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.

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.

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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.

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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.”