Cristiano Ronaldo

European World Cup qualifying playoff round: Excellent matchups across the board

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The playoff round in Europe’s World Cup qualifying procedure are a fantastic reminder that not only does Europe have just an unbelievably strong lineup of teams, but also how difficult it truly is to make the World Cup.

The following have already qualified: Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Russia, Netherlands, Bosnia, and England.

However, that leaves four more spots for European teams to snatch, and the matches to take place Friday are a treat.

First up is Iceland at Croatia at 2pm ET.  The Croatians are the favorites in the tie, but the team is in a state of flux and with the first leg in Reykjavik, it’s a chance for Iceland to not only make a statement but put themselves in an envious position.

With Croatia losing their last two matches in the group stage of qualifying to Belgium and Scotland, manager Igor Stimac decided to resign after a tumultuous one year in charge. Niko Kovac has taken over, and the Blazers will look to follow the Berlin-born man’s half-German, half-Croatian playing mentality.

At 2:45 the other three matches get under way.  These will no doubt be headlined by the matchup between Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden in Lisbon.

Both teams are coming off vastly different stories in their group stage travels.  Portugal got what appeared to be a cake walk of a draw, but could not overcome a surprisingly strong Russia side and finished in second place by 1 point.  Their 21 points was the second-most of any group-stage runners up.

Sweden, on the other hand, faced a very difficult draw with Germany, Austria, and Republic of Ireland all in the mix and surprised a few by qualifying for the playoff round, even coming back from 3 goals down to draw 4-4 with Germany in Berlin.

The Swedes have come out swinging in the press before the match, with Ibrahimovic saying that “we deserve to go to Brazil more” despite the Portugese being the favorites.

source: AP
Ballon d’Or favorite Franck Ribery will look to help France overtake Ukraine en route to Brazil.

France hosts Ukraine in another exciting draw.

Les Bleus had a horrendous draw in the group stage, with the presence of defending champoins Spain in the five-team group making automatic qualification almost impossible.

However, their trek to the 2014 World Cup won’t be a guarantee either against a Ukrainian side that has kept seven clean sheets in a row. Seven!

France, despite boasting big attacking names like Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba, and Ballon d’Or favorite Franck Ribery, have also held a strong defensive unit, allowing just two goals to Belarus in their last six matches dating back to June.

Finally, Greece has Romania in their path to Brazil as the Greeks only missed out on automatic qualification on goal differential having finished level on points with Bosnia.

The Greeks come into the match in Athens having kept a whopping 11 clean sheets in their last 12 matches, a 3-1 loss to Bosnia the only exception.  Their outstanding defensive form is being led by Borussia Dortmund’s Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who has taken the defensive leadership all on his own in the long-term injury absence of young star Kyriakos Papadopoulos.

The Romanians are no slouch, however, having pipped Turkey and Hungary for their spot in the playoff round.

Chelsea adds No. 2 goalkeeper from Portugal’s EURO winning squad

LISBON, PORTUGAL - JULY 11: Portuguese goalkeeper Eduardo  during the meeting with the countries President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa for the Portugal Euro 2016 Victory ceremonies at Lisbon on July 11, 2016 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images)
Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images
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Chelsea have added some depth at the very back.

Eduardo’s the name, and the 33-year-old Portuguese backstop arrives at Stamford Bridge with a decent resume, having been on the roster for his country’s EURO 2016 triumph.

[ MORE: Stambouli, Bentaleb reunited ]

USMNT fans will remember him from his time between the sticks for Portugal at the 2014 World Cup. He has 35 caps, and has been with Dinamo Zagreb since 2014.

From ChelseaFC.com:

‘All the colleagues I have always say the dream is to come to the Premier League, where there are the best clubs and the best players, and the opportunity to come here arrived at this moment.

‘I am happy to be here and I hope I meet the expectations people have for me.’

Eduardo certainly won’t be taking over for Thibaut Courtois, but will definitely provide competition for No. 2 Asmir Begovic.

UEFA Europa roundup: West Ham bounced by Astra Giurgiu; Genk, Gent, Anderlecht roll on

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27:  Angelo Ogbonna of West Ham and Takayuki Seto of FC Astra Giurgiu battle for possesion during the UEFA Europa League match between West Ham United and FC Astra Giurgiu at the Olympic Stadium on August 27, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Broadway/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Broadway/Getty Images
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West Ham dominated the game but not the score line against Romanian side Astra Giurgiu, who advanced to the UEFA Europa League group stage with a 1-0 win at London Stadium on Thursday.

Well-traveled French midfielder Filipe Teixeira did the damage for Astra Giurgiu, as the former West Brom and Barnsley man scored in the 45th minute to give the visitors a 2-1 lead on aggregate after the sides went 1-1 in Romania last week.

The Irons carried possession and a wealth of shots, but couldn’t find their way past Romanian international goalkeeper Silviu Lung, Jr.

[ MORE: Stambouli, Bentaleb reunited at Schalke ]

Sassuolo star Domenico Berardi scored in a 1-1 draw with Red Star Belgrade, completing a 4-1 score line.

Elsewhere, a hat trick from Slovan Liberec’s Jan Sykora led the Czech side to a 3-0 second leg win, and 4-0 aggregate defeat of Cypriot side AEK Larnaca.

Gent got a pair of goals from giant Malian striker Kalifa Coulibaly as the Belgians completed a 6-1 aggregate win over Shkendija.

