Andrea Pirlo, changing perfection, and Germany-Italy: Thursday’s Euro 2012 playlist

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source: AP

Germany will be the fourth team in FIFA’s top eight on Italy’s road to Kiev. Nobody thinks FIFA’s rating are worth much, but as a quick-and-dirty way to describe Italy’s level of competition, they work pretty well. Spain, Croatia and England are all good teams, as is Germany. Yet to this point at the European championships, Italy remains undefeated.

It’s a strange kind of undefeated, though. They’ve only won one match, beating Ireland 2-0 – the fewest goals Ireland allowed in a match. Based on those results, it’s hard to describe how good Italy actually is. Conclusions have to be succinct. They’re good at prevention, seemingly bad at goal creation and stay close to any opponent. Aside from Italy’s ability to induce draws, we don’t have much to go on.

That’s what makes projecting their semifinal versus Germany so difficult. Reflexively, Germany has to be favored. The implied logic: We’ve seen Germany play to a certain level; Italy’s highs haven’t reached that level; Therefore, Germany is the better team.

And they may truly be the better team, in a cosmic, irrelevant, let’s run Monte Carlo simulations until we can tease this out kind of way. All that matters on Thursday is how they match up with Italy, and based on what we’ve seen throughout this tournament (and through most of the Azzurri’s history), the Italians will be able to hold their own.

Whether Germany will be able to do the same is a more interesting proposition. The favorites are talented, skilled, and prolific, but they’re far from perfect. The malaise they’ve shown during second halves is the type of characteristic Italy can exploit. Against the Azzurri, Germany’s going to have to play much closer to mistake-free soccer than we saw in the quarterfinals, when an underdog Greek side was able to pull even in the second half.

Germany’s going to have to play their first complete game of the tournament. Thursday at 2:45 p.m. Eastern, we find out if they have it in them.

1. Attrition condition

Right back Ignacio Abate had to leave the England match with a leg injury. Midfielder Daniele de Rossi came out with symptoms of sciatica. Central defender Giorgio Chiellini missed the match with a thigh injury. All three are expected to be back for Germany, which is good because with Christian Maggio suspended, Abate’s the squad’s only natural right back.

Antonio Cassano can’t play a full match. Andrea Pirlo looked to be slowing before a long rest ahead of the quarterfinal. Head coach Cesare Prandelli admits the squad is tired. Throw in injured Thiago Motta, and more than half of Italy’s choice starting XI have questions surrounding them coming into Thursday’s match.

Italy is losing a battle of attrition. With Germany coming in off two extra days rest already having a deeper squad, fatigue may cancel out all of Italy’s guile, leaving the Azzurri there for the picking.

2. Our one launching pad

Against England, Italy again showed that everything goes through Andrea Pirlo, a dangerous proposition given the 33-year-old’s apparent trouble with short rest. But even if the Juventus maestro is fine for Thursday’s match, there’s the tactical aspect to Italy’s lack of other options.

Over their quarterfinal’s first 15 minutes, Pirlo had trouble dictating play. England forwards Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck did a good job of either preventing the ball from getting to him or hassling him once it had arrived. Then they stopped, and Pirlo went back to being his normal orchestrating self. Italy dominated the rest of the game.

Are the Germans as likely to sacrifice marking for shape? Or, if you don’t feel like giving England the benefit of the doubt, are they as likely to ignore Italy’s best player?

It’s hard to imagine Joachim Löw being so brazen about his team’s chances. Pirlo’s likely seen his last free ride of the tournament.

3. Not afraid to change

Löw made three surprise changes for Greece, shaking up a team that went undefeated through the “Group of Death” – an effort to craft a more fluid attack. In hindsight, this seems less a response to Greece’s defense than preparation for the England-Italy winner. Defeating Greece was never going to be a problem, but getting an attack in place that had the movement and skill to best the Italians? Perhaps Löw didn’t think he could just flip a switch.

If that was Italy was in his sights when Löw picked his Greece XI, Miroslav Klose will almost surely play in place of Mario Gomez again. Marco Reus will also likely find a way into the team, his work with Mesut Özil too much to resist. The only question is whether Lukas Podolski or Thomas Muller will make way.

The midfield could also change. Löw and Bastian Schweinsteiger insist the German midfielder will play despite the player’s confirmation that a late winter ankle injury has not fully healed. The effect on his movement has been obvious, even if he’s been able to compensate in other ways. Against Italy, having Schweinsteiger as a fulcrum at the base of midfield wouldn’t be a bad thing, though if Löw feels he’s too limited to have the needed impact in a Euro semifinal, Toni Kroos could get the call.

4. No more like before

Having allowed only three goals at Euro 2012, Germany’s far from a leaky ship. That all three goals were very preventable begs the question of whether the Germans will be able to contain an Italy team attuned to exploiting their opponent’s errors.

Granted, every team tries to take advantage of their opponents’ mistakes, but for Italy, it’s the prime directive. Almost everything they do is predicated on being ready to exploit others, and while Cesare Prandelli is slowly trying to change this, Italy’s still a team that sacrifices the ability to generate their own chances for the possibility they can take advantage of others’.

Instead of Mats Hummels losing Robin van Persie for the goal Germany allowed the Dutch, it could be Mario Balotelli on Thursday. Instead of Michael Krohn-Dehli being the beneficiary of poor corner kick marking, it could be Claudio Marchisio. Instead of Georgios Samaras getting ball side of Jerome Boateng to score after the German defense was caught out, it could be Ricardo Montolivo.

And then the Germans would see Italy’s real danger: They can make that one goal hold up.

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.

Extremely early, Gold Cup glee-driven thoughts on a USMNT World Cup roster

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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The United States men’s national team won its sixth Gold Cup title on Wednesday, topping Jamaica 2-1 on a late winner from Jordan Morris.

It’s the sort of goal that moves a 22-year-old forward’s name from pencil to pen on a World Cup roster, one the Yanks will hopefully be planning following qualifying under Bruce Arena.

Morris is one of several players who took hold of their chances to march into Russia via fine performances as part of the USMNT’s “B Team” in the Gold Cup, along with Darlington Nagbe, Matt Besler, and maybe Paul Arriola (This assumes you hadn’t already counted Omar Gonzalez).

[ MORE: Recap | Altidore’s free kick | 3 things ]

It seems to us there are six spots in play right now. The forward batch of four is set and Ethan Horvath will probably join Tim Howard and Brad Guzan in the goalkeeper corps.

Five defenders look set and the same amount of midfielders (Besler, Brooks, Cameron, Gonzalez, Yedlin, Bedoya, Bradley, Johnson, Nagbe, Pulisic), leaving three defender and three midfielder spots. It looks set to come down to Kenny Saief or Kelyn Rowe in the midfield, and Tim Ream or Graham Zusi at the back.

So what’s the United States’ 23-man roster look like for Russia right now? Here’s our best guess (and we’re thinking as Arena, not us):

Goalkeepers (3): Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath

Defenders (8): Matt Besler, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Timmy Chandler, Omar Gonzalez, Jorge Villafana, DeAndre Yedlin, Graham Zusi.

Midfielders (8): Kellyn Acosta, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson, Sebastian Lletget, Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic, Kelyn Rowe.

Forwards (4):  Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood.

Bonus seven-man waiting list: Joe Corona, Dom Dwyer, Dax McCarty, Tim Ream, Kenny Saief, Danny Williams, Gyasi Zardes.

Morris’ 88th minute missile gives USMNT Gold Cup

AP Photo/Ben Margot
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Jordan Morris missed a chance to put the U.S. ahead with three minutes to play, then belted the Americans to a title with moments to spare in regulation, giving the USMNT its sixth Gold Cup title with a 2-1 win over Jamaica at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara on Wednesday.

Altidore also scored his 39th career goal and is now 16 goals behind joint-USMNT all-time leaders Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan.

Je-Vaughn Watson equalized for Jamaica within five second half minutes.

[ MORE: Three things | Altidore’s free kick ]

Here’s the winner:

The early stages were more about fouls than chances, as Jamaica took several chances to plow into the favored U.S.

Je-Vaughn Watson could’ve seen red for a cleating of Jordan Morris, and Jorge Villafana was felled by a vicious bit of work from Romario Williams.

The first threat on goal came from Jozy Altidore and friends, as the Toronto FC man tore into a 25-yard shot that Andre Blake saved before being injured denying Kellyn Acosta’s rebound chance.

Blake was taken from the game with an ugly-looking hand injury, and Dwayne Miller took his place between the sticks.

Though the U.S. controlled the game, there were dicey moments, to be sure, as Graham Zusi was cooked by Darren Mattocks and the U.S. conceded a corner kick it was able to send clear of danger.

Continued U.S. pressure led to a dangerous free kick, dead center, 30 yards from goal. Enter Altidore.

The lead didn’t last long, as Watson cooked Jordan Morris at the back post to lash a free kick past Tim Howard. It was poor marking from the youngster, and the final was tied at 1.

Miller made a stop on an Arriola in the 63rd minute, as the U.S. looked to rally after inserting Clint Dempsey for Kellyn Acosta.

Omar Gonzalez headed a Michael Bradley corner off the netting outside of the near post in the 71st minute, as the Yanks and Reggae Boyz edged toward extra time.

Miller then flipped a Morris rip over the bar for a U.S. corner that turned into a Jamaican counter when Gonzalez was sucked into the Reggae Boyz’ 18.

Dempsey then headed a cross that Miller pushed off the post in the 75th minute in a moment that would’ve been doubly historic.

The Seattle man then mishit a free kick that nearly gave Jordan Morris the match-winner, but the fellow Sounders attacker somehow opted against passing it on goal with his left-foot and flubbed the chance.

Given a chance with his right foot, though, it was all good. A Zardes cross was partially cleared to the penalty spot, and Morris made no doubt with a blast past Miller. 2-1, 90.

USMNT player ratings from the Gold Cup Final win

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The United States men’s national team is now one Gold Cup title behind Mexico after claiming its sixth trophy with a 2-1 win over Jamaica on Thursday in California.

[ MORE: Recap | Altidore’s free kick | 3 things ]

How did the individual champs fare? Read on…

Starting XI

Tim Howard — 6 — He’s not going to do much better on the goal, short of Landon Donovan’s suggestion to keep a man on the back post. The Yanks’ clear No. 1.

Jorge Villafana — 5 — A rough night, but all-in-all may be Arena’s best option provided Fabian Johnson doesn’t move back to LB for ‘Gladbach season.

Omar Gonzalez — 7 — See below.

Matt Besler — 7 — Didn’t have to do too much, but etched his name as the third or fourth CB for Russia 2018.

Graham Zusi — 6 — Maybe his best game of his oft-maligned tournament, even if the game is much different with Darren Mattocks doing something better after cooking Zusi early on the flank. He’s a midfielder for me, maybe a RWB in a 3-5-2.

Michael Bradley — 7 — He was given the Golden Ball in one of those rare moments that prove voters watch players who aren’t goal scorers, and he deserved it. Bradley seems to have come out of his NT dark period, and was mostly very good in the tournament.

Kellyn Acosta (Off 55′) — 5 — Passing was off, and seemed a little too eager to jump passes and betray his position.

Paul Arriola (Off 76′) — 6 — Ran his shorts off, but still missing the right bit of service needed from a man out wide. Improved World Cup stock, but had a chance to do even more.

Darlington Nagbe (Off 90+1′) — 8 — Every time I blow off a player due to early struggles to adapt to the NT set-up, remind me how wonderful Nagbe looked in this tournament.

Jordan Morris — 7 — There’s something to be said for any player coming back from a missed opportunity and a lost mark on the Jamaica equalizer. His match winner coming moments after he bungled a chance to pass home with his left foot says a lot for the future of Standord’s industrious striker.

Jozy Altidore — 8 — He’s a CONCACAF killer, and somehow when he drops deep into the midfield we’re okay with it. Yes, Andre Blake stops his free kick. But Andre Blake wasn’t there, was he?

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Subs

Clint Dempsey (On 55′) — 7 — Clint Dempsey = super sub. It makes us super happy to say/read, and we’re hoping he’s a rich man’s Carlos Ruiz.

Gyasi Zardes (On 76′) — 5 — I championed his inclusion into the NT for a while, but how he has a place other than a status as a longtime Arena player is baffling. His cross which led to the winner didn’t look to be anything more than a Hail Mary.

Dax McCarty (On 90+1′) — N/A

Three things from the USMNT’s sixth Gold Cup

AP Photo/Ben Margot
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The United States men’s national team is now one Gold Cup title behind Mexico after claiming its sixth trophy with a 2-1 win over Jamaica on Thursday in California.

[ MORE: Match recap | Altidore’s free kick ]

Here’s what we learned from a fun win over the Reggae Boyz.

A moment for U.S. Soccer history

It doesn’t matter whether the Americans were heavy favorites or underdogs (they were heavy favorites), a title-winning match is going to make memories for an entire program.

That it was Stanford product Jordan Morris who scored the match winner in the 88th minute only makes it better.

Morris is a symbol of the many paths Americans can take to the national team, and his industrious efforts and “100 mph at all-times” motor received a deserved exclamation point.

“It’s unbelievable. Every time I step on this field it’s an honor to represent this country. This game was amazing. Jamaica made it really tough and I was nervous cause it was my guy who scored on the goal so I was trying to make up for it any way I could.”

It wasn’t Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, or Jozy Altidore who etched their names in U.S. Soccer history, and that’s a good note for this side as it builds toward, hopefully, the 2018 World Cup in Russia. That picture above says a lot.

Bruce gets it right (mostly)

While being careful not to give the legendary U.S. boss too much credit for choosing 10 of his best 11 and trotting out the same lineup from a solid win over Costa Rica, Arena had five games to find a team that would win a final on home soil and he successfully pulled that off.

He was right to know he could navigate the group stage with an experimental bunch, even if those games showed that the American depth isn’t near what many of us hoped it might be at this point in the program’s development.

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

What it means for a World Cup or even the rest of CONCACAF qualifying is another thing, but the quality of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Tim Howard is too much for all of CONCACAF but Mexico (and Costa Rica on its best day).

Lauding Arena for plugging Dempsey into the match as his first sub is like lauding a pizzeria owner for ordering mozzarella for his pies, so let’s move to sub No. 2. It was a risk to plug ice-cold Gyasi Zardes into the match, and the LA Galaxy man did not look good for most of the match. But his cross on the winner got the job done, and you can’t take that away from the team.

The future feels bright

Michael Bradley was given the Golden Ball as the best player in the tournament, and the fact that the Yanks clearly arrived in the tournament with their captain’s return to the fold following the group stage is no coincidence.

Yet it is a pleasant and mild surprise. Bradley had not starred for the U.S. for some time, though he is clearly their best option in the middle of the park. For him to arrive and put in a calm, collected, and dominant batch of shifts is a good sign heading into some tough World Cup qualifiers.

Tim Howard proved again that there was never any need to consider anyone else as a No. 1 — even though Brad Guzan had some great moments in the group stage — while Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey both shined in spots.

Considering that Christian Pulisic, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, and Bobby Wood were (probably) just hanging out in Europe during the tournament shows that the Americans can feel good about life. That’s a marked change from life under Jurgen Klinsmann, and U.S. Soccer has been proven right time and again by that move. The jury’s still out on Arena, but that same jury has good vibes right now.