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:

source:

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]

MLS Snapshot: Sounders cruise, 3-0, as Galaxy struggles continue

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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The game in 100 words (or less): The LA Galaxy’s midfield remains… nonexistent, to put it very nicely. It was a problem in 2015; it was a major problem in 2016; and it remains a problem early in 2017. On Sunday, Curt Onalfo’s side (as a quick aside, no, his seat isn’t yet getting hot) sat by and watched — almost literally — as the Seattle Sounders found the back of the net three times in the first half at StubHub Center.

Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris scored the goals for Seattle, to go with an own goal from Ashley Cole. It’s LA’s fifth loss in seven games, while Seattle have their second win of the season and put to bed a three-game winless skid.

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundup — FCD win battle of unbeatens ]

Three moments that mattered

29′ — Dempsey heads into an open net for 1-0 — Nicolas Lodeiro floated the cross toward the back post, and Dempsey made extremely easy work of it with Brian Rowe scrambling through no man’s land.

35′ — Cole applies the finish into his own net — If it happened at the other end of the field, we’d have said it was a cool, calm, composed finish. Alas…

44′ — Morris fires past Rowe for 3-0 — The counter-attack was quick, what with no one stepping to the ball as Seattle covered two-thirds of the field. The finish wasn’t so simple for Morris.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Clint Dempsey

Goalscorers: Dempsey (29′), Cole (OG – 35′), Morris (44′)

Chelsea’s Kante claims PFA Player of the Year award

Photo credit: PFA / Twitter: @PFA
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Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kante, who many felt was hard done by in not winning the award during Leicester City’s miraculous title-winning season of 2015-16, was named the 2016-17 PFA Player of the Year on Sunday.

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With Chelsea six games from claiming this season’s Premier League title (they currently possess a four-point advantage on Tottenham Hotspur), it’s impossible to ignore Kante’s presence and impact on each of the last two (presumed) title-winning sides.

While his goal and assist numbers (1 and 1 this season) don’t come anywhere close to those of past winners (Riyad Mahrez tallied 17 and 11 en route to last season’s award), Kante’s industry, energy and rugged, ball-winning ways have integrated so seamlessly into Antonio Conte‘s debut Chelsea side.

[ MORE: Chelsea advance to FA Cup final | They’ll face Arsenal ]

The Blues splashed the cash — $40 million was the fee — to sign Kante last summer, and they’ve reaped unbelievable, immediate return on investment from the 26-year-old.

Spurs’ Alli wins PFA Young Player award for 2nd straight season

Photo credit: Tottenham Hotspur / Twitter: @SpursOfficial
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Dele Alli joined Wayne Rooney (2004-05 and 2005-06) on Sunday as the only repeat or back-to-back winners of the PFA Young Player of the Year award winners since the turn of the century.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Alli showed in 2016-17 — much like his Tottenham Hotspur teammate and 2014-15 Young Player of the year winner Harry Kane — that he’s much more than a one-season wonder, improving upon 2015-16’s goal and assist numbers (10 and 9) with a 16-goal, 5-assist season this time around.

Alli was signed by Tottenham (out of League One and relative obscurity) for a fee just north of $6 million in 2015. Recent rumors have linked the 21-year-old with a move to join the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, for a transfer fee well over 10 times what Spurs paid to MK Dons.

[ MORE: Chelsea advance to FA Cup final | They’ll face Arsenal ]

Between Alli and Kane, Spurs players have won the last three Young Player of the Year awards, and five of the last six (Gareth Bale in 2012-13; Kyle Walker in 2011-12). Only Eden Harzard could break up Spurs’ stranglehold on the award, in 2013-14.

Ryan Giggs (1991-92 and 1992-93) and Robbie Fowler (1994-95 and 1995-96) are the only other players to win the award in back-to-back seasons.

El Clasico: Messi scores 499, 500; Barca, Madrid level on points

Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
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After 31 (and 32, respectively) games played, three points were all that separated Real Madrid and Barcelona at the top of the table in La Liga.

[ MORE: Chelsea advance to FA Cup final | They’ll face Arsenal ]

After another 90 scintillating, pulsating, thrilling, plot-twisting minutes of El Clasico on Sunday, there’s not a single thing to separate the two sides (other than Barca’s current tiebreaker on head-to-head meetings, and Madrid’s game in hand). This time, it was Lionel Messi who outshone Cristiano Ronaldo in the meeting of the world’s brightest stars, the former scoring twice and reaching the 500-goal mark in his Barcelona career (all competitions).

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Barcelona 33 23 6 4 94 32 62 12-3-1 11-3-3 75
 Real Madrid 32 23 6 3 84 36 48 12-4-1 11-2-2 75
 Atlético Madrid 33 20 8 5 60 24 36 12-2-2 8-6-3 68

Casemiro opened the scoring with a tap-in into an empty net in the 28th minute. Marcelo floated a ball to the back post, where Sergio Ramos made clean contact but came up with nothing but hit nothing but woodwork. Fortunately for Los Blancos, the ball ricocheted off the post, bounced across the face of goal and found the Brazilian midfielder all by his lonesome.

The lead was short-lived, though, as a bloodied Messi scored yet another of his patented Messi goals just five minutes later. With two touches atop Madrid’s penalty area, he slalomed past and beat three defenders before applying the cool finish past Keylor Navas with that magical left foot of his.

Following the halftime break, the balance of play tipped in Barca’s favor. Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez went oh so close to putting the visitors ahead either side of the hour mark, but Navas produced a pair of stunning saves that’ll (perhaps) go a long way toward silencing his increasingly vocal critics.

[ MORE: Griezmann scores no. 25 as Atleti win to hold onto 3rd ]

There was absolutely nothing the Costa Rican no. 1 could do about Rakitic’s 73rd-minute strike, though. Cutting inside onto his left foot, the Croatian caressed and curled the ball toward the far post, where it made a hard right turn at the last possible second and nestled itself into the

Already up a goal, the game appeared to swing totally in Barca’s favor just four minutes later. Sergio Ramos, the most Sergio Ramos player to ever Sergio Ramos, went lunging in, with two sets of studs exposed, on Messi. He was rightly shown a straight red card.

Another pair of plot twists were still to come, though, as James Rodriguez got on the end of Marcelo’s cross and slammed the first-time finish past Marc Andre ter Stegen with four minutes of regular time remaining.

Then, with all of 13 seconds remaining in stoppage time, that man — the undisputed best player in the world and the greatest of all time — broke Madridista hearts once again. Sergi Roberto started the sequence all the way back in midfield, and Jordi Alba supplied the cross to the top of the box, and Messi drove that same left foot through the ball to beat Navas for the last-kick winner. The shirt-off-held-aloft celebration was simply salt in the wound.