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?

Schalke wins 2-0 at Leverkusen to move 3rd in Bundesliga

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BERLIN (AP) Nabil Bentaleb‘s late penalty sealed a 2-0 win for Schalke at 10-man Bayer Leverkusen, lifting his team to third in the Bundesliga on Sunday.

Leverkusen was left to rue Dominik Kohr’s sending off in the first half as the home side missed the chance to go second and instead dropped to fifth, outside the Champions League qualification places.

[ MORE: Man City 3-1 Arsenal | 3 things ]

Guido Burgstaller fired the visitors into an early lead after a long ball over the top from Daniel Caligiuri. The Schalke forward did well to lift the ball over Leverkusen defender Panagiotis Retsos before dispatching past goalkeeper Bernd Leon inside the left post.

Leon Bailey came very close to equalizing with Leverkusen’s best chance of the half, but the hosts took a hit shortly before the break when Kohr was sent off with his second yellow card for a late tackle, minutes after earning his first for the same.

Leverkusen coach Heiko Herrlich brought on Argentine forward Lucas Alario after the break, and then went all out with two more forwards, Stefan Kiessling and Karim Bellarabi, for the closing stages.

However, the best chance fell to Schalke’s Breel Embolo, denied by a brilliant reflex save from Leno.

Retsos brought down Embolo in the penalty area, allowing Bentaleb to seal the win from the spot in the 89th minute.

Leipzig had the chance to go second later Sunday with a win over last-place Cologne.

Kompany felt he’d score, relishes League Cup win after injury troubles

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Vincent Kompany turned in a Man of the Match performance as Manchester City dominated Arsenal to win the League Cup Final by a 3-0 margin on Sunday at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

Kompany redirected a goal for City’s second of the day, and had a number of key interventions as he bottled up Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The 31-year-old center back has been through the ringer in recent years, with injuries haunting his seasons. Kompany now has three League Cups, an FA Cup, and two Premier League crowns. From the BBC:

“It was a difficult game, but as much space there was for us and Arsenal, we did well and controlled the space and I am proud of the team. Winning 3-0 at Wembley is a massive result against any opponent.

“Before the game, I thought I was going to score. I came close during the game so there was some luck on the day, but also self-belief.

“I have been in the game for 15 years and I have been training well and supporting the lads when I don’t play. When I get the call I want to do the job.”

Three things learned: City win League Cup

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LONDON — Manchester City breezed past Arsenal 3-0 in the League Cup final at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, as Pep Guardiola won the first piece of silverware in England.

A first half goal from Sergio Aguero put City ahead and then they stepped on the accelerator in the second half with goals from Vincent Kompany and David Silva doing the damage to clinch a fifth League Cup for Man City.

Here’s what we learned from a one-sided final as the runaway Premier League leaders showed their class and won their first trophy for two years, since they won the League Cup in 2016.


KOMPANY DOMINATES AUBAMEYANG

In four of Man City’s last five domestic cup finals at Wembley, Vincent Kompany has been instrumental in their success. Many believed Kompany would be the Achilles heel for City in this final as he came up against the languid and elusive figure of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Kompany probably hasn’t let Aubameyang out of his back pocket just yet…

The Belgian skipper has now led City to success in three League Cup finals, while winning one FA Cup in 2011 and losing the final in 2013 to Wigan. Across those five finals who has played the full 90 minutes on each occasion and has led by example with City conceding just three goals across the five games and he was named Man of the Match in the penalty shootout victory over Liverpool in 2016.

Kompany, 31, put in a dominant defensive display on Sunday with one moment in the first half summing up his renewed fitness and showed a glimpse of his past dominance. Aubameyang raced clear on goal, taking a decent first touch to move into the penalty box but Kompany came across and cleanly gained possession as a roar of approval reined down from Man City’s supporters from behind the goal.

At the start of the second half Kompany smashed a shot towards goal which deflected just wide as he sunk to his knees and looked to the heavens. Later on he raced clear down the right wing after a free kick, dribbled past two defenders and then won a corner as he was serenaded by their fans. From that corner he tapped home Ilkay Gundogan‘s shot as he jumped in with the fans to celebrate in style.

