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UEFA World Cup qualifying preview: Plenty to play for

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Only hosts Russia and red-hot Belgium know they’ll be dancing at the 2018 World Cup, but several teams could join the fray before the final match day.

[ MORE: USMNT prospects on show at U-17 World Cup ]

Take Thursday, where Germany can advance by getting a point or more out of Northern Ireland, while England and Poland can qualify with wins and help.

In fact, only two groups are guaranteed to be up for grabs on the final match day. Here’s what’s cooking:

Group A

France can clinch a spot Saturday with a win in Bulgaria and a Swedish loss at home to Luxembourg. The latter is unlikely to happen, which will bring us to Tuesday, with France hosting Belarus and Sweden at the Netherlands. All signs point to France first, and the Dutch hoping Sweden opens the door to second place. Bulgaria needs unlikely scenarios but remains alive.

Group B

Switzerland and Portugal will finish 1st and 2nd, but we don’t yet know the order. The Portuguese are likely to enter the Oct. 10 match in Sweden knowing a win will do the trick, though a draw could suffice if Switzerland loses at home to Bulgaria on Saturday.

Group C

Germany needs a point at Northern Ireland on Thursday to clinch a spot. Even a loss wouldn’t doom them thanks to a five point lead on NI. Germany finishes vs. tricky Azerbaijan, while NI is off to Norway.

Group D

Serbia qualifies with a win at Austria on Friday, or a draw and help from Ireland and Wales. Those two and Austria are still alive, though Austria can only finish second with massive help.

Group E

Poland leads the group by three points and clinches a berth in Russia with a win at Armenia and a draw between Denmark and Montenegro, who both have 16 points.

Poland hosts Montenegro on Sunday in what could decide the group. Only Denmark, Poland, and Montenegro remain alive for the World Cup.

Group F

The front-runners for first and second are England and Slovakia, with the former able to clinch with a win over Slovenia. England could also advance with a draw and a Slovakia loss. Even a point guarantees a Top Two slot.

A visit to lowly Lithuania is on the final match day, so England can feel good about topping the group, though Slovakia, Slovenia, and Scotland are all alive. Slovakia visits Scotland on Thursday in a massive tilt for both, while Scotland finishes at Slovenia.

Group G

Spain is likely to win the group, with a three point and 17-goal advantage on second place Italy. But there’s a chance the Italians could enter the final day level on points with Spain if the Spanish play down to desperate Albania and Italy waxes visiting Macedonia to knock the goal difference advantage down. Albania’s thin hopes need a Macedonian win in Italy, a win in Spain, and then goal difference working in its favor following a final day win over visiting Italy.

Group H

Belgium is in. Bosnia and Herzegovina will finish second if its wins and Greece loses in Cyprus. Cyprus has to hope for a win over the Greeks and a BNH loss to visiting Belgium.

That would leave second place in play on the final day, when BNH is in Estonia, Greece hosts Gibraltar, and Cyprus visits Belgium.

Group I

This one’s so tight we’re just going to give you the table and schedule and tell you to sort out the scenarios yourself rather than type forever and ever and ever (so to speak).

Croatia — 16 pts, +9 GD
Iceland — 16 pts, +4 GD
Turkey — 14 pts, +4 GD
Ukraine — 14 pts, +4 GD

Friday: Iceland at Turkey, Finland at Croatia, Ukraine at Kosovo
Monday: Croatia at Ukraine, Turkey at Finland, Kosovo at Iceland

Report: Newcastle sale closer after improved bid of $400 million

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The Geordie dream appears one giant step closer to reality after Amanda Staveley has reportedly made a significantly larger bid in her attempt to purchase Newcastle United from long-embattled owner Mike Ashley.

[ TIMELINE: Ashley puts club up for sale | Staveley’s first bid rejected ]

According to multiple reports out of the UK — the Telegraph offers the most information at this time — Staveley has increased her initial offer from $335 million to today’s $400-million figure which is expected to be enough to convince Ashley to accept and bring to an end his decade-long, rocky relationship with the Toon Army.

Ashley purchased the club for $177 million back in 2007 and has reportedly invested somewhere in the neighborhood of another $177 million, in the form of interest-free loans, during his stewardship. He stands to make a sizable profit in light of today’s reports, though his original asking price of $534 million is nowhere close to being met.

[ STREAM: Newcastle host Everton — Wednesday, 2:45 p.m. ET ]

The biggest question which remains — now that will he or won’t he sell? appears to have been answered — is how quickly the deal can be completed, thus allowing Staveley to back manager Rafa Benitez during the January transfer window. Once the two sides enter into deeper takeover talks and the process of transferring ownership from one to the other begins, a transfer embargo will be activated.

Benitez and Ashley traded verbal jabs over the club’s transfer dealings — or, lack thereof — in the summer, and the Spaniard has again this week insisted significant investment is needed in January, otherwise the Magpies could very well be relegated, once again. After a strong start to the season, Newcastle are winless in their last seven Premier League games (six losses) and have tumbled to 16th in the league table, now just two points clear of the relegation zone.

