UEFA World Cup Qualifying: Four countries could book their tickets to Brazil

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The penultimate round of UEFA World Cup qualifying kicks off on Friday, October 11, with the final matches — and the ultimate winners and losers — to be played out on Tuesday, October 15. Just two countries have qualified out of Europe thus far: Italy and the Netherlands.

That means there are still eleven spots up for grabs. Seven groups are left to be decided, while eight second-place countries will qualify for the playoff round. As there are nine groups in UEFA qualifying, that means one second-place country won’t even get a second chance. Right now that country is Iceland, who have the same number of points as Bulgaria, but Bulgaria have the better goal difference. Of course, all could change over the final two rounds.

A few countries are this close to booking their trips to Brazil. Belgium and Germany are guaranteed at least a spot in the playoff round, while Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Spain and France will all take at least second place in their groups. As for the Friday night matches, Belgium, Russia, Switzerland and Germany could all clinch their place in World Cup 2014.

(MORE: What’s at stake in upcoming World Cup qualifying)

Now let’s take a closer look, group by group:

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Croatia-Belgium
Wales-Macedonia

With everyone else eliminated from Group A, Croatia and Belgium are now fighting it out to avoid the playoffs. Belgium, undefeated and on a six-game winning streak, are in a much better position than the hosts, and can qualify for Brazil by taking just a point. The visitors are without Vincent Kompany and Christian Benteke, but considering their wealth of attacking options, it’s highly likely they’ll manage at least a draw.

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Armenia- Bulgaria
Malta-Czech Republic
Denmark-Italy

Italy have already punched their ticket, but hosts Denmark are one point back of second-placed Bulgaria. With Italy likely to trot out some less experienced faces in the front line — the rumor is that Antonio Candreva and Alessandro Diamanti will flank Pablo Osvaldo — the Danes may fancy their chances at getting a win and slipping into the playoffs. Bulgaria, meanwhile, must face Armenia, who technically still have a chance, although they’ll need to win both matches while hoping everyone above them slips up.

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Faroe Islands-Kazakhstan
Germany-Republic of Ireland
Sweden-Austria

While technically Germany need a win against Ireland to secure qualification, a point is almost certainly sufficient — they’ve got a goal difference that’s fifteen better than second-placed Sweden. Speaking of Sweden, their trip to the playoffs isn’t assured. If Austria win, that puts the two on level terms, but Austria’s final match is against the Faroe Islands, who have yet to earn a point, while Sweden face Germany in the last round. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and company will really want to make themselves secure with a win against Austria tonight.

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Netherlands-Hungary
Andorra-Romania
Estonia-Turkey

It’s still quite a fight in Group D. Holland is already through, but that leaves Hungary in second, with Romania and Turkey each just a point behind. If the Netherlands approach the match with little concern, Hungary should be able to hang on and slip into the playoffs, particularly as they face minnows Andorra in the last round. Turkey have the toughest battle, having to face Holland in the last round, but they’ve won their last four matches and are more likely to be concentrating on whether or not Hungary will slip up.

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Iceland- Cyprus
Albania-Switzerland
Slovenia-Norway

Seems like everything is up in the air in this group. If Switzerland pull off a win against Albania, they’re through. They’re also through with a draw if Iceland can’t win, and even a loss is ok if neither Slovenia nor Iceland come away with all three points. So, barring a big slip, let’s just say the Swiss are through to Brazil. It’s the second-place race that’s interesting, with Iceland currently occupying that slot, Slovenia one point back, Norway one point back of them and Albania one point back of them. Yeah, it’s unlikely that it’ll be anyone other than Slovenia or Iceland, but it’s still possible. Plus, there’s the added factor that, with the second place team in Group E holding so few points at the moment, whoever takes it will have to up their game to make sure they’re not at the bottom of those second placed finishers.

Yes, it’s definitely enough to make your head hurt.

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Luxembourg-Russia
Portugal-Israel
Azerbaijan-Northern Ireland

There’s just a point separating Russia and Portugal, but if Russia win and Portugal lose, that point is enough to put the Russians through to Brazil. With Luxembourg having won just once, it should be simple enough for Fabio Capello’s men to get the job done. It’ll be harder for Portugal, as technically Israel aren’t out of it yet. A win against Cristiano Ronaldo and his merry marauders, plus victory against Northern Ireland, will see Israel slip in if Portugal can’t pull off victory in the last round against Luxembourg.

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Lithuania-Latvia
Bosnia and Herzegovina- Liechtenstein
Greece-Slovakia

It’s only Greece and Bosnia that remain in the running in this group. The two are even on points, but it’s Bosnia that have the upper hand, boasting an impressive +20 goal difference, compared with Greece’s +5. Plus, Greece have to face Slovakia, who’ve looked quite lively over their last two outings, while Bosnia get Liechtenstein, who are bottom of the group with just two points. Neither side can secure their place tonight, and it’ll likely go down to the final minutes of the final round.

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England-Montenegro
Moldova-San Marino

Ukraine-Poland

Ah, this group. All eyes on England vs. Montenegro, as the world waits to see if the founders of football manage to make it to the World Cup. England are just a point above Montenegro, although Ukraine, with a better goal difference, sit in between. Montenegro managed a point against the Three Lions the last time out, and, despite attempting to qualify for their first World Cup as an independent nation, are facing much less pressure at Wembley. Getting a point here means it goes down to the wire in this group, particularly if Ukraine beat Poland, as they face San Marino in the last round and will most likely end up being the ones heading straight to Brazil.

(MORE: taking a closer look at England vs. Montenegro)

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Spain-Belarus

Just one match in Group I, and while it won’t punch Spain’s ticket to Brazil, the match against bottom-of-the-group Belarus could very well put France into the playoffs. Having played one less match than les bleus, Spain need just four points against Belarus and Georgia to end qualification on top of the group.

Cruzeiro relegated from Brazilian top flight for first time

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Brazilian side Cruzeiro was relegated from the top flight for the first time in the club’s 98-year history following a 2-0 defeat to Palmeiras on the final day of the season.

Cruzeiro required victory and a loss by Ceara at Botafogo to stay safely in the Brazilian Serie A, but neither came to pass.

Palmeiras midfielder Ze Rafael scored in the 58th minute to send the visitors on their way, with fellow midfielder Dudu finished things off in the 84th minute. Referees ushered the players off the field immediately after the conclusion of the match as Cruzeiro fans rioted in the Mineirao stadium, ripping out seats, setting off smoke bombs, and clashing with police.

Cruzeiro finished 17th in the 20-team table, three points back of Ceara in 16th. In the Brazilian top flight, the bottom four teams are relegated. CSA, Chapecoense, and Avai were also relegated. Cruzeiro had won the Brazilian Serie A as recently as 2013 and 2014, winning four titles in its history. They also have six Copa do Brasil titles, most recently winning the league cup in 2017 and 2018.

Flamengo ran away with the championship, finishing on 90 points, 16 points clear of second-placed Santos and third-placed Palmeiras who both finished level on 74 points. Palmeiras had challenged for the title, but fell off at the end of the season with a five-match winless run through November.

Premier League Preview: West Ham United v. Arsenal

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Two struggling London sides meet Monday when West Ham United hosts Arsenal (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The sides might’ve expected they’d be within close proximity at this point on the fixture list, but two wildly disappointing seasons means the three points between the Gunners and Irons comes with the former in 11th and the latter 16th.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

It’s been nine matches since Arsenal beat someone, 11 since it happened in the Premier League. West Ham hasn’t been much better, winning once in its last 10.

Freddie Ljungberg has yet to win as Arsenal interim boss, while West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini could see his current stint in London end without more results like the Nov. 30 win at Chelsea.

Monday versus Arsenal would qualify.


Injuries/suspensions

West Ham United: OUT —  Jack Wilshere, Lukasz Fabianski, Manuel Lanzini, Winston Reid. QUESTIONABLE — Michail Antonio.

Arsenal: OUT — Dani Ceballos. QUESTIONABLE — Rob Holding.


Probable lineups

West Ham United: Martin; Cresswell, Ogbonna, Balbuena, Fredericks; Rice, Noble, Yarmolenko, Anderson, Snodgrass, Haller.

Arsenal: Leno; Kolasinac, Sokratis, Luiz, Bellerin, Xhaka, Torreira, Ozil, Pepe, Aubameyang, Lacazette.


What they’re saying

West Ham’s Antonio sees an opportunity: “The only three teams that are really performing are Liverpool, Leicester and Man City. Everyone else is getting beaten, and it means we’ve had a missed opportunity so far this season. We started the season off brightly, the best start we’ve had for four years, but then we’ve had a slump. Everyone’s having a slump and this is our slump. Now it’s time for us to start turning up. We’ve been in this situation before and we know how to dig in and pull ourselves up again.”

