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UEFA Nations League reaches exciting climax

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It has plunged Germany into renewed crisis, provoked scenes of jubilation in Kosovo and Gibraltar, and set up what could be an exciting week of international soccer in a summer usually bereft of competition for European countries.

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The UEFA Nations League might not have been welcomed by some clubs across the continent – Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp called it “the most senseless competition in the world of football” – but it has generated plenty of intriguing story lines to pique interest in its inaugural year.

The competition has reached its final set of qualifying matches, and results over the next week will determine which teams will feature in a Final Four mini-tournament in June – when the first Nations League champion will be crowned. Currently, France, Belgium, Portugal and Spain are favorites to be the finalists.

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The upcoming matches will also establish which of the lower-ranked teams qualify for the Nations League playoffs, from which one place at the 2020 European Championship will be awarded.

Here’s a look at what’s at stake:

GROUP A1

France, the world champion, has won two of its first three group games and will advance to the Final Four with a win over the Netherlands in Rotterdam on Friday. A victory for the Dutch means they can then qualify by beating – or potentially even drawing with – Germany in the group closer in Gelsenkirchen on Monday.

France has seen four players, including Paul Pogba, withdraw from the squad through injury on Monday.

Germany is last in the group, having collected one point from three games, and is on the brink of relegation to League B featuring Europe’s second-tier nations. Coming after a World Cup where the team failed to get out of the group stage, coach Germany coach Joachim Loew’s decision to stay on in the role is under as much scrutiny as the team’s mettle.

GROUP A2

Iceland has already been relegated after losing its first three games, leaving Belgium and Switzerland – tied on points – to battle for first place. The Belgians have played a game less, so a home win over Iceland on Thursday will leave them three points clear heading into the group decider in Switzerland on Monday.

Belgium is the world’s top-ranked team and will look for revenge for its semifinal loss to France at the World Cup if it does reach the Final Four.

GROUP A3

There is an added emphasis on which of Portugal or Italy advances, considering the team that qualifies from this group will host the Final Four in June. Portugal is the favorite after winning its first two games, without needing Cristiano Ronaldo, and needs only a point away to Italy on Saturday to guarantee first place.

If Italy wins, Portugal can still finish top with a home win on Tuesday over Poland, which has already been relegated after picking up just one point from its first three games.

GROUP A4

Spain looked on course to qualify comfortably from a group also containing England and World Cup runner-up Croatia after beating both teams in its first two games. Losing to England 3-2 in Sevilla last month, in arguably the standout match of the entire group stage so far, has kept things alive.

If Spain loses to Croatia in Zagreb on Thursday, England can finish first with a win over the Croats at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Spain coach Luis Enrique has called up Barcelona left back Jordi Alba for the first time since taking charge of the team after the World Cup.

LEAGUE B

Ukraine became the first country to secure promotion to Group A for the second Nations League, in 2020. Bosnia and Russia are well clear in their groups and need one point from their final matches, against Austria and Sweden respectively, to also ensure promotion.

In the other group in League B, Wales and Denmark are fighting for first place. They meet in Cardiff on Friday, when a Welsh win would guarantee them top spot.

The Nations League also offers a second chance to qualify for the European Championship in 2020. The 16 group winners in Leagues A, B, C and D – or the next best-placed teams who have not already qualified via the European qualifiers starting in March – will progress to the playoffs to compete for the last four qualifying places.

It means the so-called minnows of Europe have something tangible to play for.

LEAGUE C

No teams have won their group so far, though Finland is close after winning its first four games in Group C2 and needs one point from its last two.

In Group C1, Israel and Scotland are batting for first place; in Group C3, Norway and Bulgaria are tied on points with two games left; and in Group C4, there is a three-way fight between Serbia, Montenegro and Romania.

LEAGUE D

In the league containing Europe’s weakest countries, Gibraltar and Kosovo – two of the newest members of UEFA – have claimed their first ever competitive international wins.

Kosovo is top of Group D3, two points clear of Azerbaijan with two games left. Gibraltar is second behind Macedonia in Group D4. Georgia has won Group D1, and Luxembourg and Belarus appear to be fighting for first place in Group D2.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Emery praises Arsenal teen: “His personality is very important”

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Unai Emery played the kids in Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Qarabag on Thursday at the Emirates Stadium, as the Gunners claimed the top spot in their group.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 1-0 Qarabag ]

Bukayo Saka, Carl JenkinsonJoe WillockEddie Nketiah, and Zech Medley all got meaningful playing time for the Gunners, and Emery specifically liked Saka (17).

Emery, like Arsene Wenger, believes very much in getting experiencefor his kids.

From The London Evening Standard:

“We have a responsibility to every young player to give them chances to train with us,” Emery told Standard Sport. “We are very demanding of ourselves in his performance. We give them these chances in the games like today when we can do that. They show us positive things in every match.

“Today Saka played with a good performance, with a very big personality. We were speaking at half-time, they were trying one-on-one against the opposition. Not every action was good for us but his personality is very important, continuing in the second half to try to do one-on-ones and break lines with his quality.”

Will anyone have made enough of an impact to get some time in the Premier League? We’ll see, but remember that this Gunners system has sent Reiss Nelson on loan to Hoffenheim.

Also, to put this in perspective: Saka was born six days before Sept. 11, 2001. This class of youngster in the Arsenal system is coming, and coming fast.

Europa League roundup: Arsenal wins; Rangers, AC Milan bounced

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Twenty-four games in about four hours: It’s the Europa League group stage, and it’s reached its conclusion.

