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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.

[ MORE: International wrap

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.

Report: Pep Guardiola affirms commitment to Man City

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According to a report by Sky Sports journalist Kaveh Solhekol, Pep Guardiola has met with the Man City players as a squad and affirmed his commitment to the club despite future uncertainty thanks to Financial Fair Play sanctions handed down by UEFA on Saturday.

For FFP violations, the club was banned from the Champions League for two years and handed a hefty fine, but the punishments will not be certain until after Man City’s appeal of the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. There are even still questions about whether the club’s status in Premier League play could be affected.

[ MORE: Man City punished | Key takeaways, questions ]

Plenty of clouds hover over Man City’s future, and one of them is the standing of manager Pep Guardiola who could theoretically decide to leave if the club’s Champions League ban remains intact after appeal. Guardiola’s contract expires in the summer of 2021, leaving room for movement.

The Spaniard reportedly met with players and told them, “Whatever league we are in, I will still be here. Even if they put us in League Two, I will still be here. This is a time for sticking together.” Club CEO Ferran Soriano went one step further, assuring this would all blow over and that the appeal will be successful. “Trust me like I trust you, this will be dropped,” Soriano reportedly said.

To follow Solhekol’s report, BBC journalist Simon Stone also reported that Guardiola is telling his close confidants that he will remain committed to the club.

The aim is likely to convince players to stick with the club despite any future sanctions, but the message could still be received as a mixed message. At 49 years old, Guardiola is already one of the world’s most heralded managers, and two years leading a cash-infused club like Man City outside Europe’s greatest competition could be easy to swallow. For top players who typically see a solid career last 10-14 years, two prime seasons outside of Champions League play could be viewed as an enormous missed opportunity.

[ MORE: Mikel Arteta talks Man City ban ]

Players like Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane, and Fernandinho will be entering the last years of their Manchester City contracts next season. Meanwhile, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, and John Stones all have contracts that expire no later than the summer of 2023 and could look to continue for a way out to maintain Champions League experience through the primes of their careers.

UCL Tuesday preview: Liverpool visits Atletico, Dortmund hosts PSG

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After what feels like AGES, the Champions League is back, and the opening pair of first-leg fixtures could be potential classics.

Knockout stage play begins on Tuesday in the Round of 16 as reigning title-winners Liverpool visit Atletico Madrid while Borussia Dortmund hosts Paris Saint-Germain, as both matchups are dripping with possible fireworks.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

For both Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, the Champions League games are the most important remaining fixtures left on the schedule, but for very different reasons. The Reds are 25 points clear atop the Premier League table, and while the players will never admit it, the top flight is all but won and the true focus now shifts to defending its European crown. For Atleti who sit 13 points behind Barcelona in the La Liga table, are out of the Copa del Rey, and continue to struggle creating chances, the Champions League appears to be Diego Simeone’s last stand in what is otherwise a lost season.

To make matters worse for the Mattress Makers, there are reports that teenage sensation Joao Felix will be unavailable for the match due to illness, leaving the hosts already a step behind at the Wanda Metripolitano. The 20-year-old has been underwhelming in his first season after becoming the Atletico Madrid record signing at $147 million, but the heavy attacking weight on his shoulders hasn’t helped and his presence will nonetheless still be sorely missed.

Atletico has scored just 25 league goals this season, good for joint-12th in the league, on an expected goals tally of around 37. In comparison, Liverpool has blitzed the Premier League with 61 goals on an xG of 59.3. Atletico’s defense has been its usual stellar self, just 17 goals all year long in La Liga play, but they have made a habit of conceding goals at the worst possible times and have struggled to pick up the slack of a slumping attack.

[ MORE: Former PSG attacker Weah injured again ]

Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain will bring its fully potent attack to Germany as Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are in the squad to face Dortmund and expected to play. The pair had missed the weekend draw with Amiens in Ligue 1 play to get them ready for the Champions League, which PSG has publicly targeted for years as its coveted competition. Neymar’s inclusion is specifically of note for PSG as he had missed the last three league matches with a bruised rib.

