Getty Images

World Cup qualifying: State of play in Europe

Leave a comment

With four rounds of qualifying remaining, all 13 European slots for the World Cup are still up for grabs. The picture should become clearer over the next week, with Germany able to secure its place at next year’s tournament in Russia.

The nine group winners qualify automatically. The worst runner-up will be eliminated, but the other eight second-place teams enter a playoff round in November with the four winners qualifying for the World Cup.

Here is the state of play in the groups:


After being in comfortable control of Group A, France is now in a more precarious position going into Thursday’s game against the Netherlands.

A comical error by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris gifted Sweden a 2-1 win in the last round, giving the Swedes 13 points at the top of the group alongside France and leaving the Dutch within striking distance.

A win for the Netherlands at Stade de France will move it level with European Championship runner-up France, and turn the group it into a three-way scrap with three matches remaining.

Sweden will be hoping France loses or draws but faces a tough trip of its own to Bulgaria, which can maintain its slim chances of qualifying with a win.

Last-place Luxembourg hosts struggling Belarus in the other game.


Switzerland has a perfect six-win record at the top of the group, while Portugal has won five straight since an opening 2-0 loss to the Swiss and has a much better goal difference. An Oct. 10 showdown in Lisbon will likely decide which team wins the group and which must go through the playoff round.

Until then, the No. 4-ranked Swiss host Andorra on Thursday and play at Latvia on Sunday.

European champion Portugal hosts the Faeroe Islands and travels to Hungary, which has slumped since reaching the last 16 at Euro 2016.


World Cup champion Germany, one of two countries to win its opening six qualifying games, looks unstoppable and could qualify over the next week.

If the Germans beat the Czech Republic on Friday, they will be guaranteed first place with a home win over Norway on Monday and if second-place Northern Ireland fails to beat the Czechs on the same night.

Germany has scored more goals (27) and conceded fewer (1) than any other country in European qualifying.

Northern Ireland, which last appeared at a World Cup in 1986, could close in on at least a playoff place by beating San Marino on Friday. The Czech Republic is in third place, four points behind the Northern Irish with four games left.


With the top four teams – Serbia, Ireland, Wales and Austria – separated by four points, there is still everything to play for in a group that looked difficult to predict from the outset.

Serbia is ahead of Ireland on goal difference, and they play each other in Dublin on Monday. Before then, Serbia hosts Moldova and Ireland is at Georgia on Friday.

Wales and Austria are even on points in third and fourth place, four points behind their rivals, and meet in Cardiff on Saturday. Whichever team loses will likely be out of realistic contention for a top-two finish.

Wales, which reached the semifinals of the European Championship last year and has Gareth Bale back from suspension, has drawn five of its six qualifiers.


Poland is closing in on securing a spot in the top-seeded pot at the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 in Moscow.

Robert Lewandowski has scored 11 goals in qualifying – tied with Cristiano Ronaldo for most in the European zone – and Poland is six points ahead of second-place Montenegro. Poland plays Friday at third-place Denmark, and hosts Kazakhstan three days later.

Montenegro travels to play the winless Kazakhs before hosting Romania.

Denmark is level on points with Montenegro and needs to take three points from Armenia on Monday.


It has been an unconvincing qualifying campaign by England, which played one game under Sam Allardyce and subsequently Gareth Southgate. Yet the group favorites remain unbeaten and have won four of their six games to lead the group by two points.

A potentially defining match comes on Monday, when second-place Slovakia visits Wembley Stadium. A win for the English would bring the team close to a spot in Russia.

England will prepare for that match by playing last-place Malta on Friday, when Slovakia hosts Slovenia in Trnava. Slovenia is in third place, three points behind England.

It is England’s first round of internationals since Wayne Rooney, the country’s record scorer, retired from international duty. Although the striker had been dropped for recent matches, Southgate still wanted the experienced Rooney back in the squad for the upcoming qualifiers.


Spain and Italy meet in one of the most-anticipated games in European qualifying, with the winner moving into good position to qualify. Both teams have five wins in addition to the draw between them last year in Turin.

There will be only three games left for each of the teams after they meet Saturday at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, all against the group’s weaker teams.

Since only the group winner automatically qualifies, the winner of Saturday’s match will be set to make it to Russia without having to go through a playoff.


Belgium is on a smooth passage to the World Cup, which could get even smoother if the group leaders can complete the next week with victories over last-place Gibraltar and Greece. But the Greeks, four points behind in second place, are the only team to take points off Belgium so far by drawing 1-1 in March.

