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A World Cup without Messi, Ronaldo? It’s possible in Russia

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) It’s getting anxious for teams and players fearing missing out on the World Cup.

By the time the draw for the finals is conducted in Moscow in December, even Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo could be facing up to spending next June on the beach rather than on the fields in Russia.

For now, only seven qualification slots have been filled by Belgium, Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

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Another 24 places are still vacant, after the latest rounds of qualifiers.

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MESSI AND RONALDO

Time is running out for the two best players in world soccer over the last decade. Not just to win the World Cup for the first time, either, because Ronaldo and Messi might not even make the trip to Russia.

As things stand in Europe, Ronaldo’s Portugal is second in its qualifying group and the reigning European champions are facing a November play-off to gain a spot in the following month’s finals draw.

At least Portugal won both games in the last week. Argentina was held by both Uruguay and Venezuela in Jorge Sampaoli’s first games in charge, despite having Messi back from suspension.

Argentina still has time to move up from fifth to the fourth and final automatic qualification place. But the final two qualifiers next month for the two-time world champions are against Peru – currently fourth – and Ecuador – chasing Argentina in fifth place for the right to face New Zealand in a playoff.

CHAMPIONS COLLAPSE

The World Cup will be without African champion Cameroon. Copa America winner Chile could be absent too.

Cameroon’s qualification bid ended this week, while Chile is sixth in the South American standings and struggling to force its way into a playoff after losing to Bolivia on Tuesday. It’s barely two months since the Chileans were contesting the Confederations Cup final where they lost to Germany, and players are feeling the heat.

“You get tired of being criticized with reason and without reason,” Chile forward Alexis Sanchez wrote on Instagram. “You get tired of wanting to be defeated, you get tired of saying to yourself `Once more I’ll get up’ after crying after a defeat, and you get tired of telling the world and people who are with you, that everything is going well.”

AMERICANS CLING ON

The United States is in danger of missing its first World Cup since 1986 after a home loss to Costa Rica and a draw in Panama. Bruce Arena’s team is hanging onto fourth place by goal difference ahead of Honduras. The fourth-place team is still plunged into a playoff against Australia or Syria to qualify for Russia.

Next up in October for the Americans are a Panama side which is a point ahead of them in the third automatic qualification place and last-place Trinidad and Tobago. It’s the first time since 1989 that the qualification fate of the U.S. has been on the line going into the finale.

SYRIA’S BID

Several teams are still in contention to make their World Cup debuts in Russia: Burkina Faso, Panama, Uganda … and Syria.

To qualify, Syria would have to beat Australia over two games in October and then overcome a CONCACAF opponent in a November playoff round.

When Syria drew in Iran on Tuesday in qualifying, there were celebrations home back in the capital Damascus. What makes Syria’s progress on the field even more remarkable is the team is playing as a civil war rages. That is also what makes the prospect of a Syrian team packed with government supporters appearing at the World Cup potentially problematic for critics of the President Bashir Assad’s regime.

FIFA rules say politics should be separated completely from the soccer.

A World Cup trip next June by Assad to Russia, Syria’s chief international ally, could rapidly become a sensitive issue for FIFA.

Without citing any country, the Asian Football Confederation opened an investigation on Wednesday into rule breaches linked to the need for national teams to respect political neutrality.

DUTCH DESPAIR

The Netherlands is facing missing a second straight major tournament, with even a place in the play-offs slipping out a sight. The 2010 World Cup finalists were dealt one of the hardest groups, but a 4-0 loss to leader France last week showed the size of the gulf between Dick Advocaat’s side and the continental powers. The Dutch are third in its group with two games remaining, three points behind its final group opponent, Sweden. Although France leads the group from Sweden, Les Bleus have carelessly dropped points in a late defeat to Sweden in June and a 0-0 home draw with lowly Luxembourg.

GERMAN FAN TROUBLE

Germany’s problem isn’t qualifying for Russia as the World Cup holders lead their group by five points with two games remaining. The issue is the behavior of fans.

There is abuse aimed often by their own player – Timo Werner – all over a dive by the striker in a German league game last season. Far more disturbing are the Nazi slogans that were chanted during a game in the Czech Republic last week and led to FIFA opening an investigation.

NO QATAR

Qatar’s qualification bid ended in failure last week, just like in every previous campaign. The significance this time is that the Gulf nation will now make its debut on soccer’s biggest stage when it hosts the World Cup in 2022.

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

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Manchester United draws Club America 1-1 on Mata goal

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Manchester United began Jose Mourinho’s “very bad” preseason with a drab 1-1 draw against Liga MX side Club America.

Juan Mata hit the post in the opening 20 minutes and later scored the equalizer in the 78th minute after Ander Herrera‘s header rebounded off the crossbar and right into the Spaniard’s lap. Mata then put his shot through the goalkeeper’s legs and in for the only goal for the Red Devils.

With many players receiving extra rest after participating in the 2018 World Cup, Manchester United is utilizing a bit-part roster for much of the preseason which includes five matches in the United States. Regulars Mata, Herrera, Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial, and Antonio Valencia were all included in the starting lineup, but they were joined by a smattering of relative unknowns.

