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Argentina feels World Cup pressure; Brazil set to party

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SAO PAULO (AP) Argentina was the runner-up in the last World Cup. This time it’s under rising pressure just to qualify.

That pressure will be felt even more in its match Tuesday against Bolivia in the thin air of La Paz, which is located in the Andes at 3,650 meters (11,900 feet) altitude.

Argentina has not won a match there since 2005, upping the stakes a bit more.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

Meanwhile, South American rival Brazil will gear up for possible early qualification if it beats Paraguay in Sao Paulo. To advance, the South American group leader needs a victory and a few other results to fall its way. But win or lose, Brazil is heading for the World Cup in Russia with five rounds of qualifying remaining.

Argentina cannot be so confident.

Second-placed Uruguay faces a winnable match at lowly Peru, and fourth-placed Colombia has a real test at fifth-placed Ecuador. Sixth-placed Chile welcomes last-placed Venezuela in Santiago, hoping to climb back into qualifying position.

With five rounds to go, Brazil has 30 points – more than enough to secure a spot in previous World Cups. Uruguay has 23 and Argentina 22.

With Brazil almost sure to advance – and Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru struggling at the bottom – that leaves six teams fighting for the three remaining automatic spots for Russia. Another South American team could also advance in a playoff.

[ MORE: Wood looks ahead to working with Arena, praises Klinsmann ]

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ARGENTINA

Argentina put on a poor performance on Thursday, but managed to beat Chile 1-0 in Buenos Aires after a controversial penalty was conceded and converted by Barcelona star Lionel Messi.

The visitors will miss suspended Barcelona midfielder Javier Mascherano, which is making coach Edgardo Bauza think of dramatic changes to the team.

Before the win against Chile and the loss of Mascherano, Bauza was considering a defensive 5-4-1 formation in La Paz, hoping to save his players’ energy and capitalize on the ball-holding Mascherano. Now he may be forced into a more offensive formation that relies less on counterattacking.

Bolivian coach Mauricio Soria, who spared some of his main players in the 1-0 defeat at Colombia on Thursday, said his team will not be intimidated by the Argentine stars and should push hard against them. His team will be rested and in familiar surroundings.

“We hope we can make them feel a lot of their fears,” Soria said.

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BRAZIL

After the impressive thrashing of Uruguay 4-1 in Montevideo, Brazil is so close to the World Cup spot that many players are already looking for new challenges as Brazil chases it sixth World Cup title.

For the spot to be assured, Brazil needs to beat Paraguay and see Venezuela overcome Chile in Santiago. Also, Colombia needs to get its first win at Ecuador in 20 years.

Even if the “official” qualification doesn’t come, there will surely be a party at Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo.

Coach Tite, who has won seven straight games in qualifiers since he took over in September, had his best days at Corinthians. He won two Brazilian championships, one Copa Libertadores, and the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup title after a 1-0 victory over England’s Chelsea in Japan.

Defender Fagner, also a Corinthians player, will replace suspended Dani Alves.

“I feel no pressure, I want to enjoy every moment of this,” Fagner told reporters.

If he doesn’t do well, Tite has already brought Sevilla’s Mariano for a test.

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COLOMBIA

The Colombia vs. Ecuador match could be key to the aspirations of both teams: Colombia has 21 points, and Ecuador has 20.

The disappointing performance in the 1-0 victory over Bolivia on Thursday is making Colombia fans worry that their team might not qualify for the World Cup. The game in Quito promises to be even more complicated now that coach Jose Pekerman’s side has lost its best striker to injury. Luis Muriel had a right-leg injury and will likely be replaced by Miguel Borja or Carlos Bacca.

History does not favor Colombia: it has been 20 years since Colombia last beat Ecuador at the Atahualpa stadium.

Ecuador also has problems for the key clash. Striker Miller Bolanos and midfielder Christian Noboa will be out and their replacements are not yet set.

Kane scores early and late, England narrowly top Tunisia

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England’s 2018 World Cup debut began brilliantly, then appeared headed for a disappointingly familiar outcome, but was ultimately saved by Harry Kane who scored both goals in the Three Lions’ 2-1 victory over Tunisia in Volgograd on Monday.

