Cristiano Ronaldo, wing commanders, and Czech Republic-Portugal: Thursday’s Euro 2012 playlist

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Two weeks ago Portugal looked like a good bet to finish last in Group B. Now they’re favorites to advance from Euro 2012’s quarterfinals. How did this happen? They walked into the Group of Death with most seeing them well behind Germany and the Netherlands. The quartet’s other team was Denmark, a nation that’s bested Portugal in the last two qualifying cycles. Now, they’re bonafide dark horses – as good a bet as any to win this, beyond Germany and Spain.

The biggest difference has been goals. Between their playoff win over Bosnia and Herzegonvina and the start of Euro 2012, the Seleccao scored one goal in 270 minutes. It wasn’t exactly a shock. Portugal’s established quite a reputation for squandering their attacking talent. Blame the lack of a number nine, or blame former coach Carlos Quieroz. No matter, the scoring drought extended into Group B play, where Portugal was shut out by Germany in their opening match.

Then came a relative explosion. Three goals against Denmark served as revenge. Wrapping up group play, Portugal scored twice against the Netherlands, both goals coming from their dormant giant: Cristiano Ronaldo. If he finally starts bringing his club-world quality to international soccer, Portugal may be more than mere dark horses.

Their Thursday opponents, the Czech Republic, can do for some awakenings of their own. While people debate whether Milan Baros should persist as the team’s starting striker, the leading scorer at Euro 2004 has gone silent. He went the competition’s first 250 minutes without registering a shot on goal. Suffice to say, he remains scoreless.

Combined with the health concerns surrounding captain Tomas Rosicky, and the Czechs may be left relying on their wingers to carry them. To this point, that’s where all their firepower’s come from, with left wing Vaclav Pilar and opposite Petr Jiracek getting help from right back Theodor Gebre Selassie. With Tomas Hubschmann holding down the middle, it’s been enough, albeit against a weak group.

The easy ride stops at 2:45 p.m. Eastern as Euro 2012 starts its quarterfinal round. Here’s your playlist:

1. New pattern

A howler in each of the Czech Republic’s first two games had goalkeeper Petr Cech looking more like his 2008 self than the man who helped carry Chelsea to the Champions League title. Against Poland, however, he made it 90 minutes without an issue, and while that was mostly because of the control the Czechs exerted over the match’s final 60 minutes, results are results. The scoresheet alone really doesn’t provide much context.

On Thursday, Cech’s going to be tested far more often. Cristiano Ronaldo is hitting a run of form, and if that doesn’t translate into questions for Cech, it’s going to at least force some corners. On the other side, Nani has been one of the tournament’s best wingers. His crossing will test Cech’s decision making.

After Robert Lewandowski was taken out of Saturday’s game, Poland didn’t have much to offer. Portugal won’t be so easily dissuaded.

2. Wide view

Portugal’s wingers can cause nightmares, but given how the Czech Republic’s threatened from wide, Paulo Bento and his staff might have had a moment’s pause before falling asleep on Wednesday. Vaclav Pilar could still prove the tournament’s breakout player. Petr Jiracek’s make an impact on each of the two matches he’s started on the right. Theodor Gebre Selassie’s been the competition’s biggest threat from the back.

Bento, however, shouldn’t lose any sleep over the problem. Fullbacks Fabio Coentrao (left) and Joao Periera (right) have given all-tournament performances, and for as good as Nani has been going forward, he has also exhibited years of work drilled into him by Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. While Gebre Selassie is set to start on Cristiano Ronaldo’s side, there’s no reason Portugal’s wingers can’t be flipped. Ronaldo has shown an aversion to starting as a nine, but for one game, he should be willing to move to his less-favored right wing.

3. Remember Holland

Portugal may slowly be leaving the Caros Quieroz era behind, but in their decisive group match against the Netherlands, they reverted to their shell. It was only after the Netherlands took the lead that Portugal woke up. From there forward, they controlled the match. Who would have known the Dutch can’t defend? (Answer: Everybody except Portugal, seemingly.)

Will Bento learn from the Holland match? There’s no reason for them to come out in their shell except reflexive conservatism. Against the Czech Republic, they can do as they did against Germany and Holland, start their midfield deep, and hope the Czechs expose themselves like they did against Russia. Or, they can control the match from the opening kickoff like the better team they are.

4. Time for answers

It seems Michal Bilek has been putting off his team’s attacking issues. I say “seems” because he doesn’t have a lot of options. If Tomas Necid, their 22-year-old forward protege, isn’t going to be used, there aren’t many alternatives to Milan Baros. There were fitness issues surrounding Necid, but if he isn’t healthy, why is he in the squad?

Baros isn’t the only issue. Tomas Rosicky’s recovering from an Achilles injury that kept him out of the Poland match. That’s one problem. Another is his productivity. Rosicky failed to make an impact in the two games he’s played. It might be best to give Daniel Kolar a second start and leave Rosicky as an as-needed option.

Regardless, Bilek can’t wait any longer. Portugal’s the best team the Czechs have faced since opening against Russia, a game they lost 4-1. He either addresses the attack or leaves the tournament with some “what ifs”.
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.

Pique finds solidarity with criticized NBA players

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There have been a number f outstanding pieces in The Players’ Tribune since its launch, but few as colorful and entertaining as Thursday’s entry from Gerard Pique.

The Barcelona star center back spilled the beans on any number of funny stories in his post, from Roy Keane’s cell phone anger and Sir Alex Ferguson‘s guiding hand to Lionel Messi’s greatness and more.

[ MORE: Zlatan in MLS an auto success ]

But perhaps most interesting was his take on the grief he’s received for supporting the vote for Catalan independence. Pique points out that he’s been proud to represent the Spanish national team, but won’t veer from his democratic beliefs.

And guess what? Even in Spain, athletes rightly bristle at the “Stick to Sports” crowd.

It’s funny, I noticed some people in America have started telling the NBA players to “just shut up and dribble” when they express their opinions on real problems in society.

It’s ridiculous, no?

It’s the same here in Spain. They say, “Just shut up and play football. It’s all you know.”

Sorry, but I will not just shut up and play. It’s not all I know. There’s a lot more depth to footballers than most people realize, and I think it’s important that we express ourselves and our views.

Given relative health, Zlatan’s success MLS is close to automatic

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The only question is his knee at his age.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is coming to Major League Soccer. Having confirmed his departure from Manchester United, the announcement that the living Swedish legend is joining the LA Galaxy is expecting next week.

[ MORE: MLS Weekend Preview ]

Some have asked whether he’ll cut muster in the league, to which we point to the lead: Few players have arrived to MLS with as dominant a career as Ibrahimovic, and the Swede would need his knee to fall apart in order to fail in California.

The man’s game isn’t based on speed, but it does require his abnormal power and grace. He scored just once for United in very limited time this season, but don’t forget how dangerous he was against Premier League and Europa League defenses last season.

He scored 28 goals with 10 assists last season, with 17 and 5 coming in league play. He was suspended for three matches and injured for seven, meaning this is a 20-goal Premier League scorer arriving in MLS within a calendar year of doing so.

Try putting his resume in perspective: Didier Drogba was extremely good for Montreal but a half-decade removed from his last double-digit goal PL season (Don’t forget that Drogba bagged 11 in 11 to start life on our shores). Robbie Keane was about the same time removed from his run of 10-plus goal seasons in the Premier League. He was good for LA.

The only risk here is that Ibrahimovic never gets healthy and LA takes a bit of a loss on his salary (one which is at least partially negated by the sheer number of Ibrahimovic Galaxy jerseys sold).

Entering this season, Ibrahimovic had failed to score 15 goals once since 2006. He’a also had a fairly religious assist output (10+ most years). With names like Alessandrini, Kamara, and dos Dos Santos, this should be a stand-up double if not a homer for LA and for MLS.

