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Euro 2020: In-form Pukki out to end 80-year Azzurri jinx

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Euro 2020: In-form Pukki out to end 80-year Azzurri jinx

The race for next year’s European Championships heats up with Match Day 6 ties taking place today, eyes on the Tampere Stadium to see if Finland can finally end their 80-year wait to beat Italy, writes Tunde Sulaiman

 

T

he race for tickets to next year’s European Championship finals enters the home stretch today with Match Day Six fixtures of the 10-match qualifying campaign kicking off with eight games.

 

 

The Match Day Six games are coming just 72 hours after the teams saw action on Match Day Five.

 

 

However, the stand out fixture today is clearly in Helsinki, where second placed Finland is hosting Group J leaders Italy with only three points separating them.

 

 

Although the top two in each of the 10 groups will automatically qualify for the tournament, leaving four spots still available to be filled through the play-offs, the Finis will love nothing more than to get their pound of flesh over the Azzurri.

 

 

When both sides met in the first leg on March 29 at the Stadio Ennio Tardini, Parma roughly 24, 000 fans watched gleefully as the revival of the Italians under Roberto Mancini continued with the Azzurri celebrating its first home victory in seven matches courtesy of a 2-0 win.

 

 

A powerful strike from Inter Milan midfielder, Nicolo Barella gave the hosts a seventh minute advantage, before teenage sensation Moise Kean scored his first international goal to seal the Italy win.

 

 

 

Sampdoria striker Fabio Quagliarella, who is still going strong at 36, could have made the score line wider had his powerful shot not cannoned off the bar.

 

 

But the result does not tell whole story as Roberto Mancini had his 20-year-old AC Milan keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma to thank because he played a big part in ensuring the Azzurri’s unbeaten run continued pulling off a string of stunning saves.

 

 

Even, the normally deadly Teemu Eino Antero Pukki, who has not lost his touch in front of goal after coming up to the Premier League with Norwich City and who has already scored with four goals in four games, spurned a great chance for Finland to get a consolation goal against the Italians.

 

 

However, speaking after the defeat, Finland coach, Markku Kanerva painted a game of two halves saying: “Their midfielders are very skilled and it’s not easy to take the ball from them but I think we did well, at least for some parts of the game.”

 

 

And explaining what he did to make a proper game of the encounter, the 55-year-old former international who won 59 caps and scored one goal for Finland, said: “We started with a three-man defence but Italy had several attackers so we opted to play with a back four and a central defender playing as a libero behind them. I think it worked better for us.”

 

 

“We came close to equalising in the second half, and maybe the result would have been completely different if we had scored that goal. Still, I think the result reflected what we saw on the pitch.”

 

 

Having had a number of months to reflect on what might have been in Parma, the former Finland assistant coach is most likely to set his team up more differently for the return leg clearly going to be more adventurous.

 

 

Even though by virtue of Finland’s better head-to-head over third placed Armenia the Finis are already guaranteed a play-off slot no matter the outcome of today’s clash and should they not capitulate in the last two games,  pride will not allow Kanerva let his players take it “easy” against the visitors.

 

 

Luckily for him, Pukki, who was named EFL Championship Player of the Season and was included in the 2018–19 Championship Team of the Season, is still continuing from where he left out last season.

 

 

In his very first foray in the English top flight, he was named Premier League Player of the Month for August following his five goals in four games for the newly promoted side.

 

 

The 29-year-old, who scored 29 goals in 43 appearances for The Canaries last season on the way to being named Norwich City F.C. Player of the Season by Norwich City’s supporters and receiving the Barry Butler Memorial Trophy, terrorises defences with his blistering pace.

 

 

The former Celtic player, made his international on February 4, 2009 when Stuart Baxter used him as a substitute against Japan in a friendly match played in Tokyo.

 

 

He scored his sixth goal for his country on Thursday night from the penalty spot in Finland’s 1-0 win over Greece to ensure the Fins remain second in Group J with 12 points from five games, five clear of third-placed Bosnia-Herzegovina.

