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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.

Klopp: Liverpool “changed the system” to beat PSG

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Bullet dodged via Roberto Firmino, Liverpool can reflect on a thrilling start to a new UEFA Champions League season.

The Reds built a two-goal lead against Paris Saint-Germain and very much looked the part of the favorite even after allowing Thomas Meunier to pull the visitors back to 2-1 before the break on Tuesday at Anfield.

[ RECAP: Liverpool 3-2 PSG ]

But a Mohamed Salah giveaway led to a Kylian Mbappe goal, and the Reds were in danger of giving two points away to start life in a group which also includes Napoli and Red Star Belgrade (who played to a 0-0 draw in Serbia).

Enter the man they call Bobby, who came off the bench days after a scary eye injury that earned reports of possible long-term damage.

A goal, and an eye-patch celebration that will live in the Anfield memory for some time.

That the match needed late heroics was a sign of some worry for Liverpool, who have taken their foot off the gas more than a few times in recent seasons. For example: the blowing a pair of leads in draws against Sevilla in last season’s group stage.

That’s not a trend, but a complete win over Paris Saint-Germain would go a long way to cementing the Reds’ status as a UCL finalist threat. And that would need

“It was really important we started like we did,” said Jurgen Klopp. “We were so strong and good with the ball. We changed the system because we expected a change from them. We needed all of our focus and we covered a lot of yards and closed all of the gaps.”

Liverpool came out of the gates with vigor, and showing an urgency which laid plain their angst from last season’s final loss to Real Madrid.

“This club and the fans have been waiting for the Champions League to come back since May,” said Andy Robertson.

The Reds scored early from Daniel Sturridge, then took advantage of a lazy Juan Bernat challenge to get a penalty conversion from Mr. Reliable, James Milner.

Faced with another disappointing stalemate, Firmino stepped up. And it’s possible that winning in the manner they did may mean more to their hopes than cruising to 2-0 or 2-1.

“It is the perfect start for us,” Milner said. “Hopefully we can build on that. I think it would have been very disappointing not to win. They didn’t create too many and we had a number of chances.

“I can’t say enough good things about Bobby (Roberto Firmino). To come off the bench after his injury at the weekend is incredible really.”

Next up: a visit to Southampton, followed by a League Cup date at Chelsea, a Blues visit to Anfield, and then a trip to Napoli.

Liverpool wins stoppage time thriller

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  • Sturridge opens scoring
  • Mane wins PK, Milner converts
  • Salah giveaway leads to equalizer
  • Firmino saves the day

Roberto Firmino‘s stoppage time goal saved Liverpool blushes after the Reds gave away a two-goal lead but came back to beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-2 in the UEFA Champions League group stage on Tuesday at Anfield.

Daniel Sturridge and James Milner scored first for the Reds, who looked to be on cruise control after a dominant first half.

Thomas Meunier and Kylian Mbappe scored for the visitors set the stage for a grandstand finish.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Liverpool was twice denied by the paw of Alphonse Areola within seven minutes of kickoff, with Virgil Van Dijk and James Milner earning corner kicks.

PSG found its first real danger when Edinson Cavani set up Neymar for a drive at Alisson Becker, and Virgil van Dijk helped produce a tame rebound effort.

Sturridge, only starting due to an injury to Roberto Firmino, put the Reds ahead in the 31st minute when he headed an Andy Robertson cross past Areola.

Liverpool headed to the spot for a chance to make it 2-0 when Juan Bernat made a clumsy challenge on Georginio Wijnaldum. That’s Milner’s office, and the two-goal lead arrived at Anfield.

But Meunier was on hand to pull one back when a partially-blocked shot came to him for a left-footed volley inside the 18.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Mohamed Salah believed he had restored Liverpool’s two-goal lead, but Sturridge’s sliding stamp on Areola’s groin was called a foul and a free kick was awarded.

Moments after Sadio Mane came oh-so-close to giving the Reds a two-goal lead, Liverpool collapsed under the weight of a Salah giveaway.

Julian Draxler snagged the ball and fed Neymar, who dribbled towards Virgil van Dijk. The Dutchman got a piece of Neymar’s dribble, but the block went right to Mbappe, who did not miss his chance to best Alisson Becker.

