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2020/21 UEFA Nations League draw: England with Belgium, Germany & Spain together

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With the help of celebrity attendees such as Rafael van der Vaart, Philippe Senderos, and David Seaman, the draw for the 2020/21 UEFA Nations League is complete.

Taking place in Amsterdam, England saw a friendly draw, avoiding the likes of France, Spain, Germany, and Italy as the Three Lions were placed in Group 2 alongside Iceland, Denmark, and Belgium. Group 4 seems the most difficult off the bat, with Spain and Germany as well as Pot 1 members Switzerland. Poor Ukraine.

The format this time around has been tweaked to balance out team numbers and change rewards for good performance from Euro 2020 qualification to a path towards 2022 World Cup qualification. Here’s a rundown of how it works:

  • The group stage will take place between September 2020 and March 2021.
  • There are no guaranteed World Cup places handed out in the Nations League, but there is a slight boost to one’s chances for a solid performance. Of all the group winners who do not qualify directly for a World Cup place through traditional means, the top two will earn a spot in a 12-team playoff alongside 10 other teams from World Cup qualifying.
  • Any team that finishes top of its group will be promoted to the next League. Any team that finishes bottom of its group will be relegated to the previous League.
  • Group winners from League A will be placed in a semifinals draw, with the semis and finals to be played in early June 2021 within a “host nation” selected from the four remaining countries. The finals are essentially just for FIFA seeding, with little else on the line other than the trophy.

Teams that were meant to be relegated in the inaugural Nations League were not actually relegated thanks to the reshuffling that saw uneven numbers of teams wiped out to avoid countries still having to play occasional friendlies. The reshuffling now sees an even 12 countries in all of the top three leagues, with the remaining seven in League D.

League A:

Group 1 – Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Group 2 – England, Belgium, Iceland, Denmark
Group 3 – Portugal, France, Croatia, Sweden
Group 4 – Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Ukraine

League B:

Group 1 – Romania, Northern Ireland, Norway, Austria,
Group 2 – Israel, Slovakia, Scotland, Czech Republic
Group 3 – Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, Russia
Group 4 – Bulgaria, Republic of Ireland, Finland, Wales

League C:

Group 1 – Azerbaijan, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Montenegro
Group 2 – Armenia, Estonia, North Macedonia, Georgia
Group 3 – Moldova, Slovenia, Kosovo, Greece
Group 4 – Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Belarus, Albania

League D:

Group 1 – Malta, Andorra, Latvia, Faroe Islands
Group 2 – San Marino, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar

Biggest surprise PL teams this season

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Which team have been the biggest surprise packages in the Premier League this season?

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With the first-ever PL winter break kicking in, now seemed like a good time to reflect on the first two thirds of the season and discuss which teams have surprised us so far, in a positive way.

Here’s a look at four teams who have exceeded expectations, so far.

Sheffield United: 6th place, 36 points

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Chris Wilder‘s Blades are the biggest surprise of the season in the Premier League. Period. Nobody expected this from the newly promoted side as they are in with a serious chance of qualifying for Europe. Their 3-5-2 formation with overlapping center backs and deep central midfielders bamboozles opponents and the Blades fans are in dreamland. With Wilder a lifelong fan, there is an incredible connection as he’s lead them from League One to the top six in the Premier League playing pretty much the same way and plenty of the players have been around for their journey back to the top-flight. Some of the signings they’ve made before and during the season have been masterstrokes and if European nights arrive in the Steel City next season. Bramall Lane will be rocking. Plenty of new boys are high in confidence early in the season then drop off but Sheffield United have been consistently excellent. They have only lost twice away from home all season long and those defeats came at Man City and Liverpool, the top two.

Leicester City: 3rd, 49 points

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The Foxes have struggled a little in recent weeks but Brendan Rodgers has built a superb young team which took the league by storm in the opening half of the campaign. They are out of the Premier League title race but for large spells of the season they looked like the only challengers to Liverpool. Still, with Jamie Vardy rolling back the years up top and the likes of Wilfried Ndidi, James Maddison and Youri Tielemans consistently brilliant in midfield, plus Ricardo Pereira and Caglar Soyuncu superb in defense, they are worthy of a top four finish. With 13 games to go they have a 12-point lead over fifth place. It would take a monumental collapse for Leicester to not be in the Champions League next season. This is all as a result of smart decision making at all levels at the club. Rodgers is a brilliant manager, they have a great recruitment team and youngsters are choosing to sign for Leicester because there is a clear vision, playing style and philosophy.

Newcastle United: 12th, 31 points

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Hands up who had Newcastle going down at the start of the season? Most of you will have your hands raised. With Rafael Benitez out and Steve Bruce in, Newcastle’s fans were furious and even the fact that Mike Ashley spent a bit of money on Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin didn’t calm things down. Bruce’s Newcastle have been awful to watch all season long and in terms of expected goals they would be rock bottom of the Premier League table. They’re aren’t and that is because this isn’t Bruce’s first rodeo and he has his team playing to its strengths as they’ve beaten Tottenham, Chelsea and Man United, plus drawn with Man City. They aren’t fun to watch but Newcastle sitting pretty in midtable at this point of the season, especially given all of the injuries they’ve had is a huge surprise.

