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Top teams in good shape as EURO 2020 qualifying reaches climax

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With the Netherlands missing out on Euro 2016 and Italy absent from the World Cup in 2018, some of Europe’s traditional soccer powers have surprisingly failed to advance to recent major international tournaments.

Don’t expect any big shocks when qualification for next year’s European Championship wraps up over the coming days.

Six teams – Belgium, Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia and Ukraine – have already booked their places in the tournament and the remaining 14 automatic qualifiers will be determined after the final group games.

World champion France, European champion Portugal, and heavyweights such as Germany, England and the Netherlands are in good shape to finish in the top two in their respective groups, ensuring spots in the Europe-wide finals taking place in June and July.

There are big opportunities for Europe’s so-called lesser soccer nations, too. Finland, for example, needs only to beat Liechtenstein to qualify for its first major tournament.

France, the World Cup winner last year, is tied on points with Turkey in Group H and will secure a top-two finish by beating Moldova on Thursday. In case of an upset in that game in Paris, the French have another shot at qualification at Albania on Sunday.

Portugal, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, is guaranteed to advance in the defense of its title with wins over Lithuania at home and Luxembourg away – the bottom two teams in Group B.

England needs one win from its final two games – at home to Montenegro on Thursday and away to Kosovo on Sunday – to top Group A.

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And in Group C, Germany and the Netherlands are tied on points and need a maximum of four points from their final two qualifiers. Both have to play Northern Ireland, which is three points behind in third place.

The last four qualifying spots for the 24-team Euros will be decided in the playoffs in March.

RONALDO’S CHALLENGE

Could Cristiano Ronaldo fail to qualify for a major tournament?

UEFA would hate to see the Portugal star miss out, but his team has lacked a spark in qualifying and is eight points off Group B leader Ukraine.

Portugal is favored to beat Lithuania on Thursday and Luxembourg on Sunday to secure second place.

Still, there’s little margin for error. Dropped points could allow Serbia to overtake, forcing Portugal into the playoffs.

ENGLAND LANDMARK

England will be playing its 1,000th men’s international in the match against Montenegro and the occasion will be marked in a number of ways, including recognizing the notable contributions of former players and managers. Players will wear individual “legacy numbers” on their jerseys.

England manager Gareth Southgate is hoping a line can be drawn following scenes last month when his players were racially abused by some Bulgaria fans during England’s 6-0 win in Sofia. The game was stopped on two occasions by the referee. England’s match away to Montenegro in March was also marred by racist chanting toward England’s black players, notably Raheem Sterling.

“The players will want to move on, really,” Southgate said. “I think, for all of them, they dealt with it brilliantly and it would be wrong not to discuss it at all but I know that they want to get on with the football.”

Kosovo, which was accepted as a member of UEFA and FIFA only in 2016, is third in the group and could secure automatic qualification with a win at the Czech Republic on Thursday and a draw against England.

FINALLY FINLAND?

Finland is the only Nordic team never to have qualified for a World Cup or a European Championship. That could all change this week.

The Finns are second in Group J, five points clear of both Armenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and will join Italy in advancing to the finals with a win at home against last-placed Liechtenstein on Friday or if Bosnia fails to beat the Italians. Finland’s second chance, if needed, comes against Greece on Monday.

Finland is coached by a primary school teacher, Markku Kanerva, who led the country to a first ever European Under-21 Championship in 2009 and is impressing with the senior team a decade on.

Teemu Pukki has seven goals in qualifying as the team looks to go further than it ever did with past greats such as Sami Hyypia and Jari Litmanen.

CROATIA AT RISK

Croatia is finding European qualifying harder than last year’s World Cup.

The Croatians lead the evenly matched Group E but if they lose to Slovakia on Saturday the World Cup finalists could end up relying on other results to go their way.

Another team in a fight to qualify is Switzerland, which is third in Group D behind Ireland and Denmark, but is a big favorite against Gibraltar.

PLAYOFF SHOOTOUT

The playoffs offer a last chance for unsuccessful teams, but it’s a complex process.

Sixteen teams who didn’t qualify automatically will be ranked according to their divisions from the 2018 Nations League and put into four single-elimination brackets.

At the bottom end, there’s the League D playoff, which is guaranteed to hand one team its debut at a major championship. Georgia and Belarus have secured a place in that playoff mini-tournament and will likely be joined by Kosovo and North Macedonia.

The highest division almost certainly won’t have enough unqualified teams to make a four-team bracket, so will recruit extras from lower tiers. That could hand League A’s Iceland a fortunate draw with League C teams such as Bulgaria and Israel.

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

AP Sports Writer James Ellingworth in Dusseldorf, Germany, contributed to this story

Christian Pulisic named USMNT Player of the Year

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Who else could it be? Christian Pulisic has been named the USMNT player of the year for 2019.