Plus the vicious looks after teammates miss him badly with a pass, let alone the press conferences and paparazzi hits: This should be a lot of fun.

MLS Weekend Preview: Friedel’s Revs get NYCFC test

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It’s an international break, and Major League Soccer is only sorta observing it.

More than half of the league’s clubs will participate on Saturday match days, with several shorthanded by national team duty.

[ MORE: Southgate on racism in football]

Columbus won’t have Zack Steffen and Wil Trapp for a visit from DC United — who is missing Zoltan Steiber, Bruno Miranda, and Oniel Fisher — while the Red Bulls will be without Tyler Adams, Kemar Lawrence, and Michael Murillo for Minnesota United’s visit.

NYCFC won’t have Alexander Ring, Ronald Matarrita, and Rodney Wallace, Portland’s without David Guzman and Andy Polo, and Sporting KC loses Daniel Salloi.

The Whitecaps won’t have center back Kendall Waston, while opponents LA Galaxt are without Ola Kamara.

New England Revolution vs. New York City FC — 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Brad Friedel‘s New England revolution, purposely lower case, is making believers out of its players. It would take a giant step if it could slow the NYCFC juggernaut. The visitors have allowed just one goal in their 3-0 start.

As for the hosts, Friedel has made his mark in a way that mostly makes you wonder what in the world Jay Heaps was doing:.

(Bunbury) pointed to a fine system in the locker room, increased accountability, how Friedel posts the starting XI on game day, and occasional two-a-day training sessions, which never occurred in the forward’s four years under Heaps.

“I think it unifies the team,” Bunbury said. “The broad sense of professionalism, it’s about having respect for each other and making sure you are held accountable in every part of this club.”

Never occurred under Heaps? Woof.

FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers — 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday

FCD had an uninspiring ending to their CONCACAF Champions League dreams, but that’s little compared to the Timbers’ 0-2 start under Gio Savarese. A trip down South isn’t a surefire way to right the ship.

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. LA Galaxy — 10 p.m. ET Saturday

A long trip up North is only made worse by a laundry list of injuries for Sigi Schmid’s Galaxy. We’re only listing it amongst our Top Three because an LA win would be wildly impressive given the ‘Caps strong start.


Columbus Crew vs. DC United — 6 p.m. ET Saturday
New York Red Bulls vs. Minnesota United — 7 p.m. ET Saturday
Colorado Rapids vs. Sporting KC — 9 p.m. ET Saturday

Mourinho: “People with brains” understand Man Utd in transition

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Jose Mourinho’s been having a little fun on his international break, “managing” a team of superstars including Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt in a charity match.

[ MORE: Southgate talks racism in football ]

Speaking CNN as part of a publicity run, Mourinho was asked about Manchester United’s second place campaign and disappointment after dropping out of the UEFA Champions League.

Mourinho reiterated his position that United is a team in transition, and that the season is going along at an acceptable clip.

“I understand the frustration, I understand the sadness of being knocked out in the Champions League, but I don’t understand anything more than that,” Mourinho said to CNN’s Amanda Davies.

United has scored the third-most goals in the Premier League, and allowed the fourth-fewest. It’s drastically reduced its propensity to draw matches, which hurt its table position last season, and has already surpassed last season’s goal total.

Two more wins, 10 goals better differential, and the list goes on but unfortunately also includes crosstown rivals running away with the league and still alive in the UCL.

“Of course in the future we want to have 19 clubs behind us but this is the reality,” said Mourinho. “And the reality is for people with brain, with sense, with common sense, with knowledge of what sports is, we are in a moment of transition. Being in a moment of transition and still manage to do what he did last season and win trophies and to do what we are trying to do this season, which is still trying to win a trophy, and try to be second, because in this moment it’s the only top position that is possible for us to get. I think we are in a good position.”