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2018 World Cup dark horses

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Every World Cup has its underdog story. Every World Cup has its rise to glory. Every World Cup has its rags to riches.

Every World Cup has its dark horse.

So who will grace Russia 2018 with a surprise run? Let’s look at the dark horse contenders.

Egypt

Looking solely at the FIFA rankings, Egypt at #45 appears to be perfect dark horse material. Unfortunately, they don’t perfectly fit the mold.

For starters, they have one of the world’s most in-form players in Mohamed Salah. Because we can’t ever have nice things, he was injured in the Champions League final, but his diagnosis of a separated AC joint likely leaves him available to play in the tournament this summer, albeit at less than 100% as he manages a painful injury. Nevertheless, with Salah on the field, Egypt is particularly dangerous on the counter and could light up any defensive back lines not on their A-game. Without him, though, they are toothless as evident by their inability to score in either friendly this past week against Colombia and Belgium.

In addition, their group is so bad that Egypt is almost expected to make it to the knockout stages. Paired with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Uruguay, it would feel disappointing if the African nation didn’t find one of the top two spots. Still, despite falling face-first into pre-tournament expectations, it would still make a great story if Egypt made its first-ever knockout round (since group stage play began in 1950). In fact, Egypt has never won a World Cup match in its history, with two losses and two draws to fall back on.

Morocco

Another overlooked African nation, Morocco finds itself tasked with the opposite issue Egypt faces – they were handed a painfully difficult draw with both Spain and Portugal to navigate through in Group B.

Nevertheless, Morocco should provide the European powerhouses with a stiff test in the group stage. FiveThirtyEight has Morocco ranked 18th in the world, the highest African side in the tournament and higher than other darkhorse candidates like Iceland or Peru. A team that features a high press run-and-gun style of play, Morocco has its Salah-lite in 25-year-old Hakim Ziyech.

Ziyech will give Spain and Portugal back lines plenty to think about as he marauds around the attacking third, but Morocco will need him to reign in the shooting to have a chance against the European giants. As FiveThirtyEight points out, Ziyech’s 202 shot attempts over the past two seasons see him sit nearly fifty shots higher than anyone else in the top five European leagues or the Eredivisie where he plays. His nine goals and 17 assists last season for Ajax are a nice haul and his creativity is invaluable to his country, but wastefulness will prove deadly against Spain or Portugal who are sure to control a heavy percentage of possession.

Peru

Paolo Guerrero is back to business for Peru, a massive boost to the squad (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images).

Paolo Guerrero can play in the World Cup this summer, and that’s all Peruvian fans need to hear to know their team has a chance. The 34-year-old captain is critical to his team’s chances, and after his one-year ban for cocaine use was overturned, Guerrero will be available to lead the attacking front in Peru’s Group C chances. With up-and-coming talent Edinson Flores feeding the captain chances, FIFA’s 11th-ranked country is a dangerous attacking side.

Given a favorable draw, Peru will more than challenge Australia and Denmark for a spot in the knockout stages behind likely group winners France. What makes Peru even more enticing in this World Cup is a potential Round of 16 matchup with fellow CONMEBOL members Argentina, a team they held to a draw in both meetings during World Cup qualifying. Peru has been in the wars, with an experienced side that played out a thrilling 1-1 draw with Colombia on the final day of CONMEBOL qualifying to earn a spot in this summer’s tournament.

The crux of Peru’s knockout stage chances likely hinge on a defense in its prime. 34-year-old Alberto Rodriguez is the grizzled veteran of the group, but alongside him are 28-year-old full-back Luis Advincula and 29-year-old full-back Nilson Loyola, both of whom own over 60 caps each.

Iceland

What would a darkhorse post be without Iceland? This tiny European nation shocked the world with its guts and swagger during a run to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals. The Boys followed that up by topping its UEFA World Cup qualifying group with seven wins in 10 matches.

Again, they have a chance to make history with Group D up for grabs behind Argentina. They will do battle with Croatia and Nigeria, two beatable opponents. They know Croatia well, having faced them twice during UEFA qualifying play in Group I, splitting the pair.

