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2018 World Cup qualifying: State of play in Europe

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Eight countries will join already-qualified Belgium at next year’s World Cup in Russia when group play in the European zone is wrapped up over the next week.

There are two rounds of games still to be played, and Germany, England, Spain, Poland and Serbia look in strong positions to top their groups and advance.

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

Here is the state of play in the groups.


GROUP A

After missing out on qualifying for the European Championship last year, the Netherlands could be out of the World Cup race by the end of the weekend.

A three-time World Cup runner-up, the Dutch will miss their second straight major tournament if they can’t match Sweden’s result.

The Netherlands is third in the group, four points behind leader France and three behind second-place Sweden. The Dutch play at Belarus on Saturday, when Sweden hosts Luxembourg. Playmaker Wesley Sneijder has been dropped and winger Ryan Babel has been recalled for the first time in six years for the crucial game.

The French will clinch first place and automatic qualification if they win in Bulgaria on Saturday and Sweden loses against Luxembourg. France would guarantee a top-two finish with a win.

GROUP B

Even after seven straight wins – and an expected eighth at Andorra on Saturday – European champion Portugal is not sure to be at the World Cup.

Group leader Switzerland has won eight straight, including an opening 2-0 victory over a Portugal team without Cristiano Ronaldo, ahead of hosting Hungary on Saturday.

It all points to a showdown in Lisbon next Tuesday to win the group and take the direct qualifying place. The Swiss currently lead by three points.

Portugal has the edge if goal difference is the tiebreaker. Helped by Ronaldo’s European-best 14 goals, Portugal is already nine superior to the Swiss before facing Andorra, which it already beat 6-0 at home.

Hungary’s drop in form since Euro 2016 means the Faeroe Islands can go third by beating Latvia on Saturday.

GROUP C

Germany needs only one point from its final two games, against Northern Ireland in Belfast on Thursday or Azerbaijan in Kaiserslautern three days later, to ensure qualification as group winner.

The world champions have eight wins from eight games and coach Joachim Loew said that anything less than 10 wins from 10 would be a disappointment.

Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, defender Jonas Hector and forward Mario Gomez are out with injuries, while Loew also omitted midfielders Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira because of a right knee problem and right thigh strain, respectively.

Germany has 24 points, five more than Northern Ireland, which is already assured of second place.

GROUP D

Serbia leads by four points and will earn automatic qualification by beating Austria on Friday.

It looks to be a fight between second-place Wales and third-place Ireland for the runner-up spot – they are separated by one point and meet in Cardiff in the final round of games on Monday.

Before then, Wales visits Georgia and Ireland hosts Moldova.

If Serbia doesn’t guarantee first place in Vienna, it has a second chance in a home game against Georgia on Monday.

GROUP E

Group leader Poland needs just a point from its game against Armenia in Yerevan to be assured of a top-two finish, while Montenegro and Denmark can both still qualify automatically ahead of their clash in Podgorica.

However, if Montenegro and Denmark – both on 16 points, three less than Poland – draw in Podgorica, Poland can qualify automatically with a win on Thursday.

Otherwise, Poland faces a potential group-decider at home to Montenegro in Warsaw on Sunday, when Denmark hosts Romania in Copenhagen.

Poland is hoping its 4-0 loss in Denmark on Sept. 1 does not prove decisive.

GROUP F

England leads its group by five points and needs only a point from its last two games, at home against Slovenia and at Lithuania, to secure first place.

If England beats third-place Slovenia at Wembley Stadium on Thursday, second-place Slovakia will be guaranteed to finish as runner-up with a win at Scotland.

Scotland has won three of its last four qualifiers to move level on points with Slovenia in fourth place, and could be in second place heading into the last round of games if it wins against Slovakia.

In the last round Sunday, Scotland travels to Slovenia and Slovakia hosts Malta.

GROUP G

Spain has a three-point lead over Italy and can close in a World Cup spot with a victory at Albania on Friday.

