Croatia fire coach Igor Stimac, despite reaching World Cup qualifying playoff

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Apparently a 2-0 defeat away to Scotland is too much to handle for the Croatian Football Federation, as they fired head coach Igor Stimac on Wednesday despite still having a huge chance of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

Stimac’s side had finished second in Group A behind Belgium and face a home and away playoff series with either France, Iceland, Portugal, Ukraine, Romania or Sweden next month to decide their fate.

However an alarming slide in recent games, with three defeats and one draw from their last four qualifiers, saw the Croats just hold onto their playoff spot and Stimac lost his job due to that poor form. After the defeat to Scotland on Tuesday, Stimac reportedly offered his resignation and was then cast aside by Croatia.

“I am aware that Stimac offered his resignation in a statement to the media after the game but we received nothing from him in written or verbal form on the flight back or afterwards, hence he was sacked,” President of the Croatian Football Federation Davor Suker said. “It was a difficult decision because Stimac is a personal friend and a former Croatia team-mate. But a string of poor results and performances made it inevitable.”

(MORE: Field set for UEFA’s eight-team playoff, Denmark the odd man out)

So, in caretaker charge for Croatia’s crucial two-legged playoff in November will be the current U-21 coach Niko Kovac and his brother Robert Kovac. Both of whom played for the national team for many years, and the weight of expectation now falls firmly on their shoulders for this playoff, and the foreseeable future.

“Kovac will take over as the caretaker coach for the upcoming play-off,” Suker said. “But our intention is to offer him a long-term contract whether or not we reach the World Cup finals in Brazil. Kovac is full of enthusiasm and we are hoping that he will steer us to Brazil because he is the right man for the hard work that lies ahead in a very short time frame.”

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Modric and other Croatian stars need to step up if they’re going to make Brazil 2014.

No pressure, Niko. But seriously, the Croatian players will respect the Kovac’s for all they accomplished in putting Croatian soccer on the map. But now they must deliver from the dugout instead of the pitch.

Is it me, or does changing a manager just a few weeks before a huge World Cup playoff game seem a little bizarre? Some would argue it’s a knee-jerk reaction, however with Stimac clearly losing the locker room and players not performing, something drastic had to be done, and Suker and the Croatian Football Federation have duly obliged.

There are some massive nations Croatia could face in the UEFA playoffs — France, Ukraine, Portugal and Sweden to name a few — but with players like Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic, the Croats could make a big splash in Brazil.

Hopefully this managerial change has the desired effect and gives the talented group of players a much needed kick up the backside.

It’s a bold move, but I like it.

Chelsea signs Tomori to new 5-year deal

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Chelsea center back Fikayo Tomori earned a new five-year contract with the club.

The 21-year-old has a goal and an assist in 16 matches across all competitions, though he’s spent the past two Premier League outings on the bench.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Tomori joined Chelsea at age 7, and made his Premier League debut in the 2016 season finale versus Leicester City.

He averages 2.3 tackles per game, with 1.7 interceptions, and 2.6 clearances in Premier League action this season.

From ChelseaFC.com:

“The club has been so good to me, looking after and developing me during that time into the player and the person I am today. It’s a dream come true to sign a new five-year contract. I’m really happy the club have shown this faith in me and I’m just excited to carry on.”

The 21-year-old Tomori became a full England international after loan stints to Brighton and Hove Albion, Hull City, and Derby County. The latter stop found him under Frank Lampard, which certainly didn’t hurt his opportunity to shine at the parent club this season.

Chelsea has four strong, young center backs in Tomori, Kurt Zouma (25), Andreas Christensen (23), and Antonio Rudiger (26). Christensen and Rudiger are signed through the 2021/22 season, while Zouma’s deal goes one season longer than the duo.

Jota takes super sub to new level in Wolves win

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Sometimes the phrase “game changer” is used a bit too loosely, but there’s no debating Diogo Jota fit the bill to a ‘t’ on Thursday.

Wolves scored four times in 11 minutes, three coming courtesy Jota, as the Premier League side buried Besiktas 4-0 in Europa League play on Thursday.

Jota entered in the 56th minute, scored in the 57th, and completed his hat trick in the 68th.

[ MORE: Who can Wolves draw in UEL? ]

Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men had already clinched a place in the knockout rounds before the match day, and finish one point below Braga in Group K.

Jota has five goals in five days after scoring twice against Brighton on Sunday. The 23-year-old had an up-and-down season to start but has been mostly good over the past half-dozen games.

He has 37 goals in 107 matches with Wolves, including nine in all competitions this season. He scored nine times last season after a 17-goal campaign in the Championship.

Leander Dendoncker had Wolves’ other goal, with the day’s assists going to Oskar Buur, Joao Moutinho, and Pedro Neto.

 

Who can Premier League clubs draw in Europa League?

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Group winners Arsenal and Manchester United will avoid a loaded batch of seeded teams, while runners-up Wolves can draw a bevy of powerful teams in the Europa League Round of 32.

Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo can find himself drawn against former club Porto, but also could have to match wits with Ajax’s Erik ten Hag, Inter Milan’s Antonio Conte, or Red Bull Salzburg’s Jesse Marsch.

[ MORE: Man Utd pounds AZ ]

Speaking of Marsch, the Salzburg boss could go from meeting Liverpool to squaring off with Steven Gerrard and Rangers.

Gerrard could also, of course, go up against hated playing days’ rival Manchester United.

Seeded teams
Ajax
Arsenal
Basel
Benfica
Braga
Celtic
Espanyol
Gent
Inter Milan
Istanbul Basaksehir
LASK
Malmo
Manchester United
Porto
Red Bull Salzburg
Sevilla

Unseeded teams
APOEL Nicosia
AZ Alkmaar
Bayer Leverkusen
Club Brugge
Copenhagen
CFR Cluj
Eintracht Frankfurt
Ludogorets Razgrad
Olympiacos
Rangers
Roma
Wolfsburg
Wolves
Shakhtar Donetsk
Sporting Lisbon

Who can Premier League teams draw in the Round of 32?

Arsenal: APOEL Nicosia, AZ Alkmaar, Bayer Leverkusen, Club Brugge, Copenhagen, CFR Cluj, Ludogorets Razgrad, Olympiacos, Rangers, Roma, Wolfsburg, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sporting Lisbon

Manchester United: APOEL Nicosia, Bayer Leverkusen, Club Brugge, Copenhagen, CFR Cluj, Eintracht Frankfurt, Ludogorets Razgrad, Olympiacos, Rangers, Roma, Wolfsburg, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sporting Lisbon

Wolves: Ajax, Basel, Benfica, Celtic, Espanyol, Gent, Inter Milan, Istanbul Basaksehir, LASK, Malmo, Porto, Red Bull Salzburg, Sevilla

Four-star Manchester United wins Europa League group

Manchester United Mata Greenwood
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Manchester United is in fine feather and showing it, smashing AZ Alkmaar in a stylish 4-0 win at Old Trafford in Europa League play on Thursday.

Juan Mata had a goal and set up two others, while Mason Greenwood scored twice after Ashley Young opened the scoring in a group-claiming victory.

[ MORE: Saka leads Arsenal comeback ]

United wins the group with 13 points, conceding just twice in six matches.

The Red Devils have won three-straight matches, as AZ joins Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in the loss column. Up next is a Sunday visit from Everton in the Premier League before Wednesday’s League Cup quarterfinal visit from Colchester United.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer handed starts to James Garner, Brandon Williams, and Axel Tuanzebe, bringing youngsters Ethan Laird and Tahith Chong off the bench.

Greenwood, 18, now has six goals in 22 senior appearances, while Mata, 31, gets on the score sheet for the first time this season.

For his career, the award-winning Spaniard is doing okay, though: 125 goals and 149 assists in 542 senior appearances.