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How does the UEFA Nations League work?

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GENEVA (AP) Soccer’s newest competition kicks off this week in Europe with few knowing all the details of a complex format.

The UEFA Nations League certainly will get off to a good start: Germany hosts World Cup champion France on Thursday, England faces Spain on Saturday, Portugal plays Italy on Monday and Spain takes on Croatia on Tuesday.

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In simple terms, the competition involves all 55 European national teams, playing in small groups and separated into four tiers using promotion and relegation, and produces a champion at a mini-tournament next June.

It will also award at least one place at the 2020 European Championship to one of the lowest-ranked teams on the continent.

Because of the Nations League, traditional qualifying for Euro 2020 will start in March instead of the usual September following a World Cup.

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UEFA believes all its member federations are getting something they like. Top-ranked nations want to play each other; the middle teams want winnable competitive games; low-ranked nations want hope of reaching major tournaments.

The North American soccer region now has its own version, while UEFA also designed a global version for about 220 teams which FIFA already has plans to adopt.

WHAT IS THE NATIONS LEAGUE?

A group stage involving 55 teams playing in four levels – Leagues A, B, C and D – from this week until November; a Final Four mini-tournament in June 2019 for the group winners of League A; playoffs in March 2020 in all four tiers to fill the last four Euro 2020 qualifying places.

The last detail is the incentive for European soccer’s smaller teams.

At least one League D team – possibly Azerbaijan, Belarus or Luxembourg, for instance – will qualify for Euro 2020.

WHY CREATE IT?

Few people seemed to like international friendlies which “really don’t interest anybody,” then-UEFA president Michel Platini said when launching the Nations League in March 2014.

Plus, the biennial format should be good for business.

“These matches are relevant for every single market so you optimize in each market,” UEFA marketing director Guy-Laurent Epstein has said.

UEFA hopes promotion of group winners and relegation of last-place teams up and down the four Nations League tiers will keep it dynamic.

GROUP STAGE

Groups of three or four teams play home and away on the usual national-team match dates protected by FIFA.

Teams in the top-two tiers – League A and B, each with four groups of three nations – still have dates free for friendlies against teams like Brazil and Argentina.

Lower-ranked teams are all booked up in the four-team groups of Leagues C and D.

FINAL FOUR

The four group winners from League A advance to a Final Four to decide the Nations League champion.

The semifinals, third-place game and final will be played in one nation from June 5-9. The host will be the winner of the Italy-Poland-Portugal group.

EURO 2020 QUALIFYING

The Nations League pushes back Euro 2020 qualifying into 2019, and affects the 10 groups to be drawn on Dec. 2 in Dublin.

Top-tier teams going to the Final Four must be in one of the five smaller groups of five teams. That clears their June schedule for the mini-tournament.

The other five Euro 2020 qualifying groups have six teams, using all the FIFA dates to play 10 games from next March through November.

The top two teams in each qualifying group automatically advance to Euro 2020. The remaining four places in the 24-team lineup will be decided in Nations League playoffs.

EURO 2020 PLAYOFFS

In March 2020, each Nations League tier will have a four-team playoff bracket with the winner advancing to Euro 2020.

Playoffs will be for teams that failed to earn a direct Euro 2020 entry through the qualifying groups. Playoff entries will go to Nations League group winners, or teams with the next-best record.

The League A playoffs could be filled by League B teams because most top-tier teams will advance through the traditional qualifying format.

The Euro 2020 draw will be in April, just a few weeks before the tournament begins in Rome.

POTENTIAL LOSERS

Top European clubs who liked to keep star players out of national team squads for friendlies are not delighted with extra competitive games on the calendar.

Even if national teams are not desperate to win the Nations League, the threat of relegation should mean strong teams are fielded.

Brazil, Argentina and other non-European nations also have fewer options for lucrative friendlies, especially in 2019.

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Messi finishes season leading La Liga in goals, assists, and more

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Lionel Messi turns 32 this summer, and after more than a dozen years of first team soccer, playing more than 50 games a season, the old man’s still got it.

The Argentine star, playing his first season in almost a decade without direct competition from Cristiano Ronaldo, scored twice as Barcelona tied Eibar, 2-2. The two goals gave him 34 for the season, by far the most by any player in the league, and his 50th in all competitions.

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Messi also led La Liga this season with 13 assists, 136 shots, 85 shots on target and 70 through balls. In terms of successful dribbles, Messi’s 132 fell seven short of Celta Vigo’s Sofiane Boufal.

Messi’s 34 goals gave him his sixth Pichichi, the trophy given to the league’s leading scorer. Messi is now tied with legendary Telmo Zarra for the all-time record of most Pichichi’s, and Messi is now three ahead of Ronaldo.

As if Messi wasn’t already a legendary player, the man seems to be showing no signs of slowing down. It may have helped that he skipped matches with Argentina after the 2018 World Cup this past fall, keeping him fresh for Barcelona. Even so, the man looks as good, if not better, with age.

