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Top 5 storylines — 2018 World Cup quarterfinals

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We’re less than 24 hours from the start of the quarterfinals at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Captivating storylines have been plentiful through the first 20 days of the tournament. Here’s five to keep an eye on when the eight remaining teams return to action on Friday and Saturday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Is it really coming home?

When England let Belgium beat them lost to Belgium on the final day of the group stage, it sent the Three Lions to the “easier” side of the knockout bracket — while the Red Devils headed to the side featuring France and Brazil — and, oh boy, has it worked like a charm for England. Spain, the only true giant of the eight, went out in the round of 16 to Russia, thus leaving England a potential path to the final featuring Sweden and Croatia. The objective is clear for England: don’t mess this up, because you’ll almost certainly never get another chance like this. Also of note regarding England: Harry Kane could just about lock up the Golden Boot with another goal (or two), to pad his current 6-4 lead on Romelu Lukaku.

[ MORE: Spurs place $58-million bid for USMNT’s Christian Pulisic ]

Brazil vs. Belgium — meeting of the most impressive sides so far?

No one thrashed through their respective group quite like Belgium did — won all three games and finished with a +7 goal differential — and no one knocked off their round-of-16 foe quite as soundly as Brazil did — the Selecao beat Mexico by a score of 2-0, the only game of the eight to finish with a multiple-goal margin of victory. In that sense, it would be fair to say Brazil and Belgium have been the most impressive teams through their first four games. So, naturally, they’re set to face one another in the second quarterfinal on Friday. It’s a small feather in the cap of those who believe the World Cup should be re-seeded at the conclusion of the group stage.

[ MORE: Key battles in each World Cup quarterfinal match ]

Uruguay face France, without Cavani

Edinson Cavani scored both goals for Uruguay in their 2-1 victory over Portugal in the round of 16, but will now pay a steep price for doing so: Cavani, who alongside Luis Suarez forms arguably the best forward partnership at this World Cup, is expected to miss Friday’s quarterfinal clash with France on Friday. Cavani suffered a calf injury during the second half of the game against Portugal. Cavani (45) has scored more goals during his Uruguay career than anyone not named Suarez (53).

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(When) will the “upsets” stop?

While Belgium beating Brazil would only constitute a mild upset (compared to everything we’ve seen thus far), it would still signal the elimination of the next-to-last remaining pre-tournament favorite. The same goes for Uruguay versus France, though most would see that as more of a shocker than an upset. It’s possible that we could end up with a World Cup final featuring not a single team from outside the top 10 of the current FIFA rankings (Uruguay versus anyone from the other half), but more likely that we’ll see a final without a top-six side (France, who are currently ranked seventh).

[ MORE: World Cup quarterfinal predictions ]

What if the upsets don’t stop?

Speaking of upsets, Uruguay versus Belgium, and Russia versus Sweden — that’s a very possible final-four field, should anyone expect to waltz through their matchup on Friday or Saturday. While everyone is penciling in an England versus Croatia semifinal, and hoping to put England through to the final, if we have learned anything from this tournament, it’s that it would be very stupid to look past Russia and Sweden. Would it be the star-studded semifinal showdown everyone projected, or get excited for, before the tournament started three weeks ago? Certainly not, but it feels like an ending perfectly befitting this particularly crazy World Cup.

LAFC’s Adama Diomande voluntarily enters MLS’s health program

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Los Angeles FC forward Adama Diomande has entered Major League Soccer’s substance abuse and behavioral health program.

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MLS announced Diomande’s voluntary decision Friday.

Diomande won’t play for LAFC at least until the program’s doctors complete their evaluation and he is cleared by program officials.

The 29-year-old Norwegian scorer has eight goals and seven assists in 25 appearances this season, including 15 starts. He has played a valuable complementary offensive role alongside MLS scoring leader Carlos Vela.

[ MORE: Report: Netherlands FA to meet with Sergiño Dest ]

Diomande is in his second MLS season after joining LAFC from Hull City. He also previously played under LAFC coach Bob Bradley in Norway.

LAFC (19-4-7) has clinched the Western Conference title, and it leads the overall MLS table by seven points despite a four-game winless streak.

Premier League Preview: Newcastle v. Brighton

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  • Early-season relegation battlers meet on Saturday
  • 18th-place Newcastle to host 16th-place Brighton
  • Brighton won at Newcastle, drew at home last season

Newcastle United and Brighton & Hove Albion, a pair of Premier League sides with just two wins from the first five weeks of the season between them, will meet at St. James’ Park on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) for what could prove to be a retrospective relegation six-pointer when May rolls around.

Each side replaced its manager — Steve Bruce for Rafa Benitez at Newcastle; Graham Potter for Chris Hughton at Bright — in the summer and neither of the new bosses has had a particularly enjoyable start to the 2019-20 campaign. Brighton won on the opening day of the season, but have taken just two points from the following four games. Newcastle lost their first two games, won their third, and have drawn and lost again since. It’s the kind of form that’ll see both sides stuck in the high-teens of the PL table if they don’t find their footing in the coming weeks.

