Goal-fest possible in France-Belgium World Cup semifinal

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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) Considering the attacking strength of France and Belgium, there’s potential for a goal-fest when the European neighbors meet in the World Cup semifinals.

There was less at stake the last time the teams last went head-to-head at the World Cup, a 4-2 victory for France in the third-place match in 1986. That was the last competitive match between the two countries but there have been eight international friendlies since.

Belgium won two of those, including the last one: an exhibition three years ago at Stade de France when the Belgians took a three-goal lead five minutes into the second half and held on to win 4-3.

With the second-youngest roster at the World Cup, France has shown no fear and advanced to its first World Cup semifinal since 2006 led by 19-year-old forward Kylian Mbappe and a pair of inexperienced attacking fullbacks in Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez.

“We’re not scared of anyone,” Pavard said. “We’ve been confident from the start and we’re not asking any questions of ourselves.”

Coach Didier Deschamps, who was captain when France won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championship, has instilled a steely mentality.

“He motivates the troops with strong words,” Pavard said. “We’re ready to go to war with him.”

CONFIDENT COACHING

Deschamps made bold decisions to start Pavard on the right and Lucas Hernandez on the left. The pair, both 22, have only 20 international appearances between them but are playing with good composure.

In Belgium, there were doubts about Roberto Martinez’s ability to transfer the country’s individual talent into a collective force. Fans welcomed his arrival in August 2016 with lukewarm enthusiasm because he’d only recently been fired by Everton in the Premier League.

His tenure began with a 2-0 home loss to Spain, but since then Belgium is unbeaten in 23 games and has scored 78 goals – being held scoreless in only one of those games. With former France striker Thierry Henry as an assistant coach, Belgium leads the scoring in Russia with 14 goals in its five World Cup matches.

“He’s given the team the desire to attack,” French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet said of Henry’s influence on the Belgian team. “The forwards go to see him. He’s held in high esteem.”

Martinez’s tactics have stood out, too.

With Belgium trailing Japan 2-0 in the round of 16, Martinez replaced two wide players with two midfielders and they both scored.

LLORIS VS. COURTOIS

Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and France No. 1 Hugo Lloris could be busy.

Lloris has been criticized during the past year after errors for France and Tottenham.

In France’s World Cup opener against Australia, he let a long shot go past him and watched in relief as it hit the crossbar. But Lloris appeared to be at his commanding best in the quarterfinal win over Uruguay, rushing off his line to push away a low cross and later making a superb low save.

Belgium has height and heading ability in defenders Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini.

Courtois entered the tournament as one of the top goalkeepers and has enhanced reputation with an outstanding quarterfinal performance against Brazil.

French striker Olivier Giroud thinks Lloris has the edge over Courtois, his club teammate at Chelsea.

“They’re both very good on their line, but Hugo is more explosive,” Giroud said. “The best is Hugo. Sorry, Thibaut.”

MEUNIER OUT

Belgium must cope without defender Thomas Meunier, whose runs down the flank are a key part of Belgium’s attack.

Meunier is suspended after tripping Brazil star Neymar and earning a second yellow card of the tournament. In Meunier’s absence, Martinez may scrap his 3-5-2 formation with wingbacks, and instead switch to a back four in a more compact defense.

HAZARD OUTLET

Star forward Eden Hazard is known for his attacking prowess, but he also is an outlet for Belgium’s defense. Hazard runs at pace and cuts inside. Because of his quick feet, change of direction and exquisite close control, he is difficult to tackle and this often draws a foul.

MBAPPE THREAT

While Giroud has yet to score at this World Cup, his ability to hold the ball up suits France’s system and allows Mbappe to make runs down the right flank. It also gives Antoine Griezmann space to roam.

“I try to create gaps for my teammates,” Giroud said. “It’s my unselfish side.”

He needs one goal to move ahead of France great Zinedine Zidane. They are tied on fourth overall with 31.

Griezmann has scored two penalty kicks and set up Raphael Varane’s headed goal against Uruguay. But he has not shown the form he did when he led France in scoring en route to the Euro 2016 final, when Les Bleus lost to Portugal.

Belgium struggled against Japan when defending quick and mobile players.

Follow Jerome Pugmire on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeromepugmire

More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

USWNT’s O’Hara begins World Cup prep with surgery, 8-12 weeks out

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Kelley O’Hara is set for some time on the mend as the United States women’s national team begins its preparation for this summer’s World Cup.