 

 

In the 2018–19 UEFA Nations League, Finland won promotion from League C, in no small measure to Pukki, who scored the only goal of each of the Finns’ first three matches, at home against Hungary and home and away to Estonia.

 

 

And Kanerva will be hoping that he can do the same thing this evening at the 30,000-searter Tampere Stadium, which is the temporary home of the national team while renovation of the Helsinki Olympic Stadium is on-going.

 

 

Sadly Finland has a very poor record against the four-time world champions having failed to win any of their 13 previous encounters.

 

 

 

 

In fact one has to go back to 44 years to September 27, 1975for the only time they have not lost to Italy and that was also a UEFA European Championship qualifying tie played at the Stadium Olimpico in Rome.

 

 

But based on what he saw in Udine, Kanerva feels he has the squad to give the 1968 European champions serious problems in Finland.

 

 

“Italy are certainly the strongest team in the group but Greece and Bosnia can also have a say. Obviously, I’m disappointed with the result: it’s a pity especially for the first goal, because it came through a deflection,” talk from a confident manager unhappy at losing.

 

 

But while Pukki is revealing in the English elite league, the man who scored the second goal against Finland in March, Kean is still struggling to find his feet with his new Premier League club, Everton.

 

 

The 19-year-old forward, who started his career with Juventus in 2016, winning a domestic double in his first season with the club before spending the following season on loan with Verona before returning to Juventus the next season, winning another Serie A title in 2019, has failed to find the net in four games for the Toffees.

 

 

But Kean, who has featured at every level for Italy from U15 to the U21s, is still keeping his feet firmly on the ground aware that he still has a lot to learn, especially if he is not to end up like former first choice striker Mario Balotelli, who has dropped off the radar.

 

 

Speaking after his goal against Finland made him the youngest goal scorer for Italy in a competitive match, Kean said: “The older players in the squad congratulated me after the game but immediately told me to just keep working hard.

 

 

“I’m very happy with the goal. Ciro [Immobile] gave me a great ball and I managed to score. I’m really happy to be in this group. Mancini has plenty of faith in young players and I’m happy to have repaid that.”

 

 

Mancini, who took charge of the Azzurri last year, will, however, be quietly confident that he has the side to help him get a decent result in Finland that will ensure his side remains top of the pile at the end of the game.

 

 

On Thursday evening the improved form of the Italians was very much evident when they recovered from going behind to eventually triumph over Armenia.

 

 

Aleksandre Karapetian gave the hosts a shock lead with an excellent shot from the edge of the area but Andrea Belotti equalised, turning home Chelsea defender Emerson Palmieri’s cross.

 

 

Lorenzo Pellegrini headed the Azzurri ahead before Belotti’s shot cannoned in off the back of keeper Aram Ayrapetyan to wrap up the 3-1 win.

 

 

Although Karapetian was harshly sent off for a second booking late in the first half on the overall balance of play the group leaders deserved their victory and shows that the Finis will have to play the games of their lives if they are to finally lay to rest the eight decades jinx.

Also in action today in Group J, is Armenia hosting Bosnia-Herzegovina, while Greece welcomes Liechtenstein to Athens.

 

 

Both games are mainly being played to fulfil all righteousness as the teams have no hope of qualifying for next year’s finals.

 

 

Another intriguing game taking today, is the clash between neighbours Sweden and Norway, who are jostling to finish second in Group F which will ensure that they still have one more shot at a Euro 2020 ticket via the play offs early next year.

 

 

On Thursday night, Sweden held firmly to the second slot with a 4-0 over the Faroe Islands to ensure they stayed two points ahead of third-placed Norway who beat Malta 2-0.

 

 

As things stand, runaway group leaders, Spain, which has a 100% record with five straight wins, continue to lead the way with another hard fought victory over fourth-placed Romania.

 

In fact Spain needed a superb last-minute save from Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga to maintain this record in Group F.

 

 

Kepa denied Reading striker George Puscas with his legs as 10-man Spain recorded a first win in Romania.

 

 

Sergio Ramos put Spain ahead from the penalty spot before Borussia Dortmund forward Paco Alcacer steered in.

 

 

Former Brighton forward Florin Andone headed in and defender Diego Llorente was sent off, but Spain held on.

 

Kepa – who has replaced Manchester United’s David de Gea as first choice – made sure Spain took the points when he reacted superbly to stop Puscas’ header from close range.

 

 

The match was the first since Robert Moreno permanently replaced Luis Enrique as head coach, and there was a minute’s silence in memory of Enrique’s nine-year-old daughter, Xana, who died last week.

Other teams in the group include Romani and Malta.

 

 

Group D has two games taking place with Georgia hosting Denmark and Gibraltar in Switzerland.

 

 

The European football governing body, UEFA has engineered a major departure from previous edition of its flagship competition for national team by moving away from a single or joint finals host(s).

 

 

Instead next year’s tournament, which runs from Friday, June 12 to Sunday, July 12, 2020 with 24 teams, will take part in 12 cities across 12 nations with the final taking place at the iconic Wembley Stadium in Britain.    

 

 

FIXTURES

Group J

Armenia v Bosnia-Herzegovina – 14:00

Finland v Italy – 19:45

Greece v Liechtenstein – 19:45

Group D

Georgia v Denmark – 17:00

Switzerland v Gibraltar – 17:00

Group F

Romania v Malta – 17:00

Spain v Faroe Islands – 19:45

Sweden v Norway – 19:45

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Stephens eyes Olympics, return to form in 2020

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Stephens eyes Olympics, return to form in 2020

Sloane Stephens said she is ready to turn the page on a disappointing 2019 and shift her focus to climbing the world tennis rankings to qualify for next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

The 26-year-old American, who won the U.S. Open in 2017 and reached world number three in 2018, struggled this year, failing to make the final at any tournament and falling to world number 25.

“I’m excited to start a new season because midway through 2019, I was ready for it to be over,” Stephens told Reuters in an interview after hosting a tennis clinic at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey, California.

“So I’m just looking forward to 2020 and I’m ready for a fresh start. I literally have nothing to lose, a lot in front of me and nowhere to go but up,” she said.

“For me it’s a good position to be in.”

High on her list of goals for 2020 is making her second consecutive appearance for Team USA at the Olympics, she said.

“I made one before, which was really cool, and I’d obviously love to make a second one and play for my country,” she said.

To do so, she will need to deal with a grueling WTA schedule, made even more difficult with the extra playing time and travel needed in an Olympic year.

“Managing the ups and downs throughout the year is a pretty big goal,” she said.

“It’s about staying healthy and happy, enjoying my tennis and not getting too burnt out at the beginning of the year knowing that it is a very long season,” she said.

Stephens said she has no lingering issues with the foot injury she suffered in 2017 that required surgery and sidelined her for 11 months.

Despite her on-court struggles, life off the court has been more upbeat with her engagement to U.S. men’s national soccer team and Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore, whom she began dating in 2016.

“I have a fresh mind and am feeling a lot better on and off the court,” she said.

“I think will allow me to have better results.”

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Euro 2020 roundup: Croatia survive Slovakia scare to join Germany in finals

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Euro 2020 roundup: Croatia survive Slovakia scare to join Germany in finals

Germany, Croatia and Austria all sealed their places in the Euro 2020 finals with wins on Saturday, while a draw in Northern Ireland also confirmed qualification for the Netherlands.

Croatia’s 3-1 win over Slovakia means they top Group E, but the 2018 World Cup finalists got a scare when Robert Bozenik put the visitors ahead after 32 minutes in Rijeka.

Two goals in four minutes from Nikola Vlasic and Bruno Petkovic settled the hosts’ nerves near the hour mark, before Ivan Perisic sealed victory with a spectacular finish, volleying into the top corner on the stretch with 15 minutes to play, reports The Guardian.

Things were more straightforward for Germany in Mönchengladbach, where the hosts beat Belarus 4-0. Matthias Ginter’s backheeled finish from Serge Gnabry’s cross gave Germany a half-time lead, and Leon Goretzka doubled their advantage shortly after the break, rifling a low shot home from a short corner.

Midfielder Toni Kroos then stole the show with two fine goals as Joachim Löw’s side sealed qualification from Group C.

The Real Madrid midfielder sidefooted home clinically from the edge of the area on 55 minutes, and added a second late on after twisting beyond two defenders. Manuel Neuer denied Belarus a consolation from the penalty spot, tipping Ihar Stasevich’s effort round the post.

Austria secured a top-two finish in Group G with a 2-1 win over North Macedonia in Vienna. Stefan Lainer was the star man for the hosts, the Gladbach right-back setting up David Alaba with a terrific through ball after seven minutes, then bundling home a second from a corner early in the second half. Despite Vlatko Stojanovski’s late consolation, Franco Foda’s side held on to ensure their place at the finals.

In Saturday’s other games, already-qualified Poland beat Israel 2-1 in Jerusalem.

Robert Lewandowski was on the substitutes’ bench for the first hour, with Grzegorz Krychowiak and Milan striker Krzysztof Piatek getting the goals in his absence.

Elsewhere in Group G, an own goal from Igors Tarasovs condemned Latvia to defeat in Slovenia – their ninth loss out of nine in this campaign.

Belgium emphatically secured top spot in Group I, beating second-placed Russia 4-1 in St Petersburg. Eden Hazard scored twice after his brother, Thorgan, had put Roberto Martínez’s side ahead. Romelu Lukaku added a fourth, lashing the ball home from the edge of the area, before Georgiy Dzhikija scored for the hosts.

The group whipping boys, San Marino, remain without a point after losing 3-1 at home to Kazakhstan – but they scored their first goal of the campaign through Filippo Berardi, whose cool finish on the break sparked scenes of joy in Serravalle.

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Olympics ouster: Minister charts new course for football

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Olympics ouster: Minister charts new course for football

Minister of Sports Sunday Dare has expressed profound displeasure at the sliding fortune of Nigerian football following the failure of Dream Team to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games.

 

The minister wrote on his Twitter account that it was important to chart a new course for the game. “Nigeria’s game against S.A. (South Africa) which ended in a draw concentrates the mind.

 

Time to take a look back and find out where the rain began to beat us. Like I said before, our football needs a return to the basics of grassroot football, pristine sports admin, sound technical coaching…,” the Minister tweeted early on Saturday morning.

 

“Government will take appropriate steps and in a timely fashion to improve our football fortunes. Current outcomes offer the opportunity to review, restrategize and develop a long term plan for football development. We will dust up great ideas already abandoned and implement.”

 

“Nigerian football across the spectrum will benefit from this new outlook which will involve critical stakeholders. Government, mindful that Nigeria is a football nation will be bold in embracing best practices in modern football.”

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Cameroon 2021: Eagles land in Maseru, ready to fly over Crocodiles

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Cameroon 2021: Eagles land in Maseru, ready to fly over Crocodiles

Nigeria’s Super Eagles have landed in the capital of Lesotho, Maseru for Sunday’s 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying match against that country’s senior team, known as Crocodiles. The Crocodiles themselves have just returned from Freetown, where they earned an inspiring point in a 1-1 draw with the Leone Stars on Day 1 of the campaign on Wednesday.

On the same day, the Super Eagles edged Benin Republic 2-1 in an intense encounter at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium, Uyo to go top of the qualifying pool. France-based duo of Victor Osimhen (from the spot) and Samuel Kalu (angled low drive) secured the win for Nigeria after the Squirrels had taken a second minute lead through Stephane Sessegnon.

 

The chartered Max Air aircraft that flew the delegation had a stopover in Angola but safely arrived in Maseru on Saturday afternoon, and players and officials were immediately ferried to their Avani Lesotho hotel. Nigeria were scheduled to have the official training at the match venue – Maseru-Setsoto Stadium – at 7pm Lesotho time (6pm in Nigeria) on Saturday.

