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World Cup prognoses for all confederations

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Eight teams are headed for the 2018 World Cup, while only a half-dozen others should feel comfortable with their tickets to Russia.

Here’s where it stands in terms of who’s in, who’s likely in, and who’s reached the next step with a playoff berth.

[ MORE: Should USMNT go 3 at the back? ]


Qualifying in a nutshell

IN: Russia (hosts), Brazil, Belgium, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Mexico

NEARLY THERE: Costa Rica, Uruguay, Germany, Serbia, England, Spain.

PLAYOFF BOUND:
(Australia vs. Syria winner) vs. (CONCACAF fourth place)
(CONMEBOL fifth place) vs. New Zealand


Africa

— Tunisia controls its own destiny with a three-point lead on DR Congo and no matches between the two.

— Nigeria leads Zambia by three points ahead of an Oct. 7 meeting between the two. A win will ensure a spot, while a draw would put it on the precipice via a significant goal differential advantage.

— No one’s been eliminated in Group C, though Mali is an extreme long shot. Ivory Coast leads the group, a point ahead of Morocco, and two clear of Gabon.

— Senegal is now in pole position after FIFA ruled that a match-fixing scandal demanded a replay between South Africa and the Senegalese. Full breakdown here.

— Egypt has a two-point lead on Uganda, and two will not meet. Ghana is four back of Egypt, but could be eliminated before it gets a chance to face the Egyptians on Nov. 6.

Best guesses: Tunisia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Egypt.


CONCACAF 

Costa Rica needs a point to join Mexico in Russia.

Panama will clinch an automatic spot with a win over the U.S. on Oct. 6, before hosting presumably-safe Costa Rica on Oct. 10.

— The United States will get an automatic spot with a win over Panama on Oct. 6 and by bettering Panama’s result versus Costa Rica.

— Honduras heads to Costa Rica on Oct. 6 and hosts Mexico on Oct. 10.

[ MORE: USMNT’s World Cup scenarios ]

Panama has 10 points, while the USMNT and Honduras have nine. One will automatically qualify for Russia, while another will face Australia or Syria over two legs in November. A third will be left out in the cold.

Best guesses: USMNT finishes 3rd, Panama to playoff where it loses to Australia.


CONMEBOL

One of the most fun and breakneck tournaments in sports, Brazil is in, Uruguay as close to being in as Ecuador and Paraguay are to being out, and both Bolivia and Venezuela are out.

Remaining opponents
2. Uruguay (27 pts) – Venezuela (A), Bolivia (H)
3. Colombia
 (26 pts) – Paraguay (H), Peru (A)
4. Peru (24 pts) – Argentina (A), Colombia (H)
5. Argentina (24 pts) – Peru (H), Ecuador (A)
6. Chile (23 pts) – Ecuador (H), Brazil (A)
7. Paraguay (21 pts)– Colombia (A), Venezuela (H)
8. Ecuador (20 pts) – Chile (A), Argentina (H)

Uruguay, Colombia, and Argentina should be relatively happy with their routes, while there is — stunningly — a scenario in which Chile wins both its matches and still misses out on an automatic playoff spot. Of the teams in the Top Four, Peru has looked good but faces the hardest route to stay in a slot. Of the teams beyond, both Argentina and Chile will like their chances of catching Peru. Paraguay would set up one of the wildest final days ever if it wins in Colombia on Oct. 5.

Best guesses: Uruguay, Colombia, Argentina qualify; Chile to playoff win over New Zealand.


UEFA

— France only has a one-point lead on Sweden thanks to a surprise draw with Luxembourg. The Netherlands will hope to pull at least a three-goal win over the visiting Swedes on the final day while at least matching their result on Oct. 7. Bulgaria needs a wild array of results, but is alive.

— Switzerland has a three-point lead on Portugal, who has 11 goals better differential. The two sides meet in Portugal on Oct. 10 at which point the EURO champs will likely have strengthened their almost insurmountable GD advantage, but will still need a win.

— Northern Ireland is likely heading to the playoffs unless it beats Germany in N.I. on Oct. 5, and then wins in Norway while Germany loses at home to Azerbaijan.

— Serbia needs to choke to allow Wales or Ireland into the top spot, while the Welsh hold a one-point advantage over the visiting Irish should it come to their Oct. 9 meeting. Austria needs to win both — likely by multiple goals — then hope both Wales and Ireland are upset in their Oct. 6 matches before drawing each other.

— Three teams are alive in Group E, with Poland leading Montenegro and Denmark by three points. The latter hold four-goal advantages in differential on Poland. Montenegro hosts Denmark and visits Poland, while Denmark also hosts Romania and Poland heads to Armenia. No one is safe, but Poland could solidify its advantage with a multi-goal win in Armenia.