So many stars have come and gone since Kompany signed for City in 2008 just ahead of Sheikh Mansour’s purchase of the club, but the sight of the Belgium skipper lifting a sixth trophy as City skipper will warm the hearts of City’s fans everywhere.


OLD-GUARD DELIVERS FOR GUARDIOLA

Pep Guardiola’s 13th trophy as a manager will possibly be one of his easiest.

The Spaniard failed to deliver silverware in his first season in charge of Man City and following their shocking FA Cup exit earlier this week at third-tier Wigan, the naysayers were having a field day.

13 points clear atop the table with a game in hand, Guardiola will win at least two trophies this season and they’re favorites to win the UEFA Champions League.

Sergio Aguero loves playing against Arsenal as he scored his fifth goal in as many games against the North London club. The Argentine notched his 30th goal of the season with a delicious lob early on, making the most of a mistake from Shkodran Mustafi, before Kompany popped up with the second and Silva delivered a killer third.

With Guardiola spending big in the past two years since he arrived in Manchester, three of the old guard delivered the goals which gave him his first piece of silverware.

Kompany, Silva and Aguero may not be around for much longer but Guardiola has them to thank for creating a smooth, successful transition for his all-conquering regime.


ARSENAL FINALLY CRUMBLE AT WEMBLEY

Wembley has been a happy hunting ground for Arsenal in recent years, winning three FA Cups in the last four seasons.

That caught up with Arsene Wenger‘s men on Sunday.

In truth Arsenal were outclassed by Man City in the second half as they hung with them in the first 45 minutes but had no answer when City came out flying in the second half.

The Gunners were lackluster in attack as Aubameyang was marshaled expertly, plus Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey were all sloppy in possession. Defensively they looked shaky as Mustafi made a huge mistake, plus David Ospina hardly inspired confidence.

Overall, it was a woeful display from the Gunners who face Man City on Thursday in the Premier League.

There are 27 points between City and Arsenal in the Premier League table and another heavy defeat in four days could increase the pressure on Wenger further.

Man City cruises to League Cup title

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  • City wins fifth League Cup
  • Arsenal 2-6 in League Cup Finals
  • Kompany stars at both ends

Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany, and David Silva scored as Manchester City made itself a Wembley home with a 3-0 win over Arsenal in the League Cup Final on Sunday.

Pep Guardiola has his first major trophy as Manchester City boss, and Man City has now won the last three even-year League Cups (2014, 2016, 2018), while Arsene Wenger has yet to win a League Cup.

The two sides meet in the Premier League on Thursday at the Emirates Stadium.

[ MORE: Box score, lineups, play-by-play ]

Man City had a lot of the ball, but it was Arsenal who first properly challenged a keeper. Mesut Ozil’s cross was met before it got to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang by a sliding Kyle Walker, and Bravo had to act quickly to stop an own goal.

The Sky Blue side went direct to go ahead with Aguero’s 30th goal of the campaign. Aguero was behind his mark Shkrodan Mustafi but just onside by Nacho Monreal on the left as he ran onto Claudio Bravo‘s long kick and chipped David Ospina before the match was 19 minutes old.

Sead Kolasinac entered the match for injured Monreal in the 26th minute.

Aaron Ramsey was fortunate not to be sent off after catching David Silva with a high boot, and was only shown a yellow card.

Man City made a terrific physical tackle on Aubameyang in the 36th minute to win back a ball in the 18.

Fernandinho was given a yellow moments later, and Jack Wilshere nearly drew a second off Brazilian before halftime.

Magic-healing Leroy Sane curled a ball into Ospina’s hands before half, and Kevin De Bruyne won a free kick with plenty of potential in the 45th.

Could the below stat give Arsenal hope?

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Kompany got a cutback from Sane and saw his shot deflected out for a corner as Man City started the second half well.

Bravo came out to meet a long ball before Aubameyang and mishit it, but the Arsenal striker couldn’t capitalize on the error and fouled the Man City goalkeeper.

Kompany continued his fine match with a redirection of Aguero’s shot off a training ground corner kick started by De Bruyne.

Silva then bodied off Calum Chambers to meet a Danilo through ball and make it 3-0.