An England fan reacts following Uruguay's 2-1 victory over England in the group D World Cup soccer match between Uruguay and England at the Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, June 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Talking points: England’s World Cup has been a failure, but context is important

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After 180 minutes, England’s knockout round fate is in Italy’s hands, with the Three Lions’ 2-1 loss to Uruguay meaning anything but an Azzurri win on Friday will send the former champions out. Even if the Italians stumble against Costa Rica, there are very few scenarios for Tuesday’s Group D finale that will put England into the knockout round. If bottom lines are your thing, Brazil 2014’s will be an indictment for Roy Hodgson’s squad.

In context, however, the conclusions are so clear. A tough Group D meant one knockout round hopeful was going home early regardless, while two close matches against strong teams meant England’s record only partially reflected its quality on the field. If you’re making a list of things to blame for England’s poor result, put “FIFA ping-pong balls” at the top. Drawn into a number of other groups, England would be going through.

Regardless, after today’s loss, England’s probably down to 90 minutes at this year’s World Cup, and while that will draw the ire of some, there’s no reason to cast too much gloom on mixed if disappointing results. Our three talking points.

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1. Two days, two groups of death … – Maybe we’re going about this Group of Death-thing all wrong. I’ve harped on the U.S. side of this enough, so no use recycling those thoughts, but given what we’ve seen from Group B (Spain: out) and Group D (England: almost out), we should rethink how we go about this label. Whereas we’ve to slap it on the toughest group, we should start playing to what the term actually means.

There are groups which, because of their draw, will provide a renown team a quick, potentially unfair (in light of the other groups) exit; a death, if you will. On Wednesday, we saw it with Spain, and now we’ve seen it with England, a team that has the quality to get out of five other groups. Two ex-champions, among the world’s most popular teams, are probably going home before the knockout round, given a premature departure because of the depth of their groups.

Instead of acknowledging a single Group of Death, maybe we need to be more liberal with the label. With Chile, the Netherlands, and Spain, Group B was a Group of Death, ending the reign of one of international soccer’s most dominant teams. And Group D, featuring three teams that have final eight quality, will likely send England home before the tournament’s first cut.

As much as England’s tournament is about its shortcomings, it’s also about an extremely tough draw.

source: AP
England’s Wayne Rooney scored his first World Cup goal, but for the second straight match, he and his team fell, 2-1. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

2. … so let’s not be too brazen about England’s failings – What have we learned over the Three Lions’ 180 minutes in Brazil? That they’re not as good as Italy? We already suspected that. Italy showed its quality at Euro 2012. To the extent England can compete against Italy, it’s more about matchups (fast attackers against a slow defense) than the overall quality of the squads.

Did we learn that England’s not as good as Uruguay? Before the tournament started, that was less certain, but La Celeste are reigning South American champions. They also made the semifinals on at South Africa 2010, a depth England hasn’t reached in 24 years. If England’s not up to Uruguay’s standard, it’s certainly nothing to worry about.

Alas, England fans will worry, and it’s hard to blame them. The final result just wasn’t good enough, but when you consider the strength of the Three Lions’ group and the stage this team’s at in its development, the result’s nothing to worry about.

Not only was England competitive against good squads, but better days are ahead for a still maturing core.

3. Can’t say enough about Suárez – Rightfully, people are criticizing the English defense. When a team gives up four goals in two games, some post-mortem is required. Maybe Hodgson should have brought John Terry out of retirement, picked Ashley Cole, and sided with cohesion by playing a mostly Chelsea back line?

To the extent England’s defense failed, it was in moments, not spans. Perhaps the familiarity of three Chelsea players would have solved the problem (even though it didn’t seem to help Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines).

There is, however, another way to look at what happened. After all Uruguay only got two shots on target. Italy, for that matter only had four. It’s not like the Three Lions were giving up a slew of chances. Their failings were isolated, made more dangerous by striking talent few teams have in their squads.

For Italy, it was Mario Balotelli, who put himself in a position that was nearly impossible for Cahill to defend. Against Uruguay, it was Suárez, who showed his Liverpool teammates what it’s like to be on the other side of a match-winning kind of performance. While teams like the Netherlands do have similarly talented strikers, most teams at the World Cup don’t. Again, England’s draw came back to haunt them.

