Confederations Cup preview: Spain, Italy, and Brazil all on display in high-powered World Cup warmup

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With the competitive World Cup tuneup starting this weekend, it’s time to take a look at who will be participating, where they came from, and how they may fare ahead of the Big One in Brazil next year.

The competition takes place every four years and features all the winners of each regional championship, plus the previous World Cup winners and the next World Cup’s host nation.

That makes eight total teams participating.  The teams are split into two groups of four, with the top two in each group advancing to the knockout semifinals and finals.

It takes place the year before the World Cup every year, and is hosted by the next World Cup host nation, thus it will be in Brazil.

The competition will feature goal-line technology this time around, provided by GoalControl GmbH, and it represents a major step in competitive soccer.  The technology was first used competitively by FIFA in the Club World Cup in 2012, and if this go-around is successful it will be used in next year’s World Cup.

The games in the Confederations Cup will be played out over six different cities in Brazil, with the finals at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.

GROUP A:

Brazil:

The Brazilians are in the competition as the host nation for next year’s World Cup, and have taken this tournament extremely seriously.  With the host nation not needing to participate in their usual CONMEBOL qualification, they’ve spent plenty of time preparing for the Cup.  In fact, the Brazilian Football Confederation forced both Dante and Luiz Gustavo to leave Bayern Munich early for preparation, meaning they missed the final of the German League Cup and the chance to complete the treble with their club.

Neymar will be on full display, having recently made a move to Barcelona amid plenty of fanfare.  At just 21 years old, the youngster has 20 goals in 34 international appearances, but has failed to come through under the brightest lights for his country thus far.

Leandro Damiao is the only real injury issue for manager Felipe Scolari, as a thigh injury will keep him out of the competition.  He was replaced on the 23-man roster by fellow striker Jo of Atletico Miniero.

Expectations and pressure will both be at all-time highs, similar to the way it will be a year from now, and anything but victory will be seen as a failure for the hosts.

Mexico:

Mexico are into the competition having won the Gold Cup back in 2011.  Having failed miserably to get points in the most recent rounds of CONCACAF qualifying and sitting in a much more perilous position than they had hoped to be in at this stage, Mexico’s take on this tournament will be an interesting one.  There are many different routes they can travel in the Confederations Cup.  With both Brazil and Italy in their group, it will take a full effort to make it out of the group stage.

Manager Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre has got to figure out a way this team can score goals outside of Javier Hernandez.  With “Chicharito” struggling to carry the weight of the entire team on his back, the squad has gone three straight home qualifiers without scoring a goal.  By the end of their most recent 0-0 draw with Costa Rica, the crowd was calling for Chepo’s firing. If not for the fantastic form of goalkeeper Jose Corona, he may have already been without a job.

Up against another out-of-form team in Italy in the opening round, it will be interesting to see whether the Mexicans take this competition seriously and try to get back on form by throwing everything they have at top teams, or if the experimentation will begin as their manager possibly tinkers with his lineup.

Italy:

Italy qualifies for the Cup having finished second in Euro 2012.  Spain won the competition, but because they already qualified for the Confederations Cup as the World Cup winners, Italy are awarded the Euro spot.  The Azzuri are coming off two disappointing draws, although neither had any real impact on their chances to qualify for Brazil next year, and neither in the end meant a whole lot.

A draw with the Czech Republic in World Cup qualifying last week saw them fail to score but also retain their stranglehold on their group’s top spot.  They also drew with Haiti in a friendly, but manager Cesare Prandelli was tinkering with different formations and just about every star player at least began the match on the bench.

It will be interesting to see how Mario Balotelli recovers from another chapter in his tumultous career against the Czech Republic, where he received 2 yellow cards in 4 minutes.  He exploded on Twitter after the match, angrily rebuking critical fans by telling them anyone who doesn’t support him can root for another team at the Confederations Cup.  It will be quite interesting to see how Balotelli is received in Brazil.  The 22-year-old does have a goal against Brazil in a friendly back in 2011.

Japan:

The 2011 Asian Cup winners are an intriguing side.  Stuck in a pretty tough group and not expected to do much, the Japanese are certainly capable of putting together a surprise performance or two.

Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda out of CSKA Moscow are the two stars of the bunch, but both are distributors and neither are pure finishers. Striker is actually a position of real concern for the Blue Samurai, although Dutch-Japanese striker Mike Havenaar has emerged as a somewhat viable option up front recently.

