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?

PL Sunday Preview: Everton hosts Man United, Liverpool visits Bournemouth

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 03: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United takes on Gareth Barry of Everton  during the Wayne Rooney Testimonial match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on August 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Chelsea remains atop the Premier League after its eighth straight victory, but Liverpool can keep within striking distance with a victory at Bournemouth on Sunday.

Elsewhere, an important top half clash takes place at Goodison Park as Everton hosts Manchester United.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Bournemouth vs. Liverpool — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Cherries have lost three of their last four matches, and Sunday’s test against Liverpool won’t make their stretch any easier. Eddie Howe‘s side currently sits in 12th place through 13 matches, but with just four points separating Bournemouth from the drop zone the club needs to begin to string together results once more. In their last five fixtures, Bournemouth has managed just three goals, so Callum Wilson and the attack will need to come out of its dry spell against the Reds — who have allowed the third fewest goals in 2016 (14).

Jurgen Klopp and his side haven’t lost in 15 matches across all competitions, and with another win on Sunday Liverpool can remain close to Chelsea at the top of the PL. While the Reds attack often gets much of the recognition, the Liverpool is beginning to hit its stride after allowing just four goals over the last matches in PL play. Meanwhile, the Reds attack will have to make due without Philippe Coutinho, who remains out injured with an ankle injury.

Everton vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Toffees have hit a rough patch after starting 2016 in fine form, but Sunday’s clash will certainly be a critical fixture for Ronald Koeman‘s side if they are to get back into the mix for the top six. Everton hasn’t won in its last three matches, while only scoring one goal in that span. Koeman’s group currently sits eighth in the table but a victory on Sunday would propel the Toffees up to sixth.

Jose Mourinho has already had his shares of ups and downs in his first season at Manchester United, however, the Red Devils have gone unbeaten in their last five matches across all competitions, bringing a more cheery feel around Old Trafford. With the club’s chances of advancing in the Europa League significant, Mourinho and co. can turn their attention back to the PL as the Red Devils attempt to get back into the title chase. United currently sits 14 points off the pace set by Chelsea, a gap that will have to dwindle down before the holidays if the team is to compete for the Premiership.

Chapecoense will be crowned Copa Sudamericana champions

ADDS NAMES - In this Nov. 2, 2016 photo, players of Brazil's Chapecoense team pose before a Copa Sudamericana soccer match against Argentina's San Lorenzo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Top row from left, goalkeeper Marcos Danilo Padilha, Bruno Rangel Domingues, Helio Hermito Zampier Neto, Cleber Santana Loureiro, Willian Thiago. Bottom row from left, Guilherme Gimenez de Souza, Ananias Eloi Castro Monteiro, Tiago "Tiaguinho" Da Rocha Vieira, Matheus Bitencourt da Silva, Dener Assuncao Braz and Jose "Gil" Gildeixon Clemente de Paiva. A plane carrying the Brazilian soccer club Chapecoense team that was on it's way for a Copa Sudamericana final match against Colombia's Atletico Nacional crashed in a mountainous area outside Medellin, Colombian officials said Tuesday, Nov. 29. (AP Photo/Gustavo Garello)
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Tragedy can only describe the event that transpired just days ago, but the soccer world has rallied around Chapecoense in the days that followed.

[ MORE: PL roundup: Chelsea handles Man City; Arsenal, Spurs cruise ]

The Brazilian club’s interim president Ivan Tozzo has confirmed that Chapecoense will be named Copa Sudamericana champions after CONMEBOL officials agreed to the terms.

Chapecoense was set to face Atletico Nacional in the tournament’s finale, however, Atletico called for CONMEBOL to award Chapeco the title and be awarded the prize money.

“CONMEBOL have testified that they will crown Chapecoense as champions of the Copa Sudamericana,” Tozzo told TV Globo.

“In addition, the club will receive the two million dollar prize. Everything is confirmed. I do not know if there will be a ceremony to receive the cup.”

In total, 71 people on the plane carrying most of the Chapeco squad perished in Monday’s crash, including 19 players.

Tozzo said that while the club is understandable still grieving the devastating event that Chapeco has received an overwhelming amount of support in the time of hardship.

“We are receiving support from all federations,” Tozzo said. “The CBF, CONMEBOL, FIFA, and especially the people of Chapeco. Right now we are beginning to rebuild the team. People want football, people love football in Chapeco.

