Getty Images

Euro 2020 qualification set to begin Thursday

1 Comment

With the international break upon us, qualification for Euro 2020 is set to begin, with 55 countries spread across 10 groups to determine who will make the final field of 24 that will take place in the main event in the summer of 2020.

As the group stage draws nearer, we take a look at the important matches that will begin qualification play through the first three competitive days of the international break in round one of qualifying.

Austria v. Poland

Bayern Munich teammates Robert Lewandowski and David Alaba will go head-to-head as Austria hosts Poland in Vienna. Lewandowski hasn’t scored for the national team since a pre-World Cup friendly last summer, and the visitors will be looking to put a poor World Cup behind them for good. As the two highest-ranked teams in Group G, there will be plenty of eyes on this match between two teams who haven’t met in over a decade.

Belgium v. Russia

The two favorites in Group I go head-to-head to kick off the competition as two teams fresh off happy World Cup memories clash in Brussels. Both of these teams failed to win their UEFA Nations League groups, meaning Euro qualification is their only method of entry into the final competition. Kevin De Bruyne misses out for Belgium, but the rest of the star-studded Belgian roster is intact. The Russians are looking for a new goalkeeper after the international retirement of Igor Akinfeev, and the three men called up to replace him have a combined 12 caps between them.

Slovakia v. Hungary

In surely one of the most hotly contested groups of Euro 2020 qualification, Slovakia and Hungary meet hoping to get the jump on one another as they compete with Croatia, Wales, and Azerbaijan for a slot in the final tournament. Hungary has not won a competitive road match since 2016, and they have scored just one goal against Slovakia in their last five tries. Marek Hamsik, fresh off his move to Chinese club Dalian Yifang, leads the lines for Slovakia in this critical match.

England v. Czech Republic

The two favorites in Group A meet to see if either side can get a leg up on the other four teams early. England will be without John Stones and Luke Shaw due to injury, but otherwise most first-choice players are fit. Jadon Sancho may get a chance to continue his stellar club form on the international level, while Callum Hudson-Odoi is with the squad as well. The Czech Republic called up just 18 players, including Burnley forward Matej Vydra, one of only five players on the squad with over 20 international appearances.

Portugal v. Ukraine

Group B has three main contenders, and two of them will meet on Friday looking for an early advantage. Cristiano Ronaldo is in great club form and was rested in the latest Juventus match as they lost for the first time all Serie A season. All the usual suspects are back for a ridiculously experienced Portugal team that hopes to defend its Euro 2016 title. The squad features five players with at least 50 caps, including three with over 100. Ukraine, meanwhile, is without the injured Andriy Yarmolenko who tore his Achilles back in October. Coach Andriy Shevchenko made the bold decision to leave experienced defenders Yaroslav Rakytskyi and Yevhen Khacheridi at home, with their 104 caps more than the entire defensive unit currently in the squad.

Spain v. Norway

An absolutely loaded Group F begins play on Saturday as Spain hosts Norway in Valencia. While Spain is considered the favorite for the group, the rocky and disappointing World Cup journey and spotty Nations League performances leaves them considered vulnerable heading into qualifying, and with Sweden, Norway, and Romania all considered contenders for that second spot, Luis Enrique’s squad will have to be on top of its game throughout. Enrique has left out Real Madrid struggler Isco as well as Atleti pair Koke and Saul in favor of greener players like Iker Muniain. On the other side, Norway boss Lars Lagerback has an inexperienced squad captained by West Brom midfielder Stefan Johansen.

FULL ROUND 1 SCHEDULE (all times Eastern)

Thursday, 3/21

Kazakhstan v. Scotland – 11am
Cyprus v. San Marino – 1pm
Austria v. Poland – 3:45pm
Belgium v. Russia – 3:45pm
Israel v. Slovenia – 3:45pm
Macedonia v. Latvia – 3:45pm
Netherlands v. Belarus – 3:45pm
Northern Ireland v. Estonia – 3:45pm
Slovakia v. Hungary – 3:45pm

Friday, 3/22

Bulgaria v. Montenegro – 1pm
Albania v. Turkey – 3:45pm
Andorra v. Iceland – 3:45pm
England v. Czech Republic – 3:45pm
Luxembourg v. Lithuania – 3:45pm
Moldova v. France – 3:45pm
Portugal v. Ukraine – 3:45pm