Klopp explains rotation vs. Everton, Salah’s injury scare

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Jurgen Klopp took a fair bit of criticism over his decision to rotate four members of his first-choice starting lineup for Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Everton, and the Liverpool manager might not be done rotating just yet — only this time, his hand could be force by an injury scare.

[ MORE: Klopp says post-game interview not a big deal ]

Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum were all dropped to the bench, on the advice of the club’s medical team, at the end of a 21-day stretch which saw the Reds play seven times. Klopp came under further scrutiny for his decision to substitute Mohamed Salah, Liverpool’s undisputed player of the season thus far, with Liverpool leading 1-0 in the 67th minute.

Now, Klopp has revealed, that Salah was forced off due to fear of a potential hamstring injury, though the Egyptian is expected to be available to start when West Bromwich Albion visit Anfield on Wednesday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold) — quotes from the Guardian:

“I have 500,000 pieces of information and I have to make a decision; I cannot write a book before each game. I do not want to say [it was a risk to play Coutinho and Firmino] as that would sound like an excuse and I don’t need an excuse.

“I find it funny that we talk after this game about that but we did not speak about it after the 5-1 or 3-0, why they did not play [the wins at Brighton and Stoke when Salah, Coutinho and Sadio Mane did not all start]. This is one game we should have won they did not play. We play it 10 times and we win. We had a bit of information but, come on, it would sound like an excuse to me.

“I took Mo Salah off because he felt the hamstring a little bit. Then everyone said, ‘How can you take him off?’ I do not go out and say: ‘Because he is close to being injured.’ He is not injured at the moment, thank God. Hopefully we took him off early enough. We have to do it. Seven games in 21 days before Everton and now six games in 18 days. It is exactly the same. We need the best quality we can have before each game. We cannot ignore the number of games.”

The only thing Klopp could have done to draw even more criticism would have been to ignore the advice of the doctors prior to the game, then leave Salah on the field for all 90 minutes — win, lose or draw in the end. Once the above information had inevitably leaked out in said scenario, words like “irresponsible” and “negligent” would have been lobbed his way with reckless abandon.

It’s almost as if managers have more information available to them than the average, angry fan.

Independiente and Flamengo meet for South American trophy

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SAO PAULO (AP) Independiente, relegated for the first time in its history in 2013, can complete a remarkable turnaround by winning the Copa Sudamericana at the Maracana Stadium on Wednesday.

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

The Argentine team will go into the second leg of the final holding a 2-1 lead over Brazilian club Flamengo from the first leg.

Independiente, which has won multiple titles in South American tournaments, will be counting on 18-year-old midfielder Ezequiel Barco, one of the best players in this year’s competition.

Flamengo is also seeking to restore some pride in Rio de Janeiro. The big-spending Brazilian club, playing in its first Copa Sudamericana final, finished its domestic championship in a disappointing sixth place.

The Rio team will be without Peru striker Paolo Guerrero, who is serving a one-year doping ban.

Instead, veteran midfielder Diego will be the key player as Flamengo looks to claim its first regional title since winning the now-defunct Copa Mercosur in 1999.

After Independiente won the first leg, the club posted on its social media channels a picture of its players celebrating at the Maracana in 1995 when the two teams played for the Supercopa.

If the Argentines lose 1-0 on Wednesday, there will be a penalty shootout to decide the winner.

Last year, Brazilian club Chapecoense was awarded the title before the final after 19 players, plus club directors and several members of staff, died in an air crash.

The Copa Sudamericana is the continent’s second most prestigious tournament after the Copa Libertadores.

Bundesliga wrap: Dortmund wins in Stoger’s managerial debut

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For the first time since late September, Borussia Dortmund has won a league match, while Leipzig’s slip up opens the door for Bayern Munich to extend its lead in Germany’s top flight.

[ MORE: Chelsea tops Huddersfield, level on points with Man United ]

Here’s a brief look at all of Tuesday’s Bundesliga action.

Mainz 0-2 Borussia Dortmund

10 points separates Dortmund from league leaders Bayern Munich, who also have a match in hand, but for the moment, the bleeding his stopped. BVB picked up a crucial win on Tuesday to end its domestic woes upon manager Peter Stoger’s debut. The side’s drought stretched over an eight-match winless period. Second-half goals from Sokratis and Shinji Kagawa moved Dortmund into the top four, while Mainz remains 15th in the league table.

 

Wolfsburg 1-1 Red Bull Leipzig

Meanwhile, RB Leipzig’s form continues to slide downward after the second-place side dropped points in its fourth straight match across all competitions. The road side’s fortunes were dampened early on when Paul Verhaegh converted from the penalty spot, however, Marcel Halstenberg did manage to pull a goal back for Leipzig in the 52nd minute. Leipzig’s misfortunes carried on in stoppage time though when Dayot Upamecano was sent off after picking up his second yellow card of the day.


The rest of Tuesday’s scores

Hamburg 1-2 Frankfurt
Freiburg 1-0 Borussia Monchengladbach