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

Dyche, Mourinho meet on the streets of London

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Two Premier League managers walk into each other while shopping: It’s not the start of a joke, even if it sounds like one.

Spurs boss Jose Mourinho was out shopping earlier this week when he heard a familiar voice call his name.

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It was Burnley manager Sean Dyche, who was out shopping with his family one day after losing 5-0 to Spurs at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Dyche relayed the story Thursday while his club gets ready for a home match versus Newcastle United on Saturday, saying the pair spoke for a few minutes.

“I’ll tell you a little life story,” Dyche began at his prematch press conference.

From the Lancashire Telegraph:

“His face was actually more shocked than mine, because he was plodding along and I saw him with his hat on, and he shot his head up and said a bad word, and then said sorry, your wife and children are there!

“But he was very pleasant – as he would be after smashing us the day before. We had six or seven minutes chatting about how he’s settling, life in general, that sort of stuff. He was very pleasant.”

As Dyche points out, it’s odd that two of just 20 Premier League managers would run into each other on the streets of one of the biggest cities on Earth, especially since Burnley is quite a drive from London. Many PL personalities do live far from their adopted homes, though, and Dyche played for Millwall and played for and managed Watford.

Anyway, just a neat story for your Thursday evening.

Martinez’s impressive form could cost Inter Milan

Lautaro Martinez Inter
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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan might just lose out to Barcelona again.

The Italian club was eliminated from the Champions League following a 2-1 loss to Barcelona on Tuesday, and the Spanish club was reportedly so impressed by Lautaro Martinez’s performance that it is ready to activate the Inter forward’s 111 million euro ($123 million) release clause.

Martinez ran the Barcelona defense ragged, set up Romelu Lukaku‘s equalizer and also had two goals ruled out for offside. He also scored when the two clubs faced each other in October.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

“We are Inter Milan, with an important history – like Barcelona – and we don’t have to necessarily sell anybody,” Inter CEO Guiseppe Marotta said. “We want to grow, so we want to concentrate on our youngsters like Lautaro Martinez or Lukaku, they are interesting and young and we want to grow with them.

“But as you know, the future of a player is in their heads. If Lautaro wants to stay with us, we are happy with that, if he will be attracted by the ideas of other clubs we will evaluate the situation. At the moment he is very tied to Inter and we are proud.”

Martinez signed a contract until 2023 when he joined Inter from Racing Club last year and there is already talk of improving that deal to keep him at the club.

The Argentina forward scored nine goals for Inter last season but has exploded this campaign and has already found the back of the net 13 times in a formidable partnership with Lukaku under coach Antonio Conte.

[ MORE: Premier League storylines for the weekend ahead ]

“There is the right chemistry between them,” Marotta said. “Antonio Conte, a proven winner, knows how to get the best out of them.”

That partnership could prove crucial to keeping Martinez at the club.

“Inter is my home. I spend most of my life here and that for me matters a lot,” Martinez said. “Everyone has shown me affection from the very first day and that is fundamental for a player and a man.”

Martinez and Lukaku’s partnership has been key to Inter reaching the top of the Serie A standings. The club is two points above eight-time defending champion Juventus.

Inter visits Fiorentina on Sunday and hosts Genoa in its final match of the year.

“We can’t make the mistake of dwelling on this defeat too much,” Inter defender Cristiano Biraghi said. “It’s part of the game. We’re professionals. Sunday will be a good test of our maturity as a side.

“Florence is a difficult place to go, the atmosphere is always intense when big teams play there and the home team feed off that. They’re not on the best form and because of that they’ll want to give even more.”

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

Premier League storylines: Matchweek 17

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The Premier League Fan Fest hits Miami this weekend for what will certainly be a terrific weekend of fixtures in England’s top tier.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

We’ve got two Top Seven fixtures and a pair of resurgent sides meeting in a match-up as old as most, plus a derby down south and more.

Defense-optional at the Emirates? [STREAM]

  • Arsenal v. Manchester City, Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN)

It’s been 13 matches since Arsenal blanked Bournemouth at the Emirates Stadium to record its second clean sheet of the Premier League season, and the Gunners still seek their third. Their visitors have conceded in 10-straight matches to dip 14 points back of league leading Arsenal. If that sounds like a recipe for an ironic 0-0, well, we wouldn’t bet on it.

Soured Cherries hope to test weary Chelsea [STREAM]

  • Chelsea v. Bournemouth, Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN)

Bournemouth upset Manchester United to pull into sixth place on Nov. 2 and have not claimed a point in the ensuing five matches. Eddie Howe‘s Cherries have found every way to lose, including losses with and against 10 men. The United defeat is their only win since a New South Coast Derby defeat of Bournemouth on Sept. 20.

The good news is that Chelsea’s red-hot form has cooled to the touch, and the Blues had to pour plenty into a 2-1 defeat of Lille in Champions League play on Tuesday. Can Bournemouth surprise the Blues at Stamford Bridge?

Mourinho’s Spurs meet rabid Wolves in top end clash [STREAM]

  • Wolves v. Tottenham Hotspur, Wednesday (Watch live, 9 a.m. ET on NBCSN)

Two sides fancying a Top Four run stand in each other’s way at the Molineux. Spurs rested more of their top players on Wednesday at Bayern Munich, and have one more day’s rest than Wolves. But Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men were home Thursday in a Europa League pounding of Besiktas, and are now unbeaten in nine matches across all competitions. They haven’t lost a league match since Sept. 14 versus Chelsea, an 11 match run with five wins and six draws.

Flying Red Devils tangle with wounded, ready Everton [STREAM]

  • Manchester United v. Everton, Sunday (Watch live, 9 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold)

Marco Silva is gone, and Duncan Ferguson’s Toffees will be feeling like their 3-1 defeat of Chelsea is the real Everton come clean in the wash. This weekend’s test is just as tough given United’s stylish form in defeats of AZ Alkmaar, Man City, and Spurs. You’re gonna need two screens at 9 a.m. ET Sunday.

M23 Derby promises plenty [STREAM]

  • Crystal Palace v. Brighton and Hove Albion, Monday (Watch live, 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

The Premier League weekend ends with a beauty, two rivals three points apart and sensing blood in the water on this congested table. Roy Hodgson‘s Palace is three points clear of Graham Potter‘s Seagulls, the league’s oldest managerial blood against the promise of a new era. A win keeps Palace in the thick of the Top Seven mix, while a loss puts Brighton right back in it.

Chelsea signs Tomori to new 5-year deal

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Chelsea center back Fikayo Tomori has 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.

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Tomori joined Chelsea at age 7. He made his Premier League debut 11 years later in the 2016 season finale versus Leicester City.

The Canadian-born back 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.”

Tomori is a full England international after loan stints with Brighton and Hove Albion, Hull City, and Derby County. The latter stop found him under Frank Lampard, and certainly didn’t hurt his opportunity to shine when both arrived at Chelsea 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.