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Where Premier League promotion hopefuls stand with one match to go

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The second automatic Premier League promotion spot won’t be decided until the final day of the Championship, nor will the last spot in the promotion playoffs nor two relegation slots.

And the match-ups tilt heavily toward those with top-flight aspirations facing clubs fearing the drop.

Call it the haves versus the have-and-hope-to-keeps.

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So, yeah, it’s going to be tense across most of the near-dozen 7:30 a.m. ET encounters

Start here:

AUTOMATICALLY YOURS: Either Cardiff City or Fulham will gain instant promotion to the Premier League, with the Bluebirds controlling their own destiny.

Cardiff vs. Reading
Birmingham City vs. Fulham

There’s an added blow to finishing third, and that’s the slowed momentum or realizing it’s going to take a lot more work. Of the last 15 playoff winners, only five were the third place team in the regular season.

Playoff fates of No. 3 teams
2017 — Reading lost final in penalties to No. 5 Huddersfield Town)
2016 — Brighton lost in the semifinals (No. 4 Hull promoted)
2015 — Norwich City won the playoffs
2014 — Derby County lost final to No. 4 QPR
2013 — Watford lost final to No. 5 Crystal Palace
2012 — West Ham United won the playoffs
2011 — Swansea City won the playoffs
2010 — Nottingham Forest lost in semis (No. 6 Blackpool promoted)
2009 — Sheffield United lost final to No. 5 Burnley
2008 — Hull City won the playoffs
2007 — Derby County won the playoffs
2006 — Brentford lost in semifinals (No. 5 Barnsley promoted)
2005 — Ipswich Town lost in semis (No. 6 West Ham promoted)
2004 — Sunderland lost in semis (No. 6 Crystal Palace promoted)
2003 — Sheffield United lost final to No. 5 Wolves

— PLAYOFF SPOTS: The third-place team will join Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, and the sixth-place team in the playoffs, slated for May 11-26.

Derby County has 72 points, two more than Preston North End and three more than Millwall.

The Rams also have a nine-goal advantage on both in goal differential, so a home draw against 21st place Barnsley would be enough (although the visitors are playing for their Championship lives).

Preston also hosts a relegation-threatened club in Burton Albion, while Millwall entertains a very good, but fate-determined Aston Villa.

— RELEGATION ZONE: Three teams will go down to League One, and Sunderland is the only one assured of the drop.

Here’s how it all looks in the race to avoid 22nd and 23rd.

19. Reading — 43 pts, minus-22
20. Birmingham City — 43 pts, minus-32
21. Barnsley — 41 pts, minus-21
22. Burton Albion — 41 pts, minus-42
23. Bolton Wanderers — 40 pts, minus-36

Aside from Bolton, those teams have all been mentioned as opponents of clubs with plenty at stake. The Wanderers are home to Nottingham Forest.

Reading is away to Cardiff, Birmingham home to Fulham, Barnsley at Derby, and Burton away to Preston.

No club can honestly feel safe with just a point.

Iran warned new law is putting Asian Cup place at risk

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) Iran has been told it could face suspension from the Asian Cup in January over a law interfering in the national soccer federation’s independence.

The Asian Football Confederation says it is “closely monitoring the current issues” with its top-ranked team, and will not tolerate “third-party interference in their member associations.”

The Malaysia-based AFC says Iran’s parliament announced a law “designating the (soccer federation) as a non-government public body and prohibiting the engagement of retired personnel.”

The AFC says it hopes Iran’s soccer body “can maintain its independence and avoid any sanctions” less than two months before the Asian Cup starts in the United Arab Emirates.

Iran, the best Asian team at No. 30 in FIFA’s rankings, plays its opening game Jan. 7 against Yemen in Abu Dhabi. The group includes Iraq and Vietnam.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

UEFA Nations League reaches exciting climax

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It has plunged Germany into renewed crisis, provoked scenes of jubilation in Kosovo and Gibraltar, and set up what could be an exciting week of international soccer in a summer usually bereft of competition for European countries.

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The UEFA Nations League might not have been welcomed by some clubs across the continent – Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp called it “the most senseless competition in the world of football” – but it has generated plenty of intriguing story lines to pique interest in its inaugural year.

The competition has reached its final set of qualifying matches, and results over the next week will determine which teams will feature in a Final Four mini-tournament in June – when the first Nations League champion will be crowned. Currently, France, Belgium, Portugal and Spain are favorites to be the finalists.

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The upcoming matches will also establish which of the lower-ranked teams qualify for the Nations League playoffs, from which one place at the 2020 European Championship will be awarded.

Here’s a look at what’s at stake:

GROUP A1

France, the world champion, has won two of its first three group games and will advance to the Final Four with a win over the Netherlands in Rotterdam on Friday. A victory for the Dutch means they can then qualify by beating – or potentially even drawing with – Germany in the group closer in Gelsenkirchen on Monday.

France has seen four players, including Paul Pogba, withdraw from the squad through injury on Monday.

