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2014 World Cup Dark Horses: France, Croatia and four other long shots to consider

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By now, you know the favorites to hoist the 2014 World Cup. More ink need not be spilt on why Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain are the most likely to triumph in this summer’s classic. A good amount has also been written about the chances of second tier candidates, nations like England and Belgium.

But what about the dark horses? Those nations with a chance, albeit a longshot, of upsetting the odds and coming out of nowhere to win the World Cup. Below we take a look at six nations, each of which is listed at greater than 20-1 odds, with a chance of doing the impossible.

LET’S BE REASONABLE…

FRANCE
Fifa World Ranking: 16th
Odds to win Group: 2-3
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 22-1
Why France can win: Sans a storybook run in 1998, France’s worst enemy has forever been themselves. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was shameful and coach Didier Deschamps made sure there wouldn’t be a repeat this time around when he cut clubhouse cancer Samir Nasri from the squad. The mood is right and so is the talent, which Les Bleus have in abundance with the likes of Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane, Paul Pogba, Mathieu Valbuena, Franck Ribery, Olivier Giroud, Loic Remy and Karim Benzema. Drama-free, deep and talented makes for a pretty good combination for success.
Key factors: Unity and a healthy Ribery.

URUGUAY
Fifa World Ranking: 6th
Odds to win Group: 2-1
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 28-1
Why Uruguay can win: Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlan. Those three alone justify the hype. Factor in that just three years ago they ruled South America after winning the 2011 Copa America and La Celeste is a side that’s been there, done that and has the firepower to do it again.
Key factors: Suarez’ health and a defense that doesn’t leak.

source: Getty Images

NOW WE’RE GETTING A BIT RIDICULOUS…

IVORY COAST
Fifa World Ranking: 21st
Odds to win Group: 7-2
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 125-1
Why Ivory Coast can win: Easy, Yaya Toure. Coming off the best season of his career, the City midfielder is capable of anything, especially when paired with the powerful Cheick Tiote and Didier Ya Konan in midfield. Plus with an improved Gervinho flying up the wing and Wilfried Bony potentially partnering Didier Drogba up top, there’s enough talent there to see The Elephants becoming the first African side to win a World Cup.
Key factors: Young guns stepping up to match the feats Yaya and Drogba.

CROATIA
Fifa World Ranking: 20th
Odds to win Group: 15-2
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 150-1
Why Croatia can win: The Blazers arguably have the most underrated midfield in the world. Luka Modric is coming off a fantastic season at Real Madrid, Ivan Rakitic may very well be one of the best playmakers in the world right now, Ivan Perisic has vastly improved since his move from Dortmund to Wolfsburg, and Mateo Kovacic is a highly-touted 20-year-old poised for a breakout on the world stage. Combine that with a formidable defense that contains Darijo Srna, Dejan Lovren and Vedran Corluka and a forward two of Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic and yeah, Croatia has the goods to compete at the highest level.
Key factors: Getting out of the Group and shocking Spain in the Round of 16.

OK, JUST STOP IT NOW; UTTER BLASPHEMY…

source: Getty ImagesUSA
Fifa World Ranking: 14th
Odds to win Group: 10-1
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 100-1
Why USA can win: Having a coach who has won a World Cup is a huge boost but more than that, America’s chances of doing the incredible simply come down to an inherent sense of belief and momentum. Those two qualities carried a US hockey team filled with amateur and collegiate players past a USSR side in the 1980 Olympics. No reason why it can’t happen on the soccer pitch. Plus, with veterans like Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey to compliment upstart players like Fabian Johnson and Aron Johannsson, anything is possible. That’s the motto, at least.
Key factors: Staunch belief, surging momentum and a Germany side that plays its B team in the final Group match.

CAMEROON
Fifa World Ranking: 50th
Odds to win Group: 250-1
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 500-1
Why Cameroon can win: Because history matters and Cameroon remains one of two African nations to ever make it to the quarter-final of a World Cup, at Italia 1990 when they lost to England in extra time. That year The Indomitable Lions came virtually out of nowhere, led by belief and 38-year old striker Roger Milla. This year the squad is led by another veteran striker, Samuel Eto’o, and has proven a stingy side to get past, as Germany saw this past weekend when they drew 2-2.
Key Factors: A defense that defends and Eto’o turning back the clock, catching fire and ripping hat-tricks throughout each stage.

Inexperienced Southgate given first shot at vacant England job

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 05:  Gareth Southgate the manager of England U21's looks on during a training session at St Georges Park on September 5, 2016 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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MANCHESTER, England (AP) After the acrimonious departure of Sam Allardyce, England’s national soccer team is temporarily in the hands of a man who said just three weeks ago that he wasn’t ready for such a high pressure job.

Yet interim coach Gareth Southgate may end up keeping it given the paucity of top-class English managers around.

