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?

STREAM: Chelsea vs. Burnley, Watford vs. Arsenal; every 10am ET game

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Eden Hazard of Chelsea is challenged by Michael Keane of Burnley during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Burnley at Stamford Bridge on February 21, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Six games are coming your way at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday with Chelsea hosting Burnley and Arsenal heading to Watford.

[ STREAM: Watch live online here

Crystal Palace welcome Bournemouth to Selhurst Park, while Southampton and Sunderland clash as they both aim to grab their first win of the new season. Reining champs Leicester City host Swansea City and Everton welcome Stoke City to Goodison Park at 10 a.m. ET as the PL action comes thick and fast.

[ STREAM: Watch “Goal Rush” ]

There is also a new feature during this 10 a.m. ET games as Premier League “Goal Rush” debuts this weekend. You can see every goal from all six games on NBCSports.com or via the app. All the details you need to stream that are above.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

So, here is your one-stop streaming shop for every PL game kicking off at 10 a.m. ET.


Saturday, 10 a.m. ET kick offs

Chelsea vs. Burnley – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Watford vs. Arsenal – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Southampton vs. Sunderland – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –[STREAM]

Crystal Palace vs. Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –[STREAM]

Everton vs. Stoke City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Leicester City vs. Swansea City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Arsene Wenger vehemently denies panic buying at Arsenal

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 25:  Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is seen in the stand prior to the UEFA EURO 2016 round of 16 match between Wales and Northern Ireland at Parc des Princes on June 25, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
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With Arsenal about to spend close to $70 million on two new players in the final days of the window, Arsene Wenger has been accused by many of “panic buying” to help quell fan unrest.

Seriously, can this guy win?

[ MORE: Pulisic to Liverpool? ]

So often the subject of discontent for Arsenal not spending enough cash, now Wenger is being slatted for lining up deals for center back Shkodran Mustafi and striker Lucas Perez.

Speaking to the media ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Watford on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports) Wenger smiled as he delivered this opening comment when asked if the imminent arrival of Mustafi and Lucas were a result of panic late in the transfer window.

“Look at my face. Is this the face of someone who tends to panic buy?” Wenger said. “No, it is the case that everybody is waiting to get the deals done. When a [foreign] club wants to sell to an English club today they ask for a huge amount of money. So it takes a long time to settle [on a price]. In the next two or three days everybody will find agreements.”

Wenger is right.

With the huge influx of cash across the PL, teams across Europe know the PL has a lot more money to spend this summer and the prices are going through the roof.

In fairness to Wenger, the deal for Mustafi has been rumbling on all summer long with Valencia driving a hard bargain and Arsenal finally agreeing to pay $46.2 million for the 24-year-old German international.

Perez seems  like more of a panic buy with the Deportivo La Coruna striker costing $22.5 million after scoring 17 times in La Liga last season. The 27-year-old Spaniard has had a nomadic career to date but with Everton interested in his services, Arsenal have jumped in at the last minute with concerns around the long-term fitness of Danny Welbeck and only Olivier Giroud around.

If these two deals do go through then Arsenal and Wenger will have spent the third-highest amount in the PL this summer behind Manchester City and Manchester United who have completely obliterated the transfer market.

Even if these are “panic buys” from Wenger, you can no longer accuse Arsenal of not spending money. Arsenal’s fans will have to find something else to moan about now as Wenger enters the final year of his contract.

Watch Live: Tottenham vs. Liverpool (Lineups, Live Stream)

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: Jordan Henderson of Liverpool and Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on April 2, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Tottenham Hotspur host Liverpool at White Hart Lane on Saturday  (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports) as two teams with title aspirations collide in north London.

Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp are two of the brightest minds in the game and both teams will press high to cause mistakes from the other. Expect a rambunctious and passionate encounter.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Last season both games ended in draws — 0-0 at the Lane and 1-1 at Anfield — between these teams but heading into the international break, both will be going for broke to grab another three points.

In team news Tottenham bring back Dele Alli and drop Vincent Janssen to the bench.

Liverpool start with Matip in central defense and Milner at left back.

LINEUPS

Tottenham: Vorm; Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Wanyama, Dier; Lamela, Alli, Eriksen; Kane. Subs: McGee, Son, Janssen, Onoma, Winks, Davies, Carter-Vickers

Liverpool: Mignolet; Clyne, Lovren, Matip, Milner; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Lallana; Mane, Firmino, Coutinho. Subs: Manninger, Sturridge, Grujic, Moreno, Leiva, Origi, Stewart

Netherlands coach Danny Blind leaves Depay off squad

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) Manchester United winger Memphis Depay was left out of the Netherlands squad on Friday for a friendly against Greece followed by its first World Cup qualifier against Sweden.

Veteran strikers Klaas-Jan Huntelaar of Schalke and Robin Van Persie of Fenerbahce were also omitted from coach Danny Blind’s 24-man squad, while a debut was given to 21-year-old PSV Eindhoven midfielder Jorrit Hendrix.

Blind appeared to be opting for youth over experience in the qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but that policy did not help 22-year-old Depay, who has struggled for form since moving from PSV Eindhoven to Old Trafford last year.

“It’s important for him to first focus fully on getting into the first team at Manchester United,” Blind said. “From there, he needs to play more and hopefully he will then put himself back in the picture.”

Tottenham’s new striker, Vincent Janssen, will look to continue his impressive international form – the former AZ Alkaar star has three goals in five matches since making his debut in March.

The Netherlands, which failed to qualify for the European Championship, takes on Greece on Thursday in Eindhoven, and plays its first Group A qualifier against Sweden in Solna on Sept. 6.

Netherlands:

Goalkeepers: Jasper Cillessen (Barcelona), Maarten Stekelenburg (Everton), Jeroen Zoet (PSV Eindhoven).

Defenders: Patrick Van Aanholt (Sunderland), Daley Blind (Manchester United), Jeffrey Bruma (Wolfsburg), Virgil Van Dijk (Southampton), Kenny Tete (Ajax), Joel Veltman (Ajax), Ron Vlaar (AZ Alkmaar), Jetro Willems (PSV).

Midfielders: Riechedly Bazoer (Ajax), Jorrit Hendrix (PSV), Davy Klaassen (Ajax), Davy Proepper (PSV), Wesley Sneijder (Galatasaray), Kevin Strootman (Roma), Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool).

Forwards: Steven Berghuis (Feyenoord), Bas Dost (Wolfsburg), Vincent Janssen (Tottenham Hotspur), Luuk De Jong (PSV), Luciano Narsingh(PSV), Quincy Promes (Spartak Moscow).