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Mkhitaryan assured of safety by Azerbaijan ambassador

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The Europa League Final in Azerbaijan has not been getting a lot of positive press due to fans unwillingness to travel for the event and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s fears of stepping foot in the country.

That’s because Mkhitaryan is the captain of Armenia’s national team, and that nation’s long dispute with Azerbaijan.

[ MORE: Brighton hires new boss ]

Arsenal, of course, plays Chelsea in the May 29 final, and Mkhitaryan already missed an earlier UEL match against Azerbaijan powers Qarabag. He’s played plenty for the Gunners this season apart from a broken foot, and his absence would not be welcome news for this London Derby of a European Final.

Azerbaijan’s UK ambassador Tahir Taghizadeh has guaranteed safety for Mkhitaryan, and said he’d be happy to personally offer assurances to the Armenian. On the other hand, this doesn’t sound like the most positive messaging, via Sky Sports:

“My message to Mkhitaryan would be: you’re a footballer, you want to play football? Go to Baku you are safe there, if you want to play the issue then that’s a different story. What I can guarantee is that the Azerbaijan government will do everything what needs to be done and provide safety and security for every fan, player and staff member coming to this game.”

By using the phrase “play the issue,” it does launch the discussion firmly into political waters. One thing’s for sure: The issue may be debatable, but whether a player feels safe deserves to be his call and his call alone.

Europa League preview: Chelsea, Arsenal heavy favorites

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It comes as little surprise that Arsenal would not send all of its stars to Azerbaijan for its meeting at Qarabag, though two of the reasons are relatively rare.

For Welsh star Aaron Ramsey, it’s a happy one: His wife is set to give birth.

[ MORE: Messi’s Wembley masterclass ]

But Armenian captain Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not travel because of hostility between Armenia and Azerbaijan that robbed him of a Champions League appearance when he was with Borussia Dortmund in 2015.

UEFA said Mkhitaryan could travel, but the player will stay behind. And Qarabag coach Gurban Gurbanov, also the manager of the Azerbaijan national team, is piling on. From The London Standard:

“If Henrikh Mkhitaryan would come to Azerbaijan it is not the first time and until now a lot of Armenian sportsman came to Azerbaijan but it is the choice of Arsenal that they didn’t send. … Arsenal may be afraid that in front of 60,000 Azerbaijani fans, Mkhitaryan has some pressure and that is why they didn’t send Mkhitaryan.”

Yikes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will also stay behind, but Arsenal is still heavily favored to move to 2-0 in Europa League play.

London rivals Chelsea are home for a visit from Hungarian side MOL Vidi (you may remember them as Videoton).

The favored Blues will be expected to easily win given that MOL Vidi lost 2-0 at home to BATE Borisov in the opener, but Maurizio Sarri finds himself asking questions about whether Chelsea can persevere when it comes to facing Southampton in the Premier League this weekend.

“I don’t think at West Ham we didn’t win because of the match in Greece. We changed a lot of players so I don’t think the reason was that. Of course tomorrow we need to change some players because we have spent a lot of mental and physical energy in two games against Liverpool, and after tomorrow we have to play another game in about 60 to 62 hours so we need to change.”

Full schedule

10:50 a.m. ET
Astana vs. Rennes

12:55 p.m. ET
Bayer Leverkusen vs. AEK Larnaca
AC Milan vs. Olympiacos
Real Betis vs. F91 Dudelange
Zenit Saint-Petersburg vs. Slavia Prague
Red Bull Salzburg vs. Celtic
Zurich vs. Ludogorets Razgrad
Rosenborg vs. RB Leipzig
Vorskla Poltava vs. Sporting CP
Anderlecht vs. Dinamo Zagreb
Fenerbahce vs. Spartak Trnava
Bordeaux vs. FC Copenhagen
Qarabag vs. Arsenal

3 p.m. ET
Spartak Moscow vs. Villarreal
Standard Liege vs. Akhisar Belediyespor
Malmo vs. Besiktas
Chelsea vs. MOL Vidi
Eintracht Frankfurt vs. Lazio
Jablonec vs. Dynamo Kiev
BATE Borisov vs. PAOK
Apollon Limassol vs. Marseille
Krasnodar vs. Sevilla
Sarpsborg vs. Genk
Rangers vs. Rapid Vienna

UCL: Chelsea advances vs. 10-man Qarabag (video)

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  • Chelsea into knockout rounds
  • Willian draws two penalties, scores two more
  • Hazard, Fabregas score

Willian scored two goals from the run of play and drew a pair of penalties in Azerbaijan, as Chelsea beat 10-man Qarabag 4-0 on Wednesday.

