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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.

Premier League preview: Man United vs. Newcastle United

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  • Red Devils unbeaten in 31 of last 32 home fixtures vs. Newcastle
  • Newcastle winless in its last six PL matches
  • Lukaku hasn’t scored in United’s last seven games

Manchester United hosts Newcastle United on Saturday from Old Trafford (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com) as the Red Devils could potentially welcome back several of it biggest stars for the match.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Marcos Rojo could return for Jose Mourinho’s side this weekend, as Man United looks to bounce back from its 1-0 defeat to Chelsea on Nov. 5.

The ex-Sweden international Ibrahimovic hasn’t appeared in a match since April 2017, after being United’s top goalscorer a season ago.

The Red Devils will have to deal with the absence of Phil Jones at the back, though, as the England international misses out on the match with a thigh injury.

Newcastle will be without Christian Atsu and Jamaal Lascelles, which certainly hurts the squad’s attack, while Mikel Merino and Paul Dummett remain sidelined with respective injuries.

What they’re saying

Jose Mourinho, on Paul Pogba’s status:  “I can say now because he’s back – I don’t like to speak while he’s injured – you can clearly see there is a Manchester United this season before Paul’s injury and after Paul’s injury. There are qualities in our football, qualities that influence our approach in matches, with Pogba and without Pogba. Simple as that.”

Rafa Benitez, on growing pains of being a young side“We are a newly-promoted club that has to settle down in the Premier League. We have a young squad, so it’s a learning process for everyone and losing some games is part of the process. Hopefully we can stop that this weekend, but we know it has to be like this. We have to think that the target is to stay in the Premier League, then after try to go as high as we can in the table.”

Prediction

Newcastle has had its share of struggles this season, and running into a Man United side that is gaining full fitness is a dangerous task. The Red Devils are a tough squad to beat at home, so Rafa Benitez and Co. have their hands full. Man United 2-0 Newcastle

Luiz back in Chelsea squad after being dropped by Conte

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David Luiz‘s pair of stints at Chelsea have been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride of emotions — joyous highs and painful lows.

[ MORE: Pogba, Zlatan back form injuries; available this weekend ]

After returning to the club for a second time in the summer of 2016, Luiz instantly slotted into Antonio Conte‘s three-man backline and was a pivotal part of the Blues’ title-winning team last season.

Much like the second half of his first four seasons at Chelsea, Luiz’s second season (the second time around) has started so hotly. After playing eight of the first 10 games during Chelsea’s ongoing title defense, Luiz was unexpectedly dropped from the squad for the victory over Manchester United.

Now, two weeks later, Conte has announced that Luiz has rejoined the squad and is available for selection when his side visits West Brom on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold) — quotes from the Guardian:

“David Luiz is in the squad, yes. [His exclusion] was a technical decision. When it’s a technical decision every player has to react well and accept my decision. It’s normal, this.

“I like to speak about the team and the next game that we have to pay attention to. This is the most important thing, not speaking about a single player. I repeat: I don’t like to speak about a single player.”

Pogba, Zlatan, Rojo return from injuries for Man Utd-Newcastle

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The only saving grace when it comes to injuries is that, eventually (usually), players recover from them and return to the team.

[ MORE: 2018 World Cup Power Rankings — who comes out on top? ]

It’s been a long seven months for the soccer world to be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic (torn ACL on April 20), just as it’s been a painfully long 10 weeks for Manchester United fans following Paul Pogba‘s hamstring injury on Sept. 12. Man United have dropped eight points during the latter’s absence and now coincidentally sit eight points behind Manchester City in the Premier League title race.

A bit of good news on this Friday: United manager Jose Mourinho announced today that the dynamic duo, along with defender Marcos Rojo (knee ligament damage on April 20) have returned to full fitness and will be available for selection during Saturday’s home clash with Newcastle United (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com) — quotes from ManUtd.com:

“The players that stayed here and [were] recovering from injuries, even the ones that are recovering from big injuries, they are ready to play — Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo.”

“[Ibrahimovic] made a full recovery. Now you cannot expect him to be ready to play 90 minutes or to be ready to play consecutive matches like he did all his career.

“Now he needs time to be back to his level, his fitness, his confidence, his sharpness, his everything. But, from the clinical point of view, to be good and ready is fantastic.”

2018 World Cup Power Rankings — 7 months B.W.C.

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209 days — that’s how long the world is still being made to wait for the opening game of the 2018 World Cup. It’s close, in that all 32 berths have been secured, but still so far, in that the draw is still two weeks away.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s 2018 World Cup coverage | USMNT | Premier League ]

Perhaps then, and only then, will it begin to feel really real.

According to our esteemed panelists — Joe Prince-Wright, Nicholas Mendola, Kyle Bonn, Matt Reed, Dan Karell and yours truly — four clear-cut favorites for the semifinals have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, followed by another six or eight sides with one half of their squad firing on all cylinders but some serious kinks to work out elsewhere.

[ MORE: Round 1 of the WC power rankings | Round 2 ]

Finally, the latest edition of PST’s 2018 World Cup Power Rankings, now featuring all 32 teams qualified for Russia…

Team Points Best Worst
1 (1) Germany 189 1 2
2 (2) Brazil 188 1 3
3 (4) Spain 177 3 5
4 (3) France 176 3 5
5 (8) Argentina 158 4 10
6 (5) Belgium 156 4 10
7 (7) Portugal 153 6 10
8 (11) England 150 5 12
9 (6) Uruguay 141 6 14
10 (9) Colombia 140 7 12
11 (10) Mexico 129 8 14
12 (12) Poland 125 10 14
13 (20) Croatia 118 7 20
14 (17) Switzerland 115 12 16
15 (NR) Sweden 92 16 19
16 (NR) Denmark 86 13 23
17 (NR) Serbia 83 9 28
18 (NR) Peru 80 15 25
19 (15) Iceland 79 15 24
20 (16) Japan 71 16 27
21 (NR) Egypt 66 18 27
22 (NR) South Korea 64 13 32
23 (NR) Senegal 63 17 26
24 (18) Nigeria 58 15 27
25 (19) Costa Rica 57 14 29
26 (NR) Morocco 48 18 29
27 (NR) Australia 45 22 30
28 (NR) Russia 36 20 32
29 (NR) Iran 34 22 31
30 (NR) Tunisia 30 23 31
31 (NR) Panama 19 28 32
32 (NR) Saudi Arabia 9 31 32