England vs. Montenegro, preview: The pressure’s on the hosts

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This is it: the “big one” in Europe. With just two rounds to go in UEFA World Cup qualifying, Group H is about as tight as it’s possible to be. England are unbeaten and, by virtue of that fact, sit top, but Ukraine are just one point behind. So, too, are Montenegro, although their inferior goal difference leaves them in third, without even the possibility of a playoff match to take them into the World Cup.

(MORE: a group-by-group overview of UEFA World Cup qualifying)

But that all could change on Friday night at Wembley. England may have brought the world the beautiful game, but under coach Roy Hodgson, they’re not peddling a brand of soccer that could be described in such a manner. Sure, England triumphed brutally over San Marino (13-0 over two legs) and Moldova (9-0 over two legs) but haven’t managed more than dull draws against their other competitors:  1-1 and 0-0 against Ukraine, 1-1 against Poland, and 1-1 in the first leg against Montenegro. There’s no entertainment here, just a simple grinding out of results, in any manner possible.

Perhaps that’s how it should be. After all, the point is to reach the World Cup, not to put on a dazzling display of theatrical footwork and brilliant backheels while blazing a trail to Brazil. Points dug up through long balls and headed goals count just as much.

The problem is that England need more than a hard fought draw this time: Ukraine are too close behind, and Montenegro face Moldova in the last round. Fortunately for Hodgson, he’s got a healthy squad at his disposal this time around. This is not the cobbled together squad that drew against Ukraine last time; instead, it’s likely Wayne Rooney will be set to sit behind Daniel Sturridge as the two look to lead the Three Lions attack. Ashley Cole misses out through injury, but it’s unlikely anyone will be concerned by the thought of Leighton Baines taking his place at left back. In fact, the only real concern is the form of Joe Hart, who’s made a few marquee mistakes in goal for Manchester City recently. But high profile mistakes are the bane of goalkeepers’ existences, and it’s highly unlikely that the experienced Hart will make a major gaff against Montenegro.

It’s the visitors that should feel nervous. They’re missing injured Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic, who may have scored just two goals in qualifying thus far, but has a knack for getting into dangerous positions. Montenegro are also without centerback Marko Basa, while defender Miodrag Dzudovic’s status is questionable. That leaves them relying on Stevan Jovetic, who, thanks to injuries and a bit of bad luck, has barely seen the pitch for Manchester City this season. When Jovetic is in form, he’s a real terror, annoying defenders and looking to score from any angle.

Yet, despite being so close to qualifying for their first World Cup as an independent nation, there seem to be few nerves around the Montenegro camp. Jovetic himself said the pressure is on England, where the fans expect qualification and the media scrutinizes every move and every decision. Montenegrins, meanwhile, seem satisfied with their sides’ performance, and the media are producing heartwarming stories about how the national team loves to play in front of a big crowd. So Montenegro go to Wembley with little pressure, likely to simply play in their regular manner: defensively organized and with an eye toward the rare opportunity to get forward and find a goal.

Finally, both sides may find slight comfort in knowing that Ukraine face Poland this time around. The Poles are not yet eliminated from reaching Brazil, sitting just two points behind Ukraine and Montenegro. A win this time, and they could move into second. But if England and Montenegro play out a draw and Ukraine outplay Poland as they did in the first leg, it could be Ukraine that books a direct flight to Brazil — and with the hapless San Marino on deck for the final round, there will be no overcoming Ukraine’s advantage.

French league terminates goal-line technology contract

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PARIS (AP) The French football league has terminated the contract with its goal-line technology provider after a series of glitches.

The LFP had already suspended the use of GoalControl, the German system that was deployed at the 2014 World Cup.

According to L’Equipe newspaper, the league will launch a tender in February to find a new provider of the technology that determines whether the ball crossed the line.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

In recent months, the French league had repeatedly expressed its discontent with GoalControl.

Goal-line technology entered soccer after a goal was wrongly disallowed at the 2010 World Cup.

