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.

[ MORE: Sturridge to miss England opener ]

– 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

Guardiola: I’m staying at Man City and I love this challenge

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This year’s managerial merry-go-round tells us that nothing should surprise us, and there are few high-profile jobs that feel safe from changes at any given time.

Manchester City is one of them, but upheaval at old club Bayern Munich and uncertainty at Barcelona have had many linking Pep Guardiola with an early exit from the Etihad Stadium.

[ PL PREVIEW: Man City v. Chelsea ]

But as Chuck D warned us so long ago, don’t believe the hype; Guardiola says he’s very happy at Man City and not quitting on the project or the season.

“We don’t have a joker in our pocket,” he said. “I know, all around the world, people are saying the Premier League is done.”

“But if people think I am going to resign for these results, they don’t know me. I like this challenge. I love to be in this position. If the club wants me next season, I want to be here 100 percent.”

Few would be surprise if Man City went on a wild run of wins, especially once Aymeric Laporte and Leroy Sane return to the team. The reason folks think the Premier League is over is the idea that Liverpool would lose nine more points than City seems so unlikely (though they do meet again).

Milan hoping to woo “great champion” Zlatan next week

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Serie A mainstays AC Milan are trying to woo Zlatan Ibrahimovic back to the San Siro.

The full-court press makes sense, as it will take some financial sacrifices for Ibrahimovic to join the side given Financial Fair Play problems in Milan.

[ PL PREVIEW: Man City v. Chelsea ]

Coach Stefano Pioli called Zlatan “a great champion” while admitting he has to focus on the table and not transfers, while former AC Milan CEO Adriano Galliani issued a glowing call for the Swede to return to town.

From Football-Italia.com:

“It would be romantic if he returned. But I have a rule, I don’t talk about teams I’m not involved with anymore. I’m only a fan of Milan now. Still, his arrival would enrich Italian football, similar to when Cristiano Ronaldo came to Italy.”

Man, they know how to speak this guy’s language, don’t they?

Sky Sports says Ibrahimovic’s agent will meet with Milan again next week in the hopes of convincing him to take a lower wage deal, and the 38-year-old showed he’s willing to take one for the team during his stint with the LA Galaxy.

The move makes too much sense, with Milan’s 11 goals well below its expected goal number. They need a finisher, and Zlatan sure does that. And if lower wages means Zlatan gets to play mercenary for five months while proving he’s got the goods for a big wage for 2020-21, that’s an easy concession for the striker.

U.S. U-17 keeper Odunze learning from Schmeichel at Leicester City

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Leicester City’s huge secret was told to the world at the U-17 World Cup in Brazil, where imposing goalkeeper Chituru Odunze made several big saves in the United States’ quick exit from the group stage.

Odunze, who turned 17 last month, joined the Premier League outfit from the Vancouver Whitecaps last season, and is already getting some first team training time.

[ PL PREVIEW: Man City v. Chelsea ]

This is all good news for a USMNT program which has a long history of goalkeepers shining at the top levels in Europe, including Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, Tim Howard, and now Zach Steffen.

Odunze admits to being pleased at the tests provided by Jamie Vardy and the Leicester attackers, but says he’s learning more from the expertise on show from a trio of wise first team goalkeepers: Kasper Schmeichel, Danny Ward, and Eldin Jakupovic.

Schmeichel is a Premier League winner, Jakupovic a former regular PL starter with Hull City, and Ward helped Huddersfield Town to promotion during a loan from Liverpool. From The Leicester Mercury:

“They’re all really good role models at the club, and they sort of take you under their wing. They’ve taught me to calm down and be confident in my abilities,” Odunze said. “Of course, there are little pieces of technical information they give me while we’re training, but a lot of the lasting information I get from them is mental.”

The 17-year-old has a monstrous frame, so learning from Schmeichel and company at such a young age while getting tested by the Foxes’ electric attackers is a great combination. He is 2W-2L at the U18 Premier League level.

Premier League Preview: Manchester City v. Chelsea

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Manchester City and Chelsea both defend their slimmed title hopes when they meet Saturday at the Etihad Stadium (Watch Live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

City is hoping to avoid a second-straight loss after dropping nine points behind prohibitive title favorites Liverpool last match day, while Frank Lampard‘s Blues know a loss could see them drop as many as 11 points behind the Reds.

And, of course, a win will give either side the table advantage over the other.

Ederson and David Silva are available again for Man City. Christian Pulisicis in contention to play” for Chelsea after missing the international break with the United States.

A Champions League match day follows this one, with Man City meeting Shakhtar Donetsk in Manchester on Tuesday and Chelsea in Spain to meet Valencia one day later.


Injuries/suspensions

Manchester City: OUT — Bernardo Silva, Aymeric Laporte, Leroy Sane. QUESTIONABLE — None.

Chelsea: OUT — Ruben Loftus-Cheek. QUESTIONABLE — Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi.


Probable lineups

Manchester City: Ederson; Walker, Stones, Fernandinho, Mendy; Rodri, Gundogan, B.Silva, De Bruyne, Mahrez, Aguero.

Chelsea: Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Tomori, Zouma, Alonso; Kovacic, Kante, Mount, Pulisic, Willian; Abraham.


What they’re saying

City’s Pep Guardiola on Frank Lampard’s young managerial career: “From my experience, experience doesn’t count much. I would say that when you know the club it is a good advantage and Frank Lampard knows Chelsea perfectly and everything behind the scenes – media, fans, players – so that is good. When I arrived (at Barcelona) not many people trusted me, honestly. Few, few people. Maybe the president, sporting director and not many. “Maybe Frank was similar at Derby. It was a big club, he didn’t take results in the beginning and people said he didn’t have experience. Look now.”

Frank Lampard on being above Man City after 12 matches: “For us to be in that position is something I am pleased with, I actually want more as well. I look at ourselves and don’t consider others, only where we could have got more points too, and there are times where we could have done. At the same time it is nice to be up there and around it. It’s a great test tomorrow, head to head to see where we’re at. It won’t be the end story, anyone can go to Manchester City and lose, they are such a strong outfit. That is what Pep Guardiola and the club have built over recent years. So I won’t be making huge judgements win or lose tomorrow without a doubt.”


Prediction

Could go either way, couldn’t it, but it feels more likely we see a vintage, defiant bounce back effort from City that looks a bit too easy given Chelsea’s strengths. This is the first big league test for Chelsea since its narrow loss to Liverpool on Sept. 22. We see the six-match winning streak ending via a 3-1 final score.