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Top 2018 World Cup storylines

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One more rest. One more sleep. One more moon.

Then the 2018 World Cup is upon us.

So what are we looking for? What are the storylines that will shape how we view the play on the field? There will surely be plenty to come that we cannot prepare for, but there’s also plenty to think about entering the tournament’s opening match. Here’s a quick rundown of what people are talking about.

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1) Spain’s coaching upheaval

[ MORE: Spain fires Lopetegui | Hire Hierro | How will it affect them? ]

Struggling countries changing coaches with the World Cup in the horizon has plenty of prior precedence. World powers changing managers with the World Cup staring them in the face does not.

Spain sacked Julen Lopetegui just a day before the opening match of the tournament after it leaked before planned that he would take over the Real Madrid job after the month-long event. Lopetegui angered the Spanish heirarchy by not consulting them before talks with Madrid, so he got the boot. Will Spain rally around the adversity, or will they crumble under the distraction? All eyes will be on the 2010 World Cup winners as they progress through the tournament…or don’t.

2) Mohamed Salah‘s health and impact for Egypt

[ MORE: Salah returns to training, could be ready ]

The electric Liverpool star was cruelly injured by Spanish defender Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final, leaving many with fears that he could miss the tournament and leave Egypt toothless. Thankfully for all neutral fans, it appears Salah’s shoulder will not keep him off the field much, if at all.

So how far can he take Egypt? The African nation appears dangerous with him on the field, but it will be difficult for the country to support their superstar and keep teams from keying on him. Group A does remain wide open, and Egypt will have a good chance of making the knockout round, leaving fans with plenty of chances to catch Salah on the field.

3) Can Lionel Messi plug the gaping hole in his resume?

[ MORE: Messi hints at retirement ]

The Argentinian megastar is widely thought of as one of the best players to ever take the field – if not *the* best, depending on who you ask. However, by the simple fact that he is Argentinian, he will forever be compared to Diego Maradona, and his lack of major trophies on the national stage is a glaring weakness in his otherwise glittering CV.

Argentina is an annual powerhouse, but based on their weak qualifying performance, they are not one of the top favorites to win this tournament. Can Messi will his side to a World Cup win and ward away the haters with (his second) potential retirement on the horizon? Nobody has more to lose in this tournament than the Barcelona legend.

4) Will Germany buck the trend and repeat?

[ MORE: Germany World Cup team preview | Nobody has repeated in 50 years ]

23-year-old Josh Kimmich is arguably Germany’s most valuable player (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images).

History is against the 2014 World Cup winners coming into Russia – nobody has repeated as World Cup champions since Brazil in 1962. Nonetheless, Joachim Low’s squad is unquestionably the deepest in the world on paper, and that has them as the clear favorite alongside the Brazilians.

Josh Kimmich has blossomed as one of the world’s most valuable and versatile players, Thomas Muller loves him a World Cup, and Manuel Neuer is healthy and ready to lead the defending champions.

5) Will France, Belgium, and Poland get over the hump?

[ MORE: France team preview | Belgium | Switzerland ]

There are a host of European teams that have glittering rosters on paper, yet have failed to live up to the expectations of the “Golden Generation” of talent. No team is a better example of that than Belgium. The Red Devils have only made it past a World Cup quarterfinal once in history, and 2014’s near-defeat to the United States followed by their quarterfinal loss to Argentina saw Belgium’s disappointment become a reality. In Euro 2016 the story was the same, with a quarterfinal defeat to Gareth Bale‘s Welsh bunch leaving supporters wanting more.

France is no different. The 1998 World Cup winners have struggled to rediscover that success, and while a loss to eventual champions Germany is nothing to slouch at, their 2014 quarterfinal exit was still disappointing in name. In Euro 2016, they came oh so close to a trophy, but losing in the final to Portugal left them with a bad taste in their mouth on home soil. Didier Deschamps has a roster busting with insane amounts of talent, but their recent warm-up friendlies have unearthed more questions than answers.

Finally, Poland is a team that many have tabbed as overrated by the FIFA rankings. Listed as the 8th-best team on the planet according to the world governing body, Poland has yet to do anything of note with its lofty ranking. The squeaked by Switzerland in the opening round of the Euro 2016 knockout round before falling to Portugal, and thry weren’t even present in Brazil in 2014. Robert Lewandowski is a household name but has done just as much losing as winning in big games for both club and country.

Bonus: Include Switzerland in this group as well if you’d like. Ranked 6th by the FIFA metrics, are they truly all that dangerous?

