2018 World Cup qualification

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New Zealand 0-0 Peru: Goalless first-leg draw gives hosts slight advantage for World Cup spot

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New Zealand held Peru to a goalless draw in Wellington in the first leg of their World Cup qualifying playoff, a victory for the hosts as they now hit the road needing only a draw with goals to secure a spot in Russia 2018.

The Oceanic side is considered a heavy underdog against the 10th-ranked team in the world, but they locked down Peru, holding them to just three shots on target on 11 overall attempts. Peru was out of ideas missing striker Paolo Guerrero, who failed a doping test and given a 30-day suspension.

The two teams will now head to Lima to finish the tie on Wednesday. Guerrero is currently out of the return leg as well, unless Peru wins an appeal against the suspension.

Peru had a signature moment in each half, but failed to capitalize on either. New Zealand goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic was the star both times, making a goal-line clearance just seven minutes in and expertly tipping an Aldo Corzo header over the bar just past the hour mark.

Burnley striker Chris Wood was withdrawn from the New Zealand starting lineup after being dogged by a lingering hamstring issue, but he was brought on in the second half as a substitute and immediately brought Peru goalkeeper Pedro Gallese into action.

The 90 minutes on Wednesday will now decide each country’s fate. Peru has not qualified for the World Cup in 36 years, while New Zealand – ranked 122nd in the world – is looking to reach just its third World Cup finals.

Three keys for USMNT vs. Panama

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For the U.S. national team the scenario is very clear.

If they win their final two games of CONCACAF qualifying then they will be heading to the 2018 World Cup. But we all know it’s never that easy.

[ MORE: Who should start for USA v Panama? ]

The biggest test for Bruce Arena’s side is facing Panama at Orlando City Stadium on Friday. Panama has nothing to lose. They sit in the third and final automatic spot in World Cup qualifying heading into the final two games in the Hexagonal and their final game is at home to Costa Rica who have all but qualified for the World Cup.

[ MORE: World Cup scenarios for USA ]

For the Panamanians a win against the U.S. would seal their first-ever appearance at a World Cup finals and even a point wouldn’t be bad but they’d then have to beat Costa Rica at home in their final qualifier. This game on Friday is their World Cup final and there is very little pressure on them with the home fans expecting the U.S. to win comfortably against a team ranked 60th in the world.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three keys for the USMNT as they look to jump ahead of Panama with a win and potentially go into their final Hex game at Trinidad & Tobago needing just a draw to qualify for the World Cup.


CENTER BACK PAIRINGS

Don’t be surprised if Arena mixes things up, once again, at center back. With Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler steady away at Honduras (despite one slip up between Graham Zusi at right back and Gonzalez at center back for the goal) they could well start against Panama.

Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron are no doubt the better individual defenders but it seems like Arena has decided against them as a pairing after the defeat to Costa Rica when the partnership struggled. At center back and in central midfield, having a strong understanding of the player alongside you is key and due to injuries and a lack of form this center back pairings have taken a huge hit in recent months for the U.S. In fact, the U.S. has kept just two clean sheets in their eight games in the Hex so far

Cameron and John Brooks should be the USMNT’s first-choice center backs but with Brooks out, Arena may decide to go with Gonzalez and Besler, or maybe even throw Ream back in. Simply put: Arena’s decision on who to play at center back will be crucial, especially with veteran forwards Blas Perez and Luis Tejada eager for World Cup qualification to cap their long, and glittering, Panama careers. Gabriel Torres shold cause the U.S. defense plenty of problems too.


HELPING OUT BRADLEY

Sorting out the midfield around Michael Bradley is crucial too. FC Dallas youngster Kellyn Acosta has been preferred alongside him in recent games, and they’ve proved a solid partnership, but for an encounter like this you’d think a little more experience would be key in front of Bradley and perhaps more attacking options will prevail. I still love watching video of the midfield display Bradley and Cameron put on together against Panama in a big World Cup qualifying win in Seattle back in 2013 in the Hex, but does playing two holding midfielders make sense in a game the U.S. simply has to win? Not really.

But still, with Panama likely to hit the U.S. on the counter you have to worry about Bradley being outnumbered on the break when the U.S. turns the ball over.

There’s a real sense that Christian Pulisic will once again operate centrally in midfield and maybe this is the type of game Darlington Nagbe would flourish in as he can keep the ball and allow the U.S. to press higher up the pitch. Pace out wide crushed Honduras in a World Cup qualifying win at home earlier in the Hex and you can expect Arena to follow a similar path for this game. Bradley may well end up as the lone holding midfielder but that role suits him well. That said, he will need a dynamic group in front of him to not only help support the likes of Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood but also allow him to make any surging runs past them (ahem, the goal at the Azteca) into the final third.


EXPERIENCE IS KEY

With Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Cameron, Besler, Alejandro Bedoya, DaMarcus Beasley, Altidore and Bradley all veterans at this point, it would be intriguing to see Arena start with the vast majority of them from the start.

That group has delivered in tense situations over the past two World Cup cycles to get out of the Group of Death at the 2014 World Cup and then reach the semifinals of the Copa America Centernario. The big question is: does Arena go for experience or youth? I’d say a smattering of both and that could be a mistake.

In situations like this I say the more experience the better. Panama have five players with over 100 international caps and most will play a pivotal role on Friday. The U.S. also have five players with over 100 caps but only three may seem like guaranteed starters in Howard, Bradley and Altidore.

Dempsey, Bedoya, Cameron and Beasley should all seriously be considered due to their past of getting the U.S. over the line when they’ve needed it most. Although the exciting young talents of Paul Arriola, Nagbe and Acosta are clearly capable of performing at this level, having the nous to overcome a Panama side who will roll out every trick in the book to try and qualify for their first-ever World Cup finals is something they lack.

