Complete Euro 2016 Qualifying Preview: Road to France kicks off Sunday

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The endless international cycle is wonderful for viewers and exhausting for players, and European sides get right back to work with Euro 2016 qualifying beginning on Sunday.

Germany, of course, will be favorites to coast through qualifying after this summer’s World Cup title, but there are plenty of questions in what will become an expanded Euro field.

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– Can England do much of anything after bouncing out of the World Cup in the group stages?

– Is France ready to reclaim its place as an elite force in European play?

– Was Spain’s horrible World Cup just a bump in the road?

– Can a number of ‘under-the-radar’ sides announce their arrival as major forces?

Two nations from each group and the highest-ranked third-place team automatically advance to the tournament in France, while the remaining eight third-place teams will duke it out in a playoff tie.

Oh, international football, how we love you!

Group A
source: APTeams: Netherlands, Czech Republic, Turkey, Latvia, Iceland, Kazakhstan
The favorites: Netherlands, Czech Republic
First up: Tuesday — Netherlands at Czech Republic, Turkey at Iceland, Latvia at Kazakhstan

Prognosis: Would be a shock if the Dutch don’t progress, while Iceland, Turkey and the Czechs will be favored to duke it out for the second and third place spots. Ultimately, we’ll peg Turkey to finish second with the Czechs to snare third (although Iceland taught us a lot about resilience in nearly qualifying for the World Cup)

Group B
Teams: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Belgium, Israel, Wales, Cyprus, Andorra
The favorites: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Belgium
First up: Tuesday — Wales at Andorra, Cyprus at BNH

Prognosis: Hard to imagine the first two spots aren’t settled with Belgium followed by Bosnia-Herzegovina, but perhaps Gareth Bale can inject Wales into the discussion. Israel, Cyprus or Andorra finishing anything other than 4th through 6th would be quite the surprise.

 

Group C
Teams: Spain, Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, Macedonia, Luxembourg
The favorites: Spain, Ukraine
First up: Monday — Macedonia at Spain, Slovakia at Ukraine, Belarus at Luxembourg

Prognosis: It’s a little interesting after Spain’s fall-off this summer, but surely the death of tiki-taka has been greatly exaggerated. Could Ukraine or Slovakia pull off a surprise dash to the top of the group? It’s possible, but more likely that they’ll be working for second while Belarus hopes the group sleeps on its BATE Borisov-heavy roster.

Group D
source: APTeams: Germany, Ireland, Poland, Scotland, Georgia, Gibraltar
The favorites: Germany, Poland
First up: Sunday — Scotland at Germany, Poland at Gibraltar, Ireland at Georgia

Prognosis: Between Bayern Munich stars on Poland (Robert Lewandowski) and Germany (seemingly everyone else), the first two spots can be settled if Germany avoids a historically-bad hangover and Poland gets past its World Cup qualifying ghosts. It doesn’t get much better than Scotland and Ireland in the same group, though, and surely they’ll try to put a charge into Poland… and each other.

 

Group E
Teams: England, Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, San Marino
The favorites: Switzerland, England
First up: Monday — England at Switzerland, Lithuania at San Marino, Slovenia at Estonia
Prognosis: England can cast aside plenty of demons by picking up three points in its opener against the Swiss, though one gets the feeling Roy Hodgson would take a single point with glee. Slovenia is the class of the remaining four teams and has proven it can scare the Three Lions, but surely England will be a Top Two side, right? Right?

 

Group F
Teams: Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland, Northern Ireland, Faroe Islands
The favorites: Greece, Hungary
First up: Sunday — Finland at Faroe Islands, Romania at Greece, Northern Ireland

Prognosis: While the Greeks will be favored to put the rest of the group into a slumber to win the way Downtown Abbey must clinch its many awards, this group could see just about anything happen. I like Hungary and Finland, while Vlad Chiriches and Romania did get to the World Cup qualifying playoff before falling to Greece (who actually scored thrice in the match). All bets are off.

