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UEFA WCQ roundup: Spain, Italy battle on; Iceland catch Croatia

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in 2018 World Cup qualifying around Europe…

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Macedonia 1-2 Spain

When the groups were drawn, Group G was only going to be like this: Spain and Italy would duke it out for the automatic qualification place, and the runners-up would head to the qualification playoff where they would presumably roll right into next summer’s World Cup in Russia. After six of 10 games, it’s safe to say everyone was spot-on with their prognostications. Each on 16 points (Spain ahead on goal differential, +18 to +14), the next closest hopefuls are Albania and Israel, on nine points apiece.

Sunday’s win over Macedonia, which La Furia Roja only just held onto after going up 2-0 early on, was enough to keep Julen Lopetegui’s side ahead of the Italians, though their goal differential advantage was reduced considerably. David Silva (15th minute) and Diego Costa (27th) got the goals to set up what will likely be the group-deciding game next time out, in September: Spain hosting Italy.

Italy 5-0 Liechtenstein

Five goals, scored by five different goalscorers, helped Italy gain a fair bit of ground on Spain — from a +9 goal differential, to +14.

Lorenzo Insigne (35th minute) Andrea Belotti (52nd), Eder (74th), Federico Bernardeschi (83rd) and Manolo Gabbiadini (90th) got the goals to hand the Azzurri their most comfortable victory this round of qualifying thus far (they beat Liechtenstein 4-0 in their first meeting).

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

Iceland 1-0 Croatia

Following Iceland’s 90th-minute winner over group-leading Croatia, the Group I standings currently read as follows: Croatia (13 points), Iceland (13), Turkey (11), Ukraine (11). With four games still to play, two of the four will likely crack the 15-point plateau, and fail to even qualify for the playoff.

Sunday’s game looked to be headed for a scoreless draw, until Bristol City defender Hoerdur Magnusson headed Strakarnir okkar (Our boys) into the lead in the final minute of regular time.

Kosovo 1-4 Turkey

Turkey, like Iceland and Ukraine, used Croatia’s slip-up to creep closer to the summit, as Ay-Yıldızlılar (The Crescent-Stars) put four past Kosovo away from home.

Volkan Sen opened the scoring after just seven minutes, but the home side drew level 15 minutes later, though Amir Rrahmani. The level scoreline was short-lived, though, as 19-year-old Cengiz Under put Turkey back ahead just after the half-hour mark. It remained 2-1 until the hour mark, when Burak Yilmaz bagged his 22nd career international goal to move level with former Middlesbrough and Stoke City striker Tuncay Sanli as the second-most prolific scorer in Turkish history. 22-year-old Ozan Tufan completed the scoring on 82 minutes, and Turkey moved to within two points of the top of Group I.

Elsewhere in UEFA WCQ

Group D

Moldova 2-2 Georgia
Ireland 1-1 Austria
Serbia 1-1 Wales

Group G

Israel 0-3 Albania

Group I

Finland 1-2 Ukraine

Key newcomers for USMNT friendly

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While the excitement potential is high amongst big club USMNT call-ups like PSG’s Tim Weah and Everton’s Antonee Robinson, there are several other relative newcomers who are facing a more acute focus.

So yes, of course, we’re most excited to see the young guns fire away, but a few others will be under the microscope for different reasons.

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Paraguay is leaving some big names behind — Dario Lezcano, Jesus Medina, Edgar Benítez — but won’t be using as “B” or “C” of a squad as the USMNT. Key defenders Junior Alonso (Lille) and Gustavo Gomez (AC Milan) will be staring down the U.S. attack, while Atlanta United star Miguel Almiron will try his luck against the Yanks’ backs.

  1. The goalkeepers — With full respect to Bill Hamid and his five caps, the trio of backstops who could play against Paraguay are unknown entities on the senior international level. There are reasons to be excited about Alex Bono (Toronto FC) and Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew) going against Los Guaraníes — and Hamid, too — and standing behind a young and untested group of center backs should give plenty of chances to make a name for whoever is chosen (If Sarachan is more “woke” this go-round, it’ll be multiple keepers).
  2. Andriya Novakovich — The Telstar striker is checking all the boxes: 6-foot-4, productive on the youth level, and now succeeding overseas. The 21-year-old has 17 goals on loan from Reading in the Dutch second tier. While that’s far from a “Woah” figure considering the top-tier in the Netherlands isn’t exactly a defensive hot bed, it’s intriguing for Tuesday in North Carolina.
  3. Rubio Rubin — We’re hopeful Sarachan goes with a 4-4-2, which would allow both Rubin and Novakovich to get runs next to Bobby Wood. Rubin is seeing some time at Liga MX side Club Tijuana after his European adventure stalled following a hot start for Utrecht. He had an assist in CONCACAF Champions League play against Red Bulls this month.
  4. Tyler Adams — Speaking of that match, the Red Bulls got a goal from Adams. It’s fair to say he’s got the chance to be as special a player as Schalke youngster Weston McKennie (and would apparently like to join his USMNT teammate overseas). Adams and McKennie together could legit be an engine room for years. Will that begin on Tuesday?
  5. Cameron Carter-Vickers — The 20-year-old center back has shown resilience in England. His hot start to life at Sheffield United, on loan from Tottenham, cooled enough to have him sent back to North London, but Carter-Vickers has rebounded to become a key part of Ipswich Town’s back line. With 22-year-old Matt Miazga the only clear center back on the roster and older than him, CCV can quiet a lot of doubters.
  6. Kenny Saief — This guy has excited at nearly every turn since bursting onto the scene with Gent via the Israeli national team, and an injury cost him some momentum with the USMNT. Now healthy and on loan with Anderlecht, the same side which refined the fire of Sacha Kljestan, the once-capped Florida-born man is as intriguing as ever.

