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A World Cup without Messi, Ronaldo? It’s possible in Russia

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) It’s getting anxious for teams and players fearing missing out on the World Cup.

By the time the draw for the finals is conducted in Moscow in December, even Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo could be facing up to spending next June on the beach rather than on the fields in Russia.

For now, only seven qualification slots have been filled by Belgium, Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

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Another 24 places are still vacant, after the latest rounds of qualifiers.

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MESSI AND RONALDO

Time is running out for the two best players in world soccer over the last decade. Not just to win the World Cup for the first time, either, because Ronaldo and Messi might not even make the trip to Russia.

As things stand in Europe, Ronaldo’s Portugal is second in its qualifying group and the reigning European champions are facing a November play-off to gain a spot in the following month’s finals draw.

At least Portugal won both games in the last week. Argentina was held by both Uruguay and Venezuela in Jorge Sampaoli’s first games in charge, despite having Messi back from suspension.

Argentina still has time to move up from fifth to the fourth and final automatic qualification place. But the final two qualifiers next month for the two-time world champions are against Peru – currently fourth – and Ecuador – chasing Argentina in fifth place for the right to face New Zealand in a playoff.

CHAMPIONS COLLAPSE

The World Cup will be without African champion Cameroon. Copa America winner Chile could be absent too.

Cameroon’s qualification bid ended this week, while Chile is sixth in the South American standings and struggling to force its way into a playoff after losing to Bolivia on Tuesday. It’s barely two months since the Chileans were contesting the Confederations Cup final where they lost to Germany, and players are feeling the heat.

“You get tired of being criticized with reason and without reason,” Chile forward Alexis Sanchez wrote on Instagram. “You get tired of wanting to be defeated, you get tired of saying to yourself `Once more I’ll get up’ after crying after a defeat, and you get tired of telling the world and people who are with you, that everything is going well.”

AMERICANS CLING ON

The United States is in danger of missing its first World Cup since 1986 after a home loss to Costa Rica and a draw in Panama. Bruce Arena’s team is hanging onto fourth place by goal difference ahead of Honduras. The fourth-place team is still plunged into a playoff against Australia or Syria to qualify for Russia.

Next up in October for the Americans are a Panama side which is a point ahead of them in the third automatic qualification place and last-place Trinidad and Tobago. It’s the first time since 1989 that the qualification fate of the U.S. has been on the line going into the finale.

SYRIA’S BID

Several teams are still in contention to make their World Cup debuts in Russia: Burkina Faso, Panama, Uganda … and Syria.

To qualify, Syria would have to beat Australia over two games in October and then overcome a CONCACAF opponent in a November playoff round.

When Syria drew in Iran on Tuesday in qualifying, there were celebrations home back in the capital Damascus. What makes Syria’s progress on the field even more remarkable is the team is playing as a civil war rages. That is also what makes the prospect of a Syrian team packed with government supporters appearing at the World Cup potentially problematic for critics of the President Bashir Assad’s regime.

FIFA rules say politics should be separated completely from the soccer.

A World Cup trip next June by Assad to Russia, Syria’s chief international ally, could rapidly become a sensitive issue for FIFA.

Without citing any country, the Asian Football Confederation opened an investigation on Wednesday into rule breaches linked to the need for national teams to respect political neutrality.

DUTCH DESPAIR

The Netherlands is facing missing a second straight major tournament, with even a place in the play-offs slipping out a sight. The 2010 World Cup finalists were dealt one of the hardest groups, but a 4-0 loss to leader France last week showed the size of the gulf between Dick Advocaat’s side and the continental powers. The Dutch are third in its group with two games remaining, three points behind its final group opponent, Sweden. Although France leads the group from Sweden, Les Bleus have carelessly dropped points in a late defeat to Sweden in June and a 0-0 home draw with lowly Luxembourg.

GERMAN FAN TROUBLE

Germany’s problem isn’t qualifying for Russia as the World Cup holders lead their group by five points with two games remaining. The issue is the behavior of fans.

There is abuse aimed often by their own player – Timo Werner – all over a dive by the striker in a German league game last season. Far more disturbing are the Nazi slogans that were chanted during a game in the Czech Republic last week and led to FIFA opening an investigation.