Though England could have done better on Uruguay’s first goal, Suárez deserves credit for pulling off a finish that few would have had the sense or technique convert, and while the second goal was a less forgivable failing, players like Suárez make you pay.

We’re seen plenty of other players blow those types of chances. Suárez did not. As a result, England’s on the brink of going out.

LIVE – Europa League group stage finale: Saints, Man United in crucial deciders

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 03:  Virgil van Dijk of Southampton celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the UEFA Europa League Group K match between Southampton FC and FC Internazionale Milano at St Mary's Stadium on November 3, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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This is it, don’t get scared now.

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Premier League duo Southampton and Manchester United both go into their final group game of the UEFA Europa League needing to avoid defeat if their going to make the knockout rounds.

For United, their task is simple. Jose Mourinho’s men need just a point from their trip to Ukraine to play Zorya Luhansk to advance to the Round of 32, while a win could see them finish top depending on the result of the Feyenoord vs. Fenerbache game.

As for Southampton, it’s a little bit more complicated.

A win for Claude Puel‘s side at home against Hapoel Be’er Sheva at a sold out St Mary’s would see them safely through to the knockout rounds of the Europa League for the first time in club history. A 0-0 draw would also do the trick but a score draw (1-1, 2-2, 3-3 etc) would send the reigning Israeli champions through instead as they’d have the advantage in head-to-head away goals after the duo drew 0-0 in Israel back in October. Making the knockout rounds of this competition would be a huge deal for Southampton and would keep their cup momentum going after they reached the semifinals of the EFL Cup last week.

[ MORE: Europa League standings ]   

Elsewhere there is plenty on the line across the 12 groups, with the standings page in the link above very handy to work out the permutations as the top two teams from each group (first place team is seeded, the second unseeded) advance to the Round of 32 and will be joined by the eight teams who finished third in their respective groups in the UEFA Champions League group stage.

Below is the full schedule for Thursday’s game which kick off in three separate time slots, while you can follow live commentary and stats on the games by clicking on the link above.


Full Europa League schedule, Thursday Dec. 8

11 a.m. ET
Konyarspor vs. Gent
Qarabag vs. Fiorentina
Osmanlispor vs. Zurich
Braga vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
Villarreal vs. Steaua Bucuresti
PAOK vs. Liberece

1 p.m. ET
Vikrotia Plzen vs. Austria Wien
Apoel Nicosia vs. Olympiacos
Sassuolo vs. Genk
Anderlecht vs. Saint-Etienne
Zorya Luhansk vs. Manchester United
Rapid Wien vs. Athletic Bilbao
Young Boys vs. Astana
AZ Alkmaar vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg
Feyenoord vs. Fenerbahce
Maccabi Tel-Aviv vs. Dundalk
Mainz vs. Gabala
Astra Giurgiu vs. Roma

3:05 p.m. ET
Panathinaikos vs. Celta Vigo
Standard Liege vs. Ajax
Inter Milan vs. Sparta Prague
Southampton vs. Hapoel Be’er Sheva
RB Salzburg vs. Schalke
Nice vs. Krasnodar

Bob Bradley will remain in charge, says Swansea chairman

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With reports circulating in the British press that American coach Bob Bradley could be fired after just seven games in charge of Swansea City, their chairman has publicly backed the former U.S. national team head coach.

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Bradley, 58, has just one win in his opening seven games in charge of the Swans who currently sit bottom of the Premier League table on nine points, three points off safety.

That poor form, coupled with many other issues at the club, has reportedly prompted new American owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien (they took over as majority owners in July) to conduct an extensive review of every department at the club.

However, chairman Huw Jenkins has moved to quell rumors about Bradley becoming the second Swansea manager to be fired through the opening 14 games of the season.

“I don’t know where that story came from, but it’s natural in football that everyone wants and needs results. But the last thing we need at this moment of time is a continual change in manager. We need stability first and foremost,” Jenkins told talkSPORT. “Take a team like Fulham, they changed managers three times in the season they tried to stave off relegation and we’re in a similar position now.”