FIFA is already focused on fast-tracking the next phase of technology – video assistant referees – for the World Cup in June.

Goal-line technology and VAR were provided by Hawk-Eye at the Confederations Cup last year.

Bristol City’s Johnson: “They certainly have heard of us now”

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The Premier League world may see Bristol City next season, but it seems its manager has the personality to arrive on the top flight whether or not his Robins earn promotion this season.

Johnson, 36, earned plenty of plaudits after leading his Championship club to the League Cup semifinals, famously defeated Manchester United in the quarters.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

Before that, Bristol beat Premier League sides Crystal Palace, Stoke City, and Watford. The Robins beat third tier Plymouth Argyle 5-0 in the first round.

Johnson was beaming after the Robins took Man City to the edge, closing to within a goal of extra time before Kevin De Bruyne‘s stoppage time number ended the tie 5-3 on aggregate.

“Absolutely I’m proud. It’s not just tonight but over the course of the season, particularly the cup run. It was a fantastic occasion, I’m sorry we couldn’t get the win but we played against the best side that I have ever seen live. They have so many good individuals.

“We kept going and it’s taken two injury-time goals to beat us. They certainly have [heard of us] now…everybody knows what we’re about. It’s been great.”

Bristol City is in the Championship’s fifth place, bidding for its first top flight campaign since 1980. Johnson should be a hot prospect to earn a shot in the Premier League should the Robins not make the jump.

League Cup semifinal preview: Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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  • Chelsea has won 4-of-7 League Cup matches vs. Arsenal
  • Arsenal leads all-time series 74W-58D-62L
  • Clubs have drawn four times this season

Hardware hopes are on the line when Chelsea hits the Emirates Stadium for a League Cup semifinal second leg with Arsenal on Wednesday.

The sides drew 0-0 at Stamford Bridge, giving Chelsea the advantage of knowing a scoring draw would do the trick and set up a date with Manchester City at Wembley on Feb. 25, though Arsenal has home field advantage in pursuit of a win.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

Henrikh Mkhitaryan may debut for Arsenal, though the club released an interesting note on Tuesday: He’ll wear No. 7 in most competitions, but will have to use a different number in the Europa League because Alexis Sanchez wore it to start the tournament.

Chelsea’s Antonio Conte won’t have Alvaro Morata (back) and Cesc Fabregas for the match, though Andreas Christensen will be available for selection.

The clubs are no strangers to each other in big non-PL spots, squaring off in this season’s Community Shield (Arsenal won in penalty kicks) and last season’s FA Cup Final (Arsenal won).

Nothing has separated the sides on the field aside from those penalty kicks at Wembley Stadium, as Arsenal and Chelsea have drawn 1-1, 0-0, 2-2, and 0-0 since August.

What they’re saying

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger on Henrikh Mkhitaryan“He can play in different positions, but personally I see him first in a wide position, but I’m thinking about him a possibility to play through the middle. You are certain in our job of nothing, that’s absolutely sure. But you believe and I believe he has the qualities to do well, is a team player and our game is based on team attitude and movement and I think he can absorb the quantity of movement in our team.”

Chelsea’s Conte on the lineup: “Every game is different, you change the quality of your opponent and you must be intelligent enough to understand if you should continue with the same players or make some changes.”

Javier Mascherano leaving Barcelona after 8 seasons

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says defender Javier Mascherano is leaving the club after eight seasons.

Barcelona says there will be a farewell ceremony on Wednesday with Mascherano, club president Josep Bartomeu and the rest of the squad.

[ MORE: Man City to buy $86m CB ]

The 33-year-old Argentina international will say goodbye to the fans before Thursday’s game against Espanyol at Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey. He is reportedly going to play in China.

Mascherano, who also played as a defensive midfielder, arrived in Barcelona in 2010 from Liverpool and helped the Catalan club win 18 titles. He has made 334 appearances with Barcelona, but recently hadn’t been playing much.

The club earlier this month signed Colombia international Yerry Mina to boost its defense.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga