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UEFA WCQ roundup: Spain, Italy battle on; Iceland catch Croatia

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in 2018 World Cup qualifying around Europe…

[ MORE: England top Venezuela to win U-20 World Cup ]

Macedonia 1-2 Spain

When the groups were drawn, Group G was only going to be like this: Spain and Italy would duke it out for the automatic qualification place, and the runners-up would head to the qualification playoff where they would presumably roll right into next summer’s World Cup in Russia. After six of 10 games, it’s safe to say everyone was spot-on with their prognostications. Each on 16 points (Spain ahead on goal differential, +18 to +14), the next closest hopefuls are Albania and Israel, on nine points apiece.

Sunday’s win over Macedonia, which La Furia Roja only just held onto after going up 2-0 early on, was enough to keep Julen Lopetegui’s side ahead of the Italians, though their goal differential advantage was reduced considerably. David Silva (15th minute) and Diego Costa (27th) got the goals to set up what will likely be the group-deciding game next time out, in September: Spain hosting Italy.

Italy 5-0 Liechtenstein

Five goals, scored by five different goalscorers, helped Italy gain a fair bit of ground on Spain — from a +9 goal differential, to +14.

Lorenzo Insigne (35th minute) Andrea Belotti (52nd), Eder (74th), Federico Bernardeschi (83rd) and Manolo Gabbiadini (90th) got the goals to hand the Azzurri their most comfortable victory this round of qualifying thus far (they beat Liechtenstein 4-0 in their first meeting).

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

Iceland 1-0 Croatia

Following Iceland’s 90th-minute winner over group-leading Croatia, the Group I standings currently read as follows: Croatia (13 points), Iceland (13), Turkey (11), Ukraine (11). With four games still to play, two of the four will likely crack the 15-point plateau, and fail to even qualify for the playoff.

Sunday’s game looked to be headed for a scoreless draw, until Bristol City defender Hoerdur Magnusson headed Strakarnir okkar (Our boys) into the lead in the final minute of regular time.

Kosovo 1-4 Turkey

Turkey, like Iceland and Ukraine, used Croatia’s slip-up to creep closer to the summit, as Ay-Yıldızlılar (The Crescent-Stars) put four past Kosovo away from home.

Volkan Sen opened the scoring after just seven minutes, but the home side drew level 15 minutes later, though Amir Rrahmani. The level scoreline was short-lived, though, as 19-year-old Cengiz Under put Turkey back ahead just after the half-hour mark. It remained 2-1 until the hour mark, when Burak Yilmaz bagged his 22nd career international goal to move level with former Middlesbrough and Stoke City striker Tuncay Sanli as the second-most prolific scorer in Turkish history. 22-year-old Ozan Tufan completed the scoring on 82 minutes, and Turkey moved to within two points of the top of Group I.

Elsewhere in UEFA WCQ

Group D

Moldova 2-2 Georgia
Ireland 1-1 Austria
Serbia 1-1 Wales

Group G

Israel 0-3 Albania

Group I

Finland 1-2 Ukraine

Ronaldo explains his new chin hair at World Cup

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Now that Cristiano Ronaldo has taken to sporting a reasonable hairstyle atop his head, people are talking about the foliage on his face.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

Ronaldo, 33, drew speculation when he stroked his chin following a goal in his hat trick performance against Spain in the World Cup opener. Some said he was demonstrating defiance against Lionel Messi posing with a goat (Greatest Of All Time) in a recent photograph.

Ronaldo scored again on Wednesday, and there was seemingly little doubt his goatee was a wink to the speculators. But what did it mean, CR7? From ESPN:

“This goatee? It’s a joke I had with [Ricardo] Quaresma. “We were in the sauna [before Friday’s match against Spain] and I started to shave and I left the goatee. I said if I score tomorrow, I would leave it for the rest of the tournament. And it gave me luck.

“I scored in that game, I scored in this one, so it stays.”

Personally, I like to imagine Ronaldo starting to get as wild with his facial hair as he did his head hair.

Perhaps a beatnik style, or something like Serj Tankian from System of a Down. Get nuts, C-Ron.

Report: Southampton could sell Tadic to Ajax for $20m

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Could Southampton be selling one of its most creative forces?

Dusan Tadic, 29, is in the middle of a World Cup run with dark horse Serbia, but the Saints star is also being talked about as a purchase item for Ajax.

[ MORE: Serbia tops Costa Rica ]

The celebrated Eredivisie has traditionally been a selling club for the Premier League, but could be a $20 million buy for Ajax.

The report says director of players Marc Overmars and financial director Jeroen Slop have flown to Southampton to work out a deal.

Tadic starred for Dutch sides Groningen and Twente between 2010-14 before moving to St. Mary’s for a reported $12 million.

He’s scored 24 goals with 35 assists in 162 appearances for Saints, 21 and 30 of which came in the Premier League.

Toronto locks down USMNT backstop Bono with extension

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Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono is going to stay Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The newly-capped USMNT backstop, 24, has been attracting interest from abroad since breaking past Clint Irwin to win the TFC job and guiding the club to multiple MLS Cup Finals.

Now general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has locked down his young goalkeeper to an undisclosed contract extension. From TorontoFC.com:

“Alex was a big part of our success last season. He set club records for wins and clean sheets and was a critical piece of our championship team,” said Toronto FC Sr. Vice-President, Soccer Operations & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “Since joining the club as a first round pick in 2015, Alex’s ability to make key saves in big moments has been critical to our success.”

The Syracuse-born product of Syracuse University has made 64 appearances for the Reds.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 8 — Argentina on the edge; France aims for berth

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France, Denmark, and Croatia can clinch knockout round berths on Thursday in Russia, the last nation also holding the opportunity to help deprive the World Cup of an extended Lionel Messi run.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Messi’s Argentina drew Iceland in its opener, the megastar infamously missing a penalty, and will look to beat a Croatian side that looked quite good in dispatching Nigeria.

That’s the final match of the day, which begins with Denmark facing Australia and continues with a tasty match-up between France and Peru.

Below is Thursday’s schedule in full.

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

2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group C
Denmark vs. Australia: Samara, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
France vs. Peru: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group D
Argentina vs. Croatia: Nizhny Novgorod, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE