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After the qualifiers: If the 2018 World Cup started today

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Here’s a peek at where we stand with 20 months to go before the World Cup in Russia, as well as a fun and borderline crazy predictive exercise done solely in the name of entertainment.

What if the World Cup started today? Who would be qualify?

The only side guaranteed a spot right now is Russia, who will be drawn in Group A. Then the following seven qualifiers with the highest FIFA ranking would also earn Pot 1 status.

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

You know what? Let’s get nuts and play out the entire tournament to see who wins World Cup 2018.


QUALIFICATION

We’ll use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants

Asia (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Australia
PLAYOFF: Japan vs. South Korea

Projection: This is a tough one, as Japan and South Korea have a storied history. South Korea has won 40 of the 77 all-time meetings, but hasn’t claimed a win since May 2010 (five meetings, with two draws). So we’ll use Japan for the fifth bid, and a playoff bid against the fourth place team in CONCACAF.

Africa (1 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Egypt

CONCACAF (No Hex games played, based on last round)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, United States
PLAYOFF: Trinidad and Tobago

South America (10 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (0 third round qualifiers played, based on last round)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand

Europe (3 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Montenegro, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Italy, Iceland, Greece, Sweden, Poland, Ireland, Azerbaijan, Portugal

PROJECTION: We’re using a random draw (honestly, we used Random.org)
Greece vs. Sweden — Greece wins
Italy vs. Ireland — Italy wins
Azerbaijan vs. Iceland — Iceland wins
Portugal vs. Poland — Portugal wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Japan vs. Trinidad and Tobago — Japan wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (host, 38)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Belgium (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Colombia (T-4)
  6. Brazil (T-4)
  7. Portugal (7)
  8. France (8)
  9. Uruguay (9)
  10. Spain (11)
  11. England (12)
  12. Italy (13)
  13. Croatia (14)
  14. Mexico (15)
  15. Switzerland (16)
  16. Costa Rica (18)
  17. Ecuador (19)
  18. USA (22)
  19. Iceland (27)
  20. Ivory Coast (34)
  21. Iran (37)
  22. Senegal (39)
  23. Australia (45)
  24. Greece (48)
  25. Uzbekistan (49)
  26. Serbia (50)
  27. DR Congo (51)
  28. Saudi Arabia (52)
  29. Egypt (53)
  30. Japan (56)
  31. Nigeria (64)
  32. Montenegro (105)

THE POTS

Like last cycle, the nine European qualifiers mean one will have to join Pot 2. Our random selection was… England. Wow.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Belgium, Germany, Colombia, Brazil, Portugal, France
Pot 2 (CAF & SA): England, DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Egypt, Uruguay, Ecuador
Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Japan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Australia, USA, Mexico, Cosa Rica
Pot 4 (Europe): Italy, Greece, Iceland, Switzerland, Serbia, Montenegro, England, Spain, Croatia


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, Italy, Ivory Coast, Australia
Group B: Brazil, Greece, Ecuador, Uzbekistan
Group C: Colombia, Spain, Serbia, Saudi Arabia
Group D: Argentina, Croatia, Senegal, Japan
Group E: France, Switzerland, DR Congo, Mexico
Group F: Belgium, Montenegro, Uruguay, Iran
Group G: Germany, England, USA, Egypt
Group H: Portugal, Iceland, Nigeria, Costa Rica

Holy smoke! That is a next level group of death for the USMNT!

Should we go on? Okay. We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk. We’re also going to do this once, favor the Yanks, and not look back.

Great news! The U.S. escapes thanks to Harry Redknapp demanding to use 81-times capped Croatian midfielder Niko Kranjcar for England despite FIFA telling him he would forfeit the tournament. Egypt gets a case of the measles a la the Panthers in “The Mighty Ducks”, since we’re playing out a cinematic string here for our home country. USA advances!

Round of 16
Spain def. Japan
Italy def. Greece
Brazil def. Russia
Argentina def. Colombia
France def. Uruguay
Germany def. Nigeria
Mexico def. Belgium
USA def. Portugal*

Quarterfinals
Italy def. Spain
Brazil def. Argentina
Germany def. France
USA def. Mexico*

Semifinals
Brazil def. Italy
Germany def. USA

Final
Germany def. Brazil

*Allow us this daydream. Thanks.

Josef Martinez scores 2 more in win, including sensational solo work

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Josef Martinez scored his 25th and 26th goals of the MLS season, and if he challenges his MLS record of 31, he may also stare down soccer royalty.

The Venezuelan striker scored two more on Wednesday in a 2-0 defeat of FC Cincinnati in Ohio to give him goals in 15-straight league contests.

He now has 76 goals in 80 MLS games, which is good.

[ MORE: Champions League wrap ]

On the season, he’s six goals shy of matching the Major League Soccer record he set with last season’s 31 regular season goals.

According to MLSSoccer.com, he’s six games shy of tying Lionel Messi’s world record for consecutive league matches with a goal.

Even that’s a little tricky: Messi scored in 21-straight games in which he was eligible for selection, but 19-straight before missing two matches for injury. In that remarkable run of 21, he also had a run of six-straight braces.

