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UEFA Qualifying Wrap: France held by Luxembourg as Group A gets interesting

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Croatia 1-0 Kosovo

After the match on Saturday was called off just 22 minutes in thanks to an unplayable pitch following torrential rain, the game was resumed on Sunday. Real Madrid star Luka Modric fed a free-kick into the box in the 74th minute, and Dynamo Kiev defender Domagoj Vida was there to head it home and give Croatia a narrow victory under dubious circumstances.

Netherlands 3-1 Bulgaria

The Netherlands bounced back from their brutal defeat to France as Davy Propper poached a pair of goals against Bulgaria, with Arjen Robben adding one more. Propper touched home Daley Blind‘s low rifled cross just seven minutes in, and while that was it for a while, Blind fed Robben in the 67th minute from almost exactly the same spot at the left edge of the box. Bulgaria responded just two minutes later through Georgi Kostadinov, but Propper bagged his second to put the game away with 10 minutes to go, heading to the far post off a cross by Spartak Moscow winger Quincy Promes.

The three points is critical for the Netherlands, especially considering the other results around Group A that keep them alive. Robben’s goal was his 34th for country, moving him ahead of Johan Cruyff on the Netherlands scoring charts.

France 0-0 Luxembourg

Easily the most stunning result of the day, a full-strength France squad was held at home by Group A basement-dwellers Luxembourg in a result that not only keeps the Netherlands alive, but also releases France’s chokehold on Group A, leaving them just one point in front of Sweden and four ahead of the Netherlands.

France held 74% possession and mustered 34 shots, nine of them on target, but they couldn’t find a way through goalkeeper Jonathan Joubert. Olivier Giroud, Kylian Mbappe, and Antoine Griezmann all started the game for France, and Alexandre Lacazette played a half-hour off the bench, but none of them had any answers.

Greece 1-2 Belgium

Romelu Lukaku celebrates with Belgium teammate Thorgan Hazard (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images).

A wild finish at Karaiskaki Stadium in Athens saw three total goals pour in across a four-minute span, the decider scored by Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku as Belgium became the first European country to confirm qualification to the 2018 World Cup. Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen scored a fabulous strike from distance in the 70th minute, but the Spurs man lost Portuguese-born midfielder Zeca who flicked home a cross just two minutes after the opener, just the third goal Belgium has conceded all qualifying. With it all kicking off, Lukaku took a cross from Thomas Meunier and deposited a glancing header inside the far post.

Belarus 0-4 Sweden

Sweden took care of business as they went on the road and torched Belarus 4-0. Emil Forsberg scored the opener in the 18th minute and assisted the second, to Christoffer Nyman. Marcus Berg added a third just before halftime and Andreas Granqvist finished off the scoresheet with a late penalty.

Gibraltar 0-4 Bosnia and Herzegovina

With Belgium clinching Group H, that leaves four other countries to fight for the playoff spot, and Bosnia & Herzegovina took control with a comprehensive victory over point-less Gibraltar. Edin Dzeko scored a pair while Kenan Kodro and Senad Lulic each added one of their own. Bosnia & Herzegovina jumped Greece with the win into the playoff spot, with 14 points to Greece’s 13 and Cyprus’s 10. Estonia remains mathematically alive with eight points.

 

Hungary 0-1 Portugal

Andre Silva celebrates with Cristiano Ronaldo and other Portugal teammates (Tamas Kovacs//MTI via AP).

A red card to Hungary’s Tamas Priskin for elbowing Pepe in the face a half-hour in saw Portugal grab a man advantage, and Andre Silva provided the breakthrough heading in Cristiano Ronaldo’s cross minutes after the halftime break. The win allows Portugal to keep pace with perfect Switzerland, just three points back with the two teams set to meet in the final match of the group stage.

Latvia 0-3 Switzerland

Switzerland remained perfect in the group stage, picking up their eighth win in as many tries with a comprehensive victory over Latvia. An own-goal put Switzerland ahead nine minutes in, and while Blerim Dzemaili missed a penalty past the half-hour mark, he made amends just after halftime for a 2-0 lead, and Ricardo Rodriguez wrapped things up from the spot before an hour had gone by.

 

Faroe Islands 1-0 Andorra

These two sides have already been eliminated, but the Faroe Islands picked up their second win of qualification thanks to a goal by Norwegian top-flight winger Gilli Sorensen in the 31st minute.

