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World Cup, Group B preview: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran

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Portugal: The reigning European champions will rely on Cristiano Ronaldo to inspire them and score their goals, but a wily defensive unit and talented midfield means they could go deep in this competition. READ FULL TEAM PREVIEW

Spain: Many are backing Spain to win this tournament and with David Silva and Andres Iniesta running the show, plus David De Gea in fine form in goal, it will be tough to wrestle the initiative from the Spaniards. They will not face the humiliation of a second-straight exit at the World Cup group stage. READ FULL TEAM PREVIEW

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Morocco: Some extremely talented players sprinkled into their squad, Morocco know they must win their opening game against Iran to have any chance of advancing. READ FULL TEAM PREVIEW

Iran: See above. Carlos Quieroz has built a solid unit in Iran, but they most beat Morocco with their final group games against Spain and Portugal. READ FULL TEAM PREVIEW

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


Who’s going through: If Spain and Portugal do not make it through, it will be because Morocco have delivered on their promise. But seriously, Spain and Portugal will go through and will fancy their chances of at least making the last eight as Group A isn’t strong and they’ll face the top two from that group in the Round of 16 matches.

 [ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

Who’s going home: We could see a surprise from Iran and Morocco, but it seems highly unlikely.

Marquee match: Friday, June 15: Portugal v Spain, Sochi, 2pm ET

Top 5 players to watch
1)Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal
2) David Silva – Spain
3) Diego Costa – Spain
4) David de Gea – Spain
5) Bernardo Silva – Portugal

League Cup preview: North London Derby; Chelsea v. Cherries

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Three of the four clubs active in Wednesday’s League Cup quarterfinals are from London, vying for semifinal spots next to Tuesday victors Manchester City and Burton Albion (!?!).

Things have gone in opposite directions for rivals Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur since the Gunners humbled Spurs 4-2 at the Emirates Stadium on Dec. 2.

[ RECAP: Leicester 1-1 (1-3 PKs) Man City]

Spurs have only dropped points once, a dramatic draw with Barcelona, while Arsenal has failed to continue its form and is coming off a 3-2 loss to relegation-threatened Southampton.

But North London Derbies have a way of framing a season, and reasserting control with a League Cup quarterfinal win at the Emirates would sure be nice for Unai Emery‘s men.

Who knows? Maybe they’ll begin another 20-plus match unbeaten streak. From Arsenal.com:

“Sunday for us is a big reality check in our way,” Emery said. “We need to improve and also we need to continue doing our way in our process. It’s not a good result but this reality gives us more motivation to continue to work hard, finding a new thing to work on each day, and also it makes us demand a lot from ourselves in the way we work on this way.”

The other match sees Chelsea entertaining Bournemouth, and the two sides split results in their last two meetings at Stamford Bridge.

The Cherries lost to Chelsea in last season’s League Cup, but topped the Blues 3-0 in the Premier League.

Meanwhile Chelsea has reportedly confirmed their interest in Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson, so subplots? Yeah, we got ’em.

Eddie Howe‘s not having it. From The Bournemouth Echo:

“Callum getting linked with other clubs, I think in some respects I would almost want that with every player. It means they are performing at their highest level and doing very well in the league they are in, so I have no problem with it.

“From my perspective, Callum’s future is here. He is a massive part of what we are doing and I just want to see him continue to score goals for us.”

The “from my perspective” is a thing here, though, as the Cherries could get a fantastic offer from Chelsea or another big club for the non-Cup tied striker.

Burton Albion making League Cup semi “absolutely staggering”

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Burton Albion has never finished higher than 20th in the Championship, so getting to the League Cup semifinals followed a 1-0 defeat of Middlesbrough is pretty darn sweet to manager Nigel Clough and his men.

The Brewers were relegated to League One last season, finishing 23rd in the 24-team Championship.

[ MORE: Leicester 1-1 (1-3 pens) Man City]

Now, manager Nigel Clough has the club within a win of the League Cup Final. It’s their best major cup performance in a 68-year history.

From BurtonAlbionFC.co.uk:

“The scale of the achievement is absolutely staggering – for Burton Albion to get to the semi-final of a major cup competition. It’s very difficult to describe the feeling at this point.”

Sure the luck of the draw is involved — Burton has only drawn one Premier League team, and it was Burnley — but winning five cup matches is winning five cup matches.

Clough, the son of legendary manager Brian Clough, also sung the praises of Southampton loanee Jake Hesketh. The 22-year-old won the match with the game’s loan goal.

“We got the goal through Jake Hesketh. The most impressive thing was to win the tackle on the edge of the box and he was one of the few players tonight not to hit his shot over the bar, We bang on in training about hitting the bottom corners and he did.”

Whether or not Burton can hang with Premier League opposition in the final, this is a pretty monumental moment for the Brewers. Sitting 15th in league play, it will likely be the most memorable moment of the season.

River Plate loses on penalties to Al Ain at Club World Cup

AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
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AL AIN CITY, United Arab Emirates (AP) South American champion River Plate was upset by Al Ain FC in the Club World Cup on Tuesday, losing in a penalty shootout after the semifinal finished 2-2 following extra time.

Al Ain’s players converted all five penalty kicks, before goalkeeper Khalid Eisa saved Enzo Perez’s fifth shot for River to seal a 5-4 victory in the shootout.

[ MORE: Leicester 1-1 (1-3 pens) Man City ]

River endured the humbling loss to the team from United Arab Emirates less than two weeks after thrilling its fans with a memorable win over fierce Argentine rival Boca Juniors in the final of the Copa Libertadores.

Real Madrid plays Kashima Antlers on Wednesday in the other semifinal.

Marcus Berg put Al Ain ahead in the third minute before Santos Borre scored twice to give River the lead in the 16th.

Brazilian forward Caio pulled Al Ain level at 2-2 in the 51st.

Gonzalo Martinez had an opportunity to put River back in front from the penalty spot after Mohamed Ahmad fouled Milton Casco in the area. But Martinez hit the 68th-minute spot kick against the crossbar.

The final is on Saturday.

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

Pep on Man City win, Sterling’s poor panenka, Mourinho sacking

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Pep Guardiola‘s Manchester City needed penalties to outlast hosts Leicester City in the quarterfinals of the League Cup, but got the job done thanks in no small part to some laughable efforts from the Foxes.

[ RECAP: Leicester 1-1 (1-3 pens) Man City ]

Kevin De Bruyne and Marc Albrighton scored good-looking goals in regulation, and Oleksandr Zinchenko converted City’s third penalty after Leicester missed three-consecutive offerings at the King Power Stadium.

Man City’s only miss was an awful missed panenka from Raheem Sterling, but Guardiola was mostly okay with the outcome given their lineup.

Eric Garcia started and made his first team debut at age 17. Phil Foden and Brahim Diaz also started the match. Young goalkeeper Arijanet Muric starred for Man City, stopping two penalties in the win. From the BBC:

“A tough game, it is always difficult at Leicester. We played with a guy who is 17 years old and some injured players, it was a good game. … Raheem took that decision [to chip his penalty], unfortunately he missed it but that is OK.”

Guardiola was also asked about fired Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho. He feels compassion for his longtime rival.

“I am always sad for the manager when that happens. We are alone in that situation. I am close to all of the managers. You are sacked when results are not good. He doesn’t need me, he is so strong. I wish him all the best and he will be back soon.”

Man City is one win from a third League Cup final in four years, and will face either Burton Albion, Arsenal, Spurs, Bournemouth, or Chelsea. Next up is a visit from Crystal Palace on Saturday and another trip to Leicester on Boxing Day.