O’Hara, 30, will miss 8-12 weeks after undergoing surgery to remove “loose bodies” in her ankle, according to a U.S. Soccer press release.

[ MORE: PL Player Power Rankings ]

That means the 112-times capped defender will not play in next month’s newly-announced European friendlies against Portugal and Scotland.

“It’s all good. These kinds of things come with the territory,” O’Hara said. “This is just the best time to get the procedure done so I’m one hundred percent heading into 2019 and physically ready to perform at the level I want to and need to. It’s a bummer that I won’t get to Europe, but the most important thing is to be healthy for next year.”

O’Hara scored in the 2015 World Cup semifinal, and has an Olympic gold to go with that tournament title. She’s won two SheBelieves Cups and three Algarve Cups.

Man United arrive late (again) for Juventus game

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Manchester United do not travel well. Even in Manchester. Traffic sucks.

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The Red Devils arrived at Old Trafford just 52 minutes before kick off for their huge UEFA Champions League group stage clash against Juventus on Tuesday.

Juve’s team bus also arrived late and United’s manager Jose Mourinho revealed he arrived at the stadium by jumping off the bus then walking among the fans, while wearing a hoodie so nobody would recognize him.

What is all this about?

United turned up late for their last UCL home game against Valencia and were subsequently fined by UEFA as the kick off was delayed with their bus stuck in traffic in Manchester.

Even though United switched hotels to be even closer to Old Trafford ahead of this massive game against Juve, the players were still stuck in traffic for 45 minutes extra as Mourinho said his walk from the hotel to the stadium took two minutes. Of course, the whole United squad could not have walked through the 75,000 fans heading to the game amid safety fears, so something needs to be done to address this situation. Traffic in Manchester is bad, but it is not that bad.

Plus, it appears someone did spot Mourinho…

UCL, LIVE: Man United v. Juventus headlines action

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The pivotal third round of the UEFA Champions League group stage kicks off on Tuesday, with teams across Europe ready to either push on towards the Round of 16 or kiss goodbye to their dreams of being crowned champions of the continent for at least another season.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

There is no doubting where the big game is, as Manchester United host Juventus at Old Trafford with Cristiano Ronaldo returning to his old club. Jose Mourinho’s United have struggled in the Premier League this season but a win against Italian powerhouse Juve would surely set them back on the right path.

Elsewhere, Manchester City head to Shakhtar Donetsk knowing they need a win after losing their opening UCL group game against Lyon which put them in a spot of bother.

Struggling Real Madrid are in action as the three-time reigning European champions are expected to waltz by Viktoria Plzen, but they did lose to CSKA Moscow last time out.

Click on the link above to follow the action live. Below is the look at the full schedule for Tuesday, with all games kicking off at 2:45 p.m. ET.


Tuesday

Group E
Ajax v. Benfica

Group F
Shakhtar Donetsk v. Manchester City
Hoffenheim v. Lyon

Group G
Real Madrid v. Viktoria Plzen
Roma v. CSKA Moscow

Group H
Manchester United v. Juventus

Premier League player Power Rankings: Week 9

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The latest Premier League player Power Rankings have arrived. It is time to sort through them after some stunning displays over the past few days.

[ MORE: Full Power Rankings archive ]

The top five are all new entries, while there are also some big drops for big names are subdued displays in Week 9.

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League and based on them actually playing in the previous Matchweek. If they didn’t play due to injury or suspension, they aren’t going to make this list. Simple.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections.


  1. Mesut Ozil (Arsenal) – New entry
  2. Anthony Martial (Man United) – New entry
  3. Riyad Mahrez (Man City) – New entry
  4. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – New entry
  5. Hugo Lloris (Tottenham) – New entry
  6. Jordan Pickford (Everton) – New entry
  7. Bernardo Silva (Man City) – Up 1
  8. Eden Hazard (Chelsea) – Down 7
  9. N’Golo Kante (Chelsea) – Down 3
  10. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) New entry
  11. Ross Barkley (Chelsea) – Down 2
  12. Jorginho (Chelsea) – Down 5
  13. Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton) – Down 10
  14. John Stones (Man City) – Down 1
  15. Etienne Capoue (Watford) – New entry
  16. David Silva (Man City) – Up 2
  17. Erik Lamela (Tottenham) – New entry
  18. Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) – Down 16
  19. Josh Murphy (Cardiff) – New entry
  20. Paul Pogba (Man United) – Down 16