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Germany looks to become first to repeat at World Cup in half-century

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MOSCOW (AP) After raising the World Cup eight miles from Copacabana Beach four years ago, Germany hopes to lift the trophy four miles from the Kremlin on July 15 and become the first repeat champion in more than a half-century.

[ MORE: PST’s 2018 FIFA World Cup roundtable ]

The soccer world gathers at 12 stadiums in 11 cities across the European portion of Russia starting Thursday for a 32-day, 64-match championship. Much has changed since Die Mannschaft humiliated the host Selecao 7-1 in the 2014 semifinals, then left Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium with a 1-0 extra-time win over Argentina on Mario Goetze’s 113th-minute goal.

The United States will be missing from soccer’s showcase after seven straight appearances. Four-time champion Italy will be watching from home for the first time since 1958, its streak of 14 consecutive appearances ended by a playoff loss to Sweden. The Netherlands, which lost the 2010 final to Spain, missed out after slumping to third in its qualifying group. And Chile failed to qualify after consecutive Copa America titles.

Iceland and Panama are World Cup debutantes, Peru is back for the first time since 1982, and Egypt ends an absence dating to 1990.

Germany and Brazil are the pretournament favorites, and France is fancied behind them with a young roster . England will try to end more than five decades of hurt since winning its only major title on home soil in 1966. Mexico will try to advance past the second round for the first time since 1986, but El Tri opens against Germany and its likely second-round opponent is Brazil.

There also has been a generational change within FIFA. Many of its leaders have moved from penthouses to prisons following indictments by the U.S. Department of Justice that detailed kickbacks to be as much a part of soccer as free kicks.

Expect controversy on a regular basis.

FIFA’s Congress votes June 13 on the host of the 2026 tournament, and a joint bid by the U.S., Mexico and Canada is competing against Morocco – where most of the infrastructure would have to be built – on a ballot that includes a none-of-the-above option.

Following the drug-testing scandal that engulfed the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, FIFA’s medical committee chairman said no Russians will be involved in collection of urine and blood samples, which will be flown to Lausanne, Switzerland, for analysis.

VAR will be the acronym of the moment: video assistant referees in soccer-speak, instant replay for most viewers at home.

And as soon as the final whistle of the tournament is blown at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, attention will shift to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, moved to Nov. 21 through Dec. 18 because of summer desert heat and compressed to 28 days because it is in the middle of the European club season. Gianni Infantino, who succeeded the disgraced Sepp Blatter as FIFA president in 2016, has discussed increasing the World Cup field from 32 to 48 in 2022, four years ahead of schedule.

Some of the top storylines likely to dominate play in Russia:

MESSI AND RONALDO

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have split the last 10 FIFA Player of the Year awards, and this is likely their last chance to win a World Cup. Messi turns 31 on June 24, two days before Argentina finishes the first round against Nigeria, and has lost four finals with the national team. Ronaldo, 33, helped Portugal win the 2016 European Championship for its first major title.

BREAKOUT STARS?

Brazil’s Neymar, England’s Harry Kane, Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, France’s Antoine Griezmann and Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne are stars who could lift themselves into Player of the Year contention with stellar World Cups.

BACK TO BACK

Italy in 1934 and `38, and Brazil in 1958 and `62 are the only teams to win consecutive World Cups. Germany was 10-0 in qualifying, the only European team with a perfect record, and outscored opponents 43-4.

PLAY IT AGAIN

Following the first use of goal-line technology at a World Cup in 2014, FIFA has expanded off-the-field decision-making. A video assistant ref can notify the referee by headset of the need to reverse a decision if there is a “clear error” involving goals and their buildups, penalty kicks, straight red cards, and mistaken identify for red and yellow cards.

ICE ICE BABY

Iceland at about 335,000 becomes the least-populous nation to appear in a World Cup, a mark that had been held since 2006 by Trinidad and Tobago at 1.3 million.

MISSING

Injured players missing the tournament include Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero and midfielder Manuel Lanzini; France defender Laurent Koscielny; Serbia defender Matija Nastasic; Brazil right back Dani Alves; and England midfielder Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain.

SPLIT SCREEN?

The World Cup final starts two hours after the beginning of the Wimbledon men’s singles final. If Spain and Rafa Nadal are playing for titles, and the tennis isn’t decided in straight sets, which event do fans watch?

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Report: Martino to leave Atlanta, national team job looms

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Tata Martino’s future has been debated for some time.

Would he elect to stay with Atlanta United beyond the season? Would national team duty call? And if so, would it be the USMNT? A return to Argentina?

[ UCL: Real rocks Roma, Man City falls ]

Now ESPN is reporting that Martino will leave Atlanta United at the end of this season, opening another high profile MLS job next to the LA Galaxy vacancy.

Presuming he wants to leave Atlanta, which option is most attractive?

