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UEFA World Cup qualifying playoff preview

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Eight teams remain for four spots in Russia.

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There are some big names in the bunch, including multiple World Cup winners like Italy.

And five of the eight teams advanced from their groups at EURO 2016, including quarterfinalist Italy.

Italy is also one of four playoff teams who went to the 2014 World Cup. Not all will go back, with Greece facing Croatia in one of the playoff ties.

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
First leg – Thursday in Belfast
Second leg – Sunday in Basel

The Swiss were incredibly unfortunate, going 9-1 just like group-winning Portugal but failing to advance on goal differential.

The plucky Northern Irish proved their EURO run was no fluke when they advanced fairly comfortably over third place Czech Republic.

Switzerland will be favored to advance behind its terrific midfield, with Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri, Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, and the Montreal Impact’s Blerim Dzemaili in the mix.

Northern Ireland will line up in from of EURO hero Michael McGovern, who starred in helping the Green and White Army stymy several foes in 2016.

Croatia vs. Greece
First leg – Thursday in Zagreb
Second leg – Sunday in Piraeus

Croatia comes out of a wildly competitive Group I, two points behind Iceland and three points ahead of Ukraine.

Greece needed the final day to edge past Bosnia and Herzegovina after finishing miles behind Belgium.

Croatia is loaded in attack and style, but Greece has traditionally been a squad full of tactically-efficient defenders.

Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
First leg – Saturday in Copenhagen
Second leg – Tuesday in Dublin

The Danes finished five points back of Poland and four ahead of Montenegro in Group E.

Ireland edged Wales for second place in Group D.

Expect this pairing to be as plucky as any of the four ties, with Martin O’Neill’s Irish prepared to make life very difficult for unbeaten-since-Oct. 2016 Denmark.

Sweden vs. Italy
First leg – Friday in Solna
Second leg – Monday in Milan

The Italians lost the Group G lottery, which was always going to come down to the pair of matches between Italy and Spain.

Sweden advanced past Netherlands on goal differential for second in Group A, finishing four points behind France.

Since 1934, Italy has failed to qualify for a World Cup exactly once (1958). Sweden didn’t make it to the last two tournaments despite a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic. There would be a certain ridiculousness to the Swedes making it happen without one of their all-time heroes.

Solskjaer, Mata react to Man Utd draw: “We can play better”

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Manchester United got an away goal in a 1-1 first leg draw with Europa League foes Club Brugge in Belgium on Thursday.

The goals were pretty individual, a big chip of Sergio Romero followed by Anthony Martial’s powerful dribble to equalize for the Red Devils.

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United outshot the hosts 16-10, but fell short in big chances created by a 3-1 margin.

Here’s Red Devils manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, via the BBC:

“It was a game with difficult conditions out there. It was almost like an astroturf. The ball was very quick and lively,” Solskjaer said. “We got the away goal. It was a very good individual goal, worked hard to win the ball and finish so we are happy with that but we know we can play better.”

The second leg is Feb. 27 at Old Trafford, four days after a Premier League encounter with Watford in the same building.

United midfielder Juan Mata had a busy day, winning the majority of his tackles and creating one key pass. He expected better from his team but sees the game for what it is.

Here is Mata, from The Manchester Evening News:

“They scored a goal we shouldn’t concede. We scored a goal from their mistake. we wanted to win, obviously, 1-1 is not a very bad result, but we always want to win,” Mata said. “We just couldn’t find spaces, they defended very well with five plus four. We tried to play a few times through the middle, which we didn’t succeed to do that. Then we scored that goal and from then we played a bit better.”

Solskjaer kept Bruno Fernandes, Fred, Daniel James, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the bench to start the match. Fernandes and Fred came on late.

FC Cincinnati adds Ajax midfielder Siem de Jong

Siem de Jong
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FC Cincinnati got a much-needed bit of good news toward the end of a rough week in Southern Ohio.

