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.

Spanish playmaker Bojan signs new long-term contract at Stoke City

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Bojan Krkic will be a Potter for plenty of years to come.

On Thursday Stoke City announced that Bojan, 25, has signed a contract extension keeping him at the Britannia Stadium for another four-and-a-half years.

[ MORE: New-look Stoke to progress

Since arriving from Spanish giants Barcelona at the start of the 2014-15 season the playmaker has been a revelation in the Premier League.

Despite suffering a serious knee injury midway through his debut season in England, Bojan has battled back this campaign and has scored five times in 23 outings for the Potters.

Speaking to the club website, Bojan revealed his delight in signing the contract extension that will see him stay with Stoke until the summer of 2020.

“I am very happy and motivated. Stoke City gave me the opportunity to play in the most competitive league in the world, the Premier League, and I have only words of gratitude for their trust and for the way they have treated me since the first day I arrived to England,” Bojan said. “Mark Hughes convinced me to come to Stoke, he has helped me and showed his trust in me from the beginning, he followed closely the recovery process from my injury and there is no doubt I have signed an extension of my contract thanks to him.”

With Mark Hughes’ side battling for a top six finish, being knocked out agonizingly on penalty kicks by Liverpool in the League Cup semifinal and still in the FA Cup, it’s been another stellar season for Stoke as their progress continues.

Bojan’s presence has been central to attracting top names to join him at Stoke, with the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Ibrahim Afellay and Mark Arnautovic all part of a new-look attack which in-turn has provided a much more attractive team to watch on the pitch.

Amid interest from plenty of other teams around the Premier League and Europe, Stoke have kept hold of their main creative hub and fans will be delighted to see the Barca academy product progress with the Potters over an extended period of time.

VIDEO: USWNT’s Press scores stunning goal after amazing spin move

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What a first touch.

The U.S. women’s national team beat Costa Rica 5-0 in the opening game of their CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying campaign on Wednesday and USWNT forward Christen Press scored the pick of the bunch after she teed herself up with a superb first touch.

[ MORE: NBC to stream every Olympic qualifier

Click play on the video above to watch the World Cup winner control the ball with a deft outside-of-the-foot touch before spinning and striking home in a mesmerizing movement.

Majestic.

Press and the USWNT face Mexico on Saturday in their second Group A game (Watch live, 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

On the up, off the pitch: Manchester United’s revenue continues to rise

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Manchester United have announced that revenue levels for the three months leading up to December 31 rose by 26.6 percent.

The Red Devils released the figures on Thursday which show revenue of $192.4 million, with commercial revenue up a massive 42.5 percent but matchday revenue was down 1.6 percent.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

The overall profit for the quarter was $26.7 million and over that period club debt fell by 6 percent but still stands at an eye-watering $463.6 million. That said, in a recent review of the finances of the top clubs on the planet Deloitte believes United will top the rich-list next season.

Despite Louis Van Gaal‘s future being questioned, United being knocked out of the UEFA Champions League at the group stage in December and being six points off the top four with just 13 games of the current Premier League season to go, the strength of their results off the pitch continue to show just how successful a business they’ve become.

Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward told investors that: “Our solid results off the pitch help contribute to what remains our number one priority – success on the pitch.”

Woodward has also vowed to continue United’s “strong commitment to investing in our squad, youth academy.”

[ MORE: Report – Mourinho tells friend he will take over at United

Van Gaal, 64, will need a strong finish to the season on the pitch to help United to success and in turn improve those financial figures for next season. Failure to finish in the PL’s top four and qualify for the UCL will substantially impact United’s financial results next season, and the pressure remains on him and his players to claw back the deficit.

With speculation mounting that Jose Mourinho could be appointed as United’s new boss there also seems to be a surplus of cash which Rob Harris from the Associated Press speculates could be used for a new manager…

Morgan, USWNT cruise past Costa Rica 5-0 behind early flurry of goals

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The U.S. Women got off to a flying start in Olympic qualification Group A play by torching Costa Rica 5-0, including goals from Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, and Crystal Dunn.

Morgan led the way with a double, including one in the opening 12 seconds – only six passes off the opening kick – that set the record for quickest goal in U.S. Soccer history. Lloyd and Dunn both struck in the opening 15 minutes to make it 3-0 before Costa Rica even had time to blink. Lloyd’s came on a penalty after Dunn was felled for the captain’s 83rd international goal, and then the latter bagged one of her own minutes later on a rebound off a shot by Morgan.

[ VIDEO: Alex Morgan caps off a 12-second, six-pass goal ]

The visitors were able to make it Morgan scored her second after the hour mark to cap the goal tally. Jill Ellis completed her trio of substitutions after the fourth goal and the U.S. saw the game out easily.

The fifth came late on a cross from Tobin Heath that fell to Christen Press in the box. With her back to the goal, the 27-year-old produced a simply stunning first touch, back-heeling the ball down before whipping around the opposite direction to lose her defender and firing home the fifth goal.

With the final whistle, the United States improved their record against Costa Rica to a perfect 13-0. The U.S. will play Mexico next on Saturday before finishing out Group A play against Puerto Rico on Monday, February 15.