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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.

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

La Liga: Bale scores as Real Madrid get by tiny Huesca

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MADRID (AP) Gareth Bale scored early in the first half and Real Madrid held on for a harder-than-expected 1-0 win at last-placed Huesca on Sunday to move closer to the top of the Spanish league.

Bale found the net in the eighth minute and Madrid withstood pressure from the league newcomer to move to fourth in the standings after 15 matches, behind Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and leader Barcelona.

Barcelona and Atletico Madrid won their games on Saturday, while Sevilla was held by Valencia to a draw.

The match in Huesca happened only a few hours before fierce Argentine rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors played in Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of the Champions League. The second leg of the final was moved to the Spanish capital after the match in Argentina was marred by fan violence.

Madrid struggled against a Huesca team that hasn’t won in 16 straight matches. Huesca has only won once in the league this season – in the first round at Eibar.

Huesca is making its first-division debut and had never played against Real Madrid.

Santiago Solari’s team needed a solid performance by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to hold on to the win, the team’s fourth consecutive victory in all competitions after a humiliating 3-0 defeat at Eibar in the league.

“We couldn’t do much in the second half,” Courtois said. “We know we have to improve, but it’s difficult to play these types of matches.”

Courtois and other Madrid players said strong winds in the second half made it harder for the team to control the game.

Marco Asensio and Isco, who had led the team to a 6-1 rout of third-division club Melilla in the Copa del Rey on Thursday, entered Sunday’s match in the second half but made no significant contribution.

Bale scored with a neat volley from inside the area, side-footing a cross by Alvaro Odriozola.

The Wales forward, jeered by some fans in the team’s league win against Valencia last weekend, hadn’t scored in 10 league matches.

Real Madrid was ninth in the standings after losing 5-1 at Barcelona in a match that led to the firing of coach Julen Lopetegui.

Benitez crushes refs for Yedlin red after loss to Wolves

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DeAndre Yedlin‘s controversial red card near the hour mark of Newcastle’s eventual home loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers proved deadly, and left Magpies boss Rafa Benitez fuming.

Benitez was so mad, he let the officials hear it on the field, and then after the match didn’t hold back, calling for VAR to be instituted immediately.

[ RECAP: Late Doherty strike wins it for Wolves ]

“We need the VAR, now. I think we need the VAR,” Benitez told Sky Sports. “You can guarantee to me that the player in the corner of the box can score in the top corner every time? It cannot be a red card [on Yedlin]. We have lost three points today and we deserve to win.”

Yedlin was sent off for denying a goalscoring opportunity, but the controversial decision was made by referee Mike Dean despite the presence of a pair of Newcastle defenders in the area and charging, with Jamaal Lascelles the closest. “The ball was far away and he [Lascelles] was close, close enough at least to see that it was not a clear chance.”

Benitez was also furious about an incident where Ayoze Perez took an elbow from Willy Boly in the penalty area with 10 minutes to go. “It’s so obvious. You see the red card [on Yedlin] and you see the elbow in the face of Ayoze. We need the VAR, right now.”

“I think the team was doing well in the game, but it is very difficult in these situations,” Benitez said. “I don’t need to talk too much because you talk well about the referees, and their decisions that are wrong. Just watch the images, that’s it. It is so clear.”

VAR has recently been confirmed for use in the Premier League starting next season. The league voted this summer on instituting the technology for this season, but instead voted to postpone the system’s installment.

Watch Live: Boca Juniors and River Plate in Copa Libertadores final

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The match is finally here.

After many twists and turns that saw the final’s second leg postponed and scheduled two weeks later thousands of miles away, Boca Juniors and River Plate will meet with 90 minutes to decide the Copa Libertadores winner. The game kicks at 2:30 p.m. ET from the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, Spain.

WATCH COPA LIBERTADORES FINAL LIVE, ONLINE

With the fan violence aside, the focus can return to the match on the field. The aggregate is 2-2 after the first leg hosted by Boca Juniors, with the visitors fighting back from a goal deficit twice. The level aggregate score gives this match the feel of a one-off final rather than a second leg, punctuated even more by the delay between start and finish.