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The Chelsea star, 21, excelled for club and country over the past 12 months and after taking a few months to settle into life in England, he’s now taking the Premier League by storm on a weekly basis.

Pulisic has now won this award for a second time after first winning it in 2017 and he becomes the youngest player in U.S. men’s national team history to win the award twice.

His achievements over the last 12 months are numerous, as he dragged a struggling USMNT to the 2019 Gold Cup final and also became the youngest player to reach double figures in goals for the USMNT.

MLS veteran Sacha Kljestan signs with hometown LA Galaxy

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Carson, Calif. (AP) Veteran midfielder Sacha Kljestan has signed with the LA Galaxy as a free agent.

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The 34-year-old U.S. national team contributor officially returned to his native Southern California on Wednesday.

Kljestan has scored 49 goals over 10 MLS seasons in a career that began as the fifth overall pick by defunct Chivas USA, the Galaxy’s former stadium partners. After a successful five-year stint with Belgium’s Anderlecht, he spent the past five seasons with New York Red Bulls and Orlando City.

The Huntington Beach native also has made 51 appearances for the U.S. team, playing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Kljestan will provide veteran leadership for a Galaxy roster in transition after the departures of its top two goal-scorers: Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Uriel Antuna.

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

Liverpool in talks to activate Minamino’s release clause

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On the face of it, this move makes perfect sense for everyone concerned. Especially Liverpool, who get a bargain.

Multiple reports state that the Premier League leaders are in advanced talks to sign Japanese winger Takumi Minamino from RB Salzburg.

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Minamino, 24, has a release clause of just $9.5 million and it has been reported that he will move to Liverpool in January with talks going well over a five-year contract.

RB Salzburg sporting director Christoph Freund confirmed talks are ongoing about the transfer, with Bayern Munich and Marseille also said to be interested in signing the tricky winger.

“I can confirm that there are talks with Liverpool at the moment. It is an honor [for us] to see the caliber of clubs who are interested in our players.”

Minamino’s goals, pace and trickery pushed Salzburg to within one game of reaching the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds and he impressed against Liverpool in both games in the UCL group stage as he scored at Anfield and gave their defense plenty of problems in the return game. His skillset would perfectly suit the way Liverpool play with his direct running, pace and nose for goal seemingly perfect for Jurgen Klopp‘s side.

With Klopp and his RB Salzburg counterpart Jesse Marsch hugging on the sidelines after Liverpool’s win in Austria on Tuesday, plus Klopp’s kind words on the job the American coach is doing at Salzburg, it’s safe to say there’s a strong connection between the two teams and their styles of play are very similar.

That’s an even better reason for Minamino to head to Liverpool as the Japanese star would slot in seamlessly and he would become the third former RB Salzburg player at the Reds alongside Naby Keita and Sadio Mane.

From the style of play of both player and the club, to the small transfer fee, this works out very well for everyone involved. Even Salzburg will be happy to become known as a feeder club to Liverpool and Europe’s other big boys as that will help them with their future recruitment.

Raul Jimenez’s future at Wolves uncertain

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Raul Jimenez has been talking about playing for one of Spain’s big boys.

That sound you can hear is Wolves fans everywhere sobbing.

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The Mexican striker was quoted by Spanish outlet Marca saying that he would one day like to return to Spain and play for one of the La Liga giants.

“I would never rule out returning to Spain. I have good memories, and I would like to go back at some point,” Jimenez said. “I want to try out LaLiga once more, as I didn’t get to play much the previous time. Returning is not off the agenda. I have played at the Nou Camp and the Bernabeu.”

Jimenez, 28, previously played for Atletico Madrid before moving to Benfica who loaned him to Wolves in the summer of 2018, and he has since made the switch to the West Midlands permanent for $40 million.

However, his manager Nuno Espirito Santo has moved to calm down fears the El Tri star will move at the end of this season.

“What he is doing is amazing – every day of his life is dedicated to Wolves so we are delighted with it,” Santo said. “Being ambitious and dreaming is something all of us have. But our present is very good with Raul here.”

The powerful Mexican striker has been superb over the past two seasons and has proved to be a phenomenal target man in the Premier League. He’s scored 32 goals in 71 appearances in all competitions for Wolves, leading them to an FA Cup semifinal appearance and seventh-place PL finish last season and his goals this campaign (15 in 27 appearances in total) have catapulted them into the top six and the last 32 of the UEFA Europa League. Aside from his goals Jimenez’s hold-up play has been vital to Wolves’ success.

It is worth pointing out that Jimenez revealed he is very happy at Wolves but the fact he is so ambitious and fancies moving on to either Real Madrid and Barcelona is a good thing for the club. This means Jimenez is striving to improve and do all he can to take his game to the next level.

Yes, Wolves will be desperate to keep hold of the Mexican star who is a fans favorite at Molineux. But if he continues to score goals and one of Spain’s big boys, or a title-chasing team in the PL, were to come calling, can they stand in his way?