PREVIEW: Everything you need to know about the World Cup in one beautiful post

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It’s here! Well, sort of. The 2014 World Cup begins play on Thursday when Brazil and Croatia tangle at 4pm ET.

So let’s say you’ve just found us, or that your WC knowledge isn’t quite where you feel it needs to be heading into the tournament. Here’s every single thing we’ve had to say leading up to Brazil, beginning with our staff’s roundtablepicks and predictions, the top 20 moments in the history of the World Cup …

… and continuing through everything we’ve gone on all eight groups. It’s all linked up, below.

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP A 

FROM THE PREVIEW

The host country’s record since a Feb. 6, 2013 loss to England at Wembley? A shiny 16W-4D-1L. The clear favorites to become the fourth hosts to win the thing, Brazil will trot out a loaded team that arguably boasts a dozen of the top 20 players in the group.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. The home team rules. Brazil is vying to win the World Cup on home soil, and has the added benefit of this fact: they’d be a favorite for the tournament regardless of continent. Thirteen of 19 champions have won on their home continent.

2. No Super Mario… to start. Croatia star striker Mario Mandzukic will miss the opener against Brazil with a suspension picked up at the tail end of qualifying. It’s a significant disadvantage for the visitors.

3. El Tri is inconsitent. Mexico looked dominant against New Zealand in the qualifying playoff, but that was after needing every bit of Graham Zusi- and Aron Johannsson-fueled luck to make the playoff. Are they the team that’s posted back-to-back 1-0 losses to Portugal and Bosnia & Herzegovina, or are they the team that’s skunked Israel, Ecuador and South Korea?

DATES AND TIMES

Thursday, June 12 , 5 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Brazil vs. Croatia
Friday, June 13, 1 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Mexico vs. Cameroon

Tuesday, June 17, 4 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Brazil vs. Mexico
Wednesday, June 18, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – Cameroon vs. Croatia

Monday, June 23, 4 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Cameroon vs. Brazil
Monday, June 23, 4 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Croatia vs. Mexico

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Brazil
2. Croatia
3. Mexico
4. Cameroon

-NM

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP B

FROM THE PREVIEW

A loaded group with stars to burn — Arjen Robben doesn’t even make our Top Five players for the bunch — Group B should provide a bunch of terrific games. Australia is the afterthought of the four, but anything could happen and a Socceroos upset behind Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak would provide an even wilder card.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Spain is seeking out history, as they’ll look to pick up back-to-back World Cup titles with a European Championship sandwiched in the middle. We don’t always talk dynasties when it comes to international soccer, but this Spanish unit will be writing a new language if they come strong.

2. It’s getting Chile in here. South American nations are getting a lot of run leading up to the tournament, and Chile has loads of talent (especially if Arturo Vidal is ready to go). It wouldn’t be a shock to see them come out of the group and make a little noise.

3. What will the Dutch midfield do? Without the injured Kevin Strootman and Rafael van der Vaart, Netherlands will have to navigate a tough group with a depleted engine room. Names like Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder are still there, though.

DATES AND TIMES

Friday, June 13, 4 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Spain vs. Netherlands
Friday, June 13, 7 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Chile vs. Australia

Wednesday, June 18, 1 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – Australia vs. Netherlands
Wednesday, June 18, 2 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Spain vs. Chile

Monday, June 23, 12 p.m. Eastern, Curitiba – Australia vs. Spain
Monday, June 23, 12 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Netherlands vs. Chile

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Spain
2. Chile
3. Netherlands
4. Australia

-NM

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP C

FROM THE PREVIEW

The upshot is a competitive group that provides a wide range of potentials, styles, experience, and stars, and with three teams taking suspected back lines into the tournament, we’ll likely see goals. Combine that with a parity among the group’s bottom three and you have a prescription for drama.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Colombia’s biggest star is out, but the team’s still favored to win this group. Radamel Falcao — the AS Monaco striker that can claim to be one of Europe’s best — couldn’t recover from his knee injury in time to play. Even without him, a talented attack featuring James Rodríguez, Teófilo Gutíerrez, Jackson Martínez, Adrián Ramos, and Carlos Bacca should have enough firepower to carry José Pekerman’s team to the top of the group.

2. No defense means more goals. With the exception of Greece, each team has weak at the back. That means the star-studed Ivorians and a technically and tactically astute Japan could join Colombia in making this one of the tournament’s highest scoring groups.

