Stars shine in new era of “Friday Night Lights” in Premier League

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MANCHESTER — Zlatan Ibrahimovic towered above Jose Fonte as Wayne Rooney‘s sublime cross hung in the Manchester air. The ball dazzled like a jewel as it was illuminated by the floodlights.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Over 70,000 fans held their breath. Then Ibra headed home and wheeled away in celebration as the stars had combined for United in front of a prime-time audience on Friday night.

Liftoff.

To quote Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights: “Odessa is the setting for this book, but it could be anyplace in this vast land where, on a Friday night, a set of spindly stadium lights rises to the heavens to so powerfully, and so briefly, ignite the darkness.”

This setting was Manchester. And there was nothing but light at Old Trafford on Friday as a true cathedral of world soccer came to life at the center of English soccer’s newest experiment.

[ MORE: Mourinho a happy man | Recap ] 

The first of 10 scheduled Friday night games in the Premier League this season — the first-time in league history they’ve been a regular feature — took place as Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United beat Claude Puel‘s Southampton 2-0 with Ibrahimovic bagging both goals.

Under the bright lights on a mild late August evening in Manchester, Mourinho made his bow and so too did world-record signing Paul Pogba who started the game. The kick off of a new era of Friday night games in the PL couldn’t have been timed better.

It was box office from start to finish.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

During the day in Manchester, fans streamed in from all over the country on trains, planes and buses. As the drizzle drifted in off the Pennines nearby, the spirits in the city center and nearer to Old Trafford weren’t dampened.

A hotel receptionist told me everywhere was fully booked in central Manchester, which isn’t usually the case on Friday’s. Fans from the USA were in town for the “big game” and there was a huge sense of anticipation about the match.

With Mourinho, Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic all under the lights, there was a special feel and intrigue about how this would go and even Manchester City’s stadium store was buzzing throughout the day ahead of Pep Guardiola‘s press conference. The entire city of Manchester was transfixed by soccer. In the past there have been few Friday games. Manchester United played in one last season at Aston Villa due to policing issues in Birmingham not allowing the game to take place on the weekend.

Apart from that, the odd Boxing Day or festive and Easter fixture date would fall on a Friday. The Enligsh Football League Championship, England’s second-tier, has had Friday night games live on TV for some time. The jury is still out on how successful they were but the PL games will undoubtedly generate plenty of interest and kick the weekend off with everyone focused on the league. On Sky Sports in the UK they launched an entire new show and line up of presenters for the games, promoting the event by making a 800 square meters mosaic of Zlatan Ibrahimovic out of United shirts.

With the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and even La Liga trying out Friday night games for quite some time to varying degrees of success, the PL decided to give it a crack this season. Why not?

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates scoring his team's second goal from the penalty spot during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

There are ups and downs about having a game on a Friday. Manchester United fans Conrad and Matthew Davies stood on United Way eating a kebab and fries before the game. They told me they were concerned about the Southampton fans having to travel across the country to get to Old Trafford in time for kick off and even though they lived nearby, it took them twice as long as usual to get to the stadium. The Davies’ want to keep the Friday night games regional in the future.

For those of you in the U.S. — the majority of whom will be reading this and watching our coverage across NBC Sports’ platforms — the experience will be slightly different.

The 3 p.m. ET kick off on a Friday provides U.S. fans with plenty of options. Finish work early on a Friday and get to the bar to watch the game in NYC, Boston, Washington D.C. and elsewhere? Still have those reports to file for the weekend? Damn. It’s okay though, you can stream the games live on your phone, tablet or desktop. All is not lost.

For fans in the UK, being able to relax on your sofa and watch your team play on a Friday night on TV after a hard week at work will resonate strongly with many. Having a pint in the pub on a Friday night will also be livelier when the local team is playing on TV.

Fans who want to get to the games have had to get creative.

Harold Barbour, a Manchester United fan, got up at 4:45 a.m. on Friday and flew from Belfast’s George Best International airport. He expects the pubs in Northern Ireland to be packed on Friday.

“Everybody will be going out to watch the games, the pub will be packed out on a Friday to watch the game back home,” Barbour said. “It’s great to have it on a Friday night because you have all your work done and you can go out and celebrate.”

For Southampton’s traveling fans, the journey was made a little easier than it could have been.

Over 2,700 of them were at Old Trafford, selling out the allocation given to them. There were no planes or trains available to Southampton’s supporters after the game, with the last train back to London leaving Manchester at 9:15 p.m. local time. So, 15 minutes into the second half.

