Wednesday international preview: For the degenerate soccer-watcher in all of us

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Let’s say you don’t have to go to work tomorrow. What would you do with your day? Get all those errands done? Finally clean up the house? Maybe this will be the year you get your taxes gone before April 15?

Probably not. Call it a hunch, but I’m since you’re the type of person that comes to ProSoccerTalk, you’re much more likely to sit around all day and watch soccer. Cup of Nations, World Cup Qualifying, or just run of the mill friendlies – it doesn’t matter. Since national teams don’t get together that often, hardcore soccer addicts are going to try to cram in as match possible.

So let’s entertain that. Let’s assume you’ve got a couple of displays in front of you and can access any game you want. Let’s also assume that your better half, little ones, and pets completely leave you alone. Which matches would you watch? Which matches should you watch?

Starting very early in Asia, here are PST’s recommendations.

All times Eastern. Please consult your physician before trying to watch all these games.

5:20 a.m. – Japan vs. Latvia (Kobe)

If you’re going to make Wednesday into a marathon, skip that highly anticipated 4:30 a.m. Nepal-Pakistan kickoff, sleep an extra hour, and see Asia’s best team host one of Europe’s worst. At 102nd in the world (for whatever FIFA rankings are worth), Latvia’s not going to be much of a challenge for the Samurai Blue, but for a chance to see what Asia’s best is building for the next World Cup, this might be worth an extra cup of coffee. Alberto Zaccheroni has his team eight points up on the competition in Asia. Only one point short of qualifying, this team is already starting to look toward Brazil 2014.

Players to watch: Japan: Shinji Okazaki (right, F, Stuttgart), Shinji Kagawa (M/F, Manchester United, Keisuke Honda (M/F, CSKA Moscow)

9:00 a.m. – South Korea vs. Croatia (London)

For what could be one of the best-played games of the day, the key for both coaches is to see their teams taking the match seriously. Croatia head coach Igor Stimac, new to the position, saw his team stumble at home to Switzerland in their last friendly. Korea’s Choi Kang-hee will be using the match to evaluate how to approach the final four matches of the team’s qualifying cycle.

Players to watch: Croatia – Luka Modric (M, Real Madrid), Dejan Lovren (D, Lyon), Darijo Srna (RB, Shakhtar); South Korea – Ki Sung-yeung (M, Swansea City), Son Heung-min (F, Hamburg), Park Chu-Young (F, Celta de Vigo)

source: Getty Images10:00 a.m. – Mali vs. Nigeria (Durban)

The day’s first Cup of Nations semifinal should be the round’s best match, the two teams’ skill-plus-style combination likely to produce a fluid, entertaining affair. Nigeria’s semifinal spot came at the expense of tournament favorites Cote d’Ivoire while the Malians reached the final four after a penalty kicks victory over the hosts.

Players to watch: Mali – Seydou Keita (right, M, Dalian Aerbin), Modibo Maiga (F, West Ham United), Mohamed Sissoko (M, Paris Saint-Germain); Nigeria – John Obi Mikel (M, Chelsea), Victor Moses (W, Chelsea), Emmanuel Emenike (F, Spartak Moscow)

12:00 p.m. – Chile vs. Egypt (Madrid)
The coaches are the focus for this one. For as much admiration Bob Bradley’s garnered during a turbulent time in Egyptian soccer, he is starting to see more criticism of the team’s on-field performances. In recent matches against Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, the Pharaohs lost by a combined 7-2. For Chile, former Universidad de Chile head coach Jorge Sampaoli is set for his third match in charge, with La Roja set to resume World Cup Qualifying in March.

Players to watch: Chile – Alexis Sanchez (F, Barcelona), Humberto Suazo (F, Monterrey), Arturo Vidal (M, Juventus); Egypt – Mohamed Aboutrika (M, Bani Yas), Gedo (F, Hull City), Mohammed El-Nenny (Basel)

1:00 p.m. – Spain vs. Uruguay (Doha)

The match means nothing (except €4 million the Spanish federation banks for playing it in Qatar), but each team’s brought up almost all of their big names. Xavi, Xabi, and Iker are out, but the rest of the Spanish stars are here, giving players like David Villa, Alvaro Negredo and Pedro Rodriguez a chance to nail down Spain’s striker spot. Expect an entertaining though not particularly intense match. It’s being played in Doha, after all.

Players to watch: Spain – Andres Iniesta (M, Barcelona), Sergio Busquets (M, Barcelona, Sergio Ramos (D, Real Madrid); Uruguay – Luis Suarez (F, Liverpool), Edinson Cavani (F, Napoli), Diego Godin (D, Atletico Madrid)

1:30 p.m. – Burkina Faso vs. Ghana (Nelspruit)

One of Africa’s legendary sides faces a team making their first semifinal appearance, with Burkina Faso’s Stallions hoping to slide on their glass slippers on Wednesday against the Black Stars. Ghana is the new tournament favorite (with the elimination of Cote d’Ivoire), but having reverted to type slightly in the quarterfinals, it remains to be seen whether the Ghanaians allow themselves to be draw into a coin flip they could lose.

Players to watch: Burkina Faso – Alain Traore (F, Lorient), Jonathan Pitroipa (W, Rennes), Bakary Kone (D, Lyon); Ghana – Asamoah Gyan (F, Al Ain), Kwadwo Asamoah (M, Juventus), Wakaso Mubarak (W, Espanyol)

source: Getty Images2:30 p.m. – England vs. Brazil (London)

It’s England. It’s Brazil. So it’s a big deal, right? Given the other games on the Wednesday’s schedule, I’m having trouble justifying too much excitement for this one, even if it’s going to be Ashley Cole’s 100th cap. Slowly, he’s catching up to Beckham’s 115. We’ll see if he can hold Leighton Baines off long enough.

Players to watch: Brazil – Neymar (right, F, Santos), Ronaldinho (M, Atletico Mineiro), David Luiz (D, Chelsea); England – Wayne Rooney (F, Manchester United), Steven Gerrard (M, Liverpool), Joe Hart (G, Manchester City)

2:30 p.m. – Netherlands vs. Italy (Amsterdam)

Louis van Gaal’s continued Oranje makeover will be reflected in his lineup on Wednesday. The omission of a player like Wesley Sneijder isn’t surprising, but players like John Heitenga and Nigel de Jong are also finding it difficult to re-establish their place in this team. The likes of Adam Maher, Stefan de Vrii and Bruno Martins Indi are likely to see time against a talent-rich Italian attack.

Players to watch: Netherlands – Robin van Persie (F, Manchester United), Kevin Strootman (M, PSV), Ron Vlaar (D, Aston Villa); Italy – Mario Balotelli (F, Milan), Andrea Pirlo (M, Juventus), Gianluigi Buffon (G, Juventus)

3:00 p.m. – France vs. Germany (Paris)

This is a great test for both sides. While Joachim Löw may take this chance to look at some players who don’t normally make his starting XI (perhaps giving Rene Adler a start in goal for Manuel Neuer), Germany has still reached a level where they should expect to go on the road and perform well even against the France’s world (and even in a friendly). France have gotten results from Spain and Italy in their last two matches. Another strong performance will further consolidate the team behind Didier Deschamps.

Players to watch: Germany – Mesut Ozil (M, Real Madrid), Philipp Lahm (D, Bayern Munich), Thömas Müller (F/M, Bayern Munich); France – Karim Benzema (F, Real Madrid), Franck Ribery (W, Bayern Munich), Hugo Lloris (G, Tottenham)

4:00 p.m. – Honduras vs. United States (San Pedro Sula)

Steve’s got you covered on this one:

source: Reuters9:00 p.m. – Panama vs. Costa Rica (Panama City)

Panama’s the newcomer to this level of the tournament (the one team in the final round that didn’t qualify for 2009’s Hex), but as they showed at the 2011 Gold Cup, they’ve got the players to qualify for Brazil. One of the keys will be getting three points at home instead of settling for draws. Against an experienced Ticos team, Julio Valdés will need to make his team rises to the occasion. By the opening whistle, Panama’s players need to realize the stakes. Slipping in round one could come back to haunt them in November.

Players to watch: Panama – Blas Perez (right, F, FC Dallas), Gabriel Gomez (M, Junior), Felipe Baloy (D, Santos Laguna); Costa Rica – Bryan Ruiz (F, Fulham), Alvaro Saborio (F, Real Salt Lake), Michael Umaña (D, Saprissa)

9:30 p.m. – Mexico vs. Jamaica (Mexico City)

This could get ugly. Jamaica would have a hard time matching up with El Tri under normal circumstances, but this is the Hex opener, on the road, against a Mexico team that has gone beyond winning. This team is starting to push itself for results. They not only want three points from these games, they want to perform in a way that puts them in a conversation with the world’s best. Unless something fluke-y happens early, this should be a multi-goal victory for the tournament favorites.

Players to watch: – Giovani dos Santos (F, Mallorca), Javier Hernandez (F, Manchester United), Hector Moreno (D, Espanyol); Jamaica – Rodolph Austin (M, Leeds United), Nyron Noseworthy (D, Watford), Jason Morrison (M, Aelesunds)

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.

Mata seems to confirm Champions League is Man United’s priority

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With the Premier League title all but wrapped up, English top flight teams are beginning to put their true focus onto competitions they still have a realistic shot of winning.

Manchester United sits in second place in the Premier League table, but they are a full 18 points back of rivals Manchester City, as so with a Champions League match against Sevilla on Wednesday afternoon, Juan Mata all but confirmed that the Red Devils are putting their main efforts into Europe’s largest competition.

[ MORE: Messi pegs back Chelsea despite winning tactics ]

“If we had less of a gap with respect to the Premier League leaders and we had a chance to fight for it, it wouldn’t be so tough to be eliminated from the Champions League, but now our aim is to progress from every round,” Mata said to Spanish radio station Cadena Ser. “It would be a big blow to be eliminated in the last 16.”

Last season, a similar story played out. Manchester United was out of reach of a top four finish in the league, so manager Jose Mourinho publicly admitted they were putting their main focus on the Europa League due to the automatic berth the competition’s winner received into next year’s Champions League. The gamble paid off, as Manchester United won the competition and earned their spot in the Champions League this season.

Sevilla has not progressed past the Round of 16 since 1958. Manchester United, meanwhile, has not made it past the Champions League quarterfinals since their runners-up finish in 2011, when they lost to Barcelona in the finals at Wembley Stadium.

Wenger confirms Ospina will start pair while Ozil, Ramsey miss out

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Arsene Wenger confirmed in his pre-match press conference that goalkeeper Petr Cech will get an extended rest with a pair of Cup games on the horizon for Arsenal.

In his place, David Ospina will start both Thursday’s Europa League Round of 32 match against Ostersund and Sunday’s EFL Cup Final against Manchester City. Ospina is no stranger to this type of rotation, with the Colombian owning just 30 starts over the last three seasons in national and international Cup competitions compared to just seven Premier League appearances.

In addition, Wenger also confirmed that Mesut Ozil will miss out for Thursday’s match due to illness, but is expected back for Sunday’s EFL Cup final. Arsenal has a 3-0 lead over Swedish club Ostersund after the first leg, with the second leg to be played at the Emirates.

Wenger said Aaron Ramsey is back in training, and while he will not be risked in the Europa League match in his return from a groin injury that saw him miss the North London derby loss, he could be in contention to play against Manchester City. [Ramsey] is not in the squad tomorrow, he had a good training session. We will see how his evolution goes between now and Sunday. I don’t rule him out.”

Ramsey scored a hat-trick in the 5-1 win over Everton in early February, but has played just 181 minutes since picking up a hamstring injury in mid-December.

Finally, Wenger said that Danny Welbeck and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will both receive starting spots against Ostersund, as will some unnamed youth products. Welbeck has been out of Premier League action since mid-January, stuck behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but he received four minutes off the bench in the North London derby and will get another opportunity in the Europa League to prove his worth.

Conte admits job security speculation will always exist at Chelsea

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Antonio Conte admits that he will always face speculation about his tenure as manager while he is employed at Chelsea, but dismissed it as “no problem for me.”

There is a general acceptance that Conte will part ways with Chelsea at the end of the season given the tough times the club has seen this campaign. The Blues are hanging on to a Champions League place by a thread, and struggled through a January that included just two wins across all competitions in six matches.

“I’ve said it very clearly: I’ve got a contract until 2019 and I intend to respect this, but you know anything can happen in football,” Conte told Italian publication Mediaset. “It takes two to be happy and continue a marriage. Our work is unique because we’ve always got our suitcase in our hands.”

Conte did issue somewhat of a warning to Chelsea, however, that if he were to be fired, it could come back to haunt the club, as he would have no shortage of offers. “My intention is to respect my contract, but if something were to happen, it would open up different scenarios.” Big clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid could have job openings this summer if their lofty goals aren’t met, and those places would be attractive destinations for Conte, who won the Premier League title with Chelsea just last year.

“It’s a bit the history of Chelsea and inevitable when, in the past, in 14 years, 10 coaches have been changed,” he said. “Clearly when there is this habit, let’s say, the press play on it and as soon as there is a result or two which don’t go your way, they try to put the pressure on.

“But it’s no problem for me. I hope that this pressure doesn’t harm the players, not me, because I go looking for pressure.”