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Paco Alcacer making most of 2nd chance with Spain

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Close to seeing his career stagnate, Paco Alcacer is making the most of a second chance to become Spain’s top striker.

Alcacer scored twice in his first appearance for Spain in two-and-a-half years to lead a 4-1 away win at Wales in a friendly last week.

[ MORE: Salah injury update ]

On Monday, the former Barcelona player will likely feature again when Spain hosts England in Seville seeking a second win over Gareth Southgate‘s team in the incipient Nations League.

“I’m happy that I was able to help the team by doing what we strikers are supposed to, which is provide goals,” Alcacer said after Thursday’s match in Cardiff. “I just have to keep this good dynamic going.”

The 25-year-old Alcacer has been rejuvenated since leaving Barcelona on loan for Borussia Dortmund in August, a turnaround that has ended a hiatus from Spain’s national team that was in danger of becoming a permanent adios.

Previous to his two goals for Spain against Wales, Alcacer had scored seven times in a four-match scoring run for Dortmund. That streak included netting a spectacular hat trick that he completed on the last kick of the game for a 4-3 win over Augsburg.

Ironically, Alcacer’s slide toward oblivion at Barcelona began under current Spain coach Luis Enrique when he was condemned to a reserve role behind the superstar trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez in 2016-17.

Not even Neymar’s departure at the start of last season changed the situation at Camp Nou for Alcacer. Favoring other players, new coach Ernesto Valverde gave him fewer appearances than Luis Enrique.

So Alcacer decided that his best option was to leave Spain and try his luck in Germany.

And it turned out that Alcacer just needed a chance to play.

With his brace against Wales, Alcacer showed his leading quality as a striker. He is not the fastest, the strongest, nor the slickest passer; he is a pure goal scorer who excels at putting one-touch shots in-between the posts.

Against Wales, Alcacer fired a rising right-footed shot into the near corner for the lead- and his first goal with Spain since Oct. 2015. He then put the win beyond doubt by poaching a clearance in the area to make it 3-0.

“Alcacer is playing superbly because he is on a scoring streak, but overall his attitude has been marvelous,” said Luis Enrique, who called Alcacer up to fill the void left by the injured Diego Costa.

Alcacer was not supposed to need a comeback story.

Four years ago, former Spain manager Vicente del Bosque considered Alcacer, along with Alvaro Morata, as his strikers of the future. The then Valencia player led Spain in qualifying for the 2016 European championship with five goals, but when he struggled to score for his club in the run-up to the tournament Del Bosque dropped him from his squad.

Banished to the bench following his move to Barcelona from Valencia, Alcacer was also ignored by Julen Lopetegui in his two-year tenure that took Spain to last summer’s World Cup.

Circumstances, however, have put Alcacer in good position to now succeed for “La Roja.”

While competition remains fierce in the positions of midfielder and playmaker for Spain, the striker job is up for grabs.

Long gone are the days when David Villa and Fernando Torres flourished up front for the 2010 world champions, as both Costa and Morata have failed to show they can be counted on for goals.

Alcacer said that he had been preparing for this return to his best form.

“It’s about several things,” he said, “about getting on a hot streak, about self-confidence, about having playing time, and, above all, about working each day when you are not playing so you can be ready.”

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

Kane doesn’t want rest despite ongoing England goal drought

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Harry Kane would rather play his way through his ongoing 479-minute goal drought for England than opt for a bit of rest after playing nearly 4,000 minutes (equivalent to more than 40 shifts of 90 minutes) for club and country thus far in 2018.

[ MORE: Thierry Henry announced as AS Monaco manager ]

Speaking after England’s 0-0 draw with Croatia on Friday, Kane was asked whether or not he’s concerned by the fact he’s not scored for the national team since the Three Lions’ round of 16 triumph over Russia on July 3 (six appearances). Much like his manager Gareth Southgate, Kane essentially shrugged off the rough patch as part of the ebbs and flows a footballer experiences over a prolonged period of time.

He has, after all, led the Premier League in combined goals over the least four-plus seasons, and he’s currently second in 2018-19 despite the obvious lack of form. In case anyone had forgotten, he’s happy to remind them — quotes from the Guardian:

“When you set the standards that I’ve set over the last few years and you fall a little bit below them, people are going to talk. That’s just the game we are in. I’m experienced enough now to know that and not to get too high or too low.

“I just stay focused on my job and what I need to do. In the Premier League, I’m second-top goalscorer. I’d like to have scored more for England recently but, as a striker, you go through spells where maybe it goes off the bar, whereas other times it comes off your heel and goes in the back of the net like in the World Cup.

“I don’t think my game has dipped. It’s been tough after the World Cup, not getting much rest, but I think I’ve dealt with it well. I’ve stayed fit and stayed healthy. That’s my main priority at the start of the season. Now it’s building on that and pushing forward over the winter period.”

“I thought I played well against Croatia in a tough game. When you are up there, you just have to battle, hold it up, bring others into play. For me, it’s just focus on my job for the team. I’ll be ready to go Monday.”

Still, it’s painfully apparent to anyone who has watched Kane on a game-by-game basis for the last four years that he’s not playing up to his maximum potential. He hasn’t done so since suffering an ankle injury early last spring, only to miss a very brief period of time before being rushed back for the conclusion of the PL season.

[ MORE: UEFA Nations League: Germany trounced by Netherlands ]

Bullishness and self-belief are two very big parts of what helped Kane get to where he is in his career, but they might also be doing him more harm than good at the moment.

Southgate unfazed by goal drought: “Harry will get us goals”

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Harry Kane hasn’t scored a goal for England since July 3, in the round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup, but Gareth Southgate insists he is unconcerned about the Tottenham Hotspur striker’s ongoing goal drought.

