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State of play in European qualifying for 2018 World Cup

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European qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia is at the halfway stage.

[ MORE: UEFA WCQ schedule and preview ]

Here’s the state of play in the nine groups heading into the sixth round of games from Friday to Sunday:

GROUP A

France can increase its lead to six points with a win in Sweden on Friday.

Without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden has less individual threat but a greater sense of teamwork. Still, its defense faces a stern test against a side boosted by a recent 5-0 home win over Paraguay. France striker Olivier Giroud has five goals in his last three internationals.

If Sweden loses, Bulgaria can move up to second place by beating Belarus. The Netherlands, in fourth place, hosts last-place Luxembourg.

GROUP B

Switzerland will be looking for a sixth straight win and to keep ahead of Portugal when it plays at the Faeroe Islands on Friday.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Pepe arrived late to Portugal’s squad following Real Madrid’s win in the Champions League final last weekend, but they should start at next-to-last Latvia.

Portugal, which trails Switzerland by three points, is coming off four straight victories since the opening 2-0 loss against the Swiss.

Last-place Andorra hosts third-place Hungary, which is five points behind Portugal.

GROUP C

World champion Germany should have little difficultly making it six wins from six matches, even though an understrength team will host San Marino in Nuremberg on Saturday.

Germany coach Joachim Loew has given nearly all of his regulars the summer off, but even an unfamiliar looking German lineup should be too much for a microstate with a population more than 100 times smaller than Berlin’s.

The Germans have already scored 20 goals in qualifying, conceding only one.

Germany leads with 15 points. Northern Ireland (10 points), the Czech Republic (8), and Azerbaijan (7) all maintain hopes of the runner-up spot and a possible playoff place.

Azerbaijan hosts Ireland in Baku, and Norway hosts the Czechs in Oslo.

GROUP D

The chances of Gareth Bale playing at the World Cup will reduce even further if Wales loses to Serbia on Sunday in the biggest game in the group.

The Welsh are in third place, four points behind Serbia and Ireland, after drawing four of their first five qualifiers and failing to reproduce their form from last year’s European Championship, where they reached the semifinals.

Ireland hosts Austria, while Moldova hosts Georgia in a game between two teams already out of contention.

GROUP E

Poland striker Robert Lewandowski, who missed out on being the Bundesliga’s top scorer this season, will look to score in his 11th straight European qualifier in a match against Romania in Warsaw on Saturday.

Poland, with 13 points, comfortably leads the group with the others jostling for the runner-up spot, led by Montenegro and Denmark (both with seven points). Romania and Armenia have six.

Denmark, which drew with Germany in a friendly on Tuesday, travels to last-place Kazakhstan, and Montenegro hosts Armenia in Podgorica.

GROUP F

England takes a four-point lead to Scotland for the latest edition of the world’s oldest international rivalry, 145 years after their first meeting.

Now under coach Gareth Southgate, England has dropped only two points in five games and would pile the pressure on under-fire Scotland coach Gordon Strachan with a fifth win in qualifying.

Second-place Slovakia visits Lithuania and Slovenia, a further point back in third, hosts Malta.

GROUP G

Italy hosts last-place Liechtenstein on Sunday with a chance to improve its goal difference and move closer to leader Spain, which plays at Macedonia.

Liechtenstein has conceded 19 goals in five matches, including eight against Spain. Italy and Spain have 13 points each from five matches.

Italy is coming off a 3-0 win over Uruguay in a friendly on Wednesday, while Spain was held by Colombia to a 2-2 draw.

Third-place Israel, which is four points behind the leaders, hosts Albania.

GROUP H

Friday could be a big day for Belgium on the road to Russia.

Following a 2-1 win over the Czech Republic in a friendly this week, Belgium is a huge favorite to beat 98th-ranked Estonia and reinforce first place. It currently has a two-point lead.

At the same time as the game in Tallinn, Belgium’s closest challenger, Greece, will be in Bosnia-Herzegovina in a game that could be vital in the race for second place and a playoff spot.

The third game, Gibraltar against Cyprus, has no impact on the group.

Belgium has such a wealth of talent that winger Eden Hazard‘s absence because of a broken ankle should have no impact on its creative play. If anything, it should allow Yuri Tielemans, recently picked up from Anderlecht by Monaco, to flaunt his skills.

GROUP I

It looks to be a straight fight between Croatia and Iceland for top spot and the countries meet in Reykjavik on Sunday.

Croatia leads Iceland by three points with five games left.

Ukraine and Turkey are two points further back and face away games against Finland and Kosovo, respectively.

What’s next for Julian Green, and what’s gone wrong?

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Julian Green will have a new team again soon, in all likelihood.

A Stuttgart publication says Green is on the transfer market this month, just eight months after moving from Bayern Munich to the then-2.Bundesliga side for less than $500,000.

Now 22, Green is three and a half years removed from Jurgen Klinsmann’s long campaign to get him into a USMNT shirt. It’s been a little less time since he scored in extra time against Belgium in the World Cup, but also less than a year since he scored goals in consecutive USMNT matches. That shouldn’t be overlooked.

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Green scored one goal in 10 appearances for Stuttgart, who was promoted to the Bundesliga at the end of last season. He fell out of favor there, but was far from poor. Green completed 87 percent of his passes and averaged 1.3 dribbles per game (only four teammates had more, though 10 matches is a smaller sample size).

