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Major powers close to EURO 2020 spots though France in fight

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Most of the continent’s major soccer powers are in cruise control as they close in on qualification for next year’s European Championship.

Some are likely to secure their place in the finals this week, with two or three group games to spare.

[ MORE: Latest EURO 2020 news

Belgium, the world’s top-ranked nation, will become the first team to qualify if it beats last-place San Marino in Group I on Thursday. With the top two qualifying from each group, there’s a chance Russia, which is eight points clear in second place, could also advance by beating Scotland on the same night.

Italy holds a six-point lead in Group J after winning all six of its matches, and is guaranteed to qualify with victories over Greece and Liechtenstein over the next week.

Spain enjoys the biggest lead in European qualifying – by seven points in Group F after also winning six straight games – and might just need one victory in its matches at Norway and Sweden to advance.

Group A leader England will qualify with a win at the Czech Republic on Friday.

Two teams who are still in a fight to qualify are Portugal and France – the finalists in Euro 2016.

France, the world champion, is second in Group H on goal difference behind Turkey but would be joined on points by third-place Iceland with a loss in Reykjavik on Friday. France then hosts Turkey on Monday.

Portugal, the defending European champion, is in second place in Group B and five points behind Ukraine, which it visits on Monday. A loss for Portugal in Kiev would leave third-place Serbia in with a chance of reeling in the titleholder.

Here’s a look at some talking points ahead of the upcoming two rounds of qualifiers:

NO LLORIS

France coach Didier Deschamps will have to change his goalkeeper after Hugo Lloris was ruled out until next year because of a broken left elbow. Steve Mandanda looks to be an able deputy.

The 34-year-old Mandanda was recalled to the squad after some excellent performances for Marseille since the start of this season. Having recovered from a torn muscle, he has produced several decisive and spectacular saves to compensate for his team’s defensive shortcomings.

Mandanda was initially recalled to be No. 2 behind Lloris but is now in line to win his 29th cap – and first since last year’s World Cup, when he kept a clean sheet against Denmark.

If Deschamps prefers youth to experience, Paris Saint-Germain’s Alphonse Areola and Lille’s Mike Maignan are the other two goalkeepers in the squad.

ENGLAND’S MIDFIELD

There is much to like about the new-look England under Gareth Southgate, particularly the potency of a frontline containing three of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, and also the raft of dynamic full-back options available.

One area where Southgate has yet to strike the right balance is in midfield – the department where England was exposed in the loss to Croatia in the World Cup semifinals last year.

The current first-choice midfield appears to be Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Ross Barkley, but the emergence of playmakers Mason Mount and James Maddison – of Chelsea and Leicester, respectively – leaves Barkley, in particular, vulnerable for his place.

GERMANY SLUMPING

Before Germany resumes its Euro 2020 qualifiers at Estonia on Sunday, there is a friendly against Argentina in Dortmund on Wednesday.

The 2014 World Cup final rematch is now a meeting of the No. 10 and No. 16 ranked teams – and it’s four-time world champion Germany which is lower and falling.

Now ranked outside the top 10 teams in Europe, Germany risks not being among the top seeds when the 2022 World Cup qualification groups are drawn, likely at the end of next year.

A successful Euro 2020 campaign would lift Germany up, and Joachim Low’s team is on course to qualify from Group C where it is in first place, tied on points with Northern Ireland and three above the Netherlands, which has a game in hand.

Low called his goalkeeper rivalry “the smallest problem at the moment,” though will give Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen a start against Argentina and restore captain Manuel Neuer against Estonia, which lost 8-0 to Germany in June.

ITALY INCENTIVE

There’s a nice bonus awaiting the Italians if they qualify.

They would then be sure of playing in the opening game at Euro 2020 in Rome on June 12 in Group A, which is paired with Baku in the first Europe-wide edition of the competition.

RAMOS RECORD

Spain captain Sergio Ramos is set to break Iker Casillas’ record of most appearances for the country on Saturday.

The central defender will play his 168th game with “La Roja” when Spain visits Norway.

With 125 victories, the 33-year-old Ramos has already surpassed the goalkeeper’s record for most wins with the Spanish national team.

