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Key battles in each World Cup quarterfinal match

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The World Cup has reached the quarterfinal stage – the point in the competition where no slouches are left, all the pretenders have packed their bags, and only the truly cohesive squads remain. We’ve seen some barnburners, some defensive grinders, and plenty of exciting moments.

With just eight teams left, there will be plenty of key matchups in each game for pundits to dissect, white boards to draw, and coaches to highlight. Here are a few of those battles that each team must work around.

Uruguay vs. France – Edinson Cavani vs. Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane

France will get its opportunities to score goals, of that there is no doubt. Diego Godin leads one of the most gritty back lines remaining in the big dance, but Kylian Mbappe has already shredded enough defensive units to know that he will provide France chance to take.

With that in mind, the true test will come on the other end of the pitch. France’s defensive unit has been shaky, while Uruguay’s attack is banged up. Cavani came off injured in the dying minutes of the 2-1 Round of 16 victory over Portugal, while Luis Suarez was reportedly injured in Uruguay training. Can they test the French central defenders enough to keep up with the high-powered France attack? They may be forced to play in from the flanks, where France is the weakest. Lucas Hernandez has been surprisingly solid, but aside from scoring a wonder goal against Argentina, young Benjamin Pavard has been mediocre at best. That may be Uruguay’s best chance to score.

Brazil vs. Belgium – Philippe Coutinho and Willian vs. Belgium midfield

Brazil defensive midfielder Casemiro is out thanks to picking up his second yellow card of the tournament in the previous match, so that may very well leave his midfield partner Paulinho on an island.

[ MORE: Tite’s biggest tactical test comes in Casemiro’s absence ]

That’s not where we’re focused on here. No, we’re looking in the other direction. With Brazil likely to maintain a significant portion of the possession, They will look to build their attack through the midfield where Japan exposed a serious weakness in the Belgian setup. In the first half of their Round of 16 matchup, Japan ran the ball straight down Belgium’s throat, with only Axel Witsel covering the back line. It worked. After halftime, Roberto Martinez brought on Marouane Fellaini to shore up the midfield, plus Nacer Chadli to help give the Japanese something else to think about, and it shifted the tide of the match.

So who will Roberto Martinez start in midfield against Brazil? If Witsel and Fellaini are paired from the opening whistle, it may nullify Coutinho’s influence and put pressure on Willian, who has had an underrated tournament thus far. If Witsel is by himself, Coutinho may have a field day.

Sweden vs. England – Emil Forsberg vs. Kyle Walker

Emil Forsberg could give England problems on Sweden’s left wing (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images).

Is this a matchup we could see in the Premier League this coming season? Emil Forsberg has seen one of the tournament’s biggest breakout performances, and he could be on the radar for a summer switch. He plays on the left wing, the same side as Walker’s assignment as part of the back three.

Walker has been impressive in his center-back role, but has slipped up at times. It hasn’t cost England dearly yet, but could Forsberg make Gareth Southgate pay for his experimentation on the biggest stage? Sweden’s shape and structure have been incredibly impressive so far in Russia, and if they can keep Harry Kane and company at bay, one goal may decide the match, and Forsberg’s movement and creativity will be critical for Sweden.

Russia vs. Croatia – Roman Zobnin and Daler Kuzyaev vs. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic

Croatia’s midfield is being hailed as the best of the remaining World Cup teams, and they have carved up defensive shape after defensive shape. Croatia has beaten Nigeria, Argentina, Iceland, and Denmark so far, all teams known for their ability to lock down the center of the pitch.

Luka Modric has deserved the Golden Ball noise he’s getting to this point, but Ivan Rakitic has been the secret weapon, pairing with Modric flawlessly moving forward. If Russia is going to win this match, they won’t be able to just bunker in and earn a 0-0 draw. They will have to open up to score, and that means keeping Modric and Rakitic locked down despite the additional space. Zobnin and Kuzyaev performed fabulously against Spain, but were aided by Fernando Hierro’s static tactics. Can the inexperienced duo – just 26 caps between the 24- and 25-year-old pair – repeat the performance against the tournament’s best midfield tandem?

Serie A: Atalanta, Inter snatch UCL places on wild final day

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s final-day action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Chelsea, Real Madrid remain $38 million apart on Eden Hazard deal ]

Sampdoria (9th) 2-0 Juventus (1st)

With their eighth straight scudetto long since clinched, Juve slumped their way to the season’s finish line without a win in their final five games (three draws), including Sunday’s 2-0 loss away to Sampdoria. It was 0-0 for 83 minute, until Gregoire Defrel (84th) and Gianluca Caprari (91st) bagged late goals for the victory.

Atalanta (3rd) 3-1 Sassuolo (11th)

Atalanta completed their fairytale season and finished third in a hugely dramatic, chaotic way befitting their rapid rise to Champions League relevance. They finished 17th and avoided relegation by three points in 2015.

