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Beyond the glitz, France has problems to solve before World Cup

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PARIS (AP) France’s attacking soccer can be compared to an All-Star basketball game: showy moves, flashy individual skill and outstanding finishing.

Up front France boasts Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, two of the world’s three most expensive players, and the 2016 European Championship’s top scorer in Antoine Griezmann.

When everything comes together, it’s a joy to watch but, behind the glitz, France has significant problems to resolve before its World Cup campaign begins on June 16.

As Euro 2016 runner-up, France will rightly be considered among the favorites in Russia. But rivals will marvel at the ease with which Colombia pierced France’s feeble defense and overran its tentative midfield on Friday. Trailing 2-0, Colombia rallied to win 3-2 in a tactical master class of positional switches and pressing which flummoxed France coach Didier Deschamps.

France showed similar frailties against World Cup winner Germany in November, twice squandering the lead in a 2-2 draw. Both times, France fluffed chances because of some complacent finishing – trying to score highlight-reel goals – and was then ruthlessly punished.

It is particularly worrying for Deschamps, who places high importance on tactical discipline, commitment, leadership and risk-free defending. Those were hallmarks of France’s triumphant teams at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 tournaments – with the combative midfielder Deschamps as captain – but they were missing against Colombia on Friday.

“We have to do more in terms of attitude, energy and playing with more heart,” France captain Hugo Lloris said. “We have to give more.”

In adding that Colombia “maybe has less talent but is a real team” Lloris highlighted the glossy veneer and soft underbelly of his side.

Striker Olivier Giroud criticized a lack of “aggression and determination,” adding it was important to understand why France was missing such “crucial values.”

Deschamps has another friendly, away to Russia on Tuesday, before he names his 23-man World Cup squad. He will then have three matches left to iron out evident flaws in his side, including a lack of leadership, lapses of concentration in defense, and a misplaced sense of superiority when dominating games.

“When things are going well, we’re capable of doing very good things. When things get tense we’re a lot more vulnerable,” Deschamps said. “It’s also a question of character, perhaps we are too self-satisfied and the highest level doesn’t forgive that.”

France’s second-half capitulation against Colombia was not just tactical; it was also because Les Bleus had no leader to spark a response.

France’s long-standing captain is goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. While there is no doubt over Lloris’ position as No. 1 – the Tottenham goalie is among the most consistent in the Premier League and has nearly 100 international caps – his position on the field works against him in communicating with his team.

Lloris has long been considered too soft-spoken and lacking enough of a vocal presence. Deschamps complained his side lacked aggression against Colombia, and he may question why he’s sticking with Lloris as captain when he is anything but aggressive, both in his body language and communication.

France plays such scintillating attacking football that its defenders must sometimes be tempted to put their feet up and admire it. Unfortunately, at times they seem to do just that.

Deschamps is still trying to decide on his best center back pairing: Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane alongside either Barcelona’s Samuel Umiti or Arsenal’s 50-cap veteran Laurent Koscielny. He went with Varane and Umtiti against Colombia and it was thoroughly unconvincing.

Forward Luis Muriel regularly got behind Varane, and Umtiti clumsily gave away a late penalty, from which Colombia made it 3-2.

But bringing Koscielny back in won’t solve everything, either. While he is a fine reader of the game, and one of the best ball-playing center halves around, Koscielny has a habit of giving away penalties and his man-marking can be poor.

Right backs Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Pavard are attack-minded but so are left backs Layvin Kurzawa and Lucas Digne. Against Colombia, Sidibe and Digne raced forward almost at will, leaving gaping holes behind them for Colombia to exploit.

With N'Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi, the last position Deschamps should worry about is midfield.

However, Pogba has fallen out of favor at Manchester United and looks out of form. Against Colombia, Deschamps paired Kante and Matuidi as holding midfielders in a 4-4-2 formation, but they were at times completely overrun when Colombia countered on the break.

A 4-3-3 formation – Kante holding with Pogba and Matuidi either side – appears to offer more protection. But Pogba’s tactical indiscipline means he often drifts out of position and, while he’s among the world’s most expensive players, Deschamps may be better off using him as a substitute.

Instead, Deschamps could opt for a 4-3-3 with Bayern Munich’s Corentin Tolisso, who is far more disciplined and a crisp passer with a good eye for goal. He scored 14 for Lyon last season, including long-range strikes, and has found the net several times for Bayern. Tuesday’s match against Russia could prove important for Pogba’s chances of starting France’s World Cup opener against Australia.

