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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

Americans Abroad: Chandler earns start after lengthy absence; McKennie leaves injured

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On a relatively quiet weekend for Americans abroad, Timothy Chandler started for Eintracht Frankfurt for the first time since mid-September.

In England, Christian Pulisic made another start for Chelsea, while Lynden Gooch returned to action with Sunderland after a few months of inactivity.

But while some came back from inactivity, Weston McKennie was stretched off the field on Sunday after landing on his shoulder in Schalke’s 1-0 win over Frankfurt.

Here is a list of several other USMNT affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) abroad this weekend.

Premier League

Christian Pulisic, Chelsea — Pulisic started and played 65 minutes in Chelsea’s 1-0 loss to Bournemouth on Saturday. The attacker failed to record a single shot.

DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle — The fullback watched the Magpies’ 1-0 loss to Burnley from the bench on Saturday.

EFL Championship

Antonee Robinson, Wigan Athletic — Robinson continues to rack up the minutes at Wigan. The young left back started and played the full 90 minutes as Wigan picked up a point against struggling Huddersfield Town on Saturday.

Matt Miazga, Reading (loan from Chelsea) — The 24-year-old didn’t dress in Reading’s 0-0 draw with Stoke City.

Eric Lichaj, Hull City — The Tigers captain started and played the full 90 minutes in Hull City’s 2-2 draw with Charlton Athletic on Friday.

Geoff Cameron, QPR — The 34-year-old defender started at centerback and played 67 minutes in QPR’s 5-3 loss to Barnsley.

Tim Ream, Fulham — Ream started and played 90 minutes in Fulham’s 1-1 draw at Sheffield Wednesday.

Cameron Carter-Vickers, Stoke City (loan Tottenham Hotspur) — Like Miazga, Carter-Vickers, too, was absent during Saturday’s bout.

Duane Holmes, Derby County — Holmes started and played 88 minutes in Derby’s 1-0 loss to Millwall.

EFL League One

Lynden Gooch, Sunderland – Gooch came off the bench and played 18 minutes in Sunderland’s 1-1 draw with Blackpool – the first minutes for the Californian since mid-October.

Bundesliga

Weston McKennie, Schalke —  13 minutes into the game on Sunday, McKennie was stretched off the field after he suffered an apparent shoulder injury.

Zack Steffen and Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf Despite making four saves, Steffen allowed three goals in Fortuna Dusseldorf’s 3-0 loss to RB Leipzig on Saturday. Morales did not dress.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen  Sargent is out with an injury for the remainder of the calendar year.

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig — Adams didn’t dress for RB Leipzig.

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach — Johnson didn’t dress for Borussia Monchengladbach.

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt — The veteran defender started and played 90 minutes for the first time since mid-September.

2. Bundesliga

Julian Green, Greuther Furth – The 24-year-old midfielder is out with an injury.

Bobby Wood, Hamburg – Wood dressed but didn’t play in Hamburg’s 1-1 draw on Sunday.

Eredivisie

Sergino Dest, Ajax — Dest didn’t dress for Ajax on Sunday.

Haji Wright, VVV-Venlo — The 21-year-old striker started and played 45 minutes in VVV Venlo’s 2-1 loss to PEC Zwolle.

Desevio Payne, FC Emmen — The U-23 MNT fullback didn’t dress for FC Emmen on Sunday.

Ligue 1

Timothy Weah, Lille — Weah didn’t dress for Lille on Friday.

Theoson Jordan-Siebatcheu, Rennes — Siebatcheu didn’t dress for Rennes on Sunday.

Honorable mentions:

Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund U-19 —  Reyna’s praiseworthy campaign in Germany continues, scoring a goal in Borussia Dortmund’s 6-1 win over Alemannia Aachen on Sunday.

Georgetown wins NCAA title by beating Virginia on penalty kick

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CARY, N.C. — Georgetown goalkeeper Tomas Romero stopped Virginia’s Axel Gunnarsson in the seventh round of penalty kicks to give the Hoyas their first NCAA men’s soccer championship Sunday night.

The teams fought through two scoreless 10-minute overtime periods after finishing regulation tied at 3, leaving penalty kicks to decide the game. Both teams made their first six penalty kicks, and Aidan Rocha made the seventh for Georgetown, forcing Gunnarsson to attempt to match it.

Romero moved to his right to thwart the shot and give the Hoyas (20-1-3) the victory.

Derek Dodson, Paul Rothrock and Daniel Wu scored in regulation for the Hoyas.

Virginia (21-2-1) countered with goals by Joe Bell, Daniel Steedman and Daryl Dike.

Georgetown appeared on the verge of winning regulation when Dodson broke a 2-2 tie with 9:37 left in the second half. But Dike forced overtime when he booted a rebound of his own miss into the top of the net with 4:58 remaining in regulation.

Virginia was bidding for its eighth national championship and third since 2009. Georgetown was playing in its second NCAA final.It lost 1-0 to Indiana in the 2012 championship game.