First, they fell behind when Domenico Berardi scored in the 19th minute. They were level by the 35 minute, thanks to Duvan Zapata’s equalizer. Then, things got weird.

Berardi was sent off during a massive skirmish between the two sides while leaving the field for halftime. With the score 1-1, and both Inter Milan and AC Milan ahead after 51 minutes, Atalanta were headed for a fifth-place finish.

Alejandro Gomez put Atalanta ahead three minutes later, though, and Mario Pasalic doubled the advantage in the 65th.

Inter Milan (4th) 2-1 Empoli (18th – relegated)

At that 51-minute mark, Keita Balde’s opening goal put Inter ahead of Empoli, but the visitors equalized in the 76th, briefly dropping them to fifth.

That lasted all of five minutes, as Radja Nainggolan put Luciano Spaletti’s side back in front, where they would finish the season. The top-four finished the day exactly as it began — Atalanta in 3rd and Inter Milan in 4th, each on 69 points.

SPAL (13th) 2-3 AC Milan (5th)

For those five glorious minutes, AC Milan were headed back to the Champions League for the first time since 2014, and were set to do so at the expense of their local rivals.

Finishing fourth, but behind Inter, would have been fine, but finishing fourth and ahead of Inter would have been a dreamland outcome. Alas, it’s a fifth-place finish on 68 points and another season in the Europa League for the Rossoneri.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Bologna (10th) 3-2 Napoli (2nd – Saturday)
Frosinone (19th – relegated) 0-0 Chievo (20th – relegated – Saturday)
Roma (6th) 2-1 Parma (14th)
Torino (7th) 3-1 Lazio (8th)
Cagliari (15th) 1-2 Udinese (12th)
Fiorentina (16th) 0-0 Genoa (17th)

Chelsea’s Kante to miss Europa League final with new injury

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N'Golo Kante is set to miss Chelsea’s Europa League final showdown with Arsenal on Wednesday after suffering a knee injury during a training session this weekend.

[ MORE: Chelsea, Real Madrid remain $38 million apart on Eden Hazard deal ]

Kante missed Chelsea’s two most recent fixtures — their Premier League finale and the second leg of the UEL semifinals — due to a hamstring injury suffered on May 5, but was on course to be fit and available from the start when the London giants meet in Baku, Azerbaijan. Now, though, the Frenchman’s latest injury has all but ruled him out with one final piece of silverware on the line.

According to a report from the Guardian, the injury occurred when the 2018 World Cup winner made a challenge to win the ball during Saturday’s training session. He left the field in “clear discomfort” and will undergo the requisite examinations to determine the severity of the injury.

[ MORE: USWNT wins final match before World Cup (video) ]

In the unfortunate event that Kante’s injury turns out to be serious and keeps him out of action into the start of next season, the Blues would find themselves in a world of trouble. The club’s season-long transfer ban would prevent them from signing even a single replacement for one of the Premier League’s most influential figures.

Antonio Rudiger (knee), Callum Hudson-Odoi (achilles) and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (achilles) will also miss out on Wednesday’s final due to long-term injuries.

Transfer rumor roundup: Chukwuese to Liverpool, Gomes to West Ham

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As fallout begins from Barcelona’s losses in the UEFA Champions League semifinals and Copa del Rey Final, players are being linked with moves away from the Camp Nou.

Andre Gomes, 25, already spent a year away from Barca, playing around 2000 minutes on loan to Everton this season.

[ MORE: USWNT wins final World Cup tune-up ]

The Times says that Everton would like to keep the player, but West Ham has made a $22 million bid for the EURO 2016 winner.

Meanwhile, Metro says that Xherdan Shaqiri could be one-and-done at Liverpool, making room for another Reds’ buy.

Samuel Chukwuese is the name, and the 20-year-old Nigerian plies his trade at Villarreal.

The Yellow Submarine flirted with relegation this season, taxed by the Europa League, and Chukwuese was a bright spot. He scored seven goals and added three assists in 38 matches across all competitions.

USWNT wins final match before World Cup (video)

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Tobin Heath, Mallory Pugh, and Christen Press all scored and then United States women’s national team was rarely threatened in a 3-0 win that stands as the final tune-up for the World Cup in France.

The U.S. will meet Thailand, Nigeria, and Chile in Group F play beginning on June 11.

[ MORE: Real, Chelsea debate Hazard fee ]

The match was barely 10 minutes old when Heath took advantage of terrible miscommunication between Mexican goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago and Rebeca Bernal.

There was still work to do when Heath got the ball, finding the angle to make it 1-0.

Carli Lloyd nearly slid a ball home after dribbling Santiago in the 48th minute, but was defied by a goal line clearance.

The second goal came when Lloyd dribbled toward the near post from a tight angle, sliding a pass to Pugh for a 2-0 lead.

Press completed the scoring with a classy finish in the final minutes.