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UEFA WCQ preview: England, Germany begin road to Russia on Sunday

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The 2018 World Cup may still be 21 months away (this is actually a face), and EURO 2016 may have ended less than two months ago (again, this is not really up for debate), but it’s time for UEFA’s 54 non-automatically-qualified nations to turn their attention to the first round (group stage) of qualification for Russia 2018…

[ MORE: CONCACAF WCQ — USA win big; T&T, CRC, PAN advance to Hex ]

Slovakia vs. England — 12 p.m. ET

The Sam Allardyce era will begin on Sunday, away to Slovakia, the no. 24 team in the world (if you live and breathe by FIFA’s rankings). If you watched the Three Lions at any point during Roy Hodgson’s managerial tenure, you’ll be blown away by how good a team with the quality that England currently possesses can be made to look with a real tactical gameplan in place.

Allardyce will first look to shore up the defense, which is full of strong individual players, by providing a bit more midfield protection through a pair of deeper-lying midfielders, as opposed to the one-man approach of Hodgson. Not to mention, 6-foot-2 striker Harry Kane, scorer of 46 goals the last two Premier League seasons and one of the national team’s best set-piece targets, won’t be taking corner kicks. Sounds simple, but it wasn’t so obvious to Hodgson.

Wayne Rooney has been retained as England captain, thus will retain his starting place. Allardyce announced his first starting lineup on Friday: Joe Hart in goal; Danny Rose, John Stones, Gary Cahill and Kyle Walker in defense; Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson deep in midfield; and Raheem Sterling, Rooney and Adam Lallana as the three attackers just behind Kane, the lone striker.

Group F should be a straightforward conquest for England — Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta join the Three Lions and Slovakia — so direct qualification has to be the expectation, even with a brand new manager. Finishing as one of the eight-best second-place sides (out of nine groups) and going the play-off route is playing with fire.

[ MORE: CONMEBOL WCQ roundup ]

Norway vs. Germany — 2:45 p.m. ET

Germany, the reigning world champions, begin defense of their crown with a tricky test in Oslo. After going out to France in the semifinals of EURO 2016, Joachim Low’s side aims to navigate a six-team Group C which also includes the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan and the second-lowest ranked side in the field, San Marino (200th).

Goals figure to be at a premium on Sunday, as Germany, whose EURO campaign was largely saved by the timely form of striker Mario Gomez, continue to wrestle with the question, “Who will replace all the goals (71, to be exact) that Miroslav Klose scored over his 14-year international career?” Manuel Neuer, widely regarded as the world’s best goalkeeper, has been named Germany’s new captain after the international retirement of Bastian Schweinsteiger earlier this week.

Sunday’s full UEFA WCQ schedule

Group C

San Marino vs. Azerbaijan
Czech Republic vs. Northern Ireland

Group E

Denmark vs. Armenia
Kazakhstan vs. Poland
Romania vs. Montenegro

Group F

Lithuania vs. Slovenia
Malta vs. Scotland

La Liga: Sevilla held at Osasuna, Getafe maintains UCL fight

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Sevilla was held to a 1-1 draw at 10-man Osasuna on Sunday, giving both Real Madrid and Barcelona space at the top of the La Liga table.

Munir El Haddadi put the visitors 1-0 up just 11 minutes in, but Ezequiel Avila struck just before halftime to share the points. Sevilla was held to just two total shots through the opening 45 minutes, and despite Osasuna defender Oier Olazabal being shown a second yellow card with 29 minutes to go, Sevilla still managed just 11 total efforts through the 90 minutes, with four on target.

Getafe continued its battle for a top four spot as they won 1-0 on the road at Eibar. Angel Rodriguez bagged his eighth goal of the season to secure the win, cropping up in the 67th minute to finally put Getafe through. They had been turning the screw for some time, forcing Marko Dmitrovic into a pair of big saves just before the opener which came from an absurdly tight angle after Angel had rounded the goalkeeper. The win leaves them fourth, level with Real Sociedad on 27 points.

