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Field set for UEFA’s eight-team playoff; Denmark the odd-nation out

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Between today’s earlier posts and previous rounds’ results, you could piece together most of the picture for UEFA’s World Cup playoffs – that eight-team, four-match tournament that will decide Europe’s final World Cup qualifiers next month. Croatia, Portugal, and Sweden came into the day knowing they were in, making today’s results (loss at Scotland, win vs. Luxembourg, loss vs. Germany) irrelevant. And with England’s clincher, Spain’s walk, Bosnia’s new history and Turkey’s loss, four other teams went into the pile:

  • Ukraine (7-0 winners at San Marino) stayed second in England’s group (H);
  • France (3-0 vs. Finland) secured their spot behind Spain (Group I);
  • Greece (2-0 cruise past Liechtenstein) finished behind Bosnia and Herzegovina on goal difference (Group G);
  • and Romania (2-0 over Estonia) were the beneficiaries of Turkey’s loss in Holland’s group (D).

The one remaining spot will go to Iceland, whose 1-1 draw at Norway proved enough to snag second place in Group E.  The nation has never qualified for a World Cup or European Championship, and if it weren’t for Switzerland’s 1-0 win over Slovenia, they wouldn’t have taken the next step toward Brazil 2014. But with Granit Xhaka’s goal in Bern (securing a Swiss win) and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson’s opener in Oslo, the country of around 320,000 people is within two games of becoming the smallest nation ever to compete at a World Cup.

But with UEFA breaking qualifying into eight groups, one team was left outside-looking-in on the playoff pileup. Denmark, who finished second in Italy’s group, saw their hope of returning to a World Cup come to an end, their record against the top five teams in their group the worst among the confederation’s second place finishers.

Go-go Wiki screenshot:


With the playoffs set, that FIFA Ranking (in parenthesis in the table, above) is what matters. The top four teams per that ranking will be drawn against the bottom four. That means Croatia, Portugal, Greece and Sweden will be “seeded” (as the rankings stand now); France, Ukraine, Romania and Iceland will not. Ukraine and Swededn could yet swap spots, when new rankings come out.

Though the other teams have their virtues, France is clearly the team to avoid from the unseeded lot, though their status in the second pool isn’t without some controversy. Yesterday, the French Football Federation said they hoped to appeal to FIFA regarding their ranking. Their case: Because they were in UEFA’s only five-team qualifying group, they had two less qualifiers through which they could improve their ranking.

Why Sweden (or Ukraine) should have to pay for that is unclear. Regardless, expect France, for the second cycle in a  row, to be involved in a much-publicized World Cup playoff:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_uieTTzSSk]

Napoli treating Higuain as a traitor after record transfer

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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ROME (AP) A traitor. A mercenary. An ingrate.

Napoli fans have no shortage of insulting words when it comes to describing Gonzalo Higuain, the striker who transferred to rival Juventus for an Italian-record 90 million euros ($100 million) after scoring 36 goals last season to break a 66-year-old Serie A record.

So it will be interesting to see what type of reception Higuain gets when he faces his old club for the first time as Napoli visits Juventus on Saturday.

“I’ll greet him like a father does with a son who has really (ticked) him off,” Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri said.

Napoli forward Dries Mertens, one of Higuain’s best friends when they played together, was asked if he would prepare a “trick” for his former teammate to celebrate Halloween.

“No. At most, I’ll give him a slap,” Mertens said with a laugh.

Napoli fans are banned from attending the match for security reasons. That may prevent replicating a scene like when Luis Figo returned to face Barcelona after transferring to Real Madrid in 2000 and a pig’s head was thrown onto the pitch.

Juventus doesn’t visit Napoli until April.

Other strikers have left Napoli at the height of their powers in recent years – namely Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who went to Paris Saint-Germain – but the fact that Higuain moved to the club’s fiercest domestic competitor has sparked more outrage.

With 71 league goals in 104 Serie A matches for Napoli the past three seasons, Higuain’s popularity in Naples was beginning to approach that of Diego Maradona, his fellow Argentine who led Napoli to its only two league titles in 1987 and 1990.

When the transfer was announced in July, Napoli fans publicly threw their Higuain shirts, banners and scarves into the trash.

Outside the San Paolo stadium at Napoli matches this season, vendors sell toilet paper with Higuain’s image printed on it.

“He prefers the money to our love,” read a headline in Naples’ Il Mattino newspaper after the transfer.

The artisans on Naples’ famed San Gregorio Armeno street placed placards in the hands of Higuain’s Christmas figurine that read, “I’m a traitor” and “I’m a mercenary.”

Higuain was lambasted for performing medical exams with Juventus in secret in Madrid.

“Neapolitans were met with betrayal this summer,” Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis said. “(Higuain’s) brother (and manager) told me in February that he wanted to leave because there were no other stars in our squad besides him.”

Higuain attempted to calm the tensions before the season started by thanking Napoli’s fans for supporting him the past three years, but that only seemed to cause more problems.

Ten games into the season, Juventus holds a four-point lead over third-place Napoli.

Higuain enters on a four-match scoring drought in all competitions, while Napoli has struggled to replace him at center forward.

With seven goals in eight matches in all competitions, newly signed Poland forward Arkadiusz Milik was filling in quite nicely until he severely injured his left knee.