 

Group G
source: Getty ImagesTeams: Russia, Sweden, Austria, Montenegro, Moldova, Liechtenstein
The favorites: Sweden, Russia
First up: Monday — Sweden at Austria, Moldova at Montenegro, Liechtenstein at Russia

Prognosis: Surely Zlatan will be charged up to lead Sweden to the top of the group after the nation’s World Cup qualifying failure, while Russia will be keen to erase its summer failings. Austria should have David Alaba and Andreas Weimann in the fold in an effort to hold off the other three — and make a charge at a Top Two spot — while Stevan Jovetic and Montenegro beg to differ.

 

Group H
Teams: Italy, Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Malta
The favorites: Italy, Croatia
First up: Tuesday — Bulgaria at Azerbaijan, Malta at Croatia, Italy at Norway

Prognosis: It’s a battle for third, if we’re honest, and even that fight should fit neatly into Norway’s favor. US, or at least Jurgen Klinsmann, fans will be hoping that special advisor Berti Vogts can help the Milli or Azerbaijan into shockingly-good form.

Group I
Teams: Portugal, Denmark, Serbia, Armenia, Albania
The favorites: Portugal, Serbia
First up: Sunday — Portugal at Albania, Denmark at Armenia

Prognosis: This group is tricky tough, with Armenia and Albania each finding their way into the Top 40 since 2013. It’s very possible that the top-ranked third place team deserves to come from this group, but they are going to take a lot of points off each other.

source: APFinal prognosis:

Group winners: Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Sweden, Italy, Serbia

Second place: Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Poland, England, Russia, Croatia, Portugal

Highest-ranked third place: Austria

Playoff qualifiers: Czech Republic, Wales, Slovakia, Ireland, Slovenia, Finland, Norway, Denmark

DC United acquires Julian Gressel from Atlanta

Atlanta United trades for Julian Gressel
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How much is Major League Soccer’s best assist man worth?

About $750,000.

DC United paid Atlanta United that fee in allocation money for the rights to Julian Gressel, who had been at a contract impasse with the club who drafted him in 2017.

That fee could hit $1.1 million in incentives, and even so could be a bargain.

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Gressel was due to make around $133,000 this season and wanted an improved deal from Atlanta given his massive production since becoming the eighth overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft.

That salary is less than hundreds of players, most of them nowhere near Gressel’s impact. Nineteen Atlanta United players made more than him last season, so it’s understandable that the 26-year-old wanted to get paid.

We don’t know what he was asking, or why Atlanta wouldn’t get there. From MLSSoccer.com:

“If we really wanted to, we could have had him play on $130,000 this season, extend him a bona fide offer at the end of the season and (we’d still own his MLS rights),” said Atlanta United vice president Carlos Bocanegra. “We’re also trying to do the right thing for a guy who has given so much to the club and is really just a good kid all around.”

It’s a weird one, given what the club’s been paying others.

Gressel arrived at Providence College from Eintracht Bamberg and immediately started delivering for the Big East side. He finished his four years with 30 goals and 26 assists and All-American status.

There was some adapting to MLS, but he’s gotten better with every season. He scored 10 goals with 13 assists in all competitions last season.

Spurs chairman reportedly met with Real Madrid about Gareth Bale

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As a neutral, the idea of Gareth Bale rejoining Tottenham Hotspur would be a delight to our Premier League matchday viewing.

Obviously this applies to Spurs fans to the nth degree, especially after a dull 0-0 with Watford at the weekend.

In the short-term, Bale would be a terrific stopgap as Spurs struggle to find themselves without Harry Kane in both the PL and Champions League.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

In the long-term, Bale and Heung-Min Son on the wings of Harry Kane would be enough to make any PL power trio blush (unless Liverpool really does add Timo Werner).

A report out of Spain says Real Madrid president Florentino Perez met with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy about several things including the availability of Bale.

The Welsh star has been long admired by Jose Mourinho, and of course knows Spurs well having become a superstar after arriving from Southampton.

Bale is 30 and his wages would easily top Spurs’ pay list. His 21 goals and nine assists in the 2012/13 Premier League season join his 19 and 11 in 2015 La Liga as his top league seasons.

