Zlatan Ibrahimovic

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


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?

Arsenal 0-0 Middlesbrough: Gunners slip up at home

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  • Gunners unbeaten since opening day
  • Ramirez hits bar for Boro
  • Boro without a win in 7

Arsenal were held to a 0-0 draw at the Emirates Stadium against Middlesbrough on Saturday.

Arsene Wenger‘s side had won six Premier League games on the bounce going into this game but Aitor Karanka‘s Boro went close on several occasions as Arsenal had an off day.

With the point Arsenal still go top of the Premier League table on 20 points, while Boro has eight points after a resolute defensive display as they always looked dangerous on the break.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Early on Mesut Ozil went down in the box after a cutback but referee Mike Dean waved away the penalty appeals.

Middlesbrough then had a glorious chance as on the break Adama Traore saw his shot blocked by Petr Cech and then Alvaro Negredo’s follow up was saved.

From that attack Boro then won a free kick ans Gaston Ramirez struck the angle of the post and bar. Agonizingly close.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Alexis Sanchez then went close from a similar free kick as Victor Valdes pushed it out of the top corner. Traore then whipped a cross in which Negredo flicked on to Ramirez who sent his header straight at Cech.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]  

Arsenal almost went ahead as Valdes made came out and made a hash of it but Laurent Koscielny completely missed the ball.

Alexis then went close as his free kick was tipped around the post by Valdes and Arsenal continued to pour forward. Boro looked dangerous on the break as Mustafi was caught out by Ramirez as the Teeside club hung in there until the end.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Valdes stopped Sanchez late on as Arsenal poured forward but at the other end Negredo and Traore combined on the break but the former couldn’t make the most of the opportunity as Koscielny made a superb tackle.

Then, Arsenal thought they’d won the game in stoppage time but Ozil was offside as he finished. The game ended 0-0 with Arsenal missing out on the chance to go three points clear at the top of the table.

West Ham 1-0 Sunderland: Reid scores at the death

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22: Dimitri Payet of West Ham United and Lamine Kone of Sunderland compete for the ball during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Sunderland at Olympic Stadium on October 22, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
(Stephen Pond / Getty Images)
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  • New Zealand defender scores late
  • Sunderland continues struggles
  • USMNT’s Gooch subs on late

West Ham United dominated visiting Sunderland but looked destined for a frustrating draw with the lowly Black Cats at Olympic Stadium on Saturday.

That’s when Winston Reid stepped in, belting a shot through traffic in what could only be described as the final ticks of stoppage time to give the Hammers a 1-0 win.

Sunderland remains dead last with two points, while the Hammers are 15th with 10 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Referee Bobby Madley denied a pair of penalty appeals in the early moments, and one — a blocking foul just outside the six — was almost certainly valid enough to give the Hammers a chance from the spot.

West Ham was simply better for the entire first half, but their finishing continued to elude the Olympic Stadium set. Simone Zaza was emblematic of their problems, very strong but without goal (just missing an acrobatic bicycle kick just before half).

How dominant were they? See below:

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[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Sunderland had the first chance of the second half, with Adrian called on to parry a hard shot from outside the 18.

Otherwise the half was almost exclusively West Ham, and Reid ripped a Dimitri Payet — who else? — pass through traffic for the win.

American midfielder Lynden Gooch came on for the final quarter hour.

Hull City 0-2 Stoke City: Shaqiri’s magical brace is enough

HULL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22:  Xherdan Shaqiri of Stoke City and Curtis Davies of Hull City compete for the ball during the Premier League match between Hull City and Stoke City at the KCom Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
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  • Shaqiri scored first half blast
  • Adds free kick in second half
  • Potters 100th PL win
  • Tigers have lost five-straight

Xherdan Shaqiri scored a pair of wonderful goals to pull Stoke City out of the drop zone and send Hull City to 18th in a 2-0 win at the KC Stadium on Saturday.

Stoke moves 14th with 9 points, two ahead of the relegation zone. Hull have seven points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The Potters got on the board when Hull’s defense allowed plenty of room to work the ball.

Shaqiri blasted the ball inside the near post from yards beyond the 18 for a goal you’ll see on all the highlight reels.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Make that four, Opta, as Shaqiri scored a very nice free kick after halftime to make it 2-0 and ensure a trip away from the drop zone.

There just wasn’t much to like for Mike Phelan’s Tigers, who were outshot and outplayed at home.

Leicester City 3-1 Crystal Palace: Foxes look the part in win

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22:  Ahmed Musa of Leicester City (R) celebrates scoring his sides first goal with his team mate Danny Simpson of Leicester City (L) during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Crystal Palace at The King Power Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
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  • Musa, Okazaki break slumps
  • Fuchs scores gorgeous goal
  • Foxes first win in four
  • Palace winless in three

Leicester City’s Champions League form is carrying into the Premier League, as Claudio Ranieri‘s Foxes controlled proceedings in a X-X win over Crystal Palace on Saturday at King Power Stadium.

Ahmed Musa scored his first Leicester City goal, while Shinji Okazaki added his first tally in 14 PL matches to help salt it away. Unlikely goal scorer Christian Fuchs celebrated his new contract with a terrific left-footed shot in the 80th minute.

Yohan Cabaye scored for Palace.

Leicester joins 11th place Palace on 11 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The first half was certainly in Leicester City’s wheelhouse, albeit without traditional finish.

Islam Slimani in particular seemed a touch off, but the Foxes’ man played a big role in the opener.

Slimani’s lay-off found Musa, who ripped the ball through traffic and to the left of Steve Mandanda to make it 1-0.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Leicester seemed best prepared to score the next goal, and Danny Drinkwater had a shot deflected wide around the hour mark.

The goal came through Okazaki, who darted onto a blocked cross and blasted a shot by Mandanda inside the near post from 15 yards.

Cabaye was a lively player for Palace, and Kasper Schmeichel denied his point blank chance in the 74th minute. The ensuing corner saw Danny Simpson clear Christian Benteke‘s header off the line.

Fuchs then tore into a left-footed volley from just outside the 18 for a goal of the weekend contender.

Schmeichel blocked a partial Benteke breakaway in the 83rd minute, and Cabaye redirected Wilfried Zaha‘s cross to dirty Leicester’s clean sheet. That was the only goal of a furious fightback from Palace.