Daniel Alves, David Luiz, Paulinho, Neymar,  Hulk

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.

Vertonghen to miss 2 months with ankle ligament damage

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 14: Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham Hotspur receives treatment from the medical team during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion at White Hart Lane on January 14, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Jan Vertronghen is expected to miss at least two months while recovering from ankle ligament damage, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time, with Tottenham Hotspur currently second in the Premier League, seven points back of leaders Chelsea.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Vertonghen suffered the injury in the 65th minute of Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion, when he went full-stretch to clear the ball along the sideline before landing on the outside of his left foot, causing the ankle to roll violently. The 29-year-old Belgian international was in clear, visible agony as he sat on the field at White Hart Lane and eventually limped down the tunnel.

The Guardian described the injury as “a tear lying between grades two and three, damage which had left Vertonghen in tears as he departed the turf at White Hart Lane and would normally rule him out at the very least until mid-March.”

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings — Tight at the top… and bottom ]

In the meantime, Kevin Wimmer and Ben Davies will be tasked with filling the void for a Tottenham side which has conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season (14 in 21 games). (As a small aside, 19-year-old American center back Cameron Carter-Vickers is likely set for a handful of appearances as well, perhaps in the Europa League round of 32 and FA Cup fourth round, with Wimmer and Davies called upon for additional PL service.)

Wimmer filled in for Vertonghen for nearly three months last season, at the exact same point of the campaign (Jan. 20 through April 2). In Wimmer’s 10 PL starts during that stretch (Vertonghen out with knee ligament damage), Spurs conceded seven goals (seven wins and two draws). The loss of Toby Aldeweireld, for nearly two months back in October of this season, proved a far greater blow (two wins in six PL games), and Spurs should once again manage just fine for as long as Aldeweireld remains healthy alongside Eric Dier, Wimmer and Davies.

MLS SuperDraft Rounds 3 & 4: Thierjung to SJ, all picks

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Major League Soccer put the finishing touches on its four round SuperDraft of (mostly) college player with the third and fourth rounds on Tuesday.

[ MORE: First and second round wrap ]

Here’s how they played out:

  1. Colorado Rapids – Jaime Saij, Pfeiffer
  2. Atlanta United – Andrew Wheeler-Ominu, Harvard
  3. Chicago Fire – Brandt Bronico, Charlotte
  4. Real Salt Lake – Andrew Putna, Illinois-Chicago
  5. Columbus Crew SC – Connor Maloney, Penn State
  6. San Jose Earthquakes – Christian Thierjung, California
  7. Vancouver Whitecaps – Jorge Gomez Sanchez, Temple
  8. Toronto FC – Robert Moewes, GK, Duke
  9. FC Dallas – Austin Ledbetter, SIU-Edwardsville
  10. New York City FC – Chris Wingate, New York City FC
  11. Philadelphia Union – Chris Nanco, Syracuse
  12. Seattle Sounders – Doug Goodman, Georgetown
  13. Real Salt Lake – Pass
  14. Sporting KC – David Graczek, Rutgers
  15. FC Dallas – Dakota Barnathan, VCU
  16. New York City FC – Michael DeGraffenriedt, Louisville
  17. New York Red Bulls – Jordan Scarlett, Iona
  18. FC Dallas – Wulito Fernandes, Mass-Lowell
  19. Montreal Impact – Pass
  20. Orlando City SC – Danny Deakin, South Carolina
  21. Toronto FC – Oyvind Alseth, Syracuse
  22. Seattle Sounders – Jake Stovall, Wright State

[ ARCHIVE: All of PST’s Power Rankings ]

Round 4

  1. Minnesota United – Tanner Thompson, Indiana
  2. Atlanta United – Alex Kapp, Creighton
  3. Chicago Fire – Matej Dekovic, Charlotte
  4. Houston Dynamo – Robby Sagel, Penn State
  5. Columbus Crew SC – Logan Ketterer, GK, Bradley
  6. San Jose Earthquakes – Auden Schileder, GK, Washington
  7. Vancouver Whitecaps – Nazeem Bartman, USF
  8. Real Salt Lake – Pass
  9. New England Revolution – Joshua Smith, San Francisco
  10. Portland Timbers – Russell Cicerone, Buffalo
  11. Philadelphia Union – Jack Elliott, West Virginia
  12. DC United – Pass
  13. Real Salt Lake – Pass
  14. Portland Timbers – Romilio Hernandez, Louisville
  15. LA Galaxy – Pass
  16. Philadelphia Union  – Santi Moar, Pfeiffer
  17. Toronto FC – Lars Eckenrode, Michigan
  18. FC Dallas – Marco Carrizales, Furman
  19. Montreal Impact – Pass
  20. Colorado Rapids – Peguy Ngatcha, Wright State
  21. Toronto FC – Juan Pablo Saavedra, Virginia Tech
  22. Seattle Sounders – Kyle Bjornethun, Seattle

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FOLLOW LIVE: Three PL sides face FA Cup replays

Burnley's Andre Gray, right, and Sunderland's Lamine Kone battle for the ball as Burnley's mascot Bertie Bee looks on during their English Premier League match at Turf Moor, Burnley England Saturday Dec. 31, 2016. (Richard Sellers/PA via AP)
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Five Premier League sides face FA Cup third-round replays this week, with three of them in action on Tuesday.

