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.

UCL Playoff Wrap: Liverpool, Sporting CP, CSKA advance to group stage

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It was another memorable European night for Liverpool in front of the Kop at Anfield.

Lifted by three goals in the opening 21 minutes, the Reds cruised to a 4-2 win over Hoffenheim 1899 in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League playoff stage Wednesday evening. With the win, Liverpool returns to the Champions League group stage for the first time since the 2014-2015 season.

[ MORE: Champions League scores ]

Sadio Mane set up Emre Can twice and both Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino chipped in with goals of their own to lead Liverpool to victory. After Can’s double and Salah’s goal gave Liverpool a three-goal lead, Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann brought Mark Uth off the bench onto the field and he promptly scored in the 28th minute to draw within two.

Firmino again put Liverpool ahead by three goals with a goal into an open net in the 63rd minute. Hoffenheim recorded a consolation goal in the 79th minute through Sandro Wagner but Liverpool was resolute and held on for victory.

Liverpool, and the rest of the winning clubs, will learn their fates for the group stage on Thursday.

Here’s a look at the rest of the Champions League playoff scores:

Slavia Prague 0-0 APOEL (APOEL advances 2-0 on aggregate)

FC Copenhagen 2-1 Qarabag FK (Qarabag advances on away goals, 2-2 on aggregate)

FCSB (Steaua București) 1-5 Sporting CP (Sporting CP advances 5-1 on aggregate)

CSKA Moscow 2-0 BSC Young Boys (CSKA advances on aggregate, 3-0)

VIDEO: A sneak peek of Everton’s Europa League journey – Part 2

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In Part 2 of Everton Unseen, European football returns to Goodison Park as Everton host MFK Ruzomberok in the qualifying round of the Europa League.

Click play on the video below to get a feel for how Goodison Park will be in the second leg of the Europa League in Part 2 of this videos series.

[ MORE: Live Europa League scores

[ WATCH: Part 1 of Everton Unseen ] 

http://www.nbcsports.com/video/everton-unseen-part-2-everton-host-mfk-ruzomberok-europa-league

FIFA to send in emergency team to run Cameroon football

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA says it is sending in an emergency management team to run the troubled Cameroon football federation.

The panel to be appointed by FIFA and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) will oversee elections by next March to replace disputed polls in 2015 for the Cameroon federation board.

FIFA’s intervention comes amid speculation Cameroon could be stripped of hosting the next African Cup of Nations in June-July 2019.

CAF President Ahmad this month cast doubt on Cameroon’s ability to prepare for the expanded 24-team tournament.

FIFA says Wednesday it acted after “recent failed attempts … to reconcile the football stakeholders in Cameroon and overcome the current impasse.”

Transfer Roundup: Tottenham complete signing of Sanchez, Clucas joins Swansea

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Tottenham reportedly broke the bank for its first transfer of the summer.

The North London club confirmed that it had completed a transfer with Ajax for defender Davinson Sanchez after the Colombian international passed a medical. According to The Telegraph, the deal is worth around $54 million, a club record. The deal is subject to acquisition of Sanchez’s work permit but given the transfer fee and him being in Colombia’s squad, it’s likely a mere formality at this point.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The 21-year-old defender brings speed and strength to Tottenham’s backline as well as a year of seasoning in the Eredivisie, which features plenty of attacking talent. Sanchez will battle with Eric Dier, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen for a place in Spurs’ three-man backline.

It’s a risk moving to a new club a year ahead of the World Cup, but Sanchez is hoping that with appearances in the UEFA Champions League and Premier League up for grabs, he can do well enough to keep his place in the Colombia National Team squad.

Here’s some more transfer news from across England:

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