  • Mexico and the USMNT are both on the precipice of golden generations, assuming they pick the right shepherd. El Tri is a bit further along in the process than the U.S., and it would be an easy selection.
  • Argentina is Martino’s home, and he’s held the job before. Would the idea of melding Lionel Messi’s final prime throes with Paulo Dybala to try and claim a first Copa America since 1993 be enough?
  • Colombia would also face the test of World Cup qualifying in CONMEBOL, and is a pretty packed side. James Rodriguez (27), Yerry Mina (23), and Davinson Sanchez (22) will be around for the long haul, while Juan Cuadrado and Radamel Falcao are still productive.

Mourinho, Man Utd revel in Pogba performance

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Paul Pogba blessed Manchester United with a powerful performance in the Red Devils’ 3-0 UEFA Champions League win at Young Boys on Wednesday, and it was impossible not to notice his class.

[ UCL: Real rocks Roma, Man City falls ]

Jose Mourinho did, as did several of his teammates on a night the French midfielder scored twice and assisted United’s other goal.

“Solid, class and gave the team the pace we needed at times,” said Manchester United’s manager. “He controlled the tempo and of course it was a very good goal.”

Pogba again captained the side, which has won three-straight and allowed just one goal in wins over Burnley and Watford in addition to Wednesday’s win.

Luke Shaw drew a penalty that Pogba converted for the match’s second game, and loved what he saw from his captain. From the BBC:

“He gets some stick sometimes but we know what quality he has. For me, he is one of the best in the world. He is important as captain. He shows on the pitch what kind of leader he is. Hopefully he can carry that on.”

Mourinho’s praise carries a bit more weight considering he didn’t quite enjoy the competition.

“Job done,” he said. “Not phenomenal but good enough. (Young Boys) were intense, compact and had self esteem.”

UCL wrap: Real rocks Roma, Vlasic finishes CSKA comeback

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What a day in the UEFA Champions League!

CSKA Moscow came from two down to get a draw, Paul Pogba put on a one-man show in Switzerland, Cristiano Ronaldo was sent off in Spain, and Manchester City slumped to a home loss.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

And, oh yeah, Real Madrid scored a pair of show-stopping goals in a 3-0 win over Roma that left few worries about life post-Ronaldo.

Young Boys 0-3 Manchester United RECAP

Paul Pogba scored a brace, the first a sensational dribble and drive, as Jose Mourinho’s men had little trouble in Switzerland. The second half saw the Frenchman assist Anthony Martial to help the Red Devils cruise home.

Shakhtar Donetsk 2-2 Hoffenheim

Hoffenheim led twice, the second time through Havard Nordtveit, but would only take a point home from Ukraine thanks to an 81st minute goal from 21-year-old Brazilian attacker Maycon de Andrade Barberan.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

Benfica 0-2 Bayern Munich

Robert Lewandowski scored in the 10th minute and Renato Sanches after halftime as Bayern eased to a win at the Estadio da Luz.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Viktoria Plzen 2-2 CSKA Moscow

Czech midfielder Michael Krmencík scored twice to give the hosts a first-half lead, but Fyodor Chalov finished a 49th minute chance to pull one back for the Russian visitors. And it was a precursor to another CSKA goal, the leveler coming from Everton loanee Nikola Vlasic and his penalty kick in the fifth minute of stoppage time.

Real Madrid 3-0 AS Roma

We need your help deciding whether Real Madrid’s first or third goal was more spellbinding, please.

Gareth Bale scored a second half goal, but it’s impossible to discuss this game without mentioning the delightful free kick goal from Isco and Mariano Diaz’s outstanding stoppage time belter. My goodness.

Valencia 0-2 Juventus

Cristiano Ronaldo was sent off in controversial fashion, but Miralem Pjanic scored twice from the penalty spot to help 10-man Juve to the win. Wojciech Szczesny stopped a stoppage time penalty to preserve the shutout for The Old Lady.

Ajax 3-0 AEK Athens

Left back Nicolas Tagliafico sandwiched a pair of goals around Donny van de Beek’s 77th minute marker as Ajax scooped up an easy win against Greek opposition.

Manchester City 1-2 LyonRECAP

The French visitors took advantage of sloppy midfield play and an awful clearing attempt from Fabian Delph to build a 2-0 lead, and Bernardo Silva‘s goal from a Leroy Sane feed was all City could muster in its comeback bid.

Pogba runs show as Man Utd cruises

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  • Pogba scores twice, including beauty
  • His first UCL goals since 2016
  • Assists Martial’s second half marker

Paul Pogba scored two first-half goals and assisted Anthony Martial‘s second half marker as Manchester United eased to a 3-0 win over Young Boys at the Stade de Suisse in Bern on Wednesday.

United’s next UCL match is home to Valencia on Oct. 2, the same day Young Boys visit Juventus in Turin.

Summer buy Diogo Dalot made his United debut. The 19-year-old played all 90 minutes for Jose Mourinho’s men.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Pogba’s first goal was a sensational strike with an equally eye-catching dribble to create his yard of space.

Luke Shaw then won a penalty when his cross hit Kevin Mbabu‘s hand before the ex-Newcastle man could get it to his body.

Pogba converted the effort without a problem, and would not need to play the whole 90 minutes. His second half included this assist to Martial.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]