Cristiano Ronaldo

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


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.

Three things we learned from Tottenham vs. Chelsea

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LONDON — Chelsea and Tottenham played out an entertaining 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane on Sunday.

Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho set their teams up to be difficult to beat and although Harry Kane and Eden Hazard went close, a draw was a fair result in the London derby.

Here’s three things we learned from the Lane on Sunday.


With Diego Costa dropped to the bench, those rumors of Jose Mourinho searching for an alternative striker to arrive in January where further fueled on Sunday. In his place Eden Hazard started up front with Pedro, Oscar and Willian in a false nine formation. To a degree, especially in the first half, it worked a treat as Hazard made diagonal runs in-behind Spurs’ defense and searching balls from Willian and Cesc Fabregas found him on multiple occasions.

The formation made Chelsea unpredictable and more stable as a defensive unit. Mourinho hasn’t used this ploy in the PL since April 25 2015, when his side went to Arsenal and ground out a 0-0 win with both Costa and Loic Remy out injured. On that occasion Oscar played in the higher role but Hazard wandered around up top on occasions. On Sunday, Hazard stretched Spurs’ backline and didn’t allow their defenders a moments peace. As for Costa, he cut a frustrated figure as he warmed up late in the second half alongside two teenagers, Kenedy and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Both of those players came off the bench but Costa did not as his angry reaction at being given instructions by Mourinho (plus him appearing to throw his substitute bib at Mourinho on Sunday) during Chelsea’s midweek UEFA Champions League win against Maccabi Tel-Aviv seems to have cost him his starting spot.


Starting up front on his own on, Hazard was given a tough task against Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld but he put in one of his best displays of the season, if not his best. He battled in the air and won his fair share against two, often three, defenders. Hazard chased back, made intelligent runs into the space behind the defense and had chances to score. In the first half he bent a beautiful ball out wide with the outside of his right foot and then timed his run into the box to perfection, sending his header just over.

In the second half he met a looping cross with a beautifully cushioned left-footed volley across goal which Hugo Lloris saved superbly. He was pulling off flicks and tricks with ease and on this showing the reigning PFA Player of the Year from the 2014-15 campaign was relishing his role in leading Chelsea’s fluid, energetic offensive quartet. Hazard isn’t quite back to his best but he’s getting there and was the best player on the pitch on Sunday.


Both dressed in smartly tailored coats with their hands in their pockets standing on the edge of the technical, Pochettino and Mourinho’s similarities were not only visible in their pitch-side demeanor but in the way their teams played on the pitch on Sunday. When Pochettino was pondering a move to Southampton in the Premier League back in January 2013, it was Mourinho who not only recommended him but was the man who gave Tottenham’s boss advice on coaching in England. The duo have different playing philosophies they preach to their players with Pochettino’s high-pressing style a sub-product of Marcelo Bielsa but on Sunday it was difficult to tell the two teams apart — Kane’s early chance set the tone for this encounter with him clattering into Asmir Begovic after Danny Rose‘ teasing cross — as both sets of players flew into challenges and tried to force the issue with quick counters.

Perhaps that is a bigger compliment to Pochettino than Mourinho, as the 43-year-old Argentine coach has turned Spurs into genuine top four contenders this season, while Mourinho’s Chelsea dug deep but lacked composure in the final third. Almost 10 years younger, it’s not hard to imagine that Pochettino could one day replace Mourinho at Stamford Bridge. Given their jovial attitude towards one another on the sidelines in a heated London derby, Pochettino would get Mourinho’s approval as his mission to turn Spurs into a top four team continues to move in a positive direction.

Tottenham Hotspur 0-0 Chelsea: Chances without reward at White Hart Lane

during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at White Hart Lane on November 29, 2015 in London, England.
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Sunday’s early morning London Derby between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at White Hart Lane saw a lack of finish, as the Blues and Spurs drew 0-0.

Spurs stay fifth, with 25 points, while Chelsea moves up a spot to 14th with 15 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Starting up top for Diego Costa, Pedro made a razor-thin run through the Spurs back line, but the through ball’s timing was off.

Asmir Begovic knocked down a tricky, low, bouncing shot from Harry Kane as the game hit 18 minutes.

Eden Hazard leapt above Jan Vertonghen to head a looping cross from Oscar just over the goal. And Pedro had a chance deflected over goal moments later.

It was Spurs’ chance to score off a cross in the 27th minute, but Son Heung-min’s header of a Harry Kane pass was well-parried by Begovic. Then Mousa Dembele forced the Chelsea keeper into a stretching horizontal save for a corner.

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The second half’s opening stages left plenty to be desired, with little happening aside from some questionable challenges. An injury to Ryan Mason brought Erik Lamela on for Spurs.

A 1-2 saw Lamela spring Son for a 64th minute chance, but Begovic was again there for Chelsea.

Eden Hazard smashed a volley on goal in the 67th minute. The superb cross came from Branislav Ivanovic, but Hugo Lloris was positioned to slap Hazard’s shot wide.

Costa did not enter the game, and comically tossed his warm-up bib over his head in the direction of Jose Mourinho. Like the chances in this match, it missed its mark,

Watch Live: West Ham vs. West Brom (Lineups, Live Stream)

during the FA Cup Fifth Round match between West Bromwich Albion and West Ham United at The Hawthorns on February 14, 2015 in West Bromwich, England.
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West Brom looks to build on its win over Arsenal as it continues a tough run of games with a visit to the Boleyn Ground to face West Ham United on Saturday (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra).

The Baggies have faced Leicester City, Manchester United and the Gunners in their last three matches, and start with Saido Berahino and Rickie Lambert on the bench.

It’s Diafra Sakho up top for the Hammers, as West Ham would like to get back on track after picking up just one point in its last three.



West Ham United: Adrian, Jenkinson, Reid (c), Ogbonna, Cresswell, Obiang, Kouyate, Zarate, Lanzini, Moses, Sakho. Subs: Spiegel (GK), Tomkins, Song, Cullen, Antonio, Carroll, Jelavic.

West Bromwich Albion: Myhill, Dawson, McAuley, Olsson, Evans, Morrison, Fletcher (c), Yacob, McClean, Sessegnon, Rondon. Subs: Lindegaard; Gardner, McManaman, Lambert, Anichebe, Berahino, Chester.

Watch Live: Tottenham vs. Chelsea (Lineups, Live Stream)

Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur - Barclays Premier League
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Tottenham Hotspur welcome Chelsea to White Hart Lane on Sunday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra) with Jose Mourinho’s side looking for a big win.

Mauricio Pochettino‘s Spurs are unbeaten in 12 games heading into this London derby but only traveled back from Europa League action in Azerbaijan on Thursday night.


Chelsea are looking to secure back-to-back PL wins for the first time this season with Mourinho’s side languishing

In teams news Spurs bring in Ryan Mason for the suspended Dele Alli. Chelsea start with Kurt Zouma and Gary Cahill in central defense as John Terry couldn’t recover from an ankle injury. Diego Costa has been dropped with Eden Hazard playing up front in a false nine.


Tottenham: Lloris; Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Dier, Mason; Eriksen, Son, Dembele; Kane. Subs: Vorm, Trippier, Wimmer, Carroll, Lamela, Onomah, Clinton

Chelsea: Begovic; Ivanovic, Zouma, Cahill, Azpilicueta; Fabregas, Matic; Willian, Oscar, Pedro; Hazard. Subs: Amelia, Djilobodji, Baba Rahman, Mikel, Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy, Diego Costa