 

Sunday’s encounter will kick off at 6pm Lesotho time (5pm in Nigeria), and it is exactly one year to the day that the Super Eagles secured a 1-1 draw with South Africa’s Bafana Bafana in Johannesburg to grab a ticket to this year’s Africa Cup of Nations finals in Egypt, where they finished third and with the bronze medals. Team doctor Ibrahim Gyaran confirmed to thenff.com that there are no injuries within the 23-man playing body.

 

The Confederation of African Football has named 41 –year old Botswanan official, Joshua Bondo as the referee, with Bondo’s compatriots Meshack Medupi, Mogomotsi Morakile and Tshepo Mokani Gobagoba as assistant referee 1, assistant referee 2 and fourth official respectively. Johannes Jakob Vries from Namibia will serve as match commissioner while South African Carlos Henriques will be referee assessor.

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Messi told me to shut up- Brazil coach

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Messi told me to shut up- Brazil coach

Brazil head coach Tite said he was told to shut up by Argentina captain Lionel Messi in the friendly clash between the South American rivals. Messi returned from a threemonth international ban to lead Argentina past Brazil 1-0 thanks to his 13th-minute goal in Riyadh on Friday.

 

Argentina star Messi missed Argentina’s previous four matches due to a suspension for accusing CONMEBOL of favouring hosts Brazil – who won their semi-final meeting – at the Copa America and he was in the thick of the action against Tite’s Selecao. Messi and Tite exchanged words in the opening half, with the Barcelona superstar seen putting his fingers to his lips as the Brazil boss complained to the referee.

 

“I complained because he [Messi] should have been shown a yellow card and he told me to shut my mouth and I told him to shut his mouth,” Tite said.

 

“And that was it.”

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Kwara Utd beat Ekiti Utd 2-0 in pre-season friendly

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Kwara United on Saturday produced convincing performance to brush aside visiting Ekiti United 2-0 in friendly encounter at the Kwara Stadium Complex, Ilorin. The homers started the encounter impressively with the duo of Oliver David and Fabiyi John making superb runs.

 

They eventually scored the opening goal in the third minute through Joshua Agboola who was assisted by Sunday Owoyemi. Ekiti United tried to restore parity almost immediately when Savior Francis delivered a glorious pass for Afeez Yusuf, but Kwara United goalie Abdullateef Yusuf produced a brilliant safe.

 

Dede Mogarah had the chance to increase the tally for Kwara United in the 30th minute when he found himself one-on-one with goalkeeper Wale Makanjuola, but his shot was parried away. The first half, however, ended with Kwara United leading with a lone goal.

 

 

On resumption, Kwara United changed their pattern to more attacking one and their game impressed the fans at the stands. Kwara United netted their second goal in the 68th minute through Abdulsallam Abdussallam who benefitted from a good pass by Issah Magaji. Ekiti United would have pulled one back in the 75th minute when they were awarded a free kick, but Bello Babatunde missed the chance.

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Euro 2020: Belgium thrashes Russia as Wales keeps automatic qualification ticket alive

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Eden Hazard scored twice as Belgium continued their perfect record in Euro 2020 qualifying with a thumping win over Russia.

 

The Red Devils, who had already qualified, were three goals up by half-time through Eden Hazard’s double and a strike by his brother Thorgan. Romelu Lukaku then added a fourth before Georgi Dzhikiya netted a late consolation for the hosts. Belgium will play their final Group I qualifier at home to Cyprus on Tuesday, reports the BBC. Russia, who had also already booked their place at the finals, were blown away in the first half following a scintillating attacking display from Roberto Martinez’s side.

 

The away side took the lead midway through the first half when Thorgan Hazard picked up his brother’s pass, cut inside and fired into the top corner.

 

And Wales eased to a comfortable win in Azerbaijan to ensure their bid to qualify automatically for Euro 2020 will go down to the wire. Kieffer Moore headed the dominant visitors into an early lead, which was doubled when Harry Wilson nodded into an empty net after Daniel James’ fierce swerving shot rebounded off the crossbar and post. Wales maintained their control in the second half and, although Moore and Wilson missed the best chances to extend their advantage, it mattered little as Ryan Giggs’ side coasted to victory.

