Gareth Bale

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World Cup qualifiers: Wales in trouble; Buffon hits 1000

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Friday’s matches mark the midway point of the main round of qualifying in UEFA, and the tables remain tight near the top of Groups D and G.

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Group I, however, is seeing some distance between first and second thanks to Croatia’s result versus Ukraine.

Republic of Ireland 0-0 Wales

Neil Taylor was sent off in the 69th minute for Wales, whose World Cup hopes are in trouble.

Seamus Coleman was stretchered off after the tackle, with a scary-looking injury that will leave Everton fans sick in more ways than one. Coleman’s leg was broken, and left dangling by the challenge.

Ireland couldn’t take advantage of the sending off, and failed in a bid to overtake Serbia for first in Group D. The Irish trail on goal differential, and will host Serbia on Sept. 5.

But Wales will rue the result more, remaining four points back of second-place Ireland. Chris Coleman’s side drops a point behind Austria as well, and will not have Taylor or Gareth Bale (card accumulation) in its next match. That comes against leaders Serbia.

Italy 2-0 Albania

Daniele De Rossi scored a 12th minute penalty kick won by Andrea Belotti, and Ciro Immobile scored late to provided the goals in Gianluigi Buffon’s 1000th appearance for club and country. Fittingly, it ended in a clean sheet. The match was briefly delayed after flares were thrown onto the field.

Spain 4-1 Israel

David Silva, Vitolo, and Diego Costa stakes the Spaniards to a three-goal lead, with Lior Refaelov ruining David De Gea‘s clean sheet with 11 minutes to play. Isco scored the match’s final goal.

Spain remains atop Group G on goal differential, eight better than second place Italy. Israel is four points behind both.

Croatia 1-0 Ukraine

Fiorentina’s Nikola Kalinic’s 38th minute goal was enough for the hosts, and Croatia is now five points clear of Ukraine and three above Iceland midway through qualifying.

Elsewhere
Austria 2-0 Moldova — RB Leipzig’s Sabitzer nabs winner
Liechtenstein 0-3 Macedonia — Ilija Nestorovski bags brace
Kosovo 1-2 Iceland — Sigurdsson PK the match winner
Georgia 1-3 Serbia — Mitrovic, Tadic lead the way
Turkey 2-0 Finland — Brace for Cenk Tosun

Schedule, preview for UEFA World Cup qualifying

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Three full days of 2018 World Cup qualifying are coming your way.

This will be a lot of fun.

[ MORE: 5 key questions for USMNT ]

Plenty of crunch qualifiers will be pivotal in deciding the fate of teams across Europe as just the top team from the nine groups goes automatically through to the finals in Russia, plus the eight best second-placed teams earn their spot in a home and away playoff for the four remaining spots.

The main game to look out for on Friday is the Republic of Ireland hosting Wales in Dublin with Group D finely poised. Ireland currently leads the group with 10 points but Austria is in second on eight points and Wales in third on six points. Just like he did at EURO 2016 (remember Chris Coleman’s Wales made the semifinals) Gareth Bale will be the talisman for the Welsh at the Aviva Stadium. Ireland knows that a draw isn’t disastrous but a win would put them in a very strong position to reach their first World Cup since 2002.

[ VIDEO: Podolski bows out in style for Germany

Elsewhere on Friday, Spain host Israel in Gijon with the Israeli’s knowing a win would take them above the Spanish in a very congested Group G that has Italy and Spain at the top on 10 points with Israel on nine. Plus Croatia welcome Ukraine to Zagreb in Group I with the hosts top of the group but a big away win for Ukraine would see them climb to top spot.

On Saturday three games stick out with the Netherlands heading to Bulgaria in Group A as Danny Blind’s men look to strengthen their grip on second place and try to hunt down first-place France. Meanwhile in Group B, EURO 2016 champs Portugal host upstarts Hungary in a similar scenario as Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. have nine points to Hungary’s seven but both trail leaders Switzerland who have a 100 percent record so far in qualifying.

Speaking of perfect records, Roberto Martinez’s Belgium host Greece in Group H with the talented Belgian outfit looking to make it five wins out of five in qualifying but Greece, who sit on 10 points, knows a win would see them leapfrog Belgium into top spot.

On Sunday England’s quest to make it four wins from five sees them host Lithuania in Group F as Gareth Southgate‘s men warmed up with a good performance but a disappointing defeat at Germany in a friendly. Elsewhere in Group F Scotland simply must beat Slovenia to have any chance of advancing to their first World Cup since 1998.

Group C leaders Germany head to Azerbaijan with Joachim Low’s men winning all four of their games so far, scoring 16 goals and not conceding in the process, while Northern Ireland host Norway in an intriguing clash as Michael O’Neil’s side hope to clinch second spot to continue their fine showing at EURO 2016.

Below is the full schedule for the next three days, while we will have reaction and analysis on all the World Cup qualifying games from the UEFA region.


Friday

Group D
Georgia vs. Serbia – 1 p.m. ET
Austria vs. Moldova – 3:45 p.m. ET
Republic of Ireland vs. Wales – 3:45 p.m. ET

Group G
Italy vs. Albania – 3:45 p.m. ET
Liechtenstein vs. FYR Macedonia – 3:45 p.m. ET
Spain vs. Israel – 3:45 p.m. ET

Group I
Turkey vs. Finland – 1 p.m. ET
Croatia vs. Ukraine – 3:45 p.m. ET
Kosovo vs. Iceland – 3:45 p.m. ET

Saturday

Group A
Sweden vs. Belarus – 1 p.m. ET
Bulgaria vs. Netherlands – 3:45 p.m. ET
Luxembourg vs. France – 3:45 p.m. ET

Group B
Andorra vs. Faroe Islands – 1 p.m. ET
Switzerland vs. Latvia – 1 p.m. ET
Portugal vs. Hungary – 3:45 p.m. ET

Group H
Cyprus vs. Estonia – 1 p.m. ET
Bosnia vs. Gibraltar – 1 p.m. ET
Belgium vs. Greece – 3:45 p.m. ET

Sunday

Group C
San Marino vs. Czech Republic – 12 p.m. ET
Azerbaijan vs. Germany – 12 p.m. ET
Northern Ireland vs. Norway – 2:45 p.m. ET

Group E
Armenia vs. Kazakhstan – 12 p.m. ET
Montenegro vs. Poland – 2:45 p.m. ET
Romania vs. Denmark – 2:45 p.m. ET

Group F
England vs. Lithuania – 12 p.m. ET
Scotland vs. Slovenia – 2:45 p.m. ET
Malta vs. Slovakia – 2:45 p.m. ET

Way early UEFA Champions League predictions

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Now that the UEFA Champions League has drawn its ties for the 2016-17 quarterfinal, who has the edge in each match-up.

[ MORE: Top PL storylines — Week 29 ]

Barcelona vs. Juventus

Juventus has allowed just two goals in eight UCL matches this year, an even better mark than its sparkling 19 goals conceded in 28 Serie A matches.

Barcelona is surely going to test that number, likely to find a way to at least double Juve’s European concession.

Yet the Old Lady will have a chance to flex its offensive prowess through Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala, and Miralem Pjanic. With Sami Khedira posted atop a sterling back line, Juve has the recipe to hold off Barca.

The Blaugranas, however, have Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar and an incisive pair of midfield metronomes in Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic.

Prediction: Barca, 3-2.

Monaco vs. Borussia Dortmund

What’s the over/under for goals on this one? 8? 10? More?

Monaco brings its high-flying attack and BVB replies with… its high-flying attack. For every argument one side would like to make, there’s an answer on the other side.

The prowess of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, one of the top strikers in the world? Meet a trio of very different attackers in resurgent Radamel Falcao, young Kylian Mbappe, and under-the-radar vice captain Valere Germain.

The difference as we see it will be how Monaco’s marauding wing backs/fullbacks Benjamin Mendy and Djibil Sidibe operate given the threats provided to their defensive positions by Christian Pulisic, Ousmane Dembele, and Marco Reus.

Prediction: Monaco, 7-5.

Leicester City vs. Atletico Madrid

Pontus Kaamark of Leicester City (lef) takes on Juninho of Atletico Madrid during the 1997 UEFA Cup (Graham Chadwick /Allsport).

Both sides probably fit quite neatly into their respective leagues’ “Never rule out” category, for different reasons.

With Leicester, it’s a club which has achieved the unthinkable: Defeating all comers in what was probably the most surprising championship of all-time.

In terms of Atletico, there’s a defensive wizard in Diego Simeone who has twice been to the precipice of Champions League glory despite finishing better than third in La Liga exactly once this century.

We imagine Leicester will find a way through the Atleti back line at least once, but Antoine Griezmann and company represent a step up in class from Sevilla (Yes we realize Sevilla has a five-point table edge on Atleti).

Prediction: Atletico, 4-1.

Real Madrid vs. Bayern Munich

Carlo Ancelotti has Bayern Munich on the verge of its fourth-straight semifinal, with a club that controversially dismissed him standing in the way.

That club also is the most successful side in European Cup history, even if the first six of their 11 titles came when the tournament was limited to one club per league.

