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Isn’t there a better way for UEFA to sort out its World Cup berths?

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There’s euphoria in Portugal and frustration in Switzerland after goal differential propelled Cristiano Ronaldo’s men into the World Cup after the Group B teams finished with twin 9W-1L marks.

There’s bitterness in Italy and relief in Spain after the two recent World Cup winners did battle in Group G, almost inexplicably allowed to be drawn together.

[ UEFA: Who’s qualified, and who’s in the playoffs? ]

And how about Slovakia, who was punished for finishing second to England and ahead of Slovenia and Scotland in a very tricky group?

Then there’s Group I, with Iceland snaring the only automatic spot in what was probably the deepest group in UEFA. Croatia gets to contend a playoff, but Ukraine and Turkey are left on the outside looking into Russia.

At the risk of being labeled reactive, UEFA needs to sort itself out when it comes to World Cup qualifying.

Already handed the most spots in the world, deservedly you must admit, the methodology of European qualifying is never going to satisfy everyone. But surely there’s a way to narrow the minnows a bit faster.

France had to go to the playoffs in 2014 qualifying because, like Italy, it had the misfortune of drawing Spain.

Meanwhile, the world is treated to score lines like this:

Sweden 8-0 Luxembourg (2018)
San Marino 0-8 Germany (2018)
Belgium 9-0 Gibraltar (2018)
Ukraine 9-0 San Marino (2014)
England 6-0 Andorra (2010)
Liechtenstein 0-6 Germany (2010)

Those score lines don’t happen in Asia, where there were only two 4-goal wins in the final round of qualifiers (60). Africa has one 6-goal blowout and three 4-goal wins so far. CONCACAF has USMNT 6-0 Honduras and two 4-goal wins (including a U.S. win and loss). CONMEBOL has no worse than a pair of 5-0 away Bolivia losses. Even Oceania isn’t a total cakewalk for New Zealand.

How to remedy? Some of this in moot if the World Cup field is expanded again. But, in 2006 the top two second placed teams automatically went to the World Cup, which would put Switzerland and Italy into the fray this time around (and that seems fair).

Or maybe this idea would pop, and follow me here:

— UEFA has 52 teams fighting for 13 places in the 2018 World Cup. It gets 14 matches this cycle because a European team is hosting (Russia), so normally it’s 53 teams going for 13.

— Right now each team plays a minimum of 10 matches plus a potential two playoff legs.

— I propose that the top teams are separated from the bottom teams for an initial group stage. X numbers of nations, say 8 of the 13 berths, earn a spot from competing with only the best of the best.

— The bottom group, based on previously performances in European and international competitions in a similar fashion to the Champions League, sees Y number of nations battling for the right to reach the second stage.

— The second stage sees a second group stage instead of one-off playoffs, with faltering top teams facing the best of a second tier.

Essentially, you’d have teams like France, Spain, and Italy fighting each other for an automatic spot and the chance to put their squads through less important matches before the big tournament. And you’d give Andorra, Belarus, Moldova, and the like an opportunity to claim more wins in front of home fans.

Based on the standings from this year’s qualifying, this is a much more attractive option for fans, the game, and the powers.

Ligue 1: PSG return to comfort zone, thrash Strasbourg

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PARIS (AP) After falling short in the Champions League, Paris Saint-Germain returned to its French league comfort zone and beat Strasbourg 5-2 on Saturday.

Edinson Cavani netted twice, and Julian Draxler, Angel Di Maria, and Neymar also scored to ensure PSG stayed 12 points clear of second-place Monaco at the top.

But not without a fright.

Strasbourg took the lead in the sixth minute and pulled back to 3-2 as PSG continued to show alarming signs of weakness at the back. Strasbourg had a late goal incorrectly ruled out for offside after PSG’s defense was again easily breached, although it was already 5-2 by then.

PSG lost at Real Madrid 3-1 on Wednesday in the first leg of the last 16. The way PSG capitulated by giving away two late goals heaped pressure on coach Unai Emery over his team selection.

“The atmosphere was a bit tense. That’s normal,” Cavani said. “We have to look forward now. We played well today, although at times we could have been better.”

