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World Cup qualifying: What’s at stake this break

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So we’ve hit an international break, one of the terrific ones which include World Cup qualifiers, and it’s an excellent time to evaluate what’s cooking in the next week in terms of nations looking to book spots for Russia 2018.

[ MORE: Cameron pumped for USMNT return ]

AFC

Group A will be about who slips up, with the top three nations each playing a pair of matches against the bottom three nations. Iran leads the group with 11 points, while South Korea is a point behind and Uzbekistan two back. Any logical chance for Syria, Qatar, or China to make a move toward the third place playoff spot must include a big upset over the next week.

It’s a bit different in Group B, where the top four sides are separated by a single point. Thursday sees a huge tilt between Japan and United Arab Emirates in Al Ain, with the hosts leaving for Australia after the match. It’s no exaggeration to say this is one of the biggest weeks in UAE soccer history.

CAF

No World Cup qualifiers during this break.

CONCACAF

You know the drill here: the United States has started 0-2 and badly needs wins, or at least four of six points, from Honduras at home and a trip to Panama.

Costa Rica is the only 2-0 team in the confederation and faces a pretty tough pair of matches with a visits to Mexico and Honduras, leaving El Tri with a chance to summit the group by toppling CRC and winning and Trinidad and Tobago. Speaking of T&T, it can forget about harboring any World Cup hopes if it fails to beat Panama at home.

CONMEBOL

Brazil can qualify for Russia with a win at Uruguay on Thursday, while a win by the hosts makes it possible that both will advance before the end of the break.

After that, mayhem.

Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia open the break within two points of each other, and only two of the four can qualify automatically (The fifth place side advances to the interconfederation playoffs). Paraguay and Peru need to win, not draw, matches to get back in the hunt for a spot.

Oceania

New Zealand can clinch a spot in the Oceania final by beating Fiji twice, while a win and a draw will have them in very good shape before Fiji’s pair of Group A matches against New Caledonia. In Group B, Tahiti is ahead of Solomon Islands on goal differential, and will look to keep pressure on the latter by sweeping Papua New Guinea.

UEFA

With only nine (more) automatic spots available for Russia, it’s remarkable that only one group has a gap of more than one win between the first- and second-placed teams (Germany has 12 points to Northern Ireland’s seven).

So it’s a bit foolish to label anything in UEFA qualifying “must-win” considering most of the matches are “don’t lose”; Of the nine sides to get automatic spots in 2014 qualifying, seven had a zero in the loss column. Bosnia & Herzegovina had one loss, but advanced over Greece who also went 8-1-1. Two-loss Russia was the exception, playing in a weak group and winning seven, drawing one.

Instead we’ll give you the highlights of this break:

Republic of Ireland vs. Wales, Friday

Croatia vs. Ukraine, Friday

Belgium vs. Greece, Saturday

Scotland vs. Slovenia, Sunday

Azerbaijan vs. Germany, Sunday

Platini vows to return to soccer after “end of long nightmare”

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PARIS (AP) Banned former UEFA President and FIFA vice president Michel Platini says he is planning to return to soccer after Swiss federal prosecutors confirmed he was not being charged in an investigation into possible financial wrongdoing.

[ MORE: Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool — Los Blancos make it three straight ]

Platini says in a statement it’s “the end of a long nightmare for my family and those close to me.”

Since September 2015, the former France midfielder had the status of “between a witness and an accused person” in criminal proceedings opened against then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter. No criminal case was ever opened against Platini.

The evidence related to Blatter authorizing FIFA to pay Platini $2 million in uncontracted back salary in 2011.

[ MORE: Ronaldo hints at Real Madrid exit | Bale does the same ]

FIFA’s ethics committee also investigated Platini’s request to FIFA for pension contributions he was not entitled to. It was agreed by Blatter and added more than $1 million to Platini’s retirement fund.

Platini was eventually banned for four years, through October 2019. Both he and Blatter denied wrongdoing but Court of Arbitration for Sport judges refused to overturn his ban and that of Blatter’s.

[ UCL FINAL: Player ratings | Three things we learned ]

The case meant Platini was removed from the UEFA presidency and he was barred from trying to succeed Blatter as FIFA president in 2016.

Platini, a former France captain and coach, says “I will come back: where, when, how? It’s too early to say. But I will come back into football.

“Because football is my life and I deny anyone the right to deprive me of my life,” the 62-year-old Platini says.

Neymar appears in good shape after first week with Brazil

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TERESOPOLIS, Brazil (AP) Neymar finished his first full week of training with Brazil on Saturday in apparent good shape ahead of the upcoming World Cup after foot surgery.

