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.

Hernandez, Araujo score in 1st half, Mexico beats Costa Rica

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Javier Hernandez and Nestor Araujo scored in the first half, and Mexico overcame the absence of half a dozen players to beat Costa Rica 2-0 on Friday night in a World Cup qualifying match.

Hernandez scored on a cross from Carlos Vela to open the score in the seventh and Araujo added a goal on a header in the 45th.

[ USMNT: Recap & videoPlayer ratings ]

Hernandez scored his 46th goal with the Mexican team and tied Jared Borgetti as the all-time leading scorer.

With the win, Mexico remains undefeated and has seven points after three rounds to take sole command in the six-nation tournament. Costa Rica stays on six points and is second and Panama is third with four.

The top three teams qualified for the Russia 2018 World Cup.

Mexico beat Costa Rica for the first time since September 11, 2012, when they prevailed 1-0.

Running Away With It

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Christian Pulisic scored and played a part in three other goals as the United States rained goals down on Honduras in a 6-0 win at Avaya Stadium in San Jose early Saturday morning.

Clint Dempsey scored two goals, and Michael Bradley and Sebastian Lletget also scored as the U.S. moved into fourth place in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Their next match is Tuesday in Panama.

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The United States men’s national team’s bid to recover their 2018 World Cup hopes got off to a flying start.

Sloppy Honduran defending caused a turnover outside the 18, and Jozy Altidore played Christian Pulisic in on goal. Keeper Donis Escober got a piece of Pulisic’s shot, but no one followed Lletget to the back post and the ex-West Ham and current LA Galaxy man quickly put the Yanks up 1-0.

The Yanks didn’t stop, and Lletget drew a yellow card when he beat Ever Alvarado down the right flank and forced a take down from the Honduran defender.

Alberth Elis slipped John Brooks’ mark, and the Houston Dynamo man turned to fire on goal. Tim Howard was well positioned to scoop it up.

Lletget turned out to be injured by the Alvarado foul, and Bruce Arena turned to Alejandro Bedoya in the 17th minute.

Geoff Cameron was given a yellow card in the 25th minute for a foul on Roger Espinoza. That gave a free kick to Honduras from 30 yards out, and Romell Quioto fired right at Tim Howard.

Then it was the captain who doubled the lead, as Honduras inexplicably gave him the room to walk across the arc of the 18 to rip a shot across goal. 2-0.

It was Clint Dempsey’s turn in the 33rd minute, after an otherworldly scooped pass from Pulisic.

What. A. Pass. Kid.

Honduras then took a bigger hit: the loss of star attacker Romell Quioto (Houston Dynamo) to an apparent shoulder injury.

Brooks bailed out an out-of-position Gonzalez just before halftime to keep the lead 3-0.

The Yanks needed 15 seconds to make it 4-0, with Dempsey winning a 50-50 tussle and finding Altidore for a flick to Pulisic. He netted his fourth USMNT goal. He’s 18.

Pulisic then won a free kick 25 yards out from goal by embellishing a foul, and Dempsey’s free kick tricked Escober. 6-0. For real.

A scary moment late as a dazed and wobbly John Brooks was forced off despite no apparent injury. Fox’s Jenny Taft said he was dehydrated, which is a relief.

LINEUP

USMNT: Howard; Villafana, Gonzalez, Brooks (Ream, 70′), Cameron (Zusi, 58′); Bradley, Lletget (Bedoya, 18′), Nagbe; Pulisic, Dempsey, Altidore.

Goals: Lletget (5′), Bradley (27′), Dempsey (33′, 49′, 54′), Pulisic (46′)

 

Player ratings from USMNT’s pounding of Honduras

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Battered. Throttled. Eviscerated.

Pick your verb of dominance, the United States likely fit it well in a 6-0 destruction of Honduras at Avaya Stadium in San Jose.

[ MORE: Recap + video | Three things ]

The win boosts the U.S. in World Cup qualifying after their 0-2 start, but how did the individuals fare? Obviously well.

Starting XI

Tim Howard — 7 — The team just feels in a safer place with the veteran back there. If the U.S. goes to the 2018 World Cup, Howard remains their No. 1 (and there probably never should have been a question. Sorry Brad).

Jorge Villafana — 7 — Tidy passing and a low-risk game from the Santos Laguna man.

John Brooks (Off 70′) — 7 — An early error before recovering to be his usual free-clearing, athletic self. Scary injury took him out late, as he looked dazed. Fox’s Jenny Taft said he was dehydrated, which is a relief.

Omar Gonzalez — 5  — He wasn’t bad, but Gonzalez is still a positional question mark. Bailed out a couple times by Brooks.

Geoff Cameron (Off 59′) — 6 — Out of position and a bit hobbled, he wasn’t at his best.

Michael Bradley — 7 — One of his better USMNT games in a long time.

Sebastian Lletget (Off 17′) — 8 — Scored, then got hurt on a roasting run down the right.

Darlington Nagbe — 6 — One or two electric moments in the first half, but overall a quiet enough night for the Timbers man.

Christian Pulisic — 9 — Hard to not to hand the kid a 10. He’s quite frankly the most exciting American talent in the history of the program.

Clint Dempsey — 10 — Along with Howard, the sort of player you knew would make sure this game ended with three points. The fact that he nabbed three goals, too, is just a bonus.

Jozy Altidore — 7  — Pretty darn good night holding up the ball, and passed as well as ever, but did he drop a bit too deep too often? The answer is probably, “Who cares? They won 6-0, dude.”

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 18′)  — 6 — Typical high energy, space eating job in the middle of the park from the Union man.

Graham Zusi (On 58′)  — 6 — Good late clearance preserved the shutout.

Tim Ream (On 70′)  — 6 — Interesting to note that Arena went to him over Walker Zimmerman or Matt Besler.

Three things to take away from USMNT 6-0 Honduras

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The United States men’s national team pulled a Leicester City.

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That’s a joke with truth wrapped around it, because the Yanks have had plenty of time and even a pair of friendlies to respond from the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann.

But in their first serious match without their old coach, the U.S. looked a team renewed and unleashed. Now the Americans may find themselves back in an automatic World Cup qualifying spot with a win on Tuesday in Panama.

Things change.

Vindicated

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and all of the USMNT players waited months and months to get the chance to answer their critics following a pair of embarrassing losses to open the final round of World Cup qualifying.

Sure, having Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron, and Tim Howard back helped a whole lot, and the seasoning Christian Pulisic is getting at Borussia Dortmund is unquestionably good for an 18-year-old.

But there’s little doubt Michael Bradley and Co. were fired up to silence their critics. Whether they admit it or not, this is a bunch that was stung by those who said they failed their old coach.

Most expected the U.S. to get a point or better against Honduras, but to do it the way they did is an unexpected bonus. A win in Panama on Tuesday would boost them into the Top Three.

And don’t worry, the old boss was pleased for his former charges.


The future is now…

I Tweeted the following after a late second half pass from Pulisic, and there was little disagreement.

Pulisic won’t be credited with an assist for his shot which rebounded to Sebastian Lletget for the opener, but he will walk away with his fourth international goal and two proper assists.

One was an absurd scoop to Clint Dempsey’s chest, and the other was a long avenue that shouldn’t have existed. Still, Pulisic found that street and provided an absolutely dynamic force all over the park.

There have been U.S. teens at big European clubs, and U.S. teens who’ve made impacts on the national team, but never both at the same time and never both at this level. Pulisic is for real, and finding his ceiling is an adventure we’re all undertaking with great enjoyment.


…But the legends sure helped

Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard will go down as two of the most important players in United States men’s national team history.

Actually, they may be duking it out for Nos. 1 and 2 when it’s all said and done.

Dempsey’s hat trick was his career in a nutshell. The first saw him body off a defender while collecting a Pulisic pass off his chest, then lashing a shot with power despite said defender dragging him down.

The second was a burst of speed to run onto Pulisic’s through ball and classic calm in the face of an onrushing keeper, holding onto the ball before sliding it home from an acute angle.

The third was this free kick. A bit aided by goalkeeper Donis Escober, but such is life.

And don’t sleep on Howard’s early performance as Honduras tried to find some sort of foothold in the match. Always well-positioned, the team just feels safer with the Colorado Rapids man between the sticks.