Draw with Paris Saint-Germain leaves Monaco five points back in France

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Radamel Falcao’s knee injury was seen as a huge blow to Colombia’s chances at the World Cup, but it also had the potential to end whatever thin chance Monaco had to catch Paris Saint-Germain at the top of Ligue 1. But with the league-leading Parisians also missing one of the main scoring threats, today’s match at Stade Louis II gave Claudio Ranieri’s team an opening. With a win, Monaco would  claw within two points of the defending champions.

Unfortunately for Monaco, it was Edinson Cavani (not leading scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic) that was sitting out. Equally unfortunate for Monaco, it’s situations like these where PSG’s prodigious spending really pays off. Instead of having to take on a Dimitar Berbatov-esque reclamation project (as Monaco did at the end of the transfer window), Laurent Blanc can turn to his bench and have his choice of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Jeremy Menez.

Surprisingly, the PSG boss chose neither for Sunday’s showdown. Instead, Blanc moved Javier Pastore into attack and started Italian midfielder Marco Verratti, a move that paid off when the Argentine midfielder put PSG in front in the eighth minute. Converting Alex’s flick on an early Thiago Motta corner, the former Palermo star registered his first goal of the season.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has two good chances to double PSG’s lead, while James Rodriguez and Emmanuel Riviere each threatened to equalize before intermission. Yet despite those chances, the eventual inclusion of Berbatov, and a handful of close calls for the Parisians, Pastore’s opener held up until the 74th minute.

That’s when Thiago Silva, attempting to play a cross from Monaco fullback Fabinho, equalized for the home side. Putting his countryman’s ball past his own goalkeeper, the Brazilian international allowed the home team to salvage a point with a 1-1 draw.

For some, the final will be seen as a sign Monaco can compete with the Parisians – the holders being within reach of the league’s next power. But if Monaco really harbor ambitions of claiming an unlikely title, today’s result did them no good. With their best chance to close the gap between themselves and the leaders, last season’s Ligue 2 champions couldn’t narrow their five-point gap. At home against the team that sits between them and a title, Monaco couldn’t muster more than a draw.

In that way, Sunday’s result served as a reminder of how far they have to go. With both teams missing world class strikers, Paris Saint-Germain had a slew of alternatives. Monaco started Riveire and Valere Germain. While PSG claimed an early league and were able to preserve a draw, Monaco needed an own goal to claim a point for the team they’re trying to track down.

Of course, it was always too much to expect Monaco to rival PSG in year one of their first division return, but with so many on the periphery of French soccer seeing Monaco the league’s PSG counterpoint, Sunday was a reminder that we’re at least one year away from PSG’s real challenge.

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

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Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.

Netherlands manager Danny Blind fired after Bulgaria loss

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The Netherlands are in real trouble, and the manager has paid the price.

The Dutch national team has parted ways with Danny Blind the day after a 2-0 loss to Bulgaria left the Dutch fourth in their World Cup qualification group halfway through.

The move garnering all the headlines from Saturday’s loss was Blind’s decision to start 17-year-old defender Matthijs de Ligt. The Ajax youth product, who has just two Eredivisie starts to his credit, made two crucial errors and yanked at halftime, but the damage had been done. Spas Delev scored twice in the opening 20 minutes for Bulgaria, and that was all the home side needed as the Dutch offered little in front of goal.

Blind was also criticized for not getting Memphis Depay on the field as they chased the game. The Netherlands held 74% possession, but could only manage 3 shots on target. Depay has been in good form since his January move to Lyon, with five goals in his 10 Ligue 1 appearances.

This decision was something Blind saw coming. He told national broadcaster NOS immediately after the Bulgaria loss, “I blame myself. It can’t go on like this. Things have to change.”

“I need to think about [my future]. I do not throw the towel in here. I’m incredibly disappointed, especially since I had a good feeling about this match. It makes sense that I put myself in front of the mirror.”

However, the problems for the Dutch go far deeper than Danny Blind. They missed out on Euro 2016 largely thanks to the failed 2nd tenure for Guus Hiddink. His assistant Blind took over, but the results have been equally as poor. The Netherlands sit fourth in UEFA World Cup qualification Group A, with losses to Bulgaria and France plus a draw with Sweden. It’s not over for them though, as they sit three points back of a second place spot with five matches to go, and three of those five at home.

With the Netherlands still yet to play their friendly against Italy this coming week, former goalkeeper Fred Grim takes over on an interim basis. Grim collected 101 caps for the Netherlands, and has served as the Netherlands U-21 manager for the last two years. Before that, he took charge of his first full managerial job as head man of Dutch 2nd-tier club Almere City.

Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery, scores in England win

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Jermain Defoe’s friendship with terminally-ill Bradley Lowery has been special to watch unfold, and the Sunderland striker brought his little buddy to Wembley today.

Then he notched a match-winner.

Lowery walked Defoe out onto the field in a replica England kit before Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania, and then Defoe scored his 20th goal for country.

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It was his first since 2013, the last year Defoe was called up for the Three Lions.

Here’s the goal, which was followed by a second-half Jamie Vardy tally as England stayed atop Group F with a 2-0 win over Lithuania.

Two Russian soccer fans stabbed in Serbia

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) Two Russian fans have been hospitalized with serious injuries after being stabbed following a friendly soccer match between Red Star Belgrade and Lokomotiv Moscow.

Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said Sunday police were looking for the knife-wielding perpetrators who attacked a group of Lokomotiv fans in downtown Belgrade late Saturday.

Serbian media reports said the Russian fans were attacked by supporters of Red Star’s rival Partizan Belgrade.

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The match, which Red Star won 2-1, was meant to promote Serbia’s traditional friendship with Russia.

Stefanovic says “nobody should think they could hurt the Serbian-Russian friendship” with such attacks.

Serbia has seen a surge of fan violence inside and outside stadiums. In 2009, a French football fan was fatally beaten in Belgrade.