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.

Three seriously injured, 120 detained in Bruges hooligan riot

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BRUSSELS (AP) Authorities are investigating a hooligan riot which seriously injured three people and forced Brugge police to detain 120 following the match between Club Brugge and Antwerp.

[ MORE: Mbappe wins Golden Boy ]

Local police chief Dirk Van Nuffel says one policeman was among the seriously wounded as authorities sought to contain a brawl between Belgian fans reinforced by others who had come from the Netherlands.

By Monday morning all were released but investigators were still seeking to see who was at the core of the fighting. Van Nuffel says such hooligan fighting “hadn’t been seen for years.”

Everton fires Ronald Koeman

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A 5-2 home loss versus Arsenal sent Everton into the Premier League drop zone, and that’s apparently a bridge too far for the Toffees when it comes to their managerial position.

Ronald Koeman is out at Goodison Park.

[ MORE: Mbappe named Golden Boy ]

Everton sits 18th in the Premier League with eight points, it’s minus-11 goal differential second-worst in the top flight. Its 18 goals conceded are third-worst, and only three clubs have scored fewer goals than its seven.

The Toffees won two rounds in the Europa League, beating Ružomberok and Hajduk Split, but have lost to Atalanta and Lyon while drawing Apollon Limassol in Group E play.

Everton faces Chelsea in League Cup play on Wednesday before a critical early season match at Leicester City on Sunday.

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The Best: Neymar, Ronaldo, Messi — Is there a front-runner?

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While France Football has its Ballon d’Or winner somewhere on a 30-man shortlist, FIFA’s “Best” men’s player is down to an unsurprising three ahead of Monday afternoon’s ceremony.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar are up for the award, and there was no major summer tournament outside of the Confederations Cup — only Ronaldo participated — to help tilt the scales in one’s favor this summer.

[ MORE: Mbappe named Golden Boy ]

Of course, Ronaldo claimed another UEFA Champions League crown, but was far from the simple standout of the club. In international play, both Ronaldo and Messi’s World Cup qualifying campaigns came down to the wire while Neymar captained Brazil’s dominant ride through CONMEBOL.

The award, which is said to be for on- and off-field behavior, was voted on by national coaches, national captains, select members of the media and fans.

Ronaldo is the favorite according to hardware, while Messi’s numbers and Neymar’s playmaking both can lay claim to the throne.

Stats since start of 2017

Lionel Messi

Club goals: 46
Club assists: 16
Country caps: 6
Country goals: 4
Accolades: World Cup qualifier, Copa Del Rey winner

Neymar

Club goals: 24
Club assists: 21
Country caps: 6
Country goals: 2
Country assists: 3
Accolades: World Cup qualifier, Copa Del Rey winner

Cristiano Ronaldo

Club goals: 31
Club assists: 7
Country caps: 11
Country goals: 11
Country assists: 4
Accolades: Confederations Cup semifinal, World Cup qualifier, Champions League winner, La Liga winner

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Mbappe wins Golden Boy over Rashford, Pulisic, Gabriel Jesus

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Paris Saint-Germain, France, and (former) Monaco starlet Kylian Mbappe has claimed the Golden Boy Award over Ousmane Dembele, Christian Pulisic, and others.

[ MORE: TFC sets MLS record ]

The Golden Boy is chosen from the top Under-21 players in Europe, and the short list had the above names and 22 more including Gabriel Jesus, Gianluigi Donnarumma, and Marcus Rashford.

Mbappe, still 18 until Dec. 20, has four goals and four assists this season for PSG after scoring 26 goals with 14 assists for Monaco last season. He also has a goal for France.

The teenager likely played the biggest role at the biggest club last season, though Donnarumma was exceptional at Milan, Jesus’ injury conspired against him at Man City, and Marcus Rashford was very good for United.

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