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European qualifying roundup: Two qualify, while four groups remain tight

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The first two European teams clinched their places in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil by virtue of their victories on Tuesday. While Italy and the Czech Republic celebrate, the day’s results left four groups in which the top two spots are separated by four or less points, while two of those groups have ties at the top.

Russia 3-1 Israel

Russia retook control of Group F in an easy victory. Eran Zahavi scored a consolation goal in the 90th minute for Israel, but Russia scored three goals in the second half after a scoreless opening stanza to take the game.

Armenia 0-1 Denmark

Denmark still has a chance to catch Bulgaria and battle for a playoff spot in Group B. Daniel Agger scored the only goal of this game on a 73rd-minute penalty, which also saw Varazdat Haroyan sent off for Armenia.

Kazakhstan 0-1 Sweden

After falling to third place in Group C, Sweden regained its playoff positioning with a narrow victory in Kazakhstan. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 27 seconds into the game on what is the quickest goal the Swedish team has ever scored.

Norway 0-2 Switzerland

The Swiss needed a result away from home to stave off advances from Iceland and Slovenia at the top of Group E. All three of the top teams in the group won today, but Switzerland still has a five-point lead on Iceland and a six-point lead on Slovenia.

Romania 0-2 Turkey

Turkey’s win in Bucharest not only put the away team ahead of Romania in the Group D standings on goal difference, but it also assured that the Netherlands qualified for Brazil on Tuesday. The next three spots are separated by just one point, as Hungary also defeated Estonia.

Slovakia 1-2 Bosnia-Herzegovina

An away win in Slovakia keeps Bosnia-Herzegovina in first place in Group G, thanks to its plus-15 goal difference. Slovakia can help its opponent in the next match, against the other top team in the group, Greece.

Cyprus 0-2 Slovenia

The tight pack in Group E continues to be the closest race, with all but one team in the group still in the hunt for a qualification spot. Unfortunately for Cyprus, its 2-0 home loss to Slovenia only reaffirmed that it is the odd team out, while first through fifth places are separated by just eight points — and second through fifth have just three points between them.

Andorra 0-2 Netherlands

Robin van Persie’s second-half double sent the Netherlands into the World Cup.

Hungary 5-1 Estonia

After a humiliating 3-0 loss in Romania on Friday, Hungary turned the tables in a 5-1 home win over Estonia. Hungary now sits in second place in Group D by one point over Romania and Turkey.

Italy 2-1 Czech Republic

Italy overcame an early deficit to clinch qualification with a 2-1 win in Turin. Mario Balotelli scored the winning goal on a penalty, extending his perfect record from the spot in competitive matches.

Austria 1-0 Ireland

Austria extended its hopes of earning a playoff spot with a crucial 1-0 win over Ireland. The next match, against current second-placed team Sweden, could be decisive in Group C.

Faroe Islands 0-3 Germany

Germany rolled over last-placed Faroe Islands and remained well on top of Group C. Per Mertesacker, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller provided the German goals.

Ukraine 0-0 England

A scoreless tie was enough for England to maintain its one-point lead on top of Group H in a hostile environment in Kiev. With its final two games at home, against lowly Montenegro and Poland, England will be confident of its chances to clinch a spot in Brazil.

Greece 1-0 Latvia

With a narrow win over Latvia, delivered by a Dimitris Salpingidis goal in the 58th minute, Greece stayed tied atop Group G with Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, the Greeks trail by a large margin in goal difference, making its final two games against Slovakia and Liechtenstein ones that it must try to win by large margins to assure automatic qualification.

Iceland 2-1 Albania

Iceland moved into second place, a position it holds by one point over Slovenia, with a 2-1 win against Albania in freezing Reykjavík. Albania struck first, in the ninth minute through Valdet Rama, but Birkir Bjarnason responded in the 14th, and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson secured the win in the 47th minute.

Belarus 2-4 France

France tied Spain on top of Group I with a 4-2 win in Belarus, but Spain has a game in hand, as it played a friendly against Chile. At least a playoff spot seems safe, as third-place Finland trails by five points; the two teams meet in the last qualifier of the group stage on Oct. 15.

