Offshore drilling, Euro 2012: Spain 1, Italy 1

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source: Getty Images

Man of the Match: Andreas Iniesta was just on another level. There were so many small instances where he showed himself as clearly the best player on the field. It’s hard to pick out one or two, and given how subtle and mundane each instance was, the few I could pick out would surely understate his brilliance.

Every time Iniesta got the ball, he moved with a directness and intent that consistently threatened the Italian defense. He had not trouble beating one, two men off the dribble before finally having to give up the ball in the penalty area.  He teamed with David Silva and Cesc Fabregas to produce almost all of Spain’s significant chances, and the work he did off the ball guaranteed him constantly getting touches.

NBC Sports: Italy earns tie with defending champs Spain

Packaged for takeaway:

  • The match was amazing, if subtly so. Italy was well organized and found ways to constantly challenge Spain, keeping the favorites from bearing down on them. Spain incessantly asked questions but just couldn’t find the right combinations to unlock the Italian defense.
  • The buzz prematch surrounded Spain going without a striker, through the choice was barely noticed. Cesc Fabregas came in where David Villa might otherwise be, but Spain employed the same, short passing, possession, movement-based approach. It’s been a while since Villa played like a traditional striker, with the national team gravitating more and more toward Barcelona’s tactics. Today was just an extension of that.
  • It was Barcelona except Del Bosque still insisted on using both Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso. Alonso was superfluous, yet as Spain spent the last half hour looking for a winner, he stayed on. Between that choice and bringing on Fernando Torres for the last 20 minutes (more on that, later), I’m convinced Vicente Del Bosque is either a Liverpool fan or Rafa Benítez’s uncle. At this point, it’s a reasonable suspicion.
  • Spain’s best tactic was building through Iniesta on their left, avoiding the side defended by Giorgio Chiellini (with Thiago Motta in front of him) while targeting Leonardo Bonucci, Christian Maggio and Claudio Marchisio. Daniele de Rossi, dropped into a back three for the game, was called on a number of times as Iniesta and Silva picked the side apart.
  • The approach had the unfortunate consequence of marginalizing Jordi Alba. All the building on the left blocked Alba’s runs from left back. When Del Bosque brought off Silva for Jesus Navas (who played right wing), Alba came alive, his flank opened up.
  • On the other side, it seemed Spain missed Sergio Ramos at right back. Alvaro Albeloa (another former Liverpool man) was adequte, but he provided nothing going forward. The one time he ventured into attack, he put a cross out for a goal kick. With David Silva naturally cutting inside, that flank is wide open. Ramos could take advantage of it. Arbeloa can not.
  • But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Italy didn’t just sit back an let themselves be picked apart. With Antonio Cassano and the center of all their first half changes, Italy hit intermission having come closer to an opener. Cassano created three chances (two by taking on Alvaro Arbeloa), drew a foul that led to a Andrea Pirlo crack at Iker Casillas’s net, and put two shots of his own on goal.
  • Italy eventually found an opener, but Cassano wasn’t involved. Spain broke down on multiple levels, allowing Pirlo to carry a ball from deep to the edge of the attacking third, where he let go of a pass that beat Gerard Pique, allowing substitute Antonio Di Natale to run onto a go-ahead goal. Either Pique and Sergio Busquets, who allowed Pirlo to dribble around him, could have prevented the goal.
  • Spain responded two minutes later with Iniesta playing a ball to Silva, who turned near the arc and found Cesc Fabregas sprinting through the Italy defense. Fabregas buried an equalizer and, from then on, Spain was largely the more dangerous side (save a late chance for Claudio Marchisio).
  • source: Getty ImagesWithin seven minutes, Del Bosque had taken both his goal scorer and his assist man off. David Silva never saw another play, with Jesus Navas coming on before the kickoff. That change worked out well, even if it would have been better to sacrifice Alonso. The next change, bringing off Fabregas for Fernando Torres, turned comical:
    • In the 71nd minute, Torres was put in alone on Gianluigi Buffon only to have Buffon take the ball off his foot without needing to go to ground. Torres, taking the ball 28 yards from goal, had plenty of time to set up Buffon.
    • In the 82nd minute, Torres was set up for one-on-one against Chiellini, and after backing him down to the edge of the six, he failed to get provide a ball for either of his two oncoming teammates. Again, the ball was taken off his feet.
    • In the 82nd minute, he was yellow carded.
    • In the 85th minute, he was played into space between Italy’s central defenders and chipped a ball over the crossbar.
    • In the second minute of injury time, he gave away a ball with Spain on a mini-break.
  • On final note on Italy: The pressure their forwards provides really helped limit the amount of effective possession Spain could keep. Whether it was coming back to challenge Spain’s midfielders or forcing Iker Casillas into long kicks where he might otherwise want to play to defenders’ feet, the Azzurri’s pursuit high up the pitch provided a small distraction.
  • It’s a great point for Italy, but it’s unclear how much it will matter as it concerns advancing. They still have to face Croatia and Ireland, but they can do so with the certainty that they’ve left South Africa being them.
  • For Spain, it’s a disappointing result, but they didn’t play bad. They just played bad by their standards. There’s lot of room for improvement, even if Del Bosque’s unlikely to ditch Alonso. They saw what Alba can provide with a less congested left flank, and they saw the possibilities presented by their three interchanging forwards. Now Del Bosque just needs to find the right tweaks.