Spain has a much better goal difference than Italy (29 to 12), so it will likely win the group even with a setback in one of its final two qualifiers.

Italy hosts Macedonia on Friday and plays at Albania on Monday, when Spain visits Israel. The Azzurri, who are without injured midfielder Marco Verratti, need one point from its final two qualifiers to secure second place and a playoff spot.

Spain coach Julen Lopetegui won’t be able to count on Andres Iniesta, Alvaro Morata and Dani Carvajal because of injuries.

GROUP H

With Belgium already qualified, Bosnia and Greece are in a battle for second place in the group.

Bosnia has a one-point advantage but an arguably harder task, hosting the Belgians Saturday with an injury-plagued squad. Haris Medunjanin of the Philadelphia Union was one of four late replacements. The Bosnians’ last game is at Estonia as they look to reach a second straight World Cup.

Greece is at Cyprus and then at home against Gibraltar, and has recalled attacking midfielder Lazaros Chrsitodoulopoulos after an 18-month absence.

GROUP I

In the tightest European group, the top four teams are separated by only two points. Group leader Croatia and Iceland have 16 points each, while Turkey and Ukraine are both two points behind.

Croatia hosts Finland on Friday and travels to Ukraine for the last match on Monday, while Iceland plays at Turkey and hosts Kosovo. Turkey plays the last game at Finland while Ukraine travels to Kosovo on Friday.

Because of its poor results in the team’s first attempt to qualify for a World Cup, Kosovo coach Albert Bunjaku has agreed to leave his post at the end of qualifying. Kosovo was accepted by UEFA and FIFA last year, and fast-tracked into World Cup qualifying.

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

Europa League preview: Arsenal in Serbia, Everton desperate vs. Lyon

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The twelve groups of the UEFA Europa League bring forth soccer on Thursday, with a bevy of matches dotting the continent.

[ MORE: Full Europa schedule ]

Here are the top five matches to keep an eye on.

Everton vs. Lyon — 3:05 p.m. ET

If you would’ve told Ronald Koeman his Toffees would walk into this match with just one point but sit only another behind Lyon, he’d probably tell you to take a hike. But Lyon drew 1-1 at Apollon Limassol and 1-1 at home to Atalanta, opening the door for Everton to finish the day in Group E’s top two slots.

Nabil Fekir and Real Madrid loanee Mariano Diaz have seven goals each for Lyon, while ex-Premier Leaguers Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore are also key components of the French outfit’s attack.

Red Star Belgrade vs. Arsenal — 1 p.m. ET

Arsenal in Europa has been pretty thrilling, with 3-1 and 4-2 wins under Arsene Wenger‘s belt ahead of the first of two with the 1991 European Cup winners. It’s a nice challenge for Canadian national team backstop Milan Borjan, who should be the man to try to thwart the Gunners in Serbia.

Hoffenheim vs. Istanbul Basaksehir — 3:05 p.m. ET

The favorites to win the group are dead last in the group as they welcome the perceived group underdogs from Turkey. The Super Lig runners-up have some familiar names on the roster with Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy, Eljero Elia, Mevlut Erdinc, Gokhan Inler, Aurelien Chedjou, and Emre Belozoglu.

AC Milan vs. AEK Athens — 3:05 p.m. ET

Milan has been burying goals in Europa play, with five at Austria Wien and three in a home win over Rijeka. Enter Athens, which has scooped up four points in group play and will look for a win to put them ahead of the group-leading Rossoneri.

Nice vs. Lazio — 1 p.m. ET

The only group with a pair of 2-0 teams. Mario Balotelli is plenty familiar with his Roman opposition from his time in Serie A.

Probe finds racial discrimination by England women’s coach

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LONDON (AP) Former England women’s team coach Mark Sampson racially discriminated against two of his players, a fresh Football Association investigation has concluded after initially dismissing allegations of wrongdoing and prompting a damaging public row with striker Eni Aluko.

Sampson was cleared of discrimination by earlier FA investigations but was fired last month because of an unrelated case of inappropriate conduct toward players in a previous job.

