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Chelsea
Chelsea

 

 

 

Chelsea missed a string of chances to draw 0-0 at home with Arsenal in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final on Wednesday as the video assistant referee (VAR) stoked the tension with two important interventions.

The hosts struggled to break down Arsene Wenger’s side despite enjoying the majority of possession and will feel hard done by after crafting the best of the game’s few openings in a lively game at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen wasted the best of the hosts’ opportunities, failing to find the target with two headers in the second half after Cesc Fabregas had also spurned a headed chance before the break.

Yet with limited goalmouth action, what little drama there was seemed to stem from referee Martin Atkinson referring a handful of decisions to the VAR.

The VAR system was being given its second outing in English football and was called into action in the first half to confirm Atkinson’s decision to wave away a penalty appeal after Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi went down following a challenge from Victor Moses.

It was called on again with two minutes remaining and once more confirmed the referee’s decision not to award a penalty, this time after Danny Welbeck got a faint touch on the ball when bringing down Fabregas.

With the system still in the test phase all eyes were focussed on how it would work, with Wenger voicing concerns in the aftermath about the length of time it took to confirm the referee’s decision not to award a penalty against Welbeck.

He was, however, delighted with how his side defended to leave the tie in the balance ahead of the second leg in two weeks time.

“I felt there was great togetherness, we didn’t give many chances away. I am pleased with the spirit and determination,” Wenger told sky Sports.

Arsenal came into the game without a win in their last three matches and nursing the wounds of a bruising third round FA Cup defeat to second tier Nottingham Forest, but they were resolute from the beginning in what was a relatively cagey affair.

Headed chances went begging for the hosts either side of halftime as Fabregas could only steer Cesar Azpilicueta’s diagonal ball straight at David Ospina while Christensen twice failed to find the net from close range after the break.

“We tried with all our strength to win the game,” Chelsea boss Antonio Conte said. “We created chances to score but a few times we were not so clinical.”

The winners will face either Manchester City or second tier Bristol City in the final, with the Premier League leaders taking a 2-1 lead into the second leg.

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Harry Kane
Harry Kane

 

 

Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino has expressed his delight as Harry Kane finished the season as Europe’s top goalscorer.

A hat-trick against Southampton in a 5-2 win at Wembley saw the striker take his tally to 56 goals for the calendar year, becoming the first player since Edin Dzeko in 2009 to beat Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to the accolade.

And having praised his strike ace so often, the Argentine was happy to do so once again.

He told BT Sport: “I think I’ve said everything [about Kane]. The last nine or 10 years it’s been Cristiano Ronaldo [the best in the world] and today it’s Harry Kane. I’m so happy to congratulate him and all of the team, well done.

“It doesn’t surprise us because every day we see how he works, his determination, how professional he is, and that can only be good for him. He’s a very talented player.

“He’s a great professional and a good example for everybody, not just his goals.”

Meanwhile, reflecting on the calendar year, Pochettino added: “We are so ambitious but I am so happy. We have finished this year in a very good way and I hope next year we can win more.”

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Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp could have few complaints about the cards his side have been dealt following the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League.

The Reds have been a two legged tie against Portugal giants FC Porto.

Of course the Estadio do Dragao side are no mugs but the draw could hardly have been any kinder to the Reds as they avoided landed European heavyweights Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Juventus.

Klopp’s men could also have faced a 4,500-mile round trip to Ukraine to take on a resurgent Shakhtar Donetsk, who qualified impressively at the expense of Napoli.

The other option was Basel but Kopites have had enough bad memories in that Swiss city to last a lifetime.

Instead it’s Portugal in February. Sergio Conceicao’s side stand between Liverpool and a place in the quarter-finals for the first time since 2009.

It ticks all the boxes. It’s accessible and it’s winnable.

Klopp has plenty of time to do his homework on a side who progressed as runners-up in Group G behind Besiktas.

Naby Keita, who will join Liverpool next summer, can expect a phone call from his future boss having faced Porto twice with RB Leipzig. Porto lost 3-2 away to the Bundesliga side and won 3-1 at home.

Scoring plenty but vulnerable at the other end (they netted 15 and conceded 10 in six group matches), Porto have plenty in common with Liverpool. This won’t be a cagey affair.

Cameroon international striker Vincent Aboubakar will be the main threat. He took his tally for the season to 20 goals in all competitions with a hat-trick in their 5-0 thrashing of Vitoria Setubal on Sunday which took them top of the Portuguese Premier League – ahead of Sporting on goal difference.

The omens are good. Liverpool are unbeaten in their four previous meetings with Porto. Gerard Houllier’s side knocked them out en route to winning the UEFA Cup in 2001. Rafa Benitez then got the better of them in the Champions League group stage in 2007.

The Estadio do Dragao will be rocking on Valentine’s Day but the Reds will have the benefit of home advantage for the second leg on Tuesday, March 6.

Porto keeper Iker Casillas knows only too well what Anfield is like when the stakes are high on European nights. The veteran keeper was part of the shell-shocked Real Madrid side hammered 4-0 at Anfield in 2009.

The two-legged ties brought the best out of Klopp two years ago when Liverpool upset the odds and marched on to the Europa League final in Basel. Repeating the trick among Europe’s elite will be more difficult but the Reds have already showcased what they are capable of when Klopp picks his best XI.

They have a frontline capable of hurting anyone on the continent. Hopes will rise further if the manager bolsters his backline in January.

With Real Madrid facing Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea taking on Barcelona, there will be some big names absent from the last eight, writes the Liverpool Echo.

Liverpool have been handed a glorious opportunity to march on. Raging on Sunday after Everton somehow escaped from Anfield with a point, this is one draw Klopp won’t find difficult to stomach.

2018 Russia World Cup Qualifiers

2018 russia world cup
2018 russia world cup

 

 

The 2018 World Cup will not start for another 6 1/2 months in Moscow, but the first victory has already been achieved: Russia defeats the FIFA draw.

With President Vladimir Putin in attendance at the State Kremlin Palace on Friday, the country hosting next summer’s soccer spectacular enjoyed a very favorable place when the names of the 32 teams were pulled from glass bowls in setting the first-round quartets.

Group of Death? Try Group of Joy.

Despite having the lowest world ranking in the field, the Russians were afforded, like previous tournament hosts, a top seed. Atop Group A, they were then joined by Saudi Arabia, the second-lowest ranked team; Egypt, which last qualified 28 years ago; and Uruguay, a formidable foe.

They dodged a European opponent, such as Spain or England, and, based on FIFA’s world rankings and pots, received an almost perfect draw. The only way it would’ve been statistically better is if Croatia had replaced Uruguay and Senegal or Iran had taken Egypt’s place.

With two teams from each group headed to the round of 16 — the minimum requirement for a host country seeking to avoid embarrassment — Russia is in a strong position to advance.

Putin, no doubt, is smiling.

The Group of Death? It’s “F” with reigning champion Germany; CONCACAF power Mexico; Sweden, which ousted Italy in a qualifying playoff; and South Korea, making its ninth consecutive appearance.

The tournament will run June 14 through July 15 in 11 Russian cities (12 stadiums). Russia will open the 64-match event in Moscow against Saudi Arabia.

Here’s how the groups shook out, with initial analysis:

GROUP A

Russia
Saudi Arabia
Egypt
Uruguay

As mentioned above, the Russians are undoubtedly ecstatic about the draw results. Then again, so are the other three teams.

Imagine you’re Saudi Arabia. You’re facing long odds to begin with. You know you’re going to face one of the top seeds. You certainly don’t want to play Germany, Argentina or Brazil. Russia? Sure, why not. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russians have never escaped the World Cup group stage and just once advanced out of the first round in the European Championship.