If Greece beats Estonia on Thursday and then secures a victory over Belgium on Sunday, the pursuit of first place would be wide open going in the final two rounds of matches in October.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is challenging for second place, a point behind Greece. Both of their meetings have been draws. The toughest game remaining for the Bosnians is against Belgium next month after trips to Cyprus and Gibraltar in the coming days.


The tightest European group, toughest to predict and most likely to make news off the field has Croatia, Iceland, Turkey and Ukraine all separated by only two points.

Third-place Turkey has the biggest week ahead, playing at Ukraine and on Saturday and hosting first-place Croatia on Tuesday.

Iceland has kept momentum from its inspiring run to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals and travels to Finland before hosting Ukraine. Croatia has a solid goal difference advantage over second-place Iceland and should solidify its group lead Friday against visiting Kosovo in Zagreb.

More AP World Cup coverage:

AP Sports Writers Tales Azzoni, Steve Douglas, Graham Dunbar, Rob Harris and Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.

$280m? Who cares? Salah is the rare “unsellable” player

Leave a comment

The gossip reports are out there, with lofty claims that Real Madrid and Barcelona are willing to pay as much as $280 million dollars for Mohamed Salah.

Normally that figure triggers something in my brain that screams, “Sell! Sell! Sell before they realize what they’ve offered!”

[ MORE: Best PL summer buys ]

That’s not happening with Mohamed Salah.

This isn’t an inflated fee for a young English player like Ross Barkley or John Stones, nor is it a club throwing a lofty and desperate figure at a very good but supremely overvalued player like Philippe Coutinho. Even Raheem Sterling, who I advocated selling, has proven replaceable.

In the case of Salah, his Golden Boot figure is likely to dwarf any in the Premier League era. He’s at 28, three behind Luis Suarez’s 31. Cristiano Ronaldo has bagged 31 once Alan Shearer and Andy Cole hold the modern record with 34.

Salah needs six to tie Shearer. Here’s Liverpool’s run-in: Crystal Palace (A), Everton (A), Bournemouth (H), West Brom (A), Stoke City (H), Chelsea (A), Brighton and Hove Albion (H).

Five of those teams absolutely hemorrhage goals. Would you bet against Salah?

By the way, Salah has 10 assists, too. Sure Jurgen Klopp deserves credit for buying and deploying the Egyptian wizard, but

When Klopp argued that Liverpool was not a selling club, this is the exact example to follow. Selling Coutinho — again, not trying to poke the bear that is ornery overvaluing fan — is fine in a world where your club has Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, and Mohamed Salah

But selling one of Europe’s leading scorers is almost never okay for a club challenging for a Champions League crown and with the clear caliber of a Premier League title hunter.

I’d argue that for this club, one who has sold Coutinho and Suarez, there is not a fee that meets Salah straight-on.  He’s 25 and living in the air just below Lionel Messi and Neymar.

The Messi comparisons I keep reading are fun but still unbelievably premature by every stretch of the imagination. By the time Messi was Salah’s age he had league seasons of 34, 31, 50, and was en route to a 46-goal mark. He posted 68 combined assists over those four seasons.

If this is somehow an aberration, and Salah cannot find this form ever again, well, that’s bad luck and a risk worth its weight in standard setting.

There is not a replacement player.

There is no fee.

Say it again now.

Dangerous playmaker Silva joins Montreal Impact (video)

Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images

Alejandro Silva’s got a creative mind, and that’s something Montreal will welcome with open arms.

The Uruguayan signed with the Impact this week, joining Ignacio Piatti and Saphir Taider as playmakers in Quebec.

[ MORE: Top PL summer buys ]

Silva, 28, is a right-sided and forward-playing Argentine who can also play right back if necessary.

The Impact lost two of three to start the season, winning this weekend’s 401 Derby versus Toronto FC to put a number in the win column.

Lanus has been a fertile ground for Major League Soccer clubs in recent years, with Lucas Melano (Portland Timbers) and Miguel Almiron (Atlanta United) making the move to North America.

The South American club has also sent Gustavo Gomez to AC Milan and Oscar Benitez to Benfica.

Kante squashes PSG rumors: “I am at home” with Chelsea

AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
Leave a comment

At least one and erhaps two big Premier League clubs are going to finish outside of the UEFA Champions League this year.

As it stands now, those clubs are Arsenal and Chelsea. The former could still seal a spot in the UCL via winning the Europa League but Chelsea needs wins and help from the field to find a way into the fray.

[ MORE: Best PL summer buys ]

An absence for either side will send UCL-bound vultures over the rosters of the failed clubs, hoping to woo the best players with Champions League dreams.

N'Golo Kante has been a name bandied about as a potential departure should Chelsea miss its mark, with the French star mentioned as high atop Paris Saint-Germain’s wish list.

The midfielder, who turns 27 at the end of the month, has moved to squash those rumors (from The London Evening Standard):

“I am at home. It is my club, I am a Chelsea player.

“We will fight until the end to finish in the top four and to get in a Champions League position. We also have the FA Cup to play for – it is a good competition. Last season we failed in the final. It is the only trophy we can win this season, so we have to give everything to get to the final and win it.”

That’s good, because we’re looking forward to seeing what a midfield with Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko could do with an offseason together.

Yet is there anyone out there doubting Kante’s intentions?

Who’ve been the most impactful Premier League summer buys?

Leave a comment

It’s been a heck of a season for Premier League transfer buys, and that includes a bevy of intra-league purchases.

So who’ve been the best imports? Probably a safe bet to set some parameters.

[ MORE: Alonso, Pedro have Morata’s back ]

We won’t count players like Aaron Mooy, who’s Huddersfield Town purchase was formalized after a loan, or those who returned from loan like Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen or Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere.

We’ll also opt against a couple Chelsea loanees signings, if just to whittle our list. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was magnificent before a long-term injury at Palace, and Kurt Zouma probably just sits beyond the Top Ten.

Mainz loanee Jonas Lossl of Huddersfield Town fits the bill, too. And for injuries: Who knows how high  Benjamin Mendy would’ve surged up this list?

Stats culled from WhoScored and Squawka.

Honorable mention – Antonio Rudiger, Mario Lemina, Richarlison, Alexandre Lacazette, Mat Ryan, Bernardo Silva, Steve MounieKyle Walker, Alvaro Morata, Florian Lejeune.

10. Jordan Pickford, Everton — Under siege at Sunderland for most of last season, Pickford probably expected smoother sailing than this: the Everton backstop has been forced into making the most saves in the Premier League (95). Fifty-four of those required him to dive. Only four teams have allowed more goals than Everton, which explains why some of you might be scratching your head at his inclusion.

9. James Tomkins, Crystal Palace — I thought the signing was silly, but Tomkins is nearly unrivaled in terms of interceptions per game in league play. Palace hasn’t been a defensive powerhouse, but his former club West Ham looks terrible since he moved across London.

8. Davinson Sanchez, Tottenham Hotspur – There have been bumps along the way — Sanchez is 21 — but he’s blessed with the speed to make up for his and others mistakes. A fine passer, Mauricio Pochettino should only further benefit from his career progression.

7. Ahmed Hegazi, West Bromwich Albion — Hegazi’s 2757 minutes played are the most amongst field players in the Premier League (though Alfie Mawson, Harry Maguire, Jack Cork, and Lewis Dunk could pass him by playing more than an hour in their match-in-hand).

6. Harry Maguire, Leicester City — The Foxes badly needed to lower the age of their center back corps, and can count their purchase of Maguire from Hull City as a coup. Perhaps no player other than Wilfred Ndidi has been as influential for Claude Puel‘s bunch.

5. Romelu Lukaku, Manchester United — Lukaku started dispelling myths about his production versus big teams when he was one of the lone stars in United’s Super Cup loss to Real Madrid. While he’s been up-and-down in terms of goals in said contests, his hold-up play and work ethic have been better than expected. His 21 key moments (14 goals, seven assists) are even with Roberto Firmino and trail only Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero, and Leroy Sane. Anthony Martial is the closest United comparison, and he has 14. Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard have 12.

4. Pascal Gross, Brighton and Hove Albion — The Ingolstadt transfer’s promise was quickly realized, and he’s posted five goals and eight assists. On a team with the fourth-lowest goal total in the league, that’s impressive. The only players with more PL assists: De Bruyne, Sane, Dele, David Silva, Salah, Pogba. Gross also ranks third in the league in crosses per game.

3. Nemanja Matic, Manchester United — It’s hard to fin the numbers to meet the eye test, but Matic flat out makes his team better. Maybe it’s organization, maybe it’s toughness, but there’s little doubt United is better in the middle of the park while former club Chelsea has struggled to find the same form since he skipped town. Advantage: Mou.

2. Ederson, Manchester City — Look only to last season’s status of City net minders to know how important the sweeper-style passing keeper is to Pep Guardiola‘s side. The Brazilian has pushed himself into competition for the starting gig at one of the World Cup favorites.

1. Mohamed Salah, Liverpool —  There is no other answer here, and Harry Kane’s injury essentially gift wraps the Golden Boot to the Egyptian. There was a question as to whether he’d bring his Serie A flourish over to England, and that seems absurd now.