[ MORE: Champions League at halfway mark ]

Only now has a barrister considered new evidence about Sampson’s conduct toward England internationals Aluko and Drew Spence, with the details being released ahead of a parliamentary hearing.

“I have concluded that on two separate occasions, MS (Sampson) has made ill-judged attempts at humor, which, as a matter of law, were discriminatory on grounds of race,” barrister Katharine Newton wrote in the report.

One racially discriminatory comment by Sampson in 2014 toward Aluko requested her family members from Nigeria didn’t come to a game because of Ebola.

“MS (Sampson) did treat EA (Aluko) less favorably than he would have treated a player who was not of African descent,” Newton wrote. “MS had therefore subjected EA to less favorable treatment because of her ethnicity.”

During a team meeting in 2015, Sampson also asked Spence if she had been to prison, and then suggested she had been arrested four times. Newton concluded that the comment was made “because of her ethnicity.”

[ MORE: Hamid leaving DC United ]

FA chief executive Martin Glenn apologized to Aluko and Spence before the hearing. But Aluko told legislators that Glenn’s earlier conduct toward her was “bordering on blackmail” after he threatened to withhold payments from an 80,000 pound ($105,000) financial settlement unless she published a statement saying the FA “was not institutionally racist.”

With Aluko sitting behind him, Glenn later told the hearing that the player had not been blackmailed.

Instead Glenn said that an August tweet by Aluko – “at least we now know the FA’s stance on derogatory racial remarks by an England manager. Ignore, deny, endorse” – was a “clear breach of the agreement.”

Aluko, who was part of the team that finished third at the 2015 World Cup, has not played for England since making her 102nd appearance in April 2016.

There was a more apologetic tone from Glenn in his written statement on Wednesday, saying that Sampson’s conduct was “not acceptable” and he “would like to sincerely apologize” to Aluko and Spence.

“Our ambition has always been to find the truth and take swift and appropriate action if needed,” Glenn said. “It was our decision to have the original, second and final investigation to ensure that due diligence was taken. It is regrettable that Eniola did not participate in the first external investigation as this would have enabled Katharine Newton to conduct and complete her investigation sooner.”

Report: Hamid leaving DC United to “push himself” elsewhere

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Bill Hamid is taking his talents elsewhere.

The 26-year-old has been with DC United since 2007, making an even 200 appearances across all competitions.

[ MORE: Champions League at halfway mark ]

Hamid is thrice capped by the United States and widely considering to be one of the best shot-stoppers in the league, but the Washington Post’s Steven Goff says Hamid wants to showcase himself on a new stage.

“I want to push myself and see how far I can go because I know I have the work ethic and the hunger to take myself very far in this game. I know I can make it to the next level.”

Hamid is likely to wind up in Europe, and Goff said Danish club Midtjylland is the favorite. He’s also been scouted by Eintracht Frankfurt.

With a new United States men’s national team coach set to be appointed and Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, and Nick Rimando all on the back end of their time with the USMNT, Hamid has to look at himself as competing with Ethan Horvath and any number of young prospects.

Horvath is 22 and starting for Club Brugge. If their season continues on its pace, he’ll have a Belgian title and a Norwegian title under his belt.

U-20 players Jonathan Klinsmann (Hertha Berlin), Brady Scott (Koln), and Justin Vom Steeg (Fortuna Dusseldorf) are in German systems, while U-17 World Cup starters CJ dos Santos is at Benfica.

Age when making European debut and club
Tim Howard, 24, Manchester United
Brad Friedel, 23, Newcastle United
Brad Guzan, 23, Aston Villa
Kasey Keller, 23, Millwall
Tony Meola, 21, Brighton and Hove Albion
Ethan Horvath, 19, Molde

Surprises, disappointments halfway through Champions League group stage

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Clubs have met each of their group mates once, giving us an imperfect but workable sample size for the 2017-18 UEFA Champions League group stage.

Five groups have a side boasting a 3-0 record, while four clubs have yet to seize a single point.

