2014 World Cup team preview: Croatia

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Getting to know… Croatia: Their pedigree as a soccer nation is undoubted as they’ve already made it to the World Cup semifinals despite only being a registered FIFA nation since 1993. At France ’98 a Davor Suker inspired Croatia lost to hosts France in the final four but won plenty of fans. The former Yugoslav nation has only failed to qualify for one World Cup tournament, that was the last time out in South Africa. In their three World Cup appearances they finished third in 1998 but failed to make it out of the group in 2002 and 2006. With a talented squad and a great work ethic, they will be hoping to make it to the last 16, at least.

Record in qualifying: Qualified via the UEFA playoffs after finishing second in Group A of qualifying behind Belgium. Croatia beat Iceland 2-0 over a two legged playoff to qualify for the World Cup, sealing their place with a 2-0 win in Zagreb during the second leg.

What group are they in? Croatia are in Group A along with Brazil, Mexico and Cameroon in a group they will be hoping to make it out of. After Brazil, the hosts are expected to win this group at a canter, Croatia seem to be the next strongest side. However Cameroon and Mexico are no pushovers. The Croats know they are in a scrap for second place but do have the chance to play spoiler in the opening game of the tournament against hosts Brazil.

Game schedule: Group A

12 June, 16:00, Sao Paulo – Brazil vs. Croatia
18 June, 15:00, Manaus – Cameroon vs. Croatia
23 June, 16:00, Recife – Croatia vs. Mexico

Star player: Luka Modric

The Real Madrid midfielder is an absolute machine and has had a magnificent season in the engine room. In the UEFA Champions League final Modric was arguably the best player on the pitch as he buzzed around, tackled ferociously, passed with precision and dragged Real back from the dead to win the UCL crown. He runs and runs and runs. Able to let fly from distance and thread balls through to strikers such as Mario Mandzukic, opposition teams will try to man-mark Modric out of the game… good luck!

source: AP
Modric is a machine in midfield. Can he deliver for Croatia this summer?

Manager: Niko Kovac

Taking charge of the playoff games to get Croatia to the World Cup, former national team captain Kovac and his brother Robert steered the Croats to the finals. Igor Stimac was fired acrimoniously by the federation in 2013 but after the Kovac’s (both former Croatian internationals who played at the 2002, 2006 World Cup) worked wonders with Coratia’s U-21 side, they did the same with full national team. Passionate and having a wealth of experience on the international stage, Kovac will use all of that to help Croatia succeed this summer.

Secret weapon: Strong defense.

Even though they struggled through qualifying, Croatia’s man issue was a lack of goals. They didn’t concede more than two goals in any game since qualifying began back in September 2012. With Dejan Lovren having a fine season in the Premier League and veteran Darijo Srna back there, Croatia will be extremely tough to break down. Plus they have Brazilian born forward Eduardo (who used to play for Arsenal) up top to finish off any chances. He will be crucial, especially in the opener vs. his home nation as Mandzukic is suspended.

Prediction: Croatia will get out of Group A but it will not be easy. Their final group game against Mexico is likely to be pivotal as they battle El Tri for second spot. If Croatia can get their spine of experienced players firing, Srna, Modric, Mandzukic, then they have a chance of being a real dark horse in this tournament. They have done it before, why can’t they shock everyone again?

New York Red Bulls introduce space at RBA for autistic families

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HARRISON, N.J. (AP) The Red Bulls have announced plans for a permanent sensory-friendly space at their stadium for families impacted by autism.

Formerly executive offices, the space overlooking midfield is a calm area that is free from the crowds and the noise of Red Bull Arena during matches. Families can use it for free.

The team announced the new space on Saturday before the Red Bulls were set to host the Chicago Fire. It was Autism Awareness Night at the stadium.

“Families deserve to feel welcome and comfortable each time they step foot into Red Bull Arena, not just one night a year,” Red Bulls GM Marc de Grandpre said in a statement released by the club. “We hope all sports teams and entertainment venues are inspired to take similar action to provide comfort for families with loved ones on the autism spectrum.”

League Two game restarted in empty stadium after fans storm field

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LONDON (AP) An English soccer game restarted in an empty stadium after a pitch invasion led to the crowd being told the fixture had been abandoned.

