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World Cup qualifying: State of play in Europe

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With four rounds of qualifying remaining, all 13 European slots for the World Cup are still up for grabs. The picture should become clearer over the next week, with Germany able to secure its place at next year’s tournament in Russia.

The nine group winners qualify automatically. The worst runner-up will be eliminated, but the other eight second-place teams enter a playoff round in November with the four winners qualifying for the World Cup.

Here is the state of play in the groups:

GROUP A

After being in comfortable control of Group A, France is now in a more precarious position going into Thursday’s game against the Netherlands.

A comical error by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris gifted Sweden a 2-1 win in the last round, giving the Swedes 13 points at the top of the group alongside France and leaving the Dutch within striking distance.

A win for the Netherlands at Stade de France will move it level with European Championship runner-up France, and turn the group it into a three-way scrap with three matches remaining.

Sweden will be hoping France loses or draws but faces a tough trip of its own to Bulgaria, which can maintain its slim chances of qualifying with a win.

Last-place Luxembourg hosts struggling Belarus in the other game.

GROUP B

Switzerland has a perfect six-win record at the top of the group, while Portugal has won five straight since an opening 2-0 loss to the Swiss and has a much better goal difference. An Oct. 10 showdown in Lisbon will likely decide which team wins the group and which must go through the playoff round.

Until then, the No. 4-ranked Swiss host Andorra on Thursday and play at Latvia on Sunday.

European champion Portugal hosts the Faeroe Islands and travels to Hungary, which has slumped since reaching the last 16 at Euro 2016.

GROUP C

World Cup champion Germany, one of two countries to win its opening six qualifying games, looks unstoppable and could qualify over the next week.

If the Germans beat the Czech Republic on Friday, they will be guaranteed first place with a home win over Norway on Monday and if second-place Northern Ireland fails to beat the Czechs on the same night.

Germany has scored more goals (27) and conceded fewer (1) than any other country in European qualifying.

Northern Ireland, which last appeared at a World Cup in 1986, could close in on at least a playoff place by beating San Marino on Friday. The Czech Republic is in third place, four points behind the Northern Irish with four games left.

GROUP D

With the top four teams – Serbia, Ireland, Wales and Austria – separated by four points, there is still everything to play for in a group that looked difficult to predict from the outset.

Serbia is ahead of Ireland on goal difference, and they play each other in Dublin on Monday. Before then, Serbia hosts Moldova and Ireland is at Georgia on Friday.

Wales and Austria are even on points in third and fourth place, four points behind their rivals, and meet in Cardiff on Saturday. Whichever team loses will likely be out of realistic contention for a top-two finish.

Wales, which reached the semifinals of the European Championship last year and has Gareth Bale back from suspension, has drawn five of its six qualifiers.

GROUP E

Poland is closing in on securing a spot in the top-seeded pot at the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 in Moscow.

Robert Lewandowski has scored 11 goals in qualifying – tied with Cristiano Ronaldo for most in the European zone – and Poland is six points ahead of second-place Montenegro. Poland plays Friday at third-place Denmark, and hosts Kazakhstan three days later.

Montenegro travels to play the winless Kazakhs before hosting Romania.

Denmark is level on points with Montenegro and needs to take three points from Armenia on Monday.

GROUP F

It has been an unconvincing qualifying campaign by England, which played one game under Sam Allardyce and subsequently Gareth Southgate. Yet the group favorites remain unbeaten and have won four of their six games to lead the group by two points.

A potentially defining match comes on Monday, when second-place Slovakia visits Wembley Stadium. A win for the English would bring the team close to a spot in Russia.

England will prepare for that match by playing last-place Malta on Friday, when Slovakia hosts Slovenia in Trnava. Slovenia is in third place, three points behind England.

It is England’s first round of internationals since Wayne Rooney, the country’s record scorer, retired from international duty. Although the striker had been dropped for recent matches, Southgate still wanted the experienced Rooney back in the squad for the upcoming qualifiers.

GROUP G

Spain and Italy meet in one of the most-anticipated games in European qualifying, with the winner moving into good position to qualify. Both teams have five wins in addition to the draw between them last year in Turin.

There will be only three games left for each of the teams after they meet Saturday at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, all against the group’s weaker teams.

Since only the group winner automatically qualifies, the winner of Saturday’s match will be set to make it to Russia without having to go through a playoff.

GROUP H

Belgium is on a smooth passage to the World Cup, which could get even smoother if the group leaders can complete the next week with victories over last-place Gibraltar and Greece. But the Greeks, four points behind in second place, are the only team to take points off Belgium so far by drawing 1-1 in March.

If Greece beats Estonia on Thursday and then secures a victory over Belgium on Sunday, the pursuit of first place would be wide open going in the final two rounds of matches in October.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is challenging for second place, a point behind Greece. Both of their meetings have been draws. The toughest game remaining for the Bosnians is against Belgium next month after trips to Cyprus and Gibraltar in the coming days.

GROUP I

The tightest European group, toughest to predict and most likely to make news off the field has Croatia, Iceland, Turkey and Ukraine all separated by only two points.

