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.

Europa League, LIVE: Arsenal, Marseille host first legs

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Diego Costa brings a solid career record against Arsenal back to London in a bid to ruin Arsene Wenger‘s farewell season at the Emirates Stadium.

[ FOLLOW: Arsenal vs. Atleti ]

The now-Atletico Madrid forward returns to England on Thursday as his La Liga outfit aims to stop Arsenal from reaching next month’s Europa League Final in Lyon.

[ FOLLOW: Marseille vs. Red Bull Salzburg ]

That’s a 3:05 p.m. ET kickoff, the same as Marseille’s date with Red Bull Salzburg in France.

ARSENAL-ATLETICO MADRID LINEUPS

Arsenal: Ospina, Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Xhaka, Wilshere, Ramsey, Welbeck, Ozil, Lacazette. Subs: Cech, Maitland-Niles, Holding, Chambers, Kolasinac, Iwobi, Nketiah.

Atleti: Oblak, Lucas, Godin, Gimenez, Vrsaljko, Saul, Thomas, Koke, Correa, Griezmann, Gameiro. Subs: Werner, Savic, Gabi, Vitolo, Olabe, Torres, Costa.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks

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It is that time of the week again, folks. Prediction time!

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ]

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Listen carefully, because this is very specific.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush” ]

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the long shots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

West Ham 0-3 Man City – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Tottenham 4-0 Watford – (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM ]

Swansea City 0-2 Chelsea – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

Man United 3-1 Arsenal – (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]


DON’T TOUCH THIS…

Newcastle 1-1 West Brom – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

Huddersfield 1-2 Everton- (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

Burnley 1-0 Brighton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

Liverpool 2-1 Stoke City – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]


“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

 


Southampton 2-1 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Crystal Palace 2-0 Leicester City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

Chivas’ Almeyda exhales after CCL win: “I finished last season with five ulcers”

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Matias Almeyda’s body didn’t need the intensity of penalty kicks, though he’ll gladly accept the outcome after Chivas Guadalajara clinched a Club World Cup berth by beating Toronto FC in the CONCACAF Champions League final.

“I finished last season with five ulcers,” Almeyda told ESPN’s Tom Marshall, noting his grandmother is ill as well.

Chivas reached a pair of finals before this tournament, and had a number of other obstacles including protests of the club’s owners and disappointment in player recruitment.

[ MORE: TFC’s “heart has been ripped from chest” ]

Still, the long-haired Argentine put together a winning CCL team. The former River Plate and Banfield manager spent most of his playing career in Spain, Italy, and Argentina, and is happy to pick up a big win in a new(ish) country.

“It’s beautiful. When I gave my first press conference I was unknown in Mexico and it wasn’t easy,” Almeyda said. “I spoke that day about what I wanted to achieve here and God has helped me achieve what I promised.”

The 44-year-old won Serie A as a player with Lazio, and has two Copa MX and a Liga MX title to go with his CCL crown. He’s a name to watch moving forward, and — as the kids say, don’t at me — a sneaky interesting name for the USMNT given his ability to marshal an undermanned unit.

Turkey hands bid plans for Euro 2024 to UEFA

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NYON, Switzerland (AP) Turkey has given UEFA its hosting plan for the 2024 European Championship, citing “unprecedented state support” to help beat Germany to stage the 24-team tournament.

Turkish soccer federation president Yildirim Demiroren says the latest attempt is “our best bid ever.” Ten stadiums proposed include two in Istanbul.

Turkey bid with Greece for EURO 2008, then alone for the 2012 and 2016 editions.

[ MORE: TFC’s “heart has been ripped from chest” ]

Before UEFA chose a multi-nation EURO 2020 hosting plan, Turkey was strongly favored before focusing on Istanbul’s failed 2020 Olympic bid.

Turkey has never hosted a major soccer tournament. West Germany hosted the eight-team EURO 1988 and a unified Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup.

The UEFA executive committee will pick a winner on Sept. 27 in Nyon.