Saints fans Chris Shaw and his son Charlie traveled up on the train from Southampton on Friday  and stayed overnight in Manchester. Speaking before the game outside Old Trafford, Chris was all for the extra day of action.

“I think it is actually quite good, it breaks up the football for the week. Midweek football, Friday night football, weekend football, it gives you more football through the week which is good for everybody,” Shaw said.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Their sponsors Virgin Media must be applauded for putting on buses for Southampton’s fans to travel up and back to Manchester (roughly a four to five hour drive) on the same day. Virgin Media have also capped away ticket prices for away fans visiting Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium at £20 (approximately $26) which is lower than the £30 agreed by all PL clubs over the summer.

Despite the long distance, expenses and everything else, Saints’ fans believed they could have sold over 8,000 tickets for this game. The interest will always be there for the PL.

“Southampton could have sold treble this number of tickets, easily,” Shaw said. “I think most people will find a way. It’s a good way to start the weekend. We are staying up here and it has been a good excuse to leave early and enjoy it.”

Measures are being put in place to make these Friday trips easier to make, but with Liverpool’s fans heading down to Chelsea for the next installment of Friday Night Football, then Crystal Palace’s fans facing a similar trip up to Everton after that, logistics are proving an issue. But then again, this is no different to a Monday night game and many believe Friday games work better than extending the PL week into a Monday.

Outside the stadium, the bustling streets of Manchester on a Friday night awaited both sets of fans. Plans were being made to continue the party elsewhere.

After a promising debut, this Friday Night Football thing could catch on…

“More Friday night games work for me,” Shaw said. “It just gives us a chance to see more football… which is our passion.”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19: Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United looks on prior to the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Antonio Conte, Tottenham part ways

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Antonio Conte’s belabored but seemingly inevitable exit from Tottenham Hotspur was just that, as Spurs announced the Italian legend’s exit late Sunday.

Conte went off on everyone at the club following a 3-3 draw with Southampton in Premier League Matchweek 28, and the international break did nothing to calm or rectify the situation.

“I see selfish players, I see players that don’t want to help each other and don’t put their heart [into the game],” Conte said at one point, later criticizing ownership, coaches, and staff. See the full press conference atop this post.

Cristian Stellini will stay on and oversee the season as “Acting Head Coach” with longtime Spurs man Ryan Mason assisting the Italian.

[ MORE: Saka, Kane scored as England cruises past Ukraine ]

Conte, 53, was appointed Spurs boss on Nov. 2, 2021 following the firing of Nuno Espirito Santo, and helped Tottenham to a top-four finish and a return to the UEFA Champions League.

Spurs went unbeaten in their first seven matches to open the 2022-23 season, only losing away to West Ham and Chelsea, but a 3-1 loss at Arsenal in the North London derby started a run of ups and downs not normally associated with Conte teams.

After beating Brighton and Everton, Spurs failed to win consecutive Premier League matches between October 19 and late January, when Spurs beat Fulham and Man City on consecutive match days.

Tottenham was on a 5W-1D-2L Premier League run when Conte launched into his incredible rants following the Southampton draw. That, combined with a lifeless Champions League exit against AC Milan, was far too much to sustain him at the club.

Tottenham Hotspur statement on Antonio Conte

From TottenhamHotspur.com:

“We can announce that Head Coach Antonio Conte has left the Club by mutual agreement. We achieved Champions League qualification in Antonio’s first season at the Club. We thank Antonio for his contribution and wish him well for the future.

“Cristian Stellini will take the team as Acting Head Coach for the remainder of the season, along with Ryan Mason as Assistant Head Coach.

Daniel Levy, Chairman: ‘We have 10 Premier League games remaining and we have a fight on our hands for a Champions League place. We all need to pull together. Everyone has to step up to ensure the highest possible finish for our Club and amazing, loyal supporters.'”

What now?

It’s very strange that Spurs would wait one week into the international break and then announce that Conte was leaving without a new coach in place (Stellini was a long time Tottenham assistant).

Spurs are currently in fourth place on the table with 49 points, one point behind Manchester United, but Newcastle (47 points) and Liverpool 42 points) both have two matches-in-hand on Stellini’s men. Brighton’s also on 42 points and has three matches-in-hand on Spurs.

Stellini actually may have a pretty easy task presuming he didn’t follow up Conte’s comments about the players by yelling, “Yeah, I agree!”

There are points to be had along the way as Spurs return from break to meet Everton, Brighton, and Bournemouth, but the relatively soft landing ends with Newcastle, Manchester United, and Liverpool in the following three PL matches.

Palace, Villa, Brentford, and Leeds wind down the fixture list, so it’s reasonable to think Spurs will return to the Champions League if they can get through Liverpool on April 30 with a look at the top four.

EURO 2024 qualification live! EURO qualifiers schedule, updates, standings

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EURO 2024 qualifying is here, and you’re in the right spot for groups, fixtures, and results.

Italy outlasted England in penalty kicks to win EURO 2020 and is bidding to become the first repeat winner since Spain in 2008 and 2012.

[ MORE: Breaking down Premier League title race ]

England is still seeking its first European Championship and will be favored to emerge from Group C with aforementioned Italy as well as Ukraine, North Macedonia, and Malta.

Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions started off 2024 qualifying well as Harry Kane snapped a tie with Wayne Rooney atop England’s all-time goals list with a 2-1 win in Italy, the nation’s first in the country since 1961, and then Bukayo Saka led the Three Lions to a 2-0 win over Ukraine on Sunday.

Netherlands and France are also in a spicy group that has dark horse Republic of Ireland and former champions Greece, as well as Gibraltar.

[ MORE: Live scores, updates, standings from EURO 2024 qualifying ]

A number of nations have guaranteed themselves no worse than a playoff spot due to their performances in the UEFA Nations League: Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Spain, Scotland, Georgia, Croatia, Turkey, Serbia, Kazakhstan.



EURO 2024 qualifying schedule

Thursday, March 23

Kazakhstan 1-2 Slovenia
Slovakia 0-0 Luxembourg
Italy 1-2 England – Video, player ratings as Kane breaks Rooney record
Denmark 3-1 Finland
Portugal 4-0 Liechtenstein
San Marino 0-2 Northern Ireland
North Macedonia 2-1 Malta
Bosnia and Herzegovina 3-0 Iceland

Friday, March 24

Bulgaria 0-1 Montenegro
Gibraltar 0-3 Greece
Moldova 1-1 Faroe Islands
Serbia 2-0 Lithuania
Austria 4-1 Azerbaijan
Sweden 0-3 Belgium
Czech Republic 3-1 Poland
France 4-0 Netherlands

Saturday, March 25

Scotland 3-0 Cyprus
Israel 1-1 Kosovo
Armenia 1-2 Turkey
Belarus 0-5 Switzerland
Spain 3-0 Norway
Croatia 1-0 Wales
Andorra 0-2 Romania

Sunday, March 26

Kazakhstan 3-2 Denmark
England 2-0 Ukraine — Video, player ratings as Saka leads Three Lions
Liechtenstein 0-7 Iceland
Slovenia 2-0 San Marino
Slovakia 2-0 Bosnia and Herzegovina
Northern Ireland 0-1 Finland
Luxembourg 0-6 Portugal
Malta 0-2 Italy

Monday, March 27

Montenegro vs Serbia — 2:45pm ET
Netherlands vs Gibraltar — 2:45pm ET
Poland vs Albania — 2:45pm ET
Austria vs Estonia — 2:45pm ET
Sweden vs Azerbaijan — 2:45pm ET
Moldova vs Czech Republic — 2:45pm ET
Hungary vs Bulgaria — 2:45pm ET
Republic of Ireland vs France — 2:45pm ET

Tuesday, March 28

Georgia vs Norway — Noon ET
Wales vs Latvia — 2:45pm ET
Romania vs Belarus — 2:45pm ET
Switzerland vs Israel — 2:45pm ET
Kosovo vs Andorra — 2:45pm ET
Turkey vs Croatia — 2:45pm ET
Scotland vs Spain — 2:45pm ET


EURO 2024 qualifying standings

Group A

Spain — 3 pts, +3 GD
Scotland — 3 pts, +3GD
Georgia
Norway — 0 pts, -3 GD
Cyprus — 0 pts, -3 GD

Group B

France — 3pts, +4 GD
Greece — 3 pts, +3 GD
Republic of Ireland
Gibraltar — 0 pts, -3 GD
Netherlands — 0 pts, -4 GD

Group C

England — 6 pts, +3 GD
Italy — 3 pts, +1 GD
North Macedonia — 3 pts, +1 GD
Ukraine — 0 pts, -2 GD
Malta — 0 pts, -3 GD

