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?

American takeover of Everton edging closer

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19:  A general view during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Leicester City at Goodison Park on December 19, 2015 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Soon there could be an American flag fluttering at Goodison Park.

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Following reports in December stating that former San Diego Padres owner John Jay Moores and his associate Charles Noell were in talks to buy Premier League club Everton, a new report from the Liverpool Echo states the $300 million takeover could be completed in the next two weeks.

Long-time Everton chairman Bill Kenwright has come under increasing scrutiny from fans of the Toffees this season about their lack of spending in the transfer market and the businessman has reportedly been in talks with many interested parties over the years to try and sell the Merseyside club.

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The report from the Echo says Moores and Noell have spent the last six weeks carrying out due diligence and have been in talks with the biggest shareholders, chairman Kenwright, plus Robert Earl and Jon Woods, about buying them out.

If Moores and Noell do become the majority shareholders of Everton and the controlling owners would mean the Toffees would be the seventh current PL club to be owned by Americans.

Manchester United, Sunderland, Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Arsenal and Aston Villa all have majority owners who are from the U.S.

West Ham confirm talks underway to give Payet new contract

Dimitri Payet, West Ham United FC (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
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West Ham United have announced they are in talks with star man Dimitri Payet about a new contract.

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Just over halfway into his first season in the Premier League the Frenchman, 28, has become a cult hero at Upton Park with his dazzling skills delighting the West Ham faithful.

However, reports in the UK on Tuesday had stated that Payet and his representatives were demanding a huge raise amid reported interest from other suitors but the club has moved swiftly to deny those claims.

Here’s the statement in full from West Ham:

Following reports in today’s media, West Ham United would like to clarify that at no time have Dimitri Payet or his agent made any demands to the Club over a new contract. However, the Club can confirm that due to Dimitri’s outstanding impact since his arrival at the Boleyn Ground, they have initiated amicable and productive talks about an improvement and extension to his contract.

Those talks are progressing well and it is hoped they can be concluded shortly. Dimitri would like to make clear that he is very proud to play for West Ham United and he appreciates the support he has received from the Board, manager and fans since he joined the Club in the summer.

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Payet has been a revelation since arriving from Marsielle in the summer for $15 million. He leads West Ham in PL goals (6), assists (4) and chances created (67). His mercurial flicks and tricks has seen admiration from around the league as the Hammers chase a top six finish under Slaven Bilic during his debut season in charge. Ahead of their move to London’s Olympic Stadium in the 2016-17 season, it’s likely Payet will lead this new-look West Ham side into an exciting new era.

He has a strong connection with fans of the east London club who sing his name loud and proud.

Payet released the following message via Twitter to calm any fears about him leaving.

Report: Man United hold talks with Pochettino’s reps

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A report from the Sun newspaper in the UK claims that the representatives of Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino have been approached by Manchester United.

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Pochetino, 43, has led Tottenham to second place in the Premier League in just his second season in charge at White Hart Lane and the Argentine coach is seen as one of the brightest young minds in the game. He will likely battle with his good friend Jose Mourinho to take charge of United.

With Louis Van Gaal‘s future at Old Trafford beyond this season still uncertain — he snapped at a journalist when being pushed about his potential exit after the 1-1 draw at Chelsea on Sunday — it seems as though the Red Devils are feeling out the possibility of replacing the veteran Dutch coach at the end of this season.

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Pochettino arrived in England in January 2013 and took Southampton from a newly-promoted club who were battling relegation to a top-eight team who produced several superb youngsters during his time at St Mary’s. Pochettino has replicated, and perhaps bettered, that success at Spurs with the likes of Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Dele Alli flourishing under his stewardship and Spurs have a real chance of winning the PL title this campaign as they currently sit five points behind leaders Leicester with 13 games to go.

Having been around Pochettino for a few years now both during his time at Saints and Spurs, he seems like an ambitious and driven character. If they chance to manage United came around, you get the sense it’s something he’d seriously consider. Who wouldn’t want to be THE man who turned around the fortunes of one of the world’s biggest teams and be lauded for returning them to glory?

That said, why would Poch leave Spurs?

He’s nurtured a hugely talented group of young players, the fans love him, he has a long-term contract until 2019 and there’s a bright future for the north London club as a new 60,000 stadium will be built on the White Hart Lane site in the next few years. Although that new stadium would provide Spurs with plenty of extra revenue in the future, Pochettino has urged caution for the upcoming years as he recently claimed a “tough period” would be ahead financially as the new stadium is financed. Talking about finances, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy wouldn’t let Pochettino leave without a fight and according to the report he’d likely demand $30 million in compensation for his manager. United may see that as a price worth paying.

Van Gaal, 64, still has a contract through the end of the 2016-17 season but with United currently six points off the top four, it seems increasingly unlikely he will remain in charge after this summer. Ryan Giggs — LVG’s assistant and a legend at United — is too inexperienced in the eyes of many to take charge, while Mourinho continues to be linked with United. After going with David Moyes and Van Gaal since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and neither of the experienced coaches able to return United to the top, maybe hiring a young, hungry manager is the way to go for the Red Devils?

Poch fits the bill.

VIDEO, PHOTOS: Premier League unveils new logo

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The Premier League will have a fresh new look for the 2016-17 season.

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Unveiled on Tuesday, a new logo and color scheme has been selected and for the first-time in league history there will be no corporate sponsor of the league.

The change still sees the iconic lion of the league used and it is now more prominent than ever in a simple yet striking design.

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In a statement on the PL’s website Premier League Managing Director, Richard Masters, explained the thought process behind the new look.

“From next season we will move away from title sponsorship and the competition will be known simply as the Premier League, a decision which provided the opportunity to consider how we wanted to present ourselves as an organisation and competition,” Masters said.

Below is a video unveiling the new logo, while you can also see some images of the new color schemes and the different ways the logo will be used.