World Cup qualifiers set for climax, key matchups across the globe

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Okay, so if you’re a fan of ProSoccerTalk by now you’re most probably aware of any kind of permutation possible in terms of the Hex and how and when the US national team ‘will’ qualify.

But what about across the rest of the globe?

With qualification in Europe, Africa and South America also edging towards a conclusion this weekend, plenty of pivotal games are coming up on Friday and Saturday as nations aim to clinch their spot at the World Cup.

Let’s take a quick hop across the three continents to see which games you should look out for. There will be plenty of coverage on all the international games coming up on NBC Sports ProSoccerTalk.

Here we go.

EUROPE

Belgium vs. Scotland

The Red Devils can virtually seal qualification to the World Cup if they beat Scotland at Hampden on Friday and second-placed Croatia lose to Serbia. Belgium are top of Group A on 19 points and Croatia have 16, both nations have just three games left so with Belgium’s superior goal differential a win in Glasgow will give them another foot in Brazil. Live on ESPN.com from 3pm ET.

source: AP
Can Zlatan lead Sweden to victory against Ireland?

Germany vs. Austria

The Germans can’t seal qualification against their fierce neighbors across the Alps, but they can give Austria’s chances of qualifying for the playoff round a huge blow as they sit level in joint-second with Sweden and the Republic of Ireland. Germany sit top on 16 points from six games, while Austria, Sweden and Ireland all have 11 points. A must watch from Munich, see it live from 2:30pm ET on Univision Deportes.

Republic of Ireland vs. Sweden

A huge night for Giovanni Trapattoni’s men as Robbie Keane’s Ireland can jump ahead of Group C rivals Sweden into second place on their own and grab pole position for the playoff spot. But Zlatan Ibrahimovic will have something to say about that as the Swedes head to Dublin. Watch live from 2:30pm ET on GOL TV.

Italy vs. Bulgaria

The Italians occupy top spot in Group B but only have a four point lead over second placed Bulgaria. A win on Friday in Italy would all but secure the Azzurri qualification, which they could then seal against Czech Republic next Tuesday. A fired up home crowd hoping to see the Italians defeat their nearest rivals in the group… a must watch. Kick Off is 3pm ET live on ESPN.com.

SOUTH AMERICA

Peru vs. Uruguay

Uruguay desperately need a win here as they aim to qualify automatically for the World Cup. Currently in fifth spot La Celeste will face a playoff against the Asian fifth-placed team unless they can string together some wins to close the five point gap on Chile in fourth. While Peru must beat Uruguay if they have any chance of qualifying for the finals, they sit in seventh spot on 14 points. Watch live on BeIN Sport Espanol from 8:30 pm ET.

Chile vs. Venezuela

This is a massive clash as fourth placed Chile aim to give themselves breathing ground between the chasing pack. La Roja could open up a nine point gap over Uruguay if they win and results go their way, while Venezuela have to win to have any chance of automatic qualification. Another crucial clash. Watch live on BeIN Sport Espanol from 8:30 pm ET.

AFRICA

Tunisia vs. Cape Verde

This game is a playoff game of sorts, to determine who makes the third round of CAF qualifying and the playoff to make the World Cup. Tunisia are at home and are the favorites to advance but in a one-off game like this, who knows?

Nigeria vs. Malawi

Another head-to-head clash in Group F will decide who makes the playoff round as Nigeria only need a draw against Malawi. However the visitors can snatch away the Super Eagles World Cup dream if they pull of a shock loss against the African soccer superpower. Poised superbly.

source:
Will African Cup of Nations champs Nigeria scrap through to the final round of WCQ?

Cameroon vs. Libya

Group I is also poised on a knife edge as the winner of Cameroon v Libya will advanced to the final round of qualifying. Les Lions Indomptables are at home and should be the favorites but huge shocks have happened before in African qualifying and with the group stages coming to a close this weekend, expect more of the same.

Senegal vs. Uganda

Would you believe it… another game that has everything on the line. This Group J clash will also decide who goes to the playoff round as Senegal face the tricky task of beating Uganda at home to qualify. Remember Senegal’s heroics at World Cup 2002? Will they even make Brazil 2014?

