Romelu Lukaku

UEFA World Cup Qualifying: Four countries could book their tickets to Brazil

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The penultimate round of UEFA World Cup qualifying kicks off on Friday, October 11, with the final matches — and the ultimate winners and losers — to be played out on Tuesday, October 15. Just two countries have qualified out of Europe thus far: Italy and the Netherlands.

That means there are still eleven spots up for grabs. Seven groups are left to be decided, while eight second-place countries will qualify for the playoff round. As there are nine groups in UEFA qualifying, that means one second-place country won’t even get a second chance. Right now that country is Iceland, who have the same number of points as Bulgaria, but Bulgaria have the better goal difference. Of course, all could change over the final two rounds.

A few countries are this close to booking their trips to Brazil. Belgium and Germany are guaranteed at least a spot in the playoff round, while Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Spain and France will all take at least second place in their groups. As for the Friday night matches, Belgium, Russia, Switzerland and Germany could all clinch their place in World Cup 2014.

(MORE: What’s at stake in upcoming World Cup qualifying)

Now let’s take a closer look, group by group:

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Croatia-Belgium
Wales-Macedonia

With everyone else eliminated from Group A, Croatia and Belgium are now fighting it out to avoid the playoffs. Belgium, undefeated and on a six-game winning streak, are in a much better position than the hosts, and can qualify for Brazil by taking just a point. The visitors are without Vincent Kompany and Christian Benteke, but considering their wealth of attacking options, it’s highly likely they’ll manage at least a draw.

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Armenia- Bulgaria
Malta-Czech Republic
Denmark-Italy

Italy have already punched their ticket, but hosts Denmark are one point back of second-placed Bulgaria. With Italy likely to trot out some less experienced faces in the front line — the rumor is that Antonio Candreva and Alessandro Diamanti will flank Pablo Osvaldo — the Danes may fancy their chances at getting a win and slipping into the playoffs. Bulgaria, meanwhile, must face Armenia, who technically still have a chance, although they’ll need to win both matches while hoping everyone above them slips up.

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Faroe Islands-Kazakhstan
Germany-Republic of Ireland
Sweden-Austria

While technically Germany need a win against Ireland to secure qualification, a point is almost certainly sufficient — they’ve got a goal difference that’s fifteen better than second-placed Sweden. Speaking of Sweden, their trip to the playoffs isn’t assured. If Austria win, that puts the two on level terms, but Austria’s final match is against the Faroe Islands, who have yet to earn a point, while Sweden face Germany in the last round. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and company will really want to make themselves secure with a win against Austria tonight.

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Netherlands-Hungary
Andorra-Romania
Estonia-Turkey

It’s still quite a fight in Group D. Holland is already through, but that leaves Hungary in second, with Romania and Turkey each just a point behind. If the Netherlands approach the match with little concern, Hungary should be able to hang on and slip into the playoffs, particularly as they face minnows Andorra in the last round. Turkey have the toughest battle, having to face Holland in the last round, but they’ve won their last four matches and are more likely to be concentrating on whether or not Hungary will slip up.

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Iceland- Cyprus
Albania-Switzerland
Slovenia-Norway

Seems like everything is up in the air in this group. If Switzerland pull off a win against Albania, they’re through. They’re also through with a draw if Iceland can’t win, and even a loss is ok if neither Slovenia nor Iceland come away with all three points. So, barring a big slip, let’s just say the Swiss are through to Brazil. It’s the second-place race that’s interesting, with Iceland currently occupying that slot, Slovenia one point back, Norway one point back of them and Albania one point back of them. Yeah, it’s unlikely that it’ll be anyone other than Slovenia or Iceland, but it’s still possible. Plus, there’s the added factor that, with the second place team in Group E holding so few points at the moment, whoever takes it will have to up their game to make sure they’re not at the bottom of those second placed finishers.

Yes, it’s definitely enough to make your head hurt.

