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?

VIDEO: Mexico’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez scores 100th goal in Europe

MONACO - SEPTEMBER 27:  Javier Hernandez (R) of Bayer 04 Leverkusen celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between AS Monaco FC and Bayer 04 Leverkusen at Louis II Stadium on September 27, 2016 in Monte Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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Javier Hernandez continues to do what he does best: score goals by the bucket load.

[ MORE: Pulisic in dreamland ]

On Tuesday the Mexican national team striker, 28, scored for Bayer Leverkusen at AS Monaco in the UEFA Champions League and that brought up a big milestone for Chicharito.

The goal below was his 100th since moving to Europe in 2010.

What’s even more impressive is that he’s reached that milestone in 237 appearances in all competitions for Manchester United, Real Madrid and Leverkusen over the past six years. Don’t forget, most of his appearances for United and Real were off the bench too.

[ VIDEO: Corden takes charge at Arsenal ]

The El Tri star has been reborn since moving to the Bundesliga last summer and he now has 32 goals in 47 games for Bayer, including four goals in his past two games for the German club.

Fans of the U.S. national team will be hoping Chicharito uses up all his goals in the next few weeks and his scoring streak ends for the crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier between the USA and Mexico in Columbus, Ohio on Nov. 11.


On Tour With Watford’s Biggest Fan… Not Named Elton

INDIO, CA - APRIL 14:  Musician Brian Fallon (L) and Ian Perkins of the band The Gaslight Anthem perform onstage during day 3 of the 2013 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 14, 2013 in Indio, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella)
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We don’t want to name names or point fingers, but some people occasionally label Watford as a cookie cutter club. The fact that the sterile confines of Vicarage Road look like a big box store from the outside does not help. But the truth is, if this season’s Liverpool play Heavy Metal Football, then Walter Mazzarri’s Watford is at least Rock N’ Roll. Only Liverpool, Arsenal and City have scored more goals through five games than Watford’s 10.

But The Hornets’ rock ethos extends off the pitch beyond Étienne Capoue, Troy Deeney and even Harry the Hornet (we see you working, Harry). The club’s most famous fan is the Rocket Man himself, Elton John. One of Watford’s biggest fans on these shores is an English guitarist who now makes his home down the Jersey Shore. Ian Perkins is the guitar player for Brian Fallon and The Crowes, one of JW’s favorite bands. He’s also one of the gents behind Asbury Park FC clothing line. In honor of Watford’s back-to-back wins, including last week’s 3-1 thumping of Manchester United, we asked Ian how a musician copes with the ups and downs of Premier League fandom on the road. We wanted to know his Three Best Football Stories from The Road. His No. 1 is below. Numbers two and three (Three is Jay DeMerit-themed!) are available HERE. Rock Stars. When it comes to football … they’re just like us.

Ian Writes: Easily my favourite recent memories of watching Watford on tour have been the last two weeks. After finishing a European tour up at Reading/Leeds festival and being so close to Vicarage Road for the Arsenal game, not going was nearly as heartbreaking as the result. I got to stay home with family for a week or so, but it lined up with the international break so no Hornets for me.

We then flew back to the West Coast to start our U.S. tour, and after a shaky start to the season, Watford were back with an away game at West Ham’s new stadium. Anyone who follows the Premier League on the West Coast knows the drill. Waking up at 6 a.m. and watching your team lose is no way to start the day, so when Watford were 2-0 down my day was already over. Then the goals start flowing, we win 4-2 and I’m walking around like I own LA.

Two days later we play the Late Late Show with James Corden. We know he’s a huge Hammers fan so our friends at Fender manage to find a Steve Harris signature bass for us to give him. It has a huge West Ham badge on the front and he looks genuinely happy when we hand it over to him, calling his mate into the room to show it off. His face then changes as he says, “We were awful at the weekend though!” That was all I needed to hear, the perfect setup that any underdog football fan dreams of. I replied, “Yeah, I know. I’m a Watford fan. We were just too good.”

