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Score predictions for 2018 World Cup playoffs

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Just nine places are up for grabs ahead of the 2018 World Cup and six of those spots will be decided by the winners of two-legged playoffs.

The other three spots will be sewn up in the final round of games in the African (CAF) qualifying region.

Four playoffs take place around the UEFA region this week, while Honduras do battle with Australia and Peru square off with New Zealand for a place in the tournament in Russia next summer.

Below is a look at the six playoffs over the new few days with a score prediction and winner selected for each series.


UEFA

Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland (First leg, Nov. 11; Second leg, Nov. 14)
Ireland are the slight favorites here, especially given the fact that they have vast experience in these playoff situations and also that they play the second leg at home in Dublin. That said, Denmark must not be underestimated with Christian Eriksen pulling the strings and Kasper Schmeichel organizing the defense. Ireland’s ability to grind out results is impressive and I think they’ll just get the job done to qualify for their first World Cup since 2002. 2-1 on aggregate to the Republic of Ireland.


Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland (First leg, Nov. 9; Second leg, Nov. 12)
The first leg is so key in this game. Northern Ireland’s supporters create one of the best atmosphere’s in world soccer on the international stage and Windsor Park will be rocking in Belfast. Scoring goals could be an issue for Michael O’Neill’s side but they have a solid defensive core and the experience of Jonny Evans and Steven Davis is key. That said, the Swiss won nine of their 10 qualifying games but lost out on automatic qualification on goal difference to Portugal. Xherdan Shaqiri, Breel Embolo and Haris Seferovic will be the danger men and Switzerland may have just too much firepower for Northern Ireland. 3-1 on aggregate to Switzerland.


Croatia vs. Greece (First leg, Nov. 9; Second leg, Nov. 12)
A huge clash as regional rivals do battle. Given the quality of their squad, Croatia should ease past Greece. But given their stubborn displays in recent major tournaments, we all know how tough this Greek side can be to break down. Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic will be the key men for Croatia and they’ll look to end Greece’s hopes in Zagreb in the first leg. Kostas Mitroglou is Greece’s main man up top and he will give Dejan Lovren a tough time over two games. 4-1 to Croatia on aggregate.


Sweden vs. Italy (First leg, Nov.10; Second leg, Nov. 13)
This will be a tight, tense series between two teams who love to defend. The first leg in Stockholm will be all about Italy defending and trying to hit the Swedes on the break with the likes of Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne. Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen aren’t the most prolific of strikers on the international stage (any chance of a comeback, Zlatan!?) but Sweden finished above the Netherlands in qualifying for a good reason and impressed in their recent home win against France. This is not a vintage Italy side and Gianluigi Buffon will be a little concerned that his international career may finish on a low. The upset is on. 2-1 to Sweden on aggregate. 


ASIA-CONCACAF

Honduras vs. Australia (First leg, Nov.10; Second leg, Nov. 15)
The first leg in San Pedro Sula will be an eye-opener for the Socceroos who edged past Syria in extra time over two legs to set up this clash with CONCACAF’s fourth-place team, Honduras. Tim Cahill is struggling with an injury for Australia with Aaron Mooy and Mile Jedinak set to play in central midfield and scrap it out ahead of the second leg in Sydney. Honduras will be hoping to take a lead to Australia with them for the second leg and with the vast experience of Maynor Figueroa and Boniek Garcia, they will stay calm and look to feed off the incredible home crowd. 3-2 to Honduras on aggregate.


CONMEBOL-OCEANIA

New Zealand vs. Peru (First leg, Nov.11; Second leg, Nov. 15)
There’s no doubt that Peru are the heavy favorites for this game but the All Whites, led by a talented young coach in Anthony Hudson, will look to keep it tight and play direct to Burnley’s Chris Wood up top. Winston Reid will skipper New Zealand and lead the defense by example in Wellington during the first leg. As for Peru, well, they impressed mightily in CONMEBOL qualifying and came agonizingly close to sealing World Cup qualification (for this first time since 1982, no less) automatically. Jefferson Farfan and Andre Carrillo will be the danger men in attack as Ricardo Gareca’s men will relish taking New Zealand back to Lima for the second leg. 3-1 to Peru on aggregate.