Germany is last in the group, having collected one point from three games, and is on the brink of relegation to League B featuring Europe’s second-tier nations. Coming after a World Cup where the team failed to get out of the group stage, coach Germany coach Joachim Loew’s decision to stay on in the role is under as much scrutiny as the team’s mettle.

GROUP A2

Iceland has already been relegated after losing its first three games, leaving Belgium and Switzerland – tied on points – to battle for first place. The Belgians have played a game less, so a home win over Iceland on Thursday will leave them three points clear heading into the group decider in Switzerland on Monday.

Belgium is the world’s top-ranked team and will look for revenge for its semifinal loss to France at the World Cup if it does reach the Final Four.

GROUP A3

There is an added emphasis on which of Portugal or Italy advances, considering the team that qualifies from this group will host the Final Four in June. Portugal is the favorite after winning its first two games, without needing Cristiano Ronaldo, and needs only a point away to Italy on Saturday to guarantee first place.

If Italy wins, Portugal can still finish top with a home win on Tuesday over Poland, which has already been relegated after picking up just one point from its first three games.

GROUP A4

Spain looked on course to qualify comfortably from a group also containing England and World Cup runner-up Croatia after beating both teams in its first two games. Losing to England 3-2 in Sevilla last month, in arguably the standout match of the entire group stage so far, has kept things alive.

If Spain loses to Croatia in Zagreb on Thursday, England can finish first with a win over the Croats at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Spain coach Luis Enrique has called up Barcelona left back Jordi Alba for the first time since taking charge of the team after the World Cup.

LEAGUE B

Ukraine became the first country to secure promotion to Group A for the second Nations League, in 2020. Bosnia and Russia are well clear in their groups and need one point from their final matches, against Austria and Sweden respectively, to also ensure promotion.

In the other group in League B, Wales and Denmark are fighting for first place. They meet in Cardiff on Friday, when a Welsh win would guarantee them top spot.

The Nations League also offers a second chance to qualify for the European Championship in 2020. The 16 group winners in Leagues A, B, C and D – or the next best-placed teams who have not already qualified via the European qualifiers starting in March – will progress to the playoffs to compete for the last four qualifying places.

It means the so-called minnows of Europe have something tangible to play for.

LEAGUE C

No teams have won their group so far, though Finland is close after winning its first four games in Group C2 and needs one point from its last two.

In Group C1, Israel and Scotland are batting for first place; in Group C3, Norway and Bulgaria are tied on points with two games left; and in Group C4, there is a three-way fight between Serbia, Montenegro and Romania.

LEAGUE D

In the league containing Europe’s weakest countries, Gibraltar and Kosovo – two of the newest members of UEFA – have claimed their first ever competitive international wins.

Kosovo is top of Group D3, two points clear of Azerbaijan with two games left. Gibraltar is second behind Macedonia in Group D4. Georgia has won Group D1, and Luxembourg and Belarus appear to be fighting for first place in Group D2.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Most popular Premier League jerseys in each US state revealed

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So, this is interesting.

The folks over at soccer.com have revealed the top selling jerseys they ship out in each U.S. state and a few of these may surprise you.

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In a nutshell: the USA is red. The red of either Liverpool or Manchester United.

And while the two bitter rivals clearly have plenty of fans Stateside, so too do Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal.

Remarkably, at least according to shirt sales, reigning champs Manchester City are the most popular team in only one state: New Jersey.

Below is a look at the map in full.


Premier League hire new Chief Executive

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The Premier League has appointed a new Chief Executive.

Susanna Dinnage will take over from Richard Scudamore who has led the PL for the last 19 years and is stepping down in December.

Dinnage was previously employed by media outlet Discovery, where she was most recently the global president of the Animal Planet channel. She previously worked for Channel Five and MTV before being with Discovery over the past 10 years.

The PL confirmed that Dinnage will begin her new role in early 2019 after being chosen by the Premier League nominations committee, which is led by Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck.

Speaking about her new position, Dinnage is excited to led England’s top-flight into a new era.

“I am excited at the prospect of taking on this fantastic role. The Premier League means so much to so many people. It represents the pinnacle of professional sport and the opportunity to lead such a dynamic and inspirational organisation is a great privilege,” Dinnage said. “With the support of clubs and the team, I look forward to extending the success of the League for many years to come.”

Dinnage becomes just the third person to lead the PL since its first season in 1992-93, after Scudamore took over from Rick Parry in 1999.

In its announcement upon hiring Dinnage, the PL also revealed it is now looking for a non-executive Chair as it prepares for Scudamore’s departure by filling two roles.

“The Premier League clubs have already agreed to split his (Scudamore’s) role, with Dinnage becoming Chief Executive, and the search for a non-executive Chair will now commence. The Premier League Nominations Committee comprises: Bruce Buck (Chair), Susan Whelan (Leicester City), Mike Garlick (Burnley), Claudia Arney and Kevin Beeston (both Non-Executive Directors of the Premier League). The Committee is grateful for the assistance provided by Jonathan Smith and colleagues at executive search and leadership advisory firm Spencer Stuart.”