6) Can England live up to the hype?

[ MORE: Walker wants England to be more blue-collar ]

Can Harry Kane prove England is truly among the elites? (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

England has been the butt of plenty of jokes over the last decade or two, known more for finding new and creative ways to lose before they should. This year looks to be the year that changes.

The Three Lions are well-coached under Gareth Southgate, and their pramatism is balanced out by a truly dangerous attacking intent. Harry Kane is one of the world’s most dangerous strikers, but the entire team still needs to prove it belongs among the upper echelon of world powers. They’ll likely get that chance barring massive disappointment, with a knockout stage match against either Germany or Brazil likely on the cards. Can the Three Lions take its talent on paper and translate it to the field?

7) Can Brazil exorcise the demons of 2014?

[ MORE: Brazil team preview | Neymar scores in warmup ]

Brazil is one of the tournament favorites, there is no denying that. And yet, it still feels like a dark cloud looms over the Selecao. All one needs to do is mention the numbers “7-1” and it immediately harkens back to one of the deepest pits of despair in Brazilian soccer history.

Their brutal pounding at the hands of Germany on home soil remains an open wound for Brazil, and they would love nothing more than to take care of those demons in the very next World Cup. Should both teams win their groups, Germany and Brazil would end up on opposite sides of the bracket, leaving fans salivating at a possible revenge match in the World Cup final.

Europa League field: Who can Chelsea, Arsenal draw?

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There are 32 teams left in the quest for two spots at the Olympic Stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan, one of which will earn an automatic spot in the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League.

[ MORE: Europa League wrap ]

The intrigue in the field took a hit when Rangers and AC Milan failed to advance, meaning there will not be an Old Firm Derby or Milan Derby inside of UEL play.

And Maurizio Sarri‘s last two clubs, Napoli and Chelsea, are seeded for the Round of 32 draw, so they will not meet for at least one more round.

Both Chelsea and Arsenal can draw anyone from the group of unseeded teams, with no English teams in the field. Arsenal-Celtic? Chelsea-Lazio?

Seeded teams
Bayer Leverkusen
Red Bull Salzburg
Zenit Saint-Petersburg
Dinamo Zagreb
Arsenal
Real Betis
Villarreal
Eintracht Frankfurt
Genk
Sevilla
Dynamo Kiev
Chelsea
Napoli
Valencia
Inter Milan
Benfica

Unseeded teams
Zurich
Celtic
Slavia Prague
Fenerbahce
Sporting Lisbon
Olympiacos
Rapid Vienna
Lazio
Malmo
Krasnodar
Rennes
BATE Borisov
Viktoria Plzen
Club Brugge
Shakhtar Donetsk
Galatasaray

Emery praises Arsenal teen: “His personality is very important”

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Unai Emery played the kids in Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Qarabag on Thursday at the Emirates Stadium, as the Gunners claimed the top spot in their group.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 1-0 Qarabag ]

Bukayo Saka, Carl JenkinsonJoe WillockEddie Nketiah, and Zech Medley all got meaningful playing time for the Gunners, and Emery specifically liked Saka (17).

Emery, like Arsene Wenger, believes very much in getting experiencefor his kids.

From The London Evening Standard:

“We have a responsibility to every young player to give them chances to train with us,” Emery told Standard Sport. “We are very demanding of ourselves in his performance. We give them these chances in the games like today when we can do that. They show us positive things in every match.

“Today Saka played with a good performance, with a very big personality. We were speaking at half-time, they were trying one-on-one against the opposition. Not every action was good for us but his personality is very important, continuing in the second half to try to do one-on-ones and break lines with his quality.”

Will anyone have made enough of an impact to get some time in the Premier League? We’ll see, but remember that this Gunners system has sent Reiss Nelson on loan to Hoffenheim.

Also, to put this in perspective: Saka was born six days before Sept. 11, 2001. This class of youngster in the Arsenal system is coming, and coming fast.

Europa League roundup: Arsenal wins; Rangers, AC Milan bounced

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Twenty-four games in about four hours: It’s the Europa League group stage, and it’s reached its conclusion.

[ MORE: Mourinho: “Job done” in UCL ]

A very young Arsenal claimed its group, Celtic bunkered down but couldn’t advance to the knockout rounds, and rivals Rangers couldn’t quite find the offense needed to complete a promising UEL campaign.