Spurs host Norwich City on Wednesday (Watch live at 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

Guardiola praises Laporte, “the best left central defender in the world”

Pep Guardiola praises Aymeric Laporte
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Manchester City kept its first clean sheet of 2020 on Tuesday, posting a 1-0 win over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.

It took the two-time reigning Premier League champions six tries to get there, the previous zero coming against this same Blades side at the Etihad Stadium.

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City manager Pep Guardiola was quick to give credit to a returning hero, as center back Aymeric Laporte returned to the fold for the first time since Aug. 31.

The club was 3W-1D at that point. They went 12W-2D-5L without him.

Here’s Guardiola, from the Manchester Evening News:

“It’s incredible,” Guardola said. “We have missed him a lot, he’s the best left central defender in the world. Imagine the best teams in the world lose their best central defender. We miss him a lot because he’s a specialist left foot where our buildup. He is fast, strong in the air.”

“He has something that we don’t have in the squad. His left foot and many actions to build up to make it quicker and better – we don’t have it, not because the other ones are not good but he has the only left foot as a central defender and for the way we want to play that is so important. His character and mentality and winning, he has all the attributes. For me, when he is fit he is the best left central defender in the world.”

If you read that as a little bit of an explanation for City being 13 points off Liverpool, you’ve similar eyes to us.

Pep is asking how Liverpool would look without Virgil Van Dijk, how Real Madrid appears when Sergio Ramos is out.

It’s not the be-all, end-all, but as I wrote when Laporte went down, this is the key piece to their defending efforts as well as where they begin possession.

We’re also grateful that Guardiola didn’t drop some sort of, “He’s like a January transfer addition,” statement (at least as far as we’ve read.

Chelsea admit they miss USMNT’s Pulisic

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LONDON — Since USMNT star Christian Pulisic was injured in training in the first week of January, Chelsea have lost against Newcastle, drawn with Arsenal and blown away Burnley.

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In the two games where they’ve dropped points they’ve missed Pulisic’s genius in the final third with both Willian and Callum Hudson-Odoi easily shackled by Arsenal in their London derby. Chelsea admitted as much when speaking after the 2-2 draw against Arsenal on Tuesday, an Arsenal side who played with 10 men for over 60 minutes of the game.

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk about Pulisic’s adductor injury and if they missed him during the draw against Arsenal, downbeat Chelsea boss Frank Lampard noted that Pulisic, 21, was “playing really well” before his injury.

“Yeah, a game like today could have been a good where he would have been helpful for us because he was playing well for a patch. But other people have to stand up in those situations,” Lampard said.

When will Pulisic be back?

Lampard confirmed he is making good progress but will not be fit until after the mid-season player break in February, which means he will miss their FA Cup trip to Hull City this Saturday and their clash at Leicester City on Feb. 1. He may not be back until Feb. 17 when they host Manchester United in the Premier League, which means in total he will have been out for a period of six weeks.

“In terms of when he’s back, it is not going to be a week, it is probably be the other end of the early February break but he is getting better and he isn’t far away,” Lampard said.

Speaking to Pro Soccer Talk pitch-side at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta, who scored their late second goal which looked like being the winner, lavished praise on Pulisic when asked about his absence over the last week.

“Christian is a magnificent player. Since he joined us in the summer he has shown us his potential and we know that he can make the difference at any time. Whenever a player is injured it is not good for a team because we lose potential and I hope to have him back soon,” Azpilicueta said.

Chelsea’s skipper is expecting big things from Pulisic when he does return to fitness, as the fourth-place Blues now have just a six-point cushion to those outside of the top four and have played a game more.

It seems like everyone at Chelsea hopes the USMNT star can rejuvenate their attack in the final months of the season.

“After coming to Europe as a young boy to Germany, he came to Chelsea and it is one step forward, playing for Chelsea every game, fighting to win and fighting for trophies,” Azpilicueta said. “In my role I’ve tried to help in settle into the city and the club. He has a brilliant attitude. Always trying to improve. I am sure he will become bigger and bigger.”