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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.

Spanish FA once again opposes La Liga match in U.S.

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For the second consecutive season, La Liga and Relevant Sports have proposed a league match to take place this winter in the U.S.

And once again, the La Liga proposal doesn’t have the support of its national soccer federation.

[READ: La Liga wants to move Villarreal-Atletico Madrid to Miami]

Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), told reporters on Thursday that it would oppose the match taking place outside of Spain’s borders, keeping a consistent line in the sand on how far globalization can go in soccer.

“It would disrupt the competition,” Rubiales said, via AS. “To play a game in Miami, La Liga needs permission from five bodies that it doesn’t have.”

The five bodies Rubiales referred to are the RFEF, FIFA, CONCACAF, U.S. Soccer and MLS.

Last time around, Relevant Sports and La Liga announced a long-term, lucrative marketing contract to expand the brand’s footprint in the Americas, and soon after, petitioned to move Girona’s home game against Barcelona to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the home stadium of Relevant Sports owner Stephen Ross and his Miami Dolphins.

Ultimately, La Liga president Javier Tebas and Relevant Sports were unable to get permission from the RFEF or FIFA to hold the event outside Spain and it went off as expected in Girona. At the time, Spain’s player’s union and fans groups opposed the move. Tebas has filed a lawsuit in Spain to try to force the RFEF to approve their request, but it seems unlikely to be awarded and it surely doesn’t provide any good will between the two parties.

There’s been plenty of talk about bringing league games abroad before, but it has just been talk so far. The Premier League considered adding an extra game to the season to be played all over the world, but never went through with creating plans for matches.

Associations – not leagues, to be clear – have brought things like Super Cups abroad. For example, the RFEF moved the 2018 Spanish Super Cup to Tangiers, Morocco, while the France Football Federation has brought its national Super Cup match to both the U.S. and Montreal, Canada in recent years. However, the argument in favor of bringing those games abroad is they’re basically meaningless. Meanwhile, one result in a league season could – in theory – determine whether a team is relegated or not, especially if the margin is three points or less.

We could see another legal fight on our hands, so watch this space, there’s plenty more to come.

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.

 

Tierney, Lacazette available for Arsenal

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Arsenal are edging closer to finally having a full-strength squad.

Ahead of Monday’s prime-time matchup with Sheffield United, Arsenal manager Unai Emery confirmed that Kieran Tierney was in line to make his Premier League debut, while Alexandre Lacazette was back in full training and should be in the gameday squad.

“Today is Lacazette’s first training back with us,” Emery said in a press conference on Thursday. “He finished it well and he’s feeling well with his injuries. Tomorrow we will be training again and he will be with us. We will decide.

“The most important thing is that first he is training, then secondly it’s whether he can be with us and it depends how he can feel in the next days training with us, whether his ankle is not giving him any more problems.”

This is a huge boost to Arsenal, which has had to rely on some youngsters and have made some lineup changes to accommodate not having Lacazette on the field. Tierney meanwhile could step into a position where there’s already a decent starter, Sead Kolasinac.

Lacazette’s return also couldn’t have come at a better time. In Premier League action, Arsenal’s high-powered offense has been stymied, scoring just two goals in the last two league games. Meanwhile, against weaker defenses in the UEFA Europa League and the Carabao Cup, Arsenal has bagged a total of 12 goals.

The veteran Frenchman has scored two goals in three appearances so far this season, including a big goal just before halftime in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. However, he suffered a long-term ankle injury in that match that has kept him on the sidelines for more than a month.

“[Tierney is] ready to play,” Emery later said. Now we have two options in that left-back role with Sead Kolasinac and him. We’re going to play a lot of matches after Monday. We will need every player. It depends how he comes into the first training with us, Sead, after his international matches. We now have two players in that position and we can use one on Monday, it depends how they are, one or the other.”

Tierney, the 22-year-old Scottish left back, has made two appearances for the Arsenal first team since recovering from a double hernia operation over the summer. Signed from Celtic for around $32 million, Tierney adds a skill that Kolasinac has struggled with – expert crosser of the ball into the box, where the likes of Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can score when given a decent chance.

USWNT star Rapinoe, boxer Shields win sportswomen of year

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Soccer star Megan Rapinoe and boxer Claressa Shields have been honored as Sportswomen of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation.

They won in the team and individual categories, the awards coming at the foundation’s 40th annual Salute to Women in Sports.

Rapinoe led the U.S. to victory at the World Cup in France and earned the FIFA Player of the Year award. Shields is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and middleweight champion.

Sheila Johnson, part-owner of the Washington Wizards, Capitals and recent WNBA champion Mystics, won the Billie Jean King Leadership Award. Marta Vieira da Silva, star of the Brazilian national soccer team, won the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award.

Rapinoe thanked her teammates Wednesday night and lauded Marta, a six-time FIFA Player of the Year, calling the Brazilian the greatest of all time and an “absolute hero in our sport.”

John Burke, president of the Trek Bicycle company, received the inaugural Champion for Equality Award.