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Left behind: the best players not heading to the World Cup

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Yes, there are a host of players who aren’t going to the World Cup. That’s because the soccer gods have come to the conclusion that there can only be 32 teams in the tournament, which means some talented souls have to watch from the comfort of their own living room.

And yes, there are some incredible men that won’t be going due to the fact that fate is cruel, and they picked up severe injuries that will leave them out of contention in Brazil. This list includes Christian Benteke, Theo Walcott and, most likely, Radamel Falcao.

But what of the ones whose countries qualified, yet still won’t be boarding the plane? In some cases, their national team coaches had reasons for keeping them out of the squad. In others, their lack of inclusion remains a true head-scratcher.

(Clicking the country’s link will take you to the full provisional World Cup roster)

Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Borussia Mönchengladbach and Germany)
Manuel Neuer will be in the net for Germany. We all know it. But why can’t ter Stegen be included as backup? Instead it’s Ron-Robert Zieler, who at least has a fun double-barrelled first name as well. Still, ter Stegen plays for a better club, made more saves, and is on his way to Barcelona to continue his career. Maybe he made fun of Jogi at some point.

Ashley Cole (Chelsea and England)
Cole must’ve thought his chances for England were good after fighting his way back into the Chelsea squad. But Roy Hodgson, slightly surprisingly, gave his England squad a more youthful feel, and it’s Luke Shaw that will take up the role of the understudy of Leighton Baines. It’s a bonus for England, having to choose between talented left-backs rather than taking along Stephen Warnock, but it’s gotta hurt for the 33-year-old to miss out on his last chance for his country. Cole retired from international football after getting the news that he wasn’t headed to Brazil.

Miranda (Atlético Madrid and Brazil)
Miranda edges out Filipe Luís only based on the fact that he managed two goals, but really, why would Luiz Felipe Scolari neglect to bring either? Perhaps Big Phil is a Barcelona fan, and doesn’t like the fact that Atleti could trump them to the title. In general, Scolari seems intent on bringing veterans, but with these two at 29 and 28 respectively, it’s not like they’re short on experience (which could be a reason for leaving out PSG’s talented Marquinhos). And when you add the fact Napoli’s Henrique is going…well, he did play under Scolari for three seasons at Palmeiras, but he only made the partenopei starting XI thanks to injury crisis. Brazil may very well regret not giving one of these two a look.

Samir Nasri (Manchester City and France)
Well, this one was confusing. Nasri impressed at title-winning Manchester City this season, where he had seven goals and seven assists. He was involved in France’s World Cup qualification, making four appearances. So why isn’t he part of les bleus? Turns out Didier Deschamps thinks Nasri has a bit of an attitude problem, and doesn’t appreciate being left on the bench. He likely also now thinks Nasri’s girlfriend has an attitude problem, after she lashed out on twitter when the French squad was announced.

Radja Nainggolan (Midfielder, AS Roma and Belgium)
Yes, Belgium are stuffed to the gills with midfielders, so it’s natural that some of them get left behind. But Nainggolan is a special sort of midfield man – one that could add some protection to the defense, which often looks shaky and uncertain. Just ask Cagliari, who certainly slipped in the standings after Nainggolan went off to Roma in the middle of the season. He adds strength and steel to the middle of the field, but he’s not just an enforcer. Nainggolan can pick out a crisp pass and, when given a chance, loves to put in a shot from distance.

José Callejón (Napoli and Spain)
Yes, we could go on and on about players left off the Spain roster. The defending champions are simply way too well-stocked, particularly in the center of the pitch. But “Ziggy” Callejón deserves a special shout out. He failed to establish himself as a regular at Real Madrid and wound up scoring just three goals in 15 starts last season. Now in Naples, Callejón has blossomed. He may not fit Vicente del Bosque’s system, but in Rafa Benítez’s 4-2-3-1, the wide man has scored 19 goals in all competitions for Napoli.

Francesco Totti (AS Roma and Italy)
Roma’s captain began his international career back in 2000, and was part of the azzurri side that lifted the 2006 World Cup. He retired from international duty after the triumph, but made it clear he was open to returning this season. However, Cesare Prandelli decided to put his faith in younger players, and left the 37-year-old off the roster – despite an impressive season in Serie A, helping Roma fly into second place and challenge for the title.
(Honoroable mention to Luca Toni, another veteran having an amazing season in Serie A. The 36-year-old scored 20 goals for Hellas Verona this season).

Carlos Vela (Forward, Real Sociedad and Mexico)
Again, everyone knew this was coming. Vela hasn’t played for El Tri since 2011, despite various coaches trying to entice him back to the side. After accepting the management gig, Miguel Herrera did his best to convince Vela as well, but the attacker didn’t feel himself mentally ready to return to international competition. That’s too bad for the struggling Mexico team. Vela’s done well for himself in Spain, putting in 41 goals in 104 appearances with Real Sociedad. There are even strong rumors that he just might make a return to Arsenal – assuming he’s mentally prepared for that, of course.

Max Kruse (Forward, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Germany)
Joachim Löw don’t need no strikers. Or at least, not strikers that can actually put the ball in the back of the net. Ok, ok, Lukas Podolski had eight goals for Arsenal this season. And Kevin Volland, of Hoffenheim, did score eleven. But Kruse has twelve to his name, along with nine assists. He’s paccy, he’s precise, and he can get the job done better than Miroslav Klose. The veteran managed just seven for Lazio this season, but sentiment wins out, and he’s the one boarding the plane to Brazil.

Carlos Tévez (Forward, Juventus and Argentina)
A falling out with Alejandro Sabella means Tévez hasn’t played for La Albiceleste since 2011. Of course, Argentina have plenty of firepower up top, what with Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and…what’s that guy’s name again? Oh right, Leo Messi. Still, 19 goals and 7 assists in 33 league games with Juventus is nothing to sniff at. Who knows, if Tévez scores four this weekend, he could even become Serie A’s top goalscorer this season. But no matter – he’s going to Disneyland instead.

Zlatan Ibrahimović (Paris Saint-Germain and Sweden)
So what if Sweden didn’t qualify? Someone high up at FIFA should’ve worked through a quick rule change that would’ve allowed Ibra to switch his nationality. Because what is a World Cup without Zlatan? Nothing. Just wait. You’ll see.

Electricity restored at Maracana after some late bills paid

This Feb. 2, 2017 shows Maracana stadium with a dry field in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Stadium operators, the Rio state government, and Olympic organizers have fought over $1 million in unpaid electricity bills and management of the venue. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rio’s electricity utility has turned the power back on at the famous Maracana stadium after it was shut off for almost a month in a dispute over $1 million in unpaid bills.

The utility on Thursday said power had been restored after the stadium operator paid 1.3 million reals ($430,000) in late bills from November through January. It was shut off on Jan. 26 in the dispute.

The utility said it is still negotiating for 1.8 million reals ($600,000) in unpaid bills from the organizing committee of last year’s Rio Olympics. Rio 2016 organizers still owe millions to companies which helped prepare the Olympics and Paralympics

The stadium has been vandalized over the last month with seats torn out, televisions stolen and the grass field left untended.

VIDEO: FC Dallas youngster Kellyn Acosta unleashes howitzer goal

Arabe Unido goalkeeper Miguel lloyd (1) reaches up to block a shot from FC Dallas as defender Rigoberto Nino (2) and FC Dallas' Kellyn Acosta (23) watch in the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals soccer match, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 in Frisco, Texas (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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With FC Dallas taking on Panamanian club Aribe Unido in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta grabbed a second for the Major League Soccer club 10 minutes past halftime.

It wasn’t just any old goal. It was a STRIKE.

The Texas native trailed the play, and with Roland Lamah shut off in the box by solid man-marking on the ball, Acosta was there to provide an outlet, and he blasted a vicious strike into the top-left corner. The find by Lamah was a smart one with a host of defenders closing in, and his calm demeanor was rewarded as his teammate launched a rocket into the back of the net.

The goal is a fodder for those who believe Acosta, who has played full-back for much of his career, should be a midfielder instead. His positioning and ability to trail the play with deadly accuracy is what makes this goal so special.

Acosta would bag a third in the dying minutes of the game, giving FC Dallas a 3-0 lead to take on the road as they travel to Panama for the second leg on March 1st.

Top Premier League Storylines – Week 26

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City speaks with his players during the break in extra-time in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round replay match between Leicester City and Derby City at The King Power Stadium on February 8, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Well. This weekend’s return of Premier League action was already slated to be an exciting one, but now with today’s enormous bit of breaking news, it has become even more intriguing.

[ WATCH: Previewing every match in Week 26 ]

There’s plenty to discuss at the top of the Premier League table, as Arsenal and Spurs look to heal their European wounds, but it’s what’s at the bottom that has everyone talking today.

How will Leicester City react after the firing of Claudio Ranieri?

Leicester City vs. Liverpool —  3:00 p.m. EDT Monday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Well. The Foxes had their work cut out for them coming into this match already, but now it has a whole new flavor. Claudio Ranieri has been dismissed just nine months after winning the Premier League title, and sitting just a point off the drop coming into the weekend (and inside the relegation zone coming into the match?) Leicester City will be lead into King Power Stadium by Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell.

Liverpool stopped a five-match winless streak last time out with a quality 2-0 win over Tottenham, but the Reds defense has been leaky all season, and if Leicester is to break its horrid 610-minute goalless streak, it would be here. The Foxes are without a win in five and have not scored a Premier League goal in all of the 2017 calendar year. Can they respond and begin to play for themselves rather than their former manager?

Can Dele Alli and Tottenham bounce back?

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs looked like they had rediscovered their Champions League form with a comprehensive smothering of Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup. Then, they welcomed KAA Gent to Wembley and promptly lost their heads. Dele Alli was sent off for one of the worst challenges you’ll see, and Spurs were vulnerable as a result, crashing out of the Europa League.

Now, Mauricio Pochettino must regroup the squad and get them ready to host Stoke, a team they clobbered 4-0 in the third match of the season. The squad is still healthy, and the loss of European play may actually help them in the long run. Here, however, it provides them with negative form and a short prep time. They need this one badly to solidify a top four place moving forward, can Poch turn it around?

Can Sunderland get a result against surging Everton?

Everton vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Hull City hosts Burnley. Crystal Palace welcomes Middlesbrough. With those two fellow occupants of the relegation zone playing at home against lower-half sides, the spotlight is squarely on Sunderland. The Black Cats have a tough matchup, on the road at Everton.

The Toffees haven’t lost a Premier League match since falling to Liverpool in mid-December, and have scored 19 goals in the eight matches since that blemish. With that in mind, Sunderland must get some kind of a result to pull off the bottom of the Premier League table. Can they snatch points at Goodison Park?

EFL Cup final could leave Chelsea well out in front

Chelsea vs. Swansea City — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Chelsea is already eight points ahead of the pack and looks to be the clear favorite to win the Premier League title. It could get even clearer after this week. Manchester United is off, Manchester City is off, and Arsenal is off. Couple that with Tottenham struggling and Liverpool facing a desperate Leicester City side, and it’s entirely conceivable that a win for Chelsea over Swansea City could leave the Blues as far as 11 points clear at the top of the table, albeit a game ahead of some. That would all but wrap things up, wouldn’t it?

Mario Balotelli handed 2-match ban for abusing referee

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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After being sent off for referee abuse in last weekend’s Ligue 1 win over FC Lorient, Nice striker Mario Balotelli has been handed a two-match ban.

Balotelli earned his second red card of the season in the 69th minute of a 1-0 win that kept Nice within striking distance of the leaders Monaco. It was his second straight red and third sending-off of the season, having already been dismissed in reverse fixture against Lorient after a pair of yellows in the final three minutes of the game.

After the mercurial Italian’s hot start to the season, he has just one goal in the last two months, the third in a 3-1 win over Guingamp. He has not scored a point-winning goal since bagging both in a 2-1 win over Dijon back on December 18th.

Balotelli’s agent, the well-known Mino Raiola, was so frustrated with his client’s continual dismissal problems that he told French media conglomerate RMC Sport that the solution to Balotelli’s problems is to “cut out his tongue.”

“I have already found the solution: you have to cut out his tongue,” Raiola said bluntly. “To play soccer, there is no need for language! In all seriousness, he knows he made a big mistake and he has no excuse. He knows he needs to improve that. He is very sad for him, for the team.”

The suspension leaves Balotelli on the sidelines for tomorrow’s match against 11th placed Montpellier and then on March 4th at 17th placed Dijon. Nice sits in third, level on points with 2nd placed PSG and three back of leaders Monaco.