Getty Images

Major powers close to EURO 2020 spots though France in fight

Leave a comment

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.

Petr Cech earns win with 2 penalty saves in hockey debut

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Former Chelsea and Arsenal goalkeeper joined English fourth-division hockey team Guildford Phoenix four days ago and made his debut on Sunday.

He did not disappoint.

The 37-year-old saved two penalties in the shootout, earning Man of the Match honors.

Cech is reportedly a fan of the Guilford Flames, the first-division side who use the Phoenix as their developmental side. He was signed to be the team’s third-choice goalkeeper, just a chance for him to get in on the action before his body gives way for good, but he was given a chance to play right away. He wore number 39, a nod to famous Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek. His custom helmet was adorned with Arsenal and Chelsea colors. Regulation finished level at 2-2 before Cech’s shootout heroics.

“I wanted to win, that was the main thing, and I’m glad we did,” Cech said after the match. “I was surprised that I wasn’t more nervous. I didn’t know what to expect so it was nice how quickly my body switched into matchday mode.”

Giroud upset with reserve role at Chelsea

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Olivier Giroud does not look back on his transfer to Chelsea and wish he had done things differently, but that doesn’t mean things are all sunshine and roses for the 33-year-old.

Giroud, who moved to Chelsea from Arsenal in the winter of 2018 after six years with the Gunners, has played just 43 times in the Premier League, averaging just 35 minutes per appearance. That has him frustrated, hoping to prove his loyalty to the club and work harder than the other options up front.

“I had competitors in attack – [Alvaro] Morata, [Gonzalo] Higuain, who ended up leaving,” Giroud said. “I won at the end: I played the final of the FA Cup in 2018 and the [Europa League] final in 2019. Once again, I’m starting the year in a difficult situation. But as my brother says, I have always built myself in the face of adversity.”

Giroud is trying to be smart about how he approaches the competition for time with the likes of Tammy Abraham and Michy Batshuayi, but he says it is emotionally taxing.

“You do not have to be fatalistic in certain situations,” Giroud says about keeping a level head. “I have always been respectful and humble. Even if I do not agree with the coach, I do not criticize him. But in myself, I cannot accept it because I know what I’m worth on a pitch.”

The French international has made just three league appearances this season, mostly thanks to Abraham’s scalding form. Abraham, still just 22 years old, has snatched his opportunity for first-team minutes with eight goals in eight games to start the campaign. That has left Giroud on the sidelines for each of the last five league games, missing out on a spot in the matchday squad altogether for the last three.

Despite his struggles at the club level, Giroud has maintained his place in the French national team, missing just five matches of France’s last 64 games, including 37 of the last 39.

James says he was not knocked unconscious in Wales draw

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Head injury awareness again rose to the forefront in the 1-1 draw between Wales and Croatia in Cardiff when Daniel James went down after colliding with a pair of opponents.

The Manchester United winger looked to almost sure have been knocked unconscious when Domagoj Vida’s knee appeared to tap the back of his head while challenging for a ball in the air. Vida went toppling over the back of teammate Borna Barisic who ducked out of the way, but it was James who many were concerned for as he lay motionless on his back with his eyes closed.

Yet James was allowed to come back onto the field and completed the full 90 minutes, sparking criticism from injury advocates and fans who were concerned for James’ safety on the field, at potential risk for even more serious consequences should he indeed have suffered a concussion.

After the game however, despite what fans saw as James lie on the turf, the 21-year-old insisted he was not knocked unconscious. “I’m fine,” James claimed after the match, speaking to Sky Sports. “I think he just caught me in the head but I didn’t get knocked out fortunately.”

Wales boss Ryan Giggs backed up the decision as well, calling James’ motionless display “a bit of acting.”

“The medical staff went over, he was compos mentis and we did all the checks at half-time and he was fine,” Giggs said, referring to the latin phrase for “of sound mind.”

If James was indeed faking unconsciousness, it’s natural to wonder if he should face a fine from UEFA for looking to con referees, and in the process possibly confusing the independent neurologists on site assigned to assess head injuries.

ESPN broadcaster Taylor Twellman, who has been outspoken over the past few years advocating for head injury awareness after his career was cut short by concussions, took to Twitter to criticize Wales for allowing James back into the game. Twellman, who was on the ESPN call of the broadcast with Ian Darke, said more needs to be done to prevent players from being able to force their way back onto the field, lest someone be killed by second impact syndrome.

Former Hull City player Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after a serious skull fracture saw him fighting for his life, was also seriously concerned about the incident.

Interestingly enough, later in the match just seconds after the second half restart, young Wales midfielder Ethan Ampadu was whalloped from behind by Croatia’s Bruno Petkovic in a wild and reckless aerial challenge. Petkovic’s elbow went clattering into the back of Ampadu’s head, and the was left writhing on the ground holding his head. The Chelsea youngster was taken off the field and immediately replaced by Joe Morrell, while Petkovic was lucky to escape with just a yellow card.

Kane reflects on Tottenham, England struggles

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Harry Kane keeps finding the back of the net, but his teams keep losing.

The 26-year-old striker has bagged five Premier League goals in eight games for Spurs thus far, plus another seven goals for England in five Euro 2020 qualifiers this cycle. Yet Tottenham sits ninth in the table after three losses already this season, while England slumped to its first Euro defeat last time out, putting its seeding at the Euro finals next summer in jeopardy.

Kane is hoping to be a leader through the tough times for both club and country, wearing the armband for both as it currently stands.

“I think you need to lead by example,” Kane said ahead of England’s visit to Bulgaria on Monday. “Not getting too down when you lose a game, not getting too high when you win games. It is a long, old season for club and country ahead – a lot of games to be played so there are going to be tough periods.”

Kane has taken over the England captaincy on a permanent basis, and is filling in for the injured Hugo Lloris at Tottenham. “I am still the same person,” he said. “I still try and lead by example on and off the pitch and I will continue to do that. I have been in high pressure situations before in my career, whether that is going through goal droughts, playing in high-pressure games or not playing well as a team. It is something I will take in my stride and improve on.”

Leading by example includes finding the back of the net, while also supporting teammates both on and off the pitch. He knows even if he’s in good personal form on the stat sheet, there’s always ways to improve and help the squads through tough times.

“I am scoring goals but can I get more assists, create more chances? So yeah, I always look at little things I can get better at. Yes, the England form has been good but as ever, it can be better. We will see if I can continue scoring. It has been a good campaign but important I do not stop now.”