There were five minutes remaining in Leyton Orient’s fourth-tier game against Colchester on Saturday when a sit-down protest was staged on the pitch by Orient fans against Italian owner Francesco Becchetti.

It forced the referee to take the players off the field. The protests lasted for more than an hour before the crowd was told the game had been abandoned and the stadium eventually cleared. The teams came out and finished the game.

Leyton Orient lost 3-1 a week after its relegation from the English Football League was confirmed after 112 years.

“A decision was taken with the police to announce that the game had been abandoned as it was felt this would help clear the pitch, which proved correct,” the EFL said in a statement. “However, it was deemed appropriate that the game needed to be played to a conclusion in order to maintain the integrity of the competition.”

La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid hold serve in tight title race

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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Super-duper Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of top 7 ]

Espanyol 0-3 Barcelona

Barcelona are doing all they can do — win — in their bid to usurp Real Madrid in the race for the title. While they entered the weekend — and still are — ahead of their El Clasico rivals based on head-to-head results this season, Los Blancos still have a game in hand which will surely decide whether Madrid claim their 33rd top-division title, or a 25th for Barca.

On Saturday, Luis Enrique’s side had more than just the title at stake — also at stake: the Derbi Barceloni, against fellow Catalan side Espanyol.

For 45 minutes, the home side held firm and refused to break, but once Luis Suarez put the Blaugrana ahead in the 50th minute, that was all she wrote. Ivan Rakitic doubled the advantage in the 76th minute, and Suarez completed the scoring 11 minutes later.

Real Madrid 2-1 Valencia

By the time the derby kicked off, Madrid had already applied the pressure and gone three points clear with a 2-1 victory that was a whole lot closer than the final score indicates.

Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring just before the half-hour mark, and Zinedine Zidane’s side was well on its way to victory. Ronaldo followed up his opening goal with a missed penalty kick 10 minutes into the second half, and Daniel Parejo pulled the visitors level with a sensational free kick just eight minutes before the end of regular time. Points looked sure to be dropped, and the door opened wider for Barca, but Marcelo was prepared to play the part of hero on the day, and the Brazilian left back bagged one of the season’s more improbable goals, a right-footed strike from the top of the box, in the 86th minute.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Las Palmas 0-5 Atletico Madrid
Real Sociedad 2-1 Granada

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Osasuna vs. Deportivo La Coruña — 6 a.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Alaves — 10:15 a.m. ET
Eibar vs. Leganes — 12:30 p.m. ET
Celta Vigo vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:45 p.m. ET

Monday’s La Liga schedule

Malaga vs. Sevilla — 3 p.m. ET

Championship Focus: It’s all about the playoff places now

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With Brighton & Hove Albion and Newcastle United having already clinched the Championship’s two automatic promotion places, all eyes turn to the four teams behind them still jockeying for playoff positioning…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s coverage of the Championship ]

3rd — Reading — 82 points, +2 GD
4th — Sheffield Wednesday — 81 points, +16 GD
5th — Huddersfield Town — 81 points, +1 GD
6th — Fulham — 77 points, +27 GD

First of all, the Championship remains the least sensible league in the world. Disagree? Just try to explain the above wildly varying points totals and the corresponding goal differentials. Go ahead, I’ll wait

As for the weekend’s results, Reading and Wednesday did themselves major favors in the race for third with victories over Wigan Athletic (1-0) and Ipswich Town (1-0), respectively, while Huddersfield, who entered the weekend in that top playoff place, played 67 minutes with a man advantage against Birmingham City, and lost 2-0. All three of Reading, Wednesday and Huddersfield have clinched their place in the promotion playoffs, which begin two weeks from Saturday, on May 13.

[ MORE: PL Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of the top 7 play ]

Given Leeds United’s 3-3 draw with Norwich City, a win would have clinched the fourth and final playoff place for Fulham, but the Cottagers dropped a pair of points themselves in a 1-1 draw with Brentford at Craven Cottage. Still, Fulham are all but into the playoffs with a three-point lead on Leeds, and a goal differential that’s 13 goals better.