Europa League: The biggest underdogs, how to watch, start time

Shkendija - Tottenham
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Tottenham Hotspur is hoping Macedonia is a bit kinder than Bulgaria.

A week after Spurs came back from a late deficit to beat 9-man Lokomotiv Plovdiv — a win in which many missed the key moments due to technical difficulties — Tottenham has to beat Shkendija in Tetovo to move within a win of the Europa League group stage.

Shkendija has become a regular participant in either the Champions League or Europa League but has been handled by most name opponents including AC Milan, Red Bull Salzburg, and Partizan Belgrade.

[ MORE: Europa League scoreboard ]

Ay, but here’s the rub: The home legs have all been close in those ties, all 1-0 losses, and this is a one-legged affair with the promise of a visit from either Rostov or Maccabi Haida on Oct. 1.

Mourinho branded Spurs’ schedule a ‘total joke’ but got some relief in a sense when Leyton Orient’s positive COVID-19 tests postponed Tuesday’s short trip across London.

It’s a 2pm ET kickoff on Thursday in Macedonia. Spurs are favored in a big way even away from home, with a Shkendija win paying off +1800 from some bookmakers.

Not bad considering Spurs have the second best odds to win the tournament behind (ducking) Arsenal.

A Shkendija win would not be the biggest upset of the day. Instead of talking about Sporting Lisbon versus Aberdeen or Galatasaray’s tough visit from Hajduk Split, let’s acknowledge the biggest underdogs of the penultimate round before the group stage.

NS Mura +1000 home to PSV Eindhoven

Underdog fun fact: The Slovenian hosts have technically only existed since 2013, having risen from the ashes of ND Mura 05, which itself began in 2005 by picking up the pieces of NK Mura. That club had been around since 1924.

Riga +1100 home to Celtic

Underdog fact: The young Latvian club was put together as a merger of two others and has already beaten CSKA Sofia, Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Copenhagen in single matches during its European life.

Desna Chernihiv +1500 away to Wolfsburg

Underdog fact: Ukrainian side Desna handed West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko his senior debut at the age of 17. Yarmolenko scored four goals in nine appearances before signing for national giants Dynamo Kiev.

Shkendija +1800 home to Tottenham

Underdog fact: Once managed by former German national team striker Thomas Brdaric.

B36 Torshavn +1900 away to CSKA Sofia

Underdog fun fact: The White Tigers of the Faroe Islands have played in 51 European matches, winning just seven. Three of those have come this season.

Locomotive Tbilisi +4400 away to Granada

Underdog fun fact: The Georgian side stunned Russian mainstays Dinamo Moscow to make it this far. Safe to say the bookies don’t see them repeating the feat against La Liga opposition.


How to watch Shkendija – Tottenham + Europa League playoff round streams, start times

When: Wednesday and Thursday
Online: Bleacher Report Live


Europa League playoff round ties

All times ET

Wednesday
Apollon Limassol v Lech Poznan — Noon

Thursday
Ararat-Armenia v Celje — 10 am
KuPS v Suduva Marijampole — 11:30 am
Viktoria Plzen v Sonderjyske — Noon
Fehervar v Stade de Reims — Noon
Rostov v Maccabi Haifa — 12:30 pm
Riga v Celtic — 1 pm
Besiktas v Rio Ave — 1 pm
NS Mura v PSV Eindhoven — 1 pm
Sporting Charleroi v Partizan — 1 pm
Malmo v Lokmotiva Zagreb — 1 pm
Djurgardens v CFR Cluj — 1 pm
Rosenborg v Alanyaspor — 1 pm
CSKA Sofia v B36 Toshavn — 1 pm
FCSB v Slovan Liberec — 1:30 pm
Hapoel Be’er Sheva v Motherwell — 1:30 pm
Shkendija v Tottenham Hotspur — 2 pm
Galatasaray v Hajduk Split — 2 pm
Copenhagen v Piast Gliwice — 2 pm
Granada v Lokomotiv Tbilisi — 2pm
Standard Liege v Vojvodina — 2 pm
APOEL Nicosia v Zrinjski Mostar — 2pm
Sheriff Tiraspol v Dundalk — 2 pm
Sarajevo v Buducnost Podgorica — 2 pm
Klaksvikar Itrottarfelag v Dinamo Tbilisi — 2 pm
Wolfsburg v Desna Chernihiv — 2:15 pm
AC Milan v Bodo/Glimt — 2:30 pm
Basel v Anorthosis Famagusta — 2:30 pm
St Gallen v AEK Athens — 2:30 pm
LASK v DAC Dunajska Streda — 2:30 pm
Legia Warsaw v Drita — 2:30 pm
Floriania v Flora Tallinn — 2:30 pm
HNK Rijeka v Kolos Kovalivka — 2:45 pm
Sporting Lisbon v Aberdeen — 3 pm
Willem II Tilburg v Rangers — 3 pm

Reports: Ajax, Barcelona reach agreement over USMNT’s Dest

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Ronald Koeman couldn’t convince Sergino Dest to represent the Netherlands over the United States, but the Barcelona boss has reportedly talked the Ajax back into choosing the Blaugranas over the Bavarians.

Dest, 19, has been widely linked with Bayern Munich in recent weeks, though Barcelona was also mentioned with the caveat that Koeman would have to sell players to bring others in due to the La Liga outfit’s salary problems.

[ MORE: Mendy to Chelsea analysis ]

Wolves’ pursuit of Nelson Semedo and Atletico Madrid’s move for Luis Suarez may have opened the door for Dest, and multiple reports say Ajax and Barcelona have reached an agreement on a $22 million transfer with another $6 million in incentives in the deal.

Dest was named Ajax Young Talent of the Year last season and is also a member of the 2020 Golden Boy shortlist. He has two goals and six assists in 37 senior appearances for the club after coming through its vaunted academy. He’s also been linked with moves to Juventus and Tottenham Hotspur.

Capped thrice by the United States after the Yanks won a recruitment battle with the Netherlands, Dest went 90 minutes in eight of Ajax’s last 10 Eredivisie matches and came off the bench in their opening two Eredivisie matches of the 2020-21 campaign. That’s likely due to transfer issues.

Dest would become the second American to represent Barcelona on a matchday 18, just missing out on the honor of being first. Barca academy product Konrad de la Fuente signed a contract with the club this summer, and was an unused sub when the Blaugranas beat Napoli in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg on Aug. 8.

 

League Cup: Manchester United wins; West Brom, Watford bounced

League Cup results
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Luton Town made Manchester United work for its spot in the League Cup fourth round, while another lower league side simply ended another Premier League side’s tournament in Tuesday’s FA Cup results.

[ MORE: Mendy to Chelsea analysis ]

West Bromwich Albion is out of the tournament after blowing two leads and losing in penalties at home to Brentford, while West Ham blasted Hull City after an alarming COVID-19 moment and League Two side Newport County dismissed Watford.

Then there’s Tottenham and Leyton Orient, who didn’t even get to play. It’s all in the FA Cup wrap.


Luton Town 0-3 Manchester United

The score line does not tell the story here (aside from, you know, the goal total).

Brandon Williams won a late first-half penalty that Juan Mata smashed home as the Red Devils labored to a win over the Championship’s Hatters.

Marcus Rashford came off the bench to ice the game off a feed from fellow sub Mason Greenwood, who was later assisted by another sub in Bruno Fernandes.

Dean Henderson made an outstanding save in his long-awaited Manchester United senior debut.

The 23-year-old has been United property since he was 14 and has taken loans with four clubs including a highly-celebrated two years with Sheffield United.

Henderson did not have to make a save until the 81st minute, when he made a big stop to keep United on top at Kenilworth Road.

Mata’s goal came in his 200th appearance for the Red Devils. Donny van de Beek made his first Manchester United start in the win.

West Ham United 5-1 Hull City

Andriy Yarmolenko scored twice and set up two others as the Irons showed no ill effects of learning that David Moyes, Issa Diop, and Josh Cullen tested positive for coronavirus (The club says all three are asymptomatic).

Yarmolenko now has nine goals and five assists in just over 1700 minutes with West Ham. He missed 2.5 months with a muscle tear last season.

Sebastien Haller had a brace and Robert Snodgrass scored the other goal as West Ham’s “second string” continues to beat up on lower league competition while awaiting chances off the bench in the PL.

Mallik Wilks had brought Hull within two in the 70th minute only to see Haller and Yarmolenko complete their braces in stoppage time.

League Cup results
West Ham United’s Andriy Yarmolenko (center front) with Felipe Anderson, Haller, and Lanzini (Photo by ALASTAIR GRANT/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Newport County 3-1 Watford

The Hornets had little going for them despite having the better of possession, outshot 12-2 by the time League Two’s Exiles reclaimed their two-goal lead with 25 minutes on the clock.