 

If Slovakia fail to win away against Croatia in Group E’s other game later on Saturday, Wales will qualify automatically with victory over Hungary in their final fixture in Cardiff on Tuesday.

 

They are already guaranteed a play-off place thanks to Sweden’s win over Romania in Group F on Friday. But having suffered so many agonising qualifying near misses in the past, Wales will be eager to take the lottery of a play-off out of the equation by beating Hungary to secure what would be only their third appearance at a major tournament.

 

In Nicosia, John McGinn’s fourth goal in two Scotland games secured a morale-boosting victory in Cyprus and moved Steve Clarke’s side above their hosts into third in Euro qualifying Group I.

But it came after an early let-off when Georgios Efrem’s shot hit the crossbar and appeared to land over the goal line. Ryan Christie curled home a wonderful finish for his first Scotland goal before Efrem volleyed a fine leveller. McGinn’s close-range strike earned the first back-to-back wins under Clarke. While Scotland can no longer qualify for Euro 2020 through the group, the head coach set the target of a third-place finish before their play-off in March. To meet his target, victory in Cyprus was a must, but was far from a formality.

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Squash: 12 year-old wins two categories, defeats number one seeded player

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Mistura Durosinlorun, 12, defeated the number one seeded player Favour Utukpe in the U-16 category at the final of the 2019 edition of the Ex-Squash Pros Diaspora.

The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that the 3rd edition of the Ex-Squash Pros Diaspora served off at the Teslim Balogun Stadium, Surulere from November 14 to 16. Durosinlorun told NAN that defeating the number seeded player would further boost her confidence during tournaments. “I’m so excited I won; last month, when we met at a tournament, Favour won, then I made up my mind to keep pushing.

 

“I know I need to sustain this so I need to train harder to remain consistent, and I intend to give it all it takes,” she said. NAN reports that 14-year Utukpe lost 3-1 to Durosinlorun. Temitope Olusoji, a player who came to watch the finals, attributed Utukpe’s loss to her new found love for social media.

“Since she got her phone, she began to cut down on the number of hours she trains for. “That phone distracted her, if she probably didn’t have the phone she would have won,” she said. In her defence, Utukpe told NAN that, she feels miserable losing to Durosinlorun at the finals.

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Cameroon 2020: Eagles arrive Lesotho

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Cameroon 2020: Eagles arrive Lesotho

Nigeria’s Super Eagles have arrived Maseru ahead of their Nations Cup 2020 qualifier against Lesotho.

The Group L game comes up tomorrow with the Eagles hoping to cement their grip on top spot after their come from behind 2-1 win over Benin on Match Day One on Wednesday at the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium, Uyo.

On the same day, Lesotho pulled off a surprise result after holding Sierra Leone to a 1-1 draw in Freetown.

The Lone Star will be in Cotonou to face the Squirrels of Benin in their second game of the qualifying series.

The top two sides in 11 of the 12 groups will all advance to the 2021 finals in Cameroon.

Cameroon qualify for the finals as hosts but are taking part in the qualifying campaign to gain competitive match practice which means just one team from Group F will progress to the finals.

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Euro 2020: Gomez, Henderson withdraw from Three Lions v Kosovo

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Euro 2020: Gomez, Henderson withdraw from Three Lions v Kosovo

Defender Joe Gomez and midfielder Jordan Henderson have pulled out of England’s squad before Sunday’s final Euro 2020 qualifier in Kosovo.

Gomez, 22, picked up a knee injury in training, while Liverpool team-mate Henderson, 29, has a viral infection.

Forward Raheem Sterling is available again after being dropped for the 7-0 win over Montenegrofollowing a clash with Gomez at England’s training camp, reports the BBC.

Gomez was booed as he came on as a substitute at Wembley on Thursday.

England manager Gareth Southgate has said he will have no hesitation in naming Manchester City’s Sterling, 24, in the starting line-up for the match in Pristina (17:00 GMT kick-off).

The Three Lions have already qualified as group winners for next summer’s tournament.

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