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.

Serie A: Inter’s unbeaten start ends; Hamsik equals Maradona

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan’s unbeaten start to the season was brought to an unlikely end Saturday as the Nerazzurri were defeated 3-1 at home by Udinese and went on to lose top spot in Serie A.

Inter captain Mauro Icardi had canceled out Kevin Lasagna’s opener but Udinese put in an impressive second-half performance and took the lead through Rodrigo De Paul’s penalty before Antonin Barak sealed the result.

Napoli moved two points above Inter and back into the lead after winning 3-1 at Torino, with Marek Hamsik matching Diego Maradona’s scoring record.

“We’re obviously disappointed to have lost,” Inter coach Luciano Spalletti said. “Maybe it hurts a bit more because it’s been a bit of time since our last defeat and we’re not used to it anymore.

“It’s nothing to do with tiredness. The players seemed physically fine to me even in the second half when we made a lot of mistakes. The difference was we played the ball badly in the second half and made a lot of silly mistakes.”

Udinese moved 10 points clear of the relegation zone as its revival under new coach Massimo Oddo continued. Oddo has won three league matches after losing to Napoli in his opening game.

“What has changed since my arrival? No one has a magic wand. We do our work but then it’s the lads who go out onto the pitch,” Oddo said. “There’s still a lot of work to do but we are taking giant steps.

“This team never gives up and always gives everything … I think that winning at San Siro against Inter, which was first and unbeaten, is more due to how good my team was and not that Inter played badly.”

Udinese took the lead in the 14th minute when Silvan Widmer cut inside from the right, dribbled in the area and rolled the ball across for Lasagna to tap in.

However, Inter was back on level terms within a minute as Icardi volleyed home Antonio Candreva’s cross.

Inter dominated the rest of the first half and came close to taking the lead on several occasions but Oddo turned things around at the break, and it was Udinese which was stronger in the second period.

The visitors almost took the lead immediately after the restart but Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic somehow managed to deflect Lasagna’s effort over the bar from point-blank range.

Icardi also came close to doubling his tally but he headed a corner over the bar.

Minutes later Udinese was awarded a penalty for handball – after video review showed the ball had not crossed the line before Widmer’s cross was handled by Davide Santon.

De Paul sent his spot-kick straight down the middle to give Udinese the lead in the 61st.

Milan Skriniar almost leveled shortly after but his header came off the bar.

Udinese wrapped up all three points 13 minutes from time when Barak finished off a brilliant counterattack by heading in Jakub Jankto’s cross.

Marek Hamsik matched Diego Maradona’s all-time record of 115 goals for Napoli.

Hamsik reached that tally after 30 minutes on Saturday, scoring the third goal in Napoli’s 3-1 win at Torino.

Dries Mertens controlled the ball in the area and picked out Hamsik, who volleyed into to top right corner.

It has taken the Slovenia midfielder 11 seasons and 477 appearances to reach that tally, while Maradona, who was a forward, set that mark in 259 games in seven seasons with Napoli.

Kalidou Koulibaly had headed Napoli into the lead in the fourth minute and Piotr Zielinski doubled the visitors’ tally in the 25th.

Andrea Belotti netted a consolation for Torino shortly after the hour mark.

Federico Fazio scored a stoppage-time goal to help fourth-place Roma beat Cagliari 1-0 and remain four points behind Napoli.

The Argentine knew little about the goal, however, as Cagliari goalkeeper Alessio Cragno attempted to punch clear a free kick and it ricocheted off Fazio’s stomach and into the back of the net.

Cragno had earlier saved Diego Perotti’s weak penalty after the goalkeeper had fouled Edin Dzeko.

Video review was used on both incidents.

La Liga: Torres lifts Atleti into 2nd, just 3 points behind Barca

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Fernando Torres’ first goal in the Spanish league this season gave Atletico Madrid a hard-fought 1-0 win over Alaves on Saturday and lifted the club into second place behind Barcelona.

Torres broke the deadlock five minutes after going on in the 69th with Atletico’s attack stifled by Alaves’ well-positioned defense.

Diego Simeone’s team took advantage of Valencia’s 2-1 loss at Eibar as Atletico moved two points ahead of its title rival. Barcelona is three points ahead of Atletico before hosting Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday.

“We didn’t have many chances to win the match, but were always in charge. The entry of (Angel) Correa, (Yannick) Carrasco and, especially, Torres gave us that extra bit that we needed to get the win,” Simeone said. “There is still a long way to go in the league. We only look toward our next game and keep trying to improve.”

Torres, a former Liverpool and Chelsea striker, made his run forward in sync with Sime Vrsaljko’s cross from the right flank before sliding to redirect the ball home with his left foot.

At 33 years old, Torres has had to settle for a role as a reserve player behind regular starters Antoine Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro. His goal was his first in any competition this campaign other than the brace he scored against Elche in the Copa del Rey.

Torres’ goal comes just before the arrival of even more competition in Atletico’s attack. Diego Costa and Victor “Vitolo” Machin will join the club in January when its ban on incorporating new players expires.

“I am happy for the goal that came after working so that the coach would play me,” Torres said. “Now I just have to keep at it to get more minutes.”

Despite its failure to reach the knockout rounds of the Champions League, Atletico is as sound as ever in the domestic competition where it is unbeaten through 16 rounds and has won four in a row.