[ MORE: PSG want Arsene Wenger for front-office role ]

Most forwards wouldn’t elicit mass hysteria over six appearances (479 minutes) without a goal on the international stage — it’s hard to score goals, you know — but most forwards aren’t Kane, either. From the first time he put on the senior-team shirt and marked his debut with a goal, Kane has been bagging them with ease — 19 in 33 caps thus far.

For that reason, Southgate refuses to panic or stray from the course that says one of the world’s best, most complete forwards should be the first name on the team sheet every time out. Plus, he can sense that once Kane finds the net again, the floodgates will open; he sensed the moment was close in Friday’s 0-0 draw with Croatiaquotes from the Guardian:

“He buried that chance but was just offside, but Harry will get us goals. We were a real threat. The most important thing for the team is we create chances, look dangerous, and I have faith the players who didn’t score will score.

“This feels like a game we should have won but I was really pleased with the way we played. We dictated the flow for a long period and the second-half performance was excellent, pushing right to the end. I couldn’t ask for more from the players. We just have to make sure we finish the chances. On another day, we will”

On the other hand, Kane hasn’t exactly been the sharpest version of himself since injuring his ankle in mid-March. He was likely rushed back for the finish of the Premier League season, followed by the World Cup with a very short week’s break in between. A prolonged period of rest wasn’t possible post-World Cup either, as the PL season began in early August. At some point — whether by design or another injury that may come along — he’ll likely need a few weeks of rest and rehabilitation to regain top form for club and for country.

UEFA Nations League preview: Germany, England, Russia in focus

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One of the unique challenges presented by the three-team groups of the League A and B of the UEFA Nations League is the seriousness of two-match weeks for one team in each group per international break.

With the tournament in its first edition, perhaps the strategy will change over time. But for now, the results have been mixed for the “two-fers.”

[ PL ROUNDTABLE: The story so far ]

Spain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Ukraine both went 2-0 and are enjoying the driver’s seats. Italy went 0-1-1 and put itself in a deep hole, while Turkey and Wales came away with a win and a loss. Iceland went 0-2, but was probably the long shot of a group with Belgium and Switzerland.

There aren’t conclusions to draw yet, so let’s take a look at the eight teams playing two matches over the next week within the top two leagues.

LEAGUE A

Germany: Joachim Loew will have been accepting of a home draw with France, but it puts pressure on the Germans to get at least that at the Stade de France on Oct. 16. First, though, a Saturday trip to Johan Cruyff Arena to face a Dutch side which really needs to find a win. After the World Cup failure, there’s special attention on Loew’s men even in a nascent competition.

Switzerland is off to Brussels and Reykjavik for a four-day span. The first one could make the second must-win as opposed to draw-acceptable: Belgium has already won at Iceland, and is home for two of its remaining three tilts.

Poland is home for both of its matches and will stay in Chorzow for visits from Portugal and Italy. There’s still no Ronaldo in the Portugal side, something that may well change when the reigning EURO champs have their two-match week. The time is now for Poland to go atop the table, and hope Portugal slips up in Italy come November.

England will not have Dele Alli and Jamie Vardy, and will have a host of green players during visits to monsters Croatia and Spain. Gareth Southgate is going to have a very good idea of where his project’s depth and youth stand — as well as Harry Kane‘s energy levels — as it hopes to cement its spot in League A for another cycle by defeating both. Tall asks, for sure, and England may be content to put its eggs in the Croatia basket since both sides lost to Spain in the first week.

LEAGUE B

Czech Republic is away to Slovakia and Ukraine in a group which staged a pair of tight encounters to start the league.

Russia can clinch the Group 2 with home wins over Sweden and Turkey.

Northern Ireland is away to Austria and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Winning the former is almost as important as challenging perfect BNH in the latter.

Republic of Ireland is home to Denmark and Wales after getting thrashed by the Welsh in Cardiff during Week 1. Handing L’s to both feels necessary.

Walcott says Dortmund experience has England youngster Sancho ready

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18-year-old Jadon Sancho is thriving in front of Borussia Dortmund’s Yellow Wall, and for Theo Walcott, that’s enough for him to know the pressure of playing for England won’t affect the youngster at all.

Sancho, a Manchester City youth product, is playing at Dortmund after moving to Germany this summer, and has embraced his super-sub role scoring a goal and assisting six despite just one lone start this season. His stellar play has given England manager Gareth Southgate cause to bring him into the national fold, a positive experience for Sancho even if he does not see the field during Nations League matches against Croatia and Spain.

“He can deal with it, he’s been in the Dortmund dressing room, he’s played at their stadium which is fantastic,” Walcott said. “He won’t be fazed at all.”

Walcott was just 17 when he was selected to the England squad for the 2006 World Cup despite not having made a senior appearance for Arsenal in his career, and while he didn’t make an appearance in Germany, he would know what that kind of pressure is like. With Dortmund, Sancho plays at 81,000-capacity Westfalenstadion where the fans are known for their ferverous support.

Thankfully for Sancho, Walcott believes the presence of other young players will help Sancho fit in.

“It’s completely different now, there are a lot of young players in that group,” Walcott said. “When I came through there was Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard – completely established players in the team – so it’s a different environment I would say. Of course it’s still daunting but when you get down on the field and play football that’s all you want to do, you just want to play, it doesn’t matter who it’s for.”

Alongside Sancho, the young players Walcott is referring to include 20-year-old Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold, 21-year-old Leicester City playmaker James Maddison, and 22-year-old Tottenham midfielder Harry Winks