The English Football Association’s preference is that an Englishman coaches the national team, but there’s hardly a queue of top-quality candidates.

[ MORE: MLS Playoff Picture gets clearer ]

Alan Pardew, Eddie Howe and Steve Bruce are high on the list of bookmakers’ favorites to be the next England coach, yet none of them have managed a so-called big club in the Premier League or coached a team in the Champions League. Pardew and Howe are in charge of unfashionable Premier League clubs (Crystal Palace and Bournemouth, respectively) and Bruce recently quit as manager of Hull.

Glenn Hoddle, England coach from 1996-99, is also on the bookies’ list and a popular call with ex-professionals even though he hasn’t coached in a decade.

So Southgate, who has been given the reins for England’s next four matches – against Malta, Slovenia, Scotland and Spain – can stake a claim for the role on a full-time basis should he impress as a caretaker coach.

Except this was the same man who said as recently as Sept. 5 that he needed more experience to be England manager, having coached only one club (Middlesbrough, from 2006-09) and been in charge of the England under-21 side since 2013. Southgate pulled out of the race to succeed Roy Hodgson after the European Championship for this very reason, with the job going to Allardyce.

“I’m pretty clear on what I’m comfortable with,” Southgate said then, “but also I know to take that role wasn’t something I think I’ve got the experience for.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

“I think it’s one of the ultimate jobs and you want every skill set possible when you go into it. I think with England, there are one or two other things that I would want to have had experience of before I took that role, to be going into it from a real position of strength. Maybe that happens in the future, maybe it doesn’t?”

Less than a month later, he’s been thrust into what some term “The Impossible Job.”

Clean-cut, well-spoken and with no baggage, the 46-year-old Southgate fits the bill for the FA in terms of image. He would be the last person likely to get caught up in the kind of newspaper sting that led to Allardyce losing his job on Tuesday. He also knows the FA and what the national body wants and expects, having been an employee for three years.

“Gareth Southgate will do a good job,” FA chairman Greg Clarke said. “He knows the people, he knows the team, he knows the setup at St. George’s Park. He’ll take over pretty seamlessly.”

Best known for missing a crucial penalty in England’s shootout loss to Germany in the Euro 1996 semifinals, Southgate was fired after three years at Middlesbrough following its relegation from the Premier League. He has repaired his coaching reputation with England’s under-21s and led the team to a first title in 22 years at the Toulon tournament this year.

[ MORE: Wenger excited at Arsenal’s chances ]

Bruce is the second-favorite with bookmakers, behind Southgate, and has to be a big contender considering he was interviewed by the FA for the job eventually given to Allardyce. The 38-year-old Howe, who guided unfancied Bournemouth into the Premier League and kept it there, is widely regarded as a future England coach but now may be too soon for him.

The problem for English coaches is they are rarely given the chance to prove themselves at the leading Premier League clubs, who prefer foreign managers. The FA has tried to address the lack of top English coaches by building the sprawling National Football Centre in central England in 2012 and using that as a base from where talented young coaches can be brought through. That will take time, though.

For now, the FA has given itself some breathing space and will look to have a new man in place by England’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania in March.

“It wasn’t the plan we had,” Clarke said, “but we’ve now got to make the new plan work.”

MLS Snapshots: Montreal, DC strengthen playoff bids; TFC draws Orlando (video)

Montreal Impact midfielder Ignacio Piatti, center, is congratulated by teammate Matteo Mancosu (21) following a goal against the San Jose Earthquakes during the first half of a soccer game, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP
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For most of Wednesday’s trio of Major League Soccer matches we had a paucity of goals, Montreal’s potent attack the only thing assuring it wasn’t zero.

[ MORE: Tata chooses Atlanta United ]

But the final half hours in two of our three matches proved fruitful for the box scores.

Montreal Impact 3-1 San Jose Earthquakes

With Didier Drogba resting, the Impact still managed to strengthen their playoff plans while crushing San Jose’s hopes for the second season. Dominic Odoro buried a rebound early before MVP hopeful Ignacio Piatti made it 2-0 before halftime. Piatti later helped Johan Venegas put the game away late.

Chris Wondolowski scored his 11th goal of the season to pull San Jose within a goal with just under a half-hour to play, his 120th in MLS has him 25 behind Landon Donovan of the LA Galaxy for the all-time record.

The loss leaves San Jose seven points shy of a playoff spot with four matches to play.

Toronto FC 0-0 Orlando City

There were chances, sure: Michael Bradley looped a gorgeous pass that Jonathan Osorio somehow hit over the net from inside the six, and Cyle Larin was denied by a diving Alex Bono at the other end.

Two yellow cards to Tosaint Rickets in a 14-minute span left TFC down a man for the final 20 minutes, but the Reds held on for a point at home. Orlando is now five points shy of the East’s final playoff spot, while Toronto used its game-in-hand to pull ahead of New York Red Bulls and New York City FC for the top spot in the East.

