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Five things learned from internationals

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With a plethora of international friendlies taking place across globe on Friday, we learned plenty about where the teams heading to the 2018 World Cup are it in their preparation for the big dance in Russia this summer.

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In case you weren’t scouring the globe at obscene hours to stay in touch with all the action, we were.

Here’s what we learned.


South American teams in fine fettle

CONMEBOL went five for five on Friday with wins for Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Colombia. There is no doubt that South America will once again dominate at the World Cup this summer. Brazil dealt easily with Russia without Neymar as Miranda, Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho scored in the second half as they continue their fine run. Argentina didn’t start Lionel Messi or Sergio Aguero against Italy at the Etihad Stadium but ran out 2-0 winners with goals from Maneul Lanzini (his first for his nation) and Ever Banega getting the job done. Plenty of starters were rested at the 2014 runners up look incredibly strong. Plus, they don’t have to worry about losing out to Chile like they have in the last two Copa America tournaments.

Uruguay’s stars shone against the Czech Republic with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani on target in China, while Colombia’s fine comeback in France stole the show. Trailing 2-0 with 26 minutes gone, Colombia scored two late goals via Radamel Falcao and Juan Quintero to grab the victory in Paris. A fit Falcao will make a huge difference to Los Cafeteros’ chances of getting past the last eight this time out. Peru, who will be at their first World Cup since 1982 this summer, completed a fine showing for the five CONMEBOL teams who qualified the World Cup this summer as they beat Croatia 2-0. For those who are still shocked that Chile won’t be going to the World Cup this summer, these results prove just how strong South America has become.


England mature in 3-4-3 formation

Okay, the 1-0 win in Amsterdam was against a very poor Netherlands outfit who are in transition, haven’t qualified for the last two major tournaments and Ronald Koeman has a massive rebuilding job on his hands. But still, England were extremely impressive. The way Gareth Southgate‘s men moved the ball around in a 3-4-3 formation proved they are developing well and Kyle Walker as a right-sided center back was a revelation. Without the injured Harry Kane, the Three Lions did lack a bit of cutting edge up front but Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford were so dangerous on the break and the main takeaway was the balance of this team and the composure on the ball of the defenders. Jesse Lingard (who scored his first international goal), John Stones, Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford all staked their claims for a starting spot this summer as England are unbeaten in seven games and haven’t conceded in their last five, including the last three against Germany, Brazil and Holland. Whisper it: England could be the darkhorses this summer.


Germany, Spain the real deals

The class of these two teams suggests that they will go far this summer. The reigning World Cup champs equalized through Thomas Muller’s stunning goal after Rodrigo popped up (after Andres Iniesta’s perfect pass) to put Spain ahead early on in a high tempo, high quality encounter. This is just the kind of tune-up both teams needed as Joachim Low and Julen Lopetegui have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal. Both teams were close to full strength and this underlined their status as favorites to win the World Cup this summer. Germany haven’t lost in their last 22 games, while Spain hasn’t lost in 17 as the past two World Cup champs have not only got veterans in fine form but are also bringing through the next wave of talent. Also, Germany have Manuel Neuer to return from injury, while Spain will rely on Diego Costa getting back to his best to spearhead their attack this summer. Still, this was a hugely impressive display from both teams as Spain host Argentina in Madrid next week and Germany play Brazil in Berlin. Those four teams are surely the current favorites to win it all.


Ronaldo remains red-hot as Egypt impress

23 goals in his last 12 games for club and country. 23. Cristiano Ronaldo is in fine form after a slow start to the season where many questioned if he had turned the corner and had entered the final stretch of his legendary career. Not so fast. Portugal’s man main throughout his career, Ronaldo, now 33, popped up twice in stoppage time in Zurich, Switzerland to seal a comeback 2-1 win against an impressive Egypt side. Mohamed Salah (of course) got Egypt’s goal as the Pharaohs look forward to their first World Cup since 1990 and are set to be the darlings of the tournament this summer. Yet Ronaldo spoiled their party on Friday as he scored two bullet headers for the reigning European champs, with the winner looked at by VAR but correctly allowed. Will Ronaldo retire after the World Cup this summer? Portugal will hope he can go on for at least another four years and at this rate he will continue to deliver up until, and during, the 2022 World Cup.


