Is Champions League Still Reachable For United Without Zlatan?

Manchester United’s quest for Champions League football next season took a massive hit when star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic suffered serious damage to his ACL and PCL ligaments in Thursday’s Europa League tie with Anderlecht .

United are fighting the battle for Champions League on two fronts, in England and in Europe. Jose Mourinho’s side controls their own destiny for a top four finish in the Premier League. Thursday’s showdown with Manchester City will have serious table implications in addition to the heated derby atmosphere.

A difficult schedule still awaits, with visits to City, Arsenal and Tottenham still to come. Zlatan’s injury thrusts the spotlight on young Marcus Rashford and club legend Wayne Rooney at striker. Anthony Martial will also likely be given a chance to redeem himself for past chances not taken.

Manchester United will need Wayne Rooney to re-find his form of old.

Rashford has been significantly better in the last month and can give shaky backlines fits with his pace and work rate. Rooney and Anthony Martial both stepped up by scoring United’s goals in a 2-0 win over Burnley on Sunday. If that trio continues to play well, it could even be an improvement over filtering the entire attack through Ibrahimovic. Liverpool’s loss to Crystal Palace on Sunday puts United in their best table position in months, making a top four dream very much alive.

In Europe, the Red Devils are in the Semi-finals of the Europa League. They must win the competition in order to automatically qualify for next season’s Champions League. Celta Vigo from Spain will prove to be a difficult test in the semis.

While they only sit tenth in La Liga, Celta have proved they can be giant killers by defeating both Barcelona and Real Madrid this season. Forward Iago Aspas is tied with Antoine Griezmann for fifth in La Liga with 16 goals on the season. Man U also lost defender Marcos Rojo to injury and will be shorthanded facing Aspas and the dangerous Celta attack.

Iago Aspas has tormented opposing defenses all season.

United will likely play similarly to the way they did against Anderlecht. Expect Mourinho to be conservative in the opening away tie and attack back home in Manchester in the decisive second tie.

 

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FC Cincinnati Battles Back To Secure A Point Against Louisville City FC

FC Cincinnati and Louisville City FC each earned a point after a 1-1 draw at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati in front of 20,437 fans.

Louisville’s Brian Ownby scored first with a laser from 20 yards out that banked off the post and in. Cincinnati was able to equalize with a goal from Aodhan Quinn. Cincinnati went a man down after star striker Djiby Fall went jumping in with his studs up to pick up a red in.

Cincinnati head coach Alan Koch said of the match, “Louisville was defiantly the better team in tonight’s game. But what I was impressed with was the character to come back.” He also applauded the fans saying, “I take my hat off to the fans, I think they were absolutely excellent. When we went down they picked it up. I think that is a big part of why we got something out of the game tonight.”

Cincinnati had a very frustrating first half starting off slow for the first five minutes. After getting a little control of the game they were able to put on pressure on. Louisville was able to grab the lead after a great play from Ownby to cut in from his left to beat Quinn and shoot from the middle of the field giving Mitch Hildebrandt. Louisville looked to go for a second and put Cincinnati under pressure for a long time. Matt Bahner had Cincinnati’s best chance in the half with a shot that was acrobatically tipped over the bar by the Louisville keeper late in the half.

In the second half Cincinnati made two subs to bring on two attacking players to attempt to even up the game. Right after the subs Cincinnati pilled on pressure but the strong Louisville back line shut down every attack. Kyle Smith and Tarek Morad both had incredible games for Louisville on the right side of the field. Cincinnati finally broke thorough after a cross from Andrew Wiedeman on the left was half cleared to Corben Bone who passed it to Quinn who evened up the game. Fall’s red card came shortly after and put Cincinnati in a tough position to finish the final few minutes of the match.

Tonight’s match rounds out a tough week for Cincinnati after played three of the toughest teams in the Eastern Conference. Cincinnati goes to (2-2-2) and gets five points out of nine on the week after a win and two draws. Cincinnati heads to fifth place in the East with eight points. When asked about the week Koch said, “Big picture I’m very happy with the results, if it was three games against teams from the bottom of our conference I wouldn’t feel that way. But to play three top teams and get 5 of 9 points.” He also said, “The performance tonight wasn’t going in the right direction but the character is.”

Fall’s red card was the third straight red for Cincinnati this season with the first two being Paul Nicholson and Kadeem Dacres. Fall’s red happened the latest all season after Nicholson’s was in the 26 minute and Dacres in the 72 minute. Fall will be out for the match against the Bethlehem Steel next Saturday the 29 of April.