3. And those Ivorians are certainly star-studded. Didier Drogba is the most famous African soccer player in the world, and he might not be the best forward on his team. That’s because Cote d’Ivoire also have Wilfried Bony, Salomon Kalou, and Gervinho – players who combined for 41 goals in their European leagues this season. Add ingmidfielder Yaya Toure — the team’s best player — and you have less of a dark horse than the first page of a playbill.

DATES AND TIMES

Saturday, June 14 , 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Colombia vs. Greece
Saturday, June 14, 9 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Cote d’Ivoire vs. Japan

Thursday, June 19, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Colombia vs. Cote d’Ivoire
Thursday, June 19, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Japan vs. Greece

Tuesday, June 24, 4 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Japan vs. Colombia
Tuesday, June 24, 4 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Greece vs. Cote d’Ivoire

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Colombia
2. Cote d’Ivoire
3. Japan
4. Greece

-RF

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP D

FROM THE PREVIEW

One of the most difficult packs to predict at the 2014 World Cup, Group D has three teams who could finish first or tumble to third. Between England, Italy, and Uruguay, Group D’s contenders have seven World Cups and 10 world titles, a collection of honors that ensures one impressive résumé will be cast aside with the 15 other teams that fail to make the knockout round.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. This is not your typical England, in the sense that many of the stylistic elements (which usually depict a stoic if physically-capable team) aren’t present in this year’s Three Lions. Yeah, you still have two big reliable-types in central defense (Chelsea’s Gary Cahill, Everton’s Phil Jagielka), but you also have the skill of Adam Lallana, Wayne Rooney, and Raheem Sterling in attack, with Daniel Sturridge’s speed giving Roy Hodgson a new type of threat up top. England’s not even playing 4-4-2 anymore!

2. Andrea Pirlo’s last hurrah will also feature a passing of the torch, with Paris Saint-Germain’s Pirlo-to-be Marco Verratti a likely starter in Cesare Prandelli’s 4-5-1. While Pirlo’s signed a new deal with Juventus which will take him up to the next Euros, this will almost certainly be the 35-year-old’s final World Cup. As his generation’s quintessential deep-lying distributor, Pirlo’s last World Cup will be a talking point for the next generation of registas.

3. Luis Suárez’s health is really, really important, particularly considering the depth of this group. With a healthy Suárez, playing in South America, you could make a case for the Uruguayans as favorites. Without him, it will come down to how well the 35-year-old Diego Forlán (as well as Gastón Ramirez) link a deep central midfield with the team’s healthy scoring threat: Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani.

DATES AND TIMES

Saturday, June 14, 3 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Uruguay vs. Costa Rica
Saturday, June 14, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – England vs. Italy

Thursday, June 19, 3 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Uruguay vs. England
Friday, June 20, 12 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Italy vs. Costa Rica

Tuesday, June 24, 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Costa Rica vs. England
Tuesday, June 24, 12 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Italy vs. Uruguay

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Italy
2. Uruguay
3. England
4. Costa Rica

-RF

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP E

FROM THE PREVIEW

The Ecuadorians last four friendlies were against World Cup competition (a loss to Mexico, defeat of Australia and draws against England and the Netherlands). Can this, and the South American climate, help them escape the group?

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Anyone can emerge from this group. Even though France and Switzerland will be expected to go through, Ecuador will hope being close to home helps while Honduras is capable of making anyone’s lives miserable with their borderline play.

2. French rebound. Their last World Cup was probably among the most embarrassing for any true power in history, as in-fighting and bizarre stories crushed their dreams of glory. A younger unit may be able to harness great skill and energy, even without Franck Ribery.

3. All eyes on June 20. Every World Cup game packs import, but Switzerland versus France will, in all likelihood, be the one that decides who wins the group.

DATES AND TIMES

Sunday, June 15 , 1 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Switzerland vs. Ecuador
Sunday, June 15, 4 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – France vs. Honduras

Friday, June 20, 3 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Switzerland vs. France
Friday, June 20, 6 p.m. Eastern, Curitiba – Honduras vs. Ecuador

Wednesday, June 25, 4 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – Honduras vs. Switzerland
Wednesday, June 25, 4 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Ecuador vs. France

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. France
2. Switzerland
3. Ecuador
4. Honduras

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP F

FROM THE PREVIEW

The Super Eagles would provide a significant upset were they to climb ahead of either BNH or Argentina, while a Top Two place for Iran would be among the biggest moments in World Cup history.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Kinda predictable? Our staff laid out its predictions for the group, which looked, well, exactly the same. Argentina is expected to walk through the group with Bosnia and Herzegovina a close second.

