Kind draws could give Messi, Ronaldo head start on World Cup 2014’s Golden Boot

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Lionel Messi went scoreless in the last World Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo scored once. In a combined four finals (both players debuted at Germany 2006), the world’s marquee duo have a combined three goals. For some, that lack of success on the biggest stage keeps them out of any best player ever debate. Thankfully, those people are outnumbers. Most have come to acknowledge the World Cup isn’t the be all, end all of world soccer.

But if Messi or Ronaldo fans are hoping their favorite players can dispel that minority opinion, Friday’s 2014 FIFA World Cup draw delivered good news. While Portugal was drawn into a difficult group (Germany, Ghana, U.S.A.), that quartet shares one quality with Argentina’s (Nigeria, Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina): Neither group offers a lot of defense.

[MORE: 2014 World Cup Draw: Recapping the event]

For Messi, Bosnia-Herzegovina may end up the group’s second-best team, but in seven games against World Cup qualified countries over the last two years, Bosnia’s given up 11 goals, including four at home to the United States on Aug. 14. In late 2011, Bosnia gave up six to Portugal. Though they’re talented going forward, the World Cup debutants can be had at the back. Sure to play a more advanced role than he did at the last World Cup, Messi could be one of the beneficiaries, Argentina having already beaten Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-0 without Messi in St. Louis on Nov. 18.

The other members of Group F are less tested, with Nigeria and Iran having played a combined seven games against World Cup opposition since 2011. The African champions gave up 10 goals in five games this year to qualified nations (Italy, Spain, Uruguay, Mexico, Ivory Coast), while Iran kept clean sheets in both of their World Cup Qualifiers against South Korea. Carlos Queiroz’s team is generally considered one of the weakest in the field, but with the former Portugal boss in charge, they may prove the most difficult for Argentina to break down (though two games against South Korea are hardly cause for conclusions).

source: ReutersAs for Ronaldo, Germany is the big name in Group G, but Joachim Löw’s team has posted a terrible defensive record over the last two years. In 13 games against World Cup qualifiers, Germany has given up 21 goals. They gave up four to the United States in June (albeit with a mostly reserve team) and five to Switzerland last May. Among their more disturbing performances against non-World Cup competition, Germany has conceded four on one occasion (Sweden, Oct. 2012) and three on two others (Sweden, Oct. 2013; Paraguay, Aug. 2013). Although Germany kept a clean sheet against Portugal at Euro 2012, the broader defensive record is much more suspect.

The United States has been boom-or-bust, keeping seven clean sheets in 15 games against World Cup qualifiers over the last two years. They’ve also had two games where they’ve give up four goals (Brazil, May 2012; Belgium, May 2013) and three others where they conceded three times (Germany, June 2013; Bosnia-Herzegovina, Aug. 2013; Costa Rica, Sept. 2013). As others have noted, the U.S.’s current glaring weakness is at fullback, something that could cost them against Ronaldo.

Group G’s other team, Ghana, has played four 2014 World Cup teams since Jan. 2012 and never kept a clean sheet. Their latest such game was in August against Japan, with the Black Stars conceded three times against Asia’s champions.

The draws are encouraging if you’re hoping for goals from the game’s biggest stars, but there are a couple of problems with looking at Messi and Ronaldo’s prospects in this way. The players selected for the games in question may not have been part of their country’s “A team,” and even if they were, those players may have fallen out of favor over the last two years. The teams that show up in Brazil could be very different from those that had trouble keeping goals out.

But any other type of analysis brings in player and roster evaluations that can become subjective. From the right eyes and minds, those evaluations can be powerful. From those relying on reputation over performance, they’ can be useless. For this exercise, for better or worse, we only look at actual results from the last two years, letting you decide how much validity to give the “method.”

If you find any meaning in past results, you probably see a lot of room for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to put up some nice group stage numbers, perhaps sending them toward the tournament’s Golden Boot. If you don’t find the numbers convincing, you have to at least concede: Most of the teams trying to stop Messi and Ronaldo will need to be better in Brazil than they’ve been leading up to the World Cup.

FIFA subjects 2026 Morocco World Cup bid to fresh scrutiny

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Morocco’s World Cup bid is facing fresh scrutiny this week with the arrival of another delegation from FIFA after an initial task force found deficiencies in the proposals for the 2026 tournament.

In a downbeat conclusion to the visit by the FIFA inspectors last week, Morocco’s bid leader acknowledged it had to improve the quality of the submission made to FIFA in March because inadequacies were identified by football’s governing body.

[ MORE: UCL semifinals predictions ]

The previously unplanned second inspection of Morocco is an indication of the more rigorous process introduced by FIFA following criticism in 2010 that World Cups were awarded to the riskiest nations in 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar).