Thoughts soon turned to the next game, Manchester United at home. I spend the whole day before telling everyone who will listen how we are going to get beaten but I’ll still wake up at 5:30 a.m. to see my boys play some of the world’s best players. Hopefully we can get one goal and make a good game of it. Six a.m. rolls around and I’m awake in my new home shirt, drinking coffee and hoping for the best. As the game starts, we are driving from Texas to Oklahoma, so I’m relying on tour bus WiFi. But right after kickoff we hit a huge storm and the signal drops. Thankfully I have a good support network. There’s so few Watford fans that we all know each other. I have family at the game giving me updates, the NYC Hornets are sending me videos. Then Capoue scores and my phone goes mental. We pull out of the storm during half time and regain signal so I can watch my boys put on an epic display, winning 3-1, with Deeney smashing home a penalty in injury time and everyone knows it’s beyond United. I’ll be talking about this game for the rest of the season and maybe, just maybe, it will take the place of my Liverpool story from when we beat them last season. Watford fans have never had it so good.

Mourinho reveals Man United Europa League teams news; Rooney struggling

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United shakes hands with Manager of Manchester United, Jose Mourinho during The FA Community Shield match between Leicester City and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on August 7, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho has a massive squad at Manchester United and he is using the UEFA Europa League to give minutes to those who need them.

[ MORE: Pulisic in dreamland ]

As well as giving his squad player a run out United’s manager confirmed he will start Zlatan Ibrahimovic on Thursday against Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford, while captain Wayne Rooney is in the squad but Mourinho is unsure whether he will start.

The Red Devils could really do with a win in the Europa League after they lost 1-0 to Feyenoord in their Group A opener and after this clash on Thursday they face a tricky double-header against Turkish side Fenerbache.

Crashing out of the Europa League at the group stage may not be the worst thing in the world as Mourinho and United chase the Premier League title, but it would be very embarrassing nonetheless.

Speaking to the assembled media, Mourinho revealed that Luke Shaw will be missing for the game against Zorya Luhansk after falling ill but both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial are available for selection after recovering from injury.

On Rooney, Mourinho said that the England international has injured his back and he may not risk him in the Europa League ahead of United’s Premier League clash with Stoke City on Sunday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports).

“Wayne Rooney is selected,” Mourinho said. “I haven’t decided yet if I start with him. He didn’t train yesterday, he did just a little bit of the session on Monday. He had a back problem so today [Wednesday] was the first time that he had a training session with the other players and today is the training session where the intensity and the complexity is obviously reduced because we have a game tomorrow.

“So I was completely convinced of playing him tomorrow from the beginning, but with this situation in the last couple of days I am not sure I’ll do that. Because with the situation that you create for him I think he really can’t afford to have a performance that is not really good. I am here to protect him and not to put him in difficult situations. I have to analyse if the best thing for him is to start the game and if he is not totally ready for it. So I am going to discuss that with him and the medical staff and decide if he starts or if he is on the bench.”

Intriguing quotes on Rooney, especially the part about him not being able to afford to have a bad performance. Let’s see if Rooney can get out on the pitch and get back scoring goals after losing his place in United’s starting lineup last week in their 4-1 win over Leicester City.

Three Questions on Danish Football and Nordic Culinary

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Danish Football and New Nordic Cuisine. Both regular topics on our other Podcast, “Scando-files Today.” But in this crossover edition of Three Questions, we delve deep into both issues with the restaurateur who serves as flag bearer for the aforementioned food revolution. Like all great moguls, he owns a football club.

Foodies world over will know Claus Meyer as one of the minds behind Noma, the two-Michelin-star establishment that The World’s 50 Best Restaurants has rated the No. 1 eatery in the world four times. Recently he brought his brand of Nordic culinary swag to American shores, opening up a litany of spots here in New York City. The Great Northern Food Hall in Grand Central Terminal. Agern, right next door to Grand Central. And Meyers Bageri in Brooklyn.