2. Messy Messi? Despite the constant high-fives and plaudits for his work with Barcelona, superstar striker Lionel Messi has received plenty of guff from Argentine fans. Can he deliver loads of goals, assists and wonder this time around?

3. Nigeria could be a wild card. Stephen Keshi’s squad has truckloads of talent, but lacks consistency. Even if its defense falters, the Super Eagles are capable of sending plenty of balls on goal. Could we see some big scorelines?

DATES AND TIMES

Sunday, June 15 , 7 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Argentina vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina
Monday, June 16, 4 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Iran vs. Nigeria

Saturday, June 21, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Argentina vs. Iran
Saturday, June 21, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Nigeria vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina

Wednesday, June 25, 12 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Nigeria vs. Argentina
Wednesday, June 25, 12 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Bosnia & Herzegovina vs. Iran

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Argentina
2. Bosnia and Herzegovina
3. Nigeria
4. Iran

-NM

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP G

FROM THE PREVIEW

The argument against this being the Group of Death: There’s a pretty big drop off after the quartet’s top two, a drop you don’t see in Groups B and D. Ultimately, if there are no upsets, two teams that may not be among the best 16 in the world won’t make it to the second round …

That’s not a Group of Death, but it is a group of depth – a packet that could provide drama, particularly if Portugal isn’t at full strength when they face Germany on June 16.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Germany is ridiculously talented and has history on its side, making the final eight in every World Cup they’ve entered. Even with Borussia Dortmund star Marco Reus out, the front six is so deep that Mesut Özil, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Mario Götze didn’t start their team’s final pre-Cup friendly. Germany’s second XI team would have a good chance to make this tournament’s knockout round.

2. Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t healthy, and might not be for the entire tournament, thanks to tendinosis in his left knee. That’s not something that’s going to improve in the middle of a month-long competition. For a team that’s becoming increasingly, worryingly dependent on its star, Portugal may need more than a 75 percent Ronaldo to hold off the U.S. or Ghana.

3. After years of derision, the stereotypes could prove decisive for the U.S. in Brazil, just as the team’s fitness, speed, strength and physicality left it on the edge of the semifinals in 2002. For those deriding the U.S.’s technical qualities, those virtues are often cited euphemistically, yet they will be real factors as this tournament progresses. When the U.S. and Portugal descend on Manaus for game two, Jurgen Klinsmann’s emphasis on fitness could pay off.

DATES AND TIMES

Monday, June 16, 12 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Germany vs. Portugal
Monday, June 16, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Ghana vs. United States

Saturday, June 21, 3 p.m. Eastern,  Fortaleza – Germany vs. Ghana
Sunday, June 22, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – United States vs. Portugal

Thursday, June 26, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Portugal vs. Ghana
Thursday, June 26, 12 p.m. Eastern, Recife – United States vs. Germany

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Germany
2. Portugal
3. United States
4. Ghana

-RF

MORE: United States player profiles … all of them

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP H

FROM THE PREVIEW

In terms of talent, there is no group at this year’s World Cup that sees such a huge gap between its leaders and the pack … [Belgium] will arrive in Brazil as one of the most talented teams on the planet. Only a lack of experience and notable results keeps the Belgians from being more than a dark horse.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Russia and South Korea may be looking forward, with the Koreans’ young squad and Russia’s upcoming hosting gig making both teams more viable in 2018. Without its captain (the injured Roman Shirokov), Russia may have trouble getting Aleksandr Kerzakhov onto the scoresheet, while Korea’s quality in the midfield may not make up for mistakes at the back.

2. Algeria are anonymous, but still dangerous, far more so than four years ago. With Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli in midfield, the Desert Foxes have a player whose quality could produce the goal Algeria couldn’t find in the 2010 tournament. Their central defense can be beaten with speed, but neither Russia nor South Korea may have the quality to exploit that weakness. It will still take an upset, but an Algerian team that lacks name stars could produce its first World Cup victory since 1982.

