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Championship Playoff Final preview: Huddersfield Town vs. Reading

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These two teams weren’t supposed to be here, at Wembley on Monday at 10:00 a.m. ET playing for a spot in the Premier League.

Everyone talked about how beautiful Fulham played. Everyone talked about how Sheffield kept on winning. Everyone kept talking about the favorites. Everyone wrote off the other guys.

Yet here we are. Reading, owner of a +4 goal differential. Huddersfield Town, owner of a -2 goal differential. Reading, winners over Fulham thanks to a bogus handball. Huddersfield, on to Wembley after a penalty shootout in the rain.

Here we are. The game that will catapult one team to the riches of the Premier League, the game that will send another team back to the depths of the Championship, consigned to progress with the heartbreak of knowing they were so close.

[ MORE: USMNT roster announced for upcoming World Cup qualifiers ]

The Championship playoff final is one of the biggest enigmas in the European soccer landscape. Teams like Reading looking to return to familiar lands of plentiful bounty, others like Huddersfield looking for glory never experienced before.

Huddersfield has not seen top flight action since 1972, and former American international David Wagner has them on the precipice. “There were a lot of statements before the semi-finals about momentum and about form,” Wagner said. “It is another example where we have proven that experience and what has happened in the past is irrelevant. After the 120 minutes against Sheffield Wednesday there were a lot of tired legs, but now after a training camp in Portugal and training on the grass here, everybody is ready to go.”

As far as form goes, Town is struggling. They drew both legs of the Sheffield Wednesday playoff semifinal 0-0, and finished the regular season on a three-match losing streak. They haven’t won a match since April 14th.

Reading, meanwhile, finished the year with wins in seven of their final nine regular season games, and they downed an attacking Fulham side 1-0 at home in the second leg of their semifinal. They’ve been stellar at winning close games all year, winning 18 regular season games by just a single goal, and losing just four, with seven draws. If Jaap Stam can lead his side back to the Premier League, it would mark just a four-year turnaround from their previous relegation from the top flight.

Riches await the winner. The sides couldn’t be more different, and yet on Monday, they both face the same brick wall.

The halted World Cup flip-throw heard around the world (video)

AP Photo/Sergei Grits
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Milad Mohammadi knew the time was right for something special, but special isn’t always good.

And good is a subjective term. Cause to us this is very good, Milad.

The Iranian national team defender failed with a flip-throw bid in the final moments of a 1-0 loss to Spain on Wednesday at the World Cup in Russia.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

And this wasn’t like he illegally flipped or broke some other rule. No, like a kid trying an audacious jump into the deep end, Akhmat Grozny star Mohammadi just bailed and climbed in from the side (so to speak).

The kiss, the look skyward, the headbutt… all integral parts of a wonderful World Cup moment.

Renard, Morocco “very proud” of its unlucky national team

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If you would’ve told Morocco fans or their manager, Herve Renard, that they’d outshoot and outpossess both Iran and Portugal at World Cup, their next question would probably be, “So do we need to do against Spain to win Group B?”

Alas, Morocco lost a pair of 1-0 decisions to become the first team knocked out of the 2018 World Cup.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The Lions of Atlas fell to Iran in their opener on a stoppage time own goal after carrying 64 percent possession and a 13-8 advantage in shot attempts, then lost to a Cristiano Ronaldo fourth minute goal on Wednesday despite a 16-10 shot advantage and 53 percent of the ball.

“I’m very proud of the performance and I am very proud of my players, I’m very proud of this country,” Renard said.

With no hope of advancing to the next round, the manager is finding the experience bittersweet. From RTE:

“What I am sure of at this moment is that the entire Moroccan people is proud of this team. Of course it’s easier to play with a player who has one chance and he puts it away. But we are in Morocco.

“We have quality players. Despite the ups and downs of the game, we should have been more effective. Because, like in the first game, we had plenty of chances. I won’t blame anyone. That’s football. It’s always those who know how to be present in the box, the most gifted players, who make the difference. We took a lot of risks and we didn’t get our reward.”

It’s unlikely Morocco will hold either of those statistical advantages against Spain, especially a Spanish side yet to qualify, but there is plenty to like from the tournament aside from poor finishing quality.

But the performances of 19-year-olds Amine Harit (Schalke) and Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid) — not to mention Hakim Ziyech (25, Ajax) — seem to hint at a promise for 2022. And Renard’s men can still play spoiler for Spain, which is no small shockwave.

Queiroz: Iran has one “match point” left in World Cup group stage

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Iran manager Carlos Queiroz isn’t going to let his tournament be defined by one win or one loss, especially with a massive moment on the horizon.

Iran fell 1-0 to Spain on Wednesday, days after defeating Morocco in its World Cup opener. Team Melli was denied its equalizer despite VAR review thanks to an offside, and failed in several other bids to level the score.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Now Queiroz and his men need a win over Portugal to qualify for the first knockout stage in its five World Cup history.

“We showed that we were ready to suffer and ready to compete. I felt we deserved a better result. There’s no doubt Spain play wonderful, stylish football but I thought we deserved more for the way we played.

“But congratulations to Fernando Hierro and Spain. We will learn a lot from this game. If you think of it like tennis, we had one match point today and we will have another against Portugal. Everything is still open. We are still alive and still dreaming.”

What chance do you give Iran of getting over on Portugal, who only topped a dominant Morocco side via a terrific designed play executed to perfection by Cristiano Ronaldo?

The odds are in Portugal’s favor, if only for its experience in tight games on massive stages. Well, perhaps the better “if only” would be to say if only for Ronaldo. Either way…

Spain gets win after Iran sees equalizer ruled out

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  • Spain goal: Costa (54′)
  • Iranian goal disallowed
  • Next: Spain-Morocco, Portugal-Iran

Iran had an equalizer taken away via Video Assistant Referee and Spain picked up its first win of the 2018 World Cup with a 1-0 win in Kazan on Wednesday.

Diego Costa scored Spain’s goal, as La Furia Roja joined Portugal atop Group B on four points. Iran has three, while eliminated Morocco has yet to get a result.

Team Melli lost their chance to sit atop the group when Saeid Ezatolahi rebound was ruled to have come after an offside touch from a teammate.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Spain certainly had its chances in the first half hour, capped off by an attempted overhead kick from David Silva.

Man City’s 32-year-old attacker had a great deal of chances in the contest, and would see a deflected rip bound wide of the goal during three minutes of first half stoppag time.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

After Gerard Pique missed an in-tight chance to start the second half, Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand made an outstanding punch save on Isco before punching away the rebound bid.

Iran found its first true chance of the match in the 53rd minute, with Karim Ansarifard lashing into a shot from 15 yards that tore into the outside of the goal.

It was moments later that Spain went ahead, Costa getting a goal when a clearance bounding off his shin and into the net.

Mehdi Taremi flicked a header wide of the goal, and Iran thought it had an equalizer through Saeid Ezatolahi only for VAR to step in and call offside on the previous Iranian to touch the ball.

It was off, but only just.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Beiranvand was again on the scene for a 70th minute goal mouth scramble following a drawn-up corner kick by Spain.

Taremi pounded a header over the goal after a Vahid Amiri nutmeg of Pique led to a back post cross.