Season strugglers: Some ignominious PL performances

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Tuesday found us breaking ties on our “Most Impactful Premier League Summer Buys” rankings by digging through some advanced statistics sites.

In doing so, something struck us: We rarely if ever check out which players are faring the worst when it comes to those next level numbers.

Ah, the international break: Good for off-the-wall posts.

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At the risk of kicking a player while he’s down, here are some negative numbers that stand out from the pack.

Of the 358 players who’ve played at least 10 Premier League matches, Joe Hart is having the worst season of the bunch according to Squawka. That’s a bit misleading due to how the site’s metrics operate, considering eight of the bottom 20 players are goalkeepers (and several, like Jonas Lossl and Jordan Pickford, are having outstanding campaigns).

So the unfortunate honor goes to Swansea defender Martin Olsson, who edges James McClean of West Brom for the infamy. Since the site does heap numbers on players by action accumulated, perhaps it’s better to single out the per-game and per-90 strugglers. Olsson and McClean are still very much near the bottom, but surprisingly Yannick Bolasie is the worst per game, and Swansea’s Wayne Routledge is having the least effective season per 90 minutes.

As for WhoScored, its metrics are hammering forwards, with Lys Mousset, Andre Gray, and Benik Afobe at the back of the back (ahead of McClean, again, who is a multi-site struggler).

These stats aren’t perfect, of course, and I like the idea of having McClean on my squad. But there are some other odds stats in the pack.

 These players might want to pass their next opportunity to the keeper. Of players with 10 or more shot attempts this season, Adam Lallana (11), Renato Sanches (12), Lewis Cook (14), and Dale Stephens (15) have failed to put a single shot on target.

— Of the 81 players who’ve tried their luck 30 times or more, these are the worst accuracy rates

— For perspective, Harry Kane has put 56 percent of his league-leading 162 shots on target, while second place man Mohamed Salah is 61 percent of 118.

— Defensive errors also can be increased significantly by the times a player is put under pressure by his team, which is why goalkeepers are high on Squawka’s list. Take them out, and you get a list with Spurs’ Eric Dier up top. Two of his six errors have led to goals against Tottenham, with Zanka (Huddersfield Town), Alfie Mawson (Swans), Andreas Christensen (Chelsea), and Shane Duffy (Brighton) next with four errors.

Xabi Alonso denies Spanish accusations of tax fraud

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The list of players pursued by Spanish authorities crying tax fraud is starting to resemble a pretty good team,

Call it The Longest Yard: La Liga.

[ MORE: Alonso, Pedro support Morata ]

Xabi Alonso is being accused of not paying taxes on his image rights while a player at Real Madrid, joining Radamel Falcao, Neymar, Lionel Messi, Luka Modric, and Cristiano Ronaldo as World XI-caliber players who’ve faced legal troubles in Spain.

Jose Mourinho even had to travel to Spain earlier this season to face accusations from a Spanish court. Those found guilty have found punishment other than jail time.

Alonso denies any wrongdoing, according to Sky Sports:

Prosecutors say he defrauded the Spanish state of £1.75m between 2010 and 2012 and called for the same sentence to be applied to Alonso’s financial advisor Ivan Zaldua Azcuenaga and the administrator of consultancy shell company, Ignasi Maestre Casanova.

Iraq hosts friendly tournament after 3-decade FIFA ban

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BAGHDAD (AP) Iraq is hosting a friendly soccer tournament this week, with Syria and Qatar.

It comes just days after FIFA lifted a three-decade-long ban on Iraq hosting international competitions.

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An Iraq-Qatar match is to start Wednesday evening in the southern city of Basra.

FIFA lifted the ban on Monday for Iraqi cities of Basra, Karbala and Irbil, considered to be the safest in Iraq – but not the capital, Baghdad, which still sees frequent militant attacks.

Iraq’s minister of youth and sports, Abdul-Hussein Abtan, congratulated the Iraqi people following FIFA’s move and said it would change how Iraq is viewed in the region and beyond.

While the ban was in place, Iraq was still able to host friendly games and tournaments.