Messi, Aguero headline Argentina squad ahead of CONMEBOL qualifying

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Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero have been named to Argentina’s latest roster ahead of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying next month.

Meanwhile, Lionel Messi remains firmly the key figure in Edgardo Bauza’s squad. The Barcelona attacker netted a goal for Argentina in the last round of qualifiers against Uruguay.

The Premier League features seven selections, including three players from Manchester City (Aguero, Pablo Zabaleta, Nicolas Otamendi).

The Albiceleste will travel to take on Peru on Oct. 6, before facing off against Paraguay Oct. 11 in Argentina.

Argentina squad in full

GoalkeepersSergio Romero (Manchester United), Nahuel Guzman (Tigres).

Defenders: Facundo Roncaglia (Celta), Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal), Ramiro Funes Mori (Everton), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Martin Demichelis (Espanyol), Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City), Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City).

Midfielders: Matias Kranevitter (Atletico Madrid), Javier Mascherano (Barcelona), Lucas Biglia (Lazio), Augusto Fernandez (Atletico Madrid), Ever Banega (Inter),  Erik Lamela (Tottenham), Nicolás Gaitan (Atletico Madrid), Angel Di Maria (PSG).

Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Angel Correa (Atletico Madrid), Lucas Pratto (Atletico Mineiro), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus).

Germany begins World Cup defense with 3-0 win in Norway

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OSLO, Norway (AP) Thomas Mueller helped Germany launch a confident start to its World Cup title defense Sunday with a 3-0 away win over Norway.

Mueller scored two goals and set up another for Bayern Munich teammate Joshua Kimmich as the world champions eased to a comfortable start in the Group C qualifier.

“With Thomas Mueller I’d rather he had scored a few goals at the European Championship,” Germany coach Joachim Loew joked.

Mueller opened the scoring in the 15th minute, scrambling the ball in at the second attempt after seeing his first try blocked by a combination of Even Hovland and Havard Nordtveit.

It was an unconventional goal, typical of Mueller, who hadn’t scored internationally since the 2-1 win over Georgia in Euro 2016 qualifying in October 2015.

Mueller set up Kimmich just before the break, spotting his run and laying off the ball for the 21-year-old to score his first international goal, and the forward then rounded off the scoring on the hour, heading in a precise cross from Sami Khedira.

“He worked really hard at the European Championship and had a lot of chances without scoring a goal. This will do him good for the rest of the season,” Loew said of Mueller.

Rune Jarstein prevented an even worse evening for Norway with a good save to deny substitute Julian Brandt late on.

Manuel Neuer led Germany out as designated team captain for the first time following Bastian Schweinsteiger‘s retirement but the `keeper had little to do.

It was Loew’s 139th game in charge, putting him level with Helmut Schoen, though he still has some way to go before matching Sepp Herberger’s record of 167 matches.

ALSO IN GROUP C

Northern Ireland held the Czech Republic to a goalless draw in Prague. Filip Novak missed a great chance in the second half for the home side, which had looked more like scoring in what was a frustrating debut for new coach Karel Jarolim.

Ruslan Gurbanov’s first international goal gave Azerbaijan a 1-0 win in San Marino, which had defender Cristian Brolli sent off early in the second half.

How will USMNT line up vs. Guatemala in Columbus?

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Following the 2-0 defeat to Guatemala last Friday in Guatemala City, the U.S. national team is in dire need of a win.

[ VOTE: Should Klinsmann be fired? ]

In Columbus on Tuesday night only a win will do for under-fire USMNT boss Jurgen Klinsmann, as another defeat would make it incredibly tough for the German coach to guide his side through to the Hex, the next round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.

With several injuries in defense, big name players under-performing and others nursing knocks, we could see some intriguing lineup selections from Klinsmann in Ohio.

[ MORE: Fallout from U.S. defeat in Guatemala ]

Feel free to select your best XI in the comments section below, but here is three to contemplate.


Option 1 – Best possible XI

— Guzan —

— Yedlin — Cameron — Gonzalez — Castillo —

—– Bradley —–

— Bedoya —  Dempsey — Zardes —

—– Altidore —– Wood —

Option 2 – All-out attack

— Guzan —

— Yedlin — Cameron — Gonzalez — Castillo —

— Nagbe —  Bradley — Zusi —

— Dempsey — Altidore — Wood —

Option 3 – JPW’s pick

— Guzan —

— Yedlin — Cameron — Gonzalez — Castillo —

—– Nagbe — Bradley — Zusi —–

—– Dempsey —–

— Altidore — Wood —


CONCLUSION

Going for a narrow shape in midfield will be the way to go. In order to get the ball through to Altidore and Wood quickly, the U.S. must get Dempsey on the ball as much as possible.

In goal, Tim Howard started last Friday but Brad Guzan will be in net as they continue to split time. In defense, expect Geoff Cameron to start at center back with Omar Gonzlaez, while DeAndre Yedlin will drop back to right back.

Midfield is the key area on Tuesday and Klinsmann should allow Bradley to break things up in the holding role and then release to Dempsey, Graham Zusi and Gyasi Zardes in more attacking areas. With Alejandro Bedoya likely out injured, bringing in Zusi to the squad points towards him starting. Maybe Klinsmann throws in a wild card and starts MLS duo Ethan Finlay and Darlington Nagbe, or maybe even 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund starlet Christian Pulisic? At this point, what has he got to lose?

Playing Jozy Altidore (if he’s fit to go, he should start and play the first hour) and Bobby Wood up top makes sense because the U.S. needs to win, big time. Why not go for it and put Guatemala under pressure from the start?