HOW QUALIFYING WORKS

The top two in each of the 10 groups qualify for the 24-team Euro 2020, which is being played in 12 countries with no automatic places for hosts.

The other four qualifiers will come through four tiers of playoffs in March. Lineups for the four-team knockout brackets in each tier are shaped by Nations League standings from one year ago.

The Euro 2020 tournament draw is made Nov. 30 in Bucharest, Romania. UEFA could have to modify the draw next April, if host nations qualify via the playoffs.

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

AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed to this report.

NYCFC grabs five away goals in CONCACAF Champions League debut

CONCACAF Champions League
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New York City FC took a 5-3 advantage over San Carlos in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal on Thursday at Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto in Costa Rica.

Heber converted a second-half penalty to complete a hat trick for Ronny Deila’s side — that’s gonna take some getting used to — with Alexander Callens and Alexandru Mitrita scoring NYCFC’s fourth and fifth goals.

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Jorman Aguilar, Marcos Mena,and Omar Browne scored for the Costa Rican hosts with two assists arriving via Randy Chirino.

San Carlos visits Red Bull Arena for the second leg on Wednesday.

The hosts pulled within a goal with 11 minutes to play, but Mitrita buried a rebound of a saved Maxi Moralez penalty kick.

The 28-year-old Heber scored 15 goals and three assists in just 22 appearances last season after arriving from HNK Rijeka in Croatia’s top tier.

2020 National Soccer Hall of Fame candidates announced

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Candidates for the 2020 National Soccer Hall of Fame have been announced and we’ll certainly tell you about all of the new batch of possible members, we’re also going to ask a huge question of the voters.

How is Steve Cherundolo not already in this thing?

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Last year’s class included a mere two people  — Abby Wambach and Sunil Gulati — and there hasn’t been a class of more than four since 2011.

Cherundolo made 423 career appearances for German side Hannover 96, even captaining the side for four seasons. He earned 86 caps with the United States men’s national team and was a member of three World Cup squads.

He simply has to be in the next group, as few others on the list have more deserving shouts over him (Perhaps Carlos Bocanegra and Jeff Cunningham).

Only one first-time finalist, Hope Solo, could rival Cherundolo’s record, and we wonder if the voters will look past her tumultuous off-field life and outspoken stance against the federation. Robbie Rogers will also certainly collect votes for an outstanding career which saw him become the first openly gay player in MLS.

First-time finalists (Full list of candidates)

Brad Davis
Whitney Engen
Herculez Gomez
Clarence Goodson
Hope Solo
Mike Magee
Carlos Ruiz
Nat Borchers
Conor Casey
Justin Mapp
Jamison Olave
Robbie Rogers
Jen Buczkowski
Kelly Smith

The 2 Robbies podcast: Liverpool, Spurs in UCL; Man City’s response

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle recap the crucial Champions League results this week focusing on Liverpool’s 1-0 loss at Atletico Madrid (0:50), Tottenham falling 1-0 at home to RB Leipzig (11:45) and another impressive performance by Erling Haaland in Dortmund’s win over PSG (24:55).

The chaps also discuss Manchester City’s 2-0 victory against West Ham and share their thoughts on Pep Guardiola‘s first comments about City’s UEFA ban (27:55). The gents wrap up the pod review the Europa League results for Manchester United (42:50), Arsenal (48:00), and Wolves (51:55).

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

To listen to more lively conversations and passionate debate from Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, subscribe to The 2 Robbies Podcast on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

And you can follow them on Twitter @The2RobbiesNBC here.

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

PL Club Power Rankings: Week 26

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We’re nearing the time of the Premier League season where the club power rankings reach a sense of finality, with little movement as relegated sides and contenders latch onto their table footing.

It makes sense, of course, as many sides have now met each other twice, the litmus tests less important than the proof in the pudding.