The striker continued his recovery, dribbling and passing at high speed in Brazil’s last training session on home soil before the national team sets up camp in London on Monday.

The Brazilian has been recovering from right foot surgery in March.

[ MORE: Neymar “annoyed” by latest (and constant) transfer speculation ]

Earlier in the week, members of Brazil’s coaching staff said Neymar was fit to train but they tried to reduce pressure on him by saying it would take time until he delivered his best performances.

Left back Filipe Luis said Neymar did well in training but still needs to forget the injury.

“I had a serious injury in 2010 and I came back with fear. In the first chance I had in a game, I went with it all so I could lose that fear. I saw it didn’t hurt and I just forgot,” Luis said. “It will be the same with Neymar, the first time an opponent kicks him … he will forget it.”

In the first training session in Teresopolis, outside Rio de Janeiro, Neymar occasionally dragged his right foot onto the pitch. On Thursday he took his right boot off, sat down for a few minutes and looked upset. Once the football was underway, he seemed as fit as his teammates despite accidentally kicking the pitch with his injured foot. He soon afterward got back in action.

[ MORE: Messi: It would be ‘terrible’ to see Neymar at Real Madrid ]

In the first and only Brazil open training session, with fans screaming his name on the sidelines, a playful Neymar nutmegged right-back Danilo and flipped the ball over Luis’ head.

Throughout the week Neymar showed his finishing was sharpening, especially from close range.

After Saturday’s training Neymar welcomed his girlfriend, actress Bruna Marquezine, and family members to the Granja Comary training ground.

With Brazil players off duty for the rest of the day, Neymar is expected to take some teammates back to his mansion in Mangaratiba, near Rio.

The 20-strong squad will meet again Sunday morning at the Brazilian football confederation headquarters in a visit to their museum.

Players then travel to London hours later and will set up camp until June 8 at Tottenham’s training ground.

Ronaldo hints at exit: “It has been very nice playing for Real Madrid”

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In the minutes after helping Real Madrid win their third straight UEFA Champions League trophy, Cristiano Ronaldo dropped the most unexpected of transfer bombshells on the world.

[ MORE: Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool — Los Blancos make it three straight ]

With three more seasons remaining on his current contract, Ronaldo appeared to hint that he expects leave the club this summer, at the age of 33.

“It has been very nice playing for Real Madrid,” he told the television broadcast with tears in his eyes, revealing that he will announce his plans for his future “in the coming days.”

Gareth Bale, who scored Saturday’s winning goal, said something quite similar during his post-game remarks.

[ MORE: Player ratings | Three things we learned ]

Perhaps it’s not the most surprising development on the whole, given his age and the obvious need for a youth movement at the Santiago Bernabeu, but to choose that stage — mere moments after winning his fifth career UCL title (four with Madrid) — to tease something so newsworthy and unexpected was certainly eye-opening.

Gareth Bale hints at Premier League transfer

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Gareth Bale jumped off the bench with Real Madrid drawing 1-1 with Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League final.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Moments later he scored one of the greatest goals in the history of European finals via an outrageous overhead kick, then added another late on to seal a 13th European title for Real.

[ MORE: Mohamed Salah injured ]

Yet speaking to BT Sport after the game, Bale’s mind was quickly on why he didn’t start the game as Zinedine Zidane instead went with Isco and Karim Benzema in support of Cristiano Ronaldo up top.

“Obviously I was very disappointed not to start the game, I felt I deserved it but the manager makes the decisions,” Bale said. “The best I have been doing is to come on and make an impact, I certainly did…

[ MORE: Player ratings | Recap ]

Asked about a potential move back to the Premier League, Bale had the following to say.

“I need to be playing week in, week out and that has not happened this season. I had an injury five, six weeks in but fit ever since. I have to sit down with my agent in the summer and discuss it and go from there,” Bale said.

That sound you can hear is the phone of Bale’s agent ringing…

[ MORE: Ronaldo also hints at Real Madrid exit

Seriously, he has every right to question why he wasn’t playing more often and the Welsh international has been in fine form in recent weeks with six goals in his last four games.

Zidane made the right call because Real Madrid won their third-straight European title but it appears that Bale is getting fed up with being the odd man out at the Santiago Bernabeu.

If that was his final game for Real, what a way to go out. Now the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and others will be battling to bring Bale back to the Premier League, with his former club Tottenham said to have first refusal on buying him but surely they’d be unlikely to afford his wages and transfer fee.