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Argentina feels World Cup pressure; Brazil set to party

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SAO PAULO (AP) Argentina was the runner-up in the last World Cup. This time it’s under rising pressure just to qualify.

That pressure will be felt even more in its match Tuesday against Bolivia in the thin air of La Paz, which is located in the Andes at 3,650 meters (11,900 feet) altitude.

Argentina has not won a match there since 2005, upping the stakes a bit more.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

Meanwhile, South American rival Brazil will gear up for possible early qualification if it beats Paraguay in Sao Paulo. To advance, the South American group leader needs a victory and a few other results to fall its way. But win or lose, Brazil is heading for the World Cup in Russia with five rounds of qualifying remaining.

Argentina cannot be so confident.

Second-placed Uruguay faces a winnable match at lowly Peru, and fourth-placed Colombia has a real test at fifth-placed Ecuador. Sixth-placed Chile welcomes last-placed Venezuela in Santiago, hoping to climb back into qualifying position.

With five rounds to go, Brazil has 30 points – more than enough to secure a spot in previous World Cups. Uruguay has 23 and Argentina 22.

With Brazil almost sure to advance – and Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru struggling at the bottom – that leaves six teams fighting for the three remaining automatic spots for Russia. Another South American team could also advance in a playoff.

[ MORE: Wood looks ahead to working with Arena, praises Klinsmann ]

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ARGENTINA

Argentina put on a poor performance on Thursday, but managed to beat Chile 1-0 in Buenos Aires after a controversial penalty was conceded and converted by Barcelona star Lionel Messi.

The visitors will miss suspended Barcelona midfielder Javier Mascherano, which is making coach Edgardo Bauza think of dramatic changes to the team.

Before the win against Chile and the loss of Mascherano, Bauza was considering a defensive 5-4-1 formation in La Paz, hoping to save his players’ energy and capitalize on the ball-holding Mascherano. Now he may be forced into a more offensive formation that relies less on counterattacking.

Bolivian coach Mauricio Soria, who spared some of his main players in the 1-0 defeat at Colombia on Thursday, said his team will not be intimidated by the Argentine stars and should push hard against them. His team will be rested and in familiar surroundings.

“We hope we can make them feel a lot of their fears,” Soria said.

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BRAZIL

After the impressive thrashing of Uruguay 4-1 in Montevideo, Brazil is so close to the World Cup spot that many players are already looking for new challenges as Brazil chases it sixth World Cup title.

For the spot to be assured, Brazil needs to beat Paraguay and see Venezuela overcome Chile in Santiago. Also, Colombia needs to get its first win at Ecuador in 20 years.

Even if the “official” qualification doesn’t come, there will surely be a party at Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo.

Coach Tite, who has won seven straight games in qualifiers since he took over in September, had his best days at Corinthians. He won two Brazilian championships, one Copa Libertadores, and the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup title after a 1-0 victory over England’s Chelsea in Japan.

Defender Fagner, also a Corinthians player, will replace suspended Dani Alves.

“I feel no pressure, I want to enjoy every moment of this,” Fagner told reporters.

If he doesn’t do well, Tite has already brought Sevilla’s Mariano for a test.

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COLOMBIA

The Colombia vs. Ecuador match could be key to the aspirations of both teams: Colombia has 21 points, and Ecuador has 20.

The disappointing performance in the 1-0 victory over Bolivia on Thursday is making Colombia fans worry that their team might not qualify for the World Cup. The game in Quito promises to be even more complicated now that coach Jose Pekerman’s side has lost its best striker to injury. Luis Muriel had a right-leg injury and will likely be replaced by Miguel Borja or Carlos Bacca.

History does not favor Colombia: it has been 20 years since Colombia last beat Ecuador at the Atahualpa stadium.

Ecuador also has problems for the key clash. Striker Miller Bolanos and midfielder Christian Noboa will be out and their replacements are not yet set.

