World Cup Qualifying: a quick glance around the continents

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World Cup qualification resumes on Friday in Europe and the Americas, continuing through the weekend with Africa’s third and final round. While a few teams have already booked their spots in World Cup 2014, there are still quite a few battles to be fought, with UEFA, CONCACAF, and CONMEBOL all playing out their penultimate rounds.

More in-depth previews of each confederation will follow, but for now, a rundown of what’s at stake, and a recommendation of one match to watch on each continent:

UEFA

When compared with qualifying systems in other large confederations, such as CONCACAF and CAF, the route Europe forces its teams to take to get to the World Cup is rather ridiculous. Rather than split qualification into stages, putting the lowest ranked countries into earlier rounds, UEFA places all 53 countries into one big qualification pool, dividing them into 9 groups of five or six. The first placed groups qualify directly for Brazil, while the second-placed teams enter a playoff round for the last three UEFA spots. Except, of course, for the second-placed team with the least amount of points — that team loses all chance of the World Cup.

Surprisingly, just two countries have qualified thus far: Italy and the Netherlands. Belgium and Germany are assured of a playoff spot at the very least, while Croatia, Bosnia, Greece, Spain and France will finish at least second in their group (although through some quirky twist of fate could still end up last of the second-placed finishers).

(MORE: an indepth look at Friday’s UEFA matches)

One game to watch

Croatia vs. Belgium
With so many spots still up for grabs in Europe, it’s tough to pick just one match. But this one has a lot riding on it. The visitors need just a point to book their ticket to Brazil, but after missing out on South Africa, Croatia are determined to get to this World Cup the easy way. They managed a draw with Belgium in the reverse fixture last September, but the Croats have slipped up recently, first losing to Scotland before allowing Serbia to come back into the game and get a draw. Belgium, on the other hand, have only dropped points in the draw to Croatia, and have won their last six straight.

CONCACAF

From North and Central America, the top three teams at the end of the Hex get bragging rights and a trip to Brazil, while team number four is forced to play the winner of Oceania. With just two games left to go, there’s a mad scramble on to avoid that trip to New Zealand. The United States and Costa Rica have already qualified, while Honduras sits third, three points above both Panama and Mexico. If the ticos decide they still care and beat Honduras, and if one of Mexico or Panama take all three points, the final round could be very interesting indeed.

(MORE: An indepth look at Friday’s CONCACAF matches)

One game to watch

Mexico vs. Panama (Friday, October 11 at 9:30 p.m. ET)
I know, I know, you want to watch the USMNT crush Jamaica. But when you’re done cheering on the USA, tune in to watch Mexico and Panama, both with eight points, trying desperately to fight their way into third place. By the time this match kicks off, the result of Honduras – Costa Rica will already be in, so the sides will know if they’ve still got a chance at direct qualification, or if they’ll be battling to see who plays against New Zealand. Either way, we likely won’t see much cautious football.

CONMEBOL

In South America, the top four teams qualify directly for Brazil, while the fifth-placed side faces Jordan, who placed fifth in AFC qualifying.

Argentina have already qualified, while Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay are eliminated. Colombia, sitting second, host Chile, sitting third, on Friday night, with both teams almost certain to make it to the World Cup. That match might not provide a lot of tension or suspense, but if you’re a fan of free flowing, attacking football, tune in to see some of the best on the international stage.

One game to watch

Ecuador vs. Uruguay (Friday, October 11 at 5 p.m. ET)
Uruguay, South Africa’s third-placed team and current Copa América champions, are struggling this time around. They’re even on points with Ecuador, but currently sit in fifth thanks to Ecuador’s better goal difference. The good news for Uruguay fans is that the team seem to have turned things around, having won their last three qualifiers, against Venezuela, Peru and, perhaps most impressively, Colombia. Ecuador, on the other hand, haven’t won since they beat Paraguay 4-1 back in March, and could only manage a 1-1 draw with Bolivia last time out.