They were allowed to close the gap after Real Sociedad was held scoreless in a 0-0 draw at 14th placed Real Valladolid. The visitors put just two of their 14 shots on net, and dropped to fifth thanks to Getafe holding the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Athletic Club also fell back in the race for a top four spot, dropping a 3-2 decision on the road at Real Betis. Joaquin scored a first-half hat-trick, with all three goals coming in the opening 20 minutes to give him five in his last three games. Inaki Williams brought Athletic Bilbao one back before halftime from the spot, and Yuri Berchiche made things interesting with a minute to go, but that was all they could muster as the visitors fell to sixth on 26 points, above Atletico Madrid on goal differential with the two yet to play head-to-head.

Celta Vigo made it interesting as Iago Aspas scored a man-down goal, but Leganes held on for a 3-2 win over the 10-man visitors. Oscar Rodriguez had a first-half brace to help the hosts to a 3-0 lead, but Nestor Araujo and Aspas helped Celta Vigo make things interesting. Still, a 71st minute second yellow card for halftime substitute Gabriel Fernandez hampered the visitors in their efforts for a comeback, leaving Celta Vigo in the relegation zone, a point back of safety, with Leganes is four points behind them in 19th.

Gerrard reacts to Rangers’ Old Firm heartbreak in final

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Steven Gerrard lined his Rangers side up for success, but fate was cruel to the Liverpool legend.

Rangers lost the League Cup Final to their Old Firm rivals on Sunday despite out-shooting the Bhoys by a 16-5 margin, winning a penalty, and playing almost a half-hour up a man.

[ RECAP: Rangers 0-1 Celtic ]

“To a man we were very good … by much the better side,” Gerrard said. “But unfortunately that’s not what gets you a trophy.”

But Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster stopped Alfredo Morelos’ penalty, three minutes after goal scorer Christopher Jullien was offside on the lone goal of the game.

Scotland doesn’t yet use VAR, and Gerrard doesn’t love VAR but he likes it more than he likes Scottish officials.

“There were three Celtic players standing in offside positions but unfortunately we play in a country where there is no VAR,” he said, via the BBC. “I’d be a liar if I said I was 100% in favour of it, but the one thing I do know is that officials up here need support.”

Now he has the task of getting his men to rebound ahead of its biggest non-derby in ages, as Rangers need at least a draw against Young Boys at home on Thursday to advance to the Europa League knockout rounds

“It’s a bit raw right now… It’s up to me to pick the players up. One thing I will say is I’ll stay with these players on the evidence of today because they gave me absolutely everything. We might have to suffer a bit short-term. I need to pick them up a bit physically and mentally for Thursday which is huge but our day will come on the evidence of today.”

Gerrard has done a very good job with Rangers, who are two points back of Celtic in a two-horse race for the Scottish top flight title. Celtic has won eight-straight titles to improve their total to 50, four less than the Rangers.

Serie A: AC Milan on winning streak, Fiorentina woes deepen

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AC Milan secured its first winning streak since mid-September as Krzysztof Piatek and Theo Hernandez led the way to a 3-2 road win over Bologna.

Piatek was the first on the scoresheet, opening the scoring from the spot after the Polish striker was bundled over on the break by Mattia Bani. He utilized a heavy stutter in his run-up, but wrong-footed Bologna goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski for the conversion. Hernandez was next up, latching onto a perfect through-ball from Suso that sprung the former at the far post.

Bologna pulled one back before halftime on a Hernandez own-goal, but Giacomo Bonaventura restored the two-goal lead just seconds after the restart. Nicola Sansone’s late penalty made no difference in the result and Milan sits 10th in the league table, level on points with Torino.

