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2018 World Cup preview: Belgium

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Getting to know Belgium: If there’s a country that needs to validate itself in 2018 it is Belgium. Many nations go through phases of “golden generations” and for the Red Devils, that time is now. In Brazil, Belgium earned its best finish since the 1986 World Cup, when the team reached the quarterfinals. However, expectations have risen further for Roberto Martinez’s side as they approach this summer as one of the tournament’s favorites.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

A host of Premier League stars, including Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku lead a front line for Belgium that might be unmatched in the global game. Meanwhile, familiar faces in the back like Jan Vertonghen and captain Vincent Kompany provide a stable defensive unit to sit in front of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

For more on Belgium’s history, click this link.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

What group are they in? The Red Devils reside in Group G with England, Panama and Tunisia. That makes Belgium — currently ranked third in the latest FIFA World Rankings — the clear-cut favorites to top the group.


Game schedule – Group G – Full 2018 World Cup schedule, here

Monday, June 18: Belgium v Panama, Sochi 11 am, ET

Saturday, June 23: Belgium v Tunisia, Moscow  8 am, ET

Thursday, June 28: England v Belgium, Kaliningrad 2 pm, ET


Projected lineup (3-4-3)Check out the 23-man squad list in full

Courtois

Alderweireld ——- Kompany ———- Vertonghen

 Meunier —– De Bruyne —- Witsel —— Carrasco

Mertens —- Lukaku —- Hazard

 


Star player: Kevin De Bruyne — This is so tricky because you could easily make the case for four or five players in Belgium’s squad, but after the season De Bruyne had at Manchester City, a lot will be expected of the playmaker in Russia. He’s quick, skillful and deadly accurate in distribution, which makes him one of the most interesting talents to watch at the World Cup.


Manager: Roberto Martinez — Although he often receives heat for some of his past inconsistencies at Everton, Martinez has done quite well under Martinez’s brief tenure. That said, he hasn’t had the opportunity to manage a major competition to this point, and with the amount of skillful players in the Red Devils squad, he could be on a short leash.


Secret weapon: Michy Batshuayi — For all the skill and grace in the Belgium starting XI, there is a bit of a drop off on the bench, particularly in terms of attacking players. Batshuayi is an intriguing player because he was brilliant after moving to Borussia Dortmund on loan in 2017-18. An unfortunate injury halted him from having more success, but if he can regain his form from the Bundesliga side, Martinez could have a legitimate threat off the bench or potentially use him alongside Lukaku up front.

AP Photo/Martin Meissner

Prediction: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Belgium should be among the favorites to hoist the World Cup, which would be the nation’s first in its history. They’re getting out of the group stage, and probably unscathed. England is solid, but if Belgium is at their best, they’re winning that match. If things shape up as expected, the Red Devils could get Brazil in the quarterfinals, which would obviously be tricky, but there’s strong belief from us that they could get beyond the last eight.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks

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Week 23 of the Premier League season has some intriguing encounters, with the biggest a London derby between Arsenal and Chelsea.

Stop salivating…

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ]

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Listen carefully, because this is very specific.

While you can download the NBC Sports Predictor app (below) and play the Premier League Pick ‘Em game yourself to predict the scores and win the prizes.

DOWNLOAD NBC SPORTS PREDICTOR

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the long shots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Wolves 3-1 Leicester – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Man United 3-0 Brighton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

Huddersfield 0-4 Man City – (Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]


DON’T TOUCH THIS…

Bournemouth 1-2 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM] 

Liverpool 2-1 Crystal Palace – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Watford 2-2 Burnley – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Newcastle 1-0 Cardiff City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

Southampton 2-2 Everton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]


“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

 

 

Fulham 2-2 Tottenham – (Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Arsenal 3-2 Chelsea – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

Robertson signs new long-term Liverpool contract

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Andrew Robertson will remain a hero at Anfield for a very long time.

The Scottish left back, 24, committed his future to Liverpool Thursday, as he signed a new long-term deal which will reportedly run until 2024.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Robertson arrived from Hull City in the summer of 2017 and was expected to be the back-up left back behind Alberto Moreno. Instead he has become one of the top left backs in Europe, with his marauding runs down the flank a focal point of Jurgen Klopp‘s side.

Speaking about his new contract, the captain of the Scottish national team revealed how easy a decision it was to make.

“As soon as the club came to me, it was a no-brainer for me – I want to stay here, so as soon as they put an offer on the table it was signed as quickly as that,” Robertson said. “It was a pretty easy contract for me and I’m sure for the club as well. We both agreed very quickly, that’s why it’s been done so quickly. Getting to know the lads and working with all the staff at Melwood has been a pleasure. The best thing about work is when you love coming in every day – and that’s what I do here. I am glad I have extended my stay and hopefully we have a lot of good days ahead.”

Robertson’s rise to the top of the game has been quite sensational.

He started off in the lower leagues of Scottish soccer before landing at Hull and then having a decent season in the Premier League in 2016-17, although the Tigers were relegated.

Liverpool snapped him up for $10 million and he has gone from strength to strength with his incredible energy down the left making him a firm fans favorite. Off the pitch he does a lot in the community and he just seems like one of the good guys.

