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World Cup qualifying: State of play in Europe

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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:

GROUP A

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.

GROUP B

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.

GROUP C

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.

GROUP D

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.

GROUP E

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.

GROUP F

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.

GROUP G

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.

GROUP H

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.

GROUP I

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: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

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

Source: MLS rejected deal that would’ve brought Ousted to LA Galaxy

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TAM has become a great discussion in Major League Soccer, allowing teams to acquire more top-caliber players, but it appears in one instance the mechanism could actually hurt a player’s chances of being re-signed.

[ MORE: LAFC close to signing third DP, Portuguese midfielder Geraldes ]

Pro Soccer Talk has learned through an MLS league source familiar with the situation that the LA Galaxy had a deal in place to acquire Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted using Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), however, the league rejected that offer.

The 32-year-old took to Twitter on Friday, stating that a total of three teams offered him a contract using TAM, however, none of them were able to be executed.

It was announced back on Nov. 7 that Ousted would not return to the Whitecaps for the 2018 season, after spending nearly four-and-a-half years with the Canadian side.

Additionally, Ousted was scheduled to be one of the players eligible to be selected in Friday’s MLS Stage 1 Re-Entry Draft, but he has since been “forced to opt out.”

There are several ways a player can qualify to participate in the first stage of the Re-Entry Draft, and with Ousted having played over three MLS seasons and being over the age of 23, that previously ruled him eligible.

Under MLS’ current TAM rules and regulations, Ousted would have had to have been making at least $480,625 in 2017 in order for the veteran goalkeeper to qualify for a TAM offer.

That number is scheduled to increase for the next season, with the maximum budget charge set at $504,375 in 2018.

Ousted was only making roughly $378,933 in 2017, with a base salary of $360,000, per the MLS Players’ Union website.

In order for an MLS club to sign Ousted at this stage would require them to go above and beyond his option for next season, which as the goalkeeper states in his second tweet would be a “gamble.”

Below are the ways MLS has declared it possible for clubs to use TAM in order to sign or re-sign players.

Prince William’s dilemma: Royal Wedding clashes with FA Cup final

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The date for the Royal Wedding between Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle has been set and there’s a bit of a dilemma for Prince William: it’s on the same day as the 2017-18 FA Cup final on May 19, 2018.

Why does that matter?

William has been the president of the English Football Association for the last 10 years and he, along with other members of the Royal Family, usually attend the showpiece final at Wembley and hand out the trophy to the winning team.

Not this time.

With the date confirmed on Friday for the Royal Wedding takes place at Windsor Castle on May 19, specific times have yet been announced for the ceremony. Could that mean a late dash from the wedding to hand out the trophy at Wembley for Prince William? If his beloved Aston Villa make the final, maybe it’s not out of the question…

In a statement to the BBC, the FA had the following to say about the “fixture clash” in May:

“Everyone at The FA is delighted for HRH Prince Harry and Megan Markle with the announcement of their wedding at Windsor Castle next year. Saturday May 19 promises to be a wonderful day with a special royal occasion followed by English football’s showpiece event, the Emirates FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium. With millions coming together to watch both events at home and around the world, it will be a day to celebrate.”

The life of a royal isn’t all fun and games…

Guardiola eyes January deals after winning Manager of Month

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Scary news: Manchester City are looking to improve in the January transfer window.

Pep Guardiola confirmed on Friday that Premier League leaders Man City will look to buy a new central defender in January.

City, currently on a record-breaking 15-game winning run and sitting 11 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, have Nicolas Otamendi, Vincent Kompany, Eliaquim Mangala and John Stones as their center backs, but both Stones and Kompany have been out injured recently.

Speaking to the media ahead of City’s clash with Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com), Guardiola revealed he is keen to add defensive reinforcements.

“We speak about (January signings) with the club and Txiki Begiristain (the club’s director of football),” Guardiola said. “We have just three guys in central defense. We don’t want to sign someone for a few months. We want to sign them for years and we have to make sure it’s the right guy.”

Who could come in?

Virgil Van Dijk and Jonny Evans were both linked with moves to Man City in the summer and it is an area of the pitch City clearly want to add in. Southampton have said that van Dijk will not be leaving this season but if a massive offer arrives in January then it may be tough for the struggling Saints to turn it down this time after VVD wanted to push through a move to Liverpool in the summer.

As for Evans, he is playing week in, week out at West Brom but his future remains far from clear with Arsenal and Man City both looking to add the former Manchester United center back in the summer.

Aside from transfer talk, Guardiola was also named the Premier League Manager of the Month for November earlier on Friday, with the Spaniard winning the award for the third-straight month.

Only Antonio Conte had achieved that feat in PL history before but City’s boss isn’t getting ahead of himself as many have already handed his team the 2017-18 Premier League title.

“Tomorrow is an important game. Spurs are so tough. Last season and this season. Nothing is going to change – we are not going to win the Premier League tomorrow, we are not going to lose it either,” Guardiola said. “It’s important to play better, that is the most important thing. The record will always stay there until one day it is broken. I am happy not with the results but the way we play. Statistics are good but I have the feeling we can be much, much better.”

Gulp. City being better than they already are? That is a scary thought…

Mourinho: Eric Bailly out; United may look to buy in January

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Jose Mourinho has revealed that Eric Bailly requires ankle surgery and will be out for up to three months for Manchester United.

The Ivorian center back has been missing since early November after suffering the injury on international duty.

Bailly, 23, hasn’t recovered as quickly as United would have liked and his injury is more serious than originally thought.

“He [Bailly] goes to surgery, the decision is made,” Mourinho told MUTV. “I don’t say (he’s out) for the rest of the season but it’s for the next two or three months.”

United have plenty of options at center back with Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo all around, but all three have been out with injuries during this season. That said, Bailly is by far United’s most consistent and reliable defender and having him out until February or March is a big blow for Mourinho.

As for the January transfer market, Mourinho may not go and buy a replacement for Bailly but he did hint at perhaps doing some business in the January even though he isn’t the biggest fan of the mid-season window.

“Not a big defender of the January market,” Mourinho said. “There are players and situations you have the chance to do and you shouldn’t lose them. I don’t like January market just to buy.”

United have been linked with a January move for Antoine Griezmann but Mourinho refused to comment on speculation linking the French international with a move to Old Trafford.

Griezmann looked set to move in the summer with United, Barcelona and PSG all interested in signing the striker, but with his manager at Atleti, Diego Simeone, saying that he will now be able to leave Atletico if the right offer comes in, surely United will be looking at bolstering their attack if the right deal can be done.

Buying in January, especially for a player of Griezmann’s caliber, usually comes at a premium but what if he has a great summer with France at the 2018 World Cup? His transfer value would surely rocket then.

With the Red Devils 11 points behind Premier League leaders Manchester City, they will need something special to claw back points in the second half off the campaign. Griezmann’s arrival would make everyone sit up and take notice, even if United don’t exactly need to boost their attacking talent.

Simply put: if a player of Griezmann’s caliber becomes available, as it appears is the case, you need to pull out all of the stops to try and sign him.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan‘s future at United appears to be over, so maybe if they can move the Armenian playmaker on and free up some cash to bring in Griezmann (a good friend of Paul Pogba) then a deal can be done. With Atleti not qualifying for the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League, it appears the Spanish club are willing to let Griezmann leave after he handled the summer of transfer speculation admirably and remained with the La Liga outfit during their transfer embargo and move to a new stadium.