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.

Report: Man United make several star players available for transfer

WIGAN, ENGLAND - JULY 16: Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho looks on during the pre season friendly match between Wigan Athletic and Manchester United at the JJB Stadium on July 16, 2016 in Wigan, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho’s is about to wield the axe at Manchester United.

The Daily Mail claims that up to seven high-profile international players at United will be put up for sale this summer.

[ MORE: Manchester derby cancelled ]

Bastian Schweinsteiger, Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian are apparently surplus to requirements at Old Trafford, while Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj, Ashley Young and Memphis Depay have all been told they won’t be regulars, per the report.

Mourinho has already added Eric Bailly, Henrik Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibramimovic to his squad this summer and is looking to trim his wage bill considerably to tidy up the roster left behind by Louis Van Gaal.

Negotiations over Paul Pogba’s massive $130 million move from Juventus are said to be continuing behind-the-scenes and all of that adds up to a bloated squad at United.

What of the three highest profile players who are apparently up for sale? Well, we all know Mourinho’s thoughts on Mata.

[ MORE: Allardyce bullish on England job ]

The Spanish playmaker, 28, was sold by Mourinho when he took over at Chelsea for his second spell in charge of the club. It was claimed Mata’s defensive abilities was the main reason Mourinho sold him to United and now it looks like the Spanish international could be on the outside looking in once again.

As for Schweinsteiger, 31, the German national team captain endured an injury hit first season at United last season and played 31 times, scoring twice. He was a key signing in Van Gaal’s era but now the veteran midfielder may be moved on, especially if Pogba does arrive.

Memphis’ struggles last season are well documented with the Dutch winger, 22, scoring just twice in the Premier League all season after his $40 million move from PSV Eindhoven. With Mkhitaryan arriving, plus the emergence of Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford last season, open slots in wide positions seem to be sparse in Mourinho’s squad.

That also spells bad news for Young and Januzaj, with the latter loaned out to Borussia Dortmund last season, while the full back position seems stacked too as Rojo and Darmian appear to be behind youngsters Luke Shaw and Timothy Fosu-Mensah in the pecking order.

Mata and Memphis could still fetch sizable transfer fees, while Schweinsteiger may be tough to move on given the fact that he’s reportedly on almost $200,000 per week at Old Trafford. Young, Januzaj, Darmian and Rojo may be hard to move on too, but loan deals seem likely if United picks up a chunk of their wages.

With Mourinho and his team heading back to Europe following the cancellation of their International Champions Cup friendly against Manchester City in China on Monday, the serious business of trimming down his squad and making tough decisions has already begun.

Winds of change are swirling around Old Trafford.

Allardyce on England unveiling: “Time to stand up and be counted”

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - JULY 25:  Newly appointed England manager Sam Allardyce attends a press conference at St. George's Park on July 25, 2016 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Sam Allardyce gave his first press conference as the new manager of the English national team on Monday and the overriding theme was easy to pick up: confidence.

Allardyce, 61, strode into the room with a huge smile on his face and gave forthright answers, as expected, on his appointment as new boss of the Three Lions.

[ MORE: Manchester derby cancelled ]

The former Sunderland manager insisted England hasn’t “hit rock bottom” and admitted this “will be the greatest challenge for me in my long career.”

Asked about his style of play and his somewhat direct tactics clashing with the now widely-stated DNA of the English FA, who want to be a passing team, Allardyce shared his belief that he has always adapted his playing style to the players at his disposal.

“I think choosing styles of systems depends on the players available and who we are playing. My coaching technique is to try to give players the opportunity to win football matches, home or away, and make them aware of the opposition,” Allardyce said. “I think the bonding of the team is exceptionally important and trying to create that team spirit and have some fun. I have enjoyed my life in the game, this job is the pinnacle and I want to enjoy this the most.”

He also pointed to diminutive forward Jermain Defoe playing up front on his own last season for Sunderland and the Englishman scoring 18 goals.

Allardyce is still trying to dispel the myth he is a long-ball merchant and it could take some time to convince England’s fans despite the overall reaction to his appointment being a positive one.

When asked if Wayne Rooney would still be his captain when his first game rolls around — expected to be a friendly against Croatia on Sept. 1 — Allardyce was coy, not confirming if Rooney would indeed be his skipper.

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - JULY 25:  Newly appointed England manager Sam Allardyce poses after a press conference at St. George's Park on July 25, 2016 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

Allardyce also gave some interesting comments when asked about the possibility of having a winter break in the Premier League and the former Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United and West Ham United boss was crystal clear in his belief that the PL should take a break.

“I have been an advocate of that for 10 years or more. The demand on players is enormous,” Allardyce said. “The Premier League is the best league in world so demand has to be on the players. It would help the Premier League and us at international level if we could try and achieve it. In my time when we finish at Christmas, in January and February it is always the most difficult time to get players through.”