Manolo Gabbiadini, who had performed well as a backup to Higuain the past two seasons, struggled to replace Milik, then was suspended for two matches for a reaction foul last weekend.

As a result, Sarri has been relying on a three-man forward line with Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon flanking Mertens. The trio has been labeled the “piccoli” line for the players’ small stature.

“We don’t have a natural striker right now and we’ve got to adapt,” Sarri said.

Besides Higuain’s recent troubles, Juventus has its own injury problems in attack with Paulo Dybala and Marko Pjaca each out for several weeks.

Higuain started the season with six goals in seven Serie A matches but hasn’t scored since. He struggled again in a 4-1 win over Sampdoria on Wednesday.

“Higuain will score again soon, and by the end of the season he’ll have scored many,” Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri said.

A goal against Napoli would be difficult for his former fans to digest.

Follow AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

VIDEO: Southampton’s Boufal scores stunner on home debut

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23:  Sofiane Boufal of Southampton in action during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Southampton at Etihad Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Sofiane Boufal, take a bow.

[ MORE: EFL Cup, last 8 draw

Southampton’s club-record signing has had to hang around at St Mary’s for two long months while he recovered from injury.

But, on his home debut, the Moroccan international wasted no time in opening his account for Saints in stunning fashion.

Boufal arrived in August for $19.5 million from French side Lille but was nursing a knee injury from the end of last season. He had appeared off the bench against Inter Milan and Manchester City over the past week but on Wednesday he made his first start for the club and his first appearance at St Mary’s.

He didn’t disappoint.

In the 66th minute of a largely unforgettable game, Boufal scored the game-winner as Southampton beat Sunderland 1-0 to move onto the EFL Cup quarterfinals where they’ll face Arsenal.

The 23-year-old took a mesmerizing first touch out of the air, then jinxed inside and sent an unstoppable shot into the far top corner.

I was at St Mary’s last night and was right behind this strike. It has to be one of the best goals I’ve ever seen live.

See it for yourself, below.

First the touch…

Then the finish…

And why not have another look from another angle…

Jose Mourinho charged over referee comments

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United reacts during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on October 2, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho is never far away from controversy.

[ MORE: Crowd trouble in EFL Cup ]

On Thursday the English FA announced the manager of Manchester United had been charged for comments about referee Anthony Taylor before their game against Liverpool last Monday.

Ahead of the 0-0 draw at Anfield, Mourinho had questioned the appointment of Taylor as referee given the fact that Taylor resides close to Manchester and some may influence some of his decisions.

This is what the FA had to say, as there is a clear rule in place which bans managers from talking about refereeing appointments before the game.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has been charged with misconduct, in respect of comments he made relating to the appointed match referee prior to the Liverpool FC v Manchester United FC fixture on Monday 17 October 2016.

It is alleged his comments were improper and/or brought the game into disrepute contrary to FA Rule E3(1).

Mr Mourinho has until 6pm on Monday 31 October 2016 to respond to the charge.

So, what did Mourinho actually say about Taylor’s appointment as the referee?

“Somebody with intention is putting such a pressure on him. I feel that it will be difficult for him to have a very good performance.”

Mourinho went on to say he thought Taylor was a very good referee but still, those comments have landed him in hot water with a potential touchline ban and/or fine heading his wau.

No contentious decisions were made by Taylor during the derby game and after the match Mourinho asked his press officer what he could say to the media about the referee for fear of further action.

Mourinho is no stranger to being charged by the FA when it comes to comments against referees.

In October 2015 he was fined for his post-game comments in Chelsea’s loss to Southampton where he said referees were “afraid” to give decisions for his team. Then in November he was fined and handed a one-game touchline ban after going into the referees dressing room at half time of a defeat at West Ham to contest their decisions.

FA to investigate crowd trouble between West Ham, Chelsea

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 26:  A Chelsea fan (C) gets past the police line and walks over to West Ham United fans during the EFL Cup fourth round match between West Ham United and Chelsea at The London Stadium on October 26, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Ugly scenes marred the end of West Ham United’s 2-1 EFL Cup win against London rivals Chelsea on Wednesday night.

Fans at the London Stadium clashed in a walkway separating the two sets of fans.

[ MORE: EFL Cup, last 8 draw ]

So far seven individuals have been arrested and now the English FA has opened an investigation into what occurred.

Here is the statement they released on Thursday morning.

“The FA is investigating crowd disturbances at last night’s EFL Cup match between West Ham United and Chelsea. We are in dialogue with all relevant authorities.”

Before the London derby, the first to played at the London Stadium, both teams issued statements asking for fans to behave but as we have seen on numerous occasions this season at West Ham’s new home, trouble flared up.

Although it was a small minority of fans who ripped up seats, hurled coins, threw punches at each other and had to split up by riot police, the scenes highlight the severe issues West Ham are having with segregation.

After moving into the stadium this summer, there have been incidents of in-fighting between West Ham’s own fans, clashes with supporters of Middlesbrough and Watford and now this latest unrest suggests there are serious problems to fix after the venue was transformed from an athletic stadium into a soccer stadium.

London’s Metropolitan Police were on site for this game and extra stewards were present but they still couldn’t stop fans clashing. Expect a larger police presence for the upcoming games and especially for derby games against London rivals.

It is truly sad to see the video footage below.