CAF World Cup Qualifying: Third and final round starts Saturday

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World Cup qualifying in Africa is an interesting, and rather expedient, process. The first round consists of 12 home-and-away rounds, featuring the 24 lowest ranked sides on the continent. The 12 winners join the remaining 28 countries for the second round, in which the 40 teams are divided into ten groups. After six matches, the top sides in each group continue on to the third and final round.

And that’s where we are now: ready for another round of home-and-away legs, with the five teams finishing on top the ones that book their tickets to Brazil. CAF doesn’t force viewers to choose between two exciting matches, instead spacing the first five games out over the next four days.

Saturday, October 12

Burkina Faso vs. Algeria
Burkina Faso have never made it to the World Cup, but they did reach the final of the last Africa Cup of Nations, only to be defeated by Nigeria. It’s Algeria that have the advantage here, having made it to the World Cup last time around and putting in 13 goals in six games in the last round. But the hosts seem fairly confident, with Belgian coach Paul Put stating that “everyone is focused and motivated to deliver.”

Ivory Coast vs. Senegal
Of course it’s the Ivorians that are tipped to come away with a trip to Brazil, as they’re the top-rated team in Africa and get to boast of players like Gervinho, Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba. Meanwhile, Demba Ba misses out for Senegal, with Alain Giresse refusing to call players that don’t appear regularly for their clubs. That leaves the visitors with few experienced players on their side, and with a rather unimpressive second round, putting your money on Senegal doesn’t seem like a safe bet.

Sunday, October 13

Ethiopia vs. Nigeria
Ethiopia are the one team remaining from the first round, and just their luck, they’ve gone and drawn Nigeria. The Super Eagles are the current holders of the Africa Cup of Nations and made it through their group unbeaten. They’ve got the likes of Victor Moses, Victor Obinna and John Obi Mikel, while Ethiopia’s players mainly ply their trade in the domestic leagues. Still, Ethiopia have a great home record, so they’ve got that going for them.

Tunisia vs. Cameroon
Samuel Eto’o, who retired from international football last month, is already staging a comeback, having answered the call after being named to the Cameroon squad. The Indomitable Lions visit Tunisia, who are staging a comeback of their own. It appeared they’d lost their chance of going to Brazil after losing to Cape Verde in their final game of the second round, but after it emerged that their opponents had fielded a suspended player, Tunisia were awarded the win and moved on to the third round.

Tuesday, October 15

Ghana vs. Egypt 
It seems almost unfair — to fans of football, at least — that one of Ghana or Egypt won’t reach the World Cup. Although the Black Stars are ranked higher, it was Egypt that came out of the last round with six wins from six games. They scored 16 goals, second only to Ghana’s 18, although Egypt allowed seven to Ghana’s three. Even if we won’t be treated to both sides playing in Brazil, these two legs should at least be fun to watch. A slight tip to Ghana, though, in this one, not only as the hosts but because they’ll have their bonus’s doubled for a win. What better reason to get all three points?

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday