Vedad Ibisevic goal puts Bosnia and Herzegovina into their first World Cup

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For 60 minutes, Bosnia and Herzegovina supporters were left pondering a missed opportunity. Lithuania were holding their team, first in UEFA’s Group G, to a nil-nil after an hour in Kaunas. Meanwhile, Greece had done up through Dimitris Salpigidis after seven minutes at home against Liechtenstein. If those results held, Greece would win the group, qualify for Brazil 2014, and send Bosnia and Herzegovina to another playoff.

Then the breakthrough – the team’s two star forwards combining to alleviate their fans’ festering worry. Lithuania did their part, too, their defense falling to stop Edin Dzeko from reaching byline left of goal before crossing for an unmarked Vedad Ibisevic in the six-yard box. The Stuttgart striker’s redirection past a helpless Giedrius Arlauskis not only put his team in front, it gave soccer fans among his nation’s 3.8 million reason to hope this close call would fall in Bosnia’s favor.

Twenty-five minutes later, their hopes were realized. Bosnia had qualified for the first World Cup in the nation’s 21-year history/ The 1-0 result leaves them with 25 points in 10 games, same as Greece, but thanks to a +26 goal difference (Greece: +8), a team that’s been playing under their own name for just over 10 years has made their first major soccer tournament.

They’d come close in 2010, qualifying for a playoff before losing to Portugal, 2-0 over two legs. The failure to reach South Africa emboldened hopes to qualify for Euro 2012, dreams dashed by another playoff loss. This time, the Portuguese sent them crashing out with a 6-2 romp.

That’s why avoiding a playoff was so vital. Perhaps Safet Susic’s team could finally tame that beast, but there was a feeling of inevitability about going to another winner-take-all match. Been there, done that, and especially having to go through it again after having Group G in their grasp, Bosnia and Herzegovina had more reason than most to avoid a playoff.

Instead, the team’s made history, something that could prove significant for a country that was set up and still exists as a divided entity. Those divides aren’t formally maintained in the national team, so although it’s always a bit altruistic to assume sport can serve as a rallying point, in Bosnia, there is a chance World Cup 2014 can have symbolic value. The potential for a divided nation to function as a unit exists. At least, it does on the soccer field.

In time the Ibisevic goal could become to Bosnian soccer what Paul Caligiuri’s “Shot Heard Around The World” is in the U.S., only its potential importance could be much greater. Both goals sent their countries to World Cups, but in the case of Bosnia, Ibisevic’s goal has the potential to symbolize much more.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona, Real Madrid remain level on points after wins (video)

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Routine wins from league favorites Barcelona and Real Madrid, highlight La Liga’s Saturday action.

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Barcelona 5-2 RCD Mallorca

It was a special night at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

Fresh from winning the Ballon d’Or for a record sixth time, Lionel Messi was greeted by his three children on the field, who handed him a shinny, golden ball – given yearly to the best player in the world – prior to the first whistle.

From that point on, it was evident that it would be all smiles for everyone tied to the defending champions at the stadium (and for those watching remotely) on Saturday.

 

That was the case.

Antoine Griezmann – a topic of conversation due to lack of productivity at Barcelona this season – kicked off the game with a solo run and subsequent goal in the seventh minute, opening the floodgates.

As a celebration of his latest, individual accomplishment, Messi showcased the power and precision of his left foot at the tune of a hat-trick. The Argentine ace scored twice in the first half and another in consolation time, putting his season total mark at a league-best 12 goals.

The moment and goal of the night (possibly of the season) didn’t directly involve Messi, however. With a daring, emphatic and genius back-heel strike, not only did Luis Suarez put the home side up 4-1, but cemented himself in the ballot for best goal of the season.

With 34 and a better goal differential than Real Madrid, Barcelona remain atop of La Liga ahead of their clash with Inter Milan on Tuesday, while Mallorca hope Ante Budimir can score another brace; this time against a struggling Celta Vigo next weekend.

Real Madrid 2-0 Espanyol

With goals from Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane, Real Madrid comfortably cruised past a struggling Espanyol.

With the majority of Real Madrid in Espanyol’s final third following a recovered free-kick attempt, Benzema charged his way into the box before laying off a ball to Varane, who not a proven goalscorer whatsoever, placed the ball into the back of the net with ease.

It was the 37th minute, and the home side were up 1-0 against a poor Espanyol.

With a notable superior style at hand, Los Blancos continued to surge forward. Opportunities at goal were generated but the ball wouldn’t go past ex-Real Madrid ‘keeper Diego Lopez.

Then, in the 79th minute, Benzema registered his 11th goal of the season, finishing an off-balance pass from Federico Valverde inside the box.

Winners in their last La Liga bouts, Real Madrid now prepare for their Champions League Group Stage finale against Club Brugge midweek. Espanyol, despite being in the drop zone, host CSKA Moscow in their Europa League Group Stage finale. The Catalonian club lead Group H with 11 points after five matches.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Granada 3-0 Alaves

Levante 2-4 Valencia

Ancelotti’s future uncertain after Napoli draws at Udinese

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ROME (AP) Carlo Ancelotti’s future as Napoli coach is uncertain after his team failed to beat Udinese on Saturday in Serie A.

The 1-1 draw extended Napoli’s winless run to nine matches in all competitions. Piotr Zelinski saved Napoli with a late goal that salvaged a point for the visitors.

Amid reports that Ancelotti could soon be fired, Napoli, which had won its last six league matches against Udinese, went a goal down after a counterattack which was finished by Kevin Lasagna in the 32nd minute.

Napoli improved after Fernando Llorente replaced an uninspired Lorenzo Insigne in the second half. It equalized after a good combination between Dries Mertens and Zielinski, who wrongfooted the Udinese ‘keeper with a shot into the bottom corner.

Also, Atalanta twice came from behind after Samuel Di Carmine’s two goals to beat Hellas Verona 3-2 with a late winner from Berat Djimsiti, who volleyed home from close range.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Kyle Walker: City catching up to Liverpool ‘difficult’ after derby loss to United

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After a crushing 2-1 loss to archrival Manchester United at home, 14 is the new magic number for Pep Guardiola and company.

14 is the number of points that Manchester City trail league leaders Liverpool by, an uphill battle that is influencing many people on the outside looking in to think that City’s chances of lifting the league’s silverware for a third straight season are officially done and dusted.

That’s not the narrative that is occupying Kyle Walker‘s train of thought, however. Speaking on behalf of his City teammates and himself, the defender is keen on fighting until they’re mathematically out of contention for the title, regardless if the standings show that Liverpool have yet to suffer a defeat this season after 16 matches.

“Can’t fault the manager,” Walker told Sky Sports following City’s second Premier League loss in five games. “He has won numerous trophies. I can’t put my finger on it. It is going to be difficult, Liverpool are on fire. They [Liverpool] are getting wins and we are not. It is a big gap but we will fight until the end.”

A consolation goal from Nicolas Otamendi in the 85th minutes wasn’t enough for the Cityzens, who endured a fourth league loss this season, matching last season’s number of losses throughout 38 games.

After the dispiriting derby day performance from City, the defending champions stand at 32 points after 16 bouts, the lowest point haul for Guardiola in his 11-year top-flight management career.

No team in league history has overcome a 14-point deficit. Since late October, City are yet to record a clean sheet, an apparent issue that Walker believes he and the rest of the team’s defenders need to address in order to return to old ways.

“Us as defenders need to hold our hands up,” he said. “We need to keep clean sheets and strikers maybe need to put more away. They had a game plan and it worked. They have quick players in quick areas and they are going to hurt you on the counter. Credit where credit is due, they stepped up today. Fair play.”

WATCH: Luis Suarez delivers one-of-a-kind back-heel goal

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At 32 years of age and with a 15-year career behind him, Luis Suarez has scored some emphatic goals.

On Saturday, however, he painted a fine piece of art, a goal that became an instant classic the moment the ball came off of his backheel. With Barcelona already up 3-1 against RCD Mallorca, Ernesto Valverde’s men continued to push forward, comfortably and strategically ping-ponging the ball around the defensive-oriented visitors.

And then Frenkie de Jong found the ball at the top of the box.

The Dutch international smoothly placed a through ball, finding Suarez, who with precision and expertise that only he has, belted the ball into the bottom-right corner of Manolo Reina’s goal.

It’s only December, but the Uruguayan’s goal is an automatic La Liga goal of the season contender: