Opportunity knocks: The United States could officially qualify for World Cup 2014 with a win tonight against rival Mexico

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – A tremendous double dip of opportunity stands before the United States national soccer team Tuesday night in Ohio.

Qualifying for a World Cup is clearly the be-all, end-all in world soccer, the dream-maker that defines individual careers and helps assign rank to the game’s global order.

Booking official passage to World Cups has become a quadrennial U.S. highlight, and officially nailing the high-stakes target is always a moment to breath it all, to ceremonially harvest the fruits of three years labor. That could all happen tonight.

And then there is the rivalry with Mexico, a bit of a fallen giant at the moment, reeling from a weekend coaching change and teetering too close to the unfamiliar cliff of World Cup elimination. Every U.S. player, coach and supporter, even those feeling a touch of empathy, relishes the opportunity to sock El Tri in the nose at every possible chance.

(MORE: #DosACero — looking the U.S-Mexico history in Columbus)

So that’s the double dose of opportunity when U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s and his national team kicks off tonight from Crew Stadium, the chosen venue now for more than a decade for these critical World Cup qualifiers against Mexico. Game time at the 24,000-seat home of the Columbus Crew is 8 p.m. ET (ESPN, in Spanish on UniMas).

The Americans are in great shape in the six-team final-stage CONCACAF group, from which three teams qualify for Brazil, with a fourth heading into a play-in series against New Zealand. Klinsmann’s team will make it official with a win tonight, coupled with a Honduras win or tie at home against Panama.

source:  Klinsmann badly wants to seal the deal in Columbus and was upset about Friday’s loss in Costa Rica, about dropping an opportunity move closer to the finish line there.  “You do not want to wait,” he said. “You want to [qualify] at the next possible chance. Knowing what Mexico is going through, but we have to look this purely from our end,  and we have got to secure our points, and make sure nobody is getting nervous about it.”

U.S. Soccer federation leaders leave money on the table by not staging U.S.-Mexico at a larger venue. But smaller facilities allow organizers to better control ticket sales, helping to ensure a pro-American crowd. Plus, there’s that increasingly meaningful history; The United States defeated Mexico in Columbus, sometimes famously so, en route to World Cup qualification in 2001, 2005 and 2009.

“We have history here, and for soccer in our country that not always the case,” injured U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said Monday. “So for us to walk into a stadium where there is history, it’s a special feeling. The people in Columbus, in this part of the United States, they love soccer, they love our team, the love supporting soccer in the United States.

“So when we come here, when we step out on the field, there is an overwhelming feeling of American support. When you play against Mexico, when you play in these games where so much is on the line, that can push us. That can help the bar swing our way.”

(MORE: Michael Bradley talks about his injury, absence)

U.S. defender/midfielder DaMarcus Beasley (pictured above) called the Columbus effect the team’s “12th man on the field.”  Beasley, who has been around the team since before the 2002 World Cup, knows better than most that hasn’t always been the case for U.S. matches.

Even with such slanted history, this contest is painfully difficult to predict. Both teams have significant holes to fill. For the United States, that starts with Bradley, the most indispensable U.S. man these days. But with three key figures out due to yellow card accumulation, Klinsmann also has holes to fill at center back and striker, plus looming decisions at two pesky trouble spots, left and right back.

(MORE: Where is the biggest hole in the U.S. lineup?)

Still, if you put the United States problems on the table and then look at Mexico’s mangled pile-up of issues, you’ll take the U.S. set. Mexico has lineup issues and an ongoing inability to score goals, for starters, plus the comprehensive turmoil of a coaching change with just three matches remaining in final stage of World Cup qualifying.

Last Friday’s loss at home to Honduras was the final straw for Mexican manager Jose Manuel de la Torre, who was replaced within hours by assistant Luis Fernando Tena. How El Tri will react – motivated by the coaching change, or stuck in the same funk, with the same set of players and most of the same coaching staff? – really is anybody’s guess.

Klinsmann and his players warned that Mexico remains a dangerous team, with talent throughout the lineup, even if they haven’t put the pieces together in the best way possible. U.S. forward Clint Dempsey says the players don’t see Mexico as “vulnerable.”

“Mexico is a team that has quality, and we need to prepare that way,” Clint Dempsey said. “Every game at home is a must-win, you have to get those points at home to get to a World Cup.