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Luxembourg-Russia
Portugal-Israel
Azerbaijan-Northern Ireland

There’s just a point separating Russia and Portugal, but if Russia win and Portugal lose, that point is enough to put the Russians through to Brazil. With Luxembourg having won just once, it should be simple enough for Fabio Capello’s men to get the job done. It’ll be harder for Portugal, as technically Israel aren’t out of it yet. A win against Cristiano Ronaldo and his merry marauders, plus victory against Northern Ireland, will see Israel slip in if Portugal can’t pull off victory in the last round against Luxembourg.

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Lithuania-Latvia
Bosnia and Herzegovina- Liechtenstein
Greece-Slovakia

It’s only Greece and Bosnia that remain in the running in this group. The two are even on points, but it’s Bosnia that have the upper hand, boasting an impressive +20 goal difference, compared with Greece’s +5. Plus, Greece have to face Slovakia, who’ve looked quite lively over their last two outings, while Bosnia get Liechtenstein, who are bottom of the group with just two points. Neither side can secure their place tonight, and it’ll likely go down to the final minutes of the final round.

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England-Montenegro
Moldova-San Marino

Ukraine-Poland

Ah, this group. All eyes on England vs. Montenegro, as the world waits to see if the founders of football manage to make it to the World Cup. England are just a point above Montenegro, although Ukraine, with a better goal difference, sit in between. Montenegro managed a point against the Three Lions the last time out, and, despite attempting to qualify for their first World Cup as an independent nation, are facing much less pressure at Wembley. Getting a point here means it goes down to the wire in this group, particularly if Ukraine beat Poland, as they face San Marino in the last round and will most likely end up being the ones heading straight to Brazil.

(MORE: taking a closer look at England vs. Montenegro)

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Spain-Belarus

Just one match in Group I, and while it won’t punch Spain’s ticket to Brazil, the match against bottom-of-the-group Belarus could very well put France into the playoffs. Having played one less match than les bleus, Spain need just four points against Belarus and Georgia to end qualification on top of the group.

Altidore earns U.S. Male Player of the Year honors, Pulisic wins Young POY

Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore (17) reacts after scoring against the Montreal Impact during the first half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
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While Jozy Altidore and his Toronto FC side have the chance to take home MLS Cup on Saturday night, the U.S. Men’s National Team forward earned an award of his own in the build up.

[ MORE: MLS commissioner Garber addresses expansion and more ]

On Friday night, U.S. Soccer named Altidore the federation’s Male Player of the Year for 2016, while Borussia Dortmund attacker Christian Pulisic has won Male Young Player of the Year honors.

Altidore takes home Male POY honors for the second time in his career after first winning the award back in 2013.

Altidore narrowly won POY honors with 32 percent of the vote, beating out Bobby Wood (30 percent) and Geoff Cameron (15 percent).

“This is truly an honor to receive this award. It’s also very humbling when you look at such a talented group of teammates nominated for this accolade along with you,” Altidore said. “At the end of the day, any success I have had on the field this year is in large part due to their success and contributions.”

The 27-year-old Altidore scored 10 goals for TFC during the regular season, before adding five goals and four assists for the MLS side ahead of MLS Cup. In his time with the USMNT, Altidore has netted six goals and two assists in 2016, leading all players.

Pulisic found the net three times this year for the USMNT, while excelling in the Bundesliga with Dortmund. The 18-year-old has made 15 appearances in all competitions this season for the German giants and scored two goals for Thomas Tuchel’s squad.

Russian official Mutko seeks to retain FIFA Council seat

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 21: Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Vitaly Mutko attends at 'Vecherniy (Evening) Urgant' TV show on Channel 1 during FIFA 2018 World Cup Russia Official Mascot final choice event at Ostankino on October 21, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
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NYON, Switzerland (AP) Under fire for his role in Russia’s state doping program, Vitaly Mutko has begun the process of a FIFA integrity check to be an election candidate.

[ MORE: Can Spurs overcome their historic results form at Old Trafford? ]

Mutko, who heads Russian operations to organize the 2018 World Cup, has been elected by European soccer leaders since 2009 to represent them on FIFA’s ruling committee.

[ MORE: Man City visits Leicester with two sides on opposite ends of table ]

His FIFA seat is due for re-election in April, though potential candidates must pass a vetting and eligibility check by a review panel appointed by the world soccer body.