Pique: Copa-losing Barca still “really hurting” from UCL exit

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Barcelona was the favorite to win La Liga, the UEFA Champions League, and the Copa del Rey for the majority of the season, but only claimed one.

Liverpool’s amazing comeback to beat Barca in the second leg of the UCL semifinals met Saturday’s loss to Valencia in the Copa del Rey Final to give Barca a league title alone.

[ MORE: Real, Chelsea debate Hazard fee ]

Even with that La Liga advantage being decisive — Barca carried the table by 11 points over Atletico Madrid and finished 19 ahead of Real Madrid — there’s a very dour mood and promised change for the Camp Nou set.

And Gerard Pique says it all traces back to the loss against Liverpool. From The Liverpool Echo:

“I believe that if we had gotten through at Liverpool, we would have won the treble. We would have come here [to the Copa del Rey final] with a different mood, and I’m convinced we would have won the Champions League final, but that is football. We are really, really hurting.”

There are hints of a massive clear-out at Barcelona, with Lionel Messi and Pique two of the only safe bets to stay. When will Barca get over it?

Brazilian team tangles in locker room futmesa (video)

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It was defense versus attack in the Brazil dressing room.

Neymar and Gabriel Jesus squared off with international teammates Filipe Luis and Ederson in a game of futmesa/table soccer this week.

[ MORE: Real, Chelsea debate Hazard fee ]

Neymar and Filipe Luis are used to be on different sides of the field from their time in La Liga, while Jesus and Ederson are teammates at Manchester City.

Brazil is hosting this summer’s Copa America and is the favorite to win its first tournament since 2007, when it claimed its fourth in five tries.

It’s really impressive stuff for us normal to subpar athletes, even if standard for those with such deft talent.

Quite a winner from Man City’s young striker.

Jovic could see himself in Premier League, Serie A

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Maybe Luka Jovic’s presumed move to Real Madrid won’t happen this summer.

Or at all.

[ MORE: Real, Chelsea debate Hazard fee ]

The Eintracht Frankfurt striker has been tipped for a move away from the Bundesliga after another strong campaign, and taking the center forward reins from Karim Benzema at Real Madrid.

Several outlets reported the deal as done, but Jovic isn’t speaking that way (or at least the Serbian is throwing us off the scent.

From Goal.com:

“In terms of the physique, the Bundesliga is very demanding, but after the games against Chelsea or Inter Milan, I personally had the feeling that I could feel even better [playing] in the Premier League or Serie A. … The way the teams play there suits me better.”

Jovic scored 27 times in 48 appearances for Frankfurt, adding seven assists at the tender age of 21. Ten of those came in the Europa League, and we’re not talking about flooding the nets of minnows; Jovic scored against Chelsea (twice), Marseille (three), Lazio (two), and Inter Milan (once).

Report: Chelsea, Real $38M apart on Hazard

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How much for Hazard?

Real Madrid are willing to pay $127 million, no small fee, to bring Eden Hazard from Chelsea, but that’s well off the Blues’ evaluation according to Sky Sports.

Chelsea sees Hazard’s price as $165 million. Belgian writer Kristof Terreur told Sky that Hazard wants his future sorted by June 4.

[ MORE: Bayern wins double ]

The Blues’ superstar is entering the final year of his contract, and could begin negotiating with other clubs in January and leave on a free transfer.

Hazard turns 29 in January. He recorded 19 goals and 16 assists in 51 matches this season, his best output in a Blues uniform.

The report says Chelsea feels no pressure to sell Hazard, but it would be a surprise if it dug in its heels too deeply considering the state of the Belgian’s contract.

Even for Chelsea, letting over $100 million walk out the door is wild, and for all Hazard’s won with Chelsea there’s also been consternation under several managers and a more than occasional habit of disappointing on the table.