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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.

PL Sunday preview: Leicester, Newcastle, Sheffield Utd, Wolves in action

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There will be no shortage of action and subplots during Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures, as Aston Villa host in-form Leicester City; Newcastle look to continue their winning ways against an improving Southampton side; Norwich City look for a way out of the relegation zone as they take on Sheffield United; and Wolverhampton Wanderers aim to continue their spectacular, unbeaten run against Brighton.

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Aston Villa vs. Leicester City — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCSN

December is upon us, and the team putting some form of pressure on top-of-the-table Liverpool is second-best Leicester City. Who would have thought?

In similar fashion to what the masses thought of the Foxes prior to the start of the 2015/16 season, the answer is that not many were sold on the notion that Brendan Rodgers and his team were going to be a flat-out success this season, especially after dealing out Harry Maguire to Manchester United.

Whether the onlookers believed or didn’t believe is a conversation that surely doesn’t bother the majority associated with the once-Premier League champions. The Foxes are on a seven-game winning streak and Rodgers was rewarded for his accomplishments thus far, signing a new contract on Friday that keeps him at the helm until 2025.

Aston Villa’s Dean Smith recognized that his opponents on Sunday are in stellar shape but also cautioned that playing his team at Villa Park will not be a walk in the park, despite only being a point above the red line.

“They are on a fantastic run of form but there aren’t many teams who will come away from Villa Park and think they’ve had an easy game,” Dean Smith said.

It’s not the blockbuster game that will freeze the soccer community, but from the sounds of it, Leicester’s visit to Birmingham will be an authentic battle between two teams that are on the opposite sides of the spectrum.

INJURIES: Aston Villa — OUT: Keinan Davis (hamstring), Jed Steer (achilles)| Leicester City — OUT: Matty James (calf) 

Newcastle vs. Southampton — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Southampton haven’t won three consecutive league matches since May of 2016.

That can change on Sunday at St. James Park, mostly if Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s gamble of starting the same lineup for a third straight game over the span of eight days pays off. But just as it can pay off, it can certainly backfire at the hands of a slowly-but-surely improving Newcastle side.

“It’s a huge month for us,” Steve Bruce said about his Magpies ahead of the match. “It’s season defining, I think it is for every team because there are so many games.

“I have always said that a few results along the way helps everybody, so we’ve given ourselves a nice platform going into the busy Christmas period.

“The spirit among the players, and their attitude and the way they are playing has delighted me.”

That said, as expected, Hasenhuttl likes his side’s chances after demonstrating to him that they’re more than willing to follow order and fight for the crest at all costs.

“In the last three games… the team [has been] playing much more committed,” he said. “When we play like this we create chances, we don’t give the opponents chances, we are defending higher and then keep the opponent far away from our goal and this is more our style we want to play.”

INJURIES: Newcastle — OUT: Lascelles (Knee), Ritchie (ankle) | Southampton — OUT: Armstrong (calf)

Norwich City vs. Sheffield United — 9:00 a.m ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Just a couple of months ago, Daniel Farke and his players were touching the clouds.

A 3-2 win against the defending champions Manchester City was the root cause of that state of hysteria that is now nowhere to be found. With one win in their last 10 matches, the Canaries have been grounded and more. In fact, Farke’s rhetoric on his team and their future in the league says it all.

“We are a newly-promoted side who have not spent any money, so in each and every second at this level we must be at our best,” he said leading up to Sunday’s match. “We told everyone before the season this would be a difficult challenge.”

Promoted with them last season, Sheffield United, too, didn’t let lavish spendings over the summer do the talking. But even then, Chris Wilder‘s men have done a lot with a little, putting together formidable, team-oriented performances. The Blades have surprised many with their 19 points after 15 matches.

Sunday presents itself as a game in which Sheffield has the upper hand, but Wilder knows Norwich far too well. In fact, it’s a team they were constantly chasing in England’s second division this time last year.

“They were the outstanding team in the Championship last season,” he said. “I was delighted to get as close as we did to them.”

INJURIES: Norwich City — OUT: Hanley (groin), Drmic (hamstring), Timm Klose (knee) | Sheffield United — OUT: None

Brighton Hove and Albion vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers  — 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBCSN

Very few teams in the league have overcome adversity this season like Wolves.

A team that surprised many last season, started the season off in a way that was unlike anything Nuno Espirito Santo had put forward before: a sluggish, disjointed brand of play. Wolves have been participating in European competition for the first time since 1980, however, and have 28 games under their belts this season.

Riding a 10-game unbeaten streak (the best active streak in the league), Espirito Santo decided to give his players a rare Thursday off from all training ahead of Sunday’s showdown against a hungry Brighton.

“I hope [the players] enjoyed their day off [on Thursday],” the Portuguese manager said. “It was well deserved and they needed it. It was important they understand it’s a day to rest, recover, stay at home and be with family and join us today to be ready for Sunday.”

Coming off an emphatic win at the Emirates, Brighton are aware of the tough task that will be defeating a red-hot Wolves. But as Graham Potter says and just experienced against Arsenal, anything and everything goes in the Premier League.

“Anything is possible in this league, that’s the way you have to think or else it becomes boring,” Potter said. “We have to keep working towards what we’re trying to achieve and maintain the spirit around the group.”

