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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.

Editor’s note: Need tickets for the England game? Click here

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

Klopp update on Thiago; praises Keita, cooling breaks

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Jurgen Klopp has provided an update on the reported pursuit of Thiago Alcantara following Liverpool’s 2-0 win against Aston Villa at Anfield on Sunday.

[ MORE: New PL TV schedule ]

Klopp was pleased his Premier League champion ground out a win to keep their record-breaking season on track and speaking to reporters via Zoom after the game he said it was tough going inside a windy Anfield as he rotated his squad.

Asked about consistent reports linking them with Bayern Munich and Spain midfielder Thiago, here’s what Klopp had to say.

“Would you be surprised if I don’t give an answer on that because I never answer these kind of questions. Thiago Alcantara is a really good player, like a lot of other players out there I like a lot but that’s all I have to say about that,” Klopp said.

Okay, so pretty not committal from Klopp there.

When it comes to his central midfield options, he left out Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum and started Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and there was a step up in intensity when Henderson and Wijnaldum came on for the final 30 minutes.

Keita did provide the assists for Sadio Mane’s goal and Klopp is hopeful the Guinea midfielder can stay fit and be a big player for the rest of this season and beyond.

“Naby is a top player. A top player. It was a difficult game today and he was really good,” Klopp told ProSoccerTalk. “He helped us a lot. Not only with the goal. You could always play the pass to him, he always offers, he was in smart positions. I liked his game a lot today. It is a good example of how good he can be and this was by far not his best game but it was good. I am just happy when a player is in a shape like this and can perform like this because we play in three days again which is tough, and in three days later we play again. It is tough for everyone. You need to find solutions for the different moments and today Naby was a super solution.”

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

ProSoccerTalk also took the time to ask Klopp about timeouts, and if he is a fan of the new cooling breaks which take place midway through each half due to the Premier League being played in the summer months.

Safe to say Klopp is a fan of getting to talk to his players a little more during games.

“It is like a timeout and I’ve wished for it for 20 years, pretty much, but nobody listened, obviously,” Klopp laughed. “Now we have a drinks break and I like it a lot. If people think you only need a drinks break when it is like 40 degrees outside, then of course England it is not a country where you need a drinks break very often. Especially in the north west and north east. It is important to just have that because it was a strange period for the players and we didn’t know exactly how the boys would react, nobody could know that. I really like the opportunity to talk. In the moment the refs whistle it starts and the players, it takes about 30 seconds and the players are around. You don’t have a lot of time to talk to the players as they really go there for a drink but you can give information, we all have the same chance in the same moments, all of the different coaches, so that is good and fair. I like it.”

VIDEO: Che Adams scores amazing long-range goal

Che Adams
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Che Adams has waited all season long for his first Premier League goal and when it arrived, it did so in some style.

Adams, 23, arrived from Birmingham City last summer for $18.7 million and in his first Premier League season he’s worked so hard but hit the woodwork and come close on several occasions.

I’m sure this goal was worth the wait for Adams who scored a few in preseason and was a started ahead of Danny Ings at the beginning of the season but has been out of the lineup and this was his first league start since Dec. 28.

SOUTHAMPTON – MAN CITY STREAM LIVE

Early on at St Mary’s Adams lobbed Ederson from 40 yards out as Southampton’s players mobbed him and they celebrated his sublime strike in style.

Ralph Hasenhuttl has huge faith in Che Adams and it is now easy to understand why as Ings, Shane Long and Michael Obafemi have been given plenty of chances and now Adams has taken his with both hands. His partnership with Ings will be intriguing to watch in the final weeks of the 2019-20 season as Southampton try and push for a top 10 finish.

Check out this special Che Adams goal in the video below.

Sleepy Liverpool edge past Aston Villa

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Liverpool – Aston Villa wasn’t a classic, but the Reds won for the first time since they were crowned champions to keep their chase for plenty of Premier League records on track.

[ MORE: New PL TV schedule ]

Sadio Mane and Curtis Jones scored the goals to give Liverpool a 2-0 win as they have now won 24 consecutive wins at home, with the new Premier League champions winning all 17 of their home games so far this season.

