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UEFA World Cup qualifying preview: Plenty to play for

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Only hosts Russia and red-hot Belgium know they’ll be dancing at the 2018 World Cup, but several teams could join the fray before the final match day.

[ MORE: USMNT prospects on show at U-17 World Cup ]

Take Thursday, where Germany can advance by getting a point or more out of Northern Ireland, while England and Poland can qualify with wins and help.

In fact, only two groups are guaranteed to be up for grabs on the final match day. Here’s what’s cooking:

Group A

France can clinch a spot Saturday with a win in Bulgaria and a Swedish loss at home to Luxembourg. The latter is unlikely to happen, which will bring us to Tuesday, with France hosting Belarus and Sweden at the Netherlands. All signs point to France first, and the Dutch hoping Sweden opens the door to second place. Bulgaria needs unlikely scenarios but remains alive.

Group B

Switzerland and Portugal will finish 1st and 2nd, but we don’t yet know the order. The Portuguese are likely to enter the Oct. 10 match in Sweden knowing a win will do the trick, though a draw could suffice if Switzerland loses at home to Bulgaria on Saturday.

Group C

Germany needs a point at Northern Ireland on Thursday to clinch a spot. Even a loss wouldn’t doom them thanks to a five point lead on NI. Germany finishes vs. tricky Azerbaijan, while NI is off to Norway.

Group D

Serbia qualifies with a win at Austria on Friday, or a draw and help from Ireland and Wales. Those two and Austria are still alive, though Austria can only finish second with massive help.

Group E

Poland leads the group by three points and clinches a berth in Russia with a win at Armenia and a draw between Denmark and Montenegro, who both have 16 points.

Poland hosts Montenegro on Sunday in what could decide the group. Only Denmark, Poland, and Montenegro remain alive for the World Cup.

Group F

The front-runners for first and second are England and Slovakia, with the former able to clinch with a win over Slovenia. England could also advance with a draw and a Slovakia loss. Even a point guarantees a Top Two slot.

A visit to lowly Lithuania is on the final match day, so England can feel good about topping the group, though Slovakia, Slovenia, and Scotland are all alive. Slovakia visits Scotland on Thursday in a massive tilt for both, while Scotland finishes at Slovenia.

Group G

Spain is likely to win the group, with a three point and 17-goal advantage on second place Italy. But there’s a chance the Italians could enter the final day level on points with Spain if the Spanish play down to desperate Albania and Italy waxes visiting Macedonia to knock the goal difference advantage down. Albania’s thin hopes need a Macedonian win in Italy, a win in Spain, and then goal difference working in its favor following a final day win over visiting Italy.

Group H

Belgium is in. Bosnia and Herzegovina will finish second if its wins and Greece loses in Cyprus. Cyprus has to hope for a win over the Greeks and a BNH loss to visiting Belgium.

That would leave second place in play on the final day, when BNH is in Estonia, Greece hosts Gibraltar, and Cyprus visits Belgium.

Group I

This one’s so tight we’re just going to give you the table and schedule and tell you to sort out the scenarios yourself rather than type forever and ever and ever (so to speak).

Croatia — 16 pts, +9 GD
Iceland — 16 pts, +4 GD
Turkey — 14 pts, +4 GD
Ukraine — 14 pts, +4 GD

Friday: Iceland at Turkey, Finland at Croatia, Ukraine at Kosovo
Monday: Croatia at Ukraine, Turkey at Finland, Kosovo at Iceland

WATCH: World Cup, Day 10 — All eyes on Germany

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Many of the favorites in the 2018 World Cup have disappointed, but until Argentina fell 3-0 to Croatia on Thursday, Germany was the only one to suffer a defeat.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Die Mannschaft fell to Mexico in their opening match, with El Tri carving up the German midfield on the counter. Now, Joachim Low has had ample time to make the adjustments needed to go for victory as the Germans take on Sweden as they chase a spot in the knockout stages among Group F.

Meanwhile, Mexico looks to prove they’re not a one-hit wonder as they take on South Korea in Rostov. Juan Carlos Osorio has received plenty of praise – and rightly so – for his tactics in the upset victory, and that leaves El Tri with a chance to clinch a spot in the knockout stage with a win.

Before all that Group F craziness, Belgium takes the field in the morning against Tunisia as they look to follow up its comprehensive 3-0 victory over Panama in the opening round. A victory for the Red Devils would not only book a place in the knockout round, but also eliminate Tunisia from contention.

Below is Saturday’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 – Saturday, June 23

Group F
South Korea vs. Mexico: Rostov-on-Don, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Germany vs. Sweden: Sochi, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Tunisia: Moscow, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Kluivert junior leaves Ajax for Roma in $21m transfer

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ROME (AP) — Roma signed Justin Kluivert, the son of former Milan and Barcelona forward Patrick, from Ajax on Friday for a fee that could rise to 18.75 million euros ($21.8 million).

The 19-year-old Dutch international forward has agreed a five-year contract with Roma.