Despite the highs of the last two years, Iceland comes into Russia 2018 in terrible form. They have not won since topping Indonesia in January, a run of four matches with three defeats. Most recently, they crumbled in the 87th minute allowing Ghana to snatch a late 2-2 draw after leading 2-0. Their superstar Gylfi Sigurdsson is also in awful form, coming off a season at Everton that saw him grab just four goals and three assists before missing the final six weeks with a knee injury. Iceland has the mental fortitude to progress past the group stage, but the magic may be running out.

England

Can England win the 2018 World Cup? They still have to prove they are among the world’s elite (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images).

Yep, a curveball to finish this list out. Unlike the previous for teams who all look to be dark horses to make noise by unexpectedly escaping the group stages, England is a dark horse to win the whole darn tournament. Sure they‘re generally considered good by most, but still outside the upper echelon of favorites like Brazil, Germany, and the like, you better put the jokes aside and begin realizing the truth: this England team isn’t just good, they’re great.

England hasn’t lost at all since a run of bad friendlies in late 2017, and they haven’t dropped a single competitive match since its stunning 2-1 loss to white-hot Iceland in Euro 2016. They’ve also looked great in their tournament run-up, beating the Netherlands, Nigeria, and Costa Rica while slumping to a 1-1 draw with Italy on a late Lorenzo Insigne penalty.

The biggest question-mark for England is in net, but if Jordan Pickford can effectively replace Joe Hart in goal, this team could challenge for a semi-final spot, or even more. Raheem Sterling lit up the Premier League last season and has grown leaps and bounds under Pep Guardiola, as has John Stones at the back. Marcus Rashford looks refreshed out of the Jose Mourinho shadow. Harry Kane is among the most in-form strikers in this tournament and has seen his future put to rest with a new contract, leaving one more potential distraction back home.

They’re not there yet, and there are plenty of critics, but a chip on their shoulder might be just what this group needs. If England can put block out the noise surrounding the disappointments of recent World Cups, teams like Spain, Argentina, and the rest of the world giants should take note sooner rather than later.

Sessegnon beats Neuer to score first Spurs, Champions League goal

Photo by Peter Kneffel/picture alliance via Getty Images)Photo by Peter Kneffel/picture alliance via Getty Images)
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Ryan Sessegnon has his first Spurs goal, which also happens to be his first UEFA Champions League goal, and he’ll love telling the tale of it.

The 19-year-old Englishman ripped a rocket past Manuel Neuer of all people, collecting a deflection to equalize early in Tottenham’s match against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Sessegnon entered the day with an assist in 30 minutes spread across three appearances for Spurs, and needed just 20 more minutes to find a goal.

He made a big money move from Fulham this summer, having made a remarkable 120 senior appearances. Almost all of those came before he turned 19, and he’s scored 25 times with 18 assists.

Kingsley Coman has Bayern’s goal as the teams remain locked at 1 after Bayern hung 7 on Spurs in England earlier in the group stage.

 

Jesus hat-trick downs Dinamo Zagreb, Atalanta qualifies for knockouts

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Manchester City looked sluggish again, but Gabriel Jesus made sure it didn’t matter.

The Brazilian cropped up at a critical juncture for Pep Guardiola, sending Manchester City through into the knockout stage on a winning note as his hat-trick sealed a 4-1 come-from-behind victory that knocked Dinamo Zagreb from European competition altogether.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

The first half was especially lackluster for the English visitors to Stadion Maksimir in Zagreb, with lots of possession but little to show for it. The hosts went in front early on, punishing Man City on the counter on a fabulous volleyed finish from former Barcelona youth product Dani Olmo.

That was the best goal of the day, but Man City picked itself up and pulled back level before the break, with Jesus grabbing his first via a header as Dinamo Zagreb shut off, screaming for Man City to put the ball out with a Zagreb player down. The visitors rightly did not, and Dinamo was punished by the equalizer.

After halftime, Man City was much better, hammering the left flank to take a commanding lead. The second came on excellent work by Jesus in the box to shake a defender and finish with his right, while the third flew in minutes later on a pinpoint Benjamin Mendy cross that Jesus met with a flying karate kick. Pep Guardiola had one eye on the festive fixtures, withdrawing Jesus soon after the hour mark, replaced by Oleksandr Zinchenko who curiously took Jesus’s place at the striker position.