LIVERPOOL – ASTON VILLA: FULL REPLAY

With the win they now have 89 points for the season and with five games to go they can still beat Man City’s record for most wins, points and the biggest winning-margin in Premier League history. Aston Villa remain in deep relegation trouble and are one point from safety with five games left.


Three things we learned

1. Late subs make the difference: Henderson, Wijnaldum and Firmino arrived for the final 30 minutes and made a huge difference as Liverpool struck twice in the final 20 minutes to seal a win. Jurgen Klopp’s side looked a bit disjointed but did what they had to do as they put their defeat at Man City behind them.

2. Solid Villa need more cutting edge: David Luiz, Tyrone Mings and Jack Grealish looked really good and Villa were solid up until Liverpool scored. Defensively they’ve looked better since the restart but they have to find more cutting edge. They face Man United, Crystal Palace, Everton, Arsenal and West Ham in their final five games and it will likely come down to the finale to see if they stay in the Premier League. Villa have to be more attacking in their final games of the season to try and keep themselves up.

3. Records still in sight: Liverpool can get records for the most points, wins and the biggest winning margin in Premier League history and that has to be their aim. This superb season could peter out but Klopp and his side will want to show everybody that the record suggests that are better than Man City in 2017-18 and are the best team we’ve ever seen in the PL. These tight wins all season long have pushed them towards greatness.

Man of the Match

Douglas Luiz – Was everywhere in midfield for Aston Villa and his bite in the tackle set the tone for a dogged display from every single Villa player. They will need more of that from Luiz in the final games of the season to drag themselves out of the bottom three.


A slow start to the match saw Liverpool create a few chances with both Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane eager to get on the ball.

Douglas Luiz had a volley on goal which was straight at Alisson as the game struggled to come to life in the first half with Salah’s weak effort denied by Pepe Reina at the near post.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

In the second half the intensity failed to increase as Grealish had a shot saved by Alisson but the flagged was raised for offside.

Anwar El Ghazi then forced Alisson into a save at his near post as Grealish led a counter attack with Liverpool caught napping.

Liverpool made a triple substitution for the final 30 minutes as Jordan Henderson, Roberto Firmino and Georginio Wijnaldum came on to try and spark the champions into life.

Virgil van Dijk blocked a shot from Grealish as Villa looked more dangerous but then succumbed to a moment of quality.

Naby Keita picked out Mane at the back post and his finish came off the underside of the bar and in.

Substitute Jones then jumped off the bench and finished off Robertson’s cross after Salah nodded it down into his path. It was Jones’ first Premier League goal and sealed a 24th consecutive home win in the league for the champions.

Grealish went close late on but Alisson saved as Villa really missed a chance to pick up a bonus point in their relegation battle and Liverpool made them pay.

Southampton – Man City stream: How to watch, odds, team news

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Southampton – Manchester City ends the Sunday action in the Premier League (start time, 2pm ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) as the Saints aim to stun a sauntering City side.

Fresh from their 4-0 thumping of newly-crowned champions Liverpool on Thursday, Pep Guardiola’s Man City will be full of confidence as they head to St Mary’s.

SOUTHAMPTON – MANCHESTER CITY LIVE STREAM

That said, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton should be fresher as they’ve had a full week to prepare for this clash, compared to just over 48 hours for Man City.

Team news

Jack Stephens and Moussa Djenepo return from suspension for Southampton with Stephens starting and Djenepo on the bench, while Danny Ings once again leads the line as he battles to win the Golden Boot and has Che Adams alongside him this time.

As for Man City, Guardiola make a host of changes from the team which beat Liverpool as Kevin de Bruyne, Rodri, Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden all start on the bench with Fernandinho back from his suspension.

Odds and ends (full matchweek odds)

Look, Man City, whoever they put out as their starting lineup, are always going to be the favorites. Given Southampton’s shaky season defensively, a point would be a massive result for Saints as they aim to push for a top 10 finish in the final weeks.

This line reflects that Man City are the heavy, heavy favorites: (+850) Southampton v. Man City (-335), Tie: +475

Prediction

Ings could score a couple and Southampton have nothing to fear as they are safe from relegation and are focused on pushing for a top 10 finish. This should be an open, entertaining game but Man City’s attack will have too much for the Saints. 3-1 to Man City.