Uruguay is the group favorite, having finished second behind Brazil in South America’s brutal qualifying tournament and featuring Paris Saint-Germain marksman Edinson Cavani.

GROUP B

Portugal
Spain
Morocco
Iran

Spain and Portugal are responsible for the past three European titles and some of the greatest names in the sport, most notably Cristiano Ronaldo. And while their Sochi showdown June 15 is the marquee match among the 48 first-round games, both should advance regardless of the result.

If they go through, both would be favored against Group A counterparts in the round of 16.

Morocco has not participated since 1998, but with pros spread all over Europe, the Atlas Lions should not be underestimated.

Iran is a World Cup regular but will struggle to get out of the group.

GROUP C

France
Australia
Peru
Denmark

If this isn’t the Group of Death, it’s the Group of Near-Death. France, a bona fide threat to lift the trophy, is the clear favorite, but Denmark and Peru have the capacity to mess up Les Bleus’ championship plans. Australia will have a tough time gaining points.

Didier Deschamps has a wealth of French roster riches from the biggest clubs in Europe: Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud, among others.

The Danes gained a place by scoring five consecutive goals at Ireland in the second leg of a European playoff. Midfielder Christian Eriksen is world class.

Peru waited 36 years to return to the World Cup, qualifying via a playoff with New Zealand after finishing fifth in South America’s unforgiving race.

GROUP D

Argentina
Iceland
Croatia
Nigeria

This is a fun quartet, what with Lionel Messi and 2014 runner-up Argentina encountering the least populous country to ever qualify (Iceland), a traditionally capable European side (Croatia) and an unpredictable West African threat (Nigeria).

With his 31st birthday falling in the middle of the tournament, Messi is probably getting his last shot at the World Cup trophy. He almost didn’t get a chance: Argentina did not clinch a berth until the last day of continental qualifying. Any misstep would probably set up a round-of-16 game with France.

Iceland (pop. 335,000) parlayed success at the 2016 European Championship (an upset of England to reach the quarterfinals) into a World Cup berth by finishing ahead of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey in qualifying group play.

GROUP E

Brazil
Switzerland
Costa Rica
Serbia

Brazil is seeking redemption for the humiliation it suffered at home in 2014, a 7-1 semifinal loss to Germany. With Neymar in top form, a sixth world championship is in reach. The Brazilians roared through qualifying with one defeat in 18 matches and a plus-30 goal differential. They’ve got to finish first in the group; otherwise, they’ll probably face Germany again.

Switzerland and Serbia are positioned to fight for second place, but Costa Rica should not be dismissed. The Ticos were the surprise of the last World Cup, beating out Uruguay, Italy and England to win their group and then beating Greece to reach the quarterfinals before losing to the Netherlands on penalty kicks.

Costa Rica has Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas — and endless belief.

GROUP F

Germany
Mexico
Sweden
South Korea

For the Germans, it didn’t matter much how the draw transpired: They knew they’d be installed as group favorites and carry long-term ambitions.

That said, Joachim Loew’s squad will face a test in the first two matches, against Mexico and Sweden, before aiming to cement its place atop the group against long-shot South Korea. Qualifying was a minor inconvenience for the Germans: 10 victories in 10 tries and a 43-4 scoring advantage.

If they get out of the group, the Mexicans will seek to end a streak of six consecutive defeats in the round of 16. With several players excelling in European leagues, this seems to be their best chance.

Sweden will ride the momentum of ending Italy’s string of 14 straight appearances.

GROUP G

Belgium
Panama
Tunisia
England

England was a terrible disappointment at the 2014 World Cup, failing to advance past the group stage. Then again, England has been a terrible disappointment at many major tournaments.

The Three Lions are undoubtedly pleased with this draw, paired with Belgium as favorites in a group with a large gap between the top and bottom two. Neither Tunisia (first appearance since 2006) nor Panama (debut) stands much of a chance.