CAF

In Africa, qualification starts off with the 24 lowest ranked countries meeting in two-legged ties, with the winners moving on to the second round. That round, which finished in September, splits forty countries into ten groups, with the winner of each group moving to the third round. That’s where we are now: Five matches, home and away ties, with the winners of each getting to buy their tickets to Brazil.

One game to watch

Ethiopia vs. Nigeria (Saturday, October 12 at 9 a.m. ET)
Ethiopia are kind of the Cinderella story of this year’s CAF qualifiying. They started off with a 0-0 draw against Somalia, then came back and won the second leg 5-0. They then finished top of Group A, despite having a 2-1 win over Botswana nullified after Ethiopia were found to have fielded an ineligible player. Now it’s time to face Nigeria, who Ethiopia last met in January during the Africa Cup of Nations. Ethiopia held them off until the final ten minutes, when Victor Moses scored a brace. The Super Eagles went on to lift the 2013 Cup. With their unbeaten record in the second round, it’s Nigeria that are the heavy favorites.

Top Premier League story lines – Week 2

Photo by Keith Tsuji/Getty Images for Premier League
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The Premier League hits its second match day on Saturday, beginning with Manchester United’s trip to the Liberty Stadium to face Swansea City.

That match isn’t even in our top five as a pair of Top Four battles await Sunday and Monday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]


Can heated rivalry help Chelsea find its form?
Tottenham – Chelsea (Sunday, 11 a.m. ET, NBCSN) [ STREAM ] 

The Blues took a long time to recover from Gary Cahill‘s early red card as Chelsea lost 3-2 to Burnley on Opening Day, and know they could find themselves six points behind Tottenham after just two weeks of the Premier League season. The rivalry between Spurs and Chelsea has risen several notches in the past couple years, and Chelsea will also be hampered by suspensions to Cahill and Cesc Fabregas.

Everton starts murderer’s row of fixtures at the Etihad
Manchester City – Everton (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) STREAM ] 

Man City, Chelsea, Spurs, Manchester United: Those are Everton’s next three matches following a win over Stoke and Thursday’s Europa League win over Hajduk Split (The Toffees head to Croatia on Aug. 24). The good news, if there is any, is that Man City didn’t look terrific in its win over Brighton and Hove Albion. The bad news? Everton’s top men, aside from new boy Gylfi Sigurdsson, almost all played in the win over Hajduk.

Arsenal’s beleaguered defense heads to the road
Stoke City – Arsenal (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

The Gunners may boast wins over Chelsea and Leicester City this month, but Arsenal conceded thrice to the Foxes and needed drama to boost three points from Opening Day. Stoke fell 1-0 at Everton but was far from a pushover.

Can Town make it 2-for-2 versus the Toon?
Huddersfield Town vs. Newcastle United (Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – STREAM ]

Rafa Benitez’s Opening Day plans were shuttered by Jonjo Shelvey‘s poor red card, and the Spaniard won’t have his best midfielder at The John Smith’s Stadium when Newcastle faces a Town team that won 3-0 at Crystal Palace. The road sides won when these two met in the Championship last season.

Liverpool’s stumbling defense meets old pal Benteke
Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – STREAM ] 

Jurgen Klopp‘s men stumbled out of the gates, even if their last minute concession against Watford in a 3-3 draw arguably shouldn’t have stood up to the linesman’s view. Benteke scored twice as the Eagles won at Anfield last season, and will certainly be up for irking his old boss once more.

VIDEO: Giovanni Reyna stars for USYNT with goal, assists

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Seldom is a U-15 match truly worth national attention, but it certainly deserves eyes when the player who stars in the Stars and Stripes happens to be the son of USMNT royalty.

Giovanni Reyna is going to be known as Claudio Reyna’s son for some time, but if he keeps up starring roles like his goal and two assist performance against Panama in the CONCACAF U-15 Championship, Claudio will move into “Giovanni Reyna’s dad” status at some point.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

That’s way down the line considering “Dad” is an American pioneer with 112 caps, eight goals and a career with Manchester City, Rangers, Sunderland, Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, and New York Red Bulls, but worth noting nonetheless.

Reyna’s goal was an absolute stunner:

And here are his two assists, putting Mexico on notice for Saturday morning’s final.

