Zlatan Ibrahimovic

UEFA World Cup Qualifying: Four matches, four reasons to watch

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Friday brings the first leg of the two-legged playoffs to decide the final four European sides that will spend next summer at the World Cup. Besides the fact that it’s a Friday afternoon and work seems unappealing, what makes these four matches worth watching?

Iceland vs. Croatia2 p.m. ET
Reason: resurgence 
The evening’s European entertainment — at least, its meaningful entertainment — starts off in Reykjavík, with Iceland hoping to become the smallest nation to compete in Brazil. It would be an interesting narrative and it would certainly warm the hearts of the 320,137 Icelanders to see their side head off to its first ever World Cup, but Iceland has a rather ridiculously complicated task ahead. While a result might be possible in Reykjavík, it’s hard to see Croatia losing out over both legs.

The numbers tell a different story: Iceland are unbeaten in their last four matches, while Croatia lost to Scotland twice, fell to Belgium, and let Serbia come back for a draw. In other words, the Croats don’t appear to be giants. But they’ve sent coach Igor Štimac packing, and Niko Kovač is unlikely to make the same mistakes. Kovač, a popular former captain for his country, has promised to right the sinking ship, plugging the holes drilled in by Štimac. Croatia is a side that needs a huge confidence boost and, should Niko follow through on giving it to them, will likely have no problem rediscovering their form and dispensing with Iceland.

Greece vs. Romania, 2:45 p.m. ET
Reason: doggedness 
What to look for in this match? Relentless pragmatism. Greece might be hyperaware that the only reason they haven’t already booked their ticket to Brazil is because their goal difference was inferior to that of Bosnia, but that doesn’t mean they’re likely to suddenly shift into attack mode. The Greeks have been stodgily defending since 2004 (ok, likely since before then, but that’s when we all really started to pay attention) and will continue to do so in order to reach their second consecutive World Cup.

Romania, on the other hand, haven’t been to the party since 1998. They finished nine points behind group leaders the Netherlands, and just barely edged out Hungary and Turkey. The visitors are missing a couple key players, including Tottenham defender Vlad Chiricheș, while Manchester City goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon may step in for Ciprian Tătărușanu, whose fitness is questionable. This close to getting on that plane to Brazil, the Romanians are highly unlikely to turn up the heat, preferring instead not to put a toe out of place.

Portugal vs. Sweden, 2:45 p.m. ET
Reason: heroics
We all know what we’re watching here, right? This is a battle between two superstars and their two superegos, and the world will be a less-than-perfect place when one of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic has to stay at home rather than take to the pitch in Brazil. The two superheros have already scored 10 goals in qualifying, including Ronaldo’s hattrick against Northern Ireland. Ibra’s been more consistent, scoring in five of Sweden’s ten matches. But both can score absolute jaw-dropping goals, at seemingly any time. The real question here is, why would you not watch?

Ukraine vs. France, 2:45 p.m. ET
Reason: neediness
France had to have known that, as soon as they were drawn in a group with Spain, a trip to the playoff round was almost inevitable. Still les bleus were impressive in the first stage, losing just once –to Spain, of course — and conceding just six goals. But Ukraine, too, did well to make their mark, finishing just a point behind England. Ukraine also scored 28 goals, but 17 of those came against San Marino, so don’t expect a flurry of action in front of goal.

It’s been nearly 20 years since France missed out on a World Cup, and it’s hard to believe that they won’t make it to Brazil. Their squad is much steadier than it was in South Africa, and the talent on display gives little reason to believe Ukraine will make it through. But the hosts will be fueled by pure, raw bitterness: in 1998, 2002 and 2010, Ukraine were eliminated via the playoffs. Surely it must be their time?

MLS Snapshot: New York Red Bulls 4-0 FC Dallas (video)

HARRISON, NJ - NOVEMBER 29:  Felipe Martins #8 of New York Red Bulls drives around Federico Higuain #10 of Columbus Crew during their match at Red Bull Arena on November 29, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): Is it too early to say the Red Bulls have their mojo back? While FC Dallas will be leaving Harrison dazed and confused, the Red Bulls found success offensively for the second consecutive match, while also shutting out a potent attack. Head coach Jesse Marsch recently said that the Red Bulls’ win over Orlando City could spark a positive chain reaction moving forward, and it appears he was right. The Red Bulls looked dangerous every time they came down the Dallas end, finding the back of the net four times. Dallas still holds the top spot in the Western Conference, while New York makes a jump in the East, now sitting on nine points this season.

[ MORE: Previewing Week 9 around MLS ]

Three moments that mattered

37′ — Clever Red Bulls free kick finished by Sam — After two players ran over the ball, Sacha Kljestan’s chip to the far post was perfectly placed toward the run of Sal Zizzo. The right back nodded it into the center, where Lloyd Sam smashed the close-range chance home for the Red Bulls opener.

52′ — Kljestan doubles lead in style — Sam continued his impressive night for the Red Bulls after a long-range effort struck the bar from 40 yards out. Sacha Kljestan’s hustle put him in the right place at the right time and slid in to head the ball into the open net. FC Dallas keeper Jesse Gonzalez made his best effort but the initial shot’s bounce threw him off.

71′ — Grella heads home third — Sam was arguably the most dangerous man on the pitch Friday night, and he was directly involved in New York’s third goal. The 31-year-old found himself down the right wing, before laying the ball off to Felipe. The Brazilian crossed the ball into a striding Grella, who headed the ball home, giving Gonzalez no chance.