Saturday, 3/23

Georgia v. Switzerland – 10am
Gibraltar v. Republic of Ireland – 1pm
Malta v. Faroe Islands – 1pm
Sweden v. Romania – 1pm
Bosnia & Herzegovina v. Armenia – 3:45pm
Italy v. Finland – 3:45pm
Lichtenstein v. Greece – 3:45pm
Spain v. Norway – 3:45pm

Guardiola loving life as ‘bold’ Man City advances

AP Photo/Dave Thompson
Leave a comment

There’s no much for a manager to say after his side beats another 7-0 on the day, and 10-2 on aggregate.

So don’t judge Pep Guardiola too harshly for his words following Manchester City’s Tuesday demolition of Schalke in the UEFA Champions League.

[ RECAP: Man City 7-0 (10-2 agg.) Schalke ]

“It was a clear result,” Guardiola said. “We are happy to get to the quarter-finals. We didn’t start that well, we were a bit scared to play. But after it went 1-0, we relaxed and decided to play and be aggressive.”

Sergio Aguero scored twice for Pep’s men, with Leroy Sane, Raheem SterlingPhil FodenGabriel Jesus, and Bernardo Silva also finding the back of the net.

With Danilo on his back line and both Foden and Fabian Delph coming off the bench to get some minutes, it all went according to plan for Guardiola.

“We have a lot of injured players so we want to continue this run and get those players back fit,” he said. “Everyone has to compete with each other to play. They all want to play. Everybody tried to play, be bold and keep going.”

City can hang with anyone, and shut down Schalke despite the absence of Fernandinho, Vincent Kompany, and John Stones. Oh, and Kevin De Bruyne did not play either. And Riyad Mahrez was an unused sub.

So yeah, pretty much full strength (Shoulder shrug emoji).

What did we learn on a wild Premier League Saturday? (video)

Leave a comment

The seven Premier League games on Saturday delivered so many incredible moments, as we had comeback wins, top teams falling, controversy and plenty of strugglers bagging big wins.

Days like today are exactly why we love the Premier League.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Here is a look at what we learned.


SPURS IN TOP FOUR TROUBLE

Tottenham suffered a shock 2-1 defeat at Southampton as they’ve now lost three of their last four games and are without a Premier League win since beating Leicester City on Feb. 10. Mauricio Pochetttino, watching on from the stands due to his current touchline ban, lambasted his players for failing to respect Saints. Spurs were superb in the first half and should have been at least 3-0 up with Harry Kane and Dele Alli ripping Saints apart. Instead they were only 1-0 up and were then totally outfought in the second half and paid the price.

With sixth-place Chelsea now just five points behind third-place Spurs, they are losing serious ground in their top four battle and still have to play at Liverpool and Man City. From the cusp of being in the title race, Spurs have crumbled and are now in real danger of not being in the UEFA Champions League next season.

“It is good because a lot of people now are going to realize our real level,” Pochettino said, before adding. “We are fighting against big sides (for the top four). We had a big gap, that maybe wasn’t real, now welcome to the reality. We are under going to be under pressure to win games. It is a massive challenge for us to keep our position.”


STERLING LEADS CITY, BUT NOT WITHOUT CONTROVERSY

Raheem Sterling‘s hat trick extended Man City’s lead atop the Premier League table to four points, but the 3-1 win against Watford didn’t come without controversy. The crucial first goal arrived less than 45 seconds into the second half but it was originally ruled out for offside, then it was allowed due to a strange perception of the offside rule. That could be a huge moment in the season, as City were struggling to break Watford down. Pep Guardiola‘s side were not at their best and that is expected as they are without Fernandinho, John Stones and Kevin De Bruyne, three players who are key to how they operate.

City took care of business, with a little help from the officials, and now it is over to Liverpool who host Burnley at Anfield on Sunday. Jurgen Klopp‘s men now know that any slip up will hand Man City an even greater advantage in the title race. The pressure is on.