Arsenal’s Ljungberg on setting targets: “I don’t think we should stop talking about the top four, but for us it’s about concentrating on what we’re doing here now and not look up, down, sideways. We just need to work on our own game and our own confidence.”


Prediction

Really, you wouldn’t want to predict anything from these sides right now besides goals. We’ll give an edge in desperation to the hosts and a 2-2 draw.

La Liga: Sevilla held at Osasuna, Getafe maintains UCL fight

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Sevilla was held to a 1-1 draw at 10-man Osasuna on Sunday, giving both Real Madrid and Barcelona space at the top of the La Liga table.

Munir El Haddadi put the visitors 1-0 up just 11 minutes in, but Ezequiel Avila struck just before halftime to share the points. Sevilla was held to just two total shots through the opening 45 minutes, and despite Osasuna defender Oier Olazabal being shown a second yellow card with 29 minutes to go, Sevilla still managed just 11 total efforts through the 90 minutes, with four on target.

Getafe continued its battle for a top four spot as they won 1-0 on the road at Eibar. Angel Rodriguez bagged his eighth goal of the season to secure the win, cropping up in the 67th minute to finally put Getafe through. They had been turning the screw for some time, forcing Marko Dmitrovic into a pair of big saves just before the opener which came from an absurdly tight angle after Angel had rounded the goalkeeper. The win leaves them fourth, level with Real Sociedad on 27 points.

They were allowed to close the gap after Real Sociedad was held scoreless in a 0-0 draw at 14th placed Real Valladolid. The visitors put just two of their 14 shots on net, and dropped to fifth thanks to Getafe holding the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Athletic Club also fell back in the race for a top four spot, dropping a 3-2 decision on the road at Real Betis. Joaquin scored a first-half hat-trick, with all three goals coming in the opening 20 minutes to give him five in his last three games. Inaki Williams brought Athletic Bilbao one back before halftime from the spot, and Yuri Berchiche made things interesting with a minute to go, but that was all they could muster as the visitors fell to sixth on 26 points, above Atletico Madrid on goal differential with the two yet to play head-to-head.

Celta Vigo made it interesting as Iago Aspas scored a man-down goal, but Leganes held on for a 3-2 win over the 10-man visitors. Oscar Rodriguez had a first-half brace to help the hosts to a 3-0 lead, but Nestor Araujo and Aspas helped Celta Vigo make things interesting. Still, a 71st minute second yellow card for halftime substitute Gabriel Fernandez hampered the visitors in their efforts for a comeback, leaving Celta Vigo in the relegation zone, a point back of safety, with Leganes is four points behind them in 19th.

Gerrard reacts to Rangers’ Old Firm heartbreak in final

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Steven Gerrard lined his Rangers side up for success, but fate was cruel to the Liverpool legend.

Rangers lost the League Cup Final to their Old Firm rivals on Sunday despite out-shooting the Bhoys by a 16-5 margin, winning a penalty, and playing almost a half-hour up a man.

[ RECAP: Rangers 0-1 Celtic ]

“To a man we were very good … by much the better side,” Gerrard said. “But unfortunately that’s not what gets you a trophy.”

But Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster stopped Alfredo Morelos’ penalty, three minutes after goal scorer Christopher Jullien was offside on the lone goal of the game.

Scotland doesn’t yet use VAR, and Gerrard doesn’t love VAR but he likes it more than he likes Scottish officials.

“There were three Celtic players standing in offside positions but unfortunately we play in a country where there is no VAR,” he said, via the BBC. “I’d be a liar if I said I was 100% in favour of it, but the one thing I do know is that officials up here need support.”

Now he has the task of getting his men to rebound ahead of its biggest non-derby in ages, as Rangers need at least a draw against Young Boys at home on Thursday to advance to the Europa League knockout rounds

“It’s a bit raw right now… It’s up to me to pick the players up. One thing I will say is I’ll stay with these players on the evidence of today because they gave me absolutely everything. We might have to suffer a bit short-term. I need to pick them up a bit physically and mentally for Thursday which is huge but our day will come on the evidence of today.”

Gerrard has done a very good job with Rangers, who are two points back of Celtic in a two-horse race for the Scottish top flight title. Celtic has won eight-straight titles to improve their total to 50, four less than the Rangers.