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.

VIDEO: Pair of Arsenal goals have it 2-0 at half

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Goals from Shkrodan Mustafi and Alexis Sanchez at the Emirates Stadium have given Arsenal a 2-0 halftime lead in the North London Derby.

[ STREAM: Second half live ]

Alexandre Lacazette cut a chance well wide and high of the bar in the first five minutes, while Spurs’ Harry Kane forced Petr Cech into a sixth minute save.

There were chances at both ends and a frenetic pace of play as the match approached the 20-minute mark, with Hector Bellerin‘s inviting cross unanswered by Arsenal.

Mustafi provided the derby breakthrough at the back post off a sweeping free kick to boost the Gunners into a 37th minute advantage.

And Alexis used great work from a lively Hector Bellerin to make it 2-0.

Watch Live: Arsenal v. Tottenham in North London derby

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This is it.

The Premier League returns with a bang following the two week international break as Arsenal host Tottenham Hotspur at the Emirates Stadium (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

Arsenal haven’t won any of their last six games in the Premier League against Tottenham, while Spurs are three places and four points above the Gunners in the PL table.

In team news Arsenal start with Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette up top, with Shkodran Mustafi returning from injury.

Tottenham have Dele Alli, Hugo Lloris and Harry Kane fit to play after recovering from injury.

LINEUPS

Arsenal: Cech; Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Bellerin, Xhaka, Ramsey, Kolasinac; Ozil, Sanchez; Lacazette. Subs: Ospina; Mertesacker, Wilshere, Iwobi, Welbeck, Maitland-Niles, Coquelin

Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris; Sanchez, Dier, Vertonghen; Trippier, Dembele, Sissoko, Davies; Eriksen, Alli; Kane. Subs: Vorm; Foyth, Aurier, Winks, Walker-Peters, Son, Llorente

MLS attendance up, TV ratings lag as US mulls future

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
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NEW YORK (AP) Major League Soccer’s attendance is up and fan interest is booming, even if television broadcasts are far less popular and some young Americans would rather play in Europe.

[ MORE: Caleb Porter out as Portland Timbers head coach ]

MLS averaged 22,000 in attendance for the first time in its history this season, ranked among the top seven leagues in the world. The league is set to add a second Los Angeles franchise next year, announce two expansion cities next month and at some point finalize David Beckham’s long-pending Miami club.

But viewers averaged under 300,000 for nationally televised regular-season matches, fewer than the average for a New York Yankees game on their regional sports network. Several top young Americans, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, have chosen to forego the MLS to play in Germany and test their mettle in a more demanding environment.

And worst of all, the United States – whose roster was filled with MLS stars – failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup, ending a streak of seven straight appearances in soccer’s showcase.

“We need to use this failure as a wakeup call for everyone associated with the sport at all levels to ensure that we have the right processes and mechanisms and development programs and leadership and governance in place to learn from this missed opportunity to ensure that it never happens again,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said this week. “Part of the maturation of becoming a soccer nation is recognizing that qualifying for the World Cup is not a birthright. It’s something you need to earn, and we are unfortunately in the company of some great soccer nations, like Italy and Holland and Ghana and Chile – Copa champions – that have also not qualified.”

MLS playoffs resume next week after the international break with the first leg of Conference Championships. Columbus – whose owners are threatening to move to Austin, Texas, in 2019 – hosts Toronto, while Houston is home against Seattle.

“MLS and soccer in the United States have made great advances in many areas. But its promoters have found that the abundance of existing legacy sports leagues that have the highest quality of athletes on the planet creates a ceiling on professional soccer in the United States,” said Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm SportsCorp. “It has not, and perhaps never, will supplant any of the major legacy sports unless and until the quality of play and players increases significantly and the U.S. men’s team in particular is more competitive and, in fact, wins some of the major international tournaments.”

Momentum of playoff runs was interrupted because of World Cup qualifying, and the culmination of the league’s season competes for attention with the NFL and college football among the wider American sports audience.

“Long-term demographic things like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and stuff with the NFL says maybe there is a long slow decline around some of that, but when you’re starting from where they’re starting, that’s going to take a generation,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “We’ll grow because most of the immigration to the U.S. is from soccer-playing countries and the country is going to grow.”

Launched with 10 teams in 1996, two years after the U.S. hosted the World Cup, MLS expanded to 12 but cut back to 10 after the 2001 season. There has been steady growth since expansion started in 2004. Next year’s total will be 23, already well over the norm for a first division, and the league is planning to settle at 28.

