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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.

Mourinho on Conte feud, facing Chelsea again

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Jose Mourinho will meet Chelsea once again on Sunday as the Manchester United manager welcomes his former club to Old Trafford (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Mourinho, 55, has been involved in a public spat with Antonio Conte in recent months but the Portuguese refused to dredge up any more abuse for the current Chelsea manager ahead of this crucial top four clash.

The duo traded insults earlier this year as Mourinho suggested Conte and other managerial rivals “acted like clowns” on the sidelines, while Conte said Mourinho perhaps had “demenza senile” and Mourinho hit back with a quip about Conte’s four-month ban for not reporting alleged match-fixing in Italy. The spat ended when Conte said Mourinho was a “little man” and “fake” and said he would not forget the comments.

“The real meaning [of this game] is two of the best teams in England, two of the biggest clubs, are playing a match,” Mourinho said when asked about Conte.

Mourinho has lost three of the four games he’s played against Chelsea since he became United’s manager and in the first defeat, a 4-0 hammering in the league in October 2016, he reacted angrily to overzealous celebrations from Conte on the sidelines.

Speaking to the media about Chelsea, Mourinho played down any sentimental feelings he has for the club he led to three Premier League titles over two spells in charge.

“To play against Chelsea will mean less and less and less with the years,” Mourinho said. “So of course I left already a couple of years ago, and next season [it will be] three years ago, so step by step that feeling of: ‘I was the Chelsea manager’ or ‘I was their manager’ for them I think disappears. I have a good relation with the [Chelsea] board.

“I don’t forget how nice they were to me in a difficult period with the departure of my father. They show me in that moment they feel me as a friend that did his best for the club and always respects the club. So the board know the relation with me is always good. With the players, I don’t have any problem, any regret, any stone on my shoes, no problem at all. And the fans are fans. With many of them in the street I feel that empathy and that relation that normally should be a connection and feeling forever. When I play at Stamford Bridge some reactions from the fans are just reactions.”

Mourinho is still admired and thanked by the vast majority of Chelsea’s fanbase but there is always going to be a small contingent who hurl abuse at Mourinho simply because he isn’t their manager anymore.

Since he was fired as their boss in December 2015, the “Special One” has been complimentary of his time at Chelsea but when he managed United in 2016 at Stamford Bridge, he wasn’t subjected to chants of “you’re not special anymore!” from the home fans, to which he held up three fingers to signify how many league titles he delivered.

Mourinho isn’t talking about his spat with Conte ahead of this game, but let’s see how things play out on Sunday. If Chelsea stroll into Old Trafford and win to throw United’s top four hopes into doubt, Mourinho will likely come out swinging.

Watch Live: Leicester City v. Stoke City

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Leicester City host Stoke City on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com) at the King Power Stadium.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

Leicester currently sit in eighth place in the Premier League table and have one eye on finishing in the top six, while Stoke are second from bottom in the table but are just six points from the top 10.

In team news Leicester start Riyad Mahrez with Demarai Gray and Marc Albrighton in an attacking lineup, while Stoke bring in USMNT man Geoff Cameron in midfield with Stafyldis and Martins Indi coming into defense.

LINEUPS

Leicester City: Schmeichel, Simpson, Maguire, Morgan, Chilwell, Ndidi, James, Mahrez, Albrighton, Gray, Vardy. Subs: Jakupovic, Dragovic, Fuchs, Iborra, Silva, Diabate, Iheanacho.

Stoke City: Butland; Bauer, Martins Indi, Zouma, Stafyldis; Cameron, Badou, Allen; Shaqiri, Choupo-Moting; Diouf. Subs: Grant, Pieters, Jese, Johnson, Adam, Ramadan, Campbell

“This game belongs to the players” Wenger downplays Guardiola success

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Arsene Wenger has stressed that Pep Guardiola has not changed the game of soccer over the last decade or so, maintaining that the players are the ones who make a team truly great.

Asked if Guardiola has “raised the bar” of managing in his time at the top, Wenger said, “No, because you look at Barcelona and they are still the best team in Europe. You have to accept that the modern game has changed with the recruitment of the best players in a short number of clubs.”

[ MORE: EFL Cup final preview ]

“We, as managers, can maybe impart our philosophy but this game belongs to the players because the importance of the players has become bigger than ever before.”

In fact, Wenger showed a twinge of jealousy at all the attention Guardiola is getting with the team blowing out the rest of the Premier League this season, referencing trophies in the recent past Arsenal has hoisted. “We are maybe underdogs but we have to believe in our quality. The history, the fact we have done it before, shows why not do it again?”

“At the end of the day, you have to be cool,” Wenger said, “because Manchester City is dominating the league in the head of everybody and so maybe we are more underdogs than in the FA Cup semi-final [last season when Arsenal beat Man City].”

Deportivo wastes penalty kick, remains winless under Seedorf

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MADRID (AP) — Clarence Seedorf remained winless as Deportivo La Coruna coach after a 0-0 draw with Espanyol in the Spanish league on Friday.

Deportivo squandered chances including a second-half penalty kick taken by Lucas Perez. Its winless streak reached 10 games in all competitions.

It was the third game in a row without a victory since Seedorf took over to try to avoid relegation. Deportivo was 18th in the 20-team standings, in the relegation zone.

In addition to the missed penalty, Deportivo twice hit the posts in front of a supportive crowd at Riazor Stadium. The players left the field applauded by the local fans despite the setback.

Perez’s penalty attempt was saved by Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez in the 65th minute. Lopez, who earlier this season stopped a penalty taken by Lionel Messi, dived to his right to stop Perez’s low shot.

The match marked the Deportivo debut of veteran Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari. He played alongside Seedorf at AC Milan, and was signed this week after a trial period.

Espanyol, 15th in the standings, hasn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol’s last league win was in January, seven rounds ago.

Barcelona defends its seven-point lead in the standings when it hosts Girona on Saturday. Second-place Atletico Madrid visits Sevilla on Sunday.