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.

Liverpool hires EA Sports executive as new CEO

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14:   President of Electronic Arts Sports (EA Sports) Peter Moore talks about new games at an EA press briefing ahead of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) at the Orpheum Theater June 14, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. The annual video game trade conference and show at the Los Angeles Convention center runs from June 15-17.  (Photo by Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images)
Photo by Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images
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Liverpool has named Peter Moore as the successor to chief executive office Ian Ayre.

Ayre, 53, is off to 1860 Munich this summer, and has stepped down early to allow Moore to take over.

[ MORE: Liverpool flops vs LCFC ]

A Liverpool-born executive, Moore was the chief operating officer at EA Sports and has also worked with Microsoft and SEGA.

The move “completes a transitional phase” which saw several new names join the fray. From The Liverpool Echo:

The appointment completes a transition plan by FSG which included appointing Michael Edwards as sporting director while Billy Hogan was promoted to the role of managing director and chief commercial officer.

Palmer-Brown heads U.S. U-20s to win over Mexico (video)

Erik Palmer-Brown
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The United States U-20 men are on the precipice of the U-20 World Cup after beating Mexico 1-0 on Monday, scooping their first win against El Tri in 31 years.

Brooks Lennon continues to look the part for the U.S. ahead of his loan season from Liverpool to Real Salt Lake.

[ MORE: Liverpool flops again ]

The youngster sent in this free kick that Erik Palmer-Brown, himself a loan man at Porto from Sporting KC this year, headed into the Mexico goal courtesy of a back post defender who opted for his right leg over a decent clearing attempt.

The U.S. took that lead into halftime.

Things got chippy as the second half unfolded, with referee Melvin Matamoros turning a blind eye to a few clattering tackles.

Tab Ramos subbed NYCFC prospect Jonathan Lewis into the match, and he sprung a counterattack that should have put the match to bed. But Lewis’ through ball missed FC Dallas’ Coy Craft and the latter took too much time, frittering away the chance.

Shakespeare loves “fire in the belly” in Leicester win

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27:  Craig Shakespeare, Caretaker Manager of Leicester City watches his side warm up prior to the Premier League match between Leicester City and Liverpool at The King Power Stadium on February 27, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Craig Shakespeare had a pretty strong opening bow as interim Leicester City boss, with the Foxes climbing out of the drop zone after a 3-1 defeat of Liverpool on Monday.

Now Leicester has to figure out, at least in the short-term, if Shakespeare is capable of more.

[ RECAP: Leicester 3-1 Liverpool ]

It’s not unusual for a club to respond to a manager change. Hull City was buoyed by some early season results and stuck with Mike Phelan in a move that didn’t work out well. Garry Monk was given the reigns of Swans soon after winning the South Wales Derby, and enjoyed a good reign in Swansea.

Here’s what Shakespeare had to say after Monday’s win, from the BBC. He sounds more Nigel Pearson than Claudio Ranieri.

“You could tell from the word go there was intensity and passion.

“All credit to the fans tonight. I think there was a worry in some quarters about how they would react but they were outstanding.

“The professionalism of the players has never been questioned by me. Having taken training with them, I know the criticism has hurt and perhaps there was a little more fire in the belly because of that.

“They know they are guilty of under performing but this is only one result and we must build on that.”

Leicester hosts Hull City next weekend, and then has 10 days before its UEFA Champions League second leg against Sevilla. Should Shakespeare be given the chance to make history?

Exasperated Klopp: “We were not physical enough” vs Leicester

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27:  Liverpool players make their way back to the half way line after they let in their first goal during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Liverpool at The King Power Stadium on February 27, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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A desperate Leicester City battered Liverpool at the King Power Stadium on Monday, leaving Reds boss Jurgen Klopp to question how his side lost to another relegation candidate.

That’s four teams in the Bottom Seven to beat the Reds this season, and the fifth is 11th place Burnley.

[ RECAP: Leicester 3-1 Liverpool ]

Klopp said he could explain the loss in German, but the challenge of doing it in English was proving difficult.

“The language issues always come a little bit more when you have to explain defeats and it’s really difficult to find the right words. It was not an over aggressive game from Leicester. Even for this level we were not physical enough today.”

Liverpool did look soft without midfielder Jordan Henderson, and did have multiple midfielders in the back line with Lucas Leiva at center back and James Milner on the right.

But moreover, the players failed to follow some of Klopp’s guidelines. For example, Christian Fuchs was able to launch several of his big throws into the 18. One helped Leicester to a goal.

“We gave throw-ins away like we never spoke about it. It does not make much sense to give away 20 throw-ins to Fuchs from that position.”

It wasn’t good enough, and it’s baffling to see Liverpool this season. A club that took four of six points from Chelsea has lost to a quartet of relegation battlers. This isn’t good.