Zlatan Ibrahimovic

UEFA World Cup Qualifying: Four matches, four reasons to watch


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?

Guardiola: Aguero, Kompany have nothing to worry about at Man City

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 15:  An injured Vincent Kompany of Manchester City (4) speaks to Sergio Aguero of Manchester City as he leaves the pitch during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg match between Manchester City FC and FC Dynamo Kyiv at the Etihad Stadium on March 15, 2016 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Both Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany have nothing to worry about regarding their place in the Manchester City squad, according to manager Pep Guardiola.

Neither was in the starting lineup for the Champions League loss to Barcelona, with Kompany not even in the 18. But according to Guardiola, he had his reasons for both.

“Vincent was not perfectly fit,” Guardiola said. “Sergio, I said after the game, was a tactical decision. If Sergio decides to leave it will be his decision.”

The former Barcelona manager played a striker-less formation against the La Liga giants, employing Kevin De Bruyne as a false 9. It failed, with Barcelona storming through en route to a 4-0 win, with Lionel Messi scoring a hat-trick.

Kompany has struggled with injuries the past two seasons, missing all of this season so far, half of last year, a healthy portion of the previous campaign with various injuries from hamstring problems to calf tweaks to groin pulls. According to Guardiola, it has left a permanent mark on the Belgian defender’s psyche.

“One day, in the training session, he said: ‘I didn’t feel like this [good],’” Guardiola said. “In that moment, when his head is not ready and with what happened in the last two years, it is better to stay out. I don’t want to put a lot of pressure about how many games we want him to play or set big, big targets. So it’s just try to train good and after a week of training no injuries, we’ll play a game, and after that another one. And after that we’ll see.”

Timmy Chandler, Frankfurt thrash Bobby Wood, Hamburg 3-0

SINSHEIM, GERMANY - AUGUST 01:  Coach Markus Gisdol of Hoffenheim reacts during the friendly match between 1899 Hoffenheim and AFC Bournemouth at Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena on August 1, 2015 in Sinsheim, Germany.  (Photo by Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images)
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Hamburg may have made a coaching change, but that didn’t change their immediate fortunes.

Bobby Wood and company fell to fellow USMNTer Timmy Chandler and Frankfurt 3-0 at Volksparkstadion. It was a rough home opener for new Hamburg manager Markus Gisdol, as former Fulham and Tottenham midfielder Lewis Holtby opened the scoring with an unfortunate own-goal after an ugly giveaway.

Things got worse as Dennis Diekmeier picked up his second yellow card shortly after halftime, and it was gravy from there for Frankfurt as Shani Tarashaj and Haris Seferovic bagged goals to secure the win.

Hamburg, a club that narrowly staved off relegation in a playoff last season, has just a measly two points through eight matches. They fired manager Bruno Labbadia after just a month, but it hasn’t gone much better for Gisdol as a road draw with Borussia Monchengladbach is the only salvageable result through three thus far.

Bobby Wood’s honeymoon start to the league season for Hamburg is long gone. He scored two goals in two games to start the year, but hasn’t hit the back of the net since.

Timmy Chandler, on the other hand, he’s played the full 90 minutes in every game for Frankfurt since the opener, assisting a goal in the 2-2 draw with Bayern Munich last weekend. He’s helped Frankfurt move to fourth in the league, three points behind Bayern and Koln and Red Bull Leipzig between them (what?!).

Jose Mourinho says Chelsea can’t “delete” him from its history

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 20:  Jose Mourinho the manager of Manchester United looks on during the UEFA Europa League Group A match between Manchester United FC and Fenerbahce SK at Old Trafford on October 20, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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With Manchester United set to visit Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the Special One will be returning to his former stomping grounds, a place where he spent six tumultuous seasons spread across two separate reigns.

While Jose Mourinho insisted he has “no hard feelings” for his former club and the way things ended, but did not mince words the subject of his former boss came up.

While Mourinho insisted he has “respect” for Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, telling Sky Sports, “We were never friends. We were never close to each other. So he is just a person that I keep very respected.”

Mourinho also said that, even if The Blues wanted to, “They couldn’t delete me from Chelsea history. They belong to my history too. No bad feelings,” Mourinho told Sky Sports. The owner, he decided to sack me…the fans, they have no power. They show day by day, match after match, that they wanted me, but in this profile of club, the fans have no power. In some clubs, especially in some Latin countries, the format of the club, the fans have real power on the board and with the president and owners, but here they have no power so Mr Abramovich decided to sack me, but I left with not one bad word about anyone or anybody at the club.”

The 53-year-old said the titles he won at Chelsea were proof that “I did my job.” He finished by saying that no matter the treatment from fans, he will always hold Chelsea as he does all his other stops. “From me, you are not going to have, ever, a bad word about any one of my previous clubs,” Mourinho said. “I keep always a very good feeling. It doesn’t matter what is going to happen. But, it is my nature. It is my job. It is my new club. On Sunday I will go there to try and do my job.”

Bayern Munich CEO likens Premier League youth recruitment to “kidnapping”

MILAN, ITALY - JANUARY 12:  Karl Heinz Rummenigge attends   the Financial Fairplay Europe & Italy Workshop on January 12, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Vincenzo Lombardo/Getty Images)
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In the midst of building a new youth academy, Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has laid out his ideal setup for training youth players to be stars for the German giants.

Rummenigge told fans that his club would seek out youngsters to develop, but his strategy differs from the method of recruitment used in England. Heavily.

“We don’t want to bring some 10- or 11-year-old to Munich like the English do,” Rummenigge wrote in the club’s magazine. “You could almost consider it kidnapping and I would have moral reservations about that. I believe 14 is a good age for a youngster to come to Bayern.”

The Bavarians have produced some world-class talent in recent years, including Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, and current captain Phillip Lahm. However, the club has also become known for poaching top talent across the Bundesliga as well, most recently having snatched Mats Hummels from Borussia Dortmund and rising young star Josh Kimmich from Stuttgart. This has led to a period of dominance, but at the expense of parity in the Bundesliga title race.

The new academy, located just down the road from Allianz Arena, is expected to be completed next summer.

Rummenigge continued to take shots at English clubs, next targeting the amount of players they train, saying, “Imagine this: Chelsea currently have 41 promising players out on loan, including Andreas Christensen at Borussia Monchengladbach. I know that Manchester City can train up to 250 players at their facility, together with their parents. It’s virtually like a real-life village. But we want to be more cautious. We don’t want a football factory.”

In recent months, a number of top La Liga clubs have been hit with transfer bans for breaking FIFA rules regarding youth transfers, but it seems something has found its way under Rummenigge’s skin with regards to the behavior of English clubs.