European Qualifying roundup: England triumphs, Romania wins big, Ronaldo bags hat trick

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With just three matches left in Europe’s World Cup 2014 qualification, there are many matches around the continent that have massive implications going forward.  Teams can make or break their road to Brazil with each point gained or dropped.

If you are new to the European qualification procedures, each group has six teams.  The group winners automatically qualify, and eight of the nine runners-up play a knockout match for four spots. (Group I is the exception, with only five teams).

Here’s a roundup of who grabbed the bull by the horns and who suffered major setbacks:

GROUP A:

Macedonia 2-1 Wales:

Gareth Bale, still gaining fitness after recently completing his world-record transfer to Real Madrid, watched from the bench as Wales fell on the road.  It’s a relatively meaningless game as Group A is already all but locked up by Belgium and Croatia, but Bale remains a storyline as he clearly isn’t fit enough to play for his country, so it may be a while still until he makes his Madrid debut.

Macedonian goalscorers were Aleksandar Trajkovski and Jovan Kostovski, while Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey bagged a goal for Wales on a penalty.

Scotland 0-2 Belgium:

Everton’s Kevin Mirallas scored and so did Steven Defour to put the Belgians all the way up to 19 points atop Group A.  This one’s pretty much over, but it remains to be seen whether Croatia can catch the Belgians for the automatic qualifying spot.

Serbia 1-1 Croatia:

Serbia needed a win to give themselves any hope of making Brazil 2014, but they couldn’t get it done and are all but eliminated from contention.  Mathematically they could still make it, but they’d need to win out, hope Croatia falls in all three, and they’d need to make up 6 goals in goal difference as well.

Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic put the Croatians up early after the halftime break, and Aleksandar Metrovic leveled things soon after.  Each side had a player sent off as well.

GROUP B:

source: Getty Images
Italy’s Alberto Gilardino put his country in firm position atop Group B

Czech Republic 1-2 Armenia:

A more comprehensive match recap can be found here.  The Armenians made Group B incredibly interesting, with the possibility of a three-way tie for third place after play completes tonight.

Italy 1-0 Bulgaria:

Alberto Gilardino scored for Italy to establish a foothold at the top with a four-point lead on the group. The Italians and Bulgarians both hold a game in hand, so it’s not disaster for Bulgaria, who remain in second place with 10 points.  The three teams below them will need a bit of help to make it into the top two, all sitting on nine.

Malta 1-2 Denmark:

The Danes pulled into a three-way tie for third with the win, as a Malta own goal by Ryan Camilleri proved the difference.

This group warrants keeping an eye on, not only to see who gets into second place, but also to see if that second-place finisher has enough points to move on.  Only eight of the nine group runners-up can make the knockout stage, with the deciding factor being points not including those against the 6th place finishers.

GROUP C:

This group – with Austria, Sweden, and Ireland all tied for second behind Germany coming into today – is possibly the most interesting group in European qualifying at the moment, so you can check out the Group C action in its own post here.

GROUP D:

Romania 3-0 Hungary:

The Romanians are without question one of the biggest winners on the day, having come into their match with Hungary a point behind their opponents for second place.  There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the win puts them now two points up and into a qualifying position.

Striker Ciprian Marica wasted no time getting the Romanians on top, scoring in just the second minute.  Marica, who last played with Bundesliga side Schalke, will do himself well with the goal, as he is currently a free agent looking for a team.  Mihahi Pintilii (pictured, top) put his team 2-0 before halftime, and Cristian Tanase iced it at the death for the 3-0 scoreline.

Estonia 2-2 Netherlands:

The Netherlands were almost shocked by fifth place Estonia, but they pulled out a draw to earn a point and remain in firm control of Group D.  With three matches remaining, including two against Turkey and Andorra, the Netherlands would need a massive choke to lose their leading spot.

Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben put the Dutch 1-0 up in just the second minute, and a questionable penalty was slotted home by Robin van Persie in the fourth minute of stoppage time to cancel out a brace from Estonia’s Konstantin Vassiljev.

Turkey 5-0 Andorra:

Poor Andorra remains on zero points after their thrashing in Turkey.  The Turks with the win are in a decent position to challenge for the group’s second spot, although plenty of work remains to be done.  They now sit in fourth with 10 points, just one behind Hungary and three back of Romania.  They play Romania next, and have Estonia and the Dutch left.

Galatasaray striker Umut Bulut picked up a hat-trick for Turkey, and his club teammate Burak Yilmaz also scored.

GROUP E:

Switzerland 4-4 Iceland:

A wild match ended with Switzerland choking away a 4-1 lead, as Iceland stormed back and denied Switzerland a vital three points.  The Swiss are still at the top of the group, sitting on 15 points, but other results mean their lead is much much less comfortable.

Johann Berg Gudmundsson, a former teammate of Jozy Altidore at AZ Alkmaar, opened the scoring for Iceland in just the second minute, but a first-half brace from Stephan Lichsteiner meant Switzerland had a 3-1 lead going into halftime.  They added one more on a penalty after halftime.  However Gudmundsson collected two more after that, including the equalizer in stoppage time, to complete both his hat-trick and the comeback.