Tactically, it’s very difficult to imagine where the advantage lies for these super powers. There are even unique emotional “advantages” on both sides, with Real’s Gareth Bale aiming to play a final in his home country of Wales and Bayern looking to buoy both Ancelotti and the final season for hero Philipp Lahm.

Your guess is as good as ours, but we’re going with Ancelotti’s bunch… on a hunch.

Prediction: Bayern, 4-2.

Bonus: Onwards

Semifinals
Bayern Munich defeats Atletico Madrid
Barcelona tops Monaco

Final
Bayern Munich outlasts Barcelona

Report: Real hoping to tempt Chelsea for Hazard this summer

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Real Madrid’s attack already features some of the world’s brightest stars, but Zinedine Zidane apparently isn’t content with his squad.

[ MORE: Liverpool hosts Burnley in Sunday’s lone PL action ]

According to Mundo Deportivo, the reigning UEFA Champions League holders are set to bid for Chelsea’s Eden Hazard this summer, with Real willing to offer striker Alvaro Morata and cash to the London side.

Hazard, 26, has posted 11 goals and added four assists during the current Premier League season for Antonio Conte‘s club.

Reports out of England have recently suggested that Hazard will instead sign a new contract with Chelsea, however, Real will be banking on the fact that an opportunity to join forces with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale doesn’t come along too often.

Chelsea currently sits atop the PL on 66 points, and could be in store for a double this campaign as the club continues its path through the FA Cup.

Messi, Barcelona send warning to PSG — 4 goals aren’t enough

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi and Neymar scored three spectacular goals to keep Barcelona atop the Spanish league after routing Celta Vigo 5-0 on Saturday.

The flashes of brilliance from Barcelona’s best may give pause to anyone who thinks Paris Saint-Germain’s 4-0 cushion is surely insurmountable come Wednesday in the second leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie.

The intimidating display also comes in the first match since coach Luis Enrique announced he would leave the club at the end of the season.

“It didn’t serve as a warm-up for PSG as far as how they play, but confidence is basic in these types of situations,” Luis Enrique said.

Besides two goals, Messi also contributed to setting up second-half strikes by Ivan Rakitic and Samuel Umtiti, dealing a stinging win to a good Celta side which has beaten Barcelona and Real Madrid this season.

“We always trust in our coach and his staff,” Rakitic said about the team’s response to Luis Enrique’s departure.

“Hopefully we can pull off a miracle and turn around the result to stay alive in the Champions League.”

Messi had already hit the post before he opened the scoring at Camp Nou with a masterful solo effort.

He received the ball near midfield with Celta apparently positioned to keep him in check. But he curled around his marker, sped toward the goal, cut back around a second man, and finished it off with a vicious left-footed strike.

Messi then assisted Neymar by threading a precise pass to meet his strike partner’s run into the box, where Neymar added his own exquisite touch by popping the ball into a perfect tight arc over the helpless keeper.

Messi got another great goal in the second half when he ghosted around two Celta players before firing between the legs of the second one.

Messi’s goals took his league-leading tally to 23, including 14 in his last 12 league matches. They were also his 37th and 38th goal in as many appearances this season.

Both strikers contributed to Rakitic’s score. After passing for Umtiti to get his first goal for Barcelona, Messi capped the victory before adding some flourishes in late attacks that went close to producing even more goals.

Barcelona stayed one point ahead of Madrid, which has a game in hand.

Karim Benzema broke his eight-round scoring drought with two goals, stepping up with Cristiano Ronaldo out because of an unspecified physical problem and Gareth Bale serving the first of a two-game suspension.

Madrid also got goals from the little-used James Rodriguez and Marco Asensio to get a convincing win after three poor showings allowed Barcelona to tighten the title race.

“During a season there are moments that you have to suffer, sometimes you play a bit poorly, but that is normal over a season. Today we got back to playing well from the very start, playing with intensity,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “This is a good sign for us.”

Before the season, the match at the small Basque club would not have been considered a priority for Madrid. But with its stars out, the team struggling, and Eibar playing well at home, the visit looked a challenging one for Madrid.

It wasn’t.

Benzema finished off his own rebound in the 14th and added a second goal in the 25th from Rodriguez’s free kick.

Benzema returned the assist for Rodriguez five minutes later before Asensio and Eibar’s Ruben Pena scored in the second half.

Goals by Roberto Soriano and Cedric Bakambu in each half gave Villarreal a win to stay in sixth place.

Leganes earned a second straight home win thanks to a late goal by Darwin Machis, who is playing at the promoted club on loan from Granada.