European World Cup Qualifying Preview: 24 matches to entertain

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Tuesday could be a big night in Europe with Germany, Italy, Holland and Switzerland all in line to punch their ticket to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

Twenty-four matches are set to battle it out across Europe and with just three rounds of games remaining, the competition should prove cutthroat. Of course, we here at NBC Sports Pro Soccer Talk will have you covered with up to the minute results for all the games.

GROUP A: Macedonia vs. Scotland and Wales vs. Serbia

With first place Belgium (22 points) and second place Croatia (17 points) well out in front these two Group A matches will have no impact on qualification.

GROUP B: Armenia vs. Denmark; Italy vs. Czech Republic and Malta v. Bulgaria

First place Italy (17 points) can book their spot in Brazil with a win over Czech Republic (9 points) but it won’t come easy as the Azzurri drew with their opponents 0-0 in Prague last time out. Manager Cesare Prandelli is expected to throw everything at the Czech’s with Mario Balotelli, Pablo Osvaldo and Riccardo Montolivo all fit to play.

Armenia will look to build on their impressive 2-1 victory over Czech Republic when they take on Denmark, who is even on points with nine. A victory for either side could prove huge in a challenge to Bulgaria (10 points), who currently occupy the second spot and are looking to take full advantage of last place Malta.

GROUP C: Kazakhstan vs. Sweden; Faroe Islands vs. Germany and Austria vs. Ireland

Leaders Germany (19 points) will book their place in Brazil if they can overcome Faroe Islands, who has failed to win a single point in seven qualifying matches, and Sweden (14 points) fail to defeat Kazakhstan (4 points). If the second place Swedes do lose to Kazakhstan that could benefit Austria (11 points) or Ireland (11 points), should one of those sides come out victorious in their clash in Vienna.

GROUP D: Romania vs. Turkey; Andorra vs. Holland; Hungary vs. Estonia

Holland (19 points) can win Group D with a victory over last placed Andorra (0 points) and either Turkey (10 points) beat second place Romania (13 points) or the two sides draw and Hungary (11 points) draws with Estonia (7 points).

GROUP E: Norway vs. Switzerland; Iceland vs. Albania and Cyprus vs. Slovenia

It’s all to play for in Group E where leaders Switzerland (15 points) can go through if they defeat second place Norway (11 points). Third place Albania (10 points) travel to Iceland (10 points) where both sides are still capable of winning the group while Slovenia (9 points) is in must-win territory as they travel to cellar-dwellers Cyprus (4 points).

GROUP F: Russia vs. Israel and Luxembourg vs. Northern Ireland

With a game in hand second place Russia (15 points) can grab control of Group F with a victory over Israel (12 points) on Tuesday. Despite their 1-1 draw with Azerbaijan on Saturday, the Blues and Whites can still snatch a play-off spot if they can manage points in St. Petersburg.

Luxembourg (3 points) have been eliminated while Northern Ireland (6 points) will need to win each of their remaining contests to have any hope of salvaging a run to Brazil.

GROUP G: Lithuania vs. Liechtenstein; Slovakia vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece vs. Latvia

With Bosnia-Herzegovina’s 1-0 loss to Slovakia on Friday the leaders allowed Greece to come even on 16 points atop the board. With a victory against eliminated Latvia (7 points), the Greeks will go top of the table putting all the pressure on Bosnia-Herzegovina to revenge last week’s loss with a result in Slovakia (12 points). Lithuania (5 points) and Liechtenstein (2 points) have been eliminated.

GROUP H: England vs. Ukraine and San Marino vs. Poland

Holding a game in hand over Montenegro, England (15 points) can take sole possession of first place with a victory over third place Ukraine (14 points) in Kiev. Roy Hodgson’s men enter the match short on strikers with Danny Welbeck suspended and Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge both sidelined with injury. The two sides drew in the reverse fixture and a win for either side will prove vital entering the final two matches of the group.

Fourth place Poland (10 points) is down but not out and must earn a victory at bottom of the barrel San Marino (0 points) if they are to keep their hopes of Brazil alive.

GROUP I: Georgia vs. Finland and Belarus vs. France

Second place France (11 points) can secure second place if they win in Belarus (4 points) while Georgia (5 points) and Finland (6 points) will need three points if either side plan on making a run at a qualifying spot. Leaders Spain (14 points) have two matches remaining, both of which will be played on home soil.

Barcelona defends Messi over “unfair” suspension

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi’s four-match international suspension for insulting a linesman was “unfair and totally disproportionate.”

[ MORE: Messi handed ban by FIFA ]

Barcelona released a statement Wednesday expressing “its surprise and indignation” with FIFA’s decision to sideline the playmaker for so long following the incident in Argentina’s win over Chile in World Cup qualifying last week.

The punishment was announced before Argentina lost at Bolivia 2-0 Tuesday, a result that left the two-time champions at risk of not qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

Barcelona says it “wishes to reiterate its support for Leo Messi, an exemplary player in terms of conduct both on and off the field.”

