Swansea, Bradford City turn England’s League Cup on its head

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Are you ready for a Swansea City-Bradford City meeting at Wembley? We’re not there yet, but after the last two day’s League Cup results, the matchup looks probable. Bradford City took a 3-1 lead out of Tuesday’s leg one with Aston Villa while Swans pulled of a 2-0 upset at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. With both semifinals at their halfway marks, the underdogs are on course to complete their improbable runs.

The stunning thing about fourth-tier Bradford City was not that they took a two-goal lead out of the first leg. They were the better side. Aston Villa is a Premier League team which, while struggling at the top level, should have no problem at least holding their ground over an initial 90 minutes.

Yet the same Villa we’ve seen try to play themselves into the Championship showed up on Tuesday. Goals by Nahki Wells and Rory McArdle had Bradford up two after 77 minutes, and while an Andres Wiemann goal seemed to salvage a workable road deficit, Carl McHugh’s late tally restored Bradford’s 3-1 lead.

As embarrassing as the result is, it’s not unworkable. Bradford are still a League Two side, albeit a decent one. Aston Villa are still a far superior Premier League side, albeit a bad one. Villa should be able to post a lopsided result in their home leg, but having won only once in their last six (beating a Championship side in the FA Cup), it’s foolish to assume too much from Paul Lambert’s team.

We’re getting to the point where Villa may have to make a change. If Paul Lambert can’t get his team past a League Two side, it doesn’t speak well for his ability to accomplish the ultimate goal: Surviving the Premier League.

Yet this team may have gone through too many coaching changes since Martin O’Neill left at the beginning of the 2010-11 season. Kevin MacDonald, Gerard Houllier, Gary McAllister, Alex McLeish, Paul Lambert – I’m including the caretakers just to underscore how many different faces players like Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ciaran Clark have had to take instructions from over the last two-plus years. Add in O’Neill (who was still around in the fall of `10) and that’s six different men prodding the underachieving squad. Will adding a seventh name to the list really solve the problem?

Take Chelsea, for example. As you may have heard (ad nauseam over the past three months), the European champions changed managers earlier this season. Out went Roberto Di Matteo, himself a mid-season replacement the previous season, and in came Rafa Benítez.

Results have been mixed. While the Chelsea ended 2012 on a four-game winning streak, they began the year with a home loss to QPR. After an impressive FA Cup win at Southampton this weekend, the Blues lost at home today, 2-0 to Swansea City.

Chelsea looked very good in the first half but still went into intermission down a goal after a defensive mistake by Branislav Ivanovic allowed Michu to put Swans in front. In the second half, another Ivanovic mistake let Danny Graham double Swans’ lead, Swansea taking a 2-0 win out of Stamford Bridge.

It was a strange game because Chelsea didn’t play that bad, particularly after Demba Ba came on for Fernando Torres. He had a goal waved off for offsides and drew a yellow card when he was judged to have drove when trying to round the keeper. But he was influential, and Chelsea were close to getting on the board.

Yet with a team that has Chelsea’s talents, there shouldn’t be the need for asterisks – the rationalizing for poor results in terms of a progress this group should never have had to make. This inconsistent world they inhabit under Rafa Benítez is inexplicable. Whatever Chelsea is doing to succeed against Aston Villa and Southampton needs to be harnessed and implemented against QPR and Swansea.

Obviously, that’s easier said than done. Chelsea’s not the first inconsistent team ever, but the challenge remains the same. How does Benítez get them to be good Chelsea more often?

He doesn’t know. He’s only been on the job a couple of months. Perhaps he’ll eventually find out, but by the time he does, his team may be out of the League Cup and further mired in a fight for a Champions League spot.

There’s also the chance they’ll be headed to Wembley. When Chelsea goes to the Liberty Stadium for their second leg, they may play like the team that crushed Saints at St. Marys. And if they do, they’ll eliminate Swansea, move on to the final, and hope Dr. Hyde shows up against Bradford (or Villa).

Dempsey, Sounders steal a point on wild night in Portland

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The game in 100 words (or less): An entire game can change in the blink of an eye. For the Seattle Sounders, that blink came in the 44th minute of Sunday’s 2-2 draw with the Portland Timbers. Up 1-0 by way of Joevin Jones’ opener in the 27th minute, the defending MLS Cup champs were poised to head into halftime with a one-goal advantage and every belief imaginable that they’d been the better team for the entire first half. Blink. Brad Evans wrapped his legs around Darlington Nagbe, giving away a penalty and earning himself a red card, just like that, in the blink of an eye. Fanendo Adi stepped up to convert from the spot, but it still was to be a hard-fought 1-1 scoreline from Seattle’s perspective. Then, Dairon Asprilla got loose, completely unmarked atop the six-yard box, on a corner kick, and it was 2-1 after four minutes of first-half stoppage time. 45 more minutes pass, and the Timbers… blink. Clint Dempsey, 34 years old but fresh off the bench 40 minutes earlier, out-leaps everyone in the box and heads past Jake Gleeson to steal a point for Seattle.

[ MORE: San Jose fire Kinnear after 2.5 seasons ]

Three Four moments that mattered

27′ — Jones gets two chances, puts the second away — It’s a classic case of “I dropped my controller” from Alvas Powell, who just stops as Jones cuts across the penalty area. There’s no reason Jones should get a second look on this one.

44′ — Evans brings down Nagbe in the box, sees red — Goodbye, lead. Goodbye 11 versus 11. Things would unravel very quickly for Seattle.