Other results: Lithuania 2-0 Liechtenstein, Georgia 0-1 Finland, Malta 1-2 Bulgaria, Luxembourg 3-2 Northern Ireland, Macedonia 1-2 Scotland, Wales 0-3 Serbia, San Marino 1-5 Poland

Barcelona tops Levante, ties club record with 28 unbeaten

VALENCIA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Jordi Alba of Barcelona celebrates scoring his team's first goal with his teammate Andres Iniesta during the La Liga match between Levante UD and FC Barcelona at Ciutat de Valencia on February 07, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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Sir Alex Ferguson described the 2010/11 Barcelona team as the best team he ever faced.

This year’s Barcelona side has matched them.

With a 2-0 victory over La Liga basement-dwellers Levante on an own-goal forced by Jordi Alba plus a late score from Luis Suarez, Barcelona has gone 28 matches unbeaten in all competitions, without a loss since a 2-1 defeat to Sevilla on October 28.

Manager Luis Enrique, though, is unmoved. “What matters to me are the team’s objectives,” said Enrique after the win. “These are nice numbers, if they help us win titles at the end of the season, fantastic. We are in good position, but there is still a lot left.”

The Levante victory marked Luis Enrique’s 100th game in charge of Barcelona.

That 2010/11 season, led by Pep Guardiola, Barcelona came a Copa del Rey finals loss to Real Madrid from a quadruple, winning the league, Champions League, and Supercopa de Espana. This time around, they’ve already secured the Supercopa, sit atop the league table by three points over Atletico Madrid and seven above Real Madrid, have yet to lose a game in the Champions League, and the second leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal against Valencia is a complete formality. What’s more, the numbers from this streak are eerily similar to that wildly successful squad five years ago.

That campaign, Lionel Messi scored 31 league goals and 53 overall. An injury sapped him of time in this go around, but Suarez and Neymar have picked up the slack. There has been just one league game in which all three of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez has been held scoreless this season, and to find it you have to travel all the way back to the second game of the year, a 1-0 win over Malaga that saw Thomas Vermaelen score the winner. Those three have combined for 48 league goals this year, more than every team in the Spanish top flight save Real Madrid.

Paris Saint-Germain has a similar streak going at the moment, currently unbeaten in league play throughout the entire season, but their 1-0 loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League on November 3 means their streak across all competitions sits at 19 games.

Watch Live: Bournemouth vs Arsenal (Lineups & Live Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28: Mesut Ozil of Arsenal and Adam Smith of Bournemouth compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Emirates Stadium on December 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Arsenal is hoping to break its four-game winless streak as it travels to Vitality Stadium to take on Bournemouth, live on NBCSN at 8:30 a.m. ET or live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

The Gunners have drawn three and lost one over its last four matches, leaving them unable to keep pace with Leicester City at the top of the table. With Leicester again winning this week and a matchup with the Foxes looming next time out for Arsenal, this match seems a must-win for Arsene Wenger and company if they wish to remain serious title contenders.

[ WATCH LIVE: Bournemouth vs Arsenal live online at NBC Sports Live Extra ]

Wenger has chosen to leave veteran defender Per Mertesacker on the bench in favor of Gabriel. Francis Coquelin also remains among the substitutes for the second straight match, meaning either Wenger prefers Mathieu Flamini in midfield, or Coquelin remains unfit for a full 90 minutes. Tomas Rosicky was injured last weekend and will be out up to three months, which could end his season.

Eddie Howe has named an unchanged starting lineup from their 2-1 away win at Crystal Palace last week. Winger Junior Stanislas is back on the bench after missing last week. In contrast to Arsenal, the Cherries are unbeaten in four and have won four of their last six, a stretch which has propelled them five points off the relegation zone and the same distance away from the top half of the table.

[ MORE: Premier League Sunday Preview ]

There are no new injury concerns for either side. Both have long-term absentees who are on the mend but still not close to a return. Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, and Santi Cazorla are all out for the Gunners, while Bournemouth duo Max Gradel and Callum Wilson are also sidelined for a while but could return before the end of the season.

LINEUPS

Bournemouth: Boruc; Smith, Francis, Cook, Daniels; Surman, Gosling; Ritchie, Arter, Pugh; Afobe.
Subs: Federici, Distin, Stanislas, O’Kane, Iturbe, King, Grabban.

Arsenal: Cech; Bellerin, Gabriel, Koscielny, Monreal; Flamini, Ramsey; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sánchez, Özil; Giroud.
Subs: Ospina, Gibbs, Mertesacker, Walcott, Campbell, Coquelin, Iwobi.

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
AP Photo/Raad Adayleh
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.