Klopp added that “he might be from Glasgow originally, but everything about him screams Liverpool” and hailed Robertson’s quality on the pitch as well as off it.

“Everyone knows about his personality, on and off the pitch, but maybe we are guilty at times of overlooking his quality,” Klopp said. “Ask those who play against him – be it matchday or training – and they speak about his technical and tactical qualities, just as much as his character and heart. Our supporters have fallen in love with him, he has fallen in love with them – and both he and his amazing young family are very much at home in Liverpool.

Robertson’s rise deserved to be rewarded as he was a regular at Liverpool for most of last season and his performances in Europe helped the Reds reach the UEFA Champions League final.

His target is clear: to win trophies at Liverpool.

“I hope to achieve success as a team over the course of this new deal,” Robertson added. “This club demands trophies and too long has probably passed without trophies. So I hope to help bring another couple of trophies to this club and help push in that direction because the fans demand it and the club demands it, so that’s what we aim to give. We came close, of course we have with the Champions League and things like that, but it’s about taking that next step and hopefully getting a winner’s medal around your neck, whatever competition it is. That is the main aim for us.”

Premier League TV, streaming schedule

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Week 23 of the Premier League season is almost here as a big London derby between Arsenal and Chelsea takes center stage.

MORE: Sign up for NBC Sports Gold ] 

The full TV schedule for the games this weekend are below, plus you can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com,the NBC Sports App and by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold.

Gold also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Premier League Download and much more.

[ STREAM: Premier League live here ] 

You can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” for all the goals as they go in around the grounds. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App.

[ MORE: Premier League “Goal Rush” ] 

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here for the games streamed on NBCSports.com and here for the games on NBC Sports Gold.

Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days.


FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday
7:30 a.m. ET: Wolves v. Leicester City – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Liverpool v. Crystal Palace – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Man United v. Brighton – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Bournemouth v. West Ham – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Newcastle United v. Cardiff City – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Southampton v. Everton – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Watford v. Burnley – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM
12:30 p.m. ET: Arsenal v. Chelsea – NBC [STREAM]

Sunday
8:30 a.m. ET: Huddersfield v. Man City – NBCSN [STREAM]
11 a.m. ET: Fulham v. Tottenham – NBCSN [STREAM]

Madrid enduring its worst struggles in decades

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MADRID (AP) The first season without Cristiano Ronaldo is proving to be a difficult one for Real Madrid.

The Spanish powerhouse hasn’t been this bad in more than two decades.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule

Not since 1996 had Madrid lost 10 matches at this point of the season. That team, led by Raul Gonzalez, lost 12 times by the end of January. Madrid’s team coached by Guus Hiddink three years later also struggled, losing 10 of its first 32 matches in all competitions, exactly like this season.

But all had gone mostly well for Madrid since then, especially after Ronaldo arrived in 2009 and led the club to a trove of trophies.

“The last few years have been some of the best in the history of Real Madrid,” defender Nacho Fernandez says. “It’s going to be difficult to match or surpass that.”

Madrid’s latest loss was at Leganes in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday. It still advanced to the quarterfinals after having won the first leg 3-0, but the defeat again exposed some of the team’s problems since Ronaldo departed to join Juventus:

COACHING WOES

Zinedine Zidane left just before Ronaldo and his absence has been felt just as badly.

Madrid replaced the France great with Julen Lopetegui, but the former Spain coach lasted only about three months before he was sacked.

Former player Santiago Solari arrived as an interim coach and was given the full-time job after a good start, but confidence in him has quickly eroded as the team continues to be inconsistent.

He has struggled to manage some of his players, including Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, who could be on his way out because of his lack of playing minutes. He was substituted in the second half against Leganes on Wednesday.

Calls for another coaching change have been getting louder, adding to the team’s instability on the field.

BETTING ON YOUTH

Madrid did not make any blockbuster signing to try to replace Ronaldo, betting instead on youngsters such as Vinicius Junior, who is only 18.

The Brazilian has shown signs he could be a star, but still lacks the experience to lead the squad.

Mariano Diaz was given the No. 7 jersey when Ronaldo left, but his season has been marred by injuries and he hasn’t been able to contribute much so far.

SLUGGISH VETERANS

Madrid hoped veterans Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema could take over the leadership role that Ronaldo used to carry, but that never happened even though their numbers improved significantly after the Portuguese star left.

They each have scored more goals, but haven’t been consistent enough to also notch victories.

DEFENSIVE STRUGGLES

The club has conceded more than 30 goals and has one of the worst defenses among the teams in the top half of the Spanish league standings.

It lost 3-0 to Sevilla, Eibar, and CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, and was demoralized by Barcelona 5-1 in the league at Camp Nou Stadium.

“We know that we have to get better,” midfielder Casemiro says.

INJURIES

It hasn’t helped coach Solari that he lost Bale, Marcelo, Toni Kroos and Diaz to lengthy injuries. Benzema is the latest concern for Solari because of a broken hand.

“It’s been an atypical season with all the injuries,” Fernandez says. “We haven’t been playing our best soccer, but there is a lot of season left.”

Madrid’s next match is on Saturday at home against Sevilla in the Spanish league. Madrid is fourth in the standings, 10 points behind leader Barcelona after 19 matches.

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

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni