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.

WATCH: Fort Lauderdale striker scores screamer from half

Fort Lauderdale screamer
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Every goalkeeper could use a reminder to be wary of adventuring too far from his box, and USL League One provides us our latest lesson for backstops.

Ricky Lopez-Espin scored a terrific insurance goal for Fort Lauderdale CF on Saturday night, a marker which would stand as the difference in 2-1 defeat of Georgian outfit South Tormenta FC.

[ MORE: Atletico Madrid confirms positive COVID tests ]

The win pulls FLCF, first called Inter Miami II, off the bottom of the League One table early in this restarted season.

It was quite a hit, a turnover near midfield allowing Lopez-Espin the chance to spy the keeper off his line and rip a rocket out of reach.

Miami-born Lopez-Espin played college soccer at Creighton and was a Real Salt Lake draft pick. The 24-year-old played twice for RSL and later suited up for Real Monarchs and Lansing Ignite.

Two positive COVID tests for Atletico Madrid ahead of Champions League

Atletico Madrid coronavirus
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Atletico Madrid announced two positive coronavirus tests from its crew set to travel to Portugal for this week’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against RB Leipzig.

[ MORE: JPW’s European predictions ]

The team says it will test all of its players and staff again to assure that there are no positive COVID-19 cases affecting the tournament.

Atleti asked for extreme privacy regarding the individuals who tested positive.

The match with RB Leipzig is Thursday in Lisbon, the second of four quarterfinals on the docket.

The positive tests are a stark reminder that while the top leagues in European soccer have done a very good job at isolating and keeping tests down, an incredibly contagious virus like COVID-19 can wreak havoc on the competition at any time.

From Atleti’s web site, via Sky Sports:

“Today, two positives appeared among the known results, which are now isolated in their respective homes and were reported immediately to the Spanish and Portuguese health authorities, UEFA, the Royal Spanish Football Federation, the Portuguese Federation and the Superior Council of Sports.

“As such, a corresponding protocol planned for these circumstances has been activated, which requires new tests to be undertaken to first team players, members of the Lisbon travelling party and those who are in close contact with the positive cases, and which will result in changes in the timings of training sessions, in the structure and development of the journey and the accommodation in the Portuguese capital.”

Atalanta plays PSG on Wednesday, while Barcelona and Bayern Munich meet Friday, and Man City battles Lyon on Saturday.

It will feel like smooth sailing once the tournament begins and players hit the proverbial bubble. Until then, though, this proves that there are no guarantees.

USWNT star Kelley O’Hara on NWSL restart, launching podcast

Kelley O'Hara
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When USWNT star Kelley O’Hara launched her own podcast, she didn’t mess around with the star power of her guests.

Launched in July, the “Just Women’s Sports” podcast has hosted three incredible guests including the first post-pregnancy interview with USWNT teammate Alex Morgan as well as talks with Olympic star Chloe Kim and WNBA hero Candace Parker.

A Stanford connection with fellow alum Haley Rosen put the two-time World Cup winner on the path to hosting the show, and O’Hara admits that she was driven by the chance to lift the lid on athletes’ true feelings beyond the shield that comes up while talking to reporters.

[ MORE: Champions League favorites ranked ]

“Even as an athlete I know that I have a little of my guard up when I’m talking to a reporter because sometimes they’ll take it and use it for their own narrative or agenda,” she said in a conversation with ProSoccerTalk. “There’s an ability to be vulnerable and be safe because you’re talking to someone who has a general idea of what it feels like to be an athlete. Nothing about it is trying to catch them.”

Part of that comes with O’Hara realizing she has a massive stage on account of her accomplishments. The USWNT is one of the most-watched teams in the world, on-and-off the pitch.

While she felt more like someone achieving a life goal when she first became a pro, the simultaneous life under a microscope and on a platform has inspired her to take advantage of her role model status.

“You come to realize that with the success that we have had, individually and with the national team, you do influence people,” O’Hara said. “You have an impact. You have this ability to be a role model and do good things in the world. That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to do this podcast; I have the ability to lend my platform to other athletes and give people a voice and a space.”

O’Hara was speaking as the National Women’s Soccer League put a bow on its return to the pitch with the NWSL Challenge Cup.

O’Hara’s Utah Royals fell to eventual champions Houston Dash in the quarterfinals, but the completion of the tournament in itself was a bright spot to a dark summer.

“I’m really proud about what the NWSL was able to create there,” O’Hara said. “There was a lot of uncertainty around the Challenge Cup because of COVID, but the fact that the NWSL was able to create an environment to get back on the field has been fantastic. Obviously you have Orlando that wasn’t able to come but since every team has arrived, not one player has tested positive so the NWSL deserves a lot of credit for designing this whole set-up.”

PST asked the 32-year-old how much credit should go to the players, considering how many other leagues have been thwarted by the negligence of athletes or staffers around COVID-19.

“When the NWSL was proposing everything, they told us it was built on trust. If players weren’t going to be responsible, it wasn’t going to work. It’s great that we all want to be competing, I feel we’re very lucky to be able to compete, but that’s contributed to people following the rules. You didn’t want to be the one person who ruins it.”

Learn more about the Just Women’s Sports crew, which includes Olympic heroes Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Hilary Knight, and Maggie Steffens as well as former WNBA No. 1 overall pick Nneka Ogwumike, at their official web site.

Champions League favorites ranked from eight to one

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Eight teams remain in the UEFA Champions League’s rapid-fire return, with one-legged ties promising high drama in Portugal.

The quarterfinals begin Wednesday, the bracket distinctly split into one deadly half and another with upset potential.

Because of this set-up, there’s a massive challenge in divining the true favorites to win the Aug. 23 in Lisbon.

[ MORE: JPW’s European predictions ]

If you were assembling a bottom-up power rankings in terms of the talent and toughness assembled by the eight remaining clubs, it might look something like this:

Longshots: Atalanta, Lyon
Puncher’s chance: Atletico Madrid, RB Leipzig
History-weighted powers: Man City, Paris Saint-Germain
Favorites: Barcelona, Bayern Munich

Here’s the rub: Three of the four biggest favorites will have to get through each other to get to the final, including the two top dogs. Barcelona and Bayern Munich will scrap Friday, and Man City’s slight advantage in facing Lyon is mitigated by one day’s less rest for a Bayern-Barca winner.

[ MORE: Man Utd – Copenhagen preview ]

Man City is the bookies’ favorites to win the whole thing. Do we see it that way? Spoiler alert: Nope.

And, by the way, despite changes to both outfits this is a Lyon that took four of six points from City in the 2018-19 UCL group stage. We don’t see an upset at that stage but it’s a way to note that anything is, indeed, possible.


8. Lyon

Seventh-place in Ligue 1 this season, Rudi Garcia’s men already have the beating of Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus on their resume. Moussa Dembele, Houssem Aouar, and Memphis Depay are all exciting attacking talents, but the bracket’s demands to take down Man City, then either Bayern and Barcelona just to get to the final sinks them to eighth.

7. RB Leipzig

Julian Nagelsmann is building a reputation as a man who can outwit anyone in a one-off — see two draws with Bayern in Bundesliga play this season — so it’s fitting that he’ll go tete-a-tete with Simeone in the next round. The absence of Timo Werner, who’s off to Chelsea, is a huge problem given the occasion(s). Asking three wins seems a lot, though there will be plenty of Americans pulling for Tyler Adams’ team.

Bayern Munich v. RB Leipzig recap and video highlights
09 February 2020, Bavaria, Munich: American midfielder Tyler Adams duels with Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski. (Photo by Matthias Balk/picture alliance via Getty Images)

6. Atalanta

The Bergamo-based side will have the support of many neutrals. For one thing, Atalanta is on a historic run for their club before taking into account their city’s status as one of the early epicenters of the coronavirus. For another, they are super fun. Gian Piero Gasperini’s men scored 98 goals in Serie A, 19 more than next-best Lazio, and lost the second-fewest games in Italy. They’ve lost once since January 25, a final day defeat to Inter Milan. Five players have scored double-digit goals in all comps this season.

5. Atletico Madrid

Ask Liverpool: Diego Simeone and Jan Oblak in knockout round football is reason to doubt anyone. Still, there’s an argument to be made that Atleti has punched well above its weight this season, even relative to El Cholo’s standards.

4. Barcelona

Lionel Messi means the club should be even higher on this list, and Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez are plenty battle-hardened in this spot. But Barca has made a mess of their last few ventures into the latter rounds of this tournament, and those ghosts combined with having to beat Bayern and perhaps Man City in consecutive weeks is brutal with several u’s.

Messi new contract
SEVILLA, SPAIN – JUNE 19: He’s good (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

3. Paris Saint-Germain

There’s a good argument to be made that PSG might hold the top spot on this list. Thomas Tuchel’s men are better rested and have a more straight-forward path to Lisbon, plus the Ligue 1 champs have played and won two Cup finals in the past three weeks. There are two reasons we’re keeping them below Man City and Bayern. One is the UCL-challenged history that has us as well as surely them seeing ghosts, and the other is the uncertain status of Kylian Mbappe. He’s in the squad, but at what percent?

2. Manchester City

The reason to consider putting City above Bayern is the men in charge. Hansi Flick has done oh-so-well at Bayern but is certainly not Pep Guardiola in terms of big-game acumen or reputation. But City’s defense has proven suspect, with John Stones falling off a cliff and Nicolas Otamendi not at the levels of previous seasons. Relying on Fernandinho, Aymeric Laporte, and Eric Garcia to shut down three top attacks in two weeks is a big ask, and left back is also a huge concern with the talented wingers set to test City.

1. Bayern Munich

No weaknesses aside from potentially having to beat Barcelona and Man City inside of six days. Boasting one of the only double-double men in Europe’s top leagues in Serge Gnabry, a played who doesn’t get mentioned as often as history-chasing Robert Lewandowski and history-making Thomas Muller. A midfield duo of Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich which is just plain stupid. Speed and composure to spare with Manuel Neuer at the back. The German keeper may no longer be the undoubted 1 or 2 in the world, but he’s still a monster.