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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.

MLS roundup: Timbers end road trip with emphatic win in Philly

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in MLS…

[ MORE: USA topped by Ukraine in U-20 World Cup opener ]

Philadelphia Union 1-3 Portland Timbers [ HIGHLIGHTS ]

Just when everyone had begun to take the Union seriously — to give them the respect befitting a first-place team — Jim Curtin’s side fell flat on its face and fell out of the Eastern Conference’s top spot. Saturday’s defeat to the suddenly streaking — and homeward bound — Timbers snapped Philadelphia’s six-game unbeaten run (four wins).

24-year-old attacker Brian Fernandez, signed as a Designated Player earlier this month, made his first MLS start and marked the occasion with two first-half goals (31st and 36th minutes). Diego Valeri added the third (87th) after Kacper Przybylko pulled the Union back to 2-1 in the 47th.

Now, with 14 points from their 12-game road trip to start the season, Portland heads home for 17 of their final 22 games to be played inside a newly renovated — and expanded — Providence Park. The gap between themselves and a Western Conference playoff place is just four points.

New England Revolution 1-1 D.C. United [ HIGHLIGHTS ]

With the Union slipping up and dropping all three points, D.C. United made the most of their opportunity to return to the top of the East on the back of Wayne Rooney‘s 90th-minute penalty kick to snatch a 1-1 draw with (what will soon be) Bruce Arena’s Revolution.

Juan Agudelo put the home side ahead with a header in the 61st minute, and the lead held firm for nearly the final half-hour. Alas, video review reviewed a handball late in the game, which presented Rooney the chance to play the part of hero. He duly obliged and hammered his spot kick past backup goalkeeper Brad Knighton, who replaced Matt Turner following his 56th minute red card for cleaning out Rooney.

Arena is expected to take charge of Revs training this week and make his debut as head coach next Sunday, when his new side visits… his old side, the LA Galaxy.

Colorado Rapids 3-2 Columbus Crew SC [ HIGHLIGHTS ]

Don’t look now, but the Rapids have won two straight games under interim head coach Conor Casey and appear set on clawing their way out of the league’s basement.

Sure, they blew a pair of leads at home, but they also hit back with another goal of their own every time Crew SC drew level, culminating in a stunning winner from Nicolas Mezquida.

The gap between Colorado and 23th place is now just three points, as expansion side FC Cincinnati come closer and closer on the horizon.

Elsewhere in MLS

Chicago Fire 1-1 New York City FC [ HIGHLIGHTS ]
Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 FC Dallas [ HIGHLIGHTS ]
FC Cincinnati 0-2 New York Red Bulls [ HIGHLIGHTS ]
Minnesota United 1-0 Houston Dynamo [ HIGHLIGHTS ]

Sunday’s MLS schedule

Sporting Kansas City v. Seattle Sounders — 6 p.m. ET
Toronto FC v. San Jose Earthquakes — 7:30 p.m. ET

Will winning the double be enough to keep Kovac at Bayern?

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BERLIN (AP) Niko Kovac is the first to win a domestic double in Germany as a player and coach, yet it may not be enough to keep his job as Bayern Munich coach.

[ MORE: Valencia end Barcelona’s four-year hold on Copa del Rey ]

Kovac, whose side defeated Leipzig 3-0 in the German Cup final on Saturday, a week after clinching the Bundesliga title, is yet to be given assurances in public from the club that he will remain in charge, despite bringing a successful end to what had been a testing season.

The pressure and uncertainty appeared to cast a shadow on what was Kovac’s second successive German Cup win — he was Eintracht Frankfurt coach when the side defeated Bayern in the final last year.

“Last year I was leaving the team. This year everything is a little less emotional, no tears, but still, I’m happy,” Kovac said.

“Sometimes I would really wish that things went a little differently. It’s difficult to turn the wheel back. We should all work on it, we’re all human. We should make sure that we get along with each other.”

[ U-20 WORLD CUP: Ezequiel Barco’s golazo paces Argentina to big win ]

Kovac, who won the double as a player in 2003, acknowledged the cup win on Saturday was “very important” as “it shows that we have worked well.”

Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was again coy when pressed on the coach’s future.

“At the end of the day, we have to get titles. Of course the coach plays a central role,” Rummenigge said. “It was never an issue for us with the term that he has until 2021, that he would simply not be there anymore as coach beforehand.”

