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Surprise teams to watch as World Cup qualifying kicks on

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As we see with CONMEBOL qualifying, it’s very difficult for so-called “upstarts” to bang their way into a World Cup; The way the field is structured, several confederations have little hope of barnstorming the world’s 32-team tournament.

With the aforementioned South American qualifying, the table is fairly predictable after 7 match days: Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador are 1-4, with Brazil, Paraguay, and Chile next.

[ MORE: Mkhitaryan a doubt for derby ]

When you consider that Chile has yet to play Bolivia and won at Venezuela and Peru (the other decidedly weaker sides), their status will likely be resolved. Brazil still gets Bolivia twice as well. Ecuador is fourth but has plenty of obstacles on the way. When all’s said and done we’re likely to see Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Uruguay 1-5, with the fifth side winning its playoff with the top team in Oceania (Which is simply more bad luck for OFC dominant power New Zealand, who will be game but OFC deserves a slot despite unfortunate geography. Alas, you’d have to take one of Europe’s incredible 14 slots away).

The same can be said for CONMEBOL, should the U.S. advance to the Hex as expected. Mexico, the U.S., and Costa Rica will be expected to grab slots 1, 2, and 3, while the fourth place team hoping to outlast Asia’s fifth place side. Honduras has been in the Top Four since 2006, while T&T nicked fourth in 2002.

Europe, Africa, and Asia can bring surprises, though.

  • Take UEFA, where Groups D, E, H, and I have favorites but not clear-cut powers. And again, 14 teams is nearly half the field.
  • In Asia, you’d be hard-pressed to find true favorites for the four auto slots outside of South Korea, Australia, and Japan (who has already lost a poor road match).
  • Africa is the most wide-open of continents, due to a paltry number of slots, a deep field, and — frankly — unpredictable everything (from fields to referees and onward). With semi-regular World Cup sides Cameroon, Algeria, and Nigeria all in one group, it’s open for some new faces.

[ USMNT-SVG: Match recap | Three things ]

So here are some (somewhat) unusual names to keep an eye on:

Uzbekistan (AFC) —  The world’s 46th ranked team in ELO (55th in FIFA) is in a weaker group with Iran, South Korea, China, Syria, and Qatar. While opposition hasn’t been harsh on their slate, the White Wolves are 11W-2D-1L dating back to September 2015, and have only allowed multiple goals twice in that stretch. Their first World Cup is possible.

Norway (UEFA) — It’s  a stretch to think Norway can challenge Germany for an auto spot, but the national team is in a three-team mix for a playoff spot (Northern Ireland and Czech Republic). After a rough opener with Germany, Norway has two-straight matches in which six points will be expected, and could easily be second in the group leading into November. Momentum is nice (if significant). While second place in a group could mean Spain, Switzerland, Portugal or Italy, it could also mean Romania, Denmark, or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

NELSPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA - JANUARY 30: Wahbi Khazri of Tunisia (L) and Floyd Ama Ayite of Togo during the 2013 Orange African Cup of Nations match between Togo and Tunisia at Mbombela Stadium on January 30, 2013 in Nelspruit, South Africa.(Photo by Manus van Dyk/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
Wahbi Khazri of Tunisia (Photo by Manus van Dyk/Gallo Images/Getty Images).

Tunisia (CAF) — In a group with Libya (FIFA 93), DR Congo (FIFA 56), and Guinea (FIFA 66), Henryk Kasperczak’s side will love its chances of advancing to a first World Cup since 2006. Sunderland’s Wahbi Khazri is the name you know, and they play two of their first three qualifiers at home. With Group A’s best ELO (67) and FIFA ranking (45).

Bosnia and Herzegovina (UEFA) — You’ll remember the name and think “Dud World Cup 2014, failure to qualify for EURO 2016”, but it’s not really that dire for BNH. Their ELO is 25th, their FIFA rank is 29th, Miralem Pjanic is a wizard and perceived group No. 1 Belgium is in flux under Roberto Martinez. An auto spot isn’t out of the discussion, especially if Asmir Begovic is on his game between the sticks and strikers Edin Dzeko (30) and Vedad Ibisevic (32) get hot and hold off the hands of time.

Egypt (CAF) — Bob Bradley brought the Pharoahs to the brink of their first World Cup since 1990, an accomplishment would’ve been only their third ever (1934). The AFCON champs in 2006, 2008, and 2010 have been poised for a breakthrough for a bit, and have increasingly placed players in top leagues (Mohamed Elneny of Arsenal, Mohamed Salah at Roma). They’ll have to make their way past Ghana in Group E, which will be the major challenge.

Denmark (UEFA) —  Fell 4-3 to Sweden in a dramatic, derby-esque EURO 2016 playoff, and a one-cycle absence from the World Cup is not out of the question. In a group with Romania, Poland, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Montenegro, the key will be consistency. There’s a lot of talent here: Christian Eriksen, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Lasse Schone, Jannik Vestergaard, Kasper Schmeichel. First is possible, but second to Poland and a playoff spot is not unreasonable at all.