Emery was booed by sections of the home crowd when his name was announced over the loudspeaker before the game. Later, Cavani stopped short of giving Emery his personal backing when asked if the under-fire coach has the full support of the players.

“We’re a team and big teams stick together in the important moments,” Cavani said. “That’s the only way you can win.”

Strasbourg beat PSG at home in December, and stunned the crowd at Parc des Princes by taking the lead when midfielder Jean-Eudes Aholou was left completely unmarked near the penalty spot.

PSG hit back hard and was 3-1 up after 23 minutes thanks to Draxler, Di Maria and Neymar’s 19th in 19 league games.

Stephane Bahoken scored against PSG for the second time this season after a quick counterattack. Strasbourg poured forward but the hope didn’t last for long.

Cavani gave PSG some breathing space with an assured finish in the 72nd, clipping the ball over goalkeeper Alexandre Oukidja, then lobbed him for his league-leading 23rd goal.

“It was important to win after Wednesday’s match. We have to get our fans ready for the games to come against Marseille (next weekend) and Real Madrid,” Emery said. “We have to show we can maintain this level of play against better sides, with all due respect to Strasbourg.”

To celebrate Chinese New Year, PSG players’ names were written in Mandarin on the back of their shirts and a Chinese dragon paraded around the pitch. PSG says it has 1.3 million Chinese followers.

In order to better serve the soccer market in Asia, the league match between Nice and PSG on March 18 has been moved forward to 1 p.m. local time (1200 GMT).


Marseille players will also have their names in Mandarin for Sunday’s home game against Bordeaux at Stade Velodrome. Marseille recently launched an account on Chinese social media site Weibo.

Striker Giovanni Sio’s second-half equalizer gave Montpellier the point it needed to take fifth place after drawing with Guingamp 1-1.

Two goals from newly signed striker Diafra Sakho gave Rennes a 2-2 draw at Caen, which missed two penalties.

Saint-Etienne won at Angers 1-0, Troyes beat last-place Metz 1-0, and Amiens drew with Toulouse 0-0 in another relegation scrap.

In Sunday’s other games, fourth-place Lyon goes to Lille, and Nice hosts Nantes.

Pardew ‘furious’ after four WBA players steal taxi in Spain

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At least when you’re bottom of the Premier League table and appear headed for relegation, as West Bromwich Albion now find themselves, you can take the positive approach that “the only way to go from here is up.”

[ FA CUP: Man United advance, drawn against PL opposition in QF ]

Alternatively, four of your most senior players — Jonny Evans, Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore and Boaz Myhill, in this case — might have other ideas and elect to steal a cab during a late-season training camp in Barcelona. That’s the current state of affairs for the Baggies and manager Alan Pardew, who openly admits he was “furious” and felt “let down” — quotes from the Guardian:

“This is obviously not ideal. They broke the curfew and that’s unacceptable and I feel a bit let down by that.”

“It’s difficult for managers. Obviously, I was furious with what happened but at the same time I’ve got to stay faithful to the players and give them a chance to remedy the situation.”

The night’s timeline reads something like this: the quartet wanted to go out in the city center, but everything was closed late at night; they got a taxi to a McDonald’s by the Barcelona port; the driver left the car, at which point the players decided to drive back to the team hotel around 5:30 a.m.; the care was returned to the cab driver around 8 a.m.

Evans was stripped of his captaincy for Saturday’s FA Cup fifth-round defeat to Southampton. The players have since released the following statement through the club’s website:

“We felt it important we identify ourselves as the players involved in an incident which occurred during the training camp in Spain this week out of respect for team-mates who otherwise could be implicated by association. We freely acknowledge and apologize for the break of curfew which we accept represented a breach of the standards of professionalism required of us as representatives of West Bromwich Albion.

“The club has informed us that it will now conduct its own inquiry into the incident and we will cooperate fully. In the meantime, we would like to assure our supporters that this incident does not reflect the determination and resolve we possess to do all we can to recover a difficult season.”

With 11 games left to play, West Brom currently sit seven points adrift of safety; Pardew’s position grows more and more tenuous with each point dropped; and three of their final 11 games are against Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.

Serie A: Turkish youngster Under fires Roma back into 3rd

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ROME (AP) The rapid development of 20-year-old Turkey winger Cengiz Under is playing a big role in Roma’s revival.

