Euro qualifying at its midpoint: Predicting the 19 automatic qualifiers

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We’ve reached the halfway point of the race to qualify for Euro 2016, and only one nation has a guarantee of participating in the tournament in France: France.

Some big-name teams have surged through their group, while others have fell behind only to right the ship heading into the stretch run.

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Before we get into the business of predicting who will come through, let’s take a look at some winners, losers, and statistical heroes.

Biggest surprise: Northern Ireland and Wales

Biggest disappointments: Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina

Scoring leader: Danny Welbeck, England (6 goals)

Most goals scored: Poland (16 goals)

Fewest goals allowed: tie — Romania, England, Belgium (1 goal)

As for the teams and their chances to get to France as participants in next summer’s party, there’s plenty of time to foul things up. But some have put themselves in very good positions.

The top two teams in each group will advance, while the best third-place side will also advance. The remaining third-place sides will be drawn into  playoff ties.

In Group A, the Czechs and Iceland are a point a part at the top, with the Netherlands five points back of an automatic spot. But hold on, because the Dutch get both nations they’re chasing at home. Turkey is two points back of the Netherlands for the playoff spot.

The prediction: 1) Iceland2) Czech Republic, 3) Netherlands

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Group B is cluttered at the top now that Israel dropped back to back matches to Belgium and Wales. It seems the Red Devils have righted their ship, but with Bosnia & Herzegovina four points back of third and six back of second, plenty could change.

Safe prediction: 1) Belgium

Less safe: 2) Wales

Toss up: 3) Israel or Bosnia and Herzegovina

To Group C, where the top three look certain. Slovakia leads the group with 15 points, followed by Spain three back and Ukraine six back. Spain has only two home qualifiers left compared to Slovakia and Ukraine, but is also Spain.

The prediction: 1) Spain, 2) Slovakia, 3) Ukraine

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Germany feels like a safe bet to move up from its second place slot, a point behind Poland, but the next three slots are a question. Poland should be safe, but it’s likely to come down to Scotland and Ireland for the third spot. A June 13 match in Ireland could determine the whole deal, and Scotland’s remaining home matches include big tests like Poland and Germany.

The prediction: 1) Germany, 2) Poland, 3) Ireland

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England is crushing the field in Group E, but its 5-0 record hasn’t guaranteed much thanks to the presence of minnows Lithuania, Estonia and San Marino. Switzerland’s home loss to England hurts, but not as much as Slovenia giving up its edge for second with a loss at Estonia. Look for a flip-flop here.

The prediction: 1) England, 2) Switzerland, 3) Slovenia

Group F has played out in unpredictable fashion, with Pot A Greece and Pot B Hungary currently out of automatic qualification spots. Greece is 10 points out of an auto spot, in fact, and can only hope to make up six points on Hungary. It’s possible, but far from likely. Now can Hungary catch either No. 1 Romania (5 point lead) or No. 2 Northern Ireland (4 point lead)? The hope may rest with Greece not reclaiming its edge, as the Greeks still have to visit the top two sides and host Hungary.

The prediction: 1) Romania, 2) Northern Ireland, 3) Hungary

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Still a bit in the balance in Group G, as Russia waits to see if it’ll get its three points for the abandonment of its match versus Montenegro. Both sides have been charged, leaving them and Liechtenstein within one point of each other in the race for third. Austria leads the group with 13 points, while Sweden is second. Das Team is going through, figuring on six from six at home against Liechtenstein and Moldova. Russia can catch Sweden if it gets all three points from the abandoned match and no punishment. I don’t see the second part happening given the Serbia/Albania mess.

The prediction: 1) Austria, 2) Sweden, 3) Russia

source: Getty ImagesGroup H looks fairly set to stay as it’s began, with Croatia cruising aside from a 1-1 draw at No. 2 Italy. The only question is whether Bulgaria can make a run at Norway. Seems unlikely.

The prediction: 1) Croatia, 2) Italy, 3) Norway

In the five-team Group I, Portugal has overcome its slow start to sit atop Denmark and Albania by two points. Yet Cristiano Ronaldo’s bunch have just one home match left in the second go-round, and it’s against No. 2 Denmark. The schedule won’t cost them an auto spot, but it will the group.

The prediction: 1) Denmark, 2) Portugal, 3) Albania

And the bonus prediction for the top third-place side? Look for Slovenia to edge Ukraine and Hungary.

PL Sunday Preview: Leicester travel to Burnley; Liverpool put perfect record on the line against Man Utd

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With eight Premier League fixtures on Saturday, two more remain in Matchweek 23.

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Burnley v. Leicester City  — 9 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Burnley are free falling and there doesn’t seem to be a safety net in sight.

The Clarets, who are two points removed from the relegation zone, head into a tough three-match window without striker Ashley Barnes. Recuperating from a hernia surgery, the 30-year-old is set to miss bouts against Leicester, Manchester United and Arsenal – to name some.

But quite possibly more alarming than that is the team’s recent form. Losing seven out of their last nine, just two points divide Burnley from the drop zone. Sean Dyche‘s team are clueless in the box, scoring one goal in four league bouts. Trouble looms over Turf Moor.

But even then, Dyche, who has made Burnley a force to be reckoned with in the past, believes his side are still a threat.

“They are a good side,” Dyche said about Leicester. “We are on a tough run of form, but I don’t think they are naive enough to think it is turn up and get the business done. We are not a million miles away.”

Can Burnley pull a Southampton and stun a top-four bound Leicester?

“We weren’t at our best [against Southampton] and we didn’t have the energy and intensity that we would have liked,” Brendan Rodgers said ahead of Sunday’s early match.

“We work twice as hard and that’s what we’ve done after every setback. We still have a lot to improve on.”

The Foxes had a rare full week to train, so one can bet that Rodgers is serious about his word.

INJURIES: Burnley —  OUT: Barnes (hernia), Gudmundsson (hamstring) | Leicester City — OUT: Ndidi (knee), Amartey (ankle), James (match fitness)

Liverpool v. Manchester United — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Manchester United are a part of the exclusive anti-Liverpool club for more than the obvious reason.

Yes, the North West Derby is one of the league’s most heated rivalries, with countless flashbacks in its 203 meetings during its over 100 years of history.

But these two, star-studded squads led by Jurgen Klopp and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, respectively, also have a permeating rivalry of their own. The Reds, who have yet to taste defeat this season, have dropped points to only United.

It can be argued that Sunday’s bout may be Liverpool’s most complicated and least favorable, despite maintaining an immaculate record at home. This is the “big one” that many didn’t particularly circle on the calendar.

“It’s a very, very important football game,” Klopp said. “Very important. We have to learn how to deal with games like this in the right manner. We haven’t done bad in the past but we can still improve.

“Old Trafford [a 1-1 draw in October] was a good example, [we were] not at our best because of their quality. We have to make it more likely we’re at our best.”

Solskjaer had his tactics in place last time around; a small injection of final quality and the team would have crushed Liverpool’s aspirations of matching the Iinvincibles or Manchester City’s points record.

“The last two performances [against Liverpool] at Old Trafford we have drawn twice and been close to winning both games, so we’ve got some games to look back at and that will give us loads of belief… if we perform to our best we have a chance to win,” Solskjaer said.

Sunday presents itself as the final chance for United to pull the upset, and reaffirm why they’re a part of the exclusive club to begin with. But Liverpool are slowing becoming invincible themselves.

INJURIES: Liverpool —  OUT: Lovren (hamstring), Clyne (knee), Keïta (groin), Milner (hamstring) | Manchester United  — OUT: Tuanzebe (hamstring), McTominay (knee), Pogba (ankle)

Serie A roundup: Immobile nets hat-trick, Lazio runs over Sampdoria (video)

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Lazio’s record-extending 11th straight Serie A win highlights Saturday’s Serie A action.

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Lazio 5-1 Sampdoria  

Like Lazio’s season, Ciro Immobile continues to make strides with each passing day.

The 29-year-old’s hat-trick powered Simone Inzaghi’s side past Sampdoria 5-1, extending his goal count to 23, nine more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaka.

 

Lazio, who are three points behind top-of-the-table Juventus and one behind second-place Inter Milan, were up three goals by the 20-minute mark. By the 65th minute, Immobile reached the three goal mark, converting from the spot.

“We would need too much time to count his records,” coach Simone Inzaghi said on Immobile’s magnificent run of form. “We are talking about an extraordinary team player. He has shown that so many times. Immobile has been doing extraordinary things for four years, I’m not surprised.”

Full of confidence, Lazio turn one of the most challenging corners of the season, as they take on rivals AS Roma defend the Italian Cup against Napoli.

“We’ll enjoy this 11th win but we have to already be thinking about the next matches,” Inzaghi said. “We know what a derby means but I can’t allow myself to think about Roma.

“We play Napoli on Tuesday, we know what the Italian Cup means for us, what it meant last year, we have it on our shirts and we will fight for it again.”

When it comes to Sampdoria, things are going from bad to ugly, quick.

“Tonight I’ll add salt and pepper and I’ll eat them alive,” Sampdoria coach Claudio Ranieri said of his players.