Quinn scored his first goal for Cincinnati against his former team. He did not celebrate, a common thing to do against former employers “I knew if the opportunity came up I wouldn’t celebrate. I have a lot of respect for that club, the coaches, and the players. I still talk to a lot of them there was no chance I would celebrate.”

Notably absent tonight was Kadeem Dacres due to his red card against the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Wednesday. He missed his chance to play his former team in Louisville where he played the last two seasons. Victor Mansaray started in his place and played well getting a few decent crosses but was unable to get one to find Fall.

Summary

Cincinnati had another slow start to the match letting Louisville dictate the first minutes of the match. Cincinnati was able to gain control, looking dangerous and piling on pressure but to no avail.

Louisville’s Brain Ownby cut to his left in from the right flank and buried a laser that careened off the post and in to take the lead in the 20 minute. Cincinnati keeper Mitch Hildebrandt had no chance at saving it.

Sean Totsch of Louisville picked up the first yellow card of the match in the attack after the goal taking down Harrison Delbridge just outside the box in the 21 minute. The resulting free kick ended up in the side netting for a goal kick.

Victor Mansaray picked up the first yellow for Cincinnati after a late challenge on George Davis IV in the 31 minute.

Mat Bahner had a great chance for Cincinnati with a shot from outside the box that demanded a good save from Louisville keeper Tim Dobrowolski who tipped it over the bar in the 40 minute.

Austin Berry picked up a yellow card for holding up a Louisville attacker stopping an attack in the 52 minute. Good foal because if he lets the attacker go it could have been a very good chance. Free kick goes wide resulting in a goal kick.

Luke Spencer almost doubled Louisville’s lead after a bad giveaway from Harrison Delbridge inside the six-yard box in the 64 minute. A very good save from Hildebrandt keeps the score where it is.

A header from Delbridge just misses wide off a free kick from Quinn in the 66 minute. It was also just out of reach for Matt Bahner who almost tapped it in.

Kenny Walker’s tackle from behind earned him a yellow in the 70 minute. It was a nice break for Louisville because Cincinnati was piling on the pressure looking to equalize.

Cincinnati equalized after a goal from Aodhan Quinn from inside the six-yard box in the 79 minute. A ball from Andrew Wiedeman from the left was half cleared to the top of the box and sent back in from Daryl Fordyce.

Djiby Fall was given a straight red after leaving his feet and showing his studs in a tackle trying to regain the ball in the midfield in the 85 minute.

Louisville put a ball into the box in the 88 minute that Hildebrandt was able to knock to himself. As he grabbed it a Louisville attacker swung his leg and almost caught Hildebrandt. A small exchanging of words ensued but no cards were given and plat continued.

Cincinnati had one chance just before fulltime after a dangerous cross into Andy Craven that was grabbed by the keeper.

Next Up

Cincinnati travels to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to take on the Bethlehem Steel next Saturday April, 29. Bethlehem currently sit in last place in the Eastern Conference with three points (1-2-0). Last year Cincinnati won both games against Bethlehem and will look to continue their unbeaten record.

They come back to Cincinnati Saturday May 13 to play Orlando City B at 7:00pm.

Final Thoughts

Cincinnati had a rough game tonight but it was a welcome sight to see them grab points late rather than last season where they were dropping points in the final 10 minutes.

Djiby Fall was given a very deserved red card and there is no chance of an appeal. The only question now is if a further suspension comes from the USL offices. I don’t see this happening but it is a possibility. Victor Mansaray or Andy Craven will fill in for Fall next weekend.

They need to get back on track against Bethlehem after two tough physical draws to probably the best two teams in the Eastern Conference. It was a good week but not great, they need to get back to great if they want a home first round playoff game.

Andy Craven was handing out donuts tonight to kids after the game. That is how you endear yourself to you fans.

Cincinnati and Tampa Bay Draw In Physical Affair

FC Cincinnati hosted the Tampa Bay Rowdies in a very physical 1-1 draw at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio in front of 15,227.

Darwin Jones of Tampa Bay scored in the seventh minute on a screamer from 30 yards out that hit the post and careened in. It will be a definite USL “Goal of the Week” candidate. Harrison Delbridge headed in a corner to equalize in the 36 minute. Cincinnati’s Kadeem Dacres was sent off on a straight red after a high-legged challenge on Jones hitting him in the stomach.

Cincinnati Head Coach Alan Koch on the result stated, “At the end of the night we will take 1 point, something to build on for Saturday.”