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Watch Live: Bournemouth vs. Swansea City

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Two sides aching for safety meet at the Vitality Stadium on Saturday, as Bournemouth hosts Swansea City in a relegation six-pointer (Watch live at 1:30 p.m. EDT on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Resurgent Swans open the day above the drop zone, and can join struggling Bournemouth on 30 points with a win on the road.

LINEUPS

Bournemouth: Boruc; Smith, Francis, Cook, Daniels, Fraser, Surman, Gosling, Pugh, King, Afobe. Subs: Allsop, Smith, Cargill, Cook, Wilshere, Ibe, Gradel.

Swansea City: Fabianski; Carroll, Mawson, Fernandez, Fer, Cork, Kingsley, Ki, Ayew, Sigurdsson, Llorente. Subs: Nordfeldt, Roberts, Amat, Britton, Routledge, Narsingh, Borja.

West Ham 2-3 Leicester: Foxes win fourth-straight game

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  • Four-straight wins for Leicester
  • Goals from Mahrez, Huth, Vardy enough
  • Hammers without a win in five
  • Leicester six points above drop zone

Fresh from reaching the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, Leicester beat West Ham United 3-2 in a thriller at the London Stadium on Saturday as Craig Shakespeare’s incredible run in charge of the Foxes continues.

First half goals from Riyad Mahrez, Robert Huth and Jamie Vardy put Leicester in a commanding half time lead as Manuel Lanzini‘s free kick made it 3-1. Despite Andre Ayew pulling one back to set up a nervous finish the Foxes held on for the vital victory with Kasper Schmeichel making a string of fine saves.

With the win, their first away victory in the Premier League all season, Leicester move on to 30 points, while West Ham stay on 33.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Leicester took the lead early on as Mahrez cut in from the right flank and whipped a cross towards the back post which missed everyone and found the far corner of the net. 1-0 to the Foxes but poor goalkeeping from Darren Randolph.

Moments later it was 2-0 as a set piece saw Mahrez set up Marc Albrighton and his clever ball into the box was headed home by Huth. Less than eight minutes on the clock and it was 2-0 to Leicester.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Lanzini then stepped up and smashed home a beauty of a free kick to cut the deficit with the Hammers back in the game.

West Ham were transformed after that goal and they thought they’d equalized but Andy Carroll‘s effort from Michail Antonio‘s cross was ruled out for offside.

Just when West Ham looked like getting back into the match, Leicester scored again. A corner from the right found Vardy in the box and he smashed home from close range. 3-1 to the Foxes.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

As West Ham pushed to get back into the game they left plenty of gaps for Leicester to exploit and Vardy raced clear but dinked his effort over the onrushing Randolph and off target.

The Hammers found a way back into this contest as a corner to the back post found Carroll and his header across goal was headed home by Ayew from close range. 2-3. Game on.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

Late on West Ham piled forward in search of a dramatic equalizer with Carroll denied by Schmeichel who pulled off a fine save, then Ayew missed a glorious chance after being put clean through and Cheikhou Kouyate had a shot cleared off the line.

Schmeichel then played the role of hero again as he blocked Carroll’s close-range shot with a magnificent sprawling save.

Leicester held on the for a massive win to significantly boost their survival hopes.

Petr Cech suffers calf injury for Arsenal

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Talk about kicking you while you’re down…

[ VIDEO: Plane carrying Wenger banners

As planes with contrasting messages (#WengerOut and #RespectAW) flew over the Hawthorns on Saturday, Arsene Wenger watched on as his star goalkeeper pulled up with what appears to be an injured calf.

Moments after making a superb save from Darren Fletcher, Cech appeared to pull his calf when passing a ball out of the box.

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He walked off by himself but David Ospina came on and now Wenger faces an anxious wait to find out how serious this injury is.

Cech, 34, has retired from international soccer so now has two weeks to recover over the break but this injury is far from ideal.

With the top four battle so tight this season, every little factor counts.

Ospina is a very able deputy to Cech but there’s no doubting that Arsenal’s defense has improved dramatically since the Czech Republic legend joined from Chelsea in 2015.