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UEFA WCQ: France, Portugal one win away; Netherlands all but eliminated

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A roundup of Saturday’s penultimate matchday of 2018 World Cup qualifying action from all around Europe…

[ MORE: USMNT routs Panama to boost WC dreams in a big way ]

Bulgaria 0-1 France

With one game left to play, France remain one point clear of Sweden in Group A following a nervy 1-0 victory away to Bularia on Saturday. Blaise Matuidi scored the game’s only goal, in the 3rd minute, as Didier Deschamps’ side clinched a top-two finish in the group, guaranteeing at minimum a place in the qualification playoffs.

Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kante was subbed off with an apparent hamstring injury in the 34th minute.

A victory over Belarus on Tuesday would see France qualify straight through to next summer’s tournament in Russia. Should Les Bleus slip up, Sweden, who boast a massively superior goal differential (+19 to +11) would need a superior result against the Netherlands to overtake them.

Belarus 1-3 Netherlands

Despite their own victory over Belarus, the combination of Sweden’s 8-0 victory over Luxembourg and France’s victory over Bulgaria, means the Dutch have been all but officially eliminated from contention to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Needing to overturn to make up three points and 12 goals in the goal-differential column in their finale against Sweden, the Oranje will miss a second straight major international tournament (EURO 2016).

The Netherlands finished as runners-up at the 2010 World Cup and third-place finishers in 2014.

Bosnia and Herzegovina 3-4 Belgium

Belgium clinched their place in Russia during the last international break, turning the rest of their Group H schedule into a chance to finely tune themselves and perhaps spoil the dreams of others. Saturday’s seven-goal thriller against Bosnia went a long way toward doing just that, as the home side’s defeat left the door wide for Greece to leapfrog their way into second place by two points. Unfortunately for the Bosnians, that’s exactly what happened after Greece won away to Cyprus, 2-1.

Jan Vertonghen marked his record-tying 96th cap with a goal in the 68th minute. While it looked set to be the game-winning goal, the Red Devils conceded an equalizer eight minutes from full-time, necessitating an 84th-minute winner from Yannick Carrasco to go nine points clear atop the group.

Thomas Meunier fired the visitors ahead in the 4th minute, only to be pegged back by Philadelphia Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin right on the half-hour mark. Nine minutes later, Edin Visca made it 2-1 to the hosts. That lead would remain intact until the 59th minute, when Michy Batshuayi equalized and set up the frantic final 30 minutes.

Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini picked up an injury, believed to be knee ligament damage, in the 29th minute. Initial reports have speculated he could be out for a number of weeks.

Andorra 0-2 Portugal

Portugal took care of business away to Andorra, thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo’s 79th international goal and the game-winner in the 63rd minute, but the reigning European champions remain second in Group B, three points back of Switzerland, though they possess an insurmountable goal-differential advantage (+26 to +18). As fate would have it, the second-place side hosts the leaders on Tuesday, needing three points to qualify automatically.

Andre Silva completed the scoring four minutes from full-time.

Switzerland 5-2 Hungary

Steven Zuber scored twice in Switzerland’s 5-2 rout of Hungary, to go with individual tallies from Granit Xhaka, Fabian Frei and Stephan Lichtsteiner.

Elsewhere in UEFA WCQ

Group A

Sweden 8-0 Luxembourg

Group B

Faroe Islands 0-0 Latvia

Group H

Gibraltar 0-6 Estonia
Cyprus 1-2 Greece

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.

Judge rules players not guilty in match-fixing case in Spain

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MADRID — The 36 players on trial in Spain’s most high-profile match-fixing case were cleared of wrongdoing on Monday.

A Spanish judge issued the “not guilty” verdict, saying there was not enough evidence to convict the players and others on trial – including former Mexico coach Javier Aguirre.

More than 40 people were accused of match-fixing involving the Spanish league game between Levante and Zaragoza at the end of the 2010-11 season.

The judge convicted two former Zaragoza officials of fraud – then-president Agapito Iglesias and club director Javier Porquera. They were given a one-year, three-month prison sentence, although they were not likely to face jail time because sentences of less than two years for first-time offenders are often suspended in Spain.

Those accused were facing two years in prison and a six-year soccer ban.

Among the players on trial were Ander Herrera, now with Paris Saint-Germain; former Leicester midfielder Vicente Iborra; former Atletico Madrid captain Gabi Fernandez; River Plate midfielder Leonardo Ponzio; Serbian defender Ivan Obradovic; Lazio forward Felipe Caicedo; Itailan defender Maurizio Lanzaro; and Uruguay striker Cristhian Stuani.

Aguirre was Zaragoza’s coach at the time. He was among those who appeared in court to testify.

The investigation began after Spanish league president Javier Tebas denounced the alleged match-fixing, saying a former player told him a result had been fixed.

Prosecutors said there was evidence 965,000 euros (nearly $1 million) was paid to Zaragoza’s squad and later transferred to Levante’s players to lose the match in the final round of the season. Zaragoza won 2-1 to avoid relegation. Deportivo La Coruna was demoted as a result.

Former Zaragoza officials said the money was paid to motivate players, not fix the result of the game.

Prosecutors said players on both teams were aware of the match-fixing and there was evidence the money was transferred to Levante players after analyzing tax reports and banking transactions at the time.

The judge said in his ruling “there were was no evidence the money was given to Levante players to lose the match.”

A lower court had shelved the case but it was reopened last year after an appeal by prosecutors in Valencia, where Levante is based and where the match was played.

Zaragoza returned to the second division in 2014. Levante is currently in Spain’s top league.