Europa wrap: Milan runs riot; Everton wins; USMNT’s Horvath posts clean sheet

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The matches were plentiful as clubs from around Europe angled for a spot in the UEFA Europa League group stage in the first legs of playoff round ties.

[ MORE: Schalke’s American teenager ]


Panathinaikos 2-3 Athletic Bilbao

Ageless Aritz Aduriz just keeps scoring, and La Liga’s visitors erased a 2-0 deficit with a pair of goals from the 36-year-old — he’s not really ageless, guys and girls — sandwiched around a De Marcos tally.

Everton 2-0 Hajduk SplitRECAP

Stylish assists from Leighton Baines and Wayne Rooney set-up Michael Keane and Idrissa Gana Gueye for rare goals, and Everton could’ve had many more in the first leg. Hajduk, however, showed some danger late and a raucous, disruptive, and even violent visiting crowd showed the second leg will be anything but simple for Ronald Koeman‘s men.

Club Brugge 0-0 AEK Athens

USMNT backstop Ethan Horvath kept a clean sheet with a two-save performance for Brugge, and the Greek visitors won’t take any away goals home for the second leg.

AC Milan 6-0 Shkendija

In another realm, Milan is still scoring goals. Andre Silva netted twice in the first 28 minutes, Fabio Borini and Luca Antonelli also scored. And how about Riccardo Montolivo?

 

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov 1-1 Oleksandriya
Apollon Limassol 3-2 Midtjylland
Krasnodar 3-2 Red Star Belgrade
Dinamo Zagreb 1-1 Skenderbeu
FH 1-2 Braga
PAOK 3-1 Ostersund
Vardar Skopje 2-0 Fenerbahce
Viktoria Plzen 3-1 AEK Lamaca
Altach 0-1 Maccabi Tel-Aviv
Ludogorets Razgrad 2-0 Suduva
Domzale 1-1 Marseille
Osijek 1-2 Austria Wien
Viitorul 1-3 Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax 0-1 Rosenborg
Legia Warsaw 1-1 Sheriff
Partizan 0-0  Videoton
Maritimo 0-0 Dynamo Kyiv

Everton 2-0 Hajduk Split: Toffees cruise in Europa League first leg

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  • Keane nabs first EFC goal
  • Baines, Rooney with classy assists
  • Gueye scores rare goal
  • Second leg Aug. 24 in Croatia

Michael Keane and Idrissa Gana Gueye scored as Everton took a 2-0 lead over HNK Hajduk Split in a UEFA Europa League playoff round first leg at Goodison Park on Thursday.

Leighton Baines and Wayne Rooney had assists for the Toffees, while Jordan Pickford, Ademola Lookman, and Davy Klaassen also posted lively performances for the hosts ahead of next week’s second leg.

The Toffees could’ve scored four or five if not for questionable offside calls alone, and the match was interrupted in the first half when the Hajduk support section got out of hand.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Ademola Lookman won an early corner for Everton that led to nothing, and played a terrific ball into the center of the box that Davy Klaassen just missed with a sliding effort.

Hajduk had a moment in two in transition, but the Toffees handled it well. Baines in particular broke up the earliest sign of danger.

The breakthrough goal was splendid, with Baines scooping up a punched corner kick and darting past a defender to dink an aesthetically-pleasing ball into traffic for Keane to head home. 1-0, 30′.

The match was stalled for 5-10 minutes after riotous behavior from visiting Hajduk Split supporters, who tossed bottles onto the field and charged at the stewards (one appeared to punch a security guard).

The Toffees went up 2-0 off a classy assist from Rooney, who was moving away from the defense when he cut a ball to a darting Gueye. The Senegalese engine provided a rare goal in the 45th minute.

[ MORE: Europa League schedule ]

The chances were at a premium for both sides in the second half, with Everton still having the better of play. But Jordan Pickford had to get horizontal to make an outstanding two-handed parry on a Hajduk rush in the 61st minute.

Hajduk really found its game late as Everton seemed to rest on its laurels. Pickford was livid, and called into duty to make some big stops and preserve an important home clean sheet.