The French side will need all its available firepower to counter a Dortmund attack that is white hot, with Jadon Sancho in electric form. Dating back to the return from the November international break, Sancho has scored in 11 of the club’s 14 games across all competitions. All three of the games Sancho did not score in, the club lost – two in Bundesliga play to Hoffenheim and Bayer Leverkusen and one against Werder Bremen in the DFB-Pokal. However, Dortmund has also struggled mightily at the back, resulting in near-weekly shootouts to stay alive in the Bundesliga title race. Since a mid-December 3-3 draw with RB Leipzig, Dortmund has conceded three or more goals four times across all competitions.

Even PSG has been questionable at the back of late, failing to keep a clean sheet in three straight Ligue 1 matches including the draw with Amiens this weekend that required PSG to come from a 3-0 deficit. With all that attacking firepower and defensive frailties, the game at Westfalenstadion could be a barnburner.

Round of 16 Champions League schedule:

2/17 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Atletico Madrid v. Liverpool
Borussia Dortmund v. Paris Saint-Germain

2/18 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Atalanta v. Valencia
Tottenham Hotspur v. RB Leipzig

2/25 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Chelsea v. Bayern Munich
Napoli v. Barcelona

2/26 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Lyon v. Juventus
Real Madrid v. Manchester City

Report: Joao Felix unavailable against Liverpool

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Atletico Madrid is facing a defining moment of its 2019/20 season as Liverpool visits the Wanda Metripolitano on Tuesday in Champions League Round of 16 action. In such an important match, the Spanish side may be without one of its most creative attacker.

According to a report by Goal.com, Joao Felix will not be available as he has been struck down by tonsillitis, missing training on Monday. Felix has not played since picking up a muscle problem on January 26, and while he has mostly recovered from that injury, his unavailability for training means he is not able to fully prove fit to play, so between that and the illness itself, he has been ruled out.

The 20-year-old moved to Atletico Madrid this summer for a whopping $147 million, and while fans have had high hopes for the Portuguese youngster, he has flopped in his first season in Spain. Still, despite his struggles to carry the entire Atleti attack on his shoulders, Felix remains one of the club’s best attackers playing alongside true striker Alvaro Morata, and his presence will be missed in what is already an anemic attack.

Atleti is 13 points back of leaders Barcelona, sitting fourth in the La Liga table. The side is also out of the Copa del Rey, shocked in late January by third-tier side Cultural Leonesa. The Champions League is Diego Simeone’s last chance to salvage something positive from an otherwise struggle-filled season.

Atleti is also without midfielder Hector Herrera who is also suffering from an illness, while Kieran Trippier continues to recover from a groin injury.

Lacazette thanks Arteta, Arsenal teammates for support

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Alexandre Lacazette‘s 95th minute goal to finish off a 4-0 victory over Newcastle may seem meaningless, but to him it meant the world.

The 28-year-old Frenchman snapped a 10-match goalless streak across all competitions when he found the back of the net for the first time since a Champions League match on December 12. In total, Lacazette had been on the field for nearly 470 minutes without scoring before his goal in the final seconds against Newcastle.

“It has been really hard and complicated,” Lacazette said of his goal drought. “Sometimes I had some games with no chances, sometimes I missed or the goalkeeper saved it. Of course for a striker it is always hard to not score, but it happens in football. Hopefully it is the last time for me.”

However, Lacazette says both new manager Mikel Arteta and his teammates were supportive during the time he struggled to find the back of the net.

“He [Arteta] talked with me to give me confidence. I am really, really happy because I waited for this moment for a long time.  I am touched as well because of the way all my team-mates reacted when I scored that goal.  It means a lot to me and a lot for the spirit we have in the team. This is good.”

Arteta kept faith in Lacazette for much of his goal drought, starting in seven straight Premier League matches between late December and early February, but he was dropped for the Newcastle game for Eddie Nketiah, only coming on for the final five minutes when he found his moment. Lacazette confirmed that Arteta spoke to him about the match decision, saying “he explained it well” before pausing to say he cannot go into more details about the conversation.

Arsenal is on a six-game unbeaten streak in league play and eight overall, without losing since a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea at the Emirates on December 29.