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.

USMNT eyeing the table as it kicks off training camp

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) Goalkeeper Tim Howard‘s uniform was filled with grass stains after the first day of training camp.

And this was considered a light workout.

“Just getting everybody back together, getting a sweat,” Howard said Monday after the U.S. squad went through a roughly 60-minute workout. “Day by day, we’re just trying to add on to the pile, put some concepts in and get some understanding between players.”

What awaits the squad in resumption of the final round of World Cup qualifying is certainly a gantlet. They have a game against Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 in Commerce City and then at Mexico three days later.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

There’s little margin for error, with the U.S. currently in fourth place in the six-team standings. They have three home and three away matches remaining. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“We need to keep climbing that table. We feel like this is a good opportunity to do it,” said Howard, now with the Colorado Rapids and who will feel right at home with the Trinidad game on his turf at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “One game, that’s as far as you can look. You can’t look to next week or the week after or two months from now.”

For now, Howard will be coach Bruce Arena’s goalkeeper over Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath and Nick Rimando, who all were invited to camp. But it’s an ongoing evaluation.

“We have good goalkeepers here. That’s the least of my worries, to be honest,” Arena said.

Given the short amount of time between games, Arena fully plans on using more players than usual. One particular competition to watch will be at right back between Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin.

“I have a close eye on everything,” Arena said. “We have a bunch of good players here. … We’re watching everybody and thinking about how we can best utilize everyone.”

[ MORE: Kroenke, Wenger meet; Decision looms ]

The roster features a solid blend of youth and experience. Leading the youngsters is Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder who last weekend became the youngest American to win a club medal in Europe.

On the veteran side are players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Howard, all of whom have more than 30 World Cup qualifying appearances.

“We’re past the experimentation phase. These are all guys who the manager believes in whole-heartedly,” Howard said. “They’re not here for anything other than to play minutes, play important minutes.”

Arena couldn’t agree more.

“This is a nice group we have here. Hopefully, we can find the right balance in the team, putting them in the right position to complement them both individually and collectively,” Arena said. “If we can accomplish that, there’s no reason to believe we can’t be successful in these two games.”

Joining the camp in Colorado are a few players who weren’t with the squad in March. Guzan, Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and Yedlin are all on the field. Guzan didn’t participate because his wife was expecting their second child, while the others were dealing with injuries, illnesses and yellow-card suspension.

Now, it’s a matter of getting their timing down – and accustomed to the altitude.

“There’s no reason to make it an excuse,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “Just doing the best we can to acclimate to it.”

Arena’s squad will get things rolling in a friendly against Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.

“That’s a good game for us,” Arena said. “It gives us a little bit of exercise at lower altitude, which isn’t perfect for what we need to do to get ready here and Mexico City, but it’s a start. Think it will be good to give a chance to 16 players and build from there – get us ready for Trinidad and Mexico.”

Stam after Reading playoff final loss: “Tough to take”

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Jaap Stam has won silverware in three different leagues for five different teams, and has a Champions League title from his time at Manchester United.

He’s used to winning, and that includes his first stop as a full-time manager. And that makes Reading’s loss in Monday’s playoff final sting a bit more.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

Reading lost in penalty kicks and it’s not like the Royals were thoroughly outclassed by Huddersfield Town. But it still burns. From Sky Sports:

“You don’t want to play football to be in the grey areas, you want to get the max out of your career, win trophies and play at the highest level.

“It’s tough to take, but it has to be difficult. It’s not good to lose a game like this, you need to feel it and experience it and then take that forward if you get into the same moment again. The good players do that.”

Reading loses a trio of loan players — Lewis Grabban, Reece Oxford, and Jordon Mutch — as well as American midfielder Danny Williams. It won’t be easy for Reading to get back into the playoffs without an injection of money, but Stam’s first rodeo as a manager was a good ride that came up just short.

Wenger, Kroenke meet; Board to learn decision Tues.

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Wenger watch is entering its final hours.

The BBC is reporting that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke met with longtime manager Arsene Wenger on Monday to discuss the Frenchman’s future, and that the decision was going to be made together.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

It seems almost certain that Wenger is going to come back to the Emirates Stadium. From the BBC:

The outcome is unclear but the decision rests solely with Wenger and Kroenke and will be relayed to directors at a Tuesday board meeting.

Fresh terms were agreed in principle some months ago, but nothing is signed.

There have been questions about whether Wenger would accept a sporting director being placed above him, and if Kroenke believes the repercussions of keeping the boss would negatively impact the business.

Barcelona to keep goalkeeper Ter Stegen until 2022

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has reached a deal to extend the contract of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen until June 2022.

The club said the new agreement, which has a buyout clause of 180 million euros ($201 million), will be signed on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

Ter Stegen has been with the club since 2014, helping it win nine titles in three seasons.

The German goalkeeper has played 93 matches with Barcelona, conceding 90 goals in 71 wins, 10 draws and 12 losses.

Barcelona has already renewed the contracts of Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. It is still working on new deals for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.