“Therefore, we must continue this. Let’s talk and do well, let the dust settle and rebuild the team for next year. ”

Gareth Southgate will attempt to lure Zaha back to England

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 06:  Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace in action during the Pre Season Friendly match between Crystal Palace and Valencia at Selhurst Park on August 6, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
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Just days after Wilfried Zaha stunned the Football Association by announcing his decision to switch to playing for the Ivory Coast, England’s manager is prepared to lure the attacker back.

[ MORE: PL roundup — Chelsea handles Man City; Arsenal, Spurs each score five ]

Gareth Southgate has come out and said that he will attempt to convince Zaha to remain with England, despite only having made two appearances with the senior side since 2012.

[ MORE: Gunners pressure helps aid five-goal performance at West Ham ]

Zaha, 24, came up with England at the Under-19 and U-21 levels, but his last call up with the senior team was three years ago.

While winger is a competitive position within the Three Lions squad, Southgate is content on speaking with Zaha and hopefully dissuading the attacker from switching his allegiance to Ivory Coast.

“I cannot assess that until I speak with him. I would like to speak to him before we make a decision and happy to make that happen.”

“We are still first and foremost hopeful that we can speak to Wilf. He’s a player I’ve obviously worked with. At the time, I had him with the Under-21s. First few months he played very well for us then he had a difficult period for his club [Manchester United]. [He had] A loan spell at Cardiff that didn’t go so well.

“At the stage we had players like Tom Ince, who was performing better in the Championship out wide for us so he dipped out of that group. Then obviously over the last couple of years, with respect no one was questioning him not being in our [senior Euro 2016] squad that summer.

In 2016, Zaha has made 15 appearances in all competitions for Crystal Palace and notched two goals in that span. Zaha began his professional career with the Eagles after coming up through the club’s academy, before making a highly-anticipated switch to Manchester United.

However, his time at United was cut short after making just two senior appearances for the club and Zaha landed back at Palace in 2015.

La Liga & Serie A: Ramos rescues draw in Clasico, Juve rolls

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03:  Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid CF heads the ball towards goal and scores his team's first goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou stadium on December 3, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ MORE: PL roundup — Chelsea handles City; Spurs, Arsenal each score five ]

Barcelona 1-1 Real MadridRECAP

It was nearly the end of Real’s lengthy unbeaten streak, but then Sergio Ramos stepped up with his noggin to give the visitors a share of the points at the Camp Nou. The veteran Spanish defender headed home the equalizer in second-half stoppage time to give Real a draw against its bitter rival.

Barcelona took the lead on 53 minutes when Luis Suarez headed home a Neymar free kick from the left wing. The result keeps both sides in place as the league’s top two teams, with Real holding a six-point advantage at the summit.

Granada 2-1 Sevilla

On a day where the league’s top two sides settled for a draw in El Clasico, Sevilla suffered a massive blow on the road against one of La Liga’s struggling sides. Granada earned its first win of 2016 after goals from Andreas Pereira and David Lomban propelled the hosts past Sevilla.

Wissam Ben Yedder netted a late finish for the visitors in second-half stoppage time, however, it wasn’t enough for Sevilla to pull out a result. Granada remains in the relegation zone on eight points, while Sevilla holds its third-place standing following the loss.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Leganes 0-0 Villareal
Atletico Madrid 0-0 Espanyol

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Real Betis vs. Celta Vigo — 6 a.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao vs. Eibar — 10:15 a.m. ET
Alaves vs. Las Palmas — 12:30 p.m. ET
Sporting Gijon vs. Osasuna — 12:30 p.m. ET
Valencia vs. Malaga — 2:45 p.m. ET


Juventus 3-1 Atalanta

Alex Sandro and Daniele Rugani got Juventus out to a flying start in the first half, and it was Mario Mandzukic who finished the day off for the hosts. Juventus remains atop Serie A following Saturday’s convincing win over Atalanta, while the visitors remain in fifth place in Italy’s top flight.

Remo Freuler provided consolation for the away side in the 82nd minute after finishing off Marco D’Alessandro cross, which was Atalanta’s second shot on target during the match.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

AC Milan vs. Crotone — 6:30 a.m. ET
Lazio vs. Roma — 9 a.m. ET
Sampdoria vs. Torino — 9 a.m. ET
Sassuolo vs. Empoli — 9 a.m. ET
Pescara vs. Cagliari — 9 a.m. ET
Fiorentina vs. Palermo — 2:45 p.m. ET