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Mandzukic dominates as Croatia top Nigeria, lead Group D

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Croatia sit atop what has widely been dubbed the 2018 World Cup’s “group of death,” thanks to a 2-0 victory over Nigeria in the two sides’ Group D opener in Kaliningrad, Russia, on Saturday.

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Mario Mandzukic was an 86-minute-long Nigerian nightmare, causing an own goal in the first half and winning a penalty kick for Vatreni (the Blazers) in the second.

With both sides tabbed as dark horse candidates to make a deep run this summer, only Croatia lived up to the hype and looked genuine knockout-round hopefuls. Nigeria were defensively disciplined as throughout their qualifying campaign, but Croatia frustrated the Super Eagles and offered little time or space to threaten on the counter-attack, while Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic dictated every action for Croatia.

The game’s first chance fell to Ivan Perisic, who fired just over the crossbar from 20 yards out in the 14th minute. Ante Rebic found the Inter Milan man with a simple lay-off into a bit of space just outside the box, but his powerful strike sailed just high and failed to test 19-year-old goalkeeper Francis Uzoho.

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Mandzukic’s fingerprints were all over the sequence of events that resulted in the game’s opening goal. It was his chested lay-off that found Ante Rebic for a deflected strike from distance, and the ensuing corner kick. Modric sent the ball into the box, Mandzukic only managed to redirect it further across the face of goal for Oghenekaro Etebo to knock it into his own goal.

Following a lethargic and cagey first 25 minutes following halftime, Croatia made it 2-0 through Modric in the 71st minute, converting from the penalty spot after Mandzukic was wrestled to the ground on a corner kick. Modric went left, Uzoho went (to his own) left, and the lead was doubled.

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Up next for Croatia is a clash with group favorites Argentina on Thursday, followed by Nigeria versus Iceland on Friday.

Report: Orlando’s Justin Meram could be traded back to Columbus

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A former Columbus Crew midfielder could be on his way back to the Eastern Conference side.

[ MORE: Whitecaps teen Davies on brink of Bayern move ]

Several reports have suggested that Orlando City’s Justin Meram could be on his way back to Columbus, as the Lions look to trade the midfielder back to the club that drafted the 29-year-old.

The veteran attacker joined the Lions back in January in a trade after spending seven seasons with the Crew.

Reliable Twitter account MLS Transfers first reported the story on Sunday, also naming the Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Cincinnati as potential landing spots for Meram.

Meram was traded to Orlando back in January after requesting a move away from Columbus due to ongoing talks of the club being relocated out of Ohio.

The Iraq international has struggled in his first season with Orlando, scoring just one goal in 17 appearances for the club — who currently sit in ninth place and six points outside of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Three Eastern Conference sides on record-setting pace

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2017 saw Toronto FC dominate the MLS regular season before going on to hoist the club’s first MLS Cup in club history.

[ MORE: Whitecaps teen Alphonso Davies nearing Bayern Munich move ]

Fast forward to this season, and three more Eastern Conference sides are poised to break barriers as they continue a near record-setting pace.

Atlanta United, New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls have created a sizable gap over the rest of the East with nearly one-third of the season remaining.

Toronto’s 69-point regular season total a year ago looked like a record that wouldn’t be touched for some time, however, the current trio of dominating forces in the East are all on pace to finish 2018 with 68 points.

Atlanta, NYCFC and the Red Bulls are all averaging two points per game, while Toronto averaged slightly above that total (2.03 ppg) during their MLS Cup-winning run.

The Red Bulls and NYCFC, in particular, could be in line to follow in the footsteps of last season’s Toronto FC.

Manager Chris Armas and the Red Bulls play 10 of their final games against teams outside the current playoff lines in their respective conferences, while Atlanta and NYCFC face five and four playoff teams, respectively.

Here’s a look at how the three teams will finish up the 2018 regular season:

Atlanta United (12 matches)

Montreal Impact, Toronto FC, Columbus Crew, Orlando City, D.C. United, Colorado Rapids, San Jose Earthquakes, Real Salt Lake, New York Red Bulls, New England Revolution, Chicago Fire, Toronto FC

New York City FC (14 matches)

Orlando City, Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC, Philadelphia Union, New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew, New England Revolution, D.C. United, Montreal Impact, Chicago Fire, Minnesota United, D.C. United, Philadelphia Union

New York Red Bulls (15 matches)

D.C. United, Columbus Crew, Los Angeles FC, Chicago Fire, Vancouver Whitecaps, New York City FC, D.C. United, Houston Dynamo, Montreal Impact, D.C. United, Toronto FC, Atlanta United, San Jose Earthquakes, Philadelphia Union, Orlando City

Mesut Ozil discusses critique of Turkish background

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Germany’s dismissal from the World Cup came as a shock to many, but one of its players received heavier scrutiny for off-the-field actions.

[ MORE: Whitecaps teen Alphonso Davies nearing move to Bayern ]

Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil appeared in two of the three group stage matches for the Germans in Russia, however, his play was overshadowed by his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan prior to the start of the tournament.

The meeting between the two caused several German media outlets to criticize Ozil due to the heated relations between the two European nations.

It was for this reason that it appears Ozil has decided to retire from the German national team, which he announced via social media.

Additionally, Ozil says his brand was affected as well, with various sponsors pulling their support due to the meeting with Erdogan.

The 29-year-old is of Turkish and German descent, which would have made him eligible to represent either country.

Ozil took to Twitter on Sunday to discuss how the ordeal has affected how the media and sponsorship has affected him over the last month.

Barcelona, Sevilla to play Spanish Super Cup in Morocco

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La Liga champions Barcelona will meet Sevilla in the 2018 Spanish Super Cup in Tangier, Morocco on August 12.

[ MORE: Klopp talks Pulisic, Liverpool spending ]

The Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF) announced the decision on Sunday, as Barca looks to kick off the 2018 season against last year’s Copa Del Rey runners’ up.

Lionel Messi and Co. defeated Sevilla, 5-0, in the 2017/18 Copa Del Rey final, giving the Blaugrana a domestic double for the first time since the 2015/16 campaign.

La Liga play opens up in Spain on August 19, however, the full fixture list will be revealed on Tuesday.