Infrastructure could not be more different than in the early days. The league has 14 soccer specific stadiums, two more renovated for the sport and one built with both the NFL and soccer in mind. Three more soccer stadiums are under construction.

Average attendance is up 60 percent from 13,756 in 2000, boosted this year by 48,200 for Atlanta in its opening season. MLS trails only the Germany’s Bundesliga, England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Mexico’s Liga MX, the Chinese Super League and Serie A, with Italy’s first division ahead by only 22,177 to 22,106.

But that has not translated yet into big television ratings.

ESPN averaged 272,000 for 30 telecasts this regular season on ESPN and ESPN2, and Fox averaged 236,000 for 33 broadcasts on FS1 and Fox. In addition, Univision is averaging 250,000 viewers for its Spanish-language MLS telecasts.

But the Premier League attracts a larger audience, averaging 422,000 on NBC, NBCSN and CNBC, even though many matches are on weekend mornings.

“We’re not the Premier League,” Garber said, pointing out last year’s MLS Cup drew 1.4 million viewers on Fox. “The fact that we’re able to generate ratings growth across all of our partners here and in Canada, and dramatic growth in Canada, is a positive. So we actually, we and our partners, feel pretty darn good.”

Player payroll has increased as MLS keeps adding what it calls Targeted Allocation Money. While several older American players have returned to MLS from Europe, many of the teens viewed as the future of the U.S. national team have gone abroad as they emerge from the MLS youth academies, which have been mandated by the league since 2007 and produced more than 250 players with first-team MLS contracts.

Pulisic, at 19 already the leading American star, left Hershey, Pennsylvania, to sign with Borussia Dortmund at age 16, able because of his grandfather’s Croatian citizenship to play in Europe before he turned 18. McKennie left FC Dallas’ academy when he turned 18, signed with Schalke and scored in his U.S. debut this week.

“I didn’t want to become one of those guys that started in MLS and said, man, I wonder if I could have made it to Europe,” McKennie said. “I wanted to spread my wings and see what I could do over here.”

Forward Josh Sargent decided against Sporting Kansas City and is waiting until he turns 18 in February to sign with Werder Bremen.

“I think I’ve just always wanted since I was a little kid to play in Europe,” he said.

Tyler Adams, who also made his U.S. debut this week, played his first MLS game with the New York Red Bulls last year at age 17 and became a regular this season. Garber says “Tyler Adams probably is playing more minutes today for the Red Bulls than he would if he was not in Major League Soccer.”

Adams is happy but thinking ahead.

“Obviously a goal of mine is to play Champions League one day, and obviously the MLS is working its way to becoming one of the top leagues in the world,” he said. “Maybe one day I find myself in Europe. You never know.”

Sometimes big contracts only stall a career. Matt Miazga left the Red Bulls to sign with Chelsea in January 2016, saw little playing time and didn’t get in games regularly until late that autumn during a loan to the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem.

“If your only desire is to go to Europe, there are flights leaving every hour on the hour from JFK and LAX and everywhere in between,” said retired American defender Alexi Lalas, now a Fox analyst. “But getting to a place in Europe where you are making good money, where you are playing consistently, where you are learning, where you are valued as a player and as an American player, where you are able to adapt and adjust and live in the other 22 1/2 hours that we often don’t talk about, that’s whole `nother story, and there’s not a lot of flights leaving that have that on the other end.”

With the U.S. soccer community in turmoil following the World Cup failure, some have called for MLS to guarantee playing time for young Americans.

“Our coaches universally believed that that was not the best way to ensure we had the highest-possible product quality to be able to have competitive games and to drive the growth of our fan base,” Garber said.

AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.

Bartra error emphasizes Dortmund’s latest Bundesliga woes

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Christian Pulisic sat out Friday’s 2-1 Dortmund defeat against Stuttgart. Coincidence? Perhaps.

However, the club’s struggles are apparent as Dortmund’s winless run extended to four matches and their gap from Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich could be up to nine points by the end of the weekend.

[ MORE: Chris Coleman steps down from Wales, expected to take Sunderland job ]

BVB was without several of its top talents for the match, including U.S. Men’s National Team star Pulisic and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but it’s Dortmund’s defending that continues to be the side’s biggest issue.

Stuttgart struck after five minutes when Chadrac Akolo broke the deadlock off of an embarrassing blunder by Marc Bartra and the Dortmund defense.

Bartra attempted a routine back pass to goalkeeper Roman Burki during the early moments of the match, but his ball back proved to be way too strong and deflected off of Burki and into the path of Stuttgart forward Akolo (video below).

Dortmund atoned for the former Barcelona man’s mistake just prior to halftime when Maximilian Philipp equalized, but it took just six minutes into the second stanza for Josip Brekalo to restore the Stuttgart advantage.