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World Cup qualifying reaching its climax

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The lineup of teams at the World Cup in Russia will be confirmed over the next week.

Here’s a look at the two-leg European and intercontinental playoffs matches, as well as how African qualifying is shaping up:

NORTHERN IRELAND vs. SWITZERLAND

Northern Ireland is within reach of its first World Cup in 32 years after hitting its target of second place in a group won by defending champion Germany.

Switzerland, ranked No. 4 in August, finds itself in a tense playoff despite nine straight wins to start qualifying.

On Monday, Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic was still looking back to the 2-0 loss at Portugal last month, saying he had imagined playing a “nice friendly” game this week. He acknowledged his team was too passive against Portugal, and challenged players he did not identify to take more responsibility now.

The Swiss need to forget about that match before the first leg Thursday at Windsor Park, where only Germany has beaten Northern Ireland in a competitive match in the past four years.

Switzerland has a nine-game winning streak at home in tournament qualifiers, and hosts the return on Sunday in Basel.

CROATIA vs. GREECE

Greece is bidding to reach a major tournament again after an embarrassing qualification campaign for the 2016 European Championship.

Without defender Kostas Manolas, who is banned from the first leg, the Greeks will play at Croatia on Thursday and then host the return match on Sunday.

Manolas is out because FIFA suspended him for trying to manipulate his disciplinary record by deliberately earning a yellow card against Cyprus on Oct. 7. The decision compounded problems for coach Michael Skibbe, who is missing midfielder Petros Mantalos and striker Tasos Donis because of injury.

Croatia is set to miss defensive midfielder Milan Badelj�for both matches against Greece.

The Croatians and the Greeks were in the playoffs for the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Croatia eliminated Iceland 2-0 on aggregate, while Greece beat Romania 4-2 on aggregate.

SWEDEN vs. ITALY

Four-time champion Italy has participated in every World Cup since failing to qualify for the 1958 tournament, which coincidentally was held in Sweden.

But Italy has showed poor form recently, ever since a 3-0 loss to Spain in September. After that match, Italy edged Israel 1-0, drew 1-1 with Macedonia and beat Albania 1-0.

While Sweden didn’t qualify for the last two World Cups, it impressed in qualifying with a win over France and finished ahead of the Netherlands.

“We are winners just by being here,” Sweden coach Janne Andersson said.

The first leg will be in Sweden on Friday, with the return match on Monday in Italy.

Sweden went unbeaten at home in qualifying at Friends Arena and striker Marcus Berg scored eight times in nine matches.

DENMARK vs. IRELAND

Being in the playoffs for a major tournament is nothing new for Ireland.

This will be the team’s ninth time, and they have lost five of them – including against France ahead of the 2010 World Cup when Thierry Henry clearly handled the ball in the build-up to the crucial goal.

The first leg will be in Denmark on Saturday. Ireland will host the second leg on Tuesday.

Ireland has effectively already won one playoff – by beating Wales 1-0 in its final qualifier – and will likely rely on the counterattacking tactics that worked so well in Cardiff.

While there are no real stars in the Ireland team, Denmark has a standout in Christian Eriksen – one of European soccer’s best playmakers over the past few years at Tottenham. He scored eight times from midfield in qualifying.

The Danes’ 4-0 win over Poland in group play highlights their potential and they are also higher in the FIFA rankings, at No. 19 compared to Ireland’s No. 26.

The managers – Martin O’Neill and Age Hareide – are former teammates at English club Norwich.

AUSTRALIA vs. HONDURAS

This is the scenario Australia aimed to avoid when it switched from Oceania to the Asian Football Confederation after the 2006 World Cup: A last-ditch intercontinental playoff in the Americas for a spot at soccer’s marquee event.

Australian players traveled from three continents to assemble in Honduras this week to prepare for Friday’s first leg. The return match will be in Australia on Wednesday.

It was a similar scenario when the Australians played Uruguay for a place at the 2006 tournament. Uruguay won 1-0 in Montevideo, and Australia leveled it up with a 1-0 win in Sydney before advancing 4-2 on penalties. It ended a long drought for the Socceroos, who had failed to advance from the last playoff stage in 1986 (against Scotland), in 1994 (against Argentina), in 1998 (against Iran), and in 2002 (against Uruguay).

Tim Cahill, the only player still active from that playoff series in 2005 and now Australia’s all-time leading scorer, is in doubt because of an ankle injury.

NEW ZEALAND vs. PERU

New Zealand will return to the scene of one of its greatest triumphs when it hosts Peru on Saturday.

In 2009, New Zealand beat Bahrain 1-0 in front of a crowd of 35,000 at the Wellington Regional Stadium to qualify for the World Cup for the second time. It had previously qualified in 1982, the same year in which Peru made its last World Cup appearance.

The return leg will be in Peru on Wednesday.

Rory Fallon, who scored New Zealand’s winning goal in that match eight years ago, has been recalled to the All Whites after a one-year absence. He is currently playing for Dorchester in the seventh tier of English soccer. That win over Bahrain briefly put soccer center-stage in a rugby-mad country and Saturday’s match will likely do so again. The match is a sellout.

Peru, ranked No. 10, starts as the overwhelming favorite against 122nd-ranked New Zealand but have a significant setback, with striker Paolo Guerrero ruled out after failing a doping test. Guerrero scored six goals in qualifying.

AFRICA

Africa’s last three World Cup places will be decided on the final group games in qualifying, when Ivory Coast could miss out and Congo could qualify for the first time since 1974.

