AP

Surprising Syria prepared for World Cup playoff vs Australia

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) Regardless of how Syria does in its World Cup playoff against Australia, the team has helped football knock fighting out the headlines for a while in their war-torn country.

The Syrians are still in contention to qualify for the World Cup for the first time, and the journey to their biggest match so far has captured domestic and international attention.

Unable to play on home soil, the Syrians will “host” Australia at Malacca, Malaysia on Thursday in the first leg of an Asian playoff. The victor in the two-match series – the return match takes place in Sydney next Tuesday – will take on the fourth-place team from CONCAFAF, the confederation that consists of North and Central America and the Caribbean, in November. The winner of that will secure a spot at Russia 2018.

“We have worked so hard in qualification for the World Cup,” Syria striker Omar Khribin told The Associated Press. “The spirit in the team is very good. We know that we still have work to do, but we are ready for whatever happens.”

Syria placed third in Group A behind Iran and South Korea in the third round of Asian qualification, losing three of its 10 games. The top two teams in each group secured direct entry to next year’s World Cup leaving the third-place teams – Australia finished behind Japan and Saudi Arabia in its group – vying for an alternative route to Russia.

Just as the nation has been torn apart by war and either support or opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad, the national team has also been split, leading to some players skipping important qualifiers until recently. Within the team, though, things seem to be coming together.

Firas Al Khatib had been absent from the team until earlier this year when he returned along with striking colleague Omar al-Soma. Neither player has given their reasons as to why their exile ended except to say it’s related to sports rather than politics.

“The important thing is that the team is determined to try and qualify for the World Cup,” Khribin said. “We have played against some very strong teams so far such as South Korea, Iran and Uzbekistan. We competed well against them and proved that we are also a strong team.”

Syria was regarded as an outsider at the start of the third round of qualification, and just two goals from the first seven games seemed to confirm that perception.

But after starting out as hard to beat and defensive, the Syrian team became more attacking in the latter stages of qualifying. The return of al-Soma and Al Khatib made a difference to give Syria one of the most dangerous forward lines in Asia, tallying seven goals in its final three games.

Two of those were in the make-or-break last game against Group A winner Iran in Tehran, where al-Soma scored deep in stoppage time to secure a 2-2 draw against a lineup that hadn’t conceded any goals in the previous nine games in qualification.

That result was enough to secure the match against Australia, which finished behind Saudi Arabia on goal difference.

Players, with “Syria” rather than names emblazoned across the back of their red jerseys, sank to their knees on the turf in Tehran to celebrate.

In Syria, thousands of dancing fans filtered onto the streets of Damascus chanting “Syria” and waving the country’s flags.

But while Syrians were delighted to reach the playoff stage, supporters of Asian Cup champion Australia were less enthused. The Socceroos have appeared at the last three World Cups and, despite just one loss in the qualifying campaign, coach Ange Postecoglou has come under heavy criticism for not ensuring an automatic spot in Russia.

“I have not lost (faith) in what I do,” Postecoglou said as he prepared this week to face Syria, which is unbeaten in five `home’ games in Malaysia. “We watched all their qualifying games. We know what they bring to it.

“It’s match play against an opponent over two games knowing that it’s do-or-die scenario. They managed to score goals late in games to get themselves results and obviously they are hard to break down.”

Syria midfielder Mohammed Zaher Midani was quoted as saying on the Asian Football Confederation’s website that his team would had the ingredients to beat the higher-profile Socceroos.

“Australia may have many prominent players who are known for their individual talents, but we have the enormous potential that comes from performing as a group, as well as the individual skills of our players,” Midani said. “And we have a huge motivation – which is to make the Syrian people happy.”

Timbers sign Peruvian winger Andy Polo from Liga MX’s Morelia

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have acquired winger Andy Polo on loan from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old native of Peru played in 25 matches last year for Morelia and made six starts with two goals.

He’s also World Cup-bound, having appeared in Peru’s two-legged playoff against New Zealand in November. Peru won 2-0 on aggregate. Overall, he’s appeared with the Peruvian national team 15 times since his senior debut in 2016.

“Andy is a versatile, young player who will add another element to our attack, and we believe that he has further upside to his development,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said in a statement.

The Timbers used targeted allocation money and have a purchase option. Polo’s arrival is pending a physical and receipt of a visa.

He will occupy an international roster spot.

Can Man United still sign Sanchez without Mkhitaryan swap?

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The answer to the (first) titled question is, undoubtedly, yes.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

The latter question — the “will they?” — remains a relative unknown at this point, but if reports out of the UK are to be believed, Manchester United are just as likely to send $40 million (or so) Arsenal’s way in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, should Henrikh Mkhitaryan refuse the move by declining any contract offers from the Gunners.

[ MORE: Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies ]

The thinking, at least for the last few days since Man United somewhat unexpectedly entered the Sanchez sweepstakes, was that swapping the Armenian for the Chilean was the obvious — and, perhaps only — way forward. Call it special circumstances or an obvious audible, but that’s not necessarily the case — from the Guardian:

“It is understood that if Mkhitaryan does not leave Mourinho believes that, given the club’s robust finances, [Man United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward could still sanction a move for a player who would potentially vastly improve United.”

By the time Sanchez is signed, sealed and delivered, United will have also paid Sanchez and his agent, Fernando Felicevich, massive signing-on fees that could total another $30 million. No matter the order in which the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan saga plays out, United will come out ahead with a superior player at a massively discounted price — should Sanchez ultimately move to Old Trafford, of course.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.