Mexicans Abroad: Jimenez registers assist in Wolves loss, praised by Liverpool’s Klopp

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In an underwhelming slow weekend for Mexicans abroad, only Raul Jimenez (and Omar Govea) managed to make the headlines, but not necessarily for his assist to Adama Traore in Wolverhampton Wanderers’ 2-1 loss to Tottenham on Sunday.

The 28-year-old forward, who has been on a serious scoring run this season with Wolves, was praised by Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp, who was asked about Mexican soccer ahead of the Reds’ match against Monterrey in the semifinal of the FIFA World Cup of Clubs.

“There are several players from Mexico,” he says “but Raul Jimenez is an impressive Mexican soccer ambassador, really good. I’m sure they (Mexico) have a strong league, but it’s not easy to see it here, so I don’t know much.”

Here is a list of several other Mexico national team affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) outside of Mexico this weekend.


Premier League

Raul Jimenez, Wolverhampton Wanderers —  Despite Tottenham snapping Wolves’ 12-game unbeaten streak in league play, Jimenez continued his fine run of generating goals. In the 67th minute, the forward assisted Traore for the home side’s first and only goal of the night.

La Liga

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Sevilla — Chicharito came on for Luuk De Jong in the 59th minute in Sevilla’s 2-1 loss to Villarreal on Sunday. The forward completed all of his passes (four) and had a shot blocked.

Hector Herrera, Atletico Madrid — Herrera played the final 27 minutes of Atletico’s 2-0 win over Osasuna on Saturday.

Andres Guardado, Real Betis —  Due to a suspension, Guardado was not called up to feature in Betis’ 18.

Diego Lainez, Real Betis — The 19-year-old took the field in the 52nd minute in Betis’ 2-2 draw against Espanyol.

Nestor Araujo, Celta Vigo — Araujo started and played every minute in Celta’s 2-2 with Mallorca. The defender recorded three clearances, one blocked shot and three interceptions. Celta remain as possible relegation candidates.

Serie A

Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Napoli —  Lozano’s time at Napoli under Gennaro Gattuso didn’t have the firework start many were hoping for. Instead, the frenetic winger started on the bench and played only 11 minutes in Napoli’s last-minute 2-1 loss to Parma on Saturday.

Eredivisie

Erick Gutierrez, PSV Eindhoven — Gutierrez started and played all 90 minutes in PSV’s 3-1 loss to Feyenoord on Sunday. The midfielder completed 89 percent of his passes, recorded one key pass and one shot on target.

Edson Alvarez, Ajax —  It’s been an up-and-down experience for Alvarez at Ajax thus far. Completing 93 percent of his passes and winning 80 percent of his ground duels, his performance on Sunday was a high for the midfielder, despite his team’s 1-0 loss to AZ.

Primeira Liga

Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, FC Porto — Tecatito and Porto host Tondela on Monday.

Jupiler Pro League

Omar Govea, Zulte Waregem — Govea shined on Sunday in Belgium, bagging a brace in Zulte’s 5-1 thumping of Sint Truidense VV.

Elsewhere around the globe:

Pedro Arce, Panionios – Arce played 70 minutes in Panionios’ 2-1 loss to Volos on Sunday.

Gerardo Ramirez Alonso, Roda JC – Ramirez Alonso dressed but didn’t take the field in Roda’s draw on Friday.

Serie A roundup: Ronaldo sets record with brace, Juventus top Serie A (video)

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Juventus’ routine win, which puts them level with leaders Inter Milan, highlights Sunday’s Serie A action.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

Juventus 3-1 Udinese

Cristiano Ronaldo scored a brace as Juventus picked up its first win after dropping points in two consecutive Serie A outings.

With two goals – which easily could have been four if he had not struck the bar – the Portuguese made history in front of the home crowd, becoming the first player to record double digit goals in 15 consecutive seasons within Europe’s top-five leagues.

The storied attacker opened the floodgates in the ninth minute, when a softly deflected ball landed in front of the same right foot that belted the ball past Udinese’s man between the sticks.

It wouldn’t take long for Ronaldo to record his second of the night.

In the 37th minute, one of the 34-year-old’s best techniques made scoring a possibility: positioning. Keeping track of the defender marking him and Udinese’s backline, Ronaldo made a run forward, meeting a perfectly-placed ball from Gonzalo Higuain and striking it home. 

Before the first half came to an end, Leonardo Bonucci headed home the home side’s third of the night, putting the game out of reach. In consolation time, however, Udinese spoiled Gianluigi Buffon’s clean sheet as Ignacio Pussetto tap in inside the box found its way into the goal.

It’s a quick turnaround for Juventus as they travels to Sampdoria midweek, while Udinese host Cagliari over the weekend.

Elsewhere

Verona 3-3 Torino

AC Milan 0-0 Sassuolo

Bologna 2-1 Atalanta

Roma 3-1 SPAL

Fiorentina 1-1 Inter Milan