Group D

Turkey — 3 pts, +1 GD
Wales — 1 pt, 0 GD
Croatia — 1 pt, 0 GD
Latvia
Armenia — 0 pts, -1 GD

Group E

Czech Republic — 3 pts, +2 GD
Faroe Islands — 1 pt, 0 GD
Moldova — 1 pt, 0 GD
Albania
Poland — 0 pts, -2 GD

Group F

Austria — 3 pts, +3 GD
Belgium — 3 pts, + 3GD
Estonia
Azerbaijan — 0 pts, -3 GD
Sweden — 0 pts, -3 GD

Group G

Serbia — 3 pts, +2 GD
Montenegro — 3 pts, +1 GD
Hungary
Bulgaria — 0 pts, -1 GD
Lithuania — 0 pts, -2 GD

Group H

Slovenia — 6 pts, +3 GD
Northern Ireland — 3 pts, +1 GD
Denmark — 3 pts, +1 GD
Finland — 3 pts, -1 GD
Kazakhstan — 3 pts, 0 GD
San Marino — 0 pts, -4 GD

Group I

Switzerland — 3 pts, +5 GD
Romania — 3 pts, + 2 GD
Israel — 1 pt, 0 GD
Kosovo — 1 pt, 0 GD
Andorra — 0 pts, -2 GD
Belarus — 0 pts, -5 GD

Group J

Portugal — 6 pts, +8 GD
Slovakia — 4 pt, +2 GD
Iceland — 3 pts, +4 GD
Bosnia and Herzegovina — 3 pts, +1 GD
Liechtenstein — 1 pt, -7 GD
Luxembourg — 0 pts, -10 GD

USMNT upcoming schedule – Nations League, friendlies, Gold Cup

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After reaching the last 16 of the 2022 World Cup, the USMNT have a big 2023 coming up as they aim to build off a successful showing on the world’s biggest stage.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA

For the next few months CONCACAF Nations League takes center stage, while the program is very much in transition as Anthony Hudson takes temporary charge and both the general manager (Brian McBride) and sporting director (Earnie Stewart) left in recent months.

[ MORE: USMNT roster for Nations League features Gio Reyna, no Tyler Adams ]

As for now, here is the USMNT’s upcoming schedule for 2023, with plenty more games to be added based on their potential qualification for the 2023 Gold Cup on home soil.


How to watch USMNT

TV channels in English: HBO Max, TNT
TV channels en Español:
Universo, Telemundo Deportes
Streaming en Español: Peacock


USMNT upcoming schedule

* Friendly | ** CONCACAF Nations League | *** 2022 World Cup

2023

vs. Serbia* — Jan. 25, 10 pm ET — Loss 2-1 | Recap & highlights
vs. Colombia* — Jan. 28, 7:30 pm ET — Draw 0-0 | Recap & highlights
at Grenada** — March 24, 8 pm ET — Won 7-1 | Recap & highlights + Player ratings
vs El Salvador** — March 27, 7:30pm ET — Orlando, Florida
vs Mexico* — April 19, 10:22pm ET — Glendale, Arizona – More details

2023 Gold Cup from June 16 to July 19 (USMNT yet to qualify)


USMNT games in 2022

vs. Morocco* — June 1 — Win 3-0
vs. Uruguay* — June 5 — Draw 0-0
vs. Grenada** — June 10 — Win 5-0
at El Salvador** — June 14 — Draw 1-1
vs Japan* — Sept. 23 (in Dusseldorf, Germany) — Loss 2-0
vs Saudi Arabia* — Sept. 27 (in Murcia, Spain) — Draw 0-0


USMNT at 2022 World Cup

Group B
vs. Wales*** — Nov. 21, 2 pm ET — Draw 1-1
vs. England*** — Nov. 25, 2 pm ET — Draw 0-0
vs. Iran*** — Nov. 29, 2 pm ET — Win 1-0

Last 16
vs. Netherlands*** — Dec. 3, 10 am ET — Loss 3-1


USMNT 2022 World Cup qualifying scores, recaps, analysis

at El Salvador — Sept. 2Draw 0-0
vs. Canada — Sept. 5 — Draw 1-1
at Honduras — Sept. 8 — Win 4-1

vs. Jamaica — Oct. 7 — Win 1-0
at Panama — Oct. 10 — Loss 0-1
vs. Costa Rica — Oct. 13 — Win 2-1

vs. Mexico — Nov. 12 — Win 2-0
at Jamaica — Nov. 16 — Draw 1-1

vs. El Salvador — Jan. 27 — Win 1-0
at Canada — Jan. 30 — Loss 0-2
vs. Honduras — Feb. 2 — Win 3-0

at Mexico — March 24 — Draw 0-0 
vs. Panama — March 27 — Win 5-1
at Costa Rica — March 30 — Loss 0-2 