“Lazio was too good for us, you could clearly see the difference between the two teams, but it was without doubt the worst Samp performance since I’ve been here.”

Elsewhere

Sassuolo 2-1 Torino

Napoli 0-2 Fiorentina

La Liga roundup: Casemiro’s brace earns injury-riddled Real Madrid win (video)

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Casemiro’s heroic performance against Sevilla highlights La Liga’s Saturday action.

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Real Madrid 2-1 Sevilla

Real Madrid’s goalscoring hero on Saturday wasn’t Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard, or even Sergio Ramos.

With two crucial goals in the second half, Casemiro single-handedly earned three points at the Santiago Bernabeu, days removed from cathartic Spanish Super Cup win against arch rivals Atletico Madrid.

With Bale, Hazard, Ramos injured, Benzema on the bench far from match-fit, and Federico Valverde suspended, Los Blancos were in dire need of someone to lead the way, and place pressure on struggling co-leaders Barcelona, who are now under Quique Setien’s tutelage.

By the time the first 45 minutes came to a close, the overall impression was that it would take a miracle for the home side to earn much-needed three points.

That all quickly changed in the second half as the Brazilian midfielder chipped Tomas Vaclik after a picture-perfect backheel from Luka Jovic. Madrid were edging Julen Lopetegui’s side, and Casemiro foreshadowed what was to come.

With the score level, the Brazilian leaped inside the box and headed home a lofting ball from the right flank, catching Sevilla’s defense completely off guard.

Casemiro’s brace came just five minutes after Luuk De Jong‘s left-footed goal in the 64th minute.

League leaders with 43 points, Madrid prepares for their Copa del Rey bout against third-division side Unionistas midweek. Sevilla, on the other hand, host Levante in the same tournament.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Eibar 2-0 Atletico Madrid

Osasuna 0-0 Real Valladolid

Levante 0-1 Alaves

16-year-old Cherki scores 2 as Lyon advances in French Cup

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PARIS (AP) Two goals and two assists from 16-year-old forward Rayan Cherki helped Lyon win 4-3 at Nantes and reach the last 16 of the French Cup on Saturday.

But the run of Reunion Islanders JS Saint-Pierroise ended with a 1-0 loss away to Epinal, which scored deep into extra time.

Cherki put Lyon ahead in the first minute, deftly rounding goalkeeper Alban Lafont and then clipping the ball beyond a defender. He made it 2-0 in the ninth, slotting the ball through Lafont’s legs after being set up by right winger Bertrand Traore.

New signing Renaud Emond headed in Moses Simon’s cross from the left to pull a goal back for Nantes in the 16th. Cherki then showed great awareness to release forward Martin Terrier with a fine pass from midfield in the 37th for 3-1.

Cherki shaved the crossbar with a shot in the 60th and won a penalty in the 67th after robbing the ball off Thomas Basila. He generously allowed striker Moussa Dembele to take it, but Lafont saved Dembele’s attempt.

Two minuter later, Cherki threaded the ball down the right to Dembele, who slotted in, and the irrepressible Cherki set up another chance for Terrier.

Lyon’s defense remains vulnerable and Simon set up Imran Louza’s goal before heading in late on to ensure a tense finish.

Saint-Pierroise had caused an upset in the previous round by knocking out second-division Niort and the players again traveled 6,000 miles (around 9,700 kilometers) from the small island in the Indian Ocean, located off the east coast of Africa.

Saint-Pierroise, the former club of France midfielder Dimitri Payet, was looking to become the first club from the Reunion Islands to reach the last 16 and almost forced a penalty shootout, despite having forward Jean-Michel Fontaine sent off in the 15th minute.

But substitute Adel Berkane rifled home a half-volley for fourth-tier Epinal with two minutes left in extra time.

Also, there were wins for first-division sides Nice, Lille, Saint-Etienne and Strasbourg.

Lille won 2-0 at fifth-division Gonfreville thanks to goals from forwards Loic Remy and Victor Osimhen, while coach Patrick Vieira’s Nice side held on to beat third-tier Red Star 2-1.

Saint-Etienne won 3-2 at Paris FC, a team fighting relegation in the second division.

Paris FC led 2-1 with goals from former Paris Saint-Germain forward Jeremy Menez and ex-Rennes winger Jonathan Pitroipa. Teen forward Charles Abi equalized for Saint-Etienne with 20 minutes left before veteran right back Mathieu Debuchy netted the winner.

Strasbourg won 5-1 at fourth-tier Angouleme.

On Sunday, Rennes plays at fifth-tier Athletico Marseille and PSG travels to face second division league leader Lorient.

Rennes beats PSG in last year’s final.

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