Víctor Valdés comes up huge as Spain wins in Paris

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For years Barcelona supporters have loyally sang the praises of Víctor Valdés, songs which finally rang true during Tuesday’s performance in Paris. Though the Barça keeper, filling in for the injured Iker Casillas, didn’t face many tests, he came up huge the two big chances France had to stay at the top of Europe’s Group I. As a result, Spain was able to get out of Stade de France with a 1-0 win and jump Les Bleus for first in the teams’ group.

It was the first time Spain had ever won a qualifier in Paris.

Valdés’s first act of heroism came when he charged off his line to cut off a chance Franck Ribery had to give France a first half lead.

While Spain’s dominance of possession allowed them to limit France’s chances, the reigning World Champions couldn’t break through for a goal of their own until the 58th minute when Pedro Rodríguez forced a ball past Hugo Lloris.

France’s best chance of the day came on a late restart along the left, with a ball drilled in by Mathieu Valbuena redirected on goal from eight yards out by a diving Patrice Evra. A reflex save from Valdés drew gasps from the crowd while keeping Spain in front.

After their wakeup call, Spain went on to bleed out the rest of the match, a task made easier after France midfielder Paul Progba, making his second appearance for Les Bleus, drew two yellow cards in a one minute span starting in the 77th minute. Reduced to 10 men, France couldn’t build on the two shots they put on Valdés.

But to read too much into that shot total would underestimate France’s threat. Despite Spain holding 75 percent of the possession, there was little to separate the two sides, the Spanish only putting three shots on Lloris while France generated strong chances for Ribery (twice), Blaise Matuidi, Evra, and Raphael Varane.

That’s not to say Spain didn’t have near misses of their own. Xavi missed a sitter in the fifth minute, and Spain should have been awarded a penalty kick when Lloris brought Pedro down midway through the first half.

But near-misses are the currency of the defeated. Victors bask in their points.

The win leaves Spain on 11 points through five games, home draws to France and Finland the only blemishes on their qualifying record. France stays on 10 points, six points up on Georgia for the group’s potential playoff spot.

After slow start, Belgium takes care of business against feisty Panama

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All it took was one goal to bring Belgium to life.

Following a frustrating first 45 minutes, in which Belgium put a pair of shots into the side netting and forced saves from Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, Dries Mertens 47th minute goal opened the floodgates, as Belgium went on to defeat Panama, 3-0, Monday afternoon in Sochi.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

But Panama never made it easy for the Belgians. From the opening whistle the CONCACAF nation showed its incredible spirit, chasing down Belgium all across the field and making life incredibly difficult for Belgium attackers Romelu Lukaku, Mertens and Eden Hazard. Hazard was hacked down all over the field, and while he did earn fouls and a few yellow cards were issued to Panamanian players, it was enough to get in Hazard’s head.

Two minutes into the second half, everything changed. A wonderstrike from Mertens opened the game, and forced Panama to attack and try and tie the match, which gave Hazard, de Bruyne and Lukaku more space to operate.

In the heat and humidity of the Sochi summer, Panama’s veteran defense began to tire, allowing de Bruyne the space to deliver a terrific assist to Lukaku in the box, putting Belgium up 2-0 in the 69th minute.

 

Six minutes later, Lukaku was put through on the break, chipping over Penedo to confirm the victory.

With the win, Belgium moves to the top of Group G. Up next for Belgium is Tunisia on Saturday, while Panama takes on England on Sunday.

VIDEO: de Bruyne delivers gorgeous assist on Lukaku goal

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It took a little bit of patience, but Romelu Lukaku finally got on the scoresheet at the 2018 World Cup, thanks to a delicious assist from crosstown club rival Kevin De Bruyne.

The Manchester City playmaker delivered a spectacular outside-of-the-boot cross into the box, where Lukaku’s head met it and guided it towards the far post for Belgium’s second goal of the day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Arsenal close in on Leno; Man City near Jorginho signing, and more

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Arsenal looks like it will have a new man between the pipes for next season.

According to a report from German publication SportBild, Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Bernd Leno will be introduced as an Arsenal player on Tuesday, after a reported $23-29 million transfer fee. The 26-year-old was on Germany’s 35-man pre-World Cup squad, but was one of the last cuts as Joachim Low went with Manuel Neuer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Kevin Trapp in Russia.

Leno became the full-time starter for Leverkusen as a 20-year-old, and has held the position of the No. 1 for the last six seasons, earning plenty of Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League experience along the way.

It’s unclear what will happen to current Arsenal No. 1 Petr Cech. The 36-year-old Premier League legend experienced one of his worst seasons in net for Arsenal and he could begin the season as a backup, unless he moves to a new club. He reportedly has a contract through 2019.

Here’s some more transfer rumors from around the Premier League and Europe.

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VIDEO: Mertens scores wonderstrike for Belgium

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After a frustrating 45 minutes, it took only two minutes for Belgium to finally get on the board, even if it was a goal sprinkled with magic dust.

Off a partially cleared ball on the right side of the box, Belgium attacker Dries Mertens whalloped a shot that arced over Panama (and former LA Galaxy) goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, giving Belgium a 1-0 lead.

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