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England came sprinting out of the starting blocks — so quickly they nearly took flight — and taking an early lead through Harry Kane in the 11th minute (WATCH HERE). John Stones‘ header was spectacularly saved by Mouez Hassen, but Kane was in the right place at the right time and swept home the rebound for his first World Cup goal (on his World Cup debut).

The opening half-hour was all England, with the likes of Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling cutting through the Tunisian midfield and defense with very little resistance and creating a half-dozen golden scoring chances. Unfortunately for Gareth Southgate‘s side, they couldn’t capitalize, and they were made to pay for it.

Kyle Walker caught Fakhreddine Ben Youssef with a raised arm as an innocuous cross came into the box, prompting referee Wilmar Roldan to blow his whistle and point to the penalty spot immediately. Ferjani Sassi stepped up and converted, just out of reach of Jordan Pickford, who perhaps got a fingertip on the ball (WATCH HERE), to make it 1-1 and negate an otherwise dominant first-half performance by England. It would be Tunisia’s only shot on goal for the game.

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England’s best chance to re-establish a lead came during a six-yard-box scramble just seconds before halftime. Alli’s header hit the crossbar and Stones badly scuffed — nearly whiffed — on the follow-up. Kane was dragged to the ground during the rest of the commotion, to no interest of Roldan.

It took far longer than anyone back home in England would have liked, but Kane grabbed the winner in the 91st minute, heading home from acres of space at the back post. Jordan Henderson got the first crack at heading the corner kick, but it was blocked and bound high into the air. Somehow, some way, Kane was unmarked and snuck his redirect just inside the post.

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Up next for England is a meeting with Panama on Sunday, a day after Tunisia take on Belgium, who thrashed the Panamanians, 3-0, on Monday.

VIDEO: Tunisia equalizes on controversial penalty kick

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England centerback Kyle Walker put his arm up to halt the forward progress of Fakhreddine Ben Youssef. Unfortunately for Walker, Ben Youssef was in the box and Walker’s elbow caught Ben Youssef’s face.

Referee Wilmar Roldan quickly whistled for a penalty kick and despite the protests from a half-dozen of England players and a check from the VAR, the called stood. Ferjani Sassi’stepped up to the spot and found the lower-left corner, just barely beating Jordan Pickford to tie the game in the 35th minute.

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How will England respond?

VIDEO: Captain Kane puts England on the board early

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It may be the easiest goal-scoring opportunity Harry Kane‘s ever had in an international competition, and he finished it as easy as you’d like.

Kane side-footed home after Tunisia goalkeeper Mouez Hassen made a terrific save on John Stone’s header off a corner, but the save was directed right into a wide-open Kane who was standing ready inside the six yard box. The 11th minute goal will surely settle some of the Three Lions’ nerves as they open their World Cup bid in Russia.

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After slow start, Belgium takes care of business against feisty Panama

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All it took was one goal to bring Belgium to life.

Following a frustrating first 45 minutes, in which Belgium put a pair of shots into the side netting and forced saves from Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, Dries Mertens 47th minute goal opened the floodgates, as Belgium went on to defeat Panama, 3-0, Monday afternoon in Sochi.

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But Panama never made it easy for the Belgians. From the opening whistle the CONCACAF nation showed its incredible spirit, chasing down Belgium all across the field and making life incredibly difficult for Belgium attackers Romelu Lukaku, Mertens and Eden Hazard. Hazard was hacked down all over the field, and while he did earn fouls and a few yellow cards were issued to Panamanian players, it was enough to get in Hazard’s head.

Two minutes into the second half, everything changed. A wonderstrike from Mertens opened the game, and forced Panama to attack and try and tie the match, which gave Hazard, de Bruyne and Lukaku more space to operate.

In the heat and humidity of the Sochi summer, Panama’s veteran defense began to tire, allowing de Bruyne the space to deliver a terrific assist to Lukaku in the box, putting Belgium up 2-0 in the 69th minute.

 

Six minutes later, Lukaku was put through on the break, chipping over Penedo to confirm the victory.

With the win, Belgium moves to the top of Group G. Up next for Belgium is Tunisia on Saturday, while Panama takes on England on Sunday.