DC United 3-0 Columbus Crew

This one saw the chances evenly distributed but the ball mostly with the visitors. Fortunately for DC’s playoff hopes, Lloyd Sam’s third goal of the season opened up a 1-0 lead in the 71st minute off a slick feed from Luciano Acosta. Lamar Neagle had a classy finish to make it 2-0, then assisted Alvaro Saborio to end this game and Columbus’ playoff hopes.

Tata Martino on choosing Atlanta: Project “worth more than money”

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JUNE 26: Gerardo Martino of Argentina clls out against Chile during the Copa America Centenario Championship match at MetLife Stadium on June 26, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Chile defeated Argentina 4-2 in penalty kicks. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Paraguay.

Newell’s Old Boys.

Barcelona.

Argentina.

Atlanta United.

That’s the career path for new Atlanta boss Tata Martino, announced Wednesday as the first manager in United history.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

It’s a fascinating hire for the club and its league, Major League Soccer, as United prepares to debut in 2017.

And it’s also interesting on account of the coach. The 53-year-old Argentine remains in his prime, a three-time Copa America runner-up who was organizing Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and company just three years ago.

Timothy Pratt filed a report on the hiring for the New York Times on Wednesday, one that speaks to Martino’s excitement at helping start a club from the ground up. The coach is excited to aid technical director and USMNT legend Carlos Bocanegra in guiding players from youth on up, similar to what Oscar Pareja has done at FC Dallas.

From NYTimes.com:

Martino underlined the importance of youth player development at his new club “based on how I became a player at Newell’s.” The club is known for grooming players, including a young Lionel Messi, who played for Martino with Barcelona and Argentina. “Working with the youth teams is fundamental for me, no matter where in the world I’m coaching,” he said.

“But the proposal they’re offering me — to install my style of play and build from the ground up — is worth more than money,” he said.

That’s the kinda hire that should be high-fived. Let’s see how it plays out.

Europa League: Mourinho says targeted Man Utd must win; Saints shorthanded

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United makes his way to the tunnel after the final whistle  during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Europa League goes into its second day of group play with the onus on the biggest club in the tournament to pick up a win.

Don’t believe us? Ask Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho.

“To be honest, I think we have to win,” Mourinho said at his pre-match press conference. “If we don’t win, I would say we’d have to win all the last four matches, which is difficult, so I think it is very important that we win this game.”

[ MORE: Wenger excited at Arsenal’s chances ]

United fell 1-0 at Feyenoord to open the group stage, and now hosts Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk at 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday. He knows its the equivalent of a massive Cup match for the visitors.

“The Europa League is a competition Man United isn’t normally in, so when these teams have a giant like Man United in front of them, it’s a huge moment for them and they come to the game with incredible motivation.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will start for United, as there’s a chance that Anthony Martial will rejoin the side. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is out, and Wayne Rooney (back) and Luke Shaw (illness) may not play.

The other Premier League side in play is Southampton, as the Saints take a long flight to Israel for a 3:05 p.m. ET kickoff against Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

Saints handled Sparta Prague at home, and now face the Camels, who went to Inter Milan and won. Southampton is without Charlie Austin, Jose Fonte, Ryan Bertrand, and Steven Davis.

Should be a very decent match from Turner Stadium in Be’er Sheva.

Elsewhere

all times ET

Mainz at Gabala — 11 a.m.
Young Boys at Astana — 11 a.m.
Osmanlispor at Zurich — 1 p.m.
Red Bull Salzburg at Schalke — 1 p.m.
PAOK at Liberec — 1 p.m.
Qarabag at Fiorentina — 1 p.m.
Villarreal at Steaua Bucuresti — 1 p.m.
Nice at Krasnodar — 1 p.m.
Standard Liege at Ajax — 1 p.m.
Braga at Shakhtar Donetsk — 1 p.m.
Panathinaikos at Celta Vigo — 1 p.m.
Inter Milan at Sparta Prague — 1 p.m.
Konyaspor at Gent — 1 p.m.
Sassuolo at Genk — 3:05 p.m.
Zorya at Manchester United — 3:05 p.m.
Anderlecht at Saint-Etienne — 3:05 p.m.
Apoel Nicosia at Olympiacos — 3:05 p.m.
Maccabi Tel-Aviv at Dundalk — 3:05 p.m.
Feyenoord at Fenerbahce — 3:05 p.m.
Rapid Wien at Athletic Bilbao — 3:05 p.m.
Viktoria Plzen at Austria Wien — 3:05 p.m.
AZ Alkmaar at Zenit Saint-Petersburg — 3:05 p.m.
Astra Giurgiu at AS Roma — 3:05 p.m.