Trent Alexander-Arnold came close to restoring the lead when Marquinhos gave away a free kick on the edge of the PSG box.

But Firmino was the man to give all three points to the Reds.

UCL wrap: USMNT’s Pulisic, McKennie shine

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Christian Pulisic can score by blocking clearances and Weston McKennie won’t stop running, as Americans made their impacts felt in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday.

[ MORE: PL Player Power Rankings ]

Of course, Spurs and Liverpool threw away leads and only the latter recovered to get a result on a busy night in Europe.

Inter Milan 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur RECAP

Christian Eriksen scored for Spurs, as the North London side had a 1-0 lead in the 53rd minute. But Inter struck twice in the final few minutes, including Matias Vecino’s winner in the second minute of stoppage. That will leave Spurs licking their wounds after a third-straight loss.

Barcelona 4-0 PSV EindhovenRECAP

Lionel Messi now has more hat tricks than anyone in Champions League history — for now — nabbing his eighth in moving ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus plays Wednesday). And Ousmane Dembele scored a gorgeous dribble and finish in the win.

Liverpool 3-2 Paris Saint-GermainRECAP

The Reds went ahead 2-0 through a Daniel Sturridge header and James Milner penalty, and controlled much of the proceedings. Thomas Meunier’s 40th minute goal seemed destined to mean very little when Mohamed Salah gave away the ball late in the second half.

Kylian Mbappe made it 2-2, but it only set the stage for Roberto Firmino.

Schalke 1-1 Porto

USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie turned provider on the match’s first goal, sliding across for Breel Embolo’s fortunate offspeed finish (see below). But Salif Sane conceded a penalty to the visitors, and Otavio finished his chance for a share of the points.

Monaco 1-2 Atletico Madrid

A goal from diminutive Serge Grandsir gave the hosts an early lead, but Diego Costa and Jose Maria Gimenez scored before halftime to give Diego Simeone’s men all three points.

Red Star Belgrade 0-0 Napoli

The Serbians send a message that no one’s coming to their house and getting an easy night. Napoli managed 20 shots to Red Star’s six, but a 7-save performance from Canada’s Milan Borjan got a point for the hosts at the Stadion Rajko Mitic.

Galatasaray 3-0 Lokomotiv Moscow

Garry Rodrigues and Erden Derdiyok scored on either side of halftime to give the Turkish powers a win at the Turk Telekom Arena.

Club Brugge 0-1 Borussia Dortmund

Christian Pulisic began the game on the bench, entering for the final 20 minutes or so of his 20th birthday to make his 100th BVB appearance.

Happy birthday, kid.

Pochettino: “Best performance of season” in 2-1 loss

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Tottenham Hotspur came within minutes of picking up an unexpected away win at Inter Milan to kickoff live in this UEFA Champions League season.

[ RECAP: Inter Milan 2-1 Spurs ]

Christian Eriksen had given Spurs a lead it held until the 85th minute. That’s when Mauro Icardi’s wonderful volley leveled the score line before a Matias Vecino header in stoppage time gave Inter a 2-1 win at the San Siro.

Serge Aurier did not appreciate the result, according to Football Italia.

“Every player played well but we conceded two stupid goals,” Aurier said. But we stay focused and we stay together for the next week. You just have to stay focused, I’m sad for my team today because every player wanted to win the game.”

His manager struck a different tone despite the set back.

Mauricio Pochettino loved his team on the day, and said it was better than it was when it handed Manchester United a 3-0 loss last month.

From Football Italia:

“I’m happy with the performance, we dominated until the end but it’s so cruel,” Pochettino told BT Sport.

“For me it was the best performance of the season. I’m happy with the performance but so disappointed and so annoyed, because we deserved more but we conceded twice in two actions.

“We made a mistake and we paid for that mistake, sometimes you don’t but in the last few games we’ve been punished for our mistakes.”

Pochettino said Spurs have to be patient during this “negative period,” which has the club losers of three-straight in all competitions.

Next up: Away to Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League on Saturday, then home to Watford in the League Cup.