Ronaldo, van Persie, and the tournament favorites: Saturday’s Euro 2012 playlist

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If you watched the United States’ World Cup qualifier Friday night, you certainly know: Euro 2012’s Group B is supposed to be the Group of Death. Given how many different ways you can define Group of Death, let’s put that label aside and concede Group B is the Euro 2012’s most anticipated sub-tournament. We’ll leave discussion of group mortality to other sites.

Germany and the Netherlands, two of the tournament’s top shelf choices, begin their quests on Saturday, each team looking for answers in defense. Germany saw non-qualifier Switzerland hang five goals on them during a pre-tournament friendly, while the Netherlands’ already questionable back line has to adjust to center half Joris Mathijsen’s dip in form.

It’s all part of a greater Euro 2012 pattern. Every contender has troubles in central defense. Spain lost Carles Puyol. England lost Gary Cahill. France can’t see to get Philippe Mexes and Abil Rami to work. Russia is without Vasili Berezutskiy. Italy has no idea how long Andrea Barzagli will really be out. So while people may be concerned about the German and Dutch defenses, in the big picture, it’s not much of a relative problem.

Not that Joachim Löw or Bert van Marwijk will see it that way.

Just like yesterday, matches kick off at noon and 2:45 p.m. Eastern on ESPN. The Dutch kick off the day in Kharkiv (Ukraine) against Denmark, with Germany taking on Portugal to close out the day.

Here is the soundtrack to Day 2 of Euro 2012.

source: AP

Side 1: Duels between Dutch and Dane

1. Hard lessons to learn

Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen’s been really talked up coming into the tournament, and with good reason. The Ajax attacker ‘s coming off a career high goal total, his second consecutive league title, and has left little doubt he is his country’s best player.

It’s really a shame his first taste of Euro action will be against Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong. The duel Dutch destroyers will leave forward Nicklas Bendtner to central defenders John Heitenga and Ron Vlaar (likely to start ahead of Mathijsen) and look to deliver a rude awakening to their 20-year-old adversary.

Eriksen may be fancied by pundits, but Saturday could prove to be a harsh learning experience.

2. Lest he be tested

If Denmark can get Nicklas Bendtner the ball, he’ll give John Heitenga and Vlaar problems. Heitenga is undoubtedly familiar with the Arsenal/Sunderland striker from their meetings in the English Premier League. Vlaar, however, hasn’t seen many players as talented as Bendtner, having spent his time with Dutch league side Feyenoord (and not being a regular for the Netherlands).

If van Bommel and de Jong perform as expected, Bendtner will be a non-factor. If Denmark head coach Morten Olsen can find away around the Netherlands’ two-man shield, he has reason to think the Danes can create goals.

source: Getty Images3. When we lost Thomas

Stephan Andersen is 30 years old. He moved to Evian in Ligue 1 last season after four years with Danish power Brøndby. He’s been part of the national team set up, yet he’s only been capped 10 times. Such is the life of a second choice goalkeeper.

Denmark’s preferred number one is Stoke City’s Thomas Sørensen, who took his 101 caps with him when back problems forced him out of the squad last week. The three goalkeepers Olsen has in Ukraine (Anderson, Anders Lindegaard and Kasper Schmeichel) have a combined 15 international appearances.

“Welcome to the big time, Stephan. Please stop Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder. No pressure. It’s just a major tournament.”

4. Memories of Warsaw

Friday’s controversy at Netherlands training could prove to be a dangerous thing, particularly considering reports coach and captain aren’t on the same page. Both men are downplaying the division, but little things like that can sometimes become distractions, especially if attempts to minimize a conflict leaves the whole issue unresolved.

Van Bommel clearly feels strongly about Friday’s incident. Van Marwijk wants to move on. Between the lines, I’m reading the coach as concerned this whole thing will become a distraction. He doesn’t want his squad craft ready-made excuses (especially considering the Netherlands have a history of letting little things divide a room).

No matter what happened at training, the Netherlands need to move on, particularly considering an adept opponent with a head coach capable of exploiting any weaknesses.

source: Getty ImagesSide 2: German-Portuguese rendezvous

5. In your head, in my head, in our heads

Germany and Portugal are much-changed sides since they met in the 2008 quarterfinals. Portugal’s been through two coaches, while Germany’s squad has seen an colossally unfair infusion of youth.

