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.

Thanks, but no thanks: Sampaoli turns down vacant Argentina job

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JUNE 18:  Head coach Jorge Sampaoli of Chile looks on during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group B match between Spain and Chile at Maracana on June 18, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli says he has turned down an offer to manage the Argentina national team.

Sampaoli tells Sevilla’s website “I had a call from the president of the (Argentine football) federation, but it would be irresponsible for me to leave Sevilla.”

Sampaoli was hired by Sevilla last month to replace new Paris Saint-Germain coach Unai Emery.

The Argentine-born Sampaoli led Chile to its first Copa America title in 2015.

Argentina has been without a coach since Gerardo Martino stepped down earlier this month after losing a second consecutive Copa America final.

Preseason roundup: Chelsea fall to Real Madrid; Man United win big

ANN ARBOR, MI - JULY 30:  Willian #22 of Chelsea defends against Marcelo Vieira Da Silva #12 of Real Madrid during the first half at Michigan Stadium on July 30, 2016 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s preseason action involving Premier League sides, including the 2016 International Champions Cup…

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Real Madrid 3-2 Chelsea

Marcelo scored twice in the opening 26 minutes at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., as Real Madrid picked up their first ICC victory of the preseason. It was 3-0 before halftime after Mariano Mejia beat no. 2 goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, who started the game and gave way to Thibaut Courtois at halftime, in the 37th minute.

Eden Hazard only pulled back the Blues’ consolation goals in the 80th and 90th minutes, meaning first-year manager Antonio Conte will have plenty of areas to target for improvement as the next 14 days roll by and Chelsea kick off their 2016-17 Premier League campaign Monday, Aug. 13, at home against West Ham United.

Manchester United 5-2 Galatasaray

The Zlatan Ibrahimovic era has officially begun at Manchester United after the most delightful of starts on Saturday. Ibrahimovic scored an acrobatic opening goal just four minutes into his Red Devils debut (watch at the link below), Wayne Rooney scored twice in the rout of Galatasaray, and Marcus Rashford showed once the kind of game-changing ability realized in his breakout 2015-16 season.

[ MORE: Zlatan scored a ridiculous scissor-kick goal on his debut ]

After entering the game at halftime, the 18-year-old was instantly the most dangerous player on the field, running at defenders at every opportunity and singlehandedly winning the penalty that resulted in Rooney’s second goal. Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata scored the fourth and fifth goals, respectively.

Elsewhere in preseason action

Liverpool vs. AC Milan (10 p.m. ET)
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Leicester City (11:30 p.m. ET)
Real Betis 1-1 Everton
FC Gronigen 0-1 Southampton
Bournemouth 1-0 Cardiff
Rangers 1-3 Burnley
Nottingham Forest 1-2 Hull City
Aston Villa 1-3 Middlesbrough
Wolves 0-4 Swansea City
Fulham 3-1 Crystal Palace
Queens Park Rangers 2-0 Watford
Montpellier 1-1 Sunderland
Plymouth 0-0 West Bromwich Albion

After 2015 World Cup success, Australian women stood for better wages — and won

MONCTON, NB - JUNE 21:  Australia celebrates the 1-0 win over Brazil during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 round of 16 match between Brazil and Australia at Moncton Stadium on June 21, 2015 in Moncton, Canada.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Long before the U.S. women’s soccer team filed a federal complaint over wage discrimination, the Australian women fought for better pay.

And won.

The Matildas, as they are known, will be among the 12 women’s soccer teams playing in Brazil next week when the Olympics get underway. Their strike following a successful run in last summer’s Women’s World Cup in Canada was significant as female athletes across sports fight for recognition and respect – including their American counterparts.

“In terms of being trailblazers, I’m not really sure. I think we just sort of went about it how we thought was necessary,” Australian defender Steph Catley said. “We felt we deserved more.”

The Matildas have made a quick ascent as one of the world’s elite teams. They gained national attention last year when they became the first team from Australia – male or female – to win a World Cup knockout round match by upsetting Brazil 1-0 and advancing to the quarterfinals.

The United States went on to win the World Cup with a 5-2 victory over Japan in the final.

Afterward, the U.S. women scheduled a pair of exhibition matches against Australia as part of a victory tour. But the Australian federation withdrew from those matches after the Matildas walked out of training camp and the players’ union said contract talks with the national federation had stalled.