[ CHAMPS LEAGUE: Tuesday | Weds. ]

Some of the strugglers, like 0-1-2 Maribor and 0-1-2 APOEL, are not surprises. And it’s no shock to see Manchester United at perfect 3-0 given its draw.

Others? Well, that’s not the case.

Status down 

While Manchester United is a perfect 3-0 in Group A, raise your hand if you figured Benfica would have just one goal and zero points through three matches. Benfica’s also played two of its three home ties, making the knockout rounds a dream.

Atletico Madrid has found the UEFA Champions League Final in two of the last four seasons, but finds itself with work to do moving forward. Atleti’s Wednesday draw at Qarabag leaves it three points behind Roma and five back of leaders Chelsea. Diego Simeone’s men still host Roma and Qarabag, so points are out there.

Serie A play has been gorgeous for Napoli, who has failed to bring that momentum to Group F. It’s worth noting that a missed penalty by red-hot Dries Mertens could’ve earned the Neapolitans a point at Man City on Tuesday, but as it stands Napoli is three points back of Shakhtar and could be six back before the Ukrainians visit on Nov. 21.

It turns out you can’t sell everyone and expect the youth to come through shining. Monaco is at the bottom of a very winnable group, having lost at home to Porto and Besiktas. Still just three points behind RB Leipzig, they’ll need to win at Monaco and/or Besiktas to have any hope of the knockout rounds.

Borussia Dortmund got a rough deal from officials when it visited Wembley Stadium, but losses to Spurs and Real Madrid can happen in a group stage. Tuesday’s draw at APOEL Nicosia, however, is close to a backbreaker.

(Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images).

Status up

Spurs draw at Real Madrid may have been aided by a huge performance from Hugo Lloris, but goalkeepers — as you know — are actual components of a team. This is in fact a group of death, but the North Londoners are holding a scythe. If Mauricio Pochettino can lead a home win over Real Madrid at a raucous Wembley on All Saints Day, well, look out!

Cenk Tosun has gone from sleepy transfer target to the tip of many gossipers’ tongues, as Besiktas is a perfect 3-0 including wins at Monaco and Porto. Anderson Talisca and… wait for it… Ryan Babel (!!) have also starred for the Turkish powers who will almost certainly see the knockout rounds.

[ MORE: JPW sits down with Ederson ]

Pep Guardiola‘s done this Champions League dance, you know, and Manchester City has weathered all storms. That includes conceded two penalties — one was saved by Ederson — as a down performance versus Napoli still ended with a home win. If City can win at the Stadio San Paolo on Nov. 1, Pep can sleepwalk into the final two matches (though that’s not his style).

Roma has a classy draw at Chelsea and has gathered five points including four away from home. Mimic that mark and i Lupi will be a challenge in the knockout rounds.

Neymar was best pals with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez last season at Barcelona, but having a less-than-perfect relationship with Edinson Cavani hasn’t hurt a thing in Paris. Paris Saint-Germain is for real, scoring 12 times and yet to concede in wins over Bayern Munich, Celtic, and Anderlecht.

Grey area

Liverpool leads its group and advancing is really the only goal, but there’s something off-putting about the home draw against Sevilla. The 1-1 draw at Spartak Moscow looks better now that the Russians hammered Sevilla 5-1, but a return visit from Maribor next should help the Reds buttress their stock.

Be careful how finely you analyze a club as accomplished as two-time reigning champs Real Madrid, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s men don’t look so hot. Still well-positioned to move on, keep a close eye on how they look at Wembley in a few weeks.

Holding pattern

Chelsea‘s 3-3 draw versus Roma today was its first real stumble of the UCL, but there shouldn’t be too many alarm bells considering their injury problems and Roma’s desperation. Consider their status even, especially given their clever win at Atletico Madrid.

Jose Mourinho is doing a fine job with Manchester United, but it’s really hard to praise the club too much for doing what’s expected in a glorified Europa League group. Clearly Sir Alex Ferguson was involved in the icing some of the draw balls again…