Time to take Spain off the Euro 2012 favorite’s perch

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A lot of people already had Germany or the Netherlands as their Euro 2012 favorites, but in international soccer, a lot of predictions fall back on the usual tropes. German pragmatism, brilliant Oranje – with similar aphorisms, some will pick Italy or France to claim this summer’s crown, statures their more measured coaches can’t envision for squads still in the middle of rebuild processes.

Spain was this summer’s favorite, though not overwhelmingly so. Two years after the claimed their first world title with the understated force of a father’s coercing hand on a seven-year-old’s shoulder, nobody had made a better claim to being the world’s best. Germany has reached the most difficult part of their current cycle, shifting from aspirations to expectations, while the Netherlands have never been as good as South Africa’s scrappy second place finish implied.

Today, however, everything changed. The same pithy doubts that undermine the German and Dutch profiles now apply doubly so to Spain. After all, the complaints against the former underdogs are more ethereal than substantial. Germany waiting for their Özil-Müller-lead kids to come good? That may be a matter of time. And qualms about the Netherlands’ underlying quality in South Africa? Well, they did finish second.

Having lost their best defender, Spain has a real, tangible hole, though some would disagree about the quality of Carles Puyol. With his proven ability to lock down opponents in big games, he’s still the first defender I’d want if I had one game to win. There’s a reason why Pep Guardiola often shook up his defense when facing Real Madrid, jumping through hoops to match Puyol opposite Cristiano Ronaldo whenever possible. Barcelona’s suicidally high line would be impossible to pull off without Puyol’s speed and intelligence, yet asked to name Puyol’s best qualities, most are more likely to mention his tenacity and physicality, the latter more of a hair-derived stereotype than something you see on a game-to-game basis.

The 34-year-old’s though to have lost a step, becoming more mistake prone. With almost any analysis of defenders, it’s easy to use isolated examples to draw different conclusions. With Puyol, however, complaints are usually drawn along the Real-Barça divide.

Even if Puyol has slipped, his value to Barcelona has not. Same with Spain. If he’s a waning talent, he’s still a relative titan for his two teams. His loss is debilitating no matter your opinion of his value. With questions surrounding Gerard Piqué’s quality (Puyol’s partner struggling through the last half of his club season), it’s unclear who will lead the Vicente de Bosque’s line June 10.

“It’s a serious setback,” Spain’s boss told AS after news of Puyol’s injury got out, “he’s a considerable loss not only for what he gives on the pitch, but for what he contributes to the team (off it).”

“Beyond the question of whether or not it effects my [tactical] plans, he is a charismatic and hugely important player who was on the verge of 100 caps. He was in great form. It’s a real pity.”

With David Villa’s status uncertain (the Barcelona striker recovering from a broken leg), Spain has major uncertainties both up top and at the back. Roberto Soldado and/or Fernando Llorente are expected to vie for spots in attack, while today’s defense looks something like (right-to-left) Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba.

Will that be good enough? Who knows, and that’s the point. With Puyol going down, there are just too many questions surrounding Spain to consider them Euro’s favorites.

ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.

Henry, Aguero discuss playing up top under Pep

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One great striker got another one to open up on an up-and-down year at Manchester City.

Thierry Henry — one of the greatest of all-time, it must be said — sat down with Sergio Aguero ahead of Thursday’s Manchester Derby at the Etihad Stadium, and asked the Argentine about Pep Guardiola, Gabriel Jesus, and more.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

At times, it’s a fascinating discussion on playing lone striker. Even apart from the obligatory questions regarding Jesus’ arrival at City, Henry and Aguero speak their craft in a manner you don’t see too often.

That’s helped by the fact that Henry played for Guardiola at Barcelona, and can relate to the positional demands of Man City’s boss. Consider this exchange, from Sky Sports:

HENRY: When I was at Arsenal, I played up front and if I wanted to drift out to the left, I could. But when I got to Barca, I had to stay out wide and press. Sometimes doing that can be hard.

AGUERO: The thing I’ve found the hardest has been getting into my head the fact that I have to press the centre-back and the goalkeeper in matches. That’s what Pep asks me to do. It may not be a big deal, but in terms of processing it, the two of us speak a lot. He knows what I’m like.

I’ve been gradually learning and adapting to that style of pressing over the last few months. The first thing he taught me was how to press and how to do it well. Obviously there are times when I might drift out of position or I might press in an area where I’m not supposed to be, which might make it hard for the wingers or midfielders.

In the game itself, I may not realise because I’m so immersed and you can’t stop yourself. I’ve learnt a lot from him in terms of zones. He asks me to play as a No 9 and to stay in that position. I often drift out wide during matches and he looks at me and says, “If there’s a player out wide who wants to cross it in, who’s in there? Nobody.”

HENRY: I know all about that, believe you me.

I love this, because it shows how difficult it is for an elite striker to adapt his mentality. Both Henry and Aguero found world-celebrated success by playing in a certain fashion, and Guardiola understood that and still demanded a change. Earlier this season, the manager somewhat famously spoke of improving Aguero.

Aguero has been linked with Real Madrid given the tumult at City.

PHOTO: Liverpool unveils 125th anniversary kit for next season

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Liverpool rolled out its 125th anniversary kit, featuring a special crest to celebrate the occasion.

The Liver bird has 1892 on one side and 2017 on the other, with “125 YEARS” spelled out underneath the club’s emblem.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

The red shirt with a gold crest has a white V-neck and white at the ends of the sleeves. The goalkeeper kit is green.

The jersey will be available on May 19, and was announced last month.

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Jara’s goal lifts Pachuca to CONCACAF Champions League crown

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Hirving Lozano’s dipping shot rebounded into the path of Franco Jara, who scored the goal that won Pachuca its fifth CONCACAF Championship early Thursday morning.

The Argentine’s goal was the only one of the win over UANL Tigres, and gave Pachuca its first continental title since 2009-10. USMNT veteran Omar Gonzalez played for the winners, while Jose Torres started for Tigres.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Major League Soccer teams were eliminated in the semifinals, with FC Dallas falling to Pachuca and Vancouver Whitecaps losing to Tigres.

Beginning with the 2017-18 tournament, qualified MLS and Liga MX teams will not enter the tournament until the Round of 16. The entire tournament will be held in the same calendar year.

USMNT: Brooks out with hip strain; World Cup qualifiers loom

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John Brooks is out of Hertha Berlin’s lineup “for the time being” after scans revealed a hip strain suffered in this weekend’s win over Wolfsburg.

That’s all Hertha has said, and that makes it hard to imagine whether American fans should be a little concerned or very concerned ahead of the USMNT’s World Cup qualifiers against Mexico, and Trinidad and Tobago in early June.

Brooks was unavailable for two weeks with an adductor strain in September, missing a month before returning to the starting lineup.

The U.S. center back pool isn’t teeming after Brooks and Geoff Cameron. Matt Besler, Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez, and Walker Zimmerman were called up for the last World Cup qualifiers, and Gonzalez struggled but is a Bruce Arena favorite from their time in L.A.