His second goal was a fantastic thump from atop the arc, and further iced the result in the 85th minute.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Qarabag hung tough for the first 20 minutes, but saw its odds of getting a point take a hit with a penalty and red card.

Rashad Sadygov made contact with Willian inside the 18, and Portuguese referee Manuel de Sousa awarded a penalty. That was understandable, but surprisingly he produced his red card to send Qarabag down a man.

Eden Hazard converted his low penalty, wrong footing keeper Ibrahim Sehic, and Chelsea took a 1-0 lead in the 21st minute.

Willian would score a goal of his own in the 36th, part of a terrific team goal with Hazard and Pedro.

The Blues were largely content to let Qarabag have the ball early in the second half, but resumed control around the hour mark and Sehic made an outstanding stop on Hazard before substitute Alvaro Morata dragged a shot wide of the far post.

Willian drew a second penalty in the 71st minute, as Maksim Medvedev tugged on the Brazilian’s jersey on a dribble into the 18. Yellow card for this foul.

Cesc Fabregas scored but two Chelsea players infringed on the 18 thanks to the shooter’s stuttering — and stopping — PK. He finished the second as well as the first. 3-0.

Willian added the fourth with a vicious strike five minutes from the end of scheduled play.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Germany goalkeeper Neuer out of England, Azerbaijan games

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BERLIN (AP) Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has pulled out of the upcoming games against England and Azerbaijan because of calf problems.

Neuer, who played a full game for Bayern Munich at Borussia Moenchengladbach on Sunday, will remain in Munich for treatment.

The German soccer federation says coach Joachim Loew has called up Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Kevin Trapp in the 30-year-old Neuer’s place. Trapp has been called up for the squad before but has yet to appear for Germany.

World champion Germany plays England in a friendly in Dortmund on Wednesday before facing Azerbaijan in a World Cup qualifier in Baku on March 26.

Germany leads Group C with four wins from four games with 16 goals scored and none conceded.

Assessing the field after three matchdays of UEFA World Cup qualifying

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UEFA World Cup qualifying is 364 days away from its final group stage match day, with thirty percent of matches in the books ahead of next month’s fourth batch of games.

If it all wrapped up today, uneven schedule and all, we’d see five Pot 1 sides heading to Russia: Germany, Belgium, England, Spain, and Croatia. Two Pot 2 sides — France and Switzerland — would join them, while Serbia (Pot 3) and Montenegro (Pot 4) complete the nine automatic bids.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s UEFA roundup ]

Headed to the playoffs would be eight of the following team, with the remaining ninth second-place team eliminated: Azerbaijan, Ireland, Portugal, Sweden, Poland, Lithuania, Italy, Greece, and Iceland.

Notable names who would miss out on the 2018 World Cup? Iceland, Ukraine, Slovenia, Slovakia, Denmark, Wales, Austria, Northern Ireland, Czech Republic, and Netherlands (amongst others).

Perhaps you’re asking which of these national teams currently have misleading statuses? Let’s take a look.

Netherlands (Group A, third place)
The Dutch sit third, but have already played two of its toughest matches. Danny Blind’s side lost 1-0 at home to France and drew 0-0 at Sweden. It’s a tough group, but the Dutch still have plenty of hope of catching second-place Sweden.
Verdict: Contender

Azerbaijan (Group C, second place)
These guys might be for real in the race to finish 1-2 with Germany, who is 3-0 and cruising. Azerbaijan have scooped a road point at Czech Republic while winning at home against Norway. Second place and a playoff bid is a legit thought.
Verdict: Contender

Czech Republic (Group C, fifth place)
Conversely, the Czechs are in real trouble with their winless start. Two home draws gave points to Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland, giving them loads of work to do on the road to make up points on the field.
Verdict: In real trouble

[ MORE: Bradley on Serie A rumors ]

Wales (Group D, third place)
Gareth Bale and the Dragons are two points back of Serbia and Ireland, which doesn’t seem bad until you consider Wales has played the fourth, fifth, and sixth place teams in the group. The home draw against Georgia is tough to stomach.
Verdict: Not dire, but not good

Montenegro (Group E, first place)
A draw at Romania and a win in Denmark have the Brave Falcons dreaming big, and deservedly so. Given the relative on-field struggles of Poland — who still have 7 points — and a November date with in Armenia, Montenegro should be in first over the four-month break.
Verdict: Contender

England (Group F, first place)
No, the Three Lions have not looked good in a single match of qualifying. But England is unbeaten through three and has the two toughest road matches out of the way (draw to Slovenia, win over Slovakia). England is probably going to Russia (Yes, already).
Verdict: Contender