Pending an appeal, Messi will only be available to play in Argentina’s final qualifier, on Oct. 10 against Ecuador.

World Cup hopes back on track: What next for USMNT?

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After a four-point haul over the past week in their two crucial 2018 World Cup qualifiers, the U.S. national team is back on track and heading in the right direction.

[ MORE: Latest USMNT news ]

Bruce Arena led the USMNT to a thumping 6-0 win over Honduras last Friday and then a gutsy 1-1 draw in Panama on Tuesday in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, as the Hexagonal standings will now look a lot better to U.S. fans who saw their team sitting bottom of the pile for the past four months following defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica which cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job.

So, the “Road to Russia” is looking a little less daunting for the U.S. but there are still tough tests ahead in the months to come in World Cup qualifying as well as a Gold Cup campaign on home soil in July.

First let’s look at the standings in the Hex. Ah, that’s better but things are now very tight aside from Mexico running away with things.

With six games to go the U.S. currently occupies the play-off spot as the top three teams in the Hex standings will qualify automatically for the World Cup and the fourth-place team has to play against the fifth-place team from qualifying in the Asian Football Confederation region.


Mexico — 10 points (+4 GD)
Costa Rica — 7 points (+4)
Panama — 5 points (0)
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USA — 4 points (+1)
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Honduras — 4 points (-5)
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points (-4)


And these are the USA’s six remaining qualifiers as they aim to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

June 8: vs. Trinidad and Tobago
June 11: at Mexico
September 1: vs. Costa Rica
September 5: at Honduras
October 6: vs. Panama
October 10: at Trinidad and Tobago

The first three games at crucial. If the U.S. manages to get seven points from those three matches, that’s magical. Even six points by beating T&T and Costa Rica on home soil would be superb. Yet, if the U.S. drops points to one or both of T&T and Costa Rica, that puts so much pressure on themselves to pick up wins on the road at Honduras and T&T in two of their final three qualifiers. That would not be an ideal scenario.

Still, heading into the past week the aim for the U.S. was to get back on track in qualifying and give themselves a chance of making the 2018 World Cup. They’ve done that. Now, the hard work begins.

Chelsea chase Alexis Sanchez; Man United want Dier

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The summer transfer rumors are heating up long before the heat of summer arrives…

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

On Wednesday it is being claimed by the Guardian that Alexis Sanchez has become Chelsea’s “No.1 target this summer” as the Arsenal and Chile forward has yet to sign a new deal with the Gunners.

Per the report, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has drafted up a shortlist of the players he wants to sign this summer and Sanchez is at the top of the Italian managers wishlist as he is also close to signing a new deal at Stamford Bridge.

Sanchez, 28, has a deal at Arsenal until the summer of 2018 but if the north London club fails to agree a new deal with him this summer (as well as Mesut Ozil and Arsene Wenger, but that’s another story…) then they’ll have to sell him on or risk losing him for nothing as a free agent next season.

The striker scored twice for Chile in their 2018 World Cup qualifying win over Venezuela on Tuesday and has been essential all season long to Arsenal, scoring 18 goals and adding nine assists after playing through the middle on his own for much of the campaign.

Would Arsenal really sell Sanchez to a PL rival? It wouldn’t be ideal but it’s not like they haven’t done that in the past. Think of Robin Van Persie, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy.

The thought of Sanchez on one wing with Diego Costa up top and Eden Hazard on the other wing at Chelsea should be enough to get Arsenal to offer their star man whatever cash he wants — the report states he wants $310,000 a week which would almost double his current $160,000 a week salary — when they sit down to discuss the new deal at the end of this season.


Elsewhere in north London, Tottenham Hotspur’s versatile defender Eric Dier has been linked with a $50 million move to Manchester United this summer.

According to Neil Ashton of the Sun, Dier, 23, is being lined up to replace Michael Carrick in the holding midfield role at United.

Now, Tottenham are notoriously tough to do business with and chairman Daniel Levy will not want to lose one of his top prospects and an England international to a direct rival in the Premier League.

That said, Dier has been used in multiple positions by Spurs this season and Mauricio Pochettino appears to prefer Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele as the holding midfielders and the emergence of Harry Winks has seen Dier’s importance questioned by some.

The fact that Dier can play in holding midfield or anywhere across the back line will also suit Moruinho who likes to have a smaller squad to work with and per the report the Portuguese boss has been a long-time admirer of Dier. His power to break up the play and also use he ball safely could work very well alongside Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera.

PHOTOS: Bizarre Cristiano Ronaldo statue unveiled

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Hang on, is that really meant to be Cristiano Ronaldo?

On Wednesday the Portugal and Real Madrid legend had Madeira Airport named after him just outside his hometown of Funchal and during the ceremony a bust of his head was put on show.

Except, it looked horrendous…

Take a look for yourself in the photos below. See.