Estonia 1-0 Cyprus

Estonia kept its hopes barely alive and dented those of Cyprus in dramatic fashion, with a stoppage-time half-volley from Fulham youth product Mattias Kait two minutes past the 90.

Eleven to go: Ranking obstacles on Liverpool’s unbeaten path

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Liverpool has won all five of its matches since the last time we evaluated its path to an unbeaten Premier League season.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Those matches were ranked 14th, 12th, 11th, 10th, and 4th on our first rankings of obstacles to immortality, so very little of the heavy lifting has been conducted.

Let’s get something out of the way: If Liverpool is unable to overturn their first leg deficit against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, you can probably etch that zero in the league loss column into stone.

That said, many expect the Reds to overcome that 1-0 disadvantage from Madrid, so here’s where we slot the difficulties moving forward.

Unranked — Crystal Palace at home (March 21) and Brighton away (April 18) — Both of these dates are very easy on the eyes, but will be moved if Liverpool is alive in the FA Cup.

9. Newcastle away, time TBD May 17 — We’re now calling this the easiest date left. Klopp’s men aren’t going to lose an unbeaten season at the altar just because Steve Bruce bunkers down. St. James’ Park is a hassle, but

8. Watford away, 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday Klopp probably feels like he’s already playing with house money in the FA Cup, so there’s no reason to think he’ll hand any priority at all to the following FA Cup meeting with Chelsea.

7. Bournemouth home, 7:30 a.m. ET March 7 Situated between Chelsea in the FA Cup and the home UCL second leg versus Atleti, it’s not easy…  but the Cherries have given us less reason to believe they’ll threaten the Reds than any other team besides Newcastle.

6. Aston Villa home, 11:30 a.m. ET April 12Dean Smith‘s desperate Villans will have Villa Park rocking before Liverpool’s possible UCL quarterfinals 2nd leg days later.

5. Burnley home, 7:30 a.m. ET April 25 — Taking place just before a possible UCL quarterfinal first leg, Burnley will try to trouble the Reds in a similar manner to West Ham.

4. Chelsea home, time TBD May 9 — Both the Blues and Reds could be coming off UCL semifinal second legs. Don’t forget that Chelsea took the Reds to the wire in the UEFA Super Cup despite it being very early in Frank Lampard‘s tenure.

3. Arsenal away, time TBD May 2 — Both sides may be days away from needing a result to qualify for the UCL or UEL final.

2. Everton away, 4 p.m. ET March 16 — This may as well be the only match left on the Toffees’ docket that matters more than another, as Carlo Ancelotti and his men know the message they could send regarding the building up of Everton.

Not only that, but Everton has nothing else left to circle, no other competitions, nothing.

1. Man City away, 11:30 a.m. ET April 5 — Taking place 3-4 days before the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals and on the heels of an international break, it’s the lone date on the calendar that Liverpool won’t be heavy favorites to win.

Champions League: Chelsea, Napoli aim to slow Lewandowski, Messi

UEFA Champions League preview
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Four of the most dangerous attacks in Europe begin their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

For Chelsea that means trying to find a way to limit the damage of away goals when Bayern Munich visits Stamford Bridge.

Of course, that means trying to slow lethal Robert Lewandowski. The 31-year-old Polish striker has scored 38 times in 32 appearances this season.

Here’s Frank Lampard, via Football.London:

Form of his life means something special with Lewandowski because of how well he’s been consistently in Europe for the last, how many years, I don’t know,” Lampard said. “Everything about him, from a distance, from afar, is just top class. Having the opportunity to watch a lot of Bayern in build-up to this game, that shines through. Of course, he’s going to be a huge threat. He’s not the only threat but he is a spearhead.”

Lampard points to the Blues work without the ball and away from it that will determine whether they can limit Lewandowski and Bayern.

“We traveled to Ajax and had a fantastic game off the ball,” he said. “We’ve had games like that this year in the league as well. But the levels have to go up.”

The Blues won’t have Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and N’Golo Kante, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek is finally available after a long injury absence. Pedro may play.

[ MORE: JPW’s score predictions ]

Tuesday’s other first leg sees Napoli hosting Barcelona, which means Gennaro Gattuso trying to find a way to cool down Lionel Messi.

The world’s top player scored four goals at the weekend and had six assists in his three previous La Liga outings.

Another player who’s helped Barcelona reclaim the league lead will be critical to controlling the midfield against Napoli, and that’s Frenkie de Jong.

