Croatia fire coach Igor Stimac, despite reaching World Cup qualifying playoff

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Apparently a 2-0 defeat away to Scotland is too much to handle for the Croatian Football Federation, as they fired head coach Igor Stimac on Wednesday despite still having a huge chance of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

Stimac’s side had finished second in Group A behind Belgium and face a home and away playoff series with either France, Iceland, Portugal, Ukraine, Romania or Sweden next month to decide their fate.

However an alarming slide in recent games, with three defeats and one draw from their last four qualifiers, saw the Croats just hold onto their playoff spot and Stimac lost his job due to that poor form. After the defeat to Scotland on Tuesday, Stimac reportedly offered his resignation and was then cast aside by Croatia.

“I am aware that Stimac offered his resignation in a statement to the media after the game but we received nothing from him in written or verbal form on the flight back or afterwards, hence he was sacked,” President of the Croatian Football Federation Davor Suker said. “It was a difficult decision because Stimac is a personal friend and a former Croatia team-mate. But a string of poor results and performances made it inevitable.”

(MORE: Field set for UEFA’s eight-team playoff, Denmark the odd man out)

So, in caretaker charge for Croatia’s crucial two-legged playoff in November will be the current U-21 coach Niko Kovac and his brother Robert Kovac. Both of whom played for the national team for many years, and the weight of expectation now falls firmly on their shoulders for this playoff, and the foreseeable future.

“Kovac will take over as the caretaker coach for the upcoming play-off,” Suker said. “But our intention is to offer him a long-term contract whether or not we reach the World Cup finals in Brazil. Kovac is full of enthusiasm and we are hoping that he will steer us to Brazil because he is the right man for the hard work that lies ahead in a very short time frame.”

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Modric and other Croatian stars need to step up if they’re going to make Brazil 2014.

No pressure, Niko. But seriously, the Croatian players will respect the Kovac’s for all they accomplished in putting Croatian soccer on the map. But now they must deliver from the dugout instead of the pitch.

Is it me, or does changing a manager just a few weeks before a huge World Cup playoff game seem a little bizarre? Some would argue it’s a knee-jerk reaction, however with Stimac clearly losing the locker room and players not performing, something drastic had to be done, and Suker and the Croatian Football Federation have duly obliged.

There are some massive nations Croatia could face in the UEFA playoffs — France, Ukraine, Portugal and Sweden to name a few — but with players like Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic, the Croats could make a big splash in Brazil.

Hopefully this managerial change has the desired effect and gives the talented group of players a much needed kick up the backside.

It’s a bold move, but I like it.

Roma boosts bid for 2nd in Serie A by beating Pescara 4-1

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PESCARA, Italy (AP) Roma boosted its bid for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the Champions League with a 4-1 win at Pescara, which was mathematically relegated on Monday.

[ MORE: Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League ]

Roma moved four points clear of third-placed Napoli, which drew against Sassuolo 2-2 on Sunday. Third place in Serie A receives a Champions League playoff.

Pescara remained 15 points behind Empoli. There are only five matches left and Empoli has the better head-to-head record, which is the deciding factor if two teams finish level on points.

There were 48 goals in total in the 33rd round, matching the record set in October 1992.

Roma took control shortly before halftime, with Kevin Strootman breaking the deadlock after Stephan El Shaarawy unselfishly rolled the ball across the area.

Radja Nainggolan, who earlier hit the bar, doubled Roma’s lead two minutes later.

Mohamed Salah extended Roma’s advantage three minutes after the break and the winger doubled his tally on the hour following a swift counterattack.

Ahmad Benali got a consolation for Pescara and a Cristiano Biraghi free kick also hit the post for the home side.

Frank Yallop resigns as Phoenix Rising coach shortly after Drogba arrival

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The timing is a bit sudden and certainly leaves many questions up in the air, but Phoenix Rising will have to look for a new manager.

[ MORE: Chicharito talks heating up with LA FC ]

On Monday, head coach Frank Yallop resigned from his position with the United Soccer League (USL) club less than one day after former Chelsea legend Didier Drogba joined the organization as a player-owner.

With Phoenix seen as one of several lower-level clubs with ambitions of making the leap to MLS over the coming seasons, Yallop’s departure is surely a shock to many.

According to ESPN FC, Rising lead owner Berke Bakay was quite surprised by Yallop’s decision to step down, as was Drogba.

“Didier was as surprised and disappointed as we were that Frank is unable to continue coaching our Club,” Bakay told ESPN FC. “But, we all respect his decision to put his family first.

“Didier’s focus will remain on improving our team as a player and assisting our MLS expansion team ownership group as a co-owner. Frank will be helping with our international search for a new head coach.”

Rick Schantz, the current Rising assistant coach, will head the team’s managerial duties for the interim while the club completes a full search for a new manager.

Conte praises Hazard’s style, wouldn’t want him to be “more selfish”

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Antonio Conte made two bold decisions on Saturday afternoon as his Chelsea side prepared to take on Tottenham in their FA Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Oriol Romeu shines with Saints as he prepares for Chelsea return ]

The Italian manager has been known for his innovation and risk-taking in the past, but many were critical of the 47-year-old when his team sheet came out ahead of the match.

Conte left key attacking duo Eden Hazard and Diego Costa on the bench, allowing out-of-favor striker Michy Batshuayi and Pedro to get the starting nod.

Although Hazard nor Costa saw the field for the opening hour, the former made his presence known when he was summoned by Conte in the second half.

Often times Hazard has been known as a facilitator, someone that can pick apart defenses with his tremendous foot skills and clever passing. But the Belgian international has also shown his capabilities of scoring on a regular basis as well, which has prompted great interest from other giant clubs around Europe.

When Conte was asked about Hazard and if his attacker should be more selfish, the Italian gave an emphatic “NO” as his response.

“No, no, no, absolutely not,” Conte said. “I don’t think that a player like Messi is a selfish player. The first target for every great champion is to play for the team and to put your talent into the team. If you do this, the team [increases] your talent.

“The best players in the world don’t exist without a team. For me, it’s sad to listen to this, that a player must ‘be more selfish’ to reach the top level. That’s very sad. It’s not my idea of football and I will never understand this. Never, never. In my team, I don’t want selfish players.

“I prefer to lose a game than to have a selfish player. For me, I don’t want this and I can’t accept this. I don’t want my club to buy me a selfish player one day. Never. No.”

Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League

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Two sides have now booked their trips to England’s top flight after Newcastle United rattled off its 27th win of the season.

[ MORE: Oriol Romeu — The perfectly poised destroyer ]

The Magpies earned a decisive 4-1 victory over Preston North End on Monday afternoon at St. James’ Park as the second-place side ensured its finish inside the top two in the English Championship.

Newcastle joins already-promoted club Brighton & Hove Albion, who currently sit atop the Championship on 92 points.

Ayoze Perez paced the hosts with goals on both sides of halftime, while Christian Atsu and Matt Ritchie also converted for Newcastle.

U.S. Men’s National Team defender DeAndre Yedlin was on the bench for the Magpies but didn’t feature in Monday’s match.

The third and final team to be promoted from the Championship will be decided by the league’s annual promotion playoff, which is held at the end of the season and contested by four sides that finish third through sixth position.

As it stands, Reading, Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield Town and Fulham occupy the four playoff positions.