Longtime Ajax attacker Siem De Jong has joined a talented FCC attack ahead of the club’s second MLS season.

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De Jong, 31, came up through Ajax’s vaunted academy before transferring to Newcastle United, where he suffered through a series of miserable injuries including two collapsed lungs in 18 months.

He’s been capped six times with two goals for the Netherlands in his career and will join a revitalized Cincinnati attack with Jurgen Locadia and Yuya Kubo.

“The system they want to play is quite similar to the Dutch system, and yeah, Ajax is probably one of the team’s that perfected it,” de Jong said. “Over the years I played there, I’ve learned a lot about this similar philosophy and trying to build up from the back in the Dutch style of play. That was one of the reasons why FC Cincinnati was a good fit for me. Hopefully I can help with the experience I’ve had over the years playing this style of football.”

De Jong scored three times in nine matches this season for Ajax, all of the goals coming in a cup match against third-tier Spakenburg. His other eight matches combined for just 118 minutes.

He may not be with FCC when the season starts as he waits on visa approval.

Man United held at Club Brugge (video)

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Man United were held to a 1-1 draw away at Club Brugge in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League Round of 32 tie as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side battled back from a sloppy start to stretch their unbeaten run to five games in all competitions.

Emmanuel Bonaventure (commonly known as Dennis) scored a beautiful opener to put Brugge ahead but United equalized through Anthony Martial and he also hit the post as the Red Devils looked more dangerous as both teams had chances in a tight, tense encounter.

The two teams met for the second leg at Old Trafford next Thursday, Feb. 27.

[ MORE: Europa League schedule

Brugge almost scored with their first attack as Dennis caused havoc behind Luke Shaw and a combination of Victor Lindelof and Nemanja Matic cleared the ball from danger from close range.

Andreas Pereira fired in a low shot which Simon Mignolet saved well but moments later Brugge were ahead.

Nemanja Matic thought he had won a corner kick but a goal kick was given and former Liverpool goalkeeper Mignolet caught out the entire Man United defense with a long ball over the top to find Dennis who lobbed the ball over a stranded Sergio Romero and in.

Hans Vanaken, Mats Rits and Dennis then all went close to doubling Brugge’s lead as United’s defense was all over the place.

United did draw level before half time as a loose throw-in from Brugge caused their own problems and Martial powered towards goal and calmly slotted home to make it 1-1.

Brandon Williams missed a good chance and Mignolet then pushed Martial’s shot onto the post as United came alive after their opening goal.

In the second half Man United continued to improve as Diogo Dalot‘s cross found Jesse Lingard who flicked wide, while Martial and Juan Mata then combined but Brugge managed to block the danger at the last moment.

At the other end Dennis was denied as Romero saved well down low at the near post and late on Dennis bamboozled Harry Maguire before crossing for Odilon Kossounou who somehow scuffed his shot wide.

Man United finished with a flourish as new signings Odion Ighalo and Bruno Fernandes came on off the bench to try and help the Red Devils grab a winner and although they both looked lively, United couldn’t find a late goal.

VIDEO: Martial scores for Man United v. Club Brugge

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Anthony Martial scored once again for Man United and his goal in the Europa League Round of 32 first leg against Club Brugge was a beauty.

The Frenchman is standing tall in the absence of Marcus Rashford through injury as he has now scored in back-to-back games away from home.

Martial, 24, made the most of a slight defensive mistake from Club Brugge as he powered towards goal and kept his cool to slot home, while he also hit the post in the first half after Simon Mignolet got a slight touch on his curling effort.

When he’s on form he’s a joy to watch and after his towering header against Chelsea on Monday, Martial has done it again a few days later in Belgium. It is the third time this season he has scored in back-to-back games and he has now scored 14 goals in 30 appearances for the Red Devils, his best return since he scored 17 in his opening season at United in 2015-16.

Here is Martial’s goal at Club Brugge, as United need him to kick on and take this tally for the season to at least 20 goals if they are going to be successful.