Under scored his fourth goal in three matches and Roma won at Udinese 2-0 for its third straight win in Serie A on Saturday.

Roma moved into third place, two points ahead of Inter Milan, which lost at Genoa 2-0.

It’s a drastic improvement from where Roma was a month ago, when the Giallorossi were mired in a five-match winless streak that risked dropping them out of contention for the Champions League places.

“We’re getting back on track to where we were in the first half of the season,” forward Diego Perotti said.

Roma went ahead when Under unleashed a powerful, rising shot from beyond the area in the 70th.

Perotti sealed the victory in the 90th with an angled effort after Udinese gave the ball away near midfield.

Under is having a breakout month.

First, he scored after 43 seconds when Roma ended a five-match winless streak by beating Hellas Verona 1-0. Then he had a brace and also delivered an assist in a 5-2 win over Benevento last weekend.

All this after not being involved in any goals in his first 14 matches with Roma.

“He plays far more for the team than himself,” Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco said of Under. “His greatest strength is being able to prepare his shot with great speed, making him difficult to close down.”

Added Perotti, “He’s very humble and he doesn’t speak Italian yet but he’s well behaved and is a great kid. He deserves all of this.”

On Wednesday, Roma visits Shakhtar Donetsk in the first leg of the Champions League last 16.

“We’ve got to make the most of the fact they’ve had a winter break and might not be match fit,” Di Francesco said of the Ukrainian side. “They have a lot of quality in attack and are dangerous, but we shouldn’t change our attitude.”


Inter’s defense was in shambles against Genoa.

The hosts took the lead before the break when a failed clearance attempt from Milan Skriniar ricocheted off of a stunned Andrea Ranocchia, who was charged with an own goal.

Then former Inter striker Goran Pandev was left unmarked to score from the center of the area midway through the second half.

Inter hasn’t won at regional rival Genoa in more than seven years.

Chievo Verona took a big step toward avoiding relegation with a 2-1 win over visiting Cagliari.

Emanuele Giaccherini and Roberto Inglese scored late for the hosts before Leonardo Pavoletti pulled one back for Cagliari.

Chievo moved up to 14th, level on points with Cagliari, eight points above the drop zone.

La Liga: Barca’s 31-game unbeaten run ties longest in club history

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ FA CUP: Man United advance, drawn against PL opposition in QF ]

Eibar 0-2 Barcelona

Barcelona, the last remaining unbeaten side from Europe’s five major domestic leagues, warmed up for Tuesday’s Champions League round-of-16 clash with Chelsea by dismantling seventh-place Eibar side away from home on Saturday and extending their unbeaten run to 31 games in the league, tying the club’s all-time record in the process.

The Blaugrana took the lead after 15 minutes, when Lionel Messi slotted an inch-perfect through ball for Luis Suarez who rounded the goalkeeper and slotted home (WATCH HERE) for his 17th league goal of the season (20 in all competitions).

Messi played his part in Barca’s second goal, which came three minutes before full-time. The Argentine’s shot was initially saved, but Jordi Alba arrived on the scene moments later to clean up and finish off the 10-man Basque minnows.

The victory sends Barca 10 points clear of second-place Atletico Madrid, who play on Sunday, and 20 points clear of fourth-place Real Madrid, who have played two fewer games thus far.

Malaga 1-2 Valencia

Valencia, who spent the majority of the season’s first half as Barca’s nearest title rivals (while never really challenging), fell to third when they recently lost three straight league games, but have since regained their footing with back-to-back wins, including Saturday’s come-from-behind triumph away to last-place Malaga.

Brown Ideye put Malaga ahead just before the half-hour mark, a lead which remained intact for more than 50 minutes. Alas, Francis Coquelin bagged his first goal for Valencia in the 80th minute to draw level, followed by a penalty kick converted by Dani Parejo five minutes later.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Las Palmas 1-2 Sevilla
Alaves 1-0 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Real Sociedad vs. Levante — 6 a.m. ET
Atletico Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao — 10:15 a.m. ET
Espanyol vs. Villarreal — 12:30 p.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Real Madrid — 2:45 p.m. ET