“I’m very happy. I’m at an incredible club,” Kluivert said. “I cannot wait to start. I believe that Roma is the ideal team for my growth, which will allow me to play at the highest levels.”

Kluivert junior made 56 appearances and scored 13 goals for Ajax. He has one cap for the Netherlands.

He joins Roma for an initial 17.25 million euros ($20.1 million) and performance-related clauses could see the price rise by 1.5 million euros.

Ricketts family, owner of the Chicago Cubs, interested in purchasing AC Milan

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The Ricketts family, who purchased a controlling stake in the Chicago Cubs back in 2009, have interest in further pursuing ownership in financially troubled Italian club AC Milan.

According to a family statement, “The Ricketts family brought a championship to the Chicago Cubs through long-term investment and being great stewards of the team … They would bring this same approach to AC Milan.”

First reported by the Chicago Tribune, the news of the Tom Ricketts’ interest in the team comes on the heels of news that current owner Li Yonghong had failed to meet a Friday deadline for a $37 million loan payment. According to reports, the missed payment means that Li will cede control of the club to Elliott Management, who loaned the Chinese businessman the money to complete his initial purchase of the club last April.

The Chicago Sun-Times also reported the family’s interest in the club, and quoted their source as saying, “The Ricketts put together the management team, resources and training facilities [for the Cubs]. [They did] everything you need top to bottom to be successful.”

Ricketts has plenty of history in soccer ownership, having previously been a part of the group that owned English club Derby County before selling back in 2015. This May, Ricketts also announced he was leading an investment group that is looking to bring a USL expansion team to Chicago.

Forbes values AC Milan at $612 million – a massive 26% 1-year decline – and ranks them the 17th most valuable soccer club in the world. That valuation could be further on the decline, as the storied club missed out on Champions League qualification for the fifth straight year, although they qualified for their second straight Europa League appearance with 6th place finish in last year’s Serie A table, eight points behind Lazio in fifth.

AC Milan also faces heavy sanctions from UEFA regarding Financial Fair Play, although those fears could be eased with the financially-troubled Li selling the club.

The Ricketts family’s wealth comes largely from investment banking, with Tom’s father J. Joseph Ricketts having founded Ameritrade back in 1975. Tom is estimated by Forbes to be worth $1 billion, while his father has an estimated net worth of $2.1 billion.

Xhaka, Shaqiri display controversial goal celebrations in win over Serbia

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A seemingly innocuous goal celebration performed by both Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri has thinly veiled, politically charged undertones and could potentially land the pair in FIFA disciplinary proceedings following Switzerland’s 2-1 win over Serbia.

Both displayed a bird hand signal as they celebrated scoring goals, and considering their pre-match comments, post-match social media posts, and ethnic backgrounds, those were clearly meant to represent the double-eagle symbol in the middle of the Albanian flag.

This is a complicated political scenario, but it could be considered by FIFA to be politically provocative. Shaqiri is Albanian, born in Kosovo before moving to Switzerland with his parents and three siblings when he was just a year old. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and is not recognized as a sovereign nation by Serbia. Xhaka is of Albanian descent, and his father previously participated in a demonstration against the communist Yugoslavian rule in Kosovo that landed him a lengthy jail sentence. Albania and Serbia have a particularly tumultuous relationship, with their leaders meeting for the first time in over 60 years in 2014, which caused tempers to flare.

Following the match, Xhaka posted a picture of his celebration on his Instagram story, with the caption in Albanian roughly translated to, “Here you go Serbia, this is why they call me Granit Kosovo!” He deleted the post, and replaced it with an image of his celebration side-by-side with Shaqiri’s, with the slightly more cryptic caption, “We did it, bro!” in English.

FIFA is wildly against any type of political demonstration or involvement in the world of soccer. The governing body has punished individual nation federations in the past for government involvement, while political demonstrations on the field are fiercely frowned upon.

Switzerland captain and new Arsenal signing Stephan Lichtsteiner came to the defense of his two teammates after the match. When asked about the celebrations, he said to Goal.com, “We had a lot of pressure, it was not an easy game for us. We have a lot of Albanians, so there is a lot of history between Serbia and Albania. It was a very tough game for them mentally.”

“It was good. Why not? This is the history for them,” Lichtsteiner continued. “The war between them was so difficult. I spoke to the father of one of our players who is Albanian, and he told me about this history. This is more than football. This is more than football because they have this period, this war that gave them both big problems. I understand them. I think it’s normal, it’s part of their life. There was also big provocation ahead of the game from them [Serbia], so I think it’s normal.”

Shaqiri could be in especially hot water. The Stoke City midfielder wore boots with the flags of Switzerland and Kosovo. He has made it clear in the past that he values his roots, saying, “I was born in Kosovo, but I grew up in Switzerland. I live both mentalities, it’s not a big difference.”

Switzerland finishes its World Cup group stage round with a match against Costa Rica on Wednesday in which a win would secure a spot in the knockout stage.