There will also be closer scrutiny of human rights of the bidders before the vote on June 13 when Morocco is currently due to be taking on a joint challenge from the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The Associated Press revealed last week Morocco did not declare its anti-LGBT law to FIFA in the human rights risk assessment included in the bid book. The documents – along with the North American submission – will now be scrutinized for any gaps by human rights experts.

“That process involves an expert third-party assessment of the robustness of the human rights content of both bids that will directly inform the administration’s own evaluation,” Rachel Davis, who sits on FIFA’s human rights advisory board, told the AP.

“We are confident that the process will result in a fair assessment of the human rights situation in all four countries involved in the bids, and a roadmap for how to deal with any deficiencies that FIFA will then require the successful bidder to commit to.”

Davis, who is managing director of the Shift human rights organization, said an evaluation of the human rights in the bidding nations will be included in a report to the FIFA Council, which will also assess the verdict of the evaluation task force. A bid with low scores can be blocked by the council from advancing to a vote of up to 207 football nations at the FIFA Congress on June 13.

While Morocco has said it needs to spend almost $16 billion on infrastructure for the 48-team World Cup, including building or renovating all 14 stadiums, North American does not require any tournament-specific building work. Morocco bid president Moulay Hafid Elalamy said at the end of the FIFA inspection that officials “made some remarks on the conditions of some of the stadiums.”

The new batch of technical staff being deployed from FIFA HQ to Morocco did not make a similar follow-up visit to North America after the task force inspected the rival bid’s facilities this month.

“Following the visit of the 2026 bid evaluation task force to Morocco last week, it was decided to have an additional working visit this week to complement the initial analysis of the task force and clarify some aspects of the bid,” FIFA told the AP.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Watch Live: Everton v. Newcastle

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Everton host Newcastle United on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Toffees and Magpies both sitting pretty in midtable.

[ LIVE: Stream Everton-Newcastle ]

Sam Allardyce and Rafael Benitez have both been around the block a few times but at the moment Allardyce is under pressure and Benitez is working miracles with four wins on the spin as the newly-promoted Magpies have stayed solid defensively all season.

In team news Everton start Tosun, Walcott and Bolasie in attack with Wayne Rooney in midfield.

Newcastle make one change with Islam Slimani making his first start for the Magpies as he comes in for Dwight Gayle.

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UEFA Champions League semifinal predictions

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With the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League to kick off over the next few days, let’s take a look at both games and predict which teams will make it to the final in Kiev on May 26.

[ MORE: Champions League scores

Liverpool or Roma? Real Madrid or Bayern Munich?

Here’s the lowdown as two eagerly anticipated games take center stage across Europe.


Liverpool vs. AS Roma
First leg: Apr. 24, 2:45 p.m. ET at Anfield
Second leg: May 2, 2:45 p.m. ET at Stadio Olimpico

This should be one heck of a tie with defending optional for both teams but both have very different ways of playing. Jurgen Klopp will unleash the fluid trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino on an often brittle Roma defense but the Italian giants have a giant in their own up top in the shape of Edin Dzeko. How Virgil Van Dijk and Liverpool’s defense deal with the threat of Dzeko will likely decide the outcome of this game. Liverpool will look to feed off the famous Anfield atmosphere to wrack up a big first leg lead before they head to Roma for Leg 2, and I fancy Salah to blow his old team away in the first leg. Liverpool to advance 4-2 on aggregate.

Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid
First leg: Apr. 25, 2:45 p.m. ET at Allianz Arena
Second leg: May 1, 2:45 p.m. ET at Santiago Bernabeu

A proper heavyweight clash as Bayern and Real do battle knowing that whoever wins will be the favorites in the final. Cristiano Ronaldo is in the form of his life (again) after a slow start to this season and Zinedine Zidane’s side made hard work of it against Juventus in the last round but are on course for a third-straight UCL trophy. As for Bayern, they have been in imperious form and you feel like Robert Lewandowski can get the better of Real’s center backs. Expect this to be a tight game with extremely high quality from both teams. Real being at home in the second leg is a big advantage. Real Madrid to advance 3-2 on aggregate. 

Cologne’s Hector extends contract despite likely relegation

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COLOGNE, Germany (AP) Germany defender Jonas Hector has shunned reported interest from Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund by extending his contract with Cologne – despite the club’s almost certain relegation from the Bundesliga.

Cologne, eight points from safety with three games remaining, says its 27-year-old captain has signed a two-year extension to 2023 instead of using a release clause in his contract.

Hector, who has been at the club since 2010, says, “It wouldn’t have been a problem to switch to another club after this season but it didn’t feel right for me. I belong to Cologne and want to tackle the new season with the team and the fans behind us.”

Cologne sporting director Armin Veh says Hector’s decision is, “a great signal for the team, the club and our fans.”