COMEBACKS, GLORIOUS COMEBACKS

Southampton’s comeback win against Tottenham stole the headlines, but Newcastle also launched a marvellous comeback as they beat Everton at St James’ Park 3-2. Rafael Benitez’s side dug deep to fight back from 2-0 down as they also had a penalty kick saved in the first half moments before going 2-0 down.

The belief Newcastle showed to drag themselves back into the game was sublime and, just like Saints, the kind of momentum they will gain from this comeback win will be vital as so many teams battle to stay in the Premier League. At this point of the season sealing a comeback win can be even more important than grabbing three points. The resilience teams are showing at the bottom of the table is incredible, with the likes of Saints, Newcastle and Brighton standing tall. Add in Burnley and Cardiff scrapping away and there are still so many twists and turns remaining in the battle against the drop.


RELEGATION BATTLERS STAND TALL

It is not often Brighton, Saints, Newcastle and Cardiff have won games this season. So it was extremely surprising they all grabbed wins on the same day. Brighton dug deep and delivered a massive away win in the M23 at derby, with Anthony Knockaert‘s stunning goal worthy of winning any game. Glenn Murray had given the Seagulls the lead and Crystal Palace were never at the races. Saints’ win was incredibly unexpected, while Newcastle and Cardiff took care of business at home. All in all, the relegation battle is more muddled than it was before the day kicked off.

Just six points separates Cardiff in 18th and Palace in 14th, and the likes of Cardiff, Brighton and Palace have tough run ins compared to others at the bottom. Fulham and Huddersfield are basically down, while six teams are fighting to stay out of the final relegation spot. Pick one from: Cardiff, Burnley, Southampton, Brighton, Palace and Newcastle.


WILSON, TIELEMANS, RONDON ARE BALLERS

There are some players who are on teams outside of the top six who sometimes do not get the respect they deserve. A few of them stole the show on Saturday. Wilfried Zaha usually falls into this category but he struggled for Palace against Brighton, but Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson was brilliant on his return from injury. Wilson hasn’t played since mid-January for Bournemouth, but he returned with a goal and an assist in their win at Huddersfield and was a constant menace. You can bet that Wilson will be called into the England squad for the upcoming internationals and the PL’s big boys will be sniffing around him this summer.

As for Youri Tielemans, he continues to go from strength to strength in the Premier League. The Belgian midfielder is only on loan from Monaco and Leicester will want to sort that out sharpish as he scored the first and oozed class throughout their 3-1 win against Fulham. Brendan Rodgers loves to have a ball-playing central midfielder who makes things happen and Tielemans fits the bill. And then there is Salomon Rondon at Newcastle. The Venezuelan striker rarely gets the headlines, but he has quietly scored eight goals this season for the Magpies and their entire attacking unit is better when he is fit and playing. Rondon won Newcastle a penalty kick, scored the goal which sparked their amazing comeback and bullied Everton’s defense. For the likes of Miguel Almiron, Jonjo Shelvey and Ayoze Perez to flourish, Rondon has to be the focal point.

Belgian midfielder Fellaini retires from international duty

Getty Images
Leave a comment

After leaving Manchester United this past summer for a big-money move to Chinese club Shandong Luneng, midfielder Marouane Fellaini has decided to call time on his international career as well, he announced on Instagram on Thursday.

The 31-year-old has accumulated 88 caps for the Belgian national team, seeing time in both the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, scoring a goal in both events. His international call-up in 2007 coincides with the beginning of the Belgian “golden generation” that features the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Moussa Dembele, Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens, and a host of other highly talented players all around the same age.

That culminated with a third-place finish in the World Cup in Russia this past summer, their best-ever finish in a World Cup.

“After twelve years of representing Belgium at the highest level, I have decided to retire from senior international football,” Fellaini wrote on his social media post. “It has not been an easy decision for me and not one I take lightly however I feel that the time is right for me to step down and allow the next generation of Belgian players to continue this very successful period in Belgian football history.”

“I have many amazing memories with the Red Devils from my debut in 2007 to last year’s World Cup in Russia and I am very proud Belgium is currently No 1 in FIFA’s world rankings. I want to thank all those who have been part of my international career especially my team mates, many of whom will be friends for life and all the coaches I have worked with. I would like to also thank all the Belgian fans who have travelled the world to support us.”