The delay also means Cristian Pavon is healthy and ready to go for Boca Juniors after leaving the first leg in tears after just 27 minutes. Carlos Tevez begins on the bench for Boca. River manager Marcello Gallardo is still suspended for the second leg as he was for the first, but this time he can at least be in attendance, unlike the first leg when he was not allowed in the stadium.

LINEUPS

River Plate: Armani, Montiel, Maidana, Pinola, Casco, Ponzio, Perez, Palacios, Fernandez, Martinez, Pratto.
Bench: Luz, Martinez Quarta, Mayada, Zuculini, Quintero, Alvarez, Mora.

Boca Juniors: Andrada, Buffarini, Magallan, Izquierdoz, Olaza, Nandez, Barrios, Perez, Pavon, Benedetto, Villa.
Bench: Rossi; Goltz, Jara, Gago, Tevez, Abila, Zarate.

Newcastle 1-2 Wolves: Doherty wins it late

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  • Perez cancelled out Jota before the break
  • Yedlin sent off in 57′ for last-man foul
  • Doherty heads home deep into stoppage time

Newcastle looked strong at home as they worked to move further from the relegation zone, but a critical second-half call proved deadly as DeAndre Yedlin was sent off with 33 minutes to go, and while Newcastle nearly held on in front of a strong Martin Dubravka, Matthew Doherty struck four minutes into stoppage time to seal the Wolves win. Diogo Jota was vicious all match, proving the difference in the attack.

Wolves picked up where they left off against Chelsea midweek, and it was the hero then who opened the scoring on Sunday. Jota was on the receiving end of a cross from Helder Costa, who delivered a perfect ball into the box that somehow sailed over the head of Jamaal Lascelles in no man’s land. Jota was there on the doorstep, and he chested down and touched past Martin Dubravka with ease for the opener.

That lead, however, was short-lived. Off a set-piece, Salomon Rondon hit the bar with his free-kick, and while fans all looked to the referee to see if the ball had crossed the line, Rondon sent the ball back in from the other side and Ayoze Perez cleaned things up with a fabulous header to level the match.

That sprung Newcastle to life, and Rondon forced a Rui Patricio save moments later. The Magpies were strong headed into the break, and came out of halftime in the ascendency as well. Newcastle was forced into a change at the break, as an injured Federico Fernandez came off, replaced by Javier Manquillo.

The game changed just before the hour mark when U.S. international Yedlin was sent off for a tackle on Jota. it was an incredibly controversial call, as Yedlin brought Jota down just outside the top-left corner of the box, and while referee Mike Dean judged it to be a last-man foul, Jota was cutting in front the left flank at an angle, and Newcastle had two defenders closing from the other side of the box.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Jota was lucky to stay on the pitch himself with 17 minutes to go as he stomped hard and brought down Perez at the top of the Newcastle box after a heavy touch got away. Replays showed Jota stepped sideways into an oncoming Perez to send him tumbling.

Wolves got its best chance since gaining a man advantage in the 76th minute as substitute Raul Jimenez smacked the bar with a vicious strike from near the same spot Rondon did the previous half. They forced a fabulous Dubravka save with 10 minutes to go as Wolves hit on the break and a Jota cutback went through a Morgan Gibbs-White dummy to the feet of Doherty who rifled a curling effort that the Newcastle shot-stopper lept to parry.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

It appeared Newcastle had rode out the disadvantage, but Wolves struck with one final counter-attack. Jota marauded forward over the midway line and into the penalty area, and his initial shot was saved athletically by Dubravka, but the rebound fell right to Doherty at the far post who headed into the empty net on the doorstep.

The win moved Wolves into the top half of the table, sitting 10th with 22 points, level with Leicester City but behind on goal difference. Newcastle remains in 15th with 13 points on the season, just five points above the relegation zone.