Seemingly disappointing Euro 2016 draw holds hidden gems with expanded field

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Much of the top talent across Europe was spread thin in the Euro 2016 qualifying draw, leaving fans with few matchups of any excitement early on.

While the draw’s result means the seeding worked and that the finals will most likely be all the top teams, it leaves many of the groups all but predetermined.

However, with the Euro 2016 finals expanded from 16 to 24 teams, the straightforward draw does leave a bit of room for countries previously unable to make noise on the European stage to have a chance to surprise some.

With the expanded finals, it means the top three – not the top two – teams in each group have the opportunity to move on.  With nearly every group holding clear top-2 favorites, the third-place position in many groups will be a bitter battle to the finish.Just two groups – Group A and H – have three clear teams that could vie for the top two spots.

Group A has the Netherlands, Turkey, and Czech Republic, and Group H sports four decent teams in Italy, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Norway.The rest of the groups are left incredibly top-heavy.  Group B has Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovna, Group C has Spain and Ukraine, Group D holds Germany and Poland, Group E with England and Switzerland, Group F is likely to be topped by Greece and Hungary, Group G has Russia and Sweden, and Group I holds Portugal and Denmark (who draw each other again after a fierce battle in the Euro 2012 qualifying groups).

While this seems initially to leave fans with little to look forward to, it also means a lot of the third-place spots will be up for grabs, and could give teams not formerly thought to challenge for the later rounds a chance to make a move.

Consider a country like Romania.  A country that has hardly made noise in the Euros in the past could now have a chance to make a playoff, where anything could happen.

In Euro 2012 qualifying, Romania finished a distant third to powerhouses France and Bosnia, now they draw Hungary and Greece with the opportunity to make noise even if they fail to eclipse either. Finland, in that same group, falls in the same boat.

So with the expanded field, much of the focus will shift from the top of the groups to the middle, where we could see action never before brought to the European championships.

Off-kilter Kane saves sloppy Spurs at Palace

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  • Tottenham goes fourth
  • Spurs with 76 percent possession
  • Kane scores late

Harry Kane made amends for an atypical day of sloppy finishing with an 89th minute winner as Tottenham Hotspur persisted to beat Crystal Palace 1-0 at Selhurst Park on Sunday.

The win gives Spurs 55 points, good for fourth in the Premier League before Chelsea faces Manchester United.

Palace remains 17th, behind Saints but ahead of Swans on goal differential. The Eagles are sorely missing Wilfried Zaha.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Ben Davies was fouled in a bid to meet a back post free kick in the eighth minute, but no penalty was given and Palace cleared the corner as Spurs provided the first true scoring chance of the match.

Palace keeper Wayne Hennessey was at his left post for a fine save on Harry Kane in the 10th, as Patrick Van Aanholt lost the English superstar.

At the other end, Luka Milivojevic‘s free kick was headed into the arms of Hugo Lloris by James Tomkins. Lloris would deprive Christian Benteke of a finishing bid in the 16th minute, too.

A penalty was coming for Kane before the referee noticed the linesman’s raised flag and saved Timothy Fosu-Mensah from conceded the opportunity.

Palace made it to the locker room at 0-0, with Townsend hitting a low ball to Lloris before the break.

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[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The second half began, and Spurs worked some chances to score that were lacking the appropriate finish. Both Kane and Christian Eriksen shanked attempts in the first five minutes.

A pair of gorgeous flicks from Serge Aurier and Eriksen met Kane near the back post, but the striker atypically missed what should’ve been an easy opener.

Palace thought Alexander Sorloth might’ve earned a penalty from Davinson Sanchez, but Spurs escaped punishment in the 63rd minute.

Hennessey continued to play his role, stopping from Aurier before extending fully to palm away Davies’ offering in the 73rd.

Dele Alli dove in a bid to win a penalty soon after the Davies denial, but had no success.

Kane found a moment of brilliance in the 83rd minute, but Benteke of all players slid to block the shot and Hennessey collected the ball.

Davies should’ve had an assist moments later, but Aurier tripped on the ball.

Kane dragged an 86th minute shot inches wide of the goal, and it just seemed unlikely to be Spurs day despite dominance on the ball.

Of course, that meant an off-balance Hennessey couldn’t get a hold of Kane’s header off an Eriksen free kick with 90 seconds remaining before stoppage time.

Watch Live: Manchester United vs. Chelsea

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It’s a big one, you know: Manchester United hosts Chelsea in a battle for table positioning on Sunday at Old Trafford (Watch live at 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Scrutinized summer signings Romelu Lukaku and Alvaro Morata start at center forward for their respective sides.

Morata scored the lone goal when Chelsea beat United 1-0 in November.

Jose Mourinho has opted for Scott McTominay over Michael Carrick and Juan Mata in the midfield, while Anthony Martial gets the call over Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard.

Chelsea will have Pedro and Olivier Giroud on the bench.

LINEUPS

Manchester United: De Gea, Valencia, Lindelof, Smalling, Young, McTominay, Matic, Pogba, Alexis, Lukaku, Martial. Subs: Pereira, Bailly, Shaw, Carrick, Mata, Lingard, Rashford.

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger; Moses, Drinkwater, Kante, Alonso; Willian, Morata, Hazard. Subs: Caballero, Cahill, Zappacosta, Emerson, Fabregas, Pedro, Giroud.

Aubameyang says off-field criticism “goes over my head”

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The Daily Mirror posted a profile on Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang late Saturday, speaking with the Gabonese striker as well as a number of people in his life.

[ MORE: PL Saturday roundup ]

Most of the talk dealt with his obsession with soccer, which started as an admirer of his internationally-capped father, but the quotes getting attention come from Aubameyang and deal with his comfort as a flashy personality.

So for those wondering whether the 27-year-old is going to tame his off-field activities now that he’s moved to London, well, it’s unlikely.

Aubameyang has a bit of David Beckham in him, cognizant of his background and relishing his place in life.

“The clothes, the cars and all that are a bonus. I enjoy living this way. I like who I am and it doesn’t matter if other people can’t ­accept that – it goes over my head.

“As they say ‘you only live once’. It’s important to know where you come from and where your roots are – the rest is a big bonus.”

Any number of players, from Andy Carroll to Cristiano Ronaldo, have appreciated the very same things.

It’s not a big deal.

As long as on-field performances accompany them, any criticism is driven by envy or a need to attract a similar form of attention as the player himself.

Watch Live: Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur

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Crystal Palace could find itself back in the relegation zone with a heavy home defeat Saturday, and Tottenham Hotspur is certainly capable of providing such misery (Watch live at 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

LINEUPS

Crystal Palace: Hennessey, Wan-Bissaka, Fosu-Mensah, Tomkins, Van Aanholt, Milivojevic, Riedewald, McArthur, Townsend, Sorloth, Benteke. Subs: Henry, Souare, Delaney, Rakip, Lokilo, Kirby, Lee.

Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris (C), Aurier, Sanchez, Dier, Davies, Wanyama, Dembele, Lamela, Eriksen, Dele, Kane. Subs: Vorm, Foyth, Trippier, Rose, Sissoko, Lucas, Son.