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Emotions run high as Syria’s divisive World Cup bid ends

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BEIRUT (AP) Millions of Syrians at home and abroad cheered, shouted and were ultimately left frustrated Tuesday as they watched their chance to qualify for their first ever World Cup soccer tournament end in disappointment.

The country’s impressive showing had brought hope and a rare chance to celebrate among Syrians living with a brutal civil war that has killed nearly half a million people. The “Dream,” as a Syrian TV announcer described it Tuesday, ended in a 2-1 extra-time loss to Australia.

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President Bashar Assad, who has benefited from a Syria team thrust onto the world stage, saluted the players, known as the “Qasioun Eagles” after a mountain overlooking Damascus.

“You were heroes and drew smiles on the faces of all Syrians,” Assad said in remarks carried on the presidency’s Telegram page.

Tens of thousands of people had gathered in the Umayyad square in Damascus, seat of Assad’s power, cheering and waving Syrian flags as they watched the game on giant screens.

“The Syrian team played in a mythical way. Although it lost the game, it has gained the respect of the entire world,” 25-year-old Dima Al-Sawas said as she struggled to hold back tears.

The team has been on a remarkable run despite being forced to play all its games abroad. But in a reflection of the massive divisions among Syrians amid an ongoing 7-year war, the country’s World Cup bid was not supported by many Syrians opposed to Assad, who accused him of exploiting the team.

After the match on social media, some cheered while others derided the team, largely seen as being controlled by the Syrian government.

Many among the opposition called it the “Assad Team” or the “Barrel Bomb” team, in reference to the helicopter-borne explosive barrels dropped on civilians that became a trademark of Assad’s military during the war. Images of the players wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Assad’s face at news conferences reinforced the image of a national team controlled by a dictator.

“Congratulations on the defeat of one of the most dangerous attempts by the criminal Assad to promote himself,” tweeted opposition activist Osama Abu Zeid, an adviser to rebels fighting to topple Assad.

The government had ordered Syrian schools closed to allow students to watch the game, and universities closed early to avoid traffic jams and possible roads closures. Most Syrian cafes also made preparations for the game and set up big TV screens for customers. The crowd burst in excitement and shouts of happiness when Omar al-Soma gave Syria the lead in the sixth minute.

“It was a hard luck for the Syrian team that has wasted no chance to win,” said Maher Awad, a 20-year-old university student.

The game was beamed on large screens in city squares across provinces controlled by Assad.

“We got used to victories, come on guys!” said the announcer on state-run Syrian TV, in reference to a string of military victories by Assad’s Russia and Iran-backed forces. “Twenty-three million Syrians are watching you.”

Syrian refugees in neighboring countries also rallied around TV screens in tented settlements or cafes to watch.

“Hard luck to all Syrians who were in need for happiness after seven years of war,” said Seifeddine Wannous, a Syrian who works for Iraqi TV and who fled the country to Lebanon in 2015. “Maybe its bad luck that … we were not able to play on our land. Maybe we would have made a difference.”

Associated Press writer Andrea Rosa contributed to this report.

Klopp: Liverpool “not 500 miles away” from Man City’s standard

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Jurgen Klopp remains bullish on his Liverpool’s credentials as one of the Premier League’s top-four sides title challengers this season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

While everyone else might be writing off the Reds due to their propensity for defensive disasters on an every-game basis, Klopp refuses to concede that a gap of “500 miles” exists between his side and Manchester City, the early-days runaway leaders of the 2017-18 season — quotes from the Guardian:

“I don’t compare City with us, but I think everyone can see we are not 500 miles away. But they fly. It was a very decisive day when we lost 5-0. Dealing with a 5-0 defeat is not the easiest thing. We didn’t lose confidence but we were not that fluent afterwards and it was not like we could close our eyes and finish [thinking about it]. They did exactly the opposite. I saw the Stoke goals, you see the shot from Fernandinho and you think, ‘If it works, it works even like this.’ They are a fantastic team and we don’t have to compare, but it starts so early again with us having to apologize for the season so far because one team is flying.”

“Their way of football I would say is not something we are too far away from but to be as clinical as they have been so far? We weren’t.

“That’s the thing. We are still in the race, not with City in the moment because they have I don’t how many points, and I don’t say already that we should only fight for a top-four place. Performance-wise we are a team that should be there but now we have to get the results.”

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All due respect to Klopp and Liverpool, the league table says City currently have 25 points (having played one game more), while Liverpool have 13. That’s not a difference of 500 points, but taking into account not only results but performances, it might as well be.

Ligue 1: Falcao, Balde score to keep Monaco close to PSG

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PARIS (AP) French champion Monaco got back to winning ways with a 2-0 home win against Caen on Saturday.

Monaco lost three and drew one of its previous four games in all competitions. But coach Leonardo Jardim’s side was largely in control against a Caen side that started brightly and faded after Keita Balde’s opening goal and first for Monaco.

“It was important to win, to get a bit of confidence back,” Jardim said. “We’ve been working hard and the players were very serious today.”

Captain Radamel Falcao scored his league-leading 13th from the penalty spot in the 59th, confidently sending goalkeeper Remy Vercoutre the wrong way.

The win moved second-place Monaco within three points of Paris Saint-Germain, having played one game more. Unbeaten PSG is away at bitter rival Marseille on Sunday.

Falcao’s partnership with teen star Kylian Mbappe was crucial to Monaco’s charge to the league title and the Champions League semifinals last season. Mbappe left to join PSG in a high-profile move — as did several other key players — but Falcao’s new partnership with the unselfish Balde looks a promising one.

“We’ve lost a few players and we need a bit of time, it’s been a bit difficult for us,” Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subasic said. “I hope we can stay at the top of the table and that the young players can shine. We have a lot of quality here.”

Balde has been sharp in his handful of appearances since joining from Lazio in the offseason, but mainly as a link player and a provider.

This time, the Senegal forward finished off the move as he ran onto Thomas Lemar’s perfectly weighted pass into his path, cut across a defender on the edge of the penalty area and slotted the ball into the bottom left corner.

Lemar almost created another goal when his corner was headed against the crossbar by Brazilian defender Jemerson late in the first half.

Falcao put the game beyond doubt from the spot after Slovenian midfielder Jan Repas fouled attacking midfielder Rony Lopes.


After a tricky start to his tenure at Nantes, Italian coach Claudio Ranieri has turned things around.

Nantes beat Guingamp 2-1 at home to move up to third place, extending Ranieri’s unbeaten run to eight matches after losing the first two.

Nantes, which scored through defender Chidozie Awaziem and midfielder Abdoulaye Toure, is just two points behind Monaco.

The 2 Robbies: Terriers Triumph And Chelsea Leave It Late

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe start today’s show off by discussing Huddersfield Town’s surprising win against Manchester United (00:20), Jose Mourinho’s measured post-match interview (03:50), praise Manchester City again (10:30), discuss Sean Dyche’s next move (16:10), analyze that exciting match between Chelsea and Watford (18:30) and finally, weigh in on Slaven Bilic’s future at West Ham United (27:30).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

La Liga: Barca win to maintain lead, but Valencia won’t go away

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona regained a four-point cushion atop the Spanish league with a ho-hum 2-0 win over visiting Malaga and surging Valencia dismissed Sevilla 4-0 at home on Saturday.

Barcelona faced last-placed Malaga in the closing match of the day, with added pressure from second-placed Valencia, which has won five in a row.

Barcelona is unbeaten after starting with seven straight wins and drawing with Atletico Madrid last week.

Seldom-used Gerard Deulofeu opened the scoring for Barcelona after just two minutes, and Andres Iniesta celebrated his first of the season in the second half thanks to a brilliant assist by Lionel Messi.

Defending champion Real Madrid hosts Eibar on Sunday.

Barcelona benefited from a flagrant referee misjudgment to get its go-ahead goal against Malaga. Left back Lucas Digne was allowed to center the ball after it clearly crossed the byline, and Deulofeu acrobatically back-footed it inside the net.

Despite the blow, the visitors got back up and managed to neutralize Barcelona for most of the first half, but lost striker Diego Rolan just before the second period. The Uruguayan import was forced off by injury.

Without Rolan, Malaga lacked bite in its pressure of the home backline, and Barcelona was able to polish ball circulation and find Messi with more frequency.

Messi received a clean pass from defender Javier Mascherano, drew the defense, and dropped a perfect pass for Iniesta, whose shot was deflected by defender Roberto Rosales on its way to the upper left corner.

Malaga surrendered and Barcelona dominated the rest of the way.


Gonzalo Guedes opened the scoring for Valencia near halftime with a majestic strike from outside the box after deftly outmaneuvering two defenders on the chase.

Simone Zaza added his eighth league goal after the break with a spin and low cross shot. Santi Mina came off the bench and scored the third with just five minutes to go, finishing off a speedy counterattack for the hosts.

But the show was all Guedes, and the Portuguese midfielder rounded off his great game with the closer, subtly poking the ball over goalkeeper Sergio Rico in added time.

Sevilla has lost three in a row in all competitions. Managed by Eduardo Berizzo, the team started off red-hot in La Liga but has floundered lately, ranking fifth.