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UEFA playoff draw sets up intriguing battles

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The fight for the final four 2018 World Cup spots from UEFA is well and truly on.

On Tuesday in Zurich, Switzerland the draw for the two-legged playoffs was made as the eight best runners up from the UEFA qualifying group stages found out their fate.

[ MORE: Latest World Cup rankings released ]

The Republic of Ireland will face Denmark over two games, while Northern Ireland face Switzerland and two monster clashes have been set up as Sweden and Italy will lock horns and Croatia and Greece will do battle.

A spot at the World Cup in Russia next summer is the prize for the four winners of these home and away playoffs.

The Republic of Ireland seem to have got the better draw, especially as they will play at home in the second leg in Dublin. Northern Ireland will also be okay with having Switzerland but are slightly hampered by playing the first leg in Belfast. Italy against Sweden will be a tight game and one neither nation will relish, and the same can be said for Croatia vs. Greece with their intense local rivalry.

First leg matches will take place on November 9-11, while the second leg will take place on November 12-14.

Below is the full schedule for the two playoff games.


UEFA playoff schedule

First leg

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
Croatia vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
Sweden vs. Italy

Second leg

Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland
Greece vs. Croatia
Republic of Ireland vs. Denmark
Italy vs. Sweden

UEFA World Cup qualifying: Who’s in, and who’s in the playoffs?

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UEFA World Cup qualifying enters its second round with an Oct. 17 draw, and there’s one big name the rest want to avoid in the two-legged playoffs.

Italy couldn’t top Spain in a qualifying group that drew two of the last three World Cup winners together, and now will meet one of seven other second-placed teams between November 9-14.

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Slovakia was the unlucky ninth second-place team, finishing with the least amount of points of its brethren.

As it stands, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, and Croatia will be seeded, which avoids the juicy nightmare that would be Italy vs. Croatia with one missing out.

It also means Northern Ireland cannot face Republic of Ireland.

Clinched berths in Russia: France, Portugal, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Iceland.

Playoff participants: Sweden, Switzerland, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Croatia.

UEFA World Cup qualifying: France, Portugal clinch

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France and Portugal claimed the final two automatic berths in the 2018 World Cup on Tuesday, while three teams know they’ll need a playoff to go to Russia.

[ MORE: Premier League club power rankings ]


Netherlands 2-0 Sweden

The Dutch needed to win and erase a big goal difference on Sweden, and only managed the latter through a pair of Arjen Robben goals. The first was a chipped penalty that nearly failed to find the net.

France 2-1 Belarus

Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud helped Les Bleus build a 2-0 lead, and the French held on for a spot in Russia against visiting Belarus.

Portugal 2-0 Switzerland

It took an own goal to break this one open, as Johan Djourou of Antalyaspor had the ill fortune of putting the Swiss behind the 8-ball before Andre Silva scored a second despite a mistouch at the back post.

The loss was the only one of Switzerland’s qualifying campaign, as Portugal advanced on superior goal differential. The Swiss beat Portugal 2-0 in Sweden.

Greece 4-0 Gibraltar

This was supposed to be much easier for Greece, which needed a win to earn a playoff spot and was expected to dominate the minnows. Bologna’s Vasilis Torosidis scored the lone goal of the first half, and it took until after the hour mark for Kostas Mitroglou to salt away the result with 61st and 63rd minute goals.

Estonia 1-2 Bosnia and Herzegovina

Werder Bremen’s Izet Hajrovic scored twice for the visitors, whose form dipped precipitously over the final five matches to miss the World Cup.

Elsewhere

Luxembourg 1-1 Bulgaria
Hungary 1-0 Faroe Islands
Latvia 4-0 Andorra
Belgium 3-0 Cyprus

Another tournament without the Dutch? WC hopes all but gone

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It was just about inconceivable that the Dutch could qualify for EURO 2016, denying fans the world over an entire month of what is arguably the most iconic aesthetic in world football — the Oranje.

[ MORE: Rooney insists he won’t come out of retirement for World Cup ]

Despite securing a 3-1 victory over Bulgaria on Sunday, the 2010 World Cup runners-up and 2014 third-place finishers find themselves on the brink of missing a second straight major tournament, the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Sweden’s simultaneous 4-0 dismantling of Belarus proved the day’s far bigger result.

Current Group A standings

1. Sweden — 16 points (+11 GD)
2.
 France — 16 points (+10 GD) — still to play their 8th fixture
3. Netherlands — 13 points (+5 GD)

That’s not so bad, so they just need Sweden to drop points and to beat them head-to-head on the final matchday, you say.