Emery impressed with versatile Ceballos as Arsenal stays perfect

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Despite the score line, Unai Emery can be fairly happy with Arsenal’s performance in a 2-1 defeat of Burnley at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday.

On midfielder Dani Ceballos, though, Emery will be very pleased.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 2-1 Burnley ]

The Real Madrid loanee was the easy Man of the Match, his silky skill on the ball and quality industry endearing himself to Arsenal faithful. From Football.London:

“It’s to use his quality in the best position in our team. I spoke with him before coming here, it’s to play as an eight and a No.10. He started like a 10 but changed with Willock. He can feel better on the pitch.”

Emery will be less than pleased with his defense, who allowed a goal to early season Golden Boot candidate Ashley Barnes.

“We won in our moments we did the difference for 2-1. A lot of moments we couldn’t impose our gameplan because they pushed and their gameplan was a struggle for us.”

Watch Live: Saints v. Liverpool headlines five PL games

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Five Premier League games are coming up at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday, as the second Matchweek of the new campaign comes roaring at us.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ] 

Southampton and Liverpool clash at St Mary’s in the main game at 10 a.m. ET, while two new boys have their first home games back in the PL.

Aston Villa host Bournemouth at Villa Park, while Norwich host Newcastle at Carrow Road. Elsewhere, Everton host Watford and West Ham travel to Brighton.

[ MORE: Sign up for NBC Sports Gold ] 

You can access additional games by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold which also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Premier League Download and much more.

[ STREAM: “Goal Rush” here ]

For those of you familiar with the Premier League Breakaway Show during busy days (Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Championship Sunday etc.) in the PL, this will follow that model of being similar to the NFL RedZone with action shown from all of the games in the 10 a.m. ET window. More info is available here.

The schedule for all five games at 10 a.m. ET is below and you can stream each game live by clicking on the links.


10 a.m. ET: Southampton v. Liverpool – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Aston Villa v. Bournemouth – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Brighton v. West Ham – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Everton v. Watford – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Norwich v. Newcastle – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]

Classy Arsenal beat Burnley

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Arsenal beat Burnley 2-1 at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday to make it two wins from two to start the new season. It is the first time in 10 years Arsenal have won their opening two games of a Premier League season.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

The Gunners took the lead early on through Alexandre Lacazette but a stubborn Burnley wouldn’t go away and Ashley Barnes equalized in a somewhat fortuitous manner before the break.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored the winner as Dani Ceballos dazzled on his full debut in the Premier League.

Up next for the Gunners is a trip to Liverpool followed by a north London derby against Tottenham. It is then we will see just how good this Gunners side really is.


3 things we learned

1. Ceballos is the real deal: The Spanish midfielder worked so hard defensively and oozed class on the ball. He is the replacement for Aaron Ramsey and was absolutely sensational. If he keeps playing like this, Arsenal may not be able to afford to buy him permanently next summer…

2. Defensive issues remain: There were a few shaky moments at the back for the Gunners. David Luiz‘s first start saw him take a few risks on the ball, while Bernd Leno flapped at a few crosses. Arsenal looked better defensively with Guendouzi in front of the defense, but they are far from being a solid outfit.

3. Burnley were Burnley: Sean Dyche‘s side didn’t have much of the ball but they created dangerous chances from set pieces and as long as they were only one-goal down, they were always a threat.

Man of the Match: Dani Ceballos – He will become a firm fans favorite at the Emirates Stadium. Silky on the ball, the Spaniard dug deep defensively and dictated the tempo of the game. A fine home PL debut for the Real Madrid loanee, who whipped in the corner for Lacazette’s goal and then won the ball back to create Aubameyang’s goal.


Arsenal were rampant early on and after Lacazette’s header was denied by Nick Pope, the French striker wriggled free from the resulting corner and made it 1-0.

Ashley Barnes flashed an effort just wide soon after as Burnley responded well to going behind with several high balls into the Arsenal box causing the Gunners defense problems.

Before the break Ceballos, who was running the show, orchestrated a fine counter attack which ended in Pope denying Matteo Guendouzi. Moments later Burnley were level as Dwight McNeil‘s deflected shot found Barnes and he bundled the ball home under pressure from Guendouzi to equalize against the run of play.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Arsenal thought they’d retaken the lead right on half time but Nacho Monreal was flagged for offside as he pulled the ball back for Reiss Nelson to smash home. VAR checked the decision and no goal was given.

Nicolas Pepe came on at half time as Arsenal cranked through in the second half, with the home side dominating the play and Pope making several saves.

Ceballos, once again, was the heart of their game-winning goal as he won the ball back in a dangerous area and Aubameyang raced towards goal before curling home at the near post.

VIDEO: Lacazette scores superb solo goal

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Alexandre Lacazette is off and running for the new Premier League season.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live

The Frenchman, fresh from his return from injury, wriggled free at the near post and somehow snuck his shot home to put Arsenal 1-0 up at the Emirates Stadium against Burnley.

Watch his superb strike in the video above, as the Gunners looked solid and dangerous with Dani Ceballos pulling the strings.