An extremely physical night where there were five yellow cards, a straight red, and 31 fouls between both teams. It started early with both teams picking up fouls early on and the first card coming inside the first 20 minutes. Tampa Bay led the way with 20 fouls. Both teams seemed to be up for the match. When asked whose style of play resulted in the physical nature of the match Koch said, “A little more of them…They tried to impose themselves from the start of the game…It probably was part of their gameplan.”

There were a couple scuffles, one inside the first 15 minutes, another that spilled into the Tampa Bay bench with Dacres and a defender. At the end of the match Joe Cole kicked Cincinnati’s Jimmy McLaughlin in the head inside his own box in the 85 minute with no call from the referee.

Cincinnati started the game slow and allowed Tampa Bay to control the opening few minutes. The Tampa Bay goal was a combination of a great strike and no one stepping up to close him down after a giveaway in the midfield. They finally were able to get their flow going around the 30 minute and getting a goal shortly after. Coach Koch said, “We weren’t very happy with how we started tonight.”

The second half both teams came out strong and both teams looked dangerous but couldn’t give their team a lead. Cincinnati started to take over the game around the 60 minute possessing a lot of the ball and looking extremely dangerous. All of that changed after the red card to Dacres. The final 15 Tampa Bay took over and was able to create plenty of chances but couldn’t break through.

This was the second straight red card for Cincinnati this season; Paul Nicholson against Bethlehem Steel had the first. In that match Cincinnati was down a man for 4 minutes. Koch remarked on that match giving them the resolve to close out this one. On potentially appealing the red he said, “We’ll probably have a discussion tonight as a club and see what the right way is to go about addressing that.”

McLaughlin and Dacres both covered a lot of ground on the wings for Cincinnati tonight. Both were able to make good plays on both sides of the ball. Dacres had a great tackle just outside the box on the wing to start a counter attack in the first half that led to a chance. Due to the red card Dacres will be out for the match this Saturday against Louisville City FC.

Djiby Fall was unable to continue his incredible goal scoring streak, with it almost impossible to repeat his four goal performance from last Saturday. Delbridge’s goal was the first one not scored by Fall this season.

Summary

Marcel Schafer hit a gorgeous shot from about 30 yards out to give Tampa Bay the lead in the 7’. The chance was created due to a bad giveaway from Cincinnati in the center of the park.

Tampa Bay was the better team though the first 15 minutes creating chances and winning the ball in the midfield.

Tampa Bay’s Luke Boden picked up the first yellow card of the night for a foul on Kadeem Dacres in the midfield in the 20 minute. It was coming for a little while due to the physical nature of the game to that point. Both sides had been called for a few fouls up to that point.

Cincinnati finally found their attacking legs creating chances and playing well defensively around the 30 minute mark.

Harrison Delbridge equalized off a corner from Kenny Walker into the six-yard box jumping over a Tampa Bay defender.

Jimmy McLaughlin put a shot just wide in the 44 minute. He was able to split two Tampa Bay defenders and just missed on the shot to put it wide. Would have been a great play if converted.

The start of the second half both teams looked dangerous held the ball well but no chances from either side.

Matt Bahner picked up Cincinnati’s first yellow card of the evening after a foul in the midfield attempting to break up a counter attack. Play went on after the foul and he made a block on a cross to slow down the attack.

Michael Nachoff picked up a yellow in the 64 minute for Tampa Bay after a late foul on Fordyce.

Daryl Fordyce had a great chance in the 65 minute after a brilliant bit of trickery from Bahner to set up the one on one chance. His one on one chance was saved after trying to slide it under the charging keeper.

Scuffle in the 68 minute after a coming together between Dacres and a Tampa Bay defender spilled into the Tampa Bay bench area.

Tampa Bay’s Damion Lowe picked up a yellow in the 70 minute after foul on Dacres to stop his great run. Free kick from Walker went just wide but should have been saved by the keeper.

Dacres was given a straight red card in the 78 minute after a hard foul on Jones. Dacres went in with a high straight leg into the midsection.

Jimmy McLaughlin went down in a heap in his own box after getting kicked in the head by Tampa Bay’s Joe Cole in the 85 minute. Play went on and Delbridge closed down where McLaughlin would have been, forcing a cross to go out for a goal kick. McLaughlin was given some medical aid and came back on as play resumed.

Fulltime came after five minutes of extra time where Cincinnati was able to close down the final few minutes only giving up one good chance in extra time that was headed over the bar for a goal kick.

Next Up

Louisville City FC comes to town in the River Cities Cup on Saturday April 22. Louisville is coming off a 2-1 home win against Tampa Bay to stay unbeaten. Currently in second place in the Eastern Conference with 10 points (3-0-1) tied with points with Tampa Bay and down on goal differential. Kickoff is slated for 7:00p.m. for what right now looks like it could be a cold wet one with a 100% chance of rain and high of 52 as of this writing. Check here for weather closer to the match.

Last season Cincinnati won the River Cities Cup on goal differential due to having a win, draw, and loss to Louisville. This will be their first match of the season.

Final Thoughts

Cincinnati had the chances to win tonight but one point against what very well could be the best team in the Eastern Conference after the poor start and red card. I think it was a harsh red card but the referee was forced to make a decision and it went against Cincinnati. Also when Jimmy McLaughlin was kicked in the head there should have been a card there as well, maybe not a red but at least a yellow. The five yellows could have been several more due to the amount of fouls from both teams.

Cincinnati should bounce back against a very tough Louisville City team who has former forward Luke Spencer leading their line.

Premier League’s Three Most Underrated Players

Despite being dubbed the “glamour league” and receiving the majority of the sport’s media attention, many class talents go unnoticed in the Premier League.

1. Jordan Henderson, Liverpool

While his more flashy teammates and lovable manager soak up the majority of the limelight, Henderson is vital piece of Liverpool as well as for England. Henderson is the leader in passes in the league this season by a wide margin. He often plays in the important defensive midfield role for Liverpool. With the Reds’ back line being very shaky, they rely heavily on Henderson for stability.

Henderson’s ability to play multiple positions (he has played on the right and the left for England) is also a major bonus. He doesn’t score very much and that is part of the reason why he is so underrated. Henderson is undoubtedly a major reason behind Liverpool’s recent rise.

2. Gylfi Sigurdsson, Swansea

While Henderson doesn’t get the attention he deserves because of his position and style, Sigurdsson goes under the radar because he plays for a bottom tier club. Sigurdsson, who has played for Tottenham in the past, is an excellent attacking midfielder with excellent vision. He has amassed eight goals and 11 assists in the Premier League this season.

Gylfi Sigurdsson is undoubtedly Swansea’s most talented player.

Without the Icelandic international, Swansea would likely be deep in the relegation zone. Sigurdsson has had a hand in over half (19/37; 51%) of Swansea’s league goals. His build up play has also been key on other goals. Bigger clubs will likely come knocking for the 27 year old this summer, especially if Swansea are relegated to the Championship.

3. Ander Herrera, Man United

Like Henderson, Herrera has been a key player at a top club for a long time but has always been overshadowed by his peers. While he was inconsistent in the past, Herrera has stepped up as a trustworthy midfielder this season for Jose Mourinho. Herrera has had five assists and  joins Henderson and teammate Paul Pogba in the top three passers this season.

Herrera showed what he can do on Saturday in a masterful man of the match performance in United’s 2-0 win over Chelsea. Herrera completely neutralized Blues’ star Eden Hazard and scored the second goal for Man United. Herrera is reaching his prime and his play is certainly showing it.

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FC Cincinnati Routs St. Louis FC In Home Opener

FC Cincinnati ran all over St. Louis FC to win 4-0 at Nippert Stadium. Djiby Fall scored all four in an incredible performance.

After a slow start the entire Cincinnati team put in a very good performance being able to shut down St. Louis despite not having the majority of possession. Matt Bahner and Corben Bone both had fantastic games putting passes in dangerous areas and both having assists. The back line was in the right place at the right time consistently stopping build up play or making a key tackle before passes could be put in dangerous positions. Cincinnati had 12 shots putting eight on target in a good performance.

Fall commented on his performance by saying, “I want to congrat my teammates without them I can’t score four goals.” He also added this was his first time scoring four goals.

Head Coach Alan Koch praised his team, “Congratulations to Djiby [Fall] for scoring the four goals and congratulations to the whole team. The service into him tonight was very good. I think we looked dangerous.” He also said, “The positive is on the flip side, we really put in a good performance out of possession. Our group was very sound defensively.”

Mitch Hildebrandt got his second clean sheet of the season. He had five last season, he is on his way to bettering that total.

Andy Craven made his FC Cincinnati debut tonight coming on in the 80’ for Fall. Victor Mansaray had his first start tonight and played 66 minutes before coming off with an injury. Corben Bone also had his first start of the season after coming on as a sub in two previous games.