On Friday, Mutko was implicated in widespread evidence detailed by Canadian investigator Richard McLaren that he oversaw a state-backed doping program as sports minister.

Hours later, UEFA said Mutko was among five applicants for four vacant seats on the FIFA Council. The April 5 vote is by 55 European member federations.

Mutko has retained his FIFA positions and presidency of the Russian soccer federation since McLaren’s interim report was published in July.

The World Anti-Doping Agency then called on the FIFA ethics committee to investigate Mutko based on McLaren’s evidence.

The full investigation report release on Friday seemed to confirm that Mutko was asked to cover up a positive doping test by a Russian Premier League player from Uzbekistan.

Mutko was also implicated as sports minister in overseeing widespread doping programs of Russian athletes who competes at the 2012 London Olympics, 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and the 2013 track and field world championships, held in Moscow.

It is unclear if FIFA’s ethics committee has a mandate to prosecute non-soccer cases.

Asked on Friday if UEFA could launch its own investigation of Mutko, leaders of the European body deferred to FIFA’s ongoing vetting process.

“We have written to FIFA with the five potential candidates and the procedure is FIFA has to go through this eligibility check,” UEFA legal director Alasdair Bell said.

Bell acknowledged that the McLaren report “appears to contain some serious allegations” though noted that “these are contested.”

Three of Mutko’s long-standing colleagues are standing down from their FIFA Council seats from Europe: Michel D’Hooghe of Belgium, Senes Erzik of Turkey, and Marios Lefkaritis of Cyprus.

UEFA said the other election contenders are: Sandor Csanyi, a current UEFA executive committee member from Hungary; Geir Thorsteinsson, president of Iceland’s soccer federation; former AC Milan player Dejan Savicevic of Montenegro; and Costakis Koutsokoumnis, the Cyprus federation president.

Neymar out, Arda Turan has another chance for Barcelona

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 06:  Arda Turan of Barcelona (R) celebrates with Lucas Digne as he scores their second goal during the UEFA Champions League Group C match between FC Barcelona and VfL Borussia Moenchengladbach at Camp Nou on December 6, 2016 in Barcelona, .  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Fresh off scoring a hat trick, Turkey midfielder Arda Turan is hoping for another chance to prove he can play alongside Barcelona’s best.

[ MORE: Man City faces Leicester without Aguero, Fernandinho ]

With Neymar suspended for Saturday’s Spanish league match at Osasuna, Turan is likely to take his spot next to Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in the defending champion’s vaunted attack.

[ MORE: Arsenal looks to continue unbeaten run against Stoke City ]

Turan filled in superbly for Neymar on Tuesday when he scored his first hat trick for Barcelona to lead the team to a 4-0 victory over Borussia Moenchengladbach in the Champions League.

The treble took Turan’s scoring total for the season to eight goals, making him Barcelona’s third-leading scorer behind Messi (20) and Suarez (12).

Even though nobody doubts Neymar is the more talented of the two, the Brazil striker has managed only six goals despite playing 400 minutes more than Turan this season.

Neymar’s suspensions from both the `Gladbach and Osasuna matches were for accumulation of bookings in both competitions.

“Arda is scoring lots of goals. When he plays on the wing he has many skills he can draw on,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said. “He can also play in midfield. I am happy for him.”

Turan, however, has proven to be a tough piece for Luis Enrique to fit into Barcelona’s talent-laden puzzle.

As his coach said, Turan has impressed on the left side of the attack. But that spot has Neymar’s name stamped on it, and Turan has struggled when asked to play further back.

While Turan flourishes when given space and the freedom to break down defenses, he looks uncomfortable in Barcelona’s demanding precision passing approach.

His unease with the defensive tasks that playing in midfield entails was clear in last weekend’s match against Real Madrid when Turan went on as a late substitute to help protect a one-goal lead.

Instead, Turan’s foul on Marcelo conceded a dangerous free kick that Luka Modric didn’t waste, placing a cross for Sergio Ramos to head in a 90th-minute equalizer and snatch a 1-1 draw that kept Madrid six points clear at the top of the Spanish table.

Turan took a lot of heat for that foul in the Barcelona sports media, meaning his three goals against `Gladbach couldn’t have come at a better time.