INJURIES: Brighton  OUT: Izquierdo (knee) | Wolves  OUT: Boly (leg), Gibbs-White (back), Shabani (knee)

Serie A roundup: Lazio hand 10-man Juventus first loss (video)

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Lazio’s triumphant victory over league favorites Juventus highlights Saturday’s Serie A action.

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Lazio 3-1 Juventus

Juventus are no longer unbeaten in Serie A play under Maurizio Sarri, losing 3-1 to Simone Inzaghi’s inspired Lazio.

Luiz Felipe, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Felipe Caicedo scored for the home side, who are now three points behind second-place Juventus and five behind top-of-the-table Inter Milan.

Scoreless from open play since October, Cristiano Ronaldo found the back of the net in the 25th minute to put the Old Lady in front after tapping in Federico Bernardeschi’s well-placed pass inside the box.

It was Juventus’ game to lose, which they went on to do after a series of defensive and cognitive mishaps.

Tied after Felipe’s goal right before the break, Milinkovic-Savic scored in the 74th minute. The Serbian’s goal came after Juan Cuadrado was sent off for his reckless tackle on last-man Manuel Lazzari in the 69th. Milinkovic-Savic was set up by Luis Alberto‘s assist over the Juventus defense and scored with a low shot past goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.

Ciro Immobile had a clear-cut chance to widen his red-hot goalscoring form, but the striker was denied by Szczesny from the spot. Juventus’ goalkeeper saved Immobile’s initial blistering strike, and his following second chance.

In stoppage time, however, Felipe Caicedo’s second-chance strike was too much for the Polish ‘keeper.

Juventus will have to quickly turn the page as they face Bayer Leverkusen midweek in their final match of the Champions League group stage, while Lazio travel to France to take on Rennes in their Europa League group stage finale.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Atalanta 3-2 Hellas Verona

Udinese 1-1 Napoli

La Liga roundup: Barcelona, Real Madrid remain level on points after wins (video)

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Routine wins from league favorites Barcelona and Real Madrid, highlight La Liga’s Saturday action.

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Barcelona 5-2 RCD Mallorca

It was a special night at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

Fresh from winning the Ballon d’Or for a record sixth time, Lionel Messi was greeted by his three children on the field, who handed him a shinny, golden ball – given yearly to the best player in the world – prior to the first whistle.

From that point on, it was evident that it would be all smiles for everyone tied to the defending champions at the stadium (and for those watching remotely) on Saturday.

 

That was the case.

Antoine Griezmann – a topic of conversation due to lack of productivity at Barcelona this season – kicked off the game with a solo run and subsequent goal in the seventh minute, opening the floodgates.

As a celebration of his latest, individual accomplishment, Messi showcased the power and precision of his left foot at the tune of a hat-trick. The Argentine ace scored twice in the first half and another in consolation time, putting his season total mark at a league-best 12 goals.

The moment and goal of the night (possibly of the season) didn’t directly involve Messi, however. With a daring, emphatic and genius back-heel strike, not only did Luis Suarez put the home side up 4-1, but cemented himself in the ballot for best goal of the season.

With 34 and a better goal differential than Real Madrid, Barcelona remain atop of La Liga ahead of their clash with Inter Milan on Tuesday, while Mallorca hope Ante Budimir can score another brace; this time against a struggling Celta Vigo next weekend.

Real Madrid 2-0 Espanyol

With goals from Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane, Real Madrid comfortably cruised past a struggling Espanyol.

With the majority of Real Madrid in Espanyol’s final third following a recovered free-kick attempt, Benzema charged his way into the box before laying off a ball to Varane, who not a proven goalscorer whatsoever, placed the ball into the back of the net with ease.

It was the 37th minute, and the home side were up 1-0 against a poor Espanyol.

With a notable superior style at hand, Los Blancos continued to surge forward. Opportunities at goal were generated but the ball wouldn’t go past ex-Real Madrid ‘keeper Diego Lopez.

Then, in the 79th minute, Benzema registered his 11th goal of the season, finishing an off-balance pass from Federico Valverde inside the box.

Winners in their last La Liga bouts, Real Madrid now prepare for their Champions League Group Stage finale against Club Brugge midweek. Espanyol, despite being in the drop zone, host CSKA Moscow in their Europa League Group Stage finale. The Catalonian club lead Group H with 11 points after five matches.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Granada 3-0 Alaves

Levante 2-4 Valencia

Ancelotti’s future uncertain after Napoli draws at Udinese

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ROME (AP) Carlo Ancelotti’s future as Napoli coach is uncertain after his team failed to beat Udinese on Saturday in Serie A.

The 1-1 draw extended Napoli’s winless run to nine matches in all competitions. Piotr Zelinski saved Napoli with a late goal that salvaged a point for the visitors.

Amid reports that Ancelotti could soon be fired, Napoli, which had won its last six league matches against Udinese, went a goal down after a counterattack which was finished by Kevin Lasagna in the 32nd minute.

Napoli improved after Fernando Llorente replaced an uninspired Lorenzo Insigne in the second half. It equalized after a good combination between Dries Mertens and Zielinski, who wrongfooted the Udinese ‘keeper with a shot into the bottom corner.

Also, Atalanta twice came from behind after Samuel Di Carmine’s two goals to beat Hellas Verona 3-2 with a late winner from Berat Djimsiti, who volleyed home from close range.

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