Messi already holds the record for most goals in league history, and at this rate, he’ll set it to a level that will be almost impossible to reach. While he’s going to be remembered for his incredible control on the ball, it doesn’t hurt that he’s been incredibly productive during his career, including in 2018-2019. Barcelona won the league title with ease and the club made the UEFA Champions League semifinal. If for some better defending, Messi could be contesting for another Champions League title.

Nani scores twice as Orlando City thrashes FC Cincinnati

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Nani may not be the star he once was while he played for Manchester United, but he’s still making a powerful impact in MLS.

The Portuguese international scored his sixth and seventh goals of the season as Orlando City ran circles expansion side FC Cincinnati, winning 5-1. Along with Nani, Tesho Akindele scored a brace and Dom Dwyer came off the bench and scored a header in the win.

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Aside from having a chance to record a big win over a struggling side, Orlando City may have been ultra motivated on Sunday. Orlando City manager James O’Connor has history with FC Cincinnati from his time at Louisville City, with intense rivalry matches taking place as well as arguments between O’Connor and former FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch on the sidelines.

FC Cincinnati actually went up early with a Darren Mattocks finish past Brian Rowe, but it didn’t take long for Orlando City to respond. Akindele fired home from 20-yards out in the 37th minute to make it 1-1. Early in the second half, Nani scored on a penalty kick rebound to make it 2-1 to the hosts, and then he added a second off a cross from the right to blast the game wide open.

With the win, Orlando City moved just one point outside of a playoff place, while Cincinnati remains in the basement of the Eastern Conference. However, Orlando City has a difficult road ahead, with matches against the LA Galaxy, Montreal Impact and D.C. United to come.

Serie A: Napoli rout Inter, leaving UCL race wide open heading into final week

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The race for the third and four places in Serie A, and with it, a berth in the UEFA Champions League next season, remain open heading into the final week of the season, thanks to a stellar performance from Napoli.

Playing at home in the Stadio San Paolo, Napoli thrashed Inter Milan, 4-1, to keep Inter in fourth place in the table on 66 points. That’s just one point ahead of AC Milan in fifth place, which jumped up after a 2-0 win over Frosinone, and three points ahead of AS Roma, which succumbed to a scoreless draw with Sassuolo this weekend. Atalanta meanwhile came ten minutes from beating Juventus in Turin, and even with a point in a 1-1 draw, Atalanta is still only in third place by 66 points.

[READ: Bayern Munich still too good for the rest this season]

Piotr Zielinski made a statement with a 30-yard blast past Samir Handanovic in the 16th minute to put Napoli up 1-0 and then Dries Mertens and a pair of goals from Fabian Ruiz gave the Neapolitans a massive lead, while leaving Inter in a precarious position. Mauro Icardi scored late to give Inter a small reprieve, but the defeat was set and it leaves Inter essentially needing to win in the final week of the season to secure a place in the Champions League next year.

Elsewhere, Josip Ilicic scored his 12th league goal of the season as Atalanta took Juventus down to the wire in Juve’s final home match of the season. Juventus fans serenaded Andrea Barzagli, playing his final game for the Bianconeri, and even had a message of support for Daniele De Rossi.

Gianluigi Buffon was even in attendance.

Also in action in Serie A, Parma beat Fiorentina, 1-0 and Empoli defeated Torino, 4-1.

Report: Former Chelsea great Clarke set to be new Scotland manager

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The Scotland FA is set to appoint a former Chelsea star as its new men’s national team manager.

Former Chelsea midfielder, and West Bromwich Albion and Reading manager Steve Clarke is reportedly in talks with the Scotland FA to take over the national team. Clarke has a difficult job ahead, with Scotland already having lost, 3-0, at Kazakhstan in UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying.

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Although Scotland finished top of their group in Level C of the UEFA Nations League and earned promotion to League B, the team’s play was very up and down under Alex McLeish, back in the job after a one-year spell in 2017. McLeish eventually lost the federation’s support after the 3-0 defeat at Kazakhstan, ranked then 117th in the world, made Scotland look like Europe’s whipping boy. Though Scotland saved some face with a 2-0 win over San Marino, the damage was done.

Clarke, after disappointing tenures at West Bromwich and Reading in his first full managerial roles, has since found success in Scotland. He’s led Kilmarnock this season to third place in the table and a spot in the Europa League, an impressive feat considering the club’s budget is dwarfed by Celtic and Rangers. Aberdeen have impressed, while both Hibernian and Hearts of Midlothain have also recently spent big on new signings, yet Kilmarnock finished above them this season.

Clarke, who only played a half dozen times for Scotland during his playing career, will now have to galvanize the squad ahead of two crucial qualifications in June and quickly imprint his tactical ideas and plan in a short amount of time. During his time at Chelsea, Clarke won the FA Cup, League Cup, and UEFA Cup Winners Cup between 1987 and 1998. He was also assistant coach under Jose Mourinho and played a key role in some of their most successful seasons.