Burkina Faso vs. Gabon & Niger vs. Congo

Burkina Faso can qualify for the final round of qualifying if they beat Gabon and Congo lose to Niger. Three out of the four teams in Group E can qualify, setting this weekend up perfectly. But Congo have the added bonus of knowing that as long as they beat Niger, nobody can surpass them. Two more tense games.

Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

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MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong

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Jose Mourinho seems to be quite happy that the Premier League will implement its first-ever winter break next month, allowing players a bit of rest and recovery time during a marathon campaign, but says its timing makes the break almost worthless for clubs competing in European competitions.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

The next four weeks will play out as follows for Tottenham Hotspur: FA Cup against Southampton this weekend; PL fixture against Manchester City next weekend; the following weekend off which results in two weeks without a game; PL fixture against Aston Villa the following weekend; Champions League first leg against RB Leipzig three days later.

In Mourinho’s perfect world, that first round of PL fixtures following the break would be held a week earlier, leaving the seven English clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with a week and a half between games before setting out once again to chase European glory. Instead, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea will all have a quick turnaround from PL action to UCL competition — quotes from the Guardian:

“It is what it is. I’m not happy that the break comes in the wrong moment. The break should be before the Champions League and, in the end, before the Champions League we don’t have the break. We have to play Aston Villa on the Sunday, playing [RB Leipzig three] days later. So we don’t really care about the break, honestly.”

Mourinho’s point is a solid one: if the winter break is going to exist — and it should — then why shouldn’t its benefits be maximized? Non-European sides — typically those with smaller squads — would still have the full two weeks between games, while those in Europe are able to better leverage their slightly larger squads with only 10 or 11 days between games — still a lengthy break relative to the rest of the season.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

It’s only the first year of the winter break in the PL, so perhaps hopefully they’ll receive Mourinho’s criticism — and that of any other managers — constructively.

Serie A: AC Milan extends unbeaten run since Zlatan’s arrival

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BRESCIA, Italy (AP) Ante Rebic scored his third goal in two matches, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb and AC Milan won 1-0 at relegation-threatened Brescia on Friday to climb into the Europa League places in Serie A.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Rebic, who scored twice in a win over Udinese last weekend, pounced on a loose ball directly in front of the goal following a cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.

Since Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan over the holiday break, Milan is unbeaten with four wins and a draw across all competitions.

Donnarumma produced several difficult saves to deny Dimitri Bisoli and Ernesto Torregrossa.

Also, Milan fullback Theo Hernandez hit the crossbar in the closing minutes.

The Rossoneri moved up to sixth place, four points behind fifth-place Atalanta.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

“Our goal is to qualify for Europe,” Donnarumma said. “We’ve got to continue like this and not rest for a moment. There’s another big Italian Cup match coming up with Torino midweek and we want to reach the semifinals.

“We’ll take it one game at a time and try to keep this momentum going.”

Brescia was without Mario Balotelli, who was suspended for two matches after protesting a booking last weekend that ended up with the striker being sent off.

Brescia remained one point above last-place Genoa.

FA Cup: Sheffield Wednesday into 5th round; Derby headed for replay

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Sheffield Wednesday became the first club to reach the fifth round of the 2019-20 FA Cup by beating Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Friday.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

The Owls took a 1-0 lead into halftime after Morgan Fox squeezed his shot past the goalkeeper from a tight angle, and Sam Winnall put the EFL Championship side 2-0 up by slotting the ball home just before full-time. QPR pulled a goal back through Nahki Wells just moments later, but it wasn’t enough and the game finished 2-1.

It’s the second time in three seasons that Wednesday has reached the fifth round after doing so just twice in their previous 17 seasons.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

Elsewhere, fellow Championship side Derby County, featuring Wayne Rooney who played all 90 minutes, couldn’t see off League Two side Northampton Town and will be forced into the dreaded replay after struggling to a scoreless draw away from home.

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.