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.

Predicting the 2020-21 Premier League standings

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The 20 teams for the 2020-21 Premier League season are now set and we are releasing a prediction for the standings.

That’s right.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

With Fulham only sealing their spot in the Premier League on Tuesday via the playoffs, usually we would say this is very early to be releasing this standings prediction. But with the 2020-21 season kicking off in 40 days from now due to all of the schedule changes, it doesn’t seem too outlandish to have a crack at this.

Of course, transfers in and out will heat up between now and Sept. 12 when the new season kicks off and the transfer window open until Oct. 5, a lot can change with all 20 teams.

That said, Leeds United, West Brom and Fulham will all add something slightly different to the Premier League as the newly-promoted teams and it will be intriguing to see if teams who finished the 2019-20 season in red-hot form can carry that into the start of next season given the short break over the summer.

Champions Liverpool and Manchester City will be the favorites to win the Premier League title, while Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham will battle it out for the remaining two Champions League spots as they are rebuilding and nowhere near being title contenders, although Man United are closer than the other three.

[ PHOTOS: Ranking the Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

At the bottom, it’s tough to see how the three newly-promoted teams can prosper given the short turnaround between the 2019-20 season and the 2020-21 campaign but Leeds seem the most prepared to solidify their spot in the Premier League.

In the fight for Europe, Wolves, Leicester and Everton look like the best bets of challenging the established top six but watch out for Southampton. Other surprise packages could be Brighton and West Ham, while you worry for Burnley and Crystal Palace given a lack of squad depth, plus Sheffield United and Newcastle United limped to the finishing line in 2019-20.

All in all, a lot will change in the coming weeks before the 2020-21 season kicks off, so we will do another one of these predictions post before the season starts.

For now, here’s my 2020-21 Premier League standings prediction and how I think the table will look when the final whistle blows on May 16, 2021.

Prediction for the 2020-21 Premier League standings

1. Manchester City
2. Liverpool
3. Manchester United
4. Chelsea
5. Arsenal
6. Tottenham
7. Leicester City
8. Wolves
9. Everton
10. Southampton
11. West Ham
12. Brighton
13. Burnley
14. Sheffield United
15. Leeds United
16. Aston Villa
17. Newcastle United
18. Crystal Palace
19. Fulham
20. West Brom

Do Man United need to sign Jadon Sancho?

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Jadon Sancho to Manchester United is set to be the transfer saga of the summer/fall and the big question is this: do Man United really need Sancho?

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Sancho, 20, is no doubt one of the top young players on the planet. So, in theory, every club needs Sancho.

Dortmund want $140 million for him and want a deal soon, while Man United are playing it cool despite talks of them already agreeing personal terms with Sancho and a breakthrough in negotiations being made with Dortmund.

Our partners at Sky Sports in the UK have the latest update, as they say Man United are determined not to be bullied over a deal for Sancho and will not agree to a Aug. 10 deadline.

It is believed United want to spend a lot less than $140 million for Sancho, especially given the current financial situation. I keep thinking ‘is their money better spent elsewhere on their squad?’ Perhaps on a center half or a holding midfielder?

The answer is somewhere between yes and no.

In their current front four they have a wonderful mixture of pace, trickery and creativity. Marcus Rashford flying off the left. Anthony Martial holding the ball up and running in-behind up top. Bruno Fernandes pulling all the strings just behind. Then there’s Mason Greenwood on the right, the prodigious talent who has burst onto the scene at the age of 18.

Greenwood’s emergence is the main reason we can question this deal for Sancho.

There’s no doubt Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to sign the former Man City academy star but Sancho is more of a luxury signing for Man United at this point. Nobody expected Greenwood to burst onto the scene the way he has this season and not allowing him to be a regular starter next season and beyond would be a harsh, and damaging move for Solskjaer.

Rashford and Martial are guaranteed starters at this point and the only other way Sancho would fit into this team is if Martial dropped to the bench and Rashford played centrally with Greenwood and Sancho on the wings.

Rashford, Martial and Greenwood are similar players and combine well but we saw how United’s attack stuttered a little against teams who defended deep and Sancho’s trickery would give them something slightly different.

Aside from United’s current front four they have Odion Ighalo (on loan until January 2021), Jesse Lingard, Daniel James and Juan Mata. That’s quite a drop off in terms of quality but those are also players who are happy enough to play 15-20 games a season and play supporting roles. Sancho is not and if he arrives he will obviously start most games.

Jadon Sancho to Manchester United will rumble on but he’s a luxury signing. Man United will be fine without him but better with him, even though it could cause a few headaches for Solskjaer.

Scott Parker’s first season as a manager ends in Fulham promotion

Fulham promotion
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after just one season in the EFL Championship, and that means Scott Parker has worked something of a minor miracle in west London.

[ MORE: Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship ]

Parker took on a hefty challenge when he accepted his first senior managerial job last year. Fulham were a virtual lock to be relegated from the Premier League when he was named interim boss in February, and their place in the second division had long since been confirmed by the time he was named Claudio Ranieri’s permanent successor in May. The squad was expensive, bloated and full of players who had no intention of sticking around after relegation.

Given the club’s wealth of resources relative to the rest of the Championship, promotion at the first time of asking was more an expectation than a hope at Craven Cottage. Fast-forward 15 months, and the 39-year-old has quickly proven himself the right man for the job after doing just that — taking Fulham back to the PL by way of Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final.

Promotion may have been sealed on Tuesday, but Parker believes it was earned over a long period of transition and self-reflection by the players, beginning when he first took the job — quotes from the BBC:

“We’ve done what we’ve done tonight, but there’s still improvement, and that’s what makes me so proud and happy.

“For all of the good players and everything you see, what makes me so happy is I see a group of players who only a year ago were struggling psychologically, didn’t have a mindset or mentality.

“I’ve driven this team every single day and what makes me proud is I stood on the touchline tonight and seen a team that represents what I’ve been saying over the last 12 months.”

Now comes the the truly difficult challenge for Parker: after winning Fulham promotion he must assemble a squad of players not only good enough to stay in the PL, but also one full of individuals who want to be at his club and not simply any club that just so happens to be in England’s top division.

Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship

Championship promotion playoff final
Photo credit: @FulhamFC
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after claiming west London derby delight at the expense of local rivals Brentford in Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

It was an incredibly cagey affair — as the Championship promotion playoff final tends to be — that saw the two sides combine for just 17 shots (four on target) through 90 minutes of regular time. In the end, it was the most unlikely of restarts halfway through extra time that sent the Cottagers on their way.

Brentford were nearly the architects of their own downfall early in the first half. FirstIt was a poor back pass from Henrik Dalsgaard that left David Raya in worlds of trouble in the 10th minute, though Fulham were unable to find a proper chance amid the chaos inside Brentford’s box.

Fulham were perhaps fortunate not to go a man down in the 29th minute, when Harrison Reed slid through Christian Norgaard and put studs into the Dane’s ankle. Reed came over top of the ball in a 50-50 challenge and, despite first making contact with the ball, came in with borderline excessive force and in a reckless fashion. Nonetheless, only a yellow card for the on-loan Southampton youngster.

[ MORE: Christian Pulisic issues injury update ]

The start of the second half looked like more of the same from the first half: Fulham with an early chance and Brentford scrambling to stay level. Neeskens Kebano curled a free kick around the wall in the 48th minute, likely beating Raya if it was on frame, but only managed to rippled the outside netting.

Championship Golden Boot runner-up (25 goals) Ollie Watkins had the final scoring chance of regular time in the 70th minute as he fired from the edge of Fulham’s penalty area, but Marek Rodak was able to comfortably palm the ball over the crossbar. Still, the first threatening signs of life from the Bees.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

The decisive moment finally arrived in the 105th minute, and it came from absolutely nothing — less than nothing, one might credibly argue. Joe Bryan was tasked with restarting play following a foul roughly 50 yards from goal. Rather than lofting the ball high and to the back post, as Raya so clearly expected him to do, Bryan wrapped his left foot around the ball and whipped it toward the near post — as “near” as it can be from 50-plus yards. Raya was painfully slow to recognize the shot and tried to scramble across the face of goal, but never had a chance of getting anywhere near the ball.

Bryan doubled Fulham’s lead in the 117th minute. It was fast and fluid one-two atop Brentford’s penalty area and the left back tucked it away to seal promotion back to the top flight, and it turned out to be hugely necessary after Dalsgaard poked home a late consolation goal for the Bees with virtually the last kick of the game.

Fulham spent the 2018-19 season in the Premier League but finished with just 26 points in 19th place and were relegated back to the Championship after one season. Only time will tell if they’re able to stay in the top division this time, or if they’re a full-time yo-yo club.