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Green: New season-high ranking
Red: New season-low

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings archive ]


20. Norwich City — The moral victories aren’t very rewarding anymore, the little errors causing more significant pain. Credit to Alisson for scooping up a weak pass, but this week’s pain was self-inflicted despite a very decent performance.
Last week: 20
Season high: 10
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 1-0 v. Liverpool
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Wolves

19. West Ham United — David Moyes‘ men are now winless in eight since clobbering Bournemouth, and a trip to Anfield is next. And the Irons don’t even get the bonus of being rested while Liverpool played at midweek.
Last week: 19
Season high: 5
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-0 at Man City
Up next: 3 p.m. ET Monday at Liverpool

18. Watford — Suddenly winless in five with Manchester United and Liverpool next.
Last week: 16
Season high: 13
Season low: 20
Last match: Drew 1-1 at Brighton
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Manchester United

17. Brighton and Hove Albion — Three draws and one loss in a four-match run that demanded at least two wins.
Last week: 18
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Drew 1-1 v. Watford
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Sheffield United

16. Crystal Palace — The Eagles have one goal through three matches since the 2-2 draw with Man City and will be hoping to break their skid versus plucky Newcastle.
Last week: 14
Season high: 5
Season low: 18
Last match: Lost 3-1 at Everton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Newcastle United

15. Bournemouth — A trip to Burnley demands a result given Chelsea and Liverpool follow.
Last week: 15
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Sheffield United
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Burnley

14. Aston Villa — A tricky trip to St. Mary’s before the League Cup Final; What are the chances Villa clinches Europa League but heads down to the Championship?
Last week: 17
Season high: 6
Season low: 19
Last match: Lost 3-2 v. Spurs
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Saints

13. Newcastle United — The Magpies were very good in the first 45 minutes at Arsenal but fell apart in the second frame. They need to start stacking a couple of wins for comfort, as Steve Bruce‘s men finish with three of five against Spurs, Man City, and Liverpool (two of whom will be looking for revenge).
Last week: 12
Season high: 11
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 4-0 at Arsenal
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Crystal Palace

12. Southampton — What the heck happened against Burnley?
Last week: 10
Season high: 7
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 v. Burnley
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Aston Villa

11. Burnley — The Clarets have taken 10 of 12 points, the only setback a draw with Arsenal, and are firmly in the Europa League discussion despite approaching historically bad numbers in passing.
Last week: 12
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 2-1 at Southampton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Bournemouth

10. Manchester United — For one Monday, Harry Maguire was an incredibly lucky man on an incredibly fortunate team. At least Bruno Fernandes looks dynamite.
Last week: 11
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Won 2-0 at Chelsea
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Watford

9. Wolves — Still wouldn’t want to see them on the schedule, but Wolves hopes for the Champions League are based in the UEL.
Last week: 6
Season high: 3
Season low: 17
Last match: Drew 0-0 v. Leicester City
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Norwich City

8. Arsenal — The defense appears solid under Mikel Arteta, though his old pals Everton will present the stiffest test in some time.
Last week: 9
Season high: 4
Season low: 13
Last match: Won 4-0 v. Newcastle
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday v. Everton

7. Chelsea — Holds a 1-2-2 record in league play since Christian Pulisic was injured.
Last week: 7
Season high: 2
Season low: 12
Last match: Lost 2-0 v. Manchester United
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday v. Spurs

6. Sheffield United — The Premier League’s Papillon.
Last week: 5
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 2-1 v. Bournemouth
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Brighton

5. Everton — Carlo Ancelotti has the Toffees humming toward Europa League… and possibly better.
Last week: 8
Season high: 5
Season low: 19
Last match: Won 3-1 v. Crystal Palace
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday at Chelsea

4. Leicester City — Still on track for the top four, but haven’t looked UCL caliber in weeks.
Last week: 4
Season high: 2
Season low: 10
Last match: Drew 0-0 v. Wolves
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday v. Man City

3. Spurs — Losing Kane and Son will probably cost them in their chase to rejoin the UCL, but we wouldn’t rule out Jose Mourinho. Still: Chelsea, Wolves, and Manchester United are three of the next four PL opponents.
Last week: 3
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Won 3-2 at Aston Villa
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday at Chelsea

2. Manchester City — Ban or not, they are finishing second… unless Leicester finds its very best against a UCL-obsessed City on Saturday.
Last week: 2
Season high: 1
Season low: 6
Last match: Won 2-0 v. West Ham
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Leicester City

1. Liverpool — Poor, poor West Ham.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 1-0 at Norwich City
Up next: 3 p.m. ET Monday v. West Ham