In 2014, Belgium outlasted the United States to reach the quarterfinals before losing to Argentina. This time, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne and Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku have grander goals.

GROUP H

Poland
Senegal
Colombia
Japan

Poland is the top seed because of a No. 7 world ranking that seems too generous. Colombia could end up winning the group. And Japan and Senegal are optimistic about their chances of advancing. In other words, this quartet is wide open.

Poland, a 2016 Euro quarterfinalist, qualified for the first time since 2006 and will seek to reach the knockout stage for the first time since 1986. Robert Lewandowski is one of his generation’s great scorers.

Colombia features 2014 top scorer James Rodriguez (six goals), while Japan, in a sixth straight World Cup, seeks to rebound from a poor showing in Brazil.

Senegal went to the 2002 quarterfinals but failed to qualify again until this fall.

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Jurgen Klopp
Jurgen Klopp

 

 

Jurgen Klopp is one of four candidates being considered by the Bayern Munich hierarchy to take charge next season, according to reports in Germany.

Bayern are currently being managed by Jupp Heynckes until the end of the season, after the Bundesliga champions fired Carlo Ancelotti in October.

The Bavarian giants are said to be looking seriously at four possible permanent successors – and Liverpool boss Klopp is among them.

According to Bild, Klopp ‘is now increasingly exposed to criticism from his club Liverpool’, and his leaving England to return to Germany is not to be discounted.

Klopp is highly respected at Bayern, having built his reputation by coaching a Borussia Dortmund team that regularly challenged for domestic and continental supremacy.

His Dortmund side won the Bundesliga title in successive years in 2011 and 2012, and reached the 2013 Champions League final at Wembley, where they were beaten by Bayern.

The other candidates being considered are reportedly Thomas Tuchel – who succeeded Klopp at Dortmund – Joachim Low, World Cup winning coach of the German national team, and caretaker Heynckes taking the job full time.

Of those three, Tuchel is the likeliest given he is currently unemployed, while Bayern president Uli Hoeness has suggested Heynckes could stay on.

However Heynckes responded by saying he plans to stick to his current agreement and leave Bayern at the end of the season, while any move for Low is complicated by his contract running until 2020.

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Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi

 

 

Barcelona were held to a draw at the Mestalla with Jordi Alba cancelling out Rodrigo’s early strike.

However, the game was marred by a controversial incident involving Messi, with the Argentina international seeing a goal wrongly disallowed with the officials failing to notice his ball had considerably crossed the line.

Valverde refused to be too critical after the game, praising Barcelona for the grit and determination showed against their fellow title rivals.

But Spanish outlet Diario Gol say Valverde’s decision not to force the issue has rankled with Messi.

For years, Barcelona and Real Madrid have traded verbal blows.

Media outlets in the region have accused both sides of receiving special treatment from the officials – despite there being little evidence of such.

And Messi supposedly feels Barcelona purposely were cost a vital three points against Valencia.

Diario Gol say Messi made his feelings clear to Valverde after the game.

He supposedly berated the manager, believing him not be interested in defending the interests of the club.

Other heavyweights – though unnamed – reportedly got involved.

However, Valverde has since upped the ante by criticising the decision, labelling it as “absurd”

“What is absurd is that people in the top row of the stadium can see that the ball is in and those below them can’t,” he said in a news conference.

“From the assistant’s view, he couldn’t see it,” he said before tonight’s Copa del Rey clash with Real Murcia.

“I couldn’t, either. But from the moment I saw what happened, I knew it was in because of how Leo celebrated, how the goalkeeper had his head down… [Martin] Montoya went to get the ball to take it back to the middle of the pitch.

“It’s crazy that in such an important game, and at an important moment, the referee doesn’t see it when there are 40,000 people that knew it was a goal.

“Every year there’s an episode like this. Last season it happened to Barca at Real Betis.”