Don’t expect Alberto Zaccheroni’s bunch to make a whole lot of noise, but their tournament-opener against Brazil will be a good litmus test to see if they can be competitive with the top of the heap.

GROUP B:

Spain:

The reigning World Cup and European champions are by far the favorites to win the competition.  It helps they were put in a group that offers little challenge, and they will be a shoo-in to make the semifinals.

It’s been 21 matches and 2-1/2 years since Spain has been beaten in any competition, a loss to England back in 2011.

Despite losing Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso to a groin injury, no worries for manager Vicente Del Bosque.  The squad ranked #1 in the world will replace him in the starting lineup with either Javi Martinez of Bayern Munich or Santi Cazorla out of Arsenal.  Quite a replacement selection I’d say.  Javi Garcia, having just moved to Manchester City, will also miss out on the tournament.

The only real question for Spain is how exactly Fernando Torres will be used, if at all.  The Chelsea frontman has seen an uptick in club form, but whether that will play into Del Bosque’s decisions remains to be seen. Don’t expect anything other than at least a finals appearance and possibly another piece of silverware for the current dominating power in international soccer.

Uruguay:

If you thought the tournament would be full with one fiery striker in Mario Balotelli, you’d be mistaken.  Luis Suarez puts his troubled times at Liverpool in the past temporarily to try and lead Uruguay to the semifinals.

As the winners of the 2011 Copa America, Uruguay get started against Spain in their first match, a tough test.  Manager Oscar Tabarez also has Diego Forlan of Brazil’s Internacional and highly-coveted Edinson Cavani of Napoli at his disposal in the high-powered side.

Tabarez is known to tweak and tinker often, and he will no doubt do his best to try and outwit the Spaniards in Group B’s first and best matchup.

Tahiti:

Ah, Tahiti.  Stuck at 5000/1 odds to win the tournament by betting website William Hill, the tiny Oceanic country and winners of the 2012 OFC Nations Cup are simply looking to get any points they can get their hands on.  It won’t be easy, if even possible.

With a population around 180,000 people, they are the only country making their first Confederations Cup appearance. It’s the first time anyone other than Australia or New Zealand have won the OFC Nations Cup and made it to the Confederations Cup, mainly because Australia moved from the Oceana region to Asia.

Managed by Eddy Etaeta, it will be the feel-good team for all of those not already decided on who to root for, but if they get any points at all in their group, it will come as a shock to all.  But hey, that’s what stories are made of.

Nigeria:

Qualifying through their victory in the 2013 African Cup of Nations, the Super Eagles are back in the Confederations Cup for the first time since 1995.

Nigeria are the wild card of Group B.  Spain and Uruguay are expected to go through, and Tahiti will most likely end up with a goose egg, but Nigeria will hope to challenge the Uruguayans for the second semifinal spot.  Those hopes were dealt a serious blow when Chelsea’s Victor Moses pulled out due to an undisclosed injury.  They will instead have to rely on midfielders John Obi Mikel and Sunday Mbia to lead the squad.

The African nation drew 2-2 with Mexico in a friendly at the end of May, so that provides them with a good barometer on where they stand against the other Confederations Cup countries. With the Spain/Uruguay matches obviously the top matchup in the group, Nigeria’s matches against those two teams will be intriguing, and their match against Uruguay in the second round of play could be a major decider.

SCHEDULE:

Group play will begin this Saturday with Brazil and Japan opening the competition.  Sunday features Round 1 matchups between Mexico and Italy as well as Spain and Uruguay, both incredibly enticing matches.

Round 2 games begin next Wednesday, June 19.  The most intriguing game in that round will be the Nigeria/Uruguay match I mentioned a bit earlier that could decide the second spot in Group B.

The final group round will start Saturday, June 22 and will see the high-powered matchup of Italy vs. Brazil, as well as Japan vs. Mexico that could mean a spot out of Group A if Italy falter.

The semifinals will play Tuesday and Wednesday, June 26 and 27.  The knockout games will absolutely mean marquee matchups.  If things fall as expected, we could be handed Spain vs. Italy and Brazil vs. Uruguay in the semifinals, both fantastic games.

The finals and third-place match will be on June 30.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

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

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.