3. Belgium really are as dangerous as advertised, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be as good as their seed implies. Frankly, we don’t know. Europe’s World Cup qualifying is so watered down, teams can go the entire tournament without facing a credible threat, and given Belgium didn’t qualify for Euro 2012, we have no real idea how good they are as a team. We can look at names like Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, and Romelu Lukaku had gawk at their potential, but you need only look to Eden Hazard’s international record to see reason for caution. The Chelsea attacker has 52 goals over the last three years at club-level, but he’s only scored six times in 45 appearances for his country.

DATES AND TIMES

Tuesday, June 17, 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Belgium vs. Algeria
Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Russia vs. South Korea

Sunday, June 22, 12 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Belgium vs. Russia
Sunday, June 22, 3 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – South Korea vs. Algeria

Thursday, June 26, 4 p.m. Eastern, Curitibia – Algeria vs. Russia
Thursday, June 26, 4 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – South Korea vs. Belgium

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Belgium
2. Russia
3. South Korea
4. Algeria

-RF

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H


Statement released on Niasse’s ban for “deception”

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The reasons behind Oumar Niasse‘s ban for “deception of a match official” (diving, or simulation, to you and I) have been explained.

[ MORE: Toffees hammered by Atalanta ]

Niasse, 27, became the first player in Premier League history to be banned retrospectively for simulation with new rules which came into place in May being used.

Everton forward Niasse went down easily in the penalty box after slight contact from Scott Dann in the first half of their 2-2 draw at Crystal Palace on Saturday and referee Anthony Taylor awarded a penalty kick. However, Niasse was then retrospectively handed a two-game ban for simulation.

Niasse and Everton appealed the ban but the FA upheld the decision from an Independent Commission made up of a former professional player, referee and official, who revealed they were “unanimous” in charging him with diving.

Below is a look at how they came to make the decision.

“The Commission were unanimous that the video footage gave clear and overwhelming evidence that the player had exaggerated the effect of a normal contact in order to deceive the referee.

“The Commission noted that there was contact between Scott Dann and Mr Niasse but the Commission considered the contact to be normal, fair and expected contact in the situation that arose with Mr Niasse ‘taking on’ Mr Dann. The Commission unanimously agree that the nature of the contact made by Scott Dan was minimal in nature and would not have thrown Mr Niasse off balance and knock him down in the way that Mr Niasse portrayed it to have done.

“To the minds of the Commission members the movements of Mr Niasse’s body, in particular the arching of the back and the collapsing of both legs, were simply not consistent with the amount of force exerted upon him by Mr Dann and in exaggerating the effect of the contact made between himself and Mr Dann, Mr Niasse deceived the referee and this led to a penalty being awarded by the referee.”

This decision is truly groundbreaking in the PL.

Last season 22 players were booked for simulation in Premier League games, so this new ruling could see plenty of two-game bans dished out until players finally stop taking a tumble to try and win a penalty kick or free kick.

Of course, there is still a certain amount of subjectivity to all of this but the FA and PL have shown they will take a tough stance against simulation. Good on them. Now, can they keep it up and be consistent in dishing out these bans? That’s the big challenge.

Mourinho slams critics, reveals team news; Fellaini update

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United are almost back to full strength but he has a few concerns.

The Red Devils host Brighton & Hove Albion at Old Trafford on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with Mourinho now having just a handful of injury concerns.

Long-term absentees Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo have all returned to action over the past week, while Mourinho has a small defensive problem with Eric Bailly and Phil Jones out for the visit of the newly-promoted Seagulls.

“They are out. But we are okay because we have [Chris] Smalling, [Marcos] Rojo and [Victor] Lindelof,” Mourinho said.

He also said that Pogba isn’t yet able to play a full 90 minutes as he continue his recovery from a hamstring injury, while Zlatan is improving all the time after jumping off the bench in the victory over Newcastle United last weekend and the midweek defeat at Basel in the UEFA Champions League.

“I prefer him [Ibrahimovic] on the pitch than off the pitch,” Mourinho said. “On the pitch, he’s another option for us and he’s an option of quality. His physicality and his intelligence, the way he moves, the way he plays. But he needs time. We managed to give him 15/20 minutes in both matches, he needs more of that, so hopefully, tomorrow, we play him again.”

