Mustafi met the ball ahead of the near post, angling it all the way across the face of goal and tucked inside the far corner past a diving Tom Heaton.

Arsenal was pegged back when Granit Xhaka earned his second red card of the Premier League season for a two-footed lunge on Steven Defour. Xhaka had passed the ball straight to Defour and as the Burnley midfielder distributed it to a teammate, the Swiss international went in studs showing, and after a conference with the assistant referee, head official Jon Moss sent Xhaka off.

With 15 minutes remaining, Burnley lost a steady man as Dean Marney was forced off after a heavy challenge with Mesut Ozil that earned him a yellow card. The stretcher was required after what appeared to be a serious injury to his right knee which took the full brunt of Ozil’s weight in an awkward position.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

As the game wound to a close, there were seven added minutes due to the Marney injury. Early in stoppage time, Burnley won a penalty and appeared to have earned themselves a point. Substitute Francis Coquelin kicked Ashley Barnes in the lower leg, and the penalty was awarded. Gray buried the penalty down the middle, and things were level with just minutes remaining.

Arsenal poured forward, and with an angry Arsene Wenger sent to the tunnel, the Gunners produced a winning moment. A free-kick looped in to the far post, and Mee’s boot contacted Koscielny in the side of the head, again forcing the referee to award the penalty. Sanchez broke out the panenka finish, dinking the ball down the middle and in for a last-gasp 2-1 lead. Replays show the penalty was the correct decision, but Koscielny was in an offside position when the delivery came in, the flag failing to punish the Gunners.

The win moves Arsenal past Liverpool and Tottenham, into second place with 47 points, five behind leaders Chelsea who are yet to play this weekend. Burnley, meanwhile, remain with just a single point all season away from home, sitting in 13th place with 26 points, having been passed by Southampton who won in the early Sunday match.

VIDEO: Claudio Ranieri admits tactical mistakes after another road defeat

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Ever-gracious Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri has taken full responsibility for the Foxes’ recent struggles, claiming his lineup tinkering has fallen flat.

The Italian said following the 3-0 defeat to Southampton that he has tried a few different formations to maximize his players’ abilities, but that it hasn’t worked out.

[ RECAP: Leicester falls on the road again at Southampton ]

“I think the last two matches I changed the shape to try and help my players to play better and find the right solution, but maybe I make mistakes. I am wrong against Chelsea when I play with three at the back, and also today when I wanted to play with a diamond. My players are used to playing with a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1 and they recognize the position, the game, everything, the movement. I wanted to give something more, but I make a mistake, I was wrong.”

Honesty sure is Ranieri’s best policy, and deflecting criticism from his players is clearly the tactic here. Managers often like to play down the importance of tactical formations at times, but here it clearly has weighed on Ranieri’s mind, who may revert back to his tested formations.

[ MORE: Is Pep Guardiola unhappy in the Premier League? ]

“I think it’s much better to give to them what they know very well. I look and they had to push a lot with this system and this mentality, and keep going and improve of course.”

Whatever the case, something will have to change with Leicester City this season if they wish to continue in the English top-flight. The Foxes have gone all season without a single away win, and they’re 15th in the table with just 21 points, five above the relegation zone.