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?)

LIVE, UCL – Sevilla vs. Man United, Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma

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Jose Mourinho has created a splash this morning by benching Paul Pogba despite utilizing a 3-man central midfield formation as Manchester United heads to Spain to take on Sevilla in their Champions League Round of 16 first leg meeting.

Pogba was left out of Saturday’s win over Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup due to illness, but having made the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad, it seems his omission is instead due to tactical reasons. 21-year-old academy product Scott McTominay starts in Pogba’s place alongside Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, with the Frenchman on the bench among the substitutes.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

The decision is surprising given Manchester United’s 16-point deficit in the Premier League table as they trail runaway favorites Manchester City, leaving the Champions League as the best competition remaining that the Red Devils have a shot to win.

Up front for Manchester United, Alexis Sanchez carries the creative load along with Juan Mata, with both supporting Romelu Lukaku at the striker position. Meanwhile, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof continue to work as the central defensive partnership, while Antonio Valencia captains the side as full-back, mirrored by Ashley Young on the other edge.

In the other matchup, Roma heads to the Ukraine to take on Shakhtar Donetsk, who finished 2nd in Group F three points behind Manchester City. The Ukranian side has only just returned from its winter break, with just a single game played since December 10th.

Roma, meanwhile, has pulled itself out of a rut just in time for the return of Champions League play, with three straight Serie A wins coming on the heels of a five-match winless run. They have scored eight goals over those three wins, with a pair of road clean sheets among the group. 20-year-old Turkish winger Cengiz Under is on fire over the win streak, scoring four goals over that span.


Today’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 schedule

Sevilla vs. Manchester United – 2:45 p.m. ET
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma – 2:45 p.m. ET

Reports: Mourinho to leave Paul Pogba out of Champions League lineup

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According to multiple reports across England, including the BBC, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is ready to leave Paul Pogba out of his starting lineup for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Sevilla despite utilizing a 4-3-3 formation with three central midfielders.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

The reports state that Pogba will be left on the bench in favor of youngster Scott McTominay, who will start alongside Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. Mourinho has spoken highly of McTominay recently, saying three days ago, “I think Scott deserves more than what he is getting.”

“Maybe it’s because he’s this kind of kid profile: a normal haircut, no tattoos, no big cars, no big watches, humble kid, arrive in the club when he was nine or 10,” Mourinho said in what many perceived to be a thinly veiled slap at Pogba.

Mourinho has held back from publicly criticizing his $125 million midfielder in the media, but his actions on the field suggest otherwise. The 24-year-old has failed to record 90 minutes in three straight Premier League matches, seeing his manager yank him before the full-time whistle in two and failing to make the starting lineup in the other, leaving many to speculate a rift between the two.

The decision is especially surprising given Juan Mata‘s comments earlier Wednesday that suggested Manchester United is prioritizing the Champions League, given their 16-point deficit to Manchester City in the Premier League table.

Pogba missed the 2-0 FA Cup win over Huddersfield on Saturday due to illness, but it’s hard to imagine that four days later that keeps the French superstar on the bench, especially given his ability to make the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad.

Leicester City settles Financial Fair Play dispute with Football League

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Leicester City will owe the Football League a reduced fine after coming to an agreement with the English lower-league governing body over a dispute regarding the 2013/14 season.

The Foxes, who won the Championship that season and were promoted to the Premier League, were handed an official breach of Financial Fair Play rules after accruing a loss exceeding the allowed $11 million amount. However, Leicester City argued that the deficit was due to “allowable” amounts regarding promotion and academy costs.

After talks between the two parties, the EFL announced Leicester City will owe a reduced amount of $4.33 million. They could have owed up to $18 million, the differential between the allowed amount and their actual posted loss of $20.8 million.

In an official release, the EFL announced, “The EFL acknowledges that [Leicester City] did not make any deliberate attempt to infringe the Rules or to deceive and that the dispute arose out of genuine differences of interpretation of the Rules between the parties.”

After initially receiving word of the notice back in 2014, the Foxes had legally challenged the fine, but that had been put on hold after litigation began in 2015 between the EFL and Queens Park Rangers for a similar dispute. Bournemouth was also fined after incurring a significant loss in their 2014/15 promotion season. Teams that breach rules but are not promoted face transfer bans, such as Fulham, Bolton, and Nottingham Forest received through the 2014/15 season.

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.