World Cup Qualifying: a quick glance around the continents

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World Cup qualification resumes on Friday in Europe and the Americas, continuing through the weekend with Africa’s third and final round. While a few teams have already booked their spots in World Cup 2014, there are still quite a few battles to be fought, with UEFA, CONCACAF, and CONMEBOL all playing out their penultimate rounds.

More in-depth previews of each confederation will follow, but for now, a rundown of what’s at stake, and a recommendation of one match to watch on each continent:

UEFA

When compared with qualifying systems in other large confederations, such as CONCACAF and CAF, the route Europe forces its teams to take to get to the World Cup is rather ridiculous. Rather than split qualification into stages, putting the lowest ranked countries into earlier rounds, UEFA places all 53 countries into one big qualification pool, dividing them into 9 groups of five or six. The first placed groups qualify directly for Brazil, while the second-placed teams enter a playoff round for the last three UEFA spots. Except, of course, for the second-placed team with the least amount of points — that team loses all chance of the World Cup.

Surprisingly, just two countries have qualified thus far: Italy and the Netherlands. Belgium and Germany are assured of a playoff spot at the very least, while Croatia, Bosnia, Greece, Spain and France will finish at least second in their group (although through some quirky twist of fate could still end up last of the second-placed finishers).

(MORE: an indepth look at Friday’s UEFA matches)

One game to watch

Croatia vs. Belgium
With so many spots still up for grabs in Europe, it’s tough to pick just one match. But this one has a lot riding on it. The visitors need just a point to book their ticket to Brazil, but after missing out on South Africa, Croatia are determined to get to this World Cup the easy way. They managed a draw with Belgium in the reverse fixture last September, but the Croats have slipped up recently, first losing to Scotland before allowing Serbia to come back into the game and get a draw. Belgium, on the other hand, have only dropped points in the draw to Croatia, and have won their last six straight.

CONCACAF

From North and Central America, the top three teams at the end of the Hex get bragging rights and a trip to Brazil, while team number four is forced to play the winner of Oceania. With just two games left to go, there’s a mad scramble on to avoid that trip to New Zealand. The United States and Costa Rica have already qualified, while Honduras sits third, three points above both Panama and Mexico. If the ticos decide they still care and beat Honduras, and if one of Mexico or Panama take all three points, the final round could be very interesting indeed.

(MORE: An indepth look at Friday’s CONCACAF matches)

One game to watch

Mexico vs. Panama (Friday, October 11 at 9:30 p.m. ET)
I know, I know, you want to watch the USMNT crush Jamaica. But when you’re done cheering on the USA, tune in to watch Mexico and Panama, both with eight points, trying desperately to fight their way into third place. By the time this match kicks off, the result of Honduras – Costa Rica will already be in, so the sides will know if they’ve still got a chance at direct qualification, or if they’ll be battling to see who plays against New Zealand. Either way, we likely won’t see much cautious football.

CONMEBOL

In South America, the top four teams qualify directly for Brazil, while the fifth-placed side faces Jordan, who placed fifth in AFC qualifying.

Argentina have already qualified, while Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay are eliminated. Colombia, sitting second, host Chile, sitting third, on Friday night, with both teams almost certain to make it to the World Cup. That match might not provide a lot of tension or suspense, but if you’re a fan of free flowing, attacking football, tune in to see some of the best on the international stage.

One game to watch

Ecuador vs. Uruguay (Friday, October 11 at 5 p.m. ET)
Uruguay, South Africa’s third-placed team and current Copa América champions, are struggling this time around. They’re even on points with Ecuador, but currently sit in fifth thanks to Ecuador’s better goal difference. The good news for Uruguay fans is that the team seem to have turned things around, having won their last three qualifiers, against Venezuela, Peru and, perhaps most impressively, Colombia. Ecuador, on the other hand, haven’t won since they beat Paraguay 4-1 back in March, and could only manage a 1-1 draw with Bolivia last time out.

CAF

In Africa, qualification starts off with the 24 lowest ranked countries meeting in two-legged ties, with the winners moving on to the second round. That round, which finished in September, splits forty countries into ten groups, with the winner of each group moving to the third round. That’s where we are now: Five matches, home and away ties, with the winners of each getting to buy their tickets to Brazil.

One game to watch

Ethiopia vs. Nigeria (Saturday, October 12 at 9 a.m. ET)
Ethiopia are kind of the Cinderella story of this year’s CAF qualifiying. They started off with a 0-0 draw against Somalia, then came back and won the second leg 5-0. They then finished top of Group A, despite having a 2-1 win over Botswana nullified after Ethiopia were found to have fielded an ineligible player. Now it’s time to face Nigeria, who Ethiopia last met in January during the Africa Cup of Nations. Ethiopia held them off until the final ten minutes, when Victor Moses scored a brace. The Super Eagles went on to lift the 2013 Cup. With their unbeaten record in the second round, it’s Nigeria that are the heavy favorites.

Watch Live: Sheffield United v. Crystal Palace

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Sheffield United host Crystal Palace at Bramall Lane on Sunrday (Watch live, 9 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Blades fans will enjoy their first home game back in the Premier League.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

Chris Wilder, the lifelong United fan who is now their manager, will be emotional and fans of the Yorkshire club will create a heated atmosphere for opponents to visit this season.

In team news Sheffield United are unchanged from the team which drew at Bournemouth last week, with club captain Billy Sharp on the bench.

Crystal Palace bring in star man Wilfried Zaha who starts up top


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Zidane says Bale will stay at Real Madrid

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Gareth Bale is staying at Real Madrid.

The Welshman was not wanted by manager Zinedine Zidane, who stated that publicly on many occasions over the summer.

But Bale started and grabbed an assist as 10-man Real beat Celta Vigo 3-1 in their La Liga opener on Saturday and it seems like Zidane is ready to brush all of this Bale talk under the carpet.

“He’s going to stay and we all have to think of that as a positive thing,” Zidane said. “The injury to Eden Hazard was bad luck for us but it didn’t change the plans we had for Bale in this game. Gareth and everyone else here is going to show this shirt the respect it deserves.”

After his move to China broke down at the last minute amid conflicting reports blaming Bale and the club for the collapse of the deal, his future at Real has seemed pretty much dead in the water.

Adding in a serious injury to Marco Asensio and Eden Hazard picking up a knock, and all of a sudden Bale is needed again. But for how long?

He was linked with a loan move to Bayern Munich but Philippe Coutinho moved to Bavaria instead, and Bale wasn’t chased by Premier League clubs during the summer due to his huge wage demands. With the transfer window across many European countries closing at the end of this month, he has run out of options to leave a club where the hierarchy and fans don’t want him.

Bale, 30, is now stuck at Real and he has another three years left on his contract. It will be interesting to see how this plays out for the man who has won four Champions League trophies at Real, yet has become the main villain at the Santiago Bernabeu as fans lambast him for playing golf and not learning to speak Spanish fluently during his six years in Spain.

Ibrahimovic scores twice, 10-man Galaxy ties Sounders 2-2

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Carson, Calif. (AP) Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in each half and the LA Galaxy tied the Seattle Sounders 2-2 on Saturday night despite playing nearly the entire match down a man.

The Galaxy’s Daniel Steres was sent off in the sixth minute for the denial of obvious goal opportunity.

Ibrahimovic tied it at 1 for the Galaxy (13-11-2) with a header in the 45th minute. In the 65th minute, he was taken down by Kim Kee-hee while going for a header in the area and converted the penalty, making it 2-1 with his 20th goal of the season.

LA defender Jorgen Skjelvik scored an own goal in the 82nd minute when he inadvertently deflected goalkeeper David Bingham’s attempted clearance into the Galaxy net.

Raul Ruidiaz opened the scoring in the 42nd minute for the Sounders (11-8-7). Harry Shipp hustled to round up a loose ball and fed it to an open Ruidiaz, who slotted it home.

MLS Wrap: What we learned

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Three unanswered goals from FC Dallas to earn a draw, a late Jozy Altidore goal and Chicago cruises past Eastern Conference leaders Philadelphia Union: Saturday’s early slate of games had it all. Here’s what we learned from the busy action.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Montreal, Dallas split points in six-goal thriller

The Montreal Impact, up 3-0 in the 56th minute, probably thought they had the game in the bag. Dallas said, ‘not so fast.’

With three unanswered goals – one of those in stoppage time – Dallas did the unthinkable, stunning the Impact and flying back home with a point that tastes like three.

Dallas, like practically everyone else in the West this season, is dreaming of cracking into the final seven. Whether that happens or not is yet to be seen. What was palpable on Saturday, however, is that Dallas played with a lot of determination on the road and with all the odds against them.


Chicago gets by Philadelphia with ease

The Philadelphia Union are good but not good enough to beat the Chicago Fire, apparently.

It could have been the league’s well-known parity, or the fact that the Union were on the road, but the Fire were able to squeeze out the three points, winning 2-0 with 10 men. Nicolas Gaitan earned a straight red right before halftime.

The Union, a proven side time and time again this season, alternatively, have questions to answer and a set of defects that were unearth Saturday (including finishing) to polish up on. But as they shown several times this season after suffering loses, they’ll bounce back under Jim Curtin.

The Fire (33 points) sit one point behind Montreal, Toronto and Orlando, while Philadelphia (45 points) remain clear leaders in the Eastern Conference.


 

NYCFC too much for Cincinnati 

NYCFC had quite the showing.

With Valentin Castellanos and Heber recording a brace each, Allan Cruz’s goal stood no chance. City, who are now third in the Eastern Conference with 41 points (one behind Atlanta), are clearly in midseason form, while FC Cincinnati is yet to win under Ron Jans.

With a defense that has allowed 61 goals – like the one above – Jans’ rest of the season is looking bleaker than brighter. But then again, it’s with a team he purely adopted. It worth noting that New York’s attack has produced eight goals in the last three games, so maybe that was the determining factor.

 

 


 

Altidore earns last-minute draw for Toronto

Like in many other instances, it was Altidore to the rescue for Toronto FC.

Its goal No. 10 for the 29-year-old goal, making it his fourth season with double digit goals. Jonathan Osorio, too, pitched in a goal in the 42nd minute. 26 games in, this is exactly when Greg Vanney needs his big-time players to step up.

The Columbus Crew, in contrast, can’t catch a break. Once again the superior team, a lack of finishing and defensive concentration make it three-straight draws for the Caleb Porter’s men. With seven games to go and seven points out of playoff contention, even a late run might not be enough for a postseason regular.