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Things are particularly worrying for Newcastle, who didn’t they’d be without Benitez until the end of June and didn’t appoint Bruce until mid-July. Key players had already left the club and reinforcements for few and far between. Forward Joelinton joined for $50 million and is one of four players with a single goal scored thus far.

Last week was nearly fruitful for the Seagulls, until the conceded a stoppage-time equalizer and settle for a point at home against Burnley. Summer signing Neal Maupay bagged his second goal for Brighton earlier in the game, giving Potter a potential trump card over a handful of other relegation-threatened sides without a consistent goalscorer.

Injuries/suspensions

Newcastle: OUT – Matt Ritchie (ankle), Florian Lejeune (knee), Dwight Gayle (calf); QUESTIONABLE – DeAndre Yedlin (groin)

Brighton: OUT – Leandro Trossard (groin), Jose Izquierdo (knee), Ezequiel Schelotto (knee)


Projected lineups

Newcastle: Dubravka – Krafth, Schar, Lascelles, Dummett, Willems – Almiron, Hayden, Shelvey, Atsu – Joelinton

Brighton: Ryan – Duffy, Dunk, Webster – March, Stephens, Propper, Burn – Gross, Maupay, Murray


What they’re saying

Joelinton, on Andy Carroll: “It’s always great to have experienced players in the group, and he’s one of them. He can help the club, he can help the young players. Andy Carroll has scored a lot of goals in the Premier League, and it’s great to be playing alongside him. He’s a calm guy. I still haven’t spoken to him a lot because my English isn’t great! But every day he’s trying to help. He’ll help me before the games, he’ll give me positional advice and suggest what I’ve done both good and bad.”

Graham Potter, on the trip to Newcastle: “Newcastle away is a tough game just like all the others. We don’t target particular matches — it’s about what we need to do to get a positive result. They have an experienced manager who I came across last year and he’s someone I have a lot of respect for. They have good quality players and we know it can be a hostile environment, it’s a big club and we know we have to play well to get something.  Steve has a lot of games under his belt – he’s had a lot of success and he’ll understand the challenge that lies ahead.


Prediction

Newcastle haven’t scored multiple goals in a game yet this season, and they’ve conceded twice as many as they’ve scored (four). It’s hard to trust them to be anything resembling consistent from game to game. It wouldn’t be surprising if they battled to a boring 0-0 draw, or conceding three times before halftime. It’ll probably be closer to the former, a 1-1 stalemate.

AC Milan announces internal anti-racism task force

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MILAN (AP) AC Milan has announced it will establish an internal task force to address racism in Italian football.

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The club says the task force will be supported by “an external consultancy” and “develop a program of activities to increase awareness, monitor and address racist behavior on social media and in the stadium, and drive the adoption of global best practices on diversity and inclusion.”

The move comes after reports of racist chants directed at Milan midfielder Franck Kessie, who is black, during a match at Hellas Verona last weekend.

Milan says the anti-racism initiative will be launched during Saturday’s derby against Inter Milan.

[ MORE: Premier League TV, streaming schedule ]

Inter striker Romelu Lukaku was subjected to racist chants in a match at Cagliari this month.

Milan CEO Ivan Gazidis, who is South African, says: “Italian football needs to wake up and take a strong stance against racist behaviors. AC Milan will take a leadership position on this issue. . We believe that we have a moral obligation to do everything we can to address this issue.”

Slow start dooms Southampton again: ‘We lost the game in first half’

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Slow starts are, ironically, quickly becoming the story of Southampton’s Premier League season. It happened again on Friday, resulting in a 3-1 home defeat to Bournemouth in the Premier League‘s budding south coast rivalry

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Through six games, Saints have conceded the first goal four times. In those four games, they have taken just one point. When scoring the game’s first goal, they have two wins and two clean sheets.

It would appear that Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s side is set up to play one way, and one way only. Speaking after Friday’s defeat, Hasenhuttl lamented his side’s slow start, conceding that the game was all but lost when they fell 2-0 behind in the 35 minutes — quotes from the BBC:

“The finish was not important anymore. If you lose 2-1 or 3-1 it does not make too much difference. We lost the game in the first half.

“In the second half, we were sharp. Had about 26 shots to six from Bournemouth but the most important stat is the goals. They scored three, we scored once.

“We weren’t aggressive enough and too easy in the first half. It is not easy to be 1-0 down after 10 minutes. We had a lot of blocked shots and misses near the post. It was a good performance in the second half but without a result.

“For the second goal was had a lot of players in our attacking box so it was not easy to defend.

“We showed a good reaction because we knew we needed to be brave. We changed our shape and were aggressive for the second ball. It gave us 64% possession and we had a lot of shots. Maybe we didn’t deserve to take something because of our first half.”

Southampton’s next chance to start a game quickly will come in an away bout with Tottenham Hotspur next Saturday.