Another USL attendance record was broken tonight after 23,144 fans showed up to provide a noisy atmosphere. Koch praised the crowd, “I have been in this game for a long time, that was a pretty special environment tonight. You could feel it, the players could feel it.” Fall gave a very nice complement after being asked about the crowd saying. “When I play a Europa League game in England when we played Fulham.”

Bahner, a Cincinnati native, talked about his homecoming, “I had a lot of friends, a lot of family. I’m thankful have them supporting me.” After throwing out the first pitch for the Cincinnati Reds on Friday and the good performance tonight he commented, “Maybe I should throw out the first pitch every Friday night.”
Summary

The first half started off slowly with a large amount of Cincinnati possession and many long balls forward where only one was able to produce a chance. Fall was fairly physical early on picking up a few fouls and being on the receiving end of a few. One foul causing an exchange of words when he pushed a St. Louis defender into the keeper who threw the ball out of bonds in frustration and so his defender could get some treatment.

Fall broke the deadlock in the 35’ with a header off a cross from Matt Bahner. Victor Mansaray picked up his yellow card in the 39’ on a straight-legged challenge on the touchline that brought a few words to be exchanged. Fall’s second goal came off a corner where the initial ball was headed up to Harrison Delbridge who headed it down to Fall’s feet who turned and slid it into the net before halftime.

The second half started off with a bang after an early goal from Fall to complete his hattrick. An easy tap in after a great passes from Kenny Walker and Corben Bone to set it up. A few minutes after the goal St. Louis coach Preki used all three subs trying to get any sort of offense. Fall’s fourth goal came off a header in the box off a good cross from Kenny Walker who had all day to cross the ball in.

St Louis’ Octavio Guzman picked up his team’s only yellow card after a hard foul on Kadeem Dacres in the 64’. Dacres was down for a few seconds but was able to get up and finish the match. Cincinnati never stopped looking for goal after their fourth but were notably cautious.

Next Up

Cincinnati hosts the Tampa Bay Rowdies and former Chelsea FC star Joe Cole on Wednesday night at 7:00 at Nippert Stadium. This is the first time the two teams will play each other due to Tampa Bay moving to the USL from the NASL.

Final Thoughts

After a rough start this win should get Cincinnati in the right mode to take on a very good Tampa Bay who are currently in second.

Djiby Fall is going to surpass the club record of 16 goals, set by Sean Okoli, this year barring any injures with 6 through his first four games. He is a substantial upgrade over Okoli and if the balls coming into him are consistent like they were tonight 25 goals does not seem out of reach.

Cincinnati needs to find goals from someone else at some point because teams are going to be keying in on Djiby in the future. Look for Mansaray and Kadeem Dacres to score a few in the coming weeks.

On a final note #WengerOut has made it to Cincinnati.

Leicester Can Take Many Positives From First Leg Defeat

Despite falling 1-0 to Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal tie, Leicester City still should have a positive outlook heading into the second leg to played back in England on Tuesday.

Heavy underdogs, Leicester were dealt a blow before the match even started when it was announced that captain Wes Morgan would miss yesterday’s match in Madrid. Despite being pressed against the wall for ninety minutes, it took a questionable penalty call and ensuing Antoine Griezmann finish to break what would have been a scoreless draw.

Although an away goal would have been nice, Leicester know how to make up one goal deficits. They advanced past Sevilla with a 1-0 win at home in the second leg. A same result on Tuesday would force extra time and potentially penalties.

Leicester have proven very difficult to beat in the confines of their own stadium. Behind what is sure to be a raucous crowd, exoect Craig Shakespeare’s men to come at Atleti with full force.

Leicester Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel will need to repeat his round of 16 heroics against Atletico Madrid.

It will be vital that midfielders Wilfred Ndidi and Danny Drinkwater win the battle in the midfield and set up Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, and others for scoring chances. Kasper Schmeichel, who came up huge against Sevilla, will need to cope with the absence of a suspended Robert Huth.

While taking down last years finalist would truly be a monumental feat. These Foxes, with this coach, at this stadium, are the ones to do the job.

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Is Chelsea’s Title Run Under Threat?

With Chelsea seemingly strolling to its second title in three years, recent attention has been cast on the race for the top four as well as the relegation battle. The Blues were stunned 2-1 at home against Crystal Palace on the weekend, but bounced back on Wednesday with a victory over Manchester City by the same score.

Tottenham stand as Chelsea’s lone obstacle to a second title in three years.

Tottenham stormed back late to defeat Swansea City and maintain a seven point gap between them and the Blues. So, with eight games left in the season. Do fixtures favor the chasers?

CHE  (71 pts)             TOT (64 pts)

@Bou                          Wat

@ManU                       Bou

Sou                            @Lei

@Eve                         @Cry

Mid                             Ars

@Wba                        @Whu

Sun                            Mun

Wat                            @Hull

 

Tottenham face Arsenal in addition to the Manchester United match-up both sides have. Fortunately for Spurs, they host the Red Devils, while Chelsea must travel to Old Trafford. Chelsea have two very easy match-ups on the slate when they host Sunderland and Middlesborough.

While the Blues have arguably the easier schedule, and a nice point cushion, there are difficulties left. In addition to the visit to Old Trafford, Chelsea must also play at Everton and West Brom. Both sides are in the top 10 and pose serious threats to Chelsea.

It is still quite a long shot that Chelsea let the title slip through their fingers. In a year with many notable collapses in sports, the traps are there if Chelsea are not careful.

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An Update on World Cup Qualifying (Part 3)

Europe (UEFA)

Europe’s qualification process for the World Cup involves nine groups of six teams. The winner of each group automatically qualifies for the tournament while eight out of nine second place teams advance to a separate head to head playoff. With so many prominent footballing nations in Europe, the spots are highly competitive.

Group A

Halfway through the qualifiers, France sit at the top of Group A. Sure to be one of the favorites in Russia next summer, Les Bleus are  having no problems in qualifying. The Netherlands, who missed out on Euro 2016, are in danger of missing out on Russia as well. Despite talent such as Arjen Robben, the Dutch sit fourth on 7 points, six behind the French. Sweden sits in second with 10 points, despite the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from the national team.

 

Group B

Granit Xhaka (Photo courtesy: goal.com)

The top two in Group B seem to be clear cut at this point, with Switzerland and Portugal distancing themselves from the field. The question is, who will qualify automatically and who will have to go to the gruesome two leg playoff stage? Switzerland are well rounded with players such as Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, Wolfsburg’s Ricardo Rodriguez, and Borussia Monchengladbach keeper Yann Sommer. Portugal, of course, are Euro 2016 champions and led by the brilliant Cristiano Ronaldo. Switzerland have a three point advantage over Portugal with 15. Hungary sit third with 7.

 

Group C

Group C was always going to be Germany’s from the get go. The reigning world champions sit comfortably atop the group with 15 points. The fight for a potential playoff spot is in progress between Northern Ireland, Czech Republic, and Azerbaijan. The Northern Irish, who sit second with ten, are looking to build on a strong performance at Euro 2016. The Czech team are without longtime goalkeeper and current Arsenal player Petr Cech.

 

Group D

Serbia and Ireland currently sit atop Group D with 11 points. The Serbians have many prominent Premier League players such as Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic, Man City left back Aleksandr Kolarov, and former Chelsea man Branislav Ivanovic who now plays for Zenit St. Petersburg. Ireland made it to the knockout stages of Euro 2016. Sitting four points back with 7 are dangerous customers in Wales and Austria. Led by Gareth Bale and David Alaba respectively, both teams are capable of finding themselves in Russia next summer.

 

Group E

Robert Lewandowski looks set to play in his first World Cup next summer as Poland have taken a six point lead in their group. The Polish team also features Monaco defender Kamil Glik and Napoli striker Arkadiusz Milik among others. The battle for second is close, so close that the one second place team omitted from the playoff on points scored could very well be from this group. Christian Eriksen-led Denmark is in contention for that spot along with Romania and Montenegro.

 

Group F

England have put themselves in a good position to win Group F. The Three Lions have a four point lead on Slovakia and five point lead on Slovenia. The Liverpool duo of Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana have each scored twice in the campaign. Scotland is also in the group and sits in fourth. Slovakia played in Euro 2016 and enjoy the services of Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik.

 

Group G

Gigi Buffon (Photo courtesy: zimbio.com)

Another group that has seemingly erupted into a two horse race, Group G contains two of the games’ greatest nations in Spain and Italy. Both sides have had to rebuild from the remains of golden generations in recent years. Spain now has David de Gea and Thiago while Italy boasts Marco Verratti and Leonardo Bonucci. However veteran presence still exists with Andres Iniesta and Gianluigi Buffon. The third place team fighting to stay alive is an up and coming Israel side which should see more players move to Europe soon.