Full scoreboard
West Ham United 0-1 (agg. 1-2) Astra Giurgiu
Astana 2-2 (agg. 4-2) BATE Borisov
Arouca 1-2 (agg. 1-3) Olympiacos
Midtjylland 0-3 (agg. 0-4) Osmanlispor
Trencin 2-0 (agg. 0-4) Rapid Wien
Lokomotiva 0-2 (agg. 2-4) Genk
AEK Larnaca 0-3 (agg. 0-4) Slovan Liberec
Dinamo Tbilisi 0-2 (agg. 0-5) PAOK
Austria Wien 2-1 (agg. 4-2) Rosenborg
Beitar Jerusalem 0-0 (agg. 1-2) Saint-Etienne
Vojvodina 0-0 (agg. 0-3) AZ Alkmaar
Gabala 0-1 (agg. 3-2) Maribor
Slavia Prague 0-3 (agg. 0-6) Anderlecht
Fenerbahce 2-0 (agg. 3-0) Grasshopper
Panathinaikos 1-1 (agg. 4-1) Brondby
Krasnodar 0-0 (agg. 4-0) Partizani Tirana
Gent 4-0 (agg. 6-1) Shkendija
Istanbul Basaksehir 0-2 (agg. 1-4) Shakhtar Donetsk
SonderjyskE 2-3 (agg. 2-3) Sparta Prague
Sassuolo 1-1 (agg. 4-1) Red Star Belgrade
Goteborg 0-3 (agg. 1-3) Qarabag
Maccabi Tel Aviv 1-2 (agg. 3-3) Hajduk Split

Spurs’ Bentaleb off to Schalke on loan, joining PSG’s Stambouli

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 18: Nabil Bentaleb of Spurs U21 looks on during the Barclays U21 Premier League match between Leicester City U21 and Tottenham Hotspurs U21 at The King Power Stadium on March 18, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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Schalke’s quest to rejoin Germany’s elite was buttressed by a pair of interesting pickups on Thursday.

The Royal Blues have added Benjamin Stambouli from Paris Saint-Germain and Nabil Bentaleb from Tottenham Hotspur.

The Bentaleb deal is a loan, as the oft-injured attacker looks to shake off his underperforming reputation. The 21-year-old has 19 caps and three goals for Algeria.

[ MORE: Boufal to Saints ]

Stambouli joins on a four-year deal. A defensive midfielder, Stambouli left Spurs for PSG last year and made 27 appearances for the French champions.

The side nabbed high-profile prospect Breel Embolo earlier this offseason, and should be a problem for most opposing sides when the season begins this weekend.

Schalke finished in fifth place last Bundesliga season, and brings back captain Benedikt Howedes and Olympic star Max Meyer.

Ranking toughness of UCL groups for Leicester, Arsenal, Tottenham, Man City

Kompany and City's defense struggled to contain Messi and Barca in the first half.
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Leicester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City all entered the UEFA Champions League at the group stage and they found out their fate on Thursday following the draw in Monaco.

[ MORE: UCL group stage draw ]

Right now Leicester, Arsenal and Spurs will be feeling pretty good about their chances of advancing to the UCL’s Round of 16. As for Man City, boy, it will be a tough route through the group stage once again for them.

[ MORE: Ronaldo wins top award ]

Below is a look at the toughness of the group stage draw for all four PL teams.


GROUP G: Leicester City, FC Porto, Club Brugge, Copenhagen

Their first-ever season in the UCL, the draw could not have gone any better for reigning PL champs Leicester in terms of their dreams of advancing. Claudio Ranieri‘s side have FC Porto, who will be a very tough test, but in Club Brugge and Copenhagen they drew two of the easier teams they could have faced. Overall, this is not a tough group especially when you see the full draw. Looks like the fairytale for the Foxes will go deep in the Champions League this season. Toughness ranking: 3/10


GROUP A: Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal, FC Basel, Ludogorets

Arsenal will fancy their chances against PSG and when it comes to FC Basel and Ludrogorets they will expect to take two wins from each of these teams. But this is Arsenal so they’ll probably need a 3-0 win in their last group game to make the knockout rounds… Seriously, though, Arsene Wenger will be a relieved man to avoid the likes of Bayern Munich and Barelona in the group stage but Arsenal’s games against PSG will be pivotal in their chances of getting a good draw in the last 16. Overall, could’ve been a lot tougher. Toughness ranking: 4/10


GROUP C: FC Barcelona, Manchester City, Borussia Monchendgladbach, Celtic

It just had to happen for Pep Guardiola, didn’t it? He will return to the Nou Camp in his debut season at City to face his beloved Barcelona and Man City’s fans will be sick of the sight of Lionel Messi and Co. after they knocked them out of the competition in two of the last three seasons. That said, there will be two magnificent games between the giants with Barca the favorites to win the UCL this season. As for Monchengladbach, they are quietly a very strong team and even Celtic (who famously beat Barca in the group stage in 2012) will provide a tough challenge for City at Celtic Park in the away game. All in all, couldn’t have been tougher for City but they will likely squeeze through with Barca to the Round of 16.

Toughness ranking: 8/10


GROUP E: CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham Hotspur, Monaco

Maurcio Pochettino’s side will be grinning like a Cheshire cat with this draw. Arguably it is even easier than Leicester’s with CSKA Moscow perennial strugglers in the UCL, plus German side Bayer Leverkusen very beatable and Spurs have done well against Monaco in the Europa League recently. Overall, if Spurs don’t win this group they will be very disappointed. A great draw for the north London club. Toughness ranking: 3/10