NO QATAR

Qatar’s qualification bid ended in failure last week, just like in every previous campaign. The significance this time is that the Gulf nation will now make its debut on soccer’s biggest stage when it hosts the World Cup in 2022.

More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Burnley 1-0 Stoke City: Barnes’ late strike guides Clarets into top four

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Don’t look now, but the Clarets have climbed into the Premier League top four.

Burnley found a way Stoke City late on Tuesday, picking up a 1-0 win at the Turf Moor behind Ashley Barnes‘ late finish.

[ MORE: Gremio reaches Club World Cup final, awaits Real Madrid or Al Jazira ]

The Clarets, who have now secured 31 points over their first 17 matches this season, leapfrogged Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham with the victory. However, all three sides will be in action on Wednesday.

Steven Defour nearly put Burnley ahead on 69 minutes, when the front man tested Stoke keeper Jack Butland — who had to make a sprawling save to his right.

While Stoke mustered up several quality chances, it was Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s blast in the first half that nearly found the top left corner.

Next up for Burnley will be a date against Brighton on Saturday, while Stoke travels to Huddersfield the same day.

Club World Cup wrap: Gremio reaches final, Urawa takes fifth place

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One half of this year’s FIFA Club World Cup final was decided on Tuesday as Brazilian side Gremio topped Liga MX champions Pachuca.

Second-half substitute Everton proved to be the difference for the Brazilians, with the attacker scoring in extra time to lift Gremio.

[ MORE: LA FC selects Urena, four others in MLS Expansion Draft ]

Pachuca’s chances of completing a comeback were extinguished with 10 minutes remaining in extra time, as Víctor Guzman was sent off upon picking up his second yellow card of the semifinal.

Meanwhile, Japanese side Urawa Red Diamonds captured fifth place in the tournament after narrowly topping Wydad Casablanca, 3-2.

Despite going behind early, Urawa responded almost immediately in the first half, before building its lead to 3-1 at the hour mark.

A late penalty kick from Reda Hajhouj gave Casablanca a glimmer of hope in the dying moments, however, the Moroccan-based club couldn’t find a way to equalize.

Gremio will await either La Liga giants Real Madrid or Al Jazira in the Club World Cup final, which will be played on Saturday. The loser of that match will take on Pachuca in the third-place game.

Below are the scores from Tuesday’s FIFA Club World Cup matches.

Gremio 1-0 Pachuca (after extra time)

Wydad Casablanca 2-3 Urawa Red Diamonds — Fifth-place match

LAFC selects Urena, 4 others in MLS Expansion Draft

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Los Angeles FC selected five players in the MLS Expansion Draft, including Costa Rican national team star Marco Urena.

Whether they’ll make their way to the City of Angels is another story.

The first pick from general manager John Thorrington was goalkeeper Tyler Miller from Seattle Sounders.

[ MORE: Benitez on NUFC struggles ]

Going next was Latif Blessing from Sporting KC, an electric attacker who netted thrice with an assist last season.

Next was Urena from San Jose and the Costa Rican national team, a huge addition, and then Columbus left back Jukka Raitala before closing up the draft with Raheem Edwards from Toronto FC.

LAFC has already announced the signings or acquisitions of Carlos Vela, Walker Zimmerman, Carlos Alvarez, Monday Etim, and Guillermo Vizcarra.

The club will also loan Omar Gaber from Basel and Rodrigo Pacheco from Lanus.

WATCH LIVE: Three Premier League matches

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Chelsea visits the John Smith’s Stadium to face Huddersfield Town in one of three Premier League fixtures this chilly Tuesday in December (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Blues are now 14 points back of Manchester City, and three points clear of fifth place.

Meanwhile there are a pair of matches on NBC Sports Gold: Burnley looks to keep pace with its Top Four ambitions when it hosts struggling Stoke City, while in-form Crystal Palace seeks a home win that would move it out of the drop zone. In its way? Dangerous, attack-minded Watford.

Burnley vs. Stoke City — 2:45 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]

Huddersfield Town vs. Chelsea — 3 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]

Crystal Palace vs. Watford — 3 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]