— Second-place Slovakia has one-point and goal differential edges on Slovenia and Scotland. Scotland faces both its rivals, while Slovakia hosts Malta and Slovenia is off to England. Any of the three could win the playoff spot.

— Group G likely belongs to Spain, which has a three-point and 17-goal advantage on Italy, who needs just a point from a home match with Macedonia to make a final day meeting with Albania moot. The Albanians would have to win at Spain, then beat visiting Italy while making up 11 goals of differential and seeing Italy lose at home to Macedonia.

— Bosnia and Herzegovina are the favorites to nail down second, with a one-point edge on Greece and a four-point lead on Cyprus. BNH has to host mighty but already-qualified Belgium while Cyprus hosts Greece on Oct. 7. A road win over Roberto Martinez’s men would leave it with a trip to Estonia, while Greece’s last day is a visit from lowly Gibraltar and Cyprus is off to Belgium. Greece could be in the best position here.

— At the risk of writing another 900 words, Group I is jammed up. Croatia and Iceland have 16 points, while Turkey and Ukraine have 14. Here’s how they finish:

Croatia (16 pts, +9 GD): vs. Finland, at Ukraine
Iceland (16 pts, +4 GD): at Turkey, vs. Kosovo
Turkey (14 pts, +4 GD): vs. Iceland, at Finland
Ukraine (14 pts, +4 GD): at Kosovo, vs. Croatia

Your guess is as good as ours. Tricky, tricky group.

Best guesses:

Group winners — France, Portugal, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Iceland, Turkey

Second-place* — Sweden, Switzerland, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Denmark, Slovakia, Italy, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia

*Republic of Ireland misses out on playoffs as lowest-ranked second-place team.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.

PL Preview: Three Tuesday fixtures including Chelsea visit to Huddersfield

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As the holiday season nears, the Premier League begins to ramp up. While that can be hard on Premier League managers, it’s great for you, the fan, who now has plenty of options to choose from as you make your way through the work week.

[ PL SCHEDULE: Where to watch all midweek Premier League games ]


Burnley vs. Stoke City – 2:45 p.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

If Burnley defeats Stoke City on Tuesday, the Clarets would jump Tottenham, Arsenal, and Liverpool en route to a place in the Premier League table’s Top 4. Just pause for a moment and soak that in.

Better?

That’s right, Sean Dyche has his Burnley side on a roll, having won five of its last seven matches. In games where they were earning draws last year, they’re picking up all three points this year. Meanwhile, they face a Potters group that sits just three points above the relegation zone, meaning the heat has turned up on Mark Hughes. What is in store for us at Turf Moor?

INJURIES: Burnley – Tom Heaton (shoulder), Robbie Brady (knee), Jonathan Walters (knee) | Stoke City – Jese (personal leave), Glen Johnson (knee), Bruno Martins Indi (shoulder), Stephen Ireland (leg).


Huddersfield vs. Chelsea – 3:00 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Antonio Conte, in charge of the defending champions, is suddenly on the hot seat. Already 14 points back of leaders and expected winners Manchester City, the Blues are sitting a distant third in the table.

A trip to Huddersfield could be exactly what the doctor ordered. The Terriers started the season well, but had lost four Premier League matches in a row before a 2-0 victory over Brighton turned things around.

Conte has already ruled Chelsea out of the title, with the Blues now fighting for a Champions League place. Can the boss take advantage of the poor opposition form? He will be without star striker Alvaro Morata who is dealing with both back problems and general fatigue, with Conte calling his schedule “impossible.”

INJURIES: HuddersfieldMichael Hefele (Achillies), Philip Billing (ankle), Jon Stankovic (knee), Kasey Palmer (ineligible – parent club) | Chelsea – Alvaro Morata (back), David Luiz (knee).


Crystal Palace vs. Watford – 3:00 p.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

The Eagles hav a chance to pull themselves not only off the bottom of the Premier League table, but out of the relegation zone completely when they host Watford at Selhurst Park. Crystal Palace sits a point back of Swansea City on the bottom, but with somewhat improved performances under Roy Hodgson, three points would climb them completely out of the drop.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how Hodgson balances a desperate need to collect points with discipline of his struggling striker Christian Benteke, who remains goalless on the year after missing a critical penalty he wasn’t supposed to take in the 2-2 draw with Bournemouth over the weekend.

Watford, meanwhile, is without a win in its last three and desperately needs a result. The Hornets sit ninth in the Premier League table but could see their advantage over the bottom half evaporate with another loss.

INJURIES: Crystal Palace – Mamadou Sakho (calf), Joel Ward, Damien Delaney, Connor Wickham (knee) | Watford – Will Hughes (hamstring), Isaac Success (knee), Nathan Chalobah (knee), Younes Kaboul (hamstring), Craig Cathcart (knee)