[ MORE: Mourinho: “Job done” in UCL ]

A very young Arsenal claimed its group, Celtic bunkered down but couldn’t advance to the knockout rounds, and rivals Rangers couldn’t quite find the offense needed to complete a promising UEL campaign.


Rapid Vienna 1-0 Rangers

Steven Gerrard‘s promising first European campaign as first team manager has ended thanks to a goal from sub Dejan Ljubicic in Austria. A very even game, Rangers could not find a way past Richard Strebinger.

Arsenal 1-0 Qarabag

Alexandre Lacazette‘s 17th minute goal gave the Gunners a leg up on the group lead in a game with a bunch of unusual faces on the pitch. Carl Jenkinson, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, and Saka Bukayo were among the starters, and Lacazette left for Zech Medley in the 63rd minute as Arsenal saved its best for a trip to Southampton on Sunday (No offense to Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny, who went 90 minutes each).

MOL Vidi 2-2 Chelsea

We’ve already shown you Willian’s terrific free kick, and this match in Hungary was plenty entertaining for a relatively inconsequential outing. Ethan Ampadu scored an own goal two minutes after Chelsea took the lead, and MOL Vidi led 2-1 when Olivier Giroud restored the stalemate in the 75th.

Celtic 1-2 Red Bull Salzburg

The visitors dominated and finally found a way past goalkeeper Craig Gordon through a 67th Moanes Dabbur marker. Celtic went down two with Fredrik Gulbrandsen adding to the score line.

RB Leipzig 1-1 Rosenborg

Matheus Cunha’s goal just after halftime looked to have prodded RBL above Celtic and into the Round of 32, but Tore Reginiussen leveled for the Norwegian side.

Olympiacos 3-1 AC Milan

Gennaro Gattuso’s men are out of Europe after a four-goal second half.

Elsewhere
Villarreal 2-0 Spartak Moscow
Lazio 1-2 Eintracht Frankfurt
Sevilla 3-0 Krasnodar
Marseille 1-3 Apollon Limassol
Rennes 2-0 Astana
PAOK 1-3 BATE Borisov
Genk 4-0 Sarpsborg
Dynamo Kiev 0-1 Jablonec
Besiktas 0-1 Malmo
Akhisar Belerdiyespor 0-0 Standard Liege
Slavia Prague 2-0 Zenit Saint-Petersburg
Copenhagen 0-1 Bordeaux
Dinamo Zagreb 0-0 Anderlecht
Sporting Lisbon 3-0 Vorskla Poltava
F91 Dudelange 0-0 Real Betis
Ludogorets Razgrad 1-1 FC Zurich
AEK Larnaca 1-5 Bayer Leverkusen
Spartak Trnava 1-0 Fenerbahce

FIFA won’t be bound by politics over sharing Qatar World Cup

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Political tensions won’t prevent FIFA from deciding whether to place some World Cup games outside Qatar, the head of world soccer’s governing body said Thursday.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino used a summit of soccer nations in Qatar to gather support for his mission to add 16 teams to the 2022 tournament – a move that would require the tiny, energy-rich nation sharing games in the region.

[ MORE: Gerrard proud of Rangers in exit ]

That would be complicated by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cutting ties with Qatar in 2017 in an ongoing political dispute that prevents flights between Doha and the boycotting countries.

Qatar won a vote in 2010 to host the World Cup with 32 teams and is only building eight stadiums. A 48-team tournament is already planned for 2026 in the United States, Canada and Mexico, but Infantino wants to fast-track that expansion and add 16 more games for the first World Cup in the Middle East.

“Is it feasible to do it only in Qatar? Difficult probably,” Infantino said. “Is it feasible to have a few games being played in neighboring countries? Well, maybe this is an option, of course.

“I’m not that naive not to know not to read the news and not to know what is going on. But now we are in football, we are not in politics, and in football, sometimes the dreams come true.”

Given 32 teams compete for the World Cup and there are 211 nations in FIFA, adding more slots in 2022 is likely to be embraced by the members given they have already approved expansion of the event beginning in 2026.

Infantino used a trip to Doha in October to ask the emir of Qatar if he would consider allowing matches to be shared with nations that are part of an economic and travel boycott against his country.

“If there is something that I could do which is good for football worldwide, then we should look at it,” Infantino said at a news conference in Doha before heading to Abu Dhabi for the Club World Cup. “I have the chance and I’m lucky enough to be able to look into that without having to be bound by any political considerations, but looking at it from a purely sporting perspective.”

Infantino did use a speech to politicians at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina last month to discuss using the World Cup in 2022 to bring countries together by spreading games beyond Qatar.

The 2022 tournament is already being cramped into a 28-day window to minimize the disruption to top European leagues because it was moved from June and July to November and December due to the extreme heat.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Gerrard proud despite Rangers exit from Europa League (video)

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Steven Gerrard‘s promising first European campaign as first team manager has ended thanks to a goal from sub Dejan Ljubicic in Austria.

A very even game, Rangers could not find a way past goalkeeper Richard Strebinger.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks ]

“In terms of the performance, I can’t fault the players,” Gerrard said to BT Sport. “They gave me everything. In what we had available, they’ve done extremely well. The whole journey, I’m so proud of the team.

“We’ll come again in Europe. Next year we’ll be better cause we’ll have some better players with us and the young lads in the group with learn and grow. We’ll be together for 18 months instead of six.

Gerrard says he wants Rangers to bring the same intensity back to the Scottish top flight, where the Glasgow side are two points back of rivals Celtic. Rangers have played one more game than Celtic.