Cristiano Ronaldo, memories of 2010, and Spain-Portugal: Wedneday’s Euro 2012 playlist

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source: Reuters

At the beginning of the month, Portugal looked set to be an unfortunate casualty of the Group of Death, with Germany and the Netherlands picked to get through. Two and a half weeks, a Dutch collapse, and some exorcizing of Danish demons later, the Seleccao are riding a three-match winning streak into Wednesday’s semifinal with Spain. And if debunking conventional wisdom wasn’t enough for the Portuguese, they have one big reason to like their chances against the defending world and european champions: a 4-0, November win in Lisbon.

It was, however, just a friendly, and given some of the other stumbles Spain have had in the last year, Portugal would be wise not to take too much from it. Since the World Cup, Spain has also lost to Argentina, Italy, and England – all friendlies. hrough Euro qualifying and the finals, they’ve stayed undefeated, implying they’ve developed two gears: play, and play to win.

Which gear they’ve been in during this tournament’s been unclear. Three wins in four matches is a record bested by only Germany, yet in most of their games, the holders have looked more controlling than dominant. La Roja dazzled in their group stage win over Ireland, but in their other three matches, Spain played to their emerging stereotype: Unwilling to take the risks necessary to score goals. Just like all stereotypes, the reputation’s part hyperbole, part truth.

Portugal represents a big step up. Yes, Spain has faced and survived Italy, but with an in-form Cristiano Ronaldo, Iberia’s other power may be primed for the biggest win in their history.

Match kicks off at 2:45 p.m. Eastern. Here’s your playlist.

1. We’ve been here before

The most important defender for Real Madrid, Portugal center half Pepe is not only used to playing Barcelona, he’s used to succeeding. At least, he’s used to experiencing as much success as anybody has against Barça, experience that should serve him and his teammates well on Wednesday. As Spain keeps Portugal’s defense under constant pressure, Pepe can help maintain the Seleccao’s organization, his teammates having the confidence of knowing he’s been there before.

The same effect can be seen in midfield, though the leader there is more unlikely. Raul Meireles served as one of the keys to Roberto Di Matteo’s conservative set up as Chelsea claimed Champions League. He may not be Portugal’s best midfielder, but he’s the one that’s actually been crucial to a team that’s beat a Spain-like attack.

Portugal has the talent and approach to thwart Spain, but they don’t have experiences getting it done. With Pepe and Meireles, they have two players who’ve successfully implemented the plan, if not for Portugal.

2. Cristiano

Portugal can beat Spain without Cristiano Ronaldo having a big day, though it would be a lot easier if he did. Having scored all the Portuguese goals in their last two wins, Ronaldo has shown he’s capable of carrying his team to the semifinals. He’s also left Paulo Bento in search of a Plan B.

Nani seems like the most likely understudy, especially if Portugal can get him behind Jordi Alba. Even though Nani’s been most effective this tournament when providing for Ronaldo, he’s still capable of getting goals, especially when Joao Moutinho’s providing for him.

Beyond that, set pieces are a possibility, but with Portugal unlikely to hold much of the ball, corners and restarts could be few and far between.

Portugal has built their team around Cristiano Ronaldo, so for better or worse, they’ll need him to have a big day if they’re going to get past Spain. Based on how Ronaldo’s played over the couple of weeks, there are worse places to be.

3. Staying back

Given Portugal’s strength on the wings, Vicente del Bosque has a choice to make regarding his fullbacks. As the tournament’s progressed, both Jordi Alba and Arvalo Arbeloa have been pushing forward with little regard with what goes on behind them. Against Ronaldo and Nani, it’s not a strategy del Bosque’s likely to be comfortable with, given his four years of risk aversion.

Del Bosque might be thankful for some middle ground. Keeping Arbeloa back isn’t that big a deal. He hasn’t contributed much in attack anyway. Alba, however, has improved with each game and provided an assist from the left against France. Keeping him back could have a much bigger effect.

It might not be an issue. Against the Netherlands and Germany, Nani often played very deep on the right – much deeper than Ronaldo’s corresponding position on the left. If Portugal reveres Spain as much as they revered the Germans and Dutch, Nani won’t be asked to pin Alba back. Instead, he’ll likely the one asked to run with the soon-to-be Barcelona left back.

4. Patience

And if Spain’s not going to release their fullbacks, Portugal’s going to be very difficult to break down. But if we’ve learned anything about Spain, it’s that they will break you down. Just give them time. All the 1-0s in South Africa attest to that, with the world champions needing extra time to convert their dominance over the Dutch into the 2010 World Cup.

It may take as long to get past Portugal, but Spain needs to stay patient. That doesn’t mean they should refrain from diversifying their attack by using Jesus Navas, Santi Cazorla, Fernando Llorente – they definitely should do all those things. Along the way, they should remember that it took them 63 minutes to get their goal against Portugal in South Africa. They should remember that’s not uncommon.

For all the danger Portugal presents, they’re not better than the German team Spain dominated in the 2010 semifinals. Spain needed 73 minutes to break through them. Portugal’s not better than the Dutch team Spain dominated in the final. It look La Roja 116 minutes to get that goal.

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.

Trio of Crew players in Ghana roster to face USMNT, Mexico

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Ghana’s team to face the United States men’s national team on Saturday in East Hartford will look somewhat familiar to fans of Major League Soccer.

Columbus Crew players Harrison Afful, Mohammed Abu and Jonathan Mensah join David Accam of the Chicago Fire, and Gershon Koffie of the New England Revolution on a unit with Kwadwo Poku of the NASL’s Kwadwo Poku.

John Boye, Asamoah Gyan, and Mensah are the only three players from the loss to the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.

[ MORE: Full FIFA-Qatar report leaked? ]

Like the U.S., this is a less than full-strength squad. Missing are a number of Black Stars standouts, with Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Afriyie Acquah, Daniel Amartey, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Christian Atsu, Jeff Schlupp, and Baba Rahman not with the team.

Saturday’s match is the last USMNT outing before the Gold Cup begins on July 8 in Nashville against Panama.

Goalkeepers: Addo Joseph (Aduana Stars), Richard Ofori (Wa All Stars)

Defenders: Lumor Agbenyenu (Munich 1860), Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew),  Nicholas Opoku (Berekum Chelsea), Jerry Akaminko (Eskiserhispor),  John Boye (Sivasspor), Rashid Sumalia (Al Gharafa), Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew), Samuel Sarfo (Liberty)

Midfielders: Mohammed Abu (Columbus Crew, Isaac Sackey (Alanyaspor), Ofori Ebenezer (Stuttgart), Kwadwo Poku (FC Miami), Winful Kwaku Cobbinah (Hearts of Oak), Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht), Thomas Agyepong (NAC Breda), Gershon Koffie (New England Revolution)

Strikers: Asamoah Gyan (Al Alhi), Raphael Dwamena (FC Zurich), Majeed Abdul Waris (Lorient FC), David Accam (Chicago Fire)

Timo Werner abused in Germany but key to World Cup defense

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) The abuse has followed Timo Werner for months, gathering pace as rapidly as the striker has amassed goals.

No German player was more prolific in the Bundesliga last season. No player was as ostracized.

But Werner is now a full-blown Germany international, scoring his first goals at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, and he could hold the key to the World Cup defense next year.

[ MORE: USMNT’s 23-man roster questions ]

That could require Germany supporters to forgive a player they jeered at during his first competitive game for Joachim Loew’s team earlier this month.

“Kobe Bryant has also been booed everywhere and he always been the best,” Werner reflected ahead of Germany’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Mexico on Thursday, seeing a kindred spirit in the basketball great. “I do not want to say that I am the best like him, but (the abuse) is a bit of an incentive.”

If playing for the ascendant but deeply unpopular Leipzig wasn’t bad enough, a dive in December by Werner provided a focal point for the animosity – jealousy, perhaps – toward the Red Bull-funded team.

The insults have even been hurled far from Germany, far from soccer stadiums. The dive won a penalty against Schalke, and provided Werner with one of the 21 goals that helped to propel Leipzig into second place and a Champions League debut next season.

“There was a dive, he made a mistake and he admitted it,” Loew said, “but he is very, very young player.”

And a potentially very important one for Loew at the World Cup in Russia next year. Germany’s striking options are being assessed at the eight-team Confederations Cup as Loew still seeks a long-term successor to Miroslav Klose as target man for the world champions.

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Werner opened his account for Germany on his fourth appearance, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over Cameroon on Sunday in Sochi.

“Werner put in a lot of legwork,” Loew said. “He showed how dangerous he is and that he’s got a great nose for goal. Both of his efforts were very well taken.”

Werner’s rivals for a place in the squad next year include fellow squad newcomers Lars Stindl and Sandro Wagner. They are both close to 30, while the 21-year-old Werner has youth, strength and speed on his side. Even Wagner said he has “never seen such a good striker at that age.”

That’s a result of Werner fusing his pace with intelligence on the ball, mastering dribbling at high speed first with Stuttgart and then at Leipzig.

“There’s no recipe for it,” Werner said. “The quickest players just know how to do it automatically. I like to knock the ball three or four meters ahead of me when I’m on the counter or have space in front of me, that way I can increase the distance between a defender and myself.”

Such proficiency should help Werner win over fans beyond Leipzig. Time, he hopes, will heal the fractures, and there’s certainly support from his new international teammates.

“I wish him well because of the issues he has had to endure,” captain Julian Draxler told Germany’s ARD television.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup

USMNT Gold Cup 23-man roster leaves some questions

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We have Bruce Arena’s 23-man United States men’s national roster for the Gold Cup, and there are more than a few surprises left out of the bunch.

Often a chance to experiment, those who thought this year’s Gold Cup roster would be one aimed at reclaiming glory with authority may be surprised to see the status quo.

Jurgen Klinsmann brought most of his big guns to the 2015 party — which didn’t go well for Brad Guzan and Co. — but Arena will roll into this summer’s tournament without most of his big names. There’s no Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey, nor Jozy Altidore.

Those aren’t huge surprises, though who Arena neglected from his original 40-man short list is a bit of a shock to the system (Players can be called into the mix after the group stage, which is a fairly simple affair for the USMNT to navigate versus Panama, Martinique, and Nicagarua).

Arena is going with Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, and Bill Hamid in a trio that fails to impress. Hamid does have a big crowd of fans who’d like to see him get a chance to assert himself as the future, and hopefully either Johnson or Hamid finds time between the sticks against a serious opponent like Panama. No surprise that Tim Howard and Joe Bendik didn’t leap into the trio (EDIT: This post initially questioned the omission of Jesse Gonzalez, but his one-time switch from Mexico to the USMNT has yet to go through).

We’ll ignore the omission of Danny Williams for the most part considering he was absent from the 40-man list, but he must have said something seriously awful to Arena or someone at U.S. soccer.

The group of forwards leaves little to complain about, as Juan Agudelo and Dom Dwyer very much deserve their chances to compete for playing time with Sounders star Jordan Morris, but the midfield provides some head-scratching. Gyasi Zardes may be a longtime Arena favorite, but the Galaxy man has been ice cold in MLS. The 25-year-old has a single assist in almost 1000 minutes of play this season, and that came back on April 8. Tommy McNamara has not lighting the league on fire and Chris Pontius and his six assists are 30 years old, so much of the grief should be directed at the 40-man again, but Zardes has to embrace this opportunity. And maybe it’s a way to help the Galaxy and Zardes get a little mojo.

As an aside, Wil Trapp is among leaders in several MLS passing stats, which leads me to believe Arena is going to play Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta a ton and doesn’t see much of a need for Trapp in this tournament, not ever.

Defenders Steve Birnbaum and Jonathan Spector were not rewarded with looks, though Graham Zusi was included in what must be an arm reaching out for USMNT experience. Birnbaum is leading MLS in aerials won per game and Spector is by far Orlando’s top rated player since returning from England. Yes, Spector is 31 but this is about still qualifying for next summer’s World Cup, not the 2022 cycle. Spare a thought for Matt Polster, who has been decent since returning from a knee strain. This is nothing against Zusi, a consummate professional who won’t kill the team by any means and will be an tremendous asset in leadership.

What about you? Any other gripes? Or do you love the bunch?

Report: German publication has full FIFA corruption report

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The unedited 2014 report into World Cup bidding published by Michael Garcia has been ‘leaked’ into the press by German publication Bild.

FIFA had released a 42-page version of the report that claimed to clear corruption allegations against Qatar. This “suppressed” report is over 400 pages.

Garcia quit his job as investigator with the FIFA ethics committee in 2014, saying he believed progress in reforming FIFA had slowed considerably.

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Bild said it will publish more information and the full report on Tuesday, but the BBC notes a couple interesting facets of the initial release:

  • “Three Fifa executive members were flown to a party in Rio in a private jet belonging to the Qatari federation before the vote for 2018 and 2022 hosting rights.”
  • “Bild’s report includes details of a $2m (£1.6m) sum allegedly paid to the 10-year-old daughter of a Fifa official.”

Before you overreact, the 10-year-old is an incredibly gifted footballer.

The reporter who filed the story says the report shows no proof of a bought bid, but that it is like “a puzzle.”