Liverpool: 1st, 73 points

Liverpool v Southampton recap highlights
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Not so much a surprise but just utterly unbelievable. With 24 wins from their first 25 games, Jurgen Klopp‘s side are unbeaten and are on course to shatter every single Premier League record for title winners. They have Arsenal’s unbeaten record of an entire campaign without a defeat in sight, and they are 42 league games unbeaten, which is closing in on Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run. The reigning European champions were supposed to gain confidence from winning the UEFA Champions League last season and missing out on the title by just one point but this has been ridiculous. Yes, we shouldn’t be surprised Liverpool will win the Premier League title but we should be surprised, and amazed, with how they are doing it.

Honorable mention:
Wolves: Have taken the next step with Traore and Jimenez superb in attack and they are in the Europa League last 32 and in the top four battle.
Chelsea: Frank Lampard‘s youngsters started strongly but like Leicester they’ve hit a few speed bumps. In the UCL last 16 and in the top four. Very decent.
Brighton & Hove Albion: Graham Potter‘s side play wonderful soccer and even though they’ve been dragged into a relegation battle, the way they play under Potter is a joy to watch.

Calhanoglu rescues AC Milan in Coppa Italia quarters

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Hakan Calhanoglu struggled mightily in the first half of the season, but as AC Milan appears to be picking up the pieces, the 25-year-old Turkish international appears to be front-and-center of the turnaround.

That was on display in the 4-2 Coppa Italia quarterfinal victory over Torino where Calhanoglu proved the hero, scoring the 91st minute equalizer to send the game to extra time before bagging the 106th minute winner.

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Facing a 2-1 deficit and an embarrassing result that would undo an otherwise completely unblemished January slate, Calhanoglu came off the bench in the 82nd minute looking to provide a spark. In stoppage time, he took a cutback from Samu Castillejo to the top of the box and rifled in a deflected effort in stoppage time to prolong the match. Then, in extra time, the former Bayer Leverkusen man was on hand to deliver a fabulous finish on the break from a tight angle, finding the back of the net off the fingertips of Torino goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu who very nearly produced a stunning acrobatic save diving to his left.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic then finished off the game two minutes later, poking home an excellent short-range layoff from substitute Rafael Leao.

While his production in front of net has dipped severely this season, Calhanoglu has still been at the heart of AC Milan’s winter turnaround. His WhoScored ratings have increased sharply since earning consistent scores below a six through September and October, and as a result AC Milan has lost just once in Serie A play since mid-November. The club has risen to eighth in the table, a sharp turnaround from its time spent between 10th and 12th for much of the last three months.

WATCH: Zlatan scores in first season start for AC Milan

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores for AC Milan
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in his first start since returning to Serie A as AC Milan won 2-0 at Cagliai on Saturday.

The big Swede came off the bench at midweek, but started in place of Krzyzstof Piatek at Sardegna Arena.

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Ibrahimovic slotted a Theo Hernandez pass inside the far post to join Rafael Leao on the score sheet in the win.

It was the 38-year-old’s first Serie A goal since a May 6, 2012 brace in the Derby della Madonnina with Inter Milan. He’s scored 123 times in Italy’s top flight and 57 times overall in a Milan shirt.

He posted two shots, hit the post, and was credited with two interceptions. Ibrahimovic was involved in 22 duels, winning only nine.

Milan meets SPAL in the Italian Cup on Wednesday before a visit from Udinese on Jan. 18.

AC Milan blanked by Sampdoria on Zlatan’s return

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his return to AC Milan, coming off the bench with over a half-hour to play, but it ultimately proved in vain as the home side was blanked at the San Siro in a 0-0 draw with Sampdoria.

The former LA Galaxy striker, wearing an AC Milan kit for the first time since leaving for Paris Saint-Germain in 2012, came on to thunderous applause and chanting in the 55th minute as he replaced fellow striker Krzysztof Piatek, but could not find the back of the net. He produced just one shot, failing to hit the target, but was dangerous throughout, winning three of four aerial duels in the attacking third, creating a chance, and generally getting himself involved in attacking play.

Still, the attacking display from AC Milan was a disappointing one, although Sampdoria is known for its goalless encounters. Even before Zlatan came on, the performance up front was a complete dud for the home side. They managed eight shots on target out of 19 total and racked up 1.72 xG, but the finishing left much to be desired, hitting the post twice and seeing big chances by Rade Krunic and Rafael Leao go begging.

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli believed that Zlatan performed well on his debut, but the team is not used to playing with a striker of his skill set, and so the service to him was not of the proper variety. “As far as I am concerned, it was a positive impact,” Pioli said after the match. “He brought character, support and presence to the squad. I think the team isn’t accustomed to having someone of such physicality in the box, so didn’t put enough crosses in for him, especially towards the end of the match.”

“We all need to get to know each other and what we require. It’s not just quality of passing I mean, but also choosing the right passes for the players you are trying to reach. When we brought in the substitutes, we should’ve realised that it was necessary to change the way we were playing.”

A large part of the problem for AC Milan, who has now been blanked for a three consecutive Serie A matches, is Piatek who remains mired in an awful slump with just a single league goal in his last 10 appearances. The 24-year-old has just four goals this campaign, following the torrid start to his AC Milan career he produced in the second half of last season. He was invisible again against Sampdoria, producing just a single shot and receiving just 12 passes, including just four in the attacking third.

The draw left Milan still 12th in the league table, now level with Hellas Verona on points and 13 back of a Champions League spot.