“We haven’t played well recently and haven’t gotten good results,” Turan said. “We tried to get the best possible result and play at our best (against `Gladbach).”

Now 29, Turan developed into one of the league’s top attacking midfielders through four seasons with Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, helping the once second-rate team become one of Europe’s best with league, Copa del Rey and Europa League titles.

But when Barcelona called in 2015, Turan changed clubs despite knowing that he couldn’t play until 2016 because of Barcelona’s FIFA-imposed one-year ban on new players for breaking its transfer rules regarding underage players.

The former Galatasaray standout also joined Barcelona well aware that competition for playing time, never mind a regular starting role, would be fierce with the likes of Messi, Suarez and, above all, Neymar.

After failing to find a spot following his debut midway through last campaign, Turan made a promising start to this season when Neymar was away playing for Brazil.

He scored twice in a Spanish Super Cup victory over Sevilla and notched Barcelona’s first league goal of the season. But once Neymar was back from helping Brazil win the Olympic gold medal, Turan was back on the bench.

[ MORE: Watford, Everton meet with both clubs looking to halt poor form ]

The reserve role clearly didn’t suit him. Only one of his goals this season has come as a substitute, when he sparked a 2-1 comeback at `Gladbach in September.

Unlike this week’s second win over `Gladbach, which came with Barcelona already qualified for the Champions League’s knockout rounds, Barcelona visits Pamplona on Saturday needing to break a run of three straight league draws.

Promoted Osasuna appears to be the optimum rival to end that skid. It is in last place and hasn’t won in seven home matches since its return to the first division.

State of the League: Garber addresses expansion, Beckham Miami and more

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 09:  Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber talks during day four of the Soccerex - Manchester Convention at Manchester Central on September 9, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Daniel Smith/Getty Images)
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As Major League Soccer gears up for Saturday night’s massive final in Toronto, league commissioner Don Garber addressed the media in the buildup with his annual State of the League address on Friday.

[ MORE: 3 key battles to watch in Saturday’s MLS Cup final ]

Among the topics discussed were expansion, the demise of NASL and what MLS is doing to attract younger players to United States.

[ MORE: Copa America trip helped convince Lodeiro to make MLS move ]

As it has been in the past, expansion was the biggest discussion on the docket, with Garber stating that next week will likely determine a timeline for the league’s next entries.

“As you probably know it is strategic expansion,” Garber said during Friday’s MLS State of the League address. “Following our board meeting on Thursday in New York, we will announce a process and a timeline for our next round of expansion, which will add clubs 25, 26, 27 and 28 to Major League Soccer.”

David Beckham’s Miami franchise is currently tabbed as the league’s 24th entry, following Minnesota and Atlanta in 2017 and Los Angeles FC in 2018, however, the future of Beckham’s project remains very much up in the air.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

In the event that Miami is passed over, there are plenty of teams waiting in the wings to claim its spot. Sacramento, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Detroit and San Diego are among the many destinations currently vying for entry into MLS, however, Sacramento and Cincinnati remain very high on the list after seeing recent success and growth in USL.

“There is a deadline on the Miami deal. I am not going to share that deadline, it is an agreement we have with David and (his business partner) Simon Fuller,” Garber said in regards to the Miami plans.

“But … we need to resolve the Miami situation so that we can go forward with our expansion plans for (expansion) teams 25-28 because they are team 24 and if they are not going to be 24 there are going to be a lot of things that need to move around and it is something we will discuss at our board meeting.”

When Garber was asked about the decline of NASL and particularly the status of the New York Cosmos and whether MLS would ever consider allowing the franchise to join, he stated that the league has no intentions of adding a third New York/New Jersey team.

“As it relates to the Cosmos, it’s a great brand,” said Garber. “We have two teams in MLS in New York. We are not going to have a third team.”

Additionally, Garber also noted that the league has no intentions of changing the MLS playoff format or adding an additional Designated Player spot for each club’s disposal. However, the commissioner did confirm that teams will see an increase of $400,000 each in target allocation money (TAM) in 2017, bringing the total per club up to $1.2 million.