Before that, he spent parts of three seasons with Bayern Munich and made just four appearances, taking a loan to Hamburg in 2014-15 that saw him banished to Hamburg II after just five appearances.

What gives? Whether attitude or skill, Green has a lot of work to do to get back to a level where he’s a reasonable USMNT call-up (Green has a respectable three goals in eight call-ups, netting against Cuba and New Zealand in Oct. 2016). Still, it’s far from over for Green at 22.

There are legit questions here, as the list of not high-profile players Bayern Munich has used in its senior team at a young age and blossomed elsewhere isn’t necessarily impressive (at least relatively speaking). Nils Petersen, Thomas Kraft, and Sandro Wagner are exceptions to the rule. Better put: Bayern has a really good idea what it’s doing when it lets young players walk, and it begs discussion on the best path for Green.

It seems likely he could get a move to another 2.Bundesliga club, and there’s an outside shot he could get a look in the top flight. It would be interesting to know where the interest lies abroad. Would it be hard to acquire a work permit for France or Spain (England seems a hard sell)? Could a move to a free-flowing Eredivisie club work?

Obviously Major League Soccer clubs would welcome his talent and it’s difficult to imagine he wouldn’t be a useful piece in the United States’ top tier, even if on a short-term move as he looks to regain confidence. Would Green see it as below him?

Arsenal’s Wilshere sent-off after brawling in U-23 match vs. Man City

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Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere isn’t standing around waiting for his next team, he’s fighting.

Period.

Wilshere got into with several members of Manchester City’s U-23 side in a match on Monday, with the English midfielder taking exception to a hockey-style hip check from City’s Matthew Smith.

[ MORE: Man City 1-1 Everton | 3 things ]

Shoving the 17-year-old Smith, Wilshere saw the City man take a tumble and stay prone. Still riled up, Wilshere tangled with City’s Tyreke Wilson.

Wilshere and Wilson were sent off.

Given his injury history, we’re not surprised Wilshere took exception to a hard and needless foul in a U-23 match.

The Arsenal man has been linked with moves to Newcastle, West Ham, AC Milan, and Sampdoria, but Arsene Wenger wants to keep Wilshere at the Emirates Stadium.

Report: PSG to dodge FFP by signing Mbappe on loan, sending Moura to Monaco

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Paris Saint-Germain’s fight to win a UEFA Champions League will receive a major boost from its main Ligue 1 rivals.

Reigning champions AS Monaco have been frustrated by phenomenal and combative forward Kylian Mbappe seeking a move to join Neymar at PSG. Mbappe was reportedly kicked out of Monaco training this week.

That move is very difficult for PSG to pull off thanks to Financial Fair Play; Les Parisiens spent more than $260 million to sign Neymar from Barcelona.

[ MORE: Man City 1-1 Everton | 3 things ]

The way around it? Sky Sports says Monaco will reportedly loan Mbappe to PSG with an agreement to sell the 18-year-old striker permanently after this season. PSG midfielder Lucas Moura would go the other way for this season.

If that rings a bit hollow to those who’d like to see FFP work against massive clubs stockpiling talent, it should; This is hardly any different from spending all the money in one window when considering that Mbappe would join Neymar and Edinson Cavani effective this season.

Incredibly, Sky also has the notion that PSG will bring Fabinho to the Parc des Princes (Yes, from Monaco).

If Mbappe ends up in Paris — forget Fabinho for a second — PSG would be favored to get past its UCL quarterfinals blockade (Les Parisiens were eliminated in the Round of 16 last season by Barcelona after four-straight quarterfinal ousters).

UEFA Champions League playoffs: Differing levels of comfort

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Only one of 20 playoff-contending clubs has a strong foot in the UEFA Champions League group stage with 10 second legs set for this week.

That’s Scottish champions Celtic, who took a 5-0 lead for manager Brendan Rodgers last week at Celtic Park and heads to the capital of Kazakhstan for a Tuesday date with Astana.

[ MORE: Man City 1-1 Everton | 3 things ]

As for the rest, there are varying levels of comfort. Napoli leads Nice 2-0 and didn’t concede an away goal to the French side, so the Serie A side has to feel pretty good. Liverpool edged Hoffenheim 2-1 in Germany and brings two goals home to Anfield. That, too, is confident footing.

Steaua Bucharest and Sporting CP are the only sides level, scoreless after a match in Portugal.

But Olympiacos is in Croatia and a goal away from being on the wrong foot after a 2-1 win at home to Rijeka, and Hapoel Be’er Sheva has the same situation in Slovenia against Maribor.

At risk? Three high-profile away trips and the same number of group stage home paydays. The losers drop into the Europa League group stage.

Tuesday
All matches at 2:45 p.m. ET unless noted

Astana vs. Celtic (Celtic leads 5-0) — 11:30 a.m. ET
Rijeka vs. Olympiacos (Olympiacos leads 2-1)
Nice vs. Napoli (Napoli leads 2-0)
Sevilla vs. Istanbul Basaksehir (Sevilla leads 2-1)
Maribor vs. Hapoel Be’er Sheva (Hapoel leads 2-1)

Wednesday
All matches at 2:45 p.m. ET

Copenhagen vs. Qarabag (Qarabag leads 1-0)
CSKA Moscow vs. Young Boys (CSKA leads 1-0)
Slavia Prague vs. Apoel Nicosia (Apoel leads 2-0)
Liverpool vs. Hoffenheim (Liverpool leads 2-1)
Steaua Bucharest vs. Sporting CP (First leg 0-0)