35-year-old journeyman goalkeeper Lee Grant played the first 45 minutes between the sticks, replaced in the second half by 22-year-old Joel Peirera. 22-year-old midfielder Andreas Pereira played the full 90 minutes in midfield, while 21-year-old winger Demetri Mitchell saw his name listed among the starters along with Scott McTominay, who suffered a nasty looking head injury late in the match on an overhead kick attempt.

16-year-old Mason Greenwood got a few minutes towards the end, with Mourinho hoping to get a quick look at the club’s U-18 leading scorer. Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Alex Tuanzebe also both came off the bench to participate, as did 18-year-old former Feyenoord youth product Tahith Chong who was impressive during his second-half appearance.

While Manchester United held a slight majority in possession, Club America out-shot the Premier League giants 15-10, however the Liga MX side could only manage to put four of those on target.

Pep: Hart’s future uncertain, will play in preseason

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Joe Hart has returned to Manchester City after spending last season on loan at West Ham, and his future is very much up in the air as it stands.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola was asked about Hart’s situation at the pre-match press conference prior to City’s International Champions Cup match against Borussia Dortmund. He confirmed they are shopping the English veteran. “We’re going to try and make a solution for Joe,” Guardiola told reporters, “but if not then he is with us. He’s one of the best professionals I’ve ever seen but at this moment he is with us.”

Guardiola also confirmed that Hart would play in the preseason game against Dortmund. Starting goalkeeper Ederson is not on the roster for the US preseason tour, having returned from participation in the 2018 World Cup with Brazil, although he didn’t play as he served as Alisson’s backup.

The former #1 England goalkeeper, Hart has struggled mightily in recent seasons. He last played a full Premier League season back in 2015/16, starting 35 games for Manchester City. However, he lost his place the following year and was loaned to Italian top flight club Torino. He had mixed success during his one year in Italy and was loaned out to West Ham last campaign with Ederson and Claudio Bravo entrenched at his parent club. Hart only made it half the season before losing his starting spot for the Hammers, replaced by Adrian. That saw him lose not just starting job with the England national team but his place in the squad, forcing Gareth Southgate to take a trio of inexperienced goalkeepers to the World Cup, leading to the emergence of Jordan Pickford.

West Ham returned Hart to Manchester City at the end of the season, and here he sits in limbo again. Hart has just one more year left on his contract, but according to the Manchester Evening News, wants to leave this season on a permanent deal anyway.

Tomorrow, Hart will get the opportunity – albeit a small one – to showcase himself to potential suitors. If he gets another chance to play in the ICC (Manchester City plays Liverpool and Bayern Munich before heading home to England), he will have another opportunity to plead his case.

Report: Leicester to pluck Danny Ward from Liverpool

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With the announcement of Alisson’s signing on Thursday, Liverpool has spent over $200 million this summer, but it seems they’ve already begun to trim the squad and even out the net spend by a bit.

According to the Liverpool Echo, the Reds have agreed to sell 25-year-old goalkeeper Danny Ward to Leicester City, with the clubs agreeing to a $16.2 million fee. The report also states the deal includes a 20% sell-on fee, meaning Liverpool will receive 20% of any transfer fee Leicester City receives for Ward during the life of his next contract.

[ MORE: Alisson signs for Liverpool ]

Ward has spent the last six seasons with Liverpool after signing from small non-league club Wrexham in 2012 as a 19-year-old. However, he has played more games for the Welsh international team (4) than he has for Liverpool (3). Previously stuck behind Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius, the arrival of Alisson meant the club needed to make room.

Leicester City already has Kasper Schmeichel firmly entrenched between the sticks. However, especially after a stellar 2018 World Cup with Denmark where he was considered among the top choices for the Golden Glove award, Schmeichel is a wanted man and 31 years old and a contract with three more years remaining, Schmeichel’s time at King Power Stadium could be limited.

The addition of Ward at the very least would allow Schmeichel some time off. The Dane was stretched thin last season as not just the Premier League starter but also used in a few cup games with only Eldin Jakupovic behind him. Now, it’s realistic that Ward could receive time in Cup competitions, leaving Schmeichel to rest up for league games.

Reports: Conte to sue Chelsea over how firing was handled

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According to reports in Italy, and backed up by those in England, Antonio Conte is planning to sue Chelsea over the way the club handled his exit this summer.

Chelsea is reportedly planning to pay Conte the rest of his salary in full, but the reports state that the Italian is unhappy how long it took the club to confirm his exit, leaving him unable to secure a job commiserate with his experience level for this coming season.

The 48-year-old is set to receive nearly $12 million as compensation for the final year of his now-terminated contract, but is looking for additional damages given the timing of his departure. Despite the writing clearly on the wall, Conte had weeks of silence from the club, before being pulled back to London to begin pre-season training with the squad for just four days before he was then let go.

Upon his release, Conte released a relatively benign statement thanking the club, the fans, the staff, and the players, but notably did not thank the board or owner Roman Abramovich.

Things between Chelsea and Conte have been testy for some time now. It was reported earlier last month – before Conte was officially let go – that Chelsea was planning to withhold payment of Conte’s remaining salary and sue the Italian for costing the club money for former striker Diego Costa. Costa told the media he received a text message from Conte while on international duty last summer that he was no longer wanted at the club. If true, the club could have argued that Conte botched the situation and cost the club a significant amount of money. However, it seems the club has – for now – decided not to pursue the lawsuit, with reports stating that Conte is set to receive his salary in full.