Fiorentina slumped to its fourth straight loss as they fell at Torino 2-1. The visitors were soundly beaten on goals by Simone Zaza and Cristian Ansaldi, only able to grab a consolation strike from Martin Caceres in stoppage time. They put just four of their 17 shots on net and had very few true chances until Caceres’s late goal. With the loss, Fiorentina drops to 13th in the table, just five points above the relegation zone. Vincenze Montella’s job is on the line, having just returned to the club in April for a second stint in charge after the departure of Stefano Pioli.

Cagliari failed to pull away from Roma with a 2-2 draw on the road at 14th placed Sassuolo. A comeback was required after falling down 2-0 before halftime. João Pedro brought the visitors one back just six minutes after the break, and Daniele Ragatzu rescued the point as he snuck one in at the near post a minute into added time. They also survived what could have been the game-winning goal as Domenico Berardi clattered the crossbar from the penalty stop on a chance that would have put the home side 3-1. Instead, Cagliari moves level with Roma on 29 points, clinging to the fourth Champions League spot on goal differential.

Genoa survived the final 13 minutes with just nine men, securing a 2-2 draw with Lecce that keeps them in the hunt for Serie A safety. Goran Pandev and Domenico Criscito had put Genoa 2-0 up before halftime, but they had coughed up the lead by the 70th minute. Still, things could have been worse as Kevin Agudelo was sent off with 20 minutes to go after conceding a penalty, while Pandev was given his marching orders in the 77th minute. The goals in this game were spectacular, with Pandev’s opener coming from nearly 40 yards out as he chipped Lecce goalkeeper Gabriel who was off his line, while Filippo Falco scored a fine curler to mark Lecce’s first on the hour mark.

Brescia topped SPAL 1-0 to leave the latter at the bottom of the Serie A table, with the lone goal coming via Mario Balotelli in the 54th minute as he collected a bobbling ball on the break and fired it in at the far post. The win was critical, moving 19th-placed Brescia to 10 points on the year, two from safety.

Parma defeated Sampdoria 1-0 on a 21st minute goal from Juraj Kucka that left Claudio Ranieri‘s squad just a point off the relegation zone.

Nuno expresses pride in Wolves achievements after Brighton draw

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Nuno Espirito Santo has expressed his pride in what Wolves has achieved so far this season after the 2-2 road draw at Brighton & Hove Albion.

The team reclaimed sixth place in the Premier League table with the point from the Amex, and while Nuno knows there were moments to improve on, he still believes the team is headed forward and looks back fondly on where they’ve come from.

[ RECAP: Wolves, Seagulls draw ]

“We are very proud of what we are achieving day by day but we want to keep on going,” Nuno said after the match. “We need to compete and prepare ourselves for the last game in the Europa League.”

He pointed to mistakes that led to Brighton goals, ones he believes a little tactical instruction should snuff out. “I am proud of how we stayed organized. We did not do well when he had to restart the game after the 1-1, we should not have played a horizontal pass that was intercepted.”

The head man was frustrated by one key thing, as his winger Adama Traore was fouled four times, all coming in the second half. “He’s a strong boy,” Nuno said. “Everybody can see that. No matter how strong you are, if you are being kicked it’s impossible.” He was seen having an animated conversation with the fourth official during the later stages of the game, with two of the four fouls drawn in the final 10 minutes as the visitors pushed for a winner.

The draw against Brighton was no anomaly – Wolves has achieved its impressive table position despite just five wins on the season. The key for them has been avoiding losses, with just two defeats on the year. They have drawn a shocking nine games, with the previous eight all either 0-0 or 1-1 before Sunday’s 2-2 finish. That leaves Wolves with an 11-game unbeaten streak, with the last loss coming in mid-September.

Nevertheless, Nuno knows the toughest part of the season is on the horizon. “The hardest part of the fixtures is going to start now. It will be tough for everybody.” Wolves has a match against Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham next weekend before a festive season that sees the club play Norwich, Man City, Liverpool, and Watford between an eleven-day span.