“Getting to the World Cup is the most important thing, no matter how we do it. But you don’t want to wait ‘til the last game, wanting other teams to do you a favor because you weren’t able to get the job done. So we liked to get it wrapped up as soon as we can.”

(MORE: U.S. wary of Mexican backlash amid team turmoil)

(MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann says the time to qualify is NOW!)

(MORE: Klinsmann adds in reinforcements for Tuesday’s match vs. Mexico)

(MORE: Who should start against Mexico?)

Oxlade-Chamberlain injury update

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Jurgen Klopp does not seem confident that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will play again this season.

The Liverpool and England midfielder suffered an injury to his right knee early on in Liverpool’s 5-2 win over Roma in their UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg, as he appeared to extend his right knee under his body when making a challenge on Aleksandar Kolarov.

Speaking to the media following Liverpool’s dramatic win, Klopp was downbeat about Oxlade-Chamberlain’s chances of playing again this season.

“We don’t know exactly but if the medical department are quite concerned without a scan, you can imagine it’s difficult. The season is not that long anymore. It doesn’t look good,” Klopp said. “I’m a very positive person and still hope it only feels bad, but is not that bad. We’ll see. We lost a fantastic player tonight. It’s not good news.”

This injury has come at such a bad time for The Ox.

He has been flourishing with Liverpool in a central midfield role and has delivered key goals and assists in big wins since arriving from Arsenal last summer. Most notably the Ox’s driving midfield runs have caused Manchester City all kinds of problems and he scored two screamers against them in wins at Anfield in the Premier League and UCL.

Georginio Wijnaldum stepped in admirably for Oxlade-Chamberlain against Roma and the Dutch midfielder will be used alongside James Milner and Jordan Henderson from here on out by Klopp, especially with Emre Can battling a back injury.

As for Oxlade-Chamberlain, he will now be focused on trying to be fit for the UCL final on May 26 (if Liverpool get there) and on making England’s 2018 World Cup squad. That seems like a big ask given Klopp’s gloomy assessment.

Wenger: Timing of departure “not really my decision”

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Arsene Wenger has been speaking about his Arsenal departure and there are some intriguing details emerging.

Wenger, 68, announced last Friday that he would be leaving Arsenal at the end of the current 2017-18 campaign after almost 22 years in charge.

But when asked about the timing of his decision during his press conference ahead of the Europa League semifinal first leg against Atletico Madrid on Thursday and whether or not that was helpful, Wenger said it was taken out of his hands.

“The timing was not really my decision, the rest I have spoken about already,” Wenger said. “I focus on what I have to do every day. At the moment, I work like ever.”

Wenger added that he will “for sure” continue to work beyond this season but wasn’t giving anything away on where he would go. The Arsenal boss also said he had a “high opinion of Luis Enrique” but that he didn’t “want to influence the next manager” of Arsenal with so many contenders mentioned as he also confirmed he will have no say on his successor.

What do we make of all this?

Wenger still has one more year left on his current deal at Arsenal and it appears he was keen to be in charge next season, but he could have simply been saying that he would have preferred an announcement at the end of the season rather than before a big European semifinal. His comments can be interpreted either way but many journalists in the room are all suggesting Wenger was talking about the overall decision to step down now.

The growing, and widely reported, notion that Wenger stepped down before he was sacked seems to be on point. After three Premier League titles and 10 major trophies in total in over two decades in charge, it appears Wenger didn’t get to decide when he called time on his Arsenal career.

The perfect end for Wenger at Arsenal would be to win the Europa League and then leave on a high, but these comments suggest the Frenchman may not be happy with some of the hierarchy at Arsenal.

These comments amid links to PSG and the French national team also suggest to rule out a role upstairs at Arsenal, at least for the foreseeable future, for Wenger. Intriguing times ahead.

Roma condemn violent scenes outside Anfield

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AS Roma have condemned an attack from some of its supporters on Liverpool’s fans before the game after a 53-year-old Liverpool supporter was injured outside Anfield before the UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg on Tuesday.

The Serie A side said that a “small minority of traveling fans brought shame on the club” as two men from Rome have been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after the attack on the Liverpool fan who is in a critical condition after suffering head injuries.

Below is the statement in full from the Italian club.

AS Roma condemns in the strongest possible terms the abhorrent behavior of a small minority of traveling fans who brought shame on the club and the vast majority of Roma’s well-behaved supporters at Anfield after getting involved in clashes with Liverpool supporters before last night’s fixture.