Mourinho also took exception to a question about the criticism his team receives about their defensive style of play, with the Portuguese coach pointing towards United’s superb home record this season.

“I don’t know who is more ambitious than us,” Mourinho said. “We played against Newcastle with Pogba, Rashford, Martial, Mata, Lukaku, the full backs are not full backs, everybody knows they are wingers, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. So, I don’t know what you want.”

United have won all six PL home games this season and have scored 19 goals, conceding just once. So, yeah, he has a point but the only real test they’ve had so far at home was against Tottenham Hotspur.

Aside from an injury update and hitting back at critics, Mourinho also gave an update on Fellaini’s contract situation and revealed he is concerned the Belgian midfielder may leave.

Fellaini, 30, is out of contract at the end of the season and Mourinho has praised the lanky midfielder on numerous occasions over the past few months. Is he worried Fellaini will leave for nothing?

“Yeah,” Mourinho said. “This is a discussion between the player and the board. I’m not involved in contracts, in deals, and I respect both – I respect the player because he has the right to decide his future. So I just wait wishing they will have an understanding, but it’s out of my control.”

Bayern fans unhappy with Champions League ticket prices

AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
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MUNICH (AP) Bayern Munich fans were unhappy with the price of tickets for their team’s match at Anderlecht in the Champions League.

[ MORE: Study to show long-term affects of playing soccer ]

The fans held banners during Wednesday’s game saying, “Are your necks not full? Is your greed now finally satisfied?”

A Bayern fan group, Club Nr. 12, issued a statement saying Anderlecht had made 85 percent of the tickets available to the German club’s fans priced at 100 euros ($118).

“Even by the standards of the generally high-priced Champions League, this represents a new dimension for a first-round game,” said the statement, which thanked Bayern for supplementing the tickets so fans had could pay 70 euros ($82.50).

Many Bayern fans avoided the trip to Brussels altogether, while 91 percent of more than 2,500 Club Nr. 12 members said in a survey that ticket prices were “completely unacceptable.”

[ MORE: Premier League player power rankings ]

Anderlecht spokesman David Steegen told The Associated Press that Bayern fans were charged “exactly the same price” as home fans who bought single tickets to the game. He said fans who bought a three-game Champions League bundle were offered a reduction.

UEL roundup: AC Milan advances after big win; Arsenal, Everton fall

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Both Premier League sides fell in Thursday’s UEFA Europa League play, but for one side the result didn’t effect their progression into the next round.

[ MORE: Ex-Brazil forward Robinho handed nine-year prison sentence ]

Arsenal dropped a 1-0 result to Cologne, however, the Gunners still moved into the Round of 32 after their Group H counterparts, Red Star Belgrade and BATE Borisov settled for a scoreless draw.

Meanwhile, Everton’s 2017/18 woes continued on the day as the Toffees suffered a brutal 5-1 defeat at home against Serie A side Atalanta. The win secures Atalanta’s place in the knockout phase, along with fellow Group E club Lyon — who also won on Thursday.

AC Milan put up five goals of its own in a convincing win against Austria Wien, while Lazio, Nice and Red Bull Salzburg were among the other sides to move into the next round after picking up the necessary results.

Below are all of the scores from Thursday’s Europa League action.

Astana 2-3 Villareal
Konyaspor 1-1 Marseille
Rosenborg 0-1 Real Sociedad
Lazio 1-1 Vitesse
Viktoria Plzen 2-0 Steaua Bucuresti
Lokomotiv 2-1 Copenhagen
Zenit 2-1 Vardar
Red Bull Salzburg 3-0 Vitoria
Athletic Bilbao 3-2 Hertha Berlin
BATE 0-0 Red Star Belgrade
Ostersunds 2-0 Zorya
Koln 1-0 Arsenal
Nice 3-1 Zulte Waregem
Lugano 1-0 Beer-Sheva
Ludogorets 1-2 Istanbul
Braga 3-1 Hoffenheim
AEK 2-2 Rijeka
AC Milan 5-1 Austria Vienna
Lyon 4-0 Apollon
Maccabi Tel Aviv 0-2 Slavia Praha
Sheriff 1-0 Zlin
Partizan 2-1 Young Boys
Skenderbeu 3-2 Dynamo Kyiv
Everton 1-5 Atalanta