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?

Spanish police dismantle match-fixing scheme in 3rd, 4th tiers

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MADRID (AP) Spanish police have dismantled a match-fixing scheme involving players and clubs in the country’s lower divisions.

Authorities said more than 20 people have been detained as part of the police operation launched on Monday, including players, although no names were immediately disclosed.

The matches under suspicion were in the third and fourth divisions this season and last season.

The match-fixing scheme reportedly involved Chinese betting sites.

The Spanish league said the operation was based on information collected by its analysts about suspicious activities.

UCL preview: Chelsea host Barcelona; Bayern vs. Besiktas

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  • Chelsea vs. Barcelona, at Stamford Bridge
  • Bayern Munich vs. Besiktas, at Allianz Arena
  • Champions League round of 16 resumes on Tuesday

[ UCL: Spurs fight back to draw Juventus | Liverpool thrash Porto in leg 1 ]

Chelsea, mired in some of their worst form since the disastrous 2015-16 season, welcome a Barcelona side enjoying one of the best six-month runs of results in the famed club’s entire history. The Blues have won just four of their last 12 games across all competitions, while the Blaugrana have lost once in 38 games.

On the plus side, Chelsea enter Tuesday’s colossal clash as winners of their last two games — back-to-back wins for the first time in 2018 — having outscored the likes of West Bromwich Albion and Hull City by a combined 7-0. Star striker Alvaro Morata returned to action against Hull after five weeks out with a back injury, thus Antonio Conte has something of a selection dilemma on his hands with the Spaniard perhaps only partially fit, and Olivier Giroud racking up a goal and three assists in the last two games, his first starts for the club.

Barcelona, meanwhile, have conceded just two goals in their last nine games (all competitions) and even managed to overturn their lone defeat, to Espanyol, and advance to the Copa del Rey semifinals (and eventually final). Despite losing Neymar in the summer, Barca mostly cruised through their Champions League group, only dropping points in draws away to Juventus and Olympiacos. Lionel Messi has, strangely, never scored a goal in his eight career appearances against Chelsea, a record which has been spoken about at length in the build-up to Tuesday — similarly to the goal-less record which plagued him against Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, whom he finally bested back in September.

[ MORE: Man City win big away to Basel | Real Madrid 3-1 PSG ]

In the other round-of-16 first-leg matchup on Tuesday, five-time (soon-to-be six) defending Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich host surprise winners of Group G, Besiktas, ahead of the likes of Monaco, RB Leipzig and Porto.

Since taking over on an interim basis (through the end of the season), Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes has won 21 of 22 games of which he’s been in charge, including four of six games during the group stage en route to finish second behind Paris Saint-Germain, while also racing out to a 19-point lead back home in Germany.

Aguero involved in clash with Wigan fan after FA Cupset

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) Sergio Aguero was involved in a confrontation with a Wigan fan as ugly scenes marred the end of the third-division side’s shock FA Cup win over Manchester City on Monday.

[ MORE: Wigan shock Man City, the world and themselves ]

Fans spilled on to the pitch at DW Stadium as the host celebrated its 1-0 fifth-round win against the runaway English Premier League leader.

Supporters from both clubs were involved in disturbances, while television pictures appeared to show a home supporter and striker Aguero involved in a physical exchange.

Aguero appeared to hit the supporter after the fan said something to the player, and Aguero had to be held back by his City teammates.

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Advertising hoardings were also ripped out and thrown as a pitch invasion by Wigan fans got out of hand while the defeated City players were being escorted off the pitch.

Footage also appeared to show objects, including an advertising board, being thrown at police officers by fans in the City end.

Wigan shock themselves: “Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet”

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Wigan Athletic didn’t just shock Manchester City with their FA Cup fifth-round slaying of the runaway Premier League leaders; nor did they merely shock the rest of the footballing world; they also shocked themselves into disbelief, according to defender Dan Burn.

[ MORE: Goodbye, quadruple! Wigan bounce 10-man City from FA Cup ]

Speaking following Monday’s triumph over Pep Guardiola‘s quadruple-chasing side at the DW Stadium, Burn admitted he himself didn’t know what to make of the night that would undoubtedly highlight and change his own professional career — quotes from the BBC:

“Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet. It was a really tough game. The belief was always there. We’ve got Will Grigg, who does what he keeps doing.

“We pride ourselves on our clean sheets. We had a couple bad results before, so we wanted to prove ourselves, so a clean sheet against the best team in England is great.

“Once we scored, the fans really got behind us, just knew we needed to hang on. It was the longest 10 minutes of my life.”

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Manager Paul Cook was able to articulate his happiness and pride only slightly better — “It feels great” — but offered the highest of praises to his players, whom “had to ride [their] luck at times” during the game, and gave everything they had to the cause, because that’s the only way you beat a team like Man City:

“It feels great. It’s such a severe test. They’re such a strong side and move the ball so well. We had to ride our luck at times and the sending off is always a big incident.

“Our lads deserve credit for their work and some of the blocks they made were outstanding, and to beat Man City you have to do that.”