John Terry is a finalist for the vacant Middlesbrough job

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In a matter of just a few days’ time, John Terry could be named the new manager of side Middlesbrough.

[ MORE: Valencia end Barcelona’s four-year hold on Copa del Rey ]

According to a report from the Guardian, Terry is being considered as one of three finalists, alongside former Fulham boss Slavisa Jokanovic and former Boro defender (and current first-team coach) Jonathan Woodgate, for the EFL Championship side’s vacant job.

Terry has reportedly spoken to the Boro hierarchy in recent days, and chairman Steve Gibson is expected to make a final decision over who will replace Tony Pulis following the weekend. Boro spent the entirety of the 2018-19 season jostling for a place in the promotion playoffs, but finished seventh and missed out by a single point.

After announcing his retirement from playing in October, Terry was named assistant coach on Dean Smith’s staff at Aston Villa, where he has remained throughout the season and will do so through Monday’s promotion playoff final against Derby County.

[ U-20 WORLD CUP: Ezequiel Barco’s golazo paces Argentina to big win ]

Jokanovic led Fulham to promotion last season before he was fired in November as the Cottagers appeared headed for an immediate relegation back down to the Championship, which ultimately came to pass.

Woodgate came through the Boro academy and played for the club on two occasions, 2006-2007 and again from 2012-2016. He was named a member of Steve Agnew‘s coaching staff in March 2017, less than a year after ending his playing days.

German Cup: Bayern Munich complete double by beating Leipzig

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BERLIN (AP) Captain Manuel Neuer returned from six weeks out injured to help Bayern Munich complete a domestic double after beating Leipzig 3-0 in the German Cup final on Saturday.

[ MORE: Valencia end Barcelona’s four-year hold on Copa del Rey ]

Robert Lewandowski scored twice and Kingsley Coman grabbed the other as Bayern claimed a record-extending 19th cup win to make up for the disappointment of losing last year’s final to Eintracht Frankfurt.

Bayern coach Niko Kovac, who was in charge of Frankfurt at the time, boosted his chances of keeping his job in Munich after bringing a successful end to what had been a testing season.

Neuer, who missed Bayern’s Bundesliga triumph the week before due to a calf injury, produced two stunning saves in either half when a goal for Leipzig might have been decisive.

Neuer somehow denied Yussuf Poulsen’s header from close range in the 11th minute, when the ball crashed back off the crossbar, and got the better of Emil Forsberg in a one-on-one after the break, when the Swedish midfielder should have equalized.

“You couldn’t write a better script,” Neuer said.

Lewandowski opened the scoring with a header in the 29th, Coman doubled the lead in the 78th after Forsberg’s miss, and Lewandowski wrapped it up with a chip over the goalkeeper in the 85th.

[ U-20 WORLD CUP: Ezequiel Barco’s golazo paces Argentina to big win ]

Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery went on late to make their last appearances for Bayern after 10 and 12 seasons respectively. Ribery became the only player to play in eight German Cup finals.

“They delivered a lot for the team and the club,” Lewandowski said. “We have to be grateful.”

Leipzig was appearing in its first, and had been hoping to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its founding date with a win. Thousands of fans made the relatively short journey from Saxony to cheer their side, though they found themselves outnumbered by Bayern fans at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, which hosts German soccer’s showpiece every year.

“It’s a huge disappointment,” Leipzig chairman Oliver Mintzlaff said. “When you come here, you want to win.”

The supporters had been warming up for hours before the encounter, downing beers and singing songs at various locations in the city before making their way to the game. Fans who arrived on chartered buses lit barbeques and shared crates of beer by the side of the road.

Leipzig coach Ralf Rangnick, the sporting director who took charge of the team on an interim basis before Julian Nagelsmann arrives from Hoffenheim, started with his strongest team, with American Tyler Adams lining up beside Kevin Kampl in midfield.

Leipzig looked sharper, fresher and quicker at the start, but one lapse was all Lewandowski needed to open the scoring. David Alaba whipped the ball in toward the penalty spot, where Lewandowski had too much space to head inside the left post.

Coman displayed a fantastic first touch to control the ball past the helpless Peter Gulacsi for Bayern’s second, and Lewandowski ensured the result was emphatic when he claimed his competition-leading seventh goal. Lewandowski was booked for removing his shirt in the celebrations, but he accepted the yellow card with a smile.

“We worked hard for the whole season. In the end you could say it was a good season for us,” the Polish striker said.