Rapid Vienna 1-0 Rangers

Steven Gerrard‘s promising first European campaign as first team manager has ended thanks to a goal from sub Dejan Ljubicic in Austria. A very even game, Rangers could not find a way past Richard Strebinger.

Arsenal 1-0 Qarabag

Alexandre Lacazette‘s 17th minute goal gave the Gunners a leg up on the group lead in a game with a bunch of unusual faces on the pitch. Carl Jenkinson, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, and Saka Bukayo were among the starters, and Lacazette left for Zech Medley in the 63rd minute as Arsenal saved its best for a trip to Southampton on Sunday (No offense to Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny, who went 90 minutes each).

MOL Vidi 2-2 Chelsea

We’ve already shown you Willian’s terrific free kick, and this match in Hungary was plenty entertaining for a relatively inconsequential outing. Ethan Ampadu scored an own goal two minutes after Chelsea took the lead, and MOL Vidi led 2-1 when Olivier Giroud restored the stalemate in the 75th.

Celtic 1-2 Red Bull Salzburg

The visitors dominated and finally found a way past goalkeeper Craig Gordon through a 67th Moanes Dabbur marker. Celtic went down two with Fredrik Gulbrandsen adding to the score line.

RB Leipzig 1-1 Rosenborg

Matheus Cunha’s goal just after halftime looked to have prodded RBL above Celtic and into the Round of 32, but Tore Reginiussen leveled for the Norwegian side.

Olympiacos 3-1 AC Milan

Gennaro Gattuso’s men are out of Europe after a four-goal second half.

Elsewhere
Villarreal 2-0 Spartak Moscow
Lazio 1-2 Eintracht Frankfurt
Sevilla 3-0 Krasnodar
Marseille 1-3 Apollon Limassol
Rennes 2-0 Astana
PAOK 1-3 BATE Borisov
Genk 4-0 Sarpsborg
Dynamo Kiev 0-1 Jablonec
Besiktas 0-1 Malmo
Akhisar Belerdiyespor 0-0 Standard Liege
Slavia Prague 2-0 Zenit Saint-Petersburg
Copenhagen 0-1 Bordeaux
Dinamo Zagreb 0-0 Anderlecht
Sporting Lisbon 3-0 Vorskla Poltava
F91 Dudelange 0-0 Real Betis
Ludogorets Razgrad 1-1 FC Zurich
AEK Larnaca 1-5 Bayer Leverkusen
Spartak Trnava 1-0 Fenerbahce

FIFA won’t be bound by politics over sharing Qatar World Cup

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Political tensions won’t prevent FIFA from deciding whether to place some World Cup games outside Qatar, the head of world soccer’s governing body said Thursday.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino used a summit of soccer nations in Qatar to gather support for his mission to add 16 teams to the 2022 tournament – a move that would require the tiny, energy-rich nation sharing games in the region.

[ MORE: Gerrard proud of Rangers in exit ]

That would be complicated by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cutting ties with Qatar in 2017 in an ongoing political dispute that prevents flights between Doha and the boycotting countries.

Qatar won a vote in 2010 to host the World Cup with 32 teams and is only building eight stadiums. A 48-team tournament is already planned for 2026 in the United States, Canada and Mexico, but Infantino wants to fast-track that expansion and add 16 more games for the first World Cup in the Middle East.

“Is it feasible to do it only in Qatar? Difficult probably,” Infantino said. “Is it feasible to have a few games being played in neighboring countries? Well, maybe this is an option, of course.

“I’m not that naive not to know not to read the news and not to know what is going on. But now we are in football, we are not in politics, and in football, sometimes the dreams come true.”

Given 32 teams compete for the World Cup and there are 211 nations in FIFA, adding more slots in 2022 is likely to be embraced by the members given they have already approved expansion of the event beginning in 2026.

Infantino used a trip to Doha in October to ask the emir of Qatar if he would consider allowing matches to be shared with nations that are part of an economic and travel boycott against his country.

“If there is something that I could do which is good for football worldwide, then we should look at it,” Infantino said at a news conference in Doha before heading to Abu Dhabi for the Club World Cup. “I have the chance and I’m lucky enough to be able to look into that without having to be bound by any political considerations, but looking at it from a purely sporting perspective.”

Infantino did use a speech to politicians at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina last month to discuss using the World Cup in 2022 to bring countries together by spreading games beyond Qatar.

The 2022 tournament is already being cramped into a 28-day window to minimize the disruption to top European leagues because it was moved from June and July to November and December due to the extreme heat.

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