Norway 2-0 Cyprus:

A comfortable win for the Norwegians means they now sit just one point back of Switzerland in second place.  The two teams remain the clear favorites to come out of the group, with the third and fourth spots clustered a bit back, but now it remains a battle to find out who will get the automatic qualifying spot and who will be left to the wolves in a knockout game.

Slovenia 1-0 Albania:

The Albanians come out of today’s qualifying rounds as one of the biggest losers.  With Switzerland’s choke job, Albania had an opportunity to follow Norway in their climb to just below the Swiss.  Instead, a goal by young midfielder Kevin Kampl means the Albanians continue to wallow back in third place with 10 points, with Norway now four points ahead in second.

GROUP F:

source: Getty Images
Cristiano Ronaldo secured his first hat-trick for Portugal in just 16 minutes as his side completed a monstrous comeback.

Northern Ireland 2-4 Portugal:

Insanity. That’s the only way to describe this one.  With Northern Ireland winning 2-1 and Portugal a man down thanks to a straight red to Helder Postiga, it seemed the Portugese were in serious trouble.  Then Cristiano Ronaldo took over.  The Real Madrid star grabbed his first-ever hat-trick for Portugal, and did it in a 16-minute span to lead Portugal to all three points.  He was helped when Chris Brunt found himself his second yellow, and substitute Kyle Lafferty also received marching orders from referee Danny Makkelie.

The win puts the Portugese into first place by two points, although the problem for Portugal is Russia and Israel lurk below with a game (or two for Israel) in hand.  The Portugese take on the Israelis next in a crucial match.

Russia 4-1 Luxembourg:

Alexander Kokorin collected a brace – including a goal in just 20 seconds – as Fabio Capello’s side remained on pace, two back of Portugal with a game in hand.  They do not play Portugal again, although do have to play Israel early next week.  The Israelis have a tough road, but if they are to qualify they will have earned it against the top two teams in the group.

GROUP G:

Bosnia-Herzegovina 0-1 Slovakia:

The Bosnians picked a terrible time to see their three-match winning streak come to an end, as their Group G lead evaporated thanks to a 77th minute goal from Viktor Pecovsky.

The win puts the Slovakians four back of the top spot, but the bigger implications fall on Bosnia.  With a three-point lead heading into today, the Greeks have caught them.  Both teams get to play basement dwellers Liechtenstein once, but the Greeks and Bosnians don’t play again so it will be a shootout to the finish.

Liechtenstein 0-1 Greece

Olympiacos striker Kostas Mitroglou gave Greece a huge win with his 77th minute goal after each side had been reduced to 10 men.  Greek defender Jose Hoelbas and Liechtenstein midfielder David Hasler each received a second yellow within six minutes of each other before Mitroglou’s goal.

Greece are now level with Bosnia at the top of the group, with Slovakia four points back.

Latvia 2-1 Lithuania

Neither team have a prayer of qualifying, but the Lithuanians were officially eliminated with the Latvian victory.

GROUP H:

England 4-0 Moldova:

source: AP
Rickie Lambert got his second goal in as many games for England to continue the storybook start to his international play.

Rickie Lambert’s England dream continued as England dispatched Moldova to put them atop Group H by a point.  The Southampton striker put England 2-up with a tap-in header after Steven Gerrard put the hosts ahead early.

The win is important as the English are now a point above Montenegro, with a crucial matchup against the Ukraine coming up next.  England will be without Manchester United striker Danny Welbeck for that tie, as he received his second yellow card – a mindboggling one – after firing a shot over the bar a fraction of a second after the whistle had gone.  Welbeck did atone a bit by scoring just a minute later, but his absence will be huge against the third-place Ukrainians, with Rooney, Carroll, and Sturridge all out.

Ukraine 9-0 San Marino:

Yeah, San Marino aren’t very good. The newly FIFA-sanctioned country still are without a point as they got slaughtered by a Ukranian team looking for a goal-difference advantage.  San Marino haven’t even scored a goal in this round of World Cup qualifying, now sitting on a goal difference of -38.

Poland 1-1 Montenegro:

Robert Lewandowski equalized for Poland in the 16th minute and that was all she wrote on the scoresheet as Montenegro pulled level with England at the top of the group, albeit England have a game in hand.  Poland sit back in fourth place with 10 points, but certainly aren’t out of things with away matches against England and Ukraine still to come.

GROUP I:

Georgia 0-0 France

France are the other massive losers out of today, as they failed to grab a goal against lowly Georgia.  In the only group with just one qualifying spot, they failed to keep pace with Spain and are now three points back of the leaders without a chance to play them again.  French striker Karim Benzema was a ghost most of the match, and was replaced in the 62nd minute by Andre-Pierre Gignac.

Finland 0-2 Spain

The Spaniards capitalized on the French failure by firmly beating Finland.  Goals from Jordi Alba and Alvaro Negredo mean Spain move to 14 points while France sit on 11.  Both teams have matchups with Belarus remaining, and Spain get Georgia while France play Finland.  The French will need a Spanish slip-up to directly qualify for the World Cup, or else they will look to make the knockout round on points.

Rodgers not-too-bothered by VAR as Leicester City back in Top Four

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Leicester City boss Brendan Rodgers is keeping his cool about the Foxes’ decent start to the Premier League season.

The Foxes beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 on Saturday to move back into the Top Four, four points behind leaders Liverpool.

[ MORE: Match recap | Pochettino reacts ]

Leicester has now beaten Spurs, Bournemouth, and Sheffield United, drawn Wolves and Chelsea, and lost away to Manchester United last week (in a match it was arguably superior to the hosts).

Rodgers loved his team’s day, which was challenged by VAR taking away goals from both sides, but knows the big picture is a big challenge.

“A brilliant team performance,” he said. “Very early days, we have had a tough start. We will get into the New Year and see where we are February, March.”

As for VAR, Rodgers saw an early Leicester goal pulled back for offside, but the system also determined that Heung-Min Son was offside by the finest bit of his rotator cuff before Serge Aurier made it 2-0 to Spurs.

Back to 1-0, Leicester equalized within moments through Ricardo Pereira before James Maddison scored a wonder-strike to win it for the hosts.

“It’s what happens with VAR, you have to get your head round it. It works for you and against you. Worked both ways for us today. … We spoke with the players in pre season about VAR. You have to deal with it, sometimes for you and against you. Have to accept it and move on. It was a very important three points.”

Pochettino says VAR call inspired Leicester; Twitter has knives out

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Mauricio Pochettino worked a marvel with the English language in describing how VAR affected the late stages of Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-1 loss to Leicester City at the King Power Stadium on Saturday.

Spurs looked to have doubled its home lead with 20 minutes to play when Serge Aurier belted a far post shot past the reach of Kasper Schmeichel, but a lengthy video review showed Heung-Min Son‘s shoulder was maybe possibly offside.

[ RECAP: Leicester City 2-1 Tottenham ]

Clear and obvious? Mehhhhhhh.

Pochettino, oddly enough, chose not to debate the call but instead focused on the momentum he believes it provided to Leicester City en route to Ricardo Pereira‘s near-immediate answer and James Maddison‘s late winner.

“After 80 minutes, the game was going to be over. You gave massive belief to the team that was already dead. After we conceded the goal 1-1, we had some chances to score the second goal, but that’s what makes the Premier League the most beautiful league. You can never stop.”

He was optimistic on the overall performance following a disheartening 2-2 draw with Olympiacos at midweek, as Spurs threw away a 2-0 first half lead over the Greek hosts.

“Very disappointed because we lost the three points but in thinking the big picture I am very optimistic because the team showed great reaction after Olympiacos.”

Meanwhile, much of the rest of Twitter’s soccer world was a bit less forgiving of VAR. Even Leicester City legend Gary Lineker sent venom to the Video Assistant Referee.

Man City scores five times in first 18 minutes v. Watford (video)

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What a start. Emphasize it, bold it, underline it.

Manchester City scored five goals in the first 18 minutes of play on Saturday at the Etihad Stadium, relegating Watford to also-ran status before the match was a quarter finished.

[ STREAM: Man City v. Watford ]

It took 54 seconds for De Bruyne to assist David Silva with an outstanding opener, but Gerard Deulofeu nearly answered when he danced around Nicolas Otamendi to force a conceded corner out of Ederson.

Silva, marked for Inter Miami in a mid-week report, was the finisher for the 55th time in his Premier League career and 72nd for his club.

Ben Foster then gave away a useless penalty when he slapped a through ball out of bounds before felling Riyad Mahrez for an easy penalty. Aguero stepped to the spot calm as you like and dispatched the No. 2 to the scoreboard.

That was hardly the end to Watford’s woes, as Mahrez dazzled with a dribble through the heart of the field to earn a free kick atop the 18. There was only one destination, given the series of events. 3-0.

Bernardo Silva then got in on the act, when Otamendi nodded a De Bruyne corner to the back post for a prone finish and 4-0.

Not to be outdone, Otamendi was back post for a finish of his own, giving City its fifth goal off an Aguero assist.

Watch Live: Man City v. Watford headlines 10am ET games

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Three Premier League games take center stage at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday, as potential upsets are the focus.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ] 

Manchester City aim to get back on track as they play Watford, while Norwich head to Burnley and Everton host Sheffield United.

[ MORE: Sign up for NBC Sports Gold ] 

You can access additional games by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold which also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Premier League Download and much more.

[ STREAM: “Goal Rush” here ]

For those of you familiar with the Premier League Breakaway Show during busy days (Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Championship Sunday etc.) in the PL, this will follow that model of being similar to the NFL RedZone with action shown from all of the games in the 10 a.m. ET window. More info is available here.

The schedule for the three games at 10 a.m. ET is below and you can stream each game live by clicking on the links.


10 a.m. ET: Man City v. Watford – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Burnley v. Norwich – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Everton v. Sheffield United – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]