Mexico ticking over nicely

El Tri beat Iceland 3-0 on Friday as an experimental side proved just how strong they are with Juan Carlos Osorio making plenty of changes as Mexico strolled to victory in front of 68,917 fans in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Marco Fabian struck a beautiful free kick in the first half and Miguel Layun added two goals after the break to beat Iceland, with The Vikings heading to its first-ever World Cup this summer as the smallest nation to ever quality. For Mexico, they will be hoping to continue their development under Osorio as the oft-maligned coach has won 30 of his 45 games in charge since taking over in 2015. Not bad, Juan Carlos. El Tri had Javier Hernandez, Hirving Lozano, Hector Herrera and Carlos Vela all on the bench as they will all likely play against Croatia on Tuesday in Texas. For Mexico, their World Cup opener against Germany is their toughest game of the group stage but Osorio must be pleased with the options at his disposal and the performance of goalkeeper Jesus Corona to keep out Iceland, who did create chances with direct play, was impressive. Mexico is humming along nicely as it heads to the World Cup aiming to make the knockout rounds once again.

Toronto FC suspends all supporter groups after Ottawa stadium fire

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The Ottawa police were called and the match halted after flares thrown from the Toronto FC supporter section set fire to the stadium and pitch during a Canadian Cup match between Toronto FC and Ottawa Fury on Wednesday night.

Videos caught the Toronto FC supporters holding and throwing flares around the 72nd minute of the match, but things backfired when their flags accidentally caught fire, followed by parts of the bleachers next to them. One video posted to Twitter (shown below) shows the fans scrambling to put out the blazing flags and the fires in the stands where they are sitting.

Toronto FC announced Thursday afternoon that the club was temporarily suspending all supporter group privileges while they conduct an investigation to root out who is responsible.

“The safety of our fans, employees, and supporters is the highest priority for TFC,” said Toronto FC club president Bill Manning in a statement. “The events which took place in Ottawa last night involving TFC supporters were unacceptable and needlessly put the safety of others at risk.”

Due to the seriousness of this incident, we are left with no choice but to suspend all recognized supporter group privileges indefinitely as we conduct a thorough review TFC’s recognized supporter program. We are cooperating fully with the Ottawa Police Department as they investigate this incident and work to identify those responsible.”

Another video posted from a lower angle shows a player attempting to stamp out a small fire on the field of play when a loud bang comes from the Toronto FC supporter section behind him.

Ottawa Fury released a statement of their own after the match, seemingly downplaying the incident after the flares were smuggled in past security checkpoints.

“Upon seeing smoke and fire, which appeared to be more serious than they were, fans in other parts of the stadium notified Ottawa Police and Ottawa Fire that an incident had occurred and emergency services quickly responded,” the Ottawa Fury statement said. “Upon arrival they confirmed the incident had been resolved and returned to their respective stations.”

“All members of the visiting supporters group had been subjected to bag checks and security scans prior to entering the stadium and no fireworks or other devices were detected. TFC has apologized for the behavior of the members of the supporters group responsible for igniting the fireworks. Ottawa Police have launched an investigation into the incident.”

Canadian media is reporting that the ownership group of the stadium will be fined for allowing the flares to enter the stadium undetected. The match was temporarily halted while the incident was sorted, and the fans were reportedly ejected from the match. The game ended in a 1-0 road victory for Toronto, with the second leg of the semifinal to come.

Scottish club Hearts fields ineligible player in Cup match

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Scottish club Hearts of Midlothian has issued a statement saying they are “embarrassed” after fielding an ineligible player in a League Cup match against 5th-tier semi-pro team Cove Rangers on Wednesday.

18-year-old Hearts youth product Andrew Irving entered in the 65th minute as a substitute for Olly Lee, but was ineligible due to what the club is calling an “administrative error.” Irving, according to the Hearts statement, signed a contract extension back in January but the paperwork was never correctly submitted to the league, hence leaving Irving as unregistered.