To which reality replies, Sweden’s next game is against Luxembourg, who have four points from their first seven games, prior to playing France later on Sunday, and a -10 goal differential.

[ MORE: David Villa injured on Spain duty, doubtful for next game ]

Sweden’s already-superior goal differential will further improve (perhaps drastically) before facing the Dutch on Oct. 10, leaving Dick Advocaat’s side would need something in the neighborhood of a 4-0, or 5-0, or maybe even 6-0, victory to overturn the deficit just to get into the qualification playoffs.

To think of the Wesley Sneijder (133 caps), Arjen Robben (93) and Robin Van Persie (101) era ending without a proper tournament send-off almost seems criminal, given everything they’ve accomplished during their 14-, 14- and 12-year international careers, respectively.

Culture shift? Tournament of Nations has three female coaches

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An ongoing shift in women’s soccer has been apparent at the Tournament of Nations – not on the field but on the sidelines.

Three of the four teams participating in the international event have female coaches, a rare majority in soccer.

A year ago, the two teams playing for the gold medal at the Rio Olympics were both led by women, Sweden’s Pia Sundhage and Germany’s Silvia Neid. And Jill Ellis led the U.S. national team to the Women’s World Cup title in Canada the year before.

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Ellis and others in the sport believe that recent events show women are making important and necessary gains in soccer – but there’s more work to be done.

“I think it’s forward-thinking federations that are about hiring competent coaches but also willing to provide opportunities,” Ellis said. “I know we’ve recently hired technical advisers for our academies and they’re all female and I think that’s great. We’ve got to have more coaches out there and more role models for young coaches. I think it’s great.”

The inaugural Tournament of Nations concludes on Thursday night in Carson, California. The U.S. women rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat Brazil 4-3 on Sunday in San Diego and will face Japan in the tournament’s final match.

U.S. Soccer hopes to host the tournament each summer that there isn’t a World Cup or Olympic competition. In addition to Ellis, Emily Lima is the new coach for Brazil and Asako Takakura manages Japan. The only male coach in the event is Australia’s Alen Stajcic.

Lima and Takakura are former players who are relatively new to their teams: Lima took over Brazil last fall following the Olympics and Takakura was appointed after Japan failed to make the field for Rio. Both are the first female coaches for their teams.

Another sign of a possible culture shift in the sport: Five of the top 10 teams in FIFA’s world rankings are coached by women.

The trend has not been lost on Moya Dodd, a former Australian national team standout and vice president of the Asian Football Confederation who has been a vocal advocate for women’s soccer.

“When given the opportunity, women coaches are phenomenally successful. All but one of the World Cups, Olympic golds and Euros in women’s football since 2000 have been won by female-coached teams,” Dodd said, adding that’s 11 of 12 tournaments at the sport’s highest level.

[ MORE: Liverpool’s potential UCL playoff opponents ]

However, Dodd said any shift is far less apparent below the senior national team level and at the club level, where female coaches are scarcer.

For example, among the 10 National Women’s Soccer League teams, there’s just one female head coach: Laura Harvey of the Seattle Reign.

Dodd also points to the NCAA, where the number of women coaches has dropped. A recent study of women’s collegiate teams by the University of Minnesota gave soccer a “D” grade with just 26.2 percent of teams with female coaches in 2016-17, a drop from the previous season.

“In the U.S.A., the percentage of female college athletes coached by women has halved since Title IX was introduced. It seems that women face barriers that grow higher as women’s sports become bigger,” Dodd said.

In an email exchange with The Associated Press, Dodd added that she sees unconscious bias as one of the biggest obstacles women much overcome.

“The characteristics that are seen as assets in a male coach – being tough, having strong opinions, or yelling at players (like Alex Ferguson’s famous `hairdryer’ treatment) would characterize a woman as difficult, emotional or hysterical,” she wrote. “Yet if she is motherly and caring, she doesn’t fit the definition of a coach. In other words, gender stereotypes work against her at both ends.”

At the UEFA Women’s European Championship, there are six women coaches among the 16 teams that took part. Of the four teams playing in Thursday’s semifinals – England, the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria – one has a female head coach, Sarina Wiegman (Netherlands).

The women’s Euros are played every four years as the premier competition in the UEFA Confederation. In the last edition, four of the 12 teams were coached by women.

Japan’s Takakura gave added perspective when it comes to female coaches: they should be treated the same as men.

“From my point of view I think it’s good news to have female coaches,” she said through a translator. “But as a coach the gender doesn’t really matter; it doesn’t matter if it’s a he or a she. As a coach, you have to educate and develop your players.”