The 22-year-old has had fits and starts at Barca, especially this month. He admits that he’s had an odd time adjusting to Messi, the teammate, though it hasn’t been part of the problem. From FCBarcelona.com:

“When I began training with him it was strange, because when I was 12, still in secondary school, I used to watch a lot of football. He was already the best in the world. He won the Ballon d’Or back then, so I was a fan, or whatever you want to call it.”

Napoli boss Gattuso was a bit more effusive when addressing Messi, via Football.Espana:

“I have read whether to make a cage or not, but we need the collective game to combat someone like him, and it is not just him,” Gattuso said. “He is the best in the world, for how he has lived his entire career. He is always perfect, never a misplaced word, he is an example for everyone. He does things that I only see on the PlayStation. He has an incredible quality and for years he has been the best of all-time.”

Both matches kick off at 3 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Moyes: West Ham needs to overcome letdown of errors in Liverpool loss

David Moyes
Photo by Arfa Griffiths/West Ham United FC via Getty Images
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A Lukasz Fabianski howler opened the door for Liverpool, and the soon-to-be Premier League champions again handed a down day to David Moyes.

[ MORE: Klopp reacts to comeback ]

The Reds came back to win 3-2 against West Ham at Anfield to move 22 points clear of the chasing pack, keeping the Irons in the drop zone.

West Ham led 2-1 at Anfield when a low-pace Mohamed Salah shot squired through Fabianski’s hands and legs en route to the final score.

David Moyes says Fabianski’s error and how he rebounds from it can be a microcosm of what the Irons need to survive the current relegation scrap.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

“He’s done great for us but when you’re in a position, you make individual mistakes you need to quickly get over them and get on with it and not let it happen again. Our real big games start now. Liverpool wasn’t a big game and Manchester City wasn’t a big game. The big games come in the next eight to 10 weeks and I need everyone in the best form they can be in.”

Moyes believes the Irons had a good plan for the day but made two too many mistakes.

“I felt as if we’d done a really good disciplined, organized defensive performance at Manchester City. It’s a different game to the way Liverpool plays I felt tonight we could maybe try and go another way and see if we could get a result here, but it’s not easy because whatever you do Liverpool have got the ammunition to do something different. We had actually made plans to chop and change two or three times during the game… but overall it wasn’t good enough.”

West Ham hosts Southampton next before meeting Arsenal away, Wolves at home, Spurs away, and Chelsea at home. That’s a heavy lift, and it’s true that they wouldn’t have expected much from Man City and Liverpool but it’s not getting that much easier.

Klopp: Liverpool “forced” comeback out of sloppy day versus West Ham

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Liverpool collected another win on Monday, their 21st-consecutive home win in Premier League play.

It was anything but straight-forward, but the Reds came back to win 3-2 against West Ham at Anfield to move 22 points clear of the chasing pack.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The Reds will win their first PL title since 1990, but they won’t be writing ballads about this one; West Ham keeper Lukasz Fabianski had a bad day that included a pitiful howler to allow Liverpool an equalizer.

That doesn’t matter, though. Just ask Jurgen Klopp.

“There are so many things I could say that we could’ve done better,” Klopp said on NBCSN after the win. “It’s all true and 100 percent right, but to win this number of games which the boys have won now, you cannot be brilliant all the time. Then something would be really wrong.”

Klopp said Liverpool did a poor job with second balls, particularly off goal kicks.

He also said the Reds panicked a little bit at times during an odd first half which featured plenty of twists and turns.

“We lost a little bit of patience in the first half in the things we did offensively,” he said. “They scored the second goal and I have to watch it back how it happened. We were forced to stay calm and do the right stuff. The goals we scored were kind of strange and the best goal we scored didn’t count. You have to squeeze it. You have to force it. We got the three points and it’s so special it’s unbelievable.”

Klopp was then asked where his side developed its mentality.

He credits the drab but glorious 2-1 win over Spurs in June.

“The Champions League Final helped a lot. It was the worst final I ever played with a team, but the first we won. We were better with Dortmund against Bayern. We were better for Liverpool against Sevilla and Madrid, but against Tottenham we won because we learned in that season that we have to do the right things again and again and defend with all we have and there will be moments.”

The Reds next league tests are Watford away and Bournemouth at home, though both matches come before cup tilts with Chelsea and Atletico Madrid. An unbeaten league season continues to live on the season’s menu.