Fellaini leaves Belgium as they are getting set to begin qualification for the Euro 2020 tournament. They take on Russia and Cyprus in the upcoming international break in late March, with qualifiers against Kazakhstan and Scotland on the docket in June.

Van Dijk should lead Player of the Year conversation

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Right now Virgil Van Dijk is the leading contender for Premier League Player of the Season.

It is not even that close, as it stands…

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Now, we all know that a player from the team which wins the title is usually named the player of the season (except for last season when Salah pipped Kevin De Bruyne to the accolade) but there have been some wonderful individual campaigns from stars across the league in 2018-19.

With that in mind, below we take a quick look at the top 10 contenders with nine games of the season to go. Can anybody challenge VVD?


Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool) – The Dutch defender has been a colossus at the back for Liverpool, as they’ve conceded just 15 times so far this season. He leads the defense and his belief spreads throughout the team with his incredible passing ability. A true “Rolls Royce” of a defender. The front three for Liverpool are very important, but VVD is probably more important. A defender hasn’t won the POTY accolade since John Terry in 2005…


Heung-Min Son (Tottenham) – After two breaks during the season for the Asian Games and the Asian Cup, Son has returned and played superbly for Tottenham. He stepped up big time when Harry Kane was out injured and the South Korean forward has been a menace all season. He has looked a little jaded in recent weeks, but this has been his best season in the PL by far.


Sergio Aguero (Man City) – He leads the PL with 18 goals and Aguero’s all-round game has improved drastically under Pep Guardiola. We all know he’s a predator in the box, but his work rate, link-up play and hunger is through the roof. If City win the title, Aguero will be one of the main reasons why.


Harry Kane (Tottenham) – To miss the games he has through injury and still have 16 PL goals this season is remarkable and Kane has been Tottenham’s talisman once again. He always delivers and even though Spurs are out of the title race, Kane has kept them in it for most of this season. In a world he is relentless.

(Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Raheem Sterling (Man City) – Last season will have been tough for Sterling to replicate, but in many ways he has got even better in 2018-19. With 12 goals and nine assists only Salah, Aguero and Hazard have been involved in more PL goals than Sterling this season. He continues to refine his game under Guardiola, and Sterling’s impact off-the-pitch is inspirational.


Eden Hazard (Chelsea) – Yes, he’s blown hot and cold for most of this season but when he’s been good, he’s been very, very good. Hazard is the main reason Chelsea are still well in the top four hunt, and even though his future is unclear you can hardly accuse him of coasting through games. Playing as a false nine whenever asked he has still caused problems, but Hazard is much better on the wing. This could well be his final season in the PL.


Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – The Egyptian forward has struggled for consistency this season, but he still has 17 goals and seven assists to his name. So if this a below-par campaign for Salah, it’s still very decent… His form has dipped over the past few months but Salah’s importance to Liverpool is clear and the reigning POTY will no doubt kick on in the final months of the season.


Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) – Arsenal’s main man up top has scored 16 goals and he could have scored quite a few more. His partnership with Alexandre Lacazette has been building, but the duo aren’t always selected alongside one another by Unai Emery. Aubameyang’s strike rate since he arrived in the PL is remarkable, as he’s now scored 26 goals in 40 outings. His slick finishes have kept Arsenal in the top four battle.


Ben Foster (Watford) – Watford are having a wonderful season and Foster is rolling back the years in goal. The 35-year-old has produced some memorable saves and displays to keep the Hornets’ European hopes alive. Not a player many would expect to see on this list, but one that truly deserves it.


Fernandinho (Man City) – So often the unsung hero for Man City, they do not operate in the same ruthless manner when the Brazilian midfielder is missing. Fernandinho’s absence has coincided with some of City’s worst displays of the season and his incredible range of passing compliments his tough-tackling and exceptional reading of the game. A key cog in Guardiola’s well-oiled machine.


Honorable mentions: Marcus Rashford (Man United), Fabinho (Liverpool), Aymeric Laporte (Man City), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Alisson (Liverpool), Raul Jimenez (Wolves), Gerard Deulofeu (Watford), Matt Doherty (Wolves), Callum Wilson (Bournemouth), Richarlison (Everton), Bernardo Silva (Man City), Paul Pogba (Man United).