 

Group H

After disappointing in recent tournaments, Belgium look set to get another opportunity next summer. They lead their group by two points over Greece and three points over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Belgium is loaded with talent such as Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Thibaut Cortouis and Romelu Lukaku in the Premier League alone. Greece is a scrappy defensive side with solid players such as Roma’s Kostas Manolas. Manolas’ current teammate and former Man City striker Edin Dzeko features for Bosnia and Herzegovina along with Juventus midfielder and free-kick maestro Miralem Pjanic.

 

Group I

Following a heartbreaking Euro 2016 exit, Croatia and its “golden generation” currently have the upper hand on an automatic spot in Russia. Led by a superb midfield of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and up and comer Marcelo Brozovic of Inter Milan, Croatia are certainly favorites to maintain their top spot. In second is Iceland, who grabbed headlines last summer with an incredible run in France culminating with a victory over England. Swansea playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson is their vocal point. Ukraine and Turkey sit two points behind the Icemen. Players such as Yovhan Konoplyanka and Arda Turan bring quality to those sides.

 

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An Update on World Cup Qualifying (Part 2)

North America (CONCACAF)

The final stage of qualifying in North America features six teams with three automatically qualifying and the fourth place side moving onto an international playoff. With four of the ten matches played, it is Mexico who have claimed the top spot with three wins and a draw equaling ten points.

The United States stumbled out of the gate, but recovered this past week with a thrashing of Honduras and a hard fought draw in a visit to Panama. The US currently sit in that dicey fourth position, ahead of Honduras on goal differential. The rise of young stars such as Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood of Hamburg have given new life to an American side that desperately needed, and could still use a pick-me-up. The US have proven commodities in goalkeeper Tim Howard as well as John Brooks, Fabian Johnson and Clint Dempsey.

Mexico’s side includes a trio who star in the Portuguese league. Wing back Miguel Layun and midfielder Hector Herrera are regulars for second-place Porto. While striker Raul Jimenez plays for league leaders Benfica. All three gained valuable experience in the Champions League Round of 16 this season. Finally, the Mexican attack is led by former Manchester United and Real Madrid forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, who now plays for Bayer Leverkusen.

Costa Rica announced itself to the world with a run to the quarterfinals in Brazil in 2014. Former Arsenal winger Joel Campbell and midfielder Bryan Ruiz are experienced international players and play for Sporting Lisbon. Finally, Costa Rica’s best attribute is the wall that is goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Since his outstanding performances in the 2014 World Cup, Navas has become the first choice goalkeeper at Real Madrid and made key saves during their Champions League title run a year ago.

New United States manager Bruce Arena is off to a strong start in his attempt to save the USMNT’s World Cup Qualifying Campaign

Who Will Be in Russia Next Summer?

Mexico have firmly put themselves in a good position and their past experience should keep them from falling back.

Navas, Ruiz and Campbell are about as talented a trio as there are at this stage of qualifying. Costa Rica will be there next summer.

The talent of the United States is too much and as they become more and more adapted to new manager Bruce Arena’s tactics, they will only get better and better.

Finally, Honduras’ past experience should help them eek out Panama and Trinidad & Tobago for fourth place and a spot in the playoff.

 

South America (CONMEBOL)

Widely considered to be the most exciting of the qualifying processes. CONMEBOL’s qualifying is only one round featuring all ten nations with the top four qualifying for the tournament and the fifth place team qualifying for a playoff.

With the help of some mind-boggling performances from their superstar Neymar and guidance of new manager Tite, Brazil sit atop the group by nine points and have already clinched a spot in Russia next summer. Bottom feeders Bolivia and Venezuela have been eliminated, but just six points separate teams two through eight with just four matches remaining.

James Rodriguez-led Colombia sit second at 24 points. That is one point ahead of Chile and Uruguay, who boast their own stars in Alexis Sanchez and Luis Suarez respectively. Argentina sit in the playoff spot with 22 points, but have been rocked by the news that Lionel Messi will serve a four game suspension for cursing at the referee.

With three matches remaining on Messi’s suspension, Argentina will need their other big players to step up in his absence. Paris Saint Germain’s Angel di Maria and Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero are two names that come to mind as possible candidates to pick up the slack.

Argentina will have to fend off Ecuador who sit on 20 points, as well as Peru and Paraguay who are further back with 18.

Lionel Messi’s suspension means his teammates will need to step up if Argentina want to qualify for Russia

Who Will Be in Russia Next Summer?