Phil Foden was the best Manchester City player throughout, and finished off the scoreline with seven minutes to go. An excellent buildup down the right saw Bernardo Silva sprung through, and he cut back to Foden at the top of the six-yard box who slid to meet the ball with pace and poke home the cherry on top.

Elsewhere, Atalanta topped Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0 in the Ukraine on goals by Timothy Castagne, Mario Pasalic, and Robin Gosens, meaning the Italians secured the second spot in Group A, qualifying for the knockout stage. The Ukranians were left dead in the water after right-back Dodo was sent off 13 minutes from time, leading to the second goal to seal things up. Atalanta’s advancement marks a stunning comeback given the Italian side failed to secure points in any of their first three group stage matches.

That left Shakhtar in third, dropping to the Europa League, while Dinamo Zagreb was left at the bottom of the group, on the outside looking in.

Charlotte MLS club files trademarks for eight potential names

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It is being heavily reported that Charlotte is the next city to earn a club in the rapidly expanding Major League Soccer landscape, and Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper has taken the next step towards that possibility.

The new club needs a name, and they appear to be nearing a selection. Tepper filed for eight different name trademarks, according to multiple reports, including The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue who confirmed the filings were made under Tepper’s Panthers address.

Here is the list of names he filed copyright requests for:

“Charlotte FC” would be a bare-bones and generic name that follows in the footsteps of recent MLS expansion clubs such as Orlando City SC, NYCFC or LAFC. Others are a little more colorful, including “Carolina Gliders FC” or “Charlotte Monarchs FC,” while a few others like “Charlotte Town FC” or “Charlotte Athletic FC” clearly call forth thoughts of smaller English clubs.

Rodrigue speculated that the relative lack of “Carolina” encompassing names is potentially due to the possibility of an expansion bid from Raleigh down the road, and a Carolina team would potentially provide an unnecessary roadblock to that future prospect. There is a clear lack of region-encompassing names in Major League Soccer, with “New England Revolution” the only example, and there’s no real reason to break that mold with another potential bid city down the road.

Which name is your favorite? What would you have gone with if you could name the club?

LIVE, UCL: Two knockout spots remain; Man City, Tottenham in play

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Two more spots in the knockout round remain unclaimed as the final day of group stage play begins on Wednesday.

Groups C and D both require a second team to progress through to the Round of 16, with five teams still in the mix.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

Manchester City has already won Group D, but the remaining three teams Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb, and Atalanta all remain in contention for the second spot. Shakhtar currently sits second and has a home match with Atalanta, while Dinamo Zagreb host Man City in Croatia. Both those games feature in the early 12:55 p.m. ET kickoffs.

Group D, meanwhile, has a pair of sides vying for the last spot. Atletico Madrid has a point advantage, currently sitting in second with a home match against already eliminated Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow. Bayer Leverkusen, meanwhile, hosts group winners Juventus in Germany.

Elsewhere, Tottenham Hotspur has already locked up a spot in the knockout stage, locked into the second spot in Group A, and they finish out the group stage with a visit to confirmed group winners Bayern Munich. Jose Mourinho told the press he forbid his players from watching any footage of the 7-2 defeat to Bayern to begin group stage play, and is resting “a few players” ahead of the festive Premier League fixtures.

Finally, Group A has already been decided with Real Madrid confirmed to finish second behind winners Paris Saint-Germain, but the two still have to complete the fixture list. Madrid heads to Belgium to take on Club Brugge, while PSG hosts Galatasaray. The Spanish side is most likely to rest players, with a weekend visit to Valencia coming up on Sunday followed by a midweek El Clasico that was rescheduled from earlier in the season.

Below is the full schedule for the last UCL games on Wednesday, with all games kicking off at 3 p.m. ET unless otherwise noted, and you can follow the action live by clicking on the link above.


Wednesday Champions League action

Group A

Club Brugge v. Real Madrid
Paris Saint-Germain v. Galatasaray

Group B

Bayern Munich v. Tottenham Hotspur
Olympiakos v. Red Star Belgrade

Group C

Dinamo Zagreb v. Manchester City (12:55 p.m. ET)
Shakhtar Donetsk v. Atalanta (12:55 p.m. ET)

Group D

Atletico Madrid v. Lokomotiv Moscow
Bayer Leverkusen v. Juventus