Most in-focus will be Sunderland’s visit to Burnley. Usually a match like this would be considered an unnecessary obstacle, but the Black Cats need to find some semblance of form.

If David Moyes‘ group could nab a win, just their second in 10 outings, maybe they could drag those good vibes into the Hawthorns for a weekend PL match against West Brom.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: FA Cup third round replays ]

Burnley has surged into the top half of the Premier League table, 10 points above the drop, and can consider the idea of a Cup run.

The other PL match sees Sam Allardyce and Crystal Palace hosting Bolton.

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

Full FA Cup third-round replay schedule

Burnley vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET
AFC Wimbledon vs. Sutton United — 2:45 p.m. ET
Barnsley vs. Blackpool — 2:45 p.m. ET
Fleetwood Town vs. Bristol City — 2:45 p.m. ET
Crystal Palace vs. Bolton — 3 p.m. ET
Lincoln City vs. Ipswich Town — 3:05 p.m. ET

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Premier League Power Rankings: Tight at the top… and bottom

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 01:  Diego Costa of Chelsea pulls on the shirt of Harry Kane of Spurs during the Capital One Cup Final match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium on March 1, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Chelsea’s 7-point lead atop the Premier League table still feels relatively safe, even if Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United continue their table-surging form.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

That makes a set of Power Rankings, designed to combine table situation with form, even tighter, and Spurs have really made life difficult for our rankers.

[ ARCHIVE: All of PST’s Power Rankings ]

The bottom of the table is even closer, with four teams within a single point of the final spot of safety in the Premier League.

Here are this week’s rankings.

TEAM RANKING
source: 20 (19) Sunderland: “Hello darkness, my old friend.
I’ve come to talk with you again.”
source: 19 (18) Crystal Palace: Big Sam Allardyce has famously “never been relegated”, but at this point it looks like he may go down with a better squad than he’s had at a lot of other stops. We’ll see.
source: 18 (17) Swansea City: Reinforcements are coming, but the back line is still wobbly.
Hull City logo 17 (20) Hull City: Tigers looking a lot better under Marco Silva, even in a 2-0 EFL Cup semi loss to Manchester United.
source: 16 (15) Watford: The Hornets have not won a league game since Dec. 10, its only PL win since mid-November.
200px-Middlesbrough_crest 15 (16) Middlesbrough: Aitor Karanka‘s side looks like a group that can beat the drop, but Boro needs to turn a draw into a win at some point soon.
source: 14 (11) Southampton: Claude Puel‘s unit is struggling, losers of four-straight in Premier League play. Saints are, however, a result away from the EFL Cup final.
Leicester City logo 13 (14) Leicester City: The Foxes’ 3-0 loss to Chelsea feels worse than it is, as Leicester has looked better in recent weeks.
source: 12 (9) Bournemouth: The 3-0 lead against Arsenal turned into a draw, and the Cherries backed it up with a 3-1 loss to Hull City. Down they go.
source: 11 (10) West Ham United: The Dimitri Payet saga keeps the Irons from rising even higher in the Power Rankings. Michail Antonio is fantastic.
source: 10 (12) Stoke City: The Potters haven’t made the leap to a top-end club, but continue to win most games they should.
source: 9 (8) West Bromwich Albion: No shame in getting crushed by red-hot Spurs, though it may serve as a reality check for Tony Pulis and Co.
burnley fc crest 8 (13) Burnley: Three wins in four, with the outlier being a close loss to Man City. Enjoy the high life, Clarets!
Logo_Manchester_City 7 (6) Manchester City: The mighty have indeed fallen, and how bad might it look after another match against Spurs?
Source: Everton FC 6 (7) Everton: That win over Man City is going to linger for a while, and don’t forget the Toffees took care of Arsenal not too long ago. Six with a bullet?
source: 5 (4) Arsenal: It remains hard to get a read on the Gunners, who are still aching for a statement win since back-to-back losses against Man City and Everton.
source: 4 (3) Liverpool: The EFL Cup setback doesn’t push them in our rankings, but the Reds were second-best — not by a ton — to United on Sunday. That’s enough for a flip-flop.
source: 3 (4) Manchester United: The better team in the draw against Liverpool.
source: 2 (2) Tottenham Hotspur: Took everything in our power not to boost them, but a 7-point gap is a lot. Beat Man City this week and we’ll revisit the issue.
source: 1 (1) Chelsea: Costa situation is a problem, but you wouldn’t know it from the steadied ship that ushered hosts Leicester to a 3-0 defeat.

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