Rodriguez, Sanchez and Suarez all enjoy strong enough supporting casts to join Neymar and Brazil in Russia next summer. Rodriguez has pacy Juventus winger Juan Cuadrado. Sanchez is aided by Bayern Munich’s bulldog midfielder Arturo Vidal. Suarez teams up with PSG striker Edinson Cavani to make for a dangerous strike force.

Finally, it is difficult to imagine a World Cup without the magic man himself, Lionel Messi. Argentina has more than enough talent to get by in his absence and advance to a playoff where they will surely be heavy favorites..

 

Check Back Next Week for Part 3, and an update on European qualifiers.

 

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An Update on World Cup Qualifying (Part 1)

Late March in soccer means one thing, the international break. And while many players have been enjoying a “spring break” of sorts, many have been dealing with the pressure of getting their respective nations to the arguably the biggest stage in sport, the World Cup.

Asia (AFC)

While the traditional powerhouses tend to come from Europe and South America, the popularity and quality of the sport is on the rise in Asia. Australia, Japan and South Korea have been regular competitors in the World Cup, but it is Iran who have taken command of their group, Group A, and look set to advance to the 2018 tournament in Russia.

Australia’s spot in the tournament could be under threat as they currently sit third in Group B behind Japan and Saudi Arabia. If the Socceroos fail to make up the points in the final three fixtures they will face a two leg aggregate playoff against the other third place side from Group A, which is likely to be Uzbekistan or South Korea.

Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan would bring new flavor to the tournament as Saudi Arabia missed out on the last two tournaments and Uzbekistan has never qualified.

Australia will have to make up ground on Saudi Arabia and Japan if they hope to avoid a do or die playoff

Who Will Be in Russia Next Summer?

Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan have put themselves in prime position to qualify.

South Korea possesses talent such as Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min, and their players’ European experience should get them through.

Finally, Australia know how to get it done and 37 year old striker Tim Cahill will propel them to a playoff victory in what is likely to be his final World Cup campaign.

 

Africa (CAF)

Africa is also in its final stage of qualification. Since South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010, the talent of African nations has risen significantly. Ghana’s run to the quarterfinals in 2010 and the rise of many African players at big European clubs is a perfect example of this.

The final stage of qualifying involves five groups A-E of four teams with the winner of each group advancing to Russia next summer. With two out of the six fixtures played, it is still relatively early.

Group A has broken out into a two horse race between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) and Tunisia. Both sides have proven European players with Everton winger Yannick Bolasie and Villarreal striker Cedric Bakambu featuring for DR Congo while Tunisia fields dynamic Sunderland playmaker Wahbi Khazri and veteran defender Aymen Abdennour of Valencia.

Group B features three “blue bloods” of African soccer in Nigeria, Cameroon and Algeria. The Nigerians lead the group by four points after former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel and current Blues wing back Victor Moses combined for three goals in a win over Riyad Mahrez led Algeria.  If results in the group hold, Nigeria will bring a talented side to Russia featuring young attacking talent in 20 year olds Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi of Manchester City and Arsenal respectively, in addition to the aforementioned Mikel and Moses. Cameroon’s post-Samuel Eto’o hangover may keep them out of the World Cup for just the second time since 1990.

Group C sees Borussia Dortmund superstar Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang try and guide his native Gabon to its first World Cup. However, Gabon sit two points behind group favorites Ivory Coast, who possess a large talent pool that includes Manchester United defender Eric Bailly, Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure, and Paris Saint Germain defender Serge Aurier among others.

Group D contains a tight race between co-leaders Burkina Faso and South Africa, while Sadio Mane-led Senegal sits one point behind. Meanwhile, Egypt has broken ahead in Group E with six points while African giants Ghana have stumbled out of the gate to the tune of one point from their first two matches.

Luis Suarez’s controversial handball helped end Ghana’s incredible run in South Africa in 2010. Now, they are fighting to even qualify for next summer’s tournament.

Who Will Be in Russia Next Summer?

Group A may be the toughest to call, but the attacking prowess of DR Congo should see them through.

Nigeria’s balance in every area of the pitch should help them guard their lead in Group B.

Despite the brilliance of Aubameyang, Gabon don’t have the other talent to match up against a much more well rounded Ivory Coast side in Group C.

Expect Liverpool’s Mane to guide Senegal to Russia in a group that features few other big European players.

Finally, Ghana has the talent to challenge Egypt but the hole may to big to climb out of. Expect to see Mohammed Salah and Co. next summer.

Still To Come

Part 2: North America & South America

Part 3: Europe

 

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

 

 

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