82′ — Felipe concludes the rout  — The Brazilian got in on the action for the fourth time on the night. The central midfielder received the ball at the top of the box from rookie Alex Muyl, before ripping a effort to the top corner. Gonzalez managed to get a hand to it, but Felipe’s shot was too strong to keep out.

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Man of the match: Lloyd Sam

Goalscorers: Lloyd Sam (37′), Sacha Kljestan (52′), Mike Grella (71′), Felipe (82′)

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Crotone promoted to Serie A for 1st time in its history

CROTONE, ITALY - APRIL 23: Team of Crotone celebrate after the Serie B match between FC Crotone and Como Calcio  at Stadio Comunale Ezio Scida on April 23, 2016 in Crotone, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
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MODENA, Italy (AP) Crotone secured promotion to Italy’s top flight for the first time in its history Friday, drawing 1-1 at Modena in Serie B to spark scenes of celebration in the Calabrian city.

[ MORE: Preliminary Brazilian Copa America roster features Kaka, Coutinho ]

There are three rounds remaining but a point was enough to guarantee Ivan Juric’s team will finish in the top two in the second division and earn automatic promotion to Serie A.

Cagliari is second, seven points behind Crotone, with Trapani eight points further back.

Davide Luppi gave Modena the lead in the 17th minute but former Juventus and Italy forward Raffaele Palladino leveled with a penalty on the stroke of halftime.

Around 1,200 fans had travelled to Modena, while thousands of people are celebrating in the streets of Crotone, where there were two giant screens set up for fans to watch the match.

It is Juric’s first season in charge of Crotone. The former Croatia midfielder also spent five years as a player for Crotone, before moving to Genoa in 2006.

The Stadio Ezio Scida, where Crotone plays its home matches, holds less than 10,000 people.

Fellow minnows Carpi and Frosinone were promoted to Serie A for the first time in their history last season.

Carpi is currently three points above the drop zone, while Frosinone is five points from safety.

Arsene Wenger deserves criticism amid Arsenal fan protests

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 08:  Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal reacts during the Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round Replay match between Hull City and Arsenal at KC Stadium on March 8, 2016 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Now in his 20th season with the club, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has taken heat for failing to guide the team to success, or at least not in the form of trophies.

[ MORE: Van Gaal says Leicester will have to earn title against Man United ]

Arsenal supporters have arranged a protest for Saturday’s match against Norwich City, and that hasn’t been too pleasing for the team’s coach.

[ VIDEO: Previewing every Premier League match for Week 36 ]

Are the fans right though? Should they be protesting the club’s lack of success?

The Gunners, who currently sit third in the Barclays Premier League as the season winds down, have been eliminated from the title race, something that has eluded the club since the 2003-04 campaign.

The only title that Arsenal has won since that season is the FA Cup, which they captured in back-to-back seasons (2013-14 and 2014-15).

In all, Wenger has captured nine trophies while with Arsenal, but only the FA Cup crowns have come in the past decade. Consistent top four finishes have aided the Frenchman’s chances of staying with the team, but now scrutiny is really taking shape amongst the Gunners supporters.

Wenger recently tried defending his lack of titles by citing the club’s financial struggles that resulted from Arsenal’s move to the Emirates Stadium in 2006.

“You have to remember that when we built the stadium we had 5-7 difficult financial years when we had to pay back,” Wenger said earlier at a news conference. “And I think the club is now out of that period and is in a much stronger position. It is today in a position where we can compete again financially with our main opponents. But during that time it was very difficult.”

While his position in regards to the club’s finances may have played a bit of a factor, Arsenal still spends money like the rest of England’s top clubs.

Current players in the squad such as Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil didn’t come cheap, and while injuries have hampered the team’s success, Wenger is truly running out of excuses with the squad that lies in front of him.

Additionally, the team’s failure to find success in the most important competition of them all, the UEFA Champions League, has fans extremely antsy, and rightfully so.

Under Wenger, the Gunners have made it to the Champions League just twice and in neither case was Arsenal able to hoist the trophy. The Champions League is undoubtedly one of the most difficult competitions to find success in, but the club has exited the tournament in the Round of 16 during five straight seasons.

[ MORE: Preliminary Brazil roster features Kaka, Coutinho ]

Wenger will likely be retained next season, but the leash for the 66-year old is wearing thin. With Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola entering new positions at Chelsea and Manchester City, respectively, it’s fair to say that Wenger’s days could be numbered if he doesn’t secure any title in 2016-17.

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Coutinho, Kaka headline preliminary Brazil roster for Copa America

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It appears that Neymar won’t be the only big name missing from Brazil’s star-studded squad this summer at the Copa America Centenario.

[ VIDEO: Previewing every Week 36 match around the Premier League ]

The Selecao revealed their preliminary 40-man roster for this summer’s competition, and it includes Orlando City midfielder Kaka, Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Douglas Costa of Bayern Munich.

[ MORE: PST discusses how Leicester has gotten to the verge of an epic title ]

Chelsea pair Willian and Oscar also made the initial cut, in addition to Liverpool midfielder Roberto Firminho, who is coming off of a stellar season for Liverpool.

Among the biggest snubs for Brazil are a trio of defenders. Paris Saint-Germain duo Thiago Silva and David Luiz were each left off, while Real Madrid wing back Marcelo was also left out of the side.

Head coach Dunga will be forced to cut his roster down to 23 before the tournament starts for the Brazilians on June 4. The Selecao will take on Ecuador, Haiti and Peru in Group B play.

You can view the entire roster below:

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