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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.

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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.

German Cup: Bayern Munich complete double by beating Leipzig

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BERLIN (AP) Captain Manuel Neuer returned from six weeks out injured to help Bayern Munich complete a domestic double after beating Leipzig 3-0 in the German Cup final on Saturday.

[ MORE: Valencia end Barcelona’s four-year hold on Copa del Rey ]

Robert Lewandowski scored twice and Kingsley Coman grabbed the other as Bayern claimed a record-extending 19th cup win to make up for the disappointment of losing last year’s final to Eintracht Frankfurt.

Bayern coach Niko Kovac, who was in charge of Frankfurt at the time, boosted his chances of keeping his job in Munich after bringing a successful end to what had been a testing season.

Neuer, who missed Bayern’s Bundesliga triumph the week before due to a calf injury, produced two stunning saves in either half when a goal for Leipzig might have been decisive.

Neuer somehow denied Yussuf Poulsen’s header from close range in the 11th minute, when the ball crashed back off the crossbar, and got the better of Emil Forsberg in a one-on-one after the break, when the Swedish midfielder should have equalized.

“You couldn’t write a better script,” Neuer said.

Lewandowski opened the scoring with a header in the 29th, Coman doubled the lead in the 78th after Forsberg’s miss, and Lewandowski wrapped it up with a chip over the goalkeeper in the 85th.

[ U-20 WORLD CUP: Ezequiel Barco’s golazo paces Argentina to big win ]

Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery went on late to make their last appearances for Bayern after 10 and 12 seasons respectively. Ribery became the only player to play in eight German Cup finals.

“They delivered a lot for the team and the club,” Lewandowski said. “We have to be grateful.”

Leipzig was appearing in its first, and had been hoping to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its founding date with a win. Thousands of fans made the relatively short journey from Saxony to cheer their side, though they found themselves outnumbered by Bayern fans at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, which hosts German soccer’s showpiece every year.

“It’s a huge disappointment,” Leipzig chairman Oliver Mintzlaff said. “When you come here, you want to win.”

The supporters had been warming up for hours before the encounter, downing beers and singing songs at various locations in the city before making their way to the game. Fans who arrived on chartered buses lit barbeques and shared crates of beer by the side of the road.

Leipzig coach Ralf Rangnick, the sporting director who took charge of the team on an interim basis before Julian Nagelsmann arrives from Hoffenheim, started with his strongest team, with American Tyler Adams lining up beside Kevin Kampl in midfield.

Leipzig looked sharper, fresher and quicker at the start, but one lapse was all Lewandowski needed to open the scoring. David Alaba whipped the ball in toward the penalty spot, where Lewandowski had too much space to head inside the left post.

Coman displayed a fantastic first touch to control the ball past the helpless Peter Gulacsi for Bayern’s second, and Lewandowski ensured the result was emphatic when he claimed his competition-leading seventh goal. Lewandowski was booked for removing his shirt in the celebrations, but he accepted the yellow card with a smile.

“We worked hard for the whole season. In the end you could say it was a good season for us,” the Polish striker said.

Valencia end Barcelona’s four-year hold on Copa del Rey

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Barcelona’s four-year reign as Copa del Rey holders came to an unceremonious end on Saturday, as Valencia shocked Barcelona in the 2018-19 final in Seville.

[ U-20 WORLD CUP: Ezequiel Barco’s golazo paces Argentina to big win ]

Saturday’s upset capped off a thoroughly successful 100th season for Valencia, who finished fourth in La Liga — assuring them of a second straight season in the Champions League — and lifted the club’s first major trophy since its last Copa triumph, in 2008.

Barca, on the other hand, must make do with merely winning the league title by 11 points and reaching the Champions League semifinals.

Kevin Gameiro opened the scoring with a powerful strike from the edge of the penalty area in the 21st minute. Jose Gaya’s cross came in from the left and found the Frenchman all by himself with plenty of time for a touch to settle and open up space for the shot.

Rodrigo Moreno doubled Valencia’s lead in the 33rd minute, sending a downward header past Jasper Cillessen after Carlos Soler worked his way around Jordi Alba to deliver a hard-hit ball across the face of goal.

Lionel Messi tapped home an empty-net rebound to pull a goal back for Barcelona in the 73rd minute, but that’s as close as Barca would get to mounting a comeback.

Valencia have now lifted the Copa del Rey on eight occasions (fifth-most all time), but still trail Barca’s record of 30 Copas by some way.

U-20 WC roundup: Barco’s golazo paces Argentina to big win

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action at the U-20 World Cup in Poland…

[ TRANSFER RUMORS: Man United after Portuguese duo; Spurs want Lo Celso ]

France 2-0 Saudi Arabia

While France enjoyed nearly 70 percent of possession, thanks to playing 78 minutes with a man advantage, they were anything but dominant and overwhelming in their 2-0 victory over Saudi Arabia.

