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Australia, Japan in Group B for Asian World Cup qualifying

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) Asian Cup champion Australia and Japan have been grouped together in the last round of Asian qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The Socceroos and Japan were drawn into Group B at a ceremony in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday and will be joined by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand.

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Iran and South Korea were the top-seeded teams in Group A, which also includes China, Uzbekistan, 2022 World Cup host Qatar and Syria.

The teams were drawn into two groups of six, with the matches starting in September. The top two teams in each group qualify automatically, with the third-place teams playing off for a shot at an inter-continental qualifier against the fourth-place team from CONCACAF in November 2017.

The teams were seeded and drawn from six pots based on the April 7 FIFA rankings, meaning Iran and Australia – the top teams in the rankings – could not meet nor could South Korea and Japan.

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Australia is expected to open against 2007 Asian champion Iraq at home on Sept. 1 before traveling to the UAE. In October, the Australians travel to Saudi Arabia before returning for a home match against Japan, which has qualified for the last five World Cups. The Saudis reached the Round of 16 in 1994 and played in four consecutive World Cups but haven’t qualified since 2006. Also on Sept. 1, Iran opens against Qatar, South Korea hosts China, Japan is at home to UAE, Saudi Arabia takes on Thailand and Uzbekistan meets Syria.

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Japan is the only team in the group with a winning record against Australia – eight wins and eight draws in their 23 international meetings.

“If you want to make it to such a prestigious tournament, you’ve got to beat the best. I’m excited,” Australia forward Tim Cahill, who scored twice in a comeback win over Japan in his World Cup debut in 2006, told Fox Sports Australia. “This is what football is all about. We’ve done so well in the Asian Cup by winning it – this is where it’s going to separate the men from the boys. We’re ready for it. We want to play the best.”

Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said the challenging draw would hone the Socceroos ahead of its bigger target.

“As Champions of Asia we will show due respect to all countries,” he said, “but (we’re) focused on continuing our journey that has aspirations greater than simply qualifying for the World Cup.”

South Korea is growing in confidence after reaching the final of the 2015 Asian Cup, topping their second-round group with 24 unanswered goals.

“We played exceptionally well in 2015 so we’re full of confidence. I’m very optimistic that we’ll make it to Russia,” South Korea coach Uli Stielike said ahead of the draw. The South Koreans have played in nine World Cups and reached the semifinals in 2002 while co-hosting the tournament with Japan, which remains the best run by an Asian team at the sport’s marquee tournament.

The South Koreans open against China, which scraped into the last round with two late wins to maintain its hopes of reaching the World Cup for only the second time.

War-torn Syria reached the final round despite the ongoing upheaval, forcing the national team to play the entire second round away from home.

The Syrians finished behind Japan in the previous stage to progress as one of the four best second-place teams.

Predicting the 2020-21 Premier League standings

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The 20 teams for the 2020-21 Premier League season are now set and we are releasing a prediction for the standings.

That’s right.

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With Fulham only sealing their spot in the Premier League on Tuesday via the playoffs, usually we would say this is very early to be releasing this standings prediction. But with the 2020-21 season kicking off in 40 days from now due to all of the schedule changes, it doesn’t seem too outlandish to have a crack at this.

Of course, transfers in and out will heat up between now and Sept. 12 when the new season kicks off and the transfer window open until Oct. 5, a lot can change with all 20 teams.

That said, Leeds United, West Brom and Fulham will all add something slightly different to the Premier League as the newly-promoted teams and it will be intriguing to see if teams who finished the 2019-20 season in red-hot form can carry that into the start of next season given the short break over the summer.

Champions Liverpool and Manchester City will be the favorites to win the Premier League title, while Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham will battle it out for the remaining two Champions League spots as they are rebuilding and nowhere near being title contenders, although Man United are closer than the other three.

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At the bottom, it’s tough to see how the three newly-promoted teams can prosper given the short turnaround between the 2019-20 season and the 2020-21 campaign but Leeds seem the most prepared to solidify their spot in the Premier League.

In the fight for Europe, Wolves, Leicester and Everton look like the best bets of challenging the established top six but watch out for Southampton. Other surprise packages could be Brighton and West Ham, while you worry for Burnley and Crystal Palace given a lack of squad depth, plus Sheffield United and Newcastle United limped to the finishing line in 2019-20.

All in all, a lot will change in the coming weeks before the 2020-21 season kicks off, so we will do another one of these predictions post before the season starts.

For now, here’s my 2020-21 Premier League standings prediction and how I think the table will look when the final whistle blows on May 16, 2021.

Prediction for the 2020-21 Premier League standings

1. Manchester City
2. Liverpool
3. Manchester United
4. Chelsea
5. Arsenal
6. Tottenham
7. Leicester City
8. Wolves
9. Everton
10. Southampton
11. West Ham
12. Brighton
13. Burnley
14. Sheffield United
15. Leeds United
16. Aston Villa
17. Newcastle United
18. Crystal Palace
19. Fulham
20. West Brom

Do Man United need to sign Jadon Sancho?

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Jadon Sancho to Manchester United is set to be the transfer saga of the summer/fall and the big question is this: do Man United really need Sancho?

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Sancho, 20, is no doubt one of the top young players on the planet. So, in theory, every club needs Sancho.

Dortmund want $140 million for him and want a deal soon, while Man United are playing it cool despite talks of them already agreeing personal terms with Sancho and a breakthrough in negotiations being made with Dortmund.

Our partners at Sky Sports in the UK have the latest update, as they say Man United are determined not to be bullied over a deal for Sancho and will not agree to a Aug. 10 deadline.

It is believed United want to spend a lot less than $140 million for Sancho, especially given the current financial situation. I keep thinking ‘is their money better spent elsewhere on their squad?’ Perhaps on a center half or a holding midfielder?