Third-place Turkey has the biggest week ahead, playing at Ukraine and on Saturday and hosting first-place Croatia on Tuesday.

Iceland has kept momentum from its inspiring run to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals and travels to Finland before hosting Ukraine. Croatia has a solid goal difference advantage over second-place Iceland and should solidify its group lead Friday against visiting Kosovo in Zagreb.

More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

AP Sports Writers Tales Azzoni, Steve Douglas, Graham Dunbar, Rob Harris and Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.

6 clubs fined, risk FIFA transfer bans for debts to players

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ZURICH (AP) Clubs from Russia and Qatar are among six fined by FIFA and warned they risk one-year transfer bans for failing to settle debts to players.

[ MORE: Steffen to England? ]

FIFA says the clubs also face deductions of six league points if they fail to pay the debts in 30 to 90 days.

The clubs are: Kuban of Russia; Al Arabi and Al Kharaitiyat of Qatar; Zamalek of Egypt; Al Jazira of the United Arab Emirates; and Mersin Idman Yurdu of Turkey.

FIFA says all failed to comply with rulings by FIFA or the Court of Arbitration for Sport “to pay significant overdue amounts of money to players.”

They were fined between 15,000 and 30,000 Swiss francs ($15,000 and $30,000).

FIFA says national soccer federations face disciplinary cases if they fail to enforce the verdicts.

Premier League friendlies: Liverpool meets BVB; Everton in Portugal

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The Premier League is three weeks and one day from opening its 2018-19 slate, when Leicester City will visit Old Trafford for a Friday afternoon match with Manchester United.

The end of the World Cup has eyeballs trained on friendlies, with 19 Premier League teams doing work over the weekend.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

The International Champions Cup has a pair of matches on the docket.

Friday sees Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, sans many of their World Cup stars, mixing it up with Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund in Chicago.

Then Sunday will see Borussia Dortmund switching gears and time zones, tangling with Liverpool in North Carolina as Pulisic renews acquaintances with old pal Jurgen Klopp.

Manchester United takes on San Jose on Sunday, two days after facing Club America.

Other marquee friendlies of the weekend include Bournemouth facing American back Shaq Moore and Levante on Friday, with Fulham hosting Lyon on Saturday, and Everton meeting Lille and Porto on consecutive Portuguese days Saturday and Sunday.

Friday

Bournemouth vs. Levante
Burnley vs. Macclesfield Town
Burnley vs. Curzon Ashton
Cardiff City vs Torquay
Manchester City vs. Borussia Dortmund (in Chicago)

Saturday

Brighton and Hove Albion vs. AFC Wimbledon
Crystal Palace vs. Oxford United
Everton vs. Lille
Fulham vs. Lyon
Huddersfield Town vs. Real Betis
Huddersfield Town vs. Roy-Weiss Essen or Werder Bremen
Leicester City vs. Notts County
Southampton vs. Derby County
Watford vs. Fortuna Dusseldorf
West Ham United vs. Preston North End

Sunday

Everton vs. Porto
Huddersfield Town vs. Darmstadt
Liverpool vs. Borussia Dortmund (in North Carolina)
Manchester United vs. San Jose Earthquakes (in Santa Clara)
Wolverhampton vs. TBD

Transfer rumor roundup: Japan, South Africa strikers to Premier League

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Percy Tau’s name isn’t yet widely known outside of South Africa, what with Bafana Bafana absent from the World Cup.

But the 24-year-old Mamelodi Sundowns winger may soon get to test his skills on a much bigger stage.

[ USMNT: More accolades for Pulisic ]

Tau, who has five goals in 12 caps, will reportedly join Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League if a medical goes well, with Sky Sports saying it’ll will be the biggest transfer fee yet for a South African Premier League player.


Yoshinori Muto could be bringing his 25 caps to the Premier League.

The 26-year-old striker made just one appearance at the World Cup, but has had a nice run with Mainz since joining from FC Tokyo. He’s bagged 23 goals in 71 appearances.

Bild report says there have been no formal offers for Muto, but that Newcastle United and West Ham are interested in the striker. Newcastle badly needs a striker, but West Ham has been spending money and Magpies owner Mike Ashley hasn’t green lit much in recent seasons.

Open Cup draw postponed as Portland protests LAFC win

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The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup draw is not going as planned, as the Portland Timbers protest the roster of victorious LAFC.

[ RECAP: Four USOC semifinalists minted ]

Philadelphia, Chicago, and Houston were the other sides to get a place in the final four teams.

LAFC’s victory had already been marred by Adama Diomande‘s claims of a racial slur hurled his way, and now their victory may be in question altogether as U.S. Soccer issued a press release saying Thursday’s scheduled draw was postponed.

From a U.S. Soccer press release:

The decision comes as a result of a protest filed by the Portland Timbers in relation to the number of foreign players fielded by Los Angeles Football Club during Wednesday night’s Quarterfinal at Banc of America Stadium in Los Angeles, Calif.

The rule says a maximum five players without green cards can be in the 18. Portland started only two Americans, Jeff Attinella and Zarek Valentin, but have green cards for many others and rules are rules.

Will the Timbers take a semifinal berth via protest?