Two of the five groups are settled, with Nigeria and Egypt already through.

Tunisia and Congo will tussle for a place from Group A. Tunisia has a three-point advantage, so Congo needs to beat Guinea and hope Tunisia loses at home to Libya. If that happens, the World Cup place will go to the team with the best goal difference.

Morocco and Ivory Coast face a straight shootout in Group C when Morocco travels to Abidjan. Ivory Coast must win to sneak through to the World Cup and deny former coach Herve Renard, now with Morocco.

Senegal can seal its place on Friday in a contentious qualifier against South Africa, a game ordered by FIFA to be played again because of match-fixing by the referee. Senegal lost the initial game but if it wins on its second chance, it’ll be through to the World Cup.

That will lead to serious discontent from the other teams. Burkina Faso, hoping to go to the World Cup for the first time, has already appealed against FIFA’s decision.

Jonas nets 2 late goals to keep Benfica in title hunt

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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Jonas scored two late goals to lead Benfica’s 3-1 comeback win at Pacos Ferreira on Saturday, keeping it close to Portuguese league leader FC Porto.

Jonas equalized in the 72nd minute and gave the defending champion the lead in the 88th.

[ MORE: Man United-Chelsea meet in giant Sunday PL clash ]

Rafa Silva added a third goal after the host was reduced to 10 men in stoppage time when Gian dos Santos was shown a direct red card.

Luiz Phellype gave Pacos Ferreira the lead in the ninth.

The double increased Jonas’ league-leading tally to 27 goals.

Benfica moved to within two points of Porto before the pacesetter visits Portimonense on Sunday.

Sporting Lisbon is third at five points behind Porto. It hosts Moreirense on Monday.

Orlando City trades defender Jose Aja to Whitecaps for allocation money

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The Vancouver Whitecaps have struck a deal with an Eastern Conference side to help solidify their back line.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Johannsson leads Werder Bremen to win ]

On Saturday, the Cascadia club finalized a deal to acquire Orlando City defender Jose Aja in exchange for $125,000 in Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) for 2019.

Additionally, Orlando could receive another $100,000 in TAM if Aja remains on the Whitecaps roster next season and a 2021 second-round MLS SuperDraft pick if Aja is in Canada for the 2020 campaign.

Aja has made 25 appearances for Orlando since coming to MLS in 2016 from his native Uruguay.

The timing of the deal is intriguing, given Tim Parker’s willingness to exit the Whitecaps ahead of the 2018 MLS season.

PST reported on Thursday that Parker is seeking a move back to the East Coast, and the New York-native is being tracked by several Eastern Conference sides, including the New York Red Bulls, D.C. United and the Montreal Impact.

Parker is considered one of the top American defenders in MLS, and is actively seeking a massive pay raise ahead of the new season, after making just under $100,000 in 2017.

PL Sunday preview: Red Devils battle Chelsea at Old Trafford

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It will surely be one of the biggest fixtures of the season when Manchester United and Chelsea get together on Sunday, and for both clubs a victory could be vital in projecting their form for the rest of the 2017/18 campaign.

Meanwhile, a crucial meeting at Selhurst Park pits teams on opposite ends of the table against one another. Crystal Palace enters the weekend levels on points with 18th-place Swansea, while Tottenham could leap Chelsea for fourth if results go in favor of Spurs.

[ MORE: Liverpool continues to score at lightning pace against West Ham ]

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN

The injury bug has hit Palace hard as of late, with a total of 12 senior team players being left out of Roy Hodgson‘s squad. The list includes Wilfried Zaha, Yohan Cabaye and Mamadou Sakho, which won’t make things easy against a talented Spurs side.

Tottenham have had a ton of success in this fixture recently, winning the last five encounters and only allowing one goal in the process.

Mauricio Pochettino‘s men have hit the ground running in the second half of the season thus far, picking up a league-high 15 points in the Premier League since the start of 2018.

If there is a saving grace for the Eagles though, it is that Palace has been solid at home this season, and gone unbeaten in nine of its last 10 fixtures at Selhurst.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea — 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN

After a pair of draws from the PL sides kicked off their Champions League Round of 16 campaigns midweek, United and Chelsea can now focus their attention back to England; at least for the time being.

Jose Mourinho’s team came away from Seville with a crucial scoreless draw after the hosts tested goalkeeper David De Gea on numerous occasions, while Chelsea were close to pulling out a victory against Barcelona had it not been for a big-time mistake from Andreas Christensen late in the match.

Nonetheless, this is a fixture that always garners significant attention, especially from the Blues, who tend to have a better go of it. United has won just once against Chelsea in their last 14 fixtures, with the lone victory coming last season.

That said, Antonio Conte and his side have failed to exemplify consistency this year, and that includes road matches. The Blues have just two road wins in their last nine attempts across all competitions, which bodes well for the Red Devils.

The good news for Chelsea is the recent form of attacking duo Willian and Eden Hazard. The Brazilian was constantly in dangerous positions up the pitch against the Blaugrana in their recent UCL encounter, nabbing the lone goal for the Blues, while Hazard has scored six times in his last six PL matches.

The 2 Robbies: Unstoppable Liverpool, Man United-Chelsea and more

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In today’s episode, Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe discuss Liverpool’s emphatic win over West Ham (0:17), breakdown an extremely complicated relegation situation where nearly half of the league is in jeopardy of going down (10:05), before closing the show with a preview of tomorrow’s Man United v. Chelsea match (28:10).

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.

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