But there is something about that game that still seems applicable. Then, Portugal was riding high as tournament favorites while Germany had just been dealt a group stage setback. Yet when they met in the quarterfinals, Germany came out, controlled the match from the first whistle, and never let Portugal assert themselves.

It was like watching an old John Wayne movie, where no match how rigid the Duke looked ambling through those swinging doors, you know he was going to knock the punk hasting the bartender on his ass. Yes, movies and scripted and sports are not, but when you see Germany give a performance like that, you can’t help but wonder if both sides aren’t unconsciously playing out some pre-determined script.

Not to be trite, but it was all very German. It was a match that transcended that squad, seemingly evoked from the annals of German soccer history.

All of which begs the question: Couldn’t that happen again? Is their a mystique  to Germany – a psychological factor –  that gives them an edge in these situations? The same mystique that saw a young team make a run in South Africa? That saw a struggling program respond in 2006?

6. If I never see Carlos no more

It’s fun reading people describe Portugal as an exciting team, as if Luis Figo were still playing. Even with Cristiano Ronaldo in the fold, it’s been a long time since Portugal was watchable, let alone exciting.

There have been exceptions. The Seleccao exploded for seven goals on North Korea in the World Cup, and they posted six on Bosnia and Herzegovina in their qualifying playoff. But those results are few and far between.

In their last three matches, Portugal’s only scored once. Against Germany, that’s not going to be good enough.

Ever since Carlos Quieroz took over for Luiz Felipe Scolari after that loss to Germany, Portugal has been a side without an attacking heart. Quiroz’s debilitating conservatism broke the team. Paulo Bento is still trying to mend it.

source: Getty Images7. Always stand United

They both came through Sporting Club in Lisbon. They both moved to Manchester United, and now, they play opposite each other for their national team. Two of the best wide players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani’s talent may be unmatched in international soccer.

Though Portugal lacks a cohesive attack, their wingers’ individual skills (and ability to attack from anywhere across the pitch) will test that suspect German defense.

Against Switzerland, Löw started Mats Hummels and Per Mertesacker in the middle and gave up five. Against Israel (Germany’s final warm up), he went back to a more familiar Holger Badstuder-Mertesacker combination.

It’s the same duo (with the same fullbacks, Philipp Lahm and Jerome Boateng) that took Germany to third place in South Africa. While some will scoff at the idea of leaving Hummels out, this quartet has worked before.

8. Spoiled cause I got too much

The attackers at Joachim Löw’s disposal are insane. It’s hard to remember the last time a team had this much attacking depth, let alone young attacking depth.

Löw’s first choices are Mario Gómez, Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil and Lukas Podolski, with Bastian Schweinsteiger shuttling next to Sami Khedira in the middle.

Let’s say all those guys travel in the same car en route to Saturday’s game, but Roberto de Niro and a band of masterless samurai hijack the vehicle. What ever would Joachim Loew do?

He’d have to settle for starting Miroslav Klose, Marco Reus, Mario Gotze, André Schürrle, Toni Kroos and Ilkay Gündogen. And Germany might still be favorites to win this tournament.

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.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.

Conte feels pressure, but “most important thing is to work”

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Chelsea has sputtered a bit in its bid to repeat as Premier League champions, though this isn’t quite “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

The Blues sit fifth in the Premier League table with 13 points, nine behind leaders Manchester City, and tossed away a 2-0 lead before rallying to draw Roma at midweek.

The Blues host fourth-placed Watford to kick off Saturday’s Premier League action at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

[ MORE: West Ham 0-3 Brighton ]

And while fans are frustrated with the plan, Chelsea was in 15th at the end of October during Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated follow-up to the 2014-15 Premier League title.

Still, manager Antonio Conte feels their pain, although he’s satisfied with the effort. From Chelsea’s official site:

“Do I feel the pressure? Every manager feels pressure, but I try to give all of myself into my job, so I’m happy when I go home because I know in every moment I give all of myself for the fans, the players and the club. In football you know anything can happen, but the most important thing is to work.”

Chelsea may not look as good as Man City or Manchester United, but is still well-positioned to finish amongst the leaders and is leading a very difficult UCL group with Roma and Atletico Madrid. Things are fine, but the gossip storm just won’t leave Conte and his future at Chelsea alone (Thanks, Italian press).