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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.

Bayern’s Vidal says “ugly” Atletico not deserved UCL finalists

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Juanfran of Atletico Madrid and Arturo Vidal of Bayern Munich argue during the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at Vincente Calderon on April 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal has declared “ugly” Atletico Madrid unworthy finalists in the UEFA Champions League.

Bayern was eliminated in the Champions League semifinal by Atleti on Tuesday, with Diego Simeone’s Spanish side advancing on away goals.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

However, Vidal believed Bayern were the better team in the second leg, saying Atletico played “ugly football” to get through.

Today ugly football – Atletico – played against the best football in the world. The only time they saw the ball was for the goal.

They are going to be dreaming about us right up to the final. They did not have the ball, they took on the best team in the world, they took their chances and got to the final.

The best does not always win in football, like today. They are not deserved finalists.

Bayern Munich controlled more than 70-percent of possession and had 33 shots compared to Atletico’s nine, but those stats mean little as Antoine Griezmann’s away goal was enough to send Atleti to the final.

[ MORE: Former England striker Joe Cole headed to NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies ]

Atletico may not play the most attractive football, but after eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich in consecutive legs, it’s hard to argue anyone deserves this more than Simeone’s men.

Europa League preview: Liverpool, Shakhtar look to overcome Spanish foes

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - APRIL 28:  Cedric Bakambu of Villarreal is watched by the Liverpool defence during the UEFA Europa League semi final first leg match between Villarreal CF and Liverpool at Estadio El Madrigal on April 28, 2016 in Villarreal, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the Europa League semifinals kick off tomorrow, with two La Liga sides looking to make it an all-Spanish final.

[ MORE: Premier League Playback ]

Villarreal holds a 1-0 lead over Liverpool, while Sevilla scored two away goals in their 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Liverpool vs. Villarreal – 3:05 p.m. ET
Villarreal won first leg 1-0

Adrian Lopez’s late winner in the first leg has given Villarreal a slight lead, while the Spanish side did well not to concede an away goal. However, Liverpool have overcome deficits at Anfield before, including their memorable 4-3 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. Emre Can is back fit for the Reds, as manager Jurgen Klopp will hope his fellow German can help the team to a cup final in his first year in charge.

[ RELATED: Liverpool preparing for another big Thursday night at Anfield ]

Sevilla vs. Shakhtar Donetsk – 3:05 p.m. ET
First leg ended 2-2 draw 

Sevilla are looking to become the first team to win three consecutive Europa League titles as the two-time defending champions face off against Shakhtar Donetsk. Sevilla are in the driver’s seat after scoring two away goals in Ukraine, and will feel confident of advancing to the final with a great home record at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.

Men in Blazers podcast: Celebrating Leicester’s title with Arlo White

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog and Davo celebrate Leicester City’s improbable Premier League title with Leicester’s own Arlo White.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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European police say Russian mafia infiltrating soccer clubs

LISBON, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 04:  Sporting Lisbon fans celebrate after their team score a goal during the Portuguese Liga match between Sporting Lisbon and Uniao Leiria at the Alvalade XXI Stadium on November 4, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Portuguese and European police say they have broken up a cell of an important Russian mafia group that allegedly laundered money through European football clubs.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, said in a statement Wednesday the group identified EU football clubs in financial distress and infiltrated them with benefactors who brought much-needed cash.

[ MORE: Man City bounced from UCL ]

Once they were in control, the mobsters allegedly laundered millions of euros (dollars) through player transfers, TV rights deals and betting.

Portuguese and European police on Tuesday raided third-division Portuguese club Uniao de Leiria and arrested three key members of the Russian gang. Three other Portuguese clubs’ premises were searched.

Europol said the operation helped identify serious crimes in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom, though it gave no details.