Les Bleus‘ opener came just before halftime, when Youssouf Fofana (Strasbourg) volleyed home from the edge of the penalty area. Saudi Arabia went dangerously close to equalizing just seconds later, but Illan Meslier (Lorient) made a stellar save to his left to deny Turki Al-Ammar.

The 1-0 scoreline remained all the way until the 75th minute, when finally Amine Gouiri (Lyon) hit a shot off the hands of the goalkeeper and watched as it bounced over the goal line for a 2-0 lead and to complete the scoring.

France will take on Panama in their next Group E game on Tuesday.

Argentina 5-2 South Africa

Ezequiel Barco might have made himself — and Atlanta United — a few million dollars on Saturday, thanks to an otherworldly golazo in Argentina’s 5-2 victory over South Africa.

The 20-year-old hit the following volley from just inside the penalty area to make it 3-1. All you can do is sit back, watch in awe and count up all the extra dollars Atlanta United are now set to make when Barco inevitably moves to Europe, following in the footsteps of Miguel Almiron and his $30-million move to Newcastle United in January.

Fausto Vera (Argentinos Juniors) opened the in just the 4th minute, followed by Barco’s first of the game — from the penalty spot — in the 63rd. The golazo came eight minutes later, followed by late tallies from Julian Alvarez (River Plate) and Adolfo Gaich (San Lorenzo) in the 78th and 90th minutes, respectively.

Next up, Argentina will face Portugal in a battle for Group F supremacy on Tuesday.

Portugal 1-0 South Korea

Much like France, Portugal were made to work mightily hard for their tournament-opening victory over South Korea.

Trincao (Braga) scored the game’s only goal in the 7th minute, when he timed his run perfectly to get on the end of Jota’s (Benfica) through ball. The counter-attack was lightning quick, and Trincao’s finish cool and precise. Portugal had the ball in the back of the net again in the 19th minute, but a look at video review revealed that Rafael Leao (Lille) was offside during the build-up before he picked out Trincao with his cross.

Elsewhere in the U-20 World Cup

Panama 1-1 Mali 0 [ HIGHLIGHTS ]

Sunday’s U-20 World Cup schedule

Mexico v. Japan — 9:30 a.m. ET
Ecuador v. Italy — 12 p.m. ET
Senegal v. Colombia — 12 p.m. ET
Poland v. Tahiti — 2:30 p.m. ET

De Rossi pens emotional farewell to Roma fans before final match

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After 18 years with the club, Daniele de Rossi is playing in his final AS Roma match on Sunday before his contract expires.

Ahead of the game, the 35-year-old midfielder wrote a detailed thank you to fans, team employees, and teammates before his sendoff. “Please, let me say thank you to everyone at Roma that I came to know,” he said before beginning his list of appreciation.

First, Rossi credited his playing mentor Damiano Tommasi, who was at the club from 1996-2006 and made 262 appearances for Roma. The midfielder suffered a knee injury in 2004 which saw Rossi break into the team full-time after making his professional debut in 2002. “[to] Damiano, without whom I would certainly have made fewer appearances for this club,” de Rossi wrote.

He also thanks former captain Francesco Totti by saying, “Thank you to Francesco. The captain’s armband I wore was inherited from the arm of a brother, a great captain and the most incredible footballer I have ever seen wear this shirt. Not everyone gets to play alongside their idol for 16 years. Now, with respect, I will pass this armband on to Alessandro [Florenzi]. Another brother, one that I know is equally worthy of the honor.”

De Rossi mentions Davide Astori, the Fiorentina player who passed away tragically in March of last year, saying, “Thank you Davide, I know you will be alongside me for the rest of my life too.” He also thanks Roma academy director Bruno Conti, saying, “[to] Bruno, who saw something special in me and brought me into this club’s fantastic academy.”

Finally, he thanks the Roma supporters, saying, “Thank you to every Roma fan, my fans. Today, at least, I’ll allow myself to call you ‘my fans’ – because I was one of you, out there on the pitch, and the love you have always shown me helped me to keep on doing that. You are all the reason why I chose this city, this life, time and time again. Sunday will be the 616th time I make that choice, the right choice.”

The emotion poured out in the final paragraph of his letter, referencing a tough time in Roma history where the club finished outside the top four for the third straight season and lost in the Coppa Italia final to Lazio. “A few years ago, May 26 became a day where we all thought we would never be able to smile again. I thought that too, at least until I saw a tattoo one fan had inked that read, ’27 May 2013, and yet the wind continues to blow’. I don’t know the owner of that particular tattoo, but I do know that the wind will still blow again on this May 27. I have never felt your affection like I have done in these last few days, it has truly overwhelmed me and touched me to my core.”

“Never have I seen you all united for a cause like you have been for this. But now, the greatest gift you can possibly give me is to leave that pain and anger to one side, and start again in full support of the only thing we all care about, the one thing that comes before everyone and everything – Roma.”

What a legend this man is. Roma sure knows how to produce a type of player not seen much around the rest of the world.