Adelberto Penaranda came off the bench to score for Watford after the Exiles built a 2-0 lead through Tristan Abrahams and Josh Labadie. Padraig Amond bagged County’s third goal to turn the screws on the former Premier League side.

Stipe Perica sealed Watford’s fate with an 88th-minute red card. The Hornets have a win and a draw in their return to the Championship and will focus on that until the FA Cup.

West Bromwich Albion 2-2 (4-5 pens) Brentford

The Bees couldn’t catch the Baggies in the race for the automatic promotion last season but kept scrapping en route to a pair of equalizers at the Hawthorns on Tuesday.

Brentford made all of its penalties, its fifth sealing the win after Grady Diangana’s effort was saved by David Raya.

Hal Robson-Kanu scored both of West Brom’s goals but answers came from Emiliano Marcondes and Marcus Forss to have it level with 17 minutes left in scheduled time.

Leyton Orient (ppd) Tottenham Hotspur

A raft of positive COVID-19 tests for the hosts put this tie in doubt Monday and we’re still awaiting the plan.

For now, health aside, Spurs are probably quite happy to have day off given a wild fixture list across three competitions which includes a trip to Macedonia for Europa League action on Thursday.


Next League Cup third round fixtures

All times ET

Wednesday
Preston North End v Brighton — 2 pm
Millwall v Burnley — 2 pm
Fulham v Sheffield Wednesday — 2 pm
Stoke City v Gillingham — 2 pm
Chelsea v Barnsley — 2:45 pm
Leicester City v Arsenal — 2:45 pm
Fleetwood Town v Everton — 2:45 pm
Morecambe v Newcastle United — 2:45 pm

Thursday
Bristol City v Aston Villa — 2 pm
Lincoln City v Liverpool — 2:45 pm
Manchester City v Bournemouth — 2:45 pm


League Cup fourth round draw

Lincoln City/Liverpool v Leicester City/Arsenal
Millwall/Burnley v Manchester City/Bournemouth
Brentford v Fulham/Sheffield Wednesday
Fleetwood Town/Everton v West Ham United
Bristol City/Aston Villa v Stoke City/Gillingham
Leyton Orient/Tottenham v Chelsea/Barnsley
Newport County v Morecambe/Newcastle United
Preston North End/Brighton v Manchester United

USMNT learns Nations League dates, says no October friendlies

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CONCACAF’s summer is going to be red-hot as its top sides will scrap multiple times on the road to World Cup qualifying.

In other words, we might see the USMNT meet Mexico twice in a month.

The USMNT, Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica are among the group of sides waiting to see who advances from the postponed first stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. The final round of World Cup qualifying had already been postponed.

It was revealed Tuesday that the quartet will now play the first ever CONCACAF Nations League Finals in June, three months behind schedule and just before the 2021 Gold Cup.

[ MORE: How 7 Americans fared in Bundesliga Wk 1 ]

The Gold Cup was previously postponed to June 10 – July 1 and the draw is set for Monday.

The Nations League semifinals see No. 1 seed Mexico against No. 4 Costa Rica and the No. 2 Catrachos of Honduras meeting the third-seeded USMNT.

A U.S. Soccer Federation release said the move is to put the focus on first stage of qualifying (It also gives all of the participants more time to figure out the pandemic atmosphere if it, as anticipated, reaches into a second year dramatically affecting sporting competitions):

This official competition Finals event will take place in a centralized location in the United States in June 2021. Concacaf will now work with our stakeholders to finalize the location and specific dates for this competition.

Playing this competition in June 2021 will enable the First Round of the Concacaf Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup, which involve 30 Concacaf Member Associations, to take center stage in March 2021.

Concacaf remains in discussions with FIFA to agree a new schedule for the Concacaf Qualifiers which retains the current format.

[ WATCH: Gooch’s solo goal for Sunderland ]

U.S. Soccer also announced that it will not play any matches or train in the October international break, aiming for a November return. That means Christian Pulisic will have even more time to find top form for Chelsea.

General manager Brian McBride says Gregg Berhalter’s group may have an additional December camp with its January camp, which is great news for MLS players hoping to cement their statuses in Berhalter’s mind while the European talent continues to play overseas.

“After extensive conversations about holding a men’s national team camp in October, we ultimately determined the unique challenges created by COVID-19 as it relates to hosting international opponents and getting our players together wouldn’t allow us to move forward,” men’s team general manager Brian McBride said, via the Associated Press. “While we won’t have the team together in this upcoming window, we are making considerable progress for November.”