45+4′ — Asprilla rises above to make it 2-1 — Seattle’s marking of Asprilla was nonexistent, and the Colombian showed off some serious hops to get his head to David Guzman’s corner kick.

90+4′ — Dempsey heads home deep in stoppage time — A costly turnover by Asprilla, a hit-it-and-pray cross by Roman Torres, and Dempsey snatches a point at the death.

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Man of the match: Cristian Roldan

Goalscorers: Jones (27′), Adi (45′ – PK), Asprilla (45+4′), Dempsey (90+4′)

Russia has reasons for optimism despite Confed Cup exit

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MOSCOW (AP) When the anger subsides after another group stage exit and another goalkeeping blunder, Russian fans might find they can be proud of their team at the Confederations Cup.

Russia failed to reach the knockout rounds of a fourth major tournament in a row, but there’s no shame in losing by one goal to European champion Portugal and North American champion Mexico.

“We will move on,” coach Stanislav Cherchesov said after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Mexico. “We have won (the fans’) hearts and minds to a certain extent in this month that we have been together … I think that we have given some reasons to feel optimistic about us.”

If Russia’s fans agreed with Cherchesov that Russia had done well to limit Portugal to a single Cristiano Ronaldo goal, there was frustration that Russia hadn’t done better against a poor Mexican side.

Russia wasted chances to exploit Mexico’s ragged defending and add to Alexander Samedov’s opener, while goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev performed an inexplicable lunge which allowed Hirving Lozano to head in the winner. Akinfeev was lucky not to be red-carded, too, after his foot caught Lozano in the chest.

Akinfeev was the immediate scapegoat for Russia’s exit, with fans and newspapers calling for his removal.

The most-capped player in the squad – the Mexico game was his 101st international appearance – Akinfeev’s bulletproof consistency in the Russian Premier League has kept him the undisputed national-team No. 1 for years.

When the world is watching, though, he gets flustered and makes mistakes.

Against South Korea at the 2014 World Cup, an innocuous long shot slipped from his grasp and went in, paving the way for another early Russian exit from the tournament. There have been more than a few blunders in the 43 games since Akinfeev last kept a clean sheet for CSKA in the Champions League, too.

But it’s hard to see who could replace him. The naturalized Brazilian reserve keeper Guilheme is agile but injury prone, while Vladimir Gabulov is a solid but unspectacular veteran. Zenit St. Petersburg’s Yuri Lodygin challenged Akinfeev for a while, but was brought low by his own tendency for embarrassing errors.

On the positive side for Russia, defender Georgy Dzhikiya was solid in all three group games after having only made his debut on June 5, and Cherchesov’s three-man back line was mostly reliable.

Less successful was Cherchesov’s attempt to bolster the midfield by starting Roman Shishkin – usually a defender – in a defensive midfield role against Portugal and Mexico, while 33-year-old ex-Chelsea winger Yuri Zhirkov did his World Cup hopes no favors with a red card Saturday.

Russia’s run of injuries before the tournament weakened the midfield in particular, with Alan Dzagoev and the promising Roman Zobnin both missing out. Forward Artyom Dzyuba’s absence left Cherchesov relying heavily on Fyodor Smolov, who showed touches of class but missed a good chance against Portugal.

Perhaps the biggest damage from Russia’s Confederations Cup exit will be to Russian pride.

Officials have often bragged that the home advantage for next year’s World Cup could drive Russia to new heights, perhaps a repeat of South Korea’s charge to the semifinals in 2002. Those expectations are now being reviewed.

Just one World Cup host in history – South Africa in 2010 – has failed to get out of the group stage. Avoiding a repeat may be the most Russia can hope for.

FOLLOW LIVE: Timbers host Sounders in PNW showdown

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They don’t get much bigger, or more heated, than this one in MLS — it’s Portland versus Seattle, the Timbers versus the Sounders, tonight at Providence Park (10 p.m. ET).

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Timbers vs. Sounders ]

To keep up-to-the-second informed on proceedings in Portland this evening, hit the above link, or click right here.

Seattle won the first meeting between these sides, 1-0 back on May 27, on their home turf at CenturyLink Field. Cristian Roldan, who’ll depart for U.S. national team camp following Sunday’s game, scored the only goal that afternoon in Seattle, a 4th-minute header from three yards out.

Mustafi: Arsenal players powerless, hope “brilliant” Sanchez will stay

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Shkodran Mustafi admits that he, along with his Arsenal teammates, feels helpless with over the ongoing transfer saga of Alexis Sanchez.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

The Chilean superstar is linked with a move away from Arsenal this summer, as the Gunners fell out of the Premier League’s top-four and the 28-year-old’s contract is set to expire next summer. Perhaps most importantly, Sanchez hasn’t so much as publicly stated a desire to remain at the club, which, from the outside, appears to have left his future in even greater doubt.

Mustafi admits he hasn’t a clue how things will shake out in the coming weeks, but he’s quick with a pleading sales pitch for Sanchez to stay — quotes from Goal.com:

“I have no idea. Obviously the other players cannot make that decision, he has to make that decision.

“I’m not too much involved. I hope he stays because he is a really brilliant football player but there’s nothing in my hands that I can do.”

[ MORE: De Boer set to be named new Crystal Palace boss ]

Arsenal would likely have to double (if not more) Sanchez’s current $180,000 weekly wages in order to convince him to forego a season in the UEFA Champions League and commit his long-term future to a club presently trending in the wrong direction.