There is no place for this type of vile behavior in football and the club is now cooperating with Liverpool Football Club, UEFA and the authorities. The club’s thoughts and prayers are with the 53-year-old Liverpool fan in hospital and his family at this time.

Salah’s sensational season in context

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Mohamed Salah is having a season on the same level as Lionel Messi.

Some* will even say it’s better.

[ MORE: LFC 2-1 Roma | Klopp reacts ]

There are few ways to overstate how well the Egyptian has performed for Liverpool this season, and few matches have been as strong as Tuesday’s destruction of AS Roma.

Make no mistake about it: Destruction is the right word. I Lupi isn’t dead thanks to the Reds right side of the defense and James Milner‘s arm, but it was fading out of consciousness when Salah departed the game.

It’s not crazy to draw the connection. Just ask Jurgen Klopp:

“If anyone wants to say it is my mistake that we concede the two goals because I change the striker, I have no problem with that,” he said. “Mo was running all the time and it would not have helped us if he gets an injury. What a player. If you think he is the best in the world, write it or say it. He is in outstandingly good shape, world-class shape, but to be the best in the world you need to do it over a longer period, I think. The other two are not bad.”

No, no they are not, but Salah is on their level.

The aesthetics of his first goal were first-class, dinging off the bottom of the cross bar like a vicious swish of a Steph Curry three. When the night ended, Salah had two more goals and two more assists to bring his total to 43 goals and 15 assists in 47 matches. In three more matches, the best player on the planet has 40 and 18 (Ronaldo has 42 and 7 in 39).

[ MORE: LFC supporter in critical condition after Roma attack ]

The reason not to overreact is Luis Suarez’s 2013-14, in which he posted posted 31 goals and 24 assists in 37 games and would’ve arguably made Salah’s season look just “pretty great” if the Reds were in European football (or, one could argue, Suarez wasn’t slowed by the demands of a more congested adventure).

And we also won’t know Salah’s path next season. Take Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2007-08 season, the closest thing we have to Suarez or Salah in this generation. The then-23-year-old posted 42+8 in 49, but took a step back the next season before exploding into space upon debut with Madrid the following season (His second Real campaign, 2010-11, was the first real otherworldly CR7 campaign, with 53+18 in 54).

Salah is the Premier League Player of the Year, and he’s the front-runner for the Ballon d’Or (which is likely to be determined by this summer’s World Cup in Russia, with Argentina and Portugal possibly on a quarterfinal collision course and Egypt in an very winnable Group A with Russia, Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia).

Jurgen Klopp deserves much credit for Salah’s explosion. Even if the Egyptian began his ascent in Italy, there’s been nothing like this. And if he can do it a few more years, he has the chance to land amongst the generational names in soccer (perhaps as the best African player in Premier League history with Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba).

He’ll almost certainly become the all-time single-season Liverpool league goal scorer this season barring rest for the UCL, and he’ll be their top all-time according to Opta if he nabs four or more goals across 4-5 matches (Roma again, Stoke, Chelsea, Brighton, and probably Real Madrid or Bayern Munich).

The Reds were unbelievably good for 80 minutes on Tuesday — 75 of which were Salah-led — and the praise would’ve been flowing like a waterfall had they not switched off for 10 (in which it must be said Liverpool was fortunate to only concede twice!).

*By the way, Messi fans, you’ll be relieved to count me as not one of those who’d say Salah is having a better season. It’s closer than you think. Messi is better than Salah in league play, while Salah is having a superior UCL campaign. Given the general consensus top-to-bottom on Premier League vs. La Liga and Barca’s UCL competition vs. Liverpool’s opponents — which is drawing level now — we’d say it’s even.

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Messi 0.4-0.31
Key passes: Messi, 2.16-1.63
Chances created: Messi, 2.56-1.94
Attack score: Messi, 73.04-54.5
Possession score: Messi, 5.6 to minus-5.12
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-77
Shot accuracy: Even (62%)
Tackles won: Salah, 0.24-0.2
Take-ons won (%): Messi, 69.47-64.96

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Salah, 0.45-0.23
Key passes: Salah, 2.13-1.72
Chances created: Salah, 2.58-1.95
Attack score: Salah, 70.89-55.69
Possession score: Messi, 2.71 to minus-3.34
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-73
Shot accuracy(%): Salah, 73-69
Tackles won: Messi, 0.69-.45
Take-ons won (%): Salah, 76.4-61.4