When he’s not overseeing his restaurant empire, Meyer is focused on second-tier Danish club Nykøbing FC, of which he is part owner. In this issue of The Raven, we talk food and football pairings with one of the most powerful people in the restaurant industry.

MIB: Explain to food neophytes, like us, who subsist strictly on Guinness and Pie what exactly New Nordic Cuisine is.

Claus: I grew up in what was considered the darkest period of Danish food history, the 60s and 70s. I spent one year in France as an au pair in the mid-80s and it radically changed my life. I wanted to bring the spirit and virtues of French food culture  – enjoyment of food and deliciousness – back to Denmark. It felt like a calling. My parents divorced at the sound of a microwave oven. Coming from a broken family, I had the feeling that with a greater food culture people would have better and more joyful lives.

That was 1984. Fast forward, 19 years later, that’s when I decided to open Noma with the goal of reconnecting cooking to the nature that surrounds us, using 100% local ingredients and working with the principles of time and place. We formulated a manifesto, a set of guiding principles that would apply to the French concept of “terroir” in a Nordic context – unlocking the potential flavors of our land. We invited all major stakeholders on the food scene to come together in that process to create this new paradigm with us. That was the foundation for creating a new culinary language and a great cuisine in its own right with dishes the world had never seen before: Dishes like langoustine, horseradish, dill and buttermilk; beef tartare with roasted bread crumbs, wild cress, pickled lingonberries, cep mushroom mayonnaise and cep mushroom dust; and pork cheeks with bacon, apples, sunchokes and thyme.

MIB: Your role in this culinary revolution has allowed you to fulfill every football fan’s dream: to own a club of their own. Tell us about football’s place in your life, how you came to purchase Nykøbing FC, and a little bit about the team.

Claus: I fell in love with the team thanks to my grandfather. He was among the club’s biggest fans in the 60s and 70s, when they played under the name B1901. We were consistently top five in Denmark and regularly played in Europe. I went to the matches with my grandfather and drank it all in. The club is located on the island of Lolland, where I grew up. It’s one of the poorest parts of Denmark and, over the years, the best players kept getting scooped up by bigger clubs. As a result the club dropped to the fourth division. In 2006, they merged with B1921 to form Nykøbing FC. In 2015, I purchased part of the club.

Having a little budget, trying to get the best out of the club, and growing organically, sometimes feels likes playing a family game. But first and last: when NFC wins, I forget all problems in my life for a while. I love the club and its victories makes me much more happy than I can rationally explain.

MIB: Talk about the similarities and differences between operating a restaurant and owning a football club?

Claus: There are definitely similarities between my dream of taking Nykøbing into Champions League before 2025 and the dream I had of creating a world class restaurant like Noma in the food desert that was Denmark. When the idea has a utopian character and is executed in a way that is generous and inclusive, suddenly the restaurant and/or football club can become the epicenter of a movement of avalanche proportions. To set the agenda, you need to make sure that a lot of things are right: the ownership structure, the values, the stakeholder relations, the vision. That has been my primary role in most of the things I have been involved in. Generally speaking, it’s all about making sure that everyone exposed to the restaurant or the club gets more out of it than they had expected.

MIB: You’re now living in New York City. How are you following Nykøbing FC?

Claus: In three ways: Livestream on TiFoSport or ViaSat. Listening to the matches on Radio Sydhavsøerne or simply following the matches on LiveScore. It was magical to follow the final match of the last season live in Vanderbilt Hall, Grand Central, the day we opened Great Northern Food Hall. Nykøbing scored the decisive goal in the last minute of the match and I screamed so loud that four policemen came running towards me to make sure everything was okay.

MiB: What is the perfect meal and drink to accompany football?

Claus: Beer and roast pork sandwiches with crackling skin, raw apples and pickled red cabbage.