Atletico’s unbeaten streak in La Liga stretches back 20 matches to last season since its loss at Villarreal on April 25.


Valencia took another blow to its surprise challenge for the league lead after losing its second consecutive away game.

Valencia forward Santi Mina equalized in the 57th to cancel out Takashi Inui’s opener for Eibar just after halftime.

But Eibar midfielder Joan Jordan powered in a header from a cross by Ivan Alejo to grab the 2-1 victory for the hosts with three minutes remaining.

The absence of suspended striker Simone Zaza and injured midfielder Carlos Soler showed as Valencia again dropped points away from its Mestalla Stadium. Valencia’s 1-0 defeat at Getafe two rounds ago ended its unbeaten season.

“We didn’t have the scoring touch we needed to take the lead and they took advantage of our inability to finish,” Valencia coach Marcelino Garcia Toral said. “I don’t recall any other chances for Eibar other than the ones they turned into goals. We have to congratulate them for the win, but a draw would have been fair.”

After only one win in the first eight rounds, Eibar has won four and drawn one to rise to seventh place and in contention for a Europa League berth.

The 2 Robbies: Man City Dominate Spurs, Everyone

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After Manchester City dominate Spurs on the back of an incredible performance from Kevin De Bruyne, the Robbies break down his impressive play and stamina (0:30), plus the guys discuss Ederson’s passing and Sterling’s goal scoring. Then, they look at the match from Spurs’ perspective (10:15) — was high pressing the right approach? With big wins from Palace and West Ham, Robbie and Robbie also discuss the “manager bump.” (19:00). And finally, R & R hit on Sunday’s matches (27:45) — West Brom vs. Man United & Bournemouth vs. Liverpool.

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

PL Sunday preview: Can Man United, Liverpool keep pace?

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Highly unlikely to overcome 14- and 21-point deficits in the title race, respectively, Manchester United and Liverpool — along with the rest of the Premier League’s top-six — are merely in a race for second. West Bromwich Albion and Bournemouth — their opponents on Sunday, respectively — fear relegation.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Man City untouchable; Chelsea, Arsenal win narrowly ]

West Brom vs. Manchester United — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Try telling Jose Mourinho, the only man in the PL still refusing to concede the title to Manchester City, that the title race is over. The performances have often been ugly and ground out until the final whistle — especially in the absence of Paul Pogba, who’ll once again be unavailable through suspension — but Mourinho’s men have won five of their last six (the only defeat coming last weekend, to Man City) as they head into Sunday’s annual trip to the Hawthorns, where they’ll face 19th-place West Brom. The Baggies haven’t won in their last 15 PL outings (eight draws), a woeful run which dates back to the second week of the 2017-18 season.

While United have been nearly impenetrable defensively (11 goals conceded in 17 games), a pair of costly errors — each committed by star striker Romelu Lukaku — cost the Red Devils dearly against City, as did their recurring inability (against the PL’s top teams) to control the game through possession and create scoring chances with consistency. The same struggles reared their ugly heads in a 1-0 victory over Bournemouth on Wednesday.

As poor as the results have been over the course of four months, West Brom can hang their hat on a decent defensive record — just 22 goals conceded in 17 games, which puts them squarely in the middle of the table. If Alan Pardew‘s side sets out to defend for 90 minutes, the Baggies might just get something out of Sunday’s clash. Pardew was quite pleased by the improvements he saw during Wednesday’s 0-0 draw with Liverpool, and he’s hoping for a repeat performance against United.

“We kept them very quiet and created on transition better moments, in the limited number that we had, than we did at Swansea,” he said. “That’s an improvement, but still an area to work on. We had some really strong performances — and if you get four or five ‘eights’ in your team that normally constitutes points.”

INJURIES: West Brom — OUT: Nacer Chadli (hip), Matt Phillips (hamstring), Craig Dawson (knee), James Morrison (achilles); RETURNING: Gareth Barry (thigh)| Man United — OUT: Paul Pogba (suspension), Eric Bailly (ankle), Marouane Fellaini (knee), Michael Carrick (heart)


Bournemouth vs. Liverpool — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Every time Liverpool take a step or two forward, they take a step or two right back to where they began. Case in point: back-to-back wins over Stoke City and Bright & Hove Albion, by a combined score of 8-1, which briefly vaulted them ahead of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur in the race for the top-four; followed by back-to-back draws against bottom-half sides Everton and West Brom.

With that side, Jurgen Klopp‘s side is unbeaten in its last eight league games and boasts one of the league’s most potent attacking records (34 goals conceded in 17 games — third-most behind the two Manchester clubs).

Cherries boss Eddie Howe was encouraged by his side’s performances in that narrow loss to United, and the 40-year-old can sense that better days are on the near horizon.

“We’re disappointed because we’ve been beaten, but I’m really pleased with the performance,” he said. “I thought we were very good today and were very disciplined out of possession. We were also very good with the ball and created numerous chances. We really did establish ourselves in the game very early and there were some really good individual performances today. The team functioned very well.”

INJURIES: Bournemouth — OUT: Tyrone Mings (back), Brad Smith (hip), Adam Federici (knee) | Liverpool — OUT: Alberto Moreno (ankle), Adam Lallana (fitness), Joel Matip (thigh), Nathaniel Clyne (back), Emre Can (suspensions); QUESTIONABLE: Daniel Sturridge (hamstring)