Final CONCACAF World Cup qualifying standings

Canada — 28 points – (QUALIFIED) GD +16 – automatic qualification
Mexico — 28 points (QUALIFIED) GD +9 – automatic qualification
USMNT — 25 points – (QUALIFIED) GD +11 – automatic qualification


Costa Rica — 25 points (PLAYOFF) GD +5


Panama — 21 points (ELIMINATED)
Jamaica — 14 points (ELIMINATED)
El Salvador — 10 points (ELIMINATED)
Honduras — 4 points (ELIMINATED)

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Bukayo Saka leads England to 2-0 win over Ukraine in EURO qualifying

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Bukayo Saka scored a goal and set up Harry Kane for another as England beat Ukraine 2-0 in a UEFA EURO 2024 qualifier at Wembley Stadium in London on Sunday.

That gives England six points from six to start qualifying and Ukraine barely got a sniff of goal after an early chance didn’t go its way. The Three Lions out-attempted Ukraine 18-3 and led the xG battle 2.05-0.12.

England was without Phil Foden, who had his appendix removed, and several others but was minimally troubled over 90 minutes.

[ LIVE: EURO 2024 qualifying scores – England vs Ukraine ]

It was an extremely emotional atmosphere in London as the war rages on across Ukraine following the Russia invasion just over a year ago. The English Football Association gave away close to 1,000 free tickets to Ukrainians who were forced to flee their country and resettle with families in the UK.

The United Kingdom have been one of Ukraine’s key partners in the fight against Russian forces. Over 4,200 Ukraine fans were estimated in the away end at Wembley. This match was Ukraine’s first of 2023, as they narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2022 World Cup after losing to Wales in a playoff last summer.

[ MORE: Full EURO 2024 qualifying schedule, standings ]

England beat Italy 2-1 in Naples on Thursday as Harry Kane became their all-time leading goalscorer with his 54th goal for the Three Lions and they held on after going 2-0 up as Luke Shaw’s red card with 10 minutes to go complicated matters.


England vs Ukraine player ratings: Stars of the Show

Bukayo Saka

Ben Chilwell

Jordan Henderson

Georgiy Sudakov

England vs Ukraine player ratings
fotmob.com

Harry Kane goal video: Saka cues up North London rival

Bukayo Saka goal video: Sensational curl makes it 2-0


How to watch England vs Ukraine live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 12pm ET, Sunday (March 26)
Updates: Via NBCSports.com
Stadium: Wembley Stadium, London
Stream: Fubo


Key storylines, in-form players

The last time this nations met England ran out 4-0 winners in the quarterfinals of EURO 2020. They will be the heavy favorites in this game but Ukraine should not be underestimate as the No. 26 ranked team in the world have the likes of Oleksandr Zinchenko, Mykhailo Mudryk, and Vitalii Mykolenko all playing in the Premier League.

England’s forwards ran riot in the first half against Italy with Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka sensational, plus Jude Bellingham’s driving runs from midfield give this Three Lions side an extra dimension. There is more creativity and cutting edge about this England side compared to recent years and it feels like they are ready to win something. There will be a ceremony before this game to honor Harry Kane becoming England’s all-time goalscorer as he passed Wayne Rooney with his goal in Italy on Thursday.


England team news, lineup options

Luke Shaw will be suspended for this game after his red card in Italy, so Ben Chilwell comes in at left back. Jordan Henderson enters for Kalvin Phillips in midfield, while Phil Foden misses out after undergoing appendix surgery. Reece James is also out, but Jude Bellingham perseveres through an injury to start and James Maddison is also in the XI.

Ukraine team news, lineup options

Andriy Yarmolenko (three goals away from equalling Andriy Shevchenko as Ukraine’s all-time leading scorer) has been struggling with a hamstring injury and misses out, while Bournemouth’s Ilya Zabarnyi and Shakhtar’s Oleksandr Zubkov are both out. Roman Yaremchuk offesr real quality in up top while Arsenal’s Oleksandr Zinchenko is the heartbeat of this Ukraine side and Chelsea’s Mykhailo Mudryk will drive the left side in front of Everton’s Vitalii Mykolenko.