The Matildas, whose contract had expired, said they had not been paid for two months heading into the walkout.

The salary for a national team player was equivalent to $14,475, based on a six-month playing period. That meant many of the players needed to have other jobs to make ends meet. Some players worked two club seasons, one at home in Australia and the other in the United States with the National Women’s Soccer League, meaning they played year-round.

The players were asking for a salary increase to $28,000 a year, as well as other benefits including improved accommodations and bonuses for international matches. The demands were part of larger bargaining that included the men’s national team and A-League players, and the Football Federation Australia at one point claimed the Matildas were being used as a pawn in the negotiations.

But there was a groundswell of support for the women, who have seen their popularity rise in Australia along with the team’s stature on the national stage.

American stars Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd, former player Julie Foudy and Canadian forward Christine Sinclair were among those who expressed support for the Australians. There were change.org petitions to support the team.

“The Matildas are courageously fighting for what is right. (hashtag) priclessrolemodels,” Lloyd posted to Twitter.

The deal that was eventually struck in November included a pay structure that puts the salaries for top players at $30,700 per year and those at the next level at $22,400. The contract calls for a 10 percent raise each year and improved bonuses and other benefits.

“Our elite female players deserve a full-time professional career path in football and this agreement represents a solid foundation we can build on,” players’ association chief executive Adam Vivian said at the time.

Striker Kyah Simon said the move made the team stronger.

“The Matildas’ story is standing up for what we believe in and standing up for our brand and our culture. I think at the end of the day it brought the team closer together,” Simon said. “It’s something we can look on with pride, and something that’s hopefully a positive future for our sport and for the new generation of players.”

The victory came well before a group of U.S. women’s national team players filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging wage discrimination. The women claim they make far less on average than their male national team counterparts. The complaint in late March came as the players seek a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer.

Heading into the Olympics, the Matildas are ranked No. 5 in the world.

They leapfrogged Japan and Korea in the AFC qualification tournament to earn the trip to Rio along with China – scoring 17 goals in five matches.

Australia is in a tough group in Brazil that includes No. 2 Germany, No. 10 Canada and Zimbabwe. It is the only group with three teams ranked in the top 10. The top-ranked Americans play in a group that includes No. 3 France, New Zealand and Colombia.

Australia opens the tournament on Wednesday against Canada in Sao Paulo.

“After the World Cup everything sort of started to change. When we came home there was so much media attention and so many people that were interested in what we were doing and really proud of the success we had,” Catley said of the team’s rising profile. “I think people always knew there was a national team, but I don’t think they realized how high in the rankings we were and how much better we were getting as a team.”

Conte: “I don’t know” if Diego Costa will be a Chelsea player this season

VELDEN, AUSTRIA - JULY 20: Diego Costa of Chelsea looks on during the friendly match between WAC RZ Pellets and Chelsea F.C. at Worthersee Stadion on July 20, 2016 in Velden, Austria. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte sent “silly season” into overdrive (all over again) when he admitted on Saturday that he himself doesn’t know whether or not Diego Costa will remain a Chelsea player this season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Speaking after his side’s 3-2 defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the International Champions Cup, Chelsea’s first-year manager confirmed the reason for Costa’s continued absence this preseason — an injury — but went on to say the Brazilian-turned-Spaniard’s club future remains up in the air just 14 days before the 2016-17 Premier League season kicks off — quotes from the Sun:

“I can say that today Costa is a Chelsea player. He didn’t play in these games because of injury and if he solves the injury and I see in training he’s in good shape it can be possible to see him in the next game against Milan. But I can tell only this.

“I speak for today and today Costa is Chelsea’s player. Tomorrow if you ask me if Costa will remain with us, I don’t know.”

Costa, who signed for Chelsea from Atletico Madrid two summers ago, has regularly been linked with a return to the Spanish capital. However, Atleti announced on Saturday the signing of Sevilla striker Kevin Gameiro, who scored 68 goals in three seasons (all competitions) with the three-time defending Europa League winners, reportedly for nearly $40 million.

[ MORE: Zlatan scored a ridiculous scissor-kick goal on his debut ]

Atleti would hardly be the only suitors for a goal-getter who has netted 32 times in two seasons in the Premier League, including 20 times in 26 games during his 2014-15 debut campaign.