With the English national team the youngest in terms of average age at EURO 2016, Allardyce was asked about the potential of the players he is inheriting.

“It is not potential anymore, it has to be reality and they have to stand up and be counted. The young players have a lot of experience now and some has been bitter. They don’t want to feel like that again,” Allardyce said. “Potential is not a word I want to use, you want the quality player to produce his best performances immediately. This squad of players is very experienced and going forward hopefully will produce better.”

One thing is for sure, “Big Sam” tells it like it is and we can expect plenty more honest answers in the years to come as England first aim to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and then improve drastically on their recent poor record in major tournaments.

Manchester derby in Beijing cancelled due to poor pitch after adverse weather

BEIJING, CHINA - JULY 24:  Manager Jose Mourinho of Manchester United looks on during a press conference of the 2016 International Champions Cup match between Manchester City and Manchester United at Olympic Sports Center Stadium on July 24, 2016 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola’s eagerly awaited battle will not take place.

The new managers of Manchester United and Manchester City will have to wait until September of the new Premier League season until they can lock horns for the first-time in Manchester.

[ MORE: Messi’s new hairdo ]

The first-ever Manchester derby to take place on foreign soil was set to take place in the International Champions Cup 2016 but it was cancelled Monday as extreme weather conditions in Beijing in recent days led to severe damage to the playing surface at the Birds Nest Stadium in the Chinese capital.

Both teams have made huge deals of their preseason tours to China with new kits being unveiled on the Great Wall and plenty of promotional events lined up.

[ MORE: PL preseason schedule ]

However Manchester United vs. Manchester City will not be rescheduled and the two clubs, along with the organizers of the ICC tournament, released the following statement after the cancellation of the high-profile friendly.

The cancellation was made in the interest of player safety and comes following extreme weather events in Beijing over a multiple day period, that have left the playing surface in a condition deemed to be unfit for play. The conditions experienced in Beijing on July 19 and July 20 were reported as being some of the most extreme weather conditions the capital of China has experienced in recent history. Regular rain occurred also on July 21 and July 22.

The decision was made collectively by tournament organisers, participating clubs, the China Football Association, the Beijing Football Association and the management of the National Stadium.

Due to international travel schedules and planned sporting commitments, the match cancellation is definitive and the match will not be re-scheduled.

The International Champions Cup and its participating clubs thanked and apologised to fans in China and around the world who were planning to attend the match or watch the match broadcast.

To acknowledge the support of fans, players of Manchester City and Manchester United will record and distribute a thank you video for fans in China before departing Beijing.

Both Mourinho and Guardiola had expressed severe concern over the playing surface in Beijing, with both teams forced to train elsewhere leading up to the game. Mourinho also had his press conference first cancelled due to the extreme heat inside the conference room and then hastily arranged on a running track on the side of a pitch.

Media covering the game in China’s largest city called the organization of the event “farcical” and the group running the ICC tournament, Relevant Sports, will certainly have plenty of questions to answer.

Reports claim that a fungus had developed on the pitch after record rainfall in Beijing in recent weeks. That was coupled with soaring temperatures which ensured the pitch could not be patched up in time and wasn’t suitable to host the game.

It is a big blow for fans of both clubs in China, with over 50,000 tickets sold in the 90,000 capacity stadium. The event was capped to 60,000 tickets but now both clubs have traveled to China to each play one game in the searing heat.

United lost 4-1 to Borussia Dortmund in temperatures close to 100 degrees last week, while City will play Dortmund on Thursday before returning to England.

City have forged close links with China after owner Sheikh Mansour sold a 13 percent stake in the club to Chinese investors last December. In the coming months and years the organizers of the ICC and other friendly tournaments will try to make sure these events aren’t replicated.

Weather is weather and can’t be controlled but it is clear the situation surrounding this mammoth game in Beijing was far from ideal.

Klopp played three positions in Liverpool staff team’s draw with Stanford

Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool FC (Photo credit: @StanfordMSoccer)
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From the Endearing Jurgen Klopp Tales file, the Liverpool manager reportedly starred in defense, midfield and attack for a squad full of Reds coaches against Stanford on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Liverpool, who have based themselves on the sunny, warm Stanford University campus as part of their preparations for the 2016-17 Premier League, took on the collegiate side and played the youngsters to a 1-1 draw.

Klopp failed to get his name on the scoresheet, though the former Mainz striker had one golden chance turned away by Stanford’s goalkeeper. The same couldn’t be said for physiotherapist Ruben Pons, who scored from beyond the halfway line on a mishit long ball over the top.

With all the goodwill Klopp has banked with Reds fans in his first nine months at the club, he’s now only a PL title away from securing his place as an eternal Liverpool legend.

Liverpool will take on Chelsea in each side’s first International Champions Cup fixture Wednesday night (11 p.m. ET) in Pasadena, Calif.