“It is with much embarrassment that we have to advise that during last night’s Betfred Cup group stage match away to Cove Rangers, Hearts inadvertently fielded an ineligible player,” Hearts Chief Executive Ann Budge said in a statement on Thursday morning.

“While stringent processes are already in place to try to prevent something of this nature occurring, clearly mistakes can happen.  An additional step in our internal procedures will be implemented immediately to try to ensure this cannot happen again. The club would like to apologize to its supporters, to Cove Rangers Football Club and to the footballing authorities for this inadvertent breach of the rules.”

Since the Scottish League Cup – currently known as the Betfred Cup – has utilized a group stage format the last few years, it is possible that the club will be docked points instead of ejected from the tournament. Previously, clubs such as Brechin, Dunfermline, and East Stirling were all disqualified in the past for similar offenses, according to Mark Donaldson of ESPN. The league will hold a hearing on Monday to determine the appropriate sanctions.

Hearts won the match 2-1 on a 57th minute goal by former Cardiff City, Plymouth, and Rangers striker Steve MacLean.

This is the second incident of this nature of late, as Major League Soccer club LAFC is under investigation for potentially fielding an illegal seven international players in a US Open Cup match against Portland Timbers on Wednesday. As a result, US Soccer postponed the draw for the semifinals until the investigation is complete.

6 clubs fined, risk FIFA transfer bans for debts to players

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ZURICH (AP) Clubs from Russia and Qatar are among six fined by FIFA and warned they risk one-year transfer bans for failing to settle debts to players.

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FIFA says the clubs also face deductions of six league points if they fail to pay the debts in 30 to 90 days.

The clubs are: Kuban of Russia; Al Arabi and Al Kharaitiyat of Qatar; Zamalek of Egypt; Al Jazira of the United Arab Emirates; and Mersin Idman Yurdu of Turkey.

FIFA says all failed to comply with rulings by FIFA or the Court of Arbitration for Sport “to pay significant overdue amounts of money to players.”

They were fined between 15,000 and 30,000 Swiss francs ($15,000 and $30,000).

FIFA says national soccer federations face disciplinary cases if they fail to enforce the verdicts.

Premier League friendlies: Liverpool meets BVB; Everton in Portugal

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The Premier League is three weeks and one day from opening its 2018-19 slate, when Leicester City will visit Old Trafford for a Friday afternoon match with Manchester United.

The end of the World Cup has eyeballs trained on friendlies, with 19 Premier League teams doing work over the weekend.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

The International Champions Cup has a pair of matches on the docket.

Friday sees Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, sans many of their World Cup stars, mixing it up with Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund in Chicago.

Then Sunday will see Borussia Dortmund switching gears and time zones, tangling with Liverpool in North Carolina as Pulisic renews acquaintances with old pal Jurgen Klopp.

Manchester United takes on San Jose on Sunday, two days after facing Club America.

Other marquee friendlies of the weekend include Bournemouth facing American back Shaq Moore and Levante on Friday, with Fulham hosting Lyon on Saturday, and Everton meeting Lille and Porto on consecutive Portuguese days Saturday and Sunday.

Friday

Bournemouth vs. Levante
Burnley vs. Macclesfield Town
Burnley vs. Curzon Ashton
Cardiff City vs Torquay
Manchester City vs. Borussia Dortmund (in Chicago)

Saturday

Brighton and Hove Albion vs. AFC Wimbledon
Crystal Palace vs. Oxford United
Everton vs. Lille
Fulham vs. Lyon
Huddersfield Town vs. Real Betis
Huddersfield Town vs. Roy-Weiss Essen or Werder Bremen
Leicester City vs. Notts County
Southampton vs. Derby County
Watford vs. Fortuna Dusseldorf
West Ham United vs. Preston North End

Sunday

Everton vs. Porto
Huddersfield Town vs. Darmstadt
Liverpool vs. Borussia Dortmund (in North Carolina)
Manchester United vs. San Jose Earthquakes (in Santa Clara)
Wolverhampton vs. TBD