“Perhaps in the summer I could have made a better decision – from pre-season onwards I don’t think things were right, it was too flat at the club. That had a knock-on effect and obviously it’s taken us a while to work through it. But we’re with Bob now to try and turn that corner – that’s what we’re working towards. We look at the January window as a chance to reinforce things. There are players not hitting the form levels they have done in the past and we have to find out why that is and get that right as well.”

So, it seems that sense is prevailing after all.

Jenkins took the blame for Swansea’s poor start to the season in media interviews on Wednesday and now the long-time chairman is backing his manager.

The south Wales businessman was part of a consortium which saved Swansea in 2004 and then led them on an incredible journey up from the fourth-tier to the Premier League, plus winning the League Cup and getting to the group stages of the Europa League. He and other directors have come in for some serious stick from Swansea’s fans for selling their stake to the new American owners and Jenkins is believed to have made just over $10 million from selling 8.2 percent of his 13.2 percent stake in the club.

On the pitch, it’s difficult to blame Bradley for the current situation Swansea finds itself in.

After some woeful moves in the transfer window last summer (Jenkins has admitted they weren’t great with Ashley Williams and Andre Ayew allowed to leave for big profits but their replacements just haven’t been good enough) the American coach needs at least one transfer window to bring in better players and the Swans are only three points off safety with a pivotal stretch of six games to come in the Premier League.

Home games against Sunderland, West Ham and Bournemouth, plus trips to West Brom, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace will see the Swans go up against direct relegation rivals between now and Jan. 3.

The next four weeks will be huge not only for Swansea’s future but also for Bradley and ahead of their crunch home game against Sunderland on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) the American coach is eager to cut out defensive mistakes as the Swans have now conceded 19 goals in his seven games in charge.

“When you are a manager it (the pressure) goes with the territory,” Bradley said. “It is work as usual, knowing from the beginning when I got here that it would be a big challenge, and it is. When you see a scoreline like that it is easy to jump on us. We are not going to survive if we keep on conceding goals like this.”

Man United’s Europa League clash in doubt over frozen pitch

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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Manchester United and Jose Mourinho may not play their UEFA Europa League game against Zorya Luhansk on Thursday.

[ MORE: Ozil, Sanchez leaving Arsenal? ]

Amid freezing conditions in the Ukrainian city of Odessa (Zorya cannot play their games at home due to the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine) the pitch underwent an inspection on Thursday and with covers and heaters on the playing surface overnight, there is hope the game should go ahead.

However, Jose Mourinho has already talked about the state of the pitch as not being ideal, while the likes of Daley Blind and Paul Pogba looked far from impressed when they went out for a training session on Wednesday in freezing conditions.

Remember, United only needs a point from the game against Zorya to qualify for the Europa League Round of 32 and Mourinho has selected a strong 19-man squad for the trip. 

A statement from Zorya said the following on Thursday morning, as they remain hopeful of the game going ahead.

“Everything depends on the weather. The pitch is not brilliant at the moment. We are expecting temperatures of two or three degrees and everything should be okay.”

Below was the scene in Odessa yesterday for United’s training session, via Simon Peach of the Press Association.


Yep, the pitch doesn’t look great.

Barcelona invites Chapecoense to play friendly

CHAPECO, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 22: Supporters of Chapecoense cheer their team during the match between Chapecoense and Sao Paulo for the Brazilian Series A 2014 at Arena Conda on October 22, 2014 in Chapeco, Brazil. (Photo by Alan Pedro/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has extended an invitation to host a friendly match against the Brazilian soccer club involved in last week’s plane crash.

Chapecoense was on its way to the final of the Copa Sudamericana, one of South America’s most prestigious club tournaments, when its flight went down in Colombia, killing all but six of the 77 players, officials and journalists on board.

The match would be played in August. The friendly, called the Joan Gamper trophy, is used as Barcelona’s traditional curtain raiser for the new season.

Barcelona says it sent a formal invitation to Chapecoense on Thursday.

Barcelona says it wants to “pay homage to the 71 people who died in the accident as well as their families.”