The answer is somewhere between yes and no.

In their current front four they have a wonderful mixture of pace, trickery and creativity. Marcus Rashford flying off the left. Anthony Martial holding the ball up and running in-behind up top. Bruno Fernandes pulling all the strings just behind. Then there’s Mason Greenwood on the right, the prodigious talent who has burst onto the scene at the age of 18.

Greenwood’s emergence is the main reason we can question this deal for Sancho.

There’s no doubt Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to sign the former Man City academy star but Sancho is more of a luxury signing for Man United at this point. Nobody expected Greenwood to burst onto the scene the way he has this season and not allowing him to be a regular starter next season and beyond would be a harsh, and damaging move for Solskjaer.

Rashford and Martial are guaranteed starters at this point and the only other way Sancho would fit into this team is if Martial dropped to the bench and Rashford played centrally with Greenwood and Sancho on the wings.

Rashford, Martial and Greenwood are similar players and combine well but we saw how United’s attack stuttered a little against teams who defended deep and Sancho’s trickery would give them something slightly different.

Aside from United’s current front four they have Odion Ighalo (on loan until January 2021), Jesse Lingard, Daniel James and Juan Mata. That’s quite a drop off in terms of quality but those are also players who are happy enough to play 15-20 games a season and play supporting roles. Sancho is not and if he arrives he will obviously start most games.

Jadon Sancho to Manchester United will rumble on but he’s a luxury signing. Man United will be fine without him but better with him, even though it could cause a few headaches for Solskjaer.

Scott Parker’s first season as a manager ends in Fulham promotion

Fulham promotion
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after just one season in the EFL Championship, and that means Scott Parker has worked something of a minor miracle in west London.

[ MORE: Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship ]

Parker took on a hefty challenge when he accepted his first senior managerial job last year. Fulham were a virtual lock to be relegated from the Premier League when he was named interim boss in February, and their place in the second division had long since been confirmed by the time he was named Claudio Ranieri’s permanent successor in May. The squad was expensive, bloated and full of players who had no intention of sticking around after relegation.

Given the club’s wealth of resources relative to the rest of the Championship, promotion at the first time of asking was more an expectation than a hope at Craven Cottage. Fast-forward 15 months, and the 39-year-old has quickly proven himself the right man for the job after doing just that — taking Fulham back to the PL by way of Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final.

Promotion may have been sealed on Tuesday, but Parker believes it was earned over a long period of transition and self-reflection by the players, beginning when he first took the job — quotes from the BBC:

“We’ve done what we’ve done tonight, but there’s still improvement, and that’s what makes me so proud and happy.

“For all of the good players and everything you see, what makes me so happy is I see a group of players who only a year ago were struggling psychologically, didn’t have a mindset or mentality.

“I’ve driven this team every single day and what makes me proud is I stood on the touchline tonight and seen a team that represents what I’ve been saying over the last 12 months.”

Now comes the the truly difficult challenge for Parker: after winning Fulham promotion he must assemble a squad of players not only good enough to stay in the PL, but also one full of individuals who want to be at his club and not simply any club that just so happens to be in England’s top division.

Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship

Championship promotion playoff final
Photo credit: @FulhamFC
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after claiming west London derby delight at the expense of local rivals Brentford in Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

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It was an incredibly cagey affair — as the Championship promotion playoff final tends to be — that saw the two sides combine for just 17 shots (four on target) through 90 minutes of regular time. In the end, it was the most unlikely of restarts halfway through extra time that sent the Cottagers on their way.

Brentford were nearly the architects of their own downfall early in the first half. FirstIt was a poor back pass from Henrik Dalsgaard that left David Raya in worlds of trouble in the 10th minute, though Fulham were unable to find a proper chance amid the chaos inside Brentford’s box.

Fulham were perhaps fortunate not to go a man down in the 29th minute, when Harrison Reed slid through Christian Norgaard and put studs into the Dane’s ankle. Reed came over top of the ball in a 50-50 challenge and, despite first making contact with the ball, came in with borderline excessive force and in a reckless fashion. Nonetheless, only a yellow card for the on-loan Southampton youngster.

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The start of the second half looked like more of the same from the first half: Fulham with an early chance and Brentford scrambling to stay level. Neeskens Kebano curled a free kick around the wall in the 48th minute, likely beating Raya if it was on frame, but only managed to rippled the outside netting.

Championship Golden Boot runner-up (25 goals) Ollie Watkins had the final scoring chance of regular time in the 70th minute as he fired from the edge of Fulham’s penalty area, but Marek Rodak was able to comfortably palm the ball over the crossbar. Still, the first threatening signs of life from the Bees.

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The decisive moment finally arrived in the 105th minute, and it came from absolutely nothing — less than nothing, one might credibly argue. Joe Bryan was tasked with restarting play following a foul roughly 50 yards from goal. Rather than lofting the ball high and to the back post, as Raya so clearly expected him to do, Bryan wrapped his left foot around the ball and whipped it toward the near post — as “near” as it can be from 50-plus yards. Raya was painfully slow to recognize the shot and tried to scramble across the face of goal, but never had a chance of getting anywhere near the ball.

Bryan doubled Fulham’s lead in the 117th minute. It was fast and fluid one-two atop Brentford’s penalty area and the left back tucked it away to seal promotion back to the top flight, and it turned out to be hugely necessary after Dalsgaard poked home a late consolation goal for the Bees with virtually the last kick of the game.

Fulham spent the 2018-19 season in the Premier League but finished with just 26 points in 19th place and were relegated back to the Championship after one season. Only time will tell if they’re able to stay in the top division this time, or if they’re a full-time yo-yo club.