It’s not really worth it to attempt to compare the two streaks: If Martinez gets to 21 (or even 19), it’s amazing stuff and worth celebrating on a worldwide level. Everyone has a bad game every now and again, but Martinez still finds the score sheet in ’em.

Look at the magician’s tricks he used for this one, including a back heel first touch and two freeze-frame cut moves. That’s not even mentioning the finish.

USWNT announces final matches of World Cup-winning year

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CHICAGO (AP) The Women’s World Cup champion U.S. team will wrap up 2019 with matches against Sweden and Costa Rica.

U.S. Soccer announced Wednesday that the U.S. will face Sweden in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 7 and Costa Rica in Jacksonville, Florida, on Nov. 10.

[ MORE: Champions League wrap ]

The team is wrapping up its World Cup victory tour next month with matches against South Korea on Oct. 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and on Oct. 6 in Chicago.

Coach Jill Ellis is stepping down following the match in Chicago after leading the team to a pair of consecutive World Cup titles.

The United States is 15-1-2 this year and currently riding a 14-game winning streak.

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

Report: Mane to get big raise, Liverpool contract through 2025

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Liverpool’s Senegalese sensation looks set to stay at Anfield deep into his 30s.

Sadio Mane is in talks with the Reds hierarchy over a new deal that will run through 2024-25, and pay him more than $15 million per season.

[ MORE: Champions League wrap ]

Mane, 27, currently has a deal through 2023, but surely wouldn’t mind a raise. And Liverpool will be happy to tie him down on Merseyside a bit longer.

He’s scored six times in seven matches this season, also grabbing an assist. That’s on a better pace than his 26 goals and five assists over 50 appearances in 2018/19.

Mane has 70 Premier League goals at the moment. Do you tip him to eclipse 100 while still at Anfield? 125?

Europa League preview: Man Utd, Wolves, Arsenal begin group stage

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The Europa League begins its group stage on Thursday, with the three Premier League combatants taking on clubs from Kazakhstan, Portugal and Germany.

Manchester United’s kids are gonna get some playing time when Astana visits Old Trafford on Wednesday.

Teenager Mason Greenwood and 21-year-old Axel Tuanzebe will start, and Sergio Romero will be between the sticks.

[ MORE: Champions League wrap ]

And the Manchester Evening News notes that Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes could also start at Old Trafford, meaning the veterans in the fray will be quite important.

Enter Fred, the forgotten $68 million man from Shaktar Donetsk. The 23 minutes he played last week versus Leicester City account for his lone time on the pitch this season.

Here’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer:

“I’m sure we’ll see more and more of Fred. We spoke about it earlier, he’s had some great games in midfield with Scott against PSG and Arsenal, for example, and we’re just waiting for that to flourish.”

Fred had an odd record under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last season, barely in the squad when the team started hot but trusted against PSG and Barcelona in the Champions League.

Speaking of little-used midfielders, Arsenal boss Unai Emery is getting a little grief for leaving Mesut Ozil behind for the Gunners’ trip to Germany for a big match with Eintracht Frankfurt.

Ozil made his first start of the season in Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with Watford at the weekend, playing 71 minutes and departing with the club up 2-1.

So why not even bring him abroad? Rest.

“Because we are going to play another match on Sunday,” Emery said, via The London Evening Standard. “My decision is because he played and also I’m thinking tomorrow the focus and the first 11 and after that I decided who are the players who can be the best for tomorrow and also the players not and that is Sokratis and Mesut.”

Sokrastis Papastathopoulos is also out, having played a big role in the embarrassing performance at Watford.

There have been tough times for Wolves as well, who sit in the relegation zone after five matches of the Premier League season.

They’ve been quite good in Europa League, though, dispatching a pair of minnows before winning both legs against Serie A side Torino.

Why the inconsistency? It’s not fixture congestion, according to Ruben Neves:

“I don’t think fatigue has anything to do with it, Neves said, via The Birmingham Mail. “We’re all top players, we’re used to it, we’re used to playing a lot of games in quick succession. I don’t think the Europa League has (anything) to do with our position in the Premier League. Obviously, we haven’t had the start that we’ve wanted, but it’s been a beautiful journey into the Europa League. This is a historic moment for Wolves and we’re going to do our best in this competition.”

Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men are in Portugal to meet Braga, one of three tricky opponents in Besiktas and Slovan Bratislava.

Full slate

12:55 p.m. ET
CFR Cluj v. Lazio
LASK v. Rosenborg
Getafe v. Trabzonspor
PSV Eindhoven v. Sporting Lisbon
Basel v. Krasnodar
APOEL Nicosia v. Dudelange
Copenhagen v. Lugano
Standard Liege v. Vitoria SC
Qarabag v. Sevilla
Eintracht Frankfurt v. Arsenal
Rennes v. Celtic
Dynamo Kiev v. Malmo

3 p.m. ET
Wolfsburg v. Oleksandriya
Espanyol v. Ferencvaros
Rangers v. Feyenoord
Porto v. Young Boys
Slovan Bratislava v. Besiktas
Borussia Monchengladbach v. Wolfsberg
Partizan v. AZ Alkmaar
AS Roma v. Istanbul Basaksehir
Gent v. Saint-Etienne
Manchester United v. Astana
Wolves v. Braga
Ludogorets Razgrad v. CSKA Moscow