Daniel Alves, David Luiz, Paulinho, Neymar,  Hulk

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

2 Comments

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.

Ronaldo after Champions League win: “Our team showed more experience”

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid takes off his shirt in celebration after scoring the winning penalty in the penalty shoot out during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The world was treated to the rare sight of a shirtless Cristiano Ronaldo as he celebrated the clinching penalty in a win over Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League final in Milan on Saturday.

Jokes aside, one of the greatest players of his generation did get a moment to remember despite having a rather forgettable 120 minutes beforehand. Ronaldo buried the final penalty to give Real a 5-4 win in kicks after a 1-1 score line post-regulation.

[ MORE: Match recap | Bale reacts to second title ]

He almost sounded apologetic after the match, one that saw Real struggle to assert itself after a strong 45 minutes.

From the BBC:

“The penalties are always a lottery, you never know what will happen but our team showed more experience and we showed it by scoring all the penalties. A fantastic night for us.

“It is the end of the season and people are not fit, we have to rest and we have to go for the Euros.”

Thrilling.

Then again, when you’re a superstar and have a trio of UCL crowns, you can feel however you like. Ronaldo’s never been a man for John Wooden-style quotes — heck, we’d even take David Beckham’s personality from him — but he’s won it all thrice.

And to be fair, the other two were better games (and performances from him). Ronaldo scored for Manchester United against Chelsea and capped off the scoring in the 2014 Real win over Atleti.

Gareth Bale after winning second UCL title with Real: “We deserve it”

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28: Gareth Bale of Real Madrid in action  during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Leave a comment

It took 120 minutes and penalty kicks, but Real Madrid outlasted Atletico Madrid for the second time in three seasons to win its 11th UEFA Champions League final on Saturday in Milan.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

Welsh star Gareth Bale made his spot kick before Cristiano Ronaldo took advantage of Juanfran hitting the post on his attempt, and Real won 1-1 (5-4) on the night.

Bale was thrilled.

From the Fox Sports broadcast:

“What an amazing feeling. In extra time a lot of people became cramped but we showed resilience, what we’re made of and we won the 11th.

“They gave it a great game. We feel a little bit sorry for them but you have to win a final.”

Afterwards, Bale said Wales would try to win the Euro 2016 because, “Why not?”

Why not, Gareth? Why not?

Ronaldo scores clincher as Real Madrid wins the UEFA Champions League in penalty kicks

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid reacts during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Leave a comment
  • Real snares 11th European Cup
  • Second in three years
  • Ramos nabs controversial early goal

Cristiano Ronaldo scored the match-clinching penalty kick after 120 minutes couldn’t separate Real and Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League final on Saturday in Milan.

Sergio Ramos scored an early goal before Yannick Carrasco equalized late, and it took penalty kicks to separate Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Antoine Griezmann missed a penalty kick early in the second half, and Juanfran was the only player to miss in kicks.

Here’s how kicks played out:

Real Madrid — Lucas Vasquez scores
Atletico Madrid — Griezmann scores
RM — Marcelo scores
AM — Gabi scores
RM — Gareth Bale scores
AM — Saul scores
RM — Ramos scores
AM — Juanfran hits the post
RM — Ronaldo scores

[ WATCH: Griezmann misses PK | Carrasco equalizes, makes out ]

Chippy was the name of the game early, and Atleti clearly wanted to do whatever it took to perturb and even wound Real.

Jan Oblak made a fantastic instinctive save on a sixth minute free kick from Gareth Bale that Casemiro redirected on frame.

Real’s Dani Carvajal picked up an 11th minute yellow card for a late slide tackle on Antoine Griezmann.

The opener came in the 15th minute, as Gareth Bale flicked Toni Kroos’ header onto the doorstep and Ramos ever-so-slightly redirected the chance across the line. He may have also been offside, but the goal counts.

[ MORE: Tottenham to play CL matches at Wembley next season ]

The 33rd minute found Griezmann trying his luck on goal, as Keylor Navas caught the ball for his first real save of the day. Griezmann was firing at will, though the majority of his chances were off frame.

It stayed 1-0 into the break, but changed soon afterwards.

Combustible defender Pepe stamped on Fernando Torres’ ankle in the box, but Griezmann cranked the ensuing penalty attempt off the cross bar.

[ MORE: Lewandowski headed to Real? ]

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28: Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
(Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Savic just missed being the toe to Diego Godin and Griezmann’s tic-tac when his left-footed tap went wide of the frame in the 55th minute.

Saul knifed a shot wide from the center of the box with a fantastic athletic shot, as Atleti kept control of the play but not the scoreboard.

Real countered with a rare chance in the 70th minute, but Oblak stopped an onrushing Benzema point blank to keep the deficit 1-0.

Cristiano Ronaldo was fairly anonymous for most of the match, and saw Oblak stop his first real shot in the 78th minute. Gareth Bale then tried a cheeky finish that failed when perhaps an easy shot would’ve done the trick. Would it haunt them?

Sure enough, Atleti dialed up an equalized moments later when Carrasco slid onto the end of Juanfran’s cross to make it 1-1 in the 80th.

[ MORE: Latest on Messi injury ]

We headed to extra time, where an advantage was distinctly in Atletico Madrid’s hands. Diego Simeone had used just one substitution to Real’s three, as Zinedine Zidane exhausted his options in trying to close out his rivals.

The first 15 minutes saw Atleti have some success working down the right side, but Real had the better of the dangerous chances aside from Griezmann flashing an overhead kick high off a corner, the last act of the frame.

The second segment was just as Real-framed, and several chances fell to a trigger shy Lucas. Aside from more silliness from Pepe, the only conclusion was penalty kicks.

WATCH: Carrasco levels Champions League final, finds partner for long kiss

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  Yannick Carrasco of Atletico Madrid celebrates afte scorig the equalizing goal during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Milan on a starry night sounds romantic. Add in a massive match-tying goal, and it was all too much for Yannick Carrasco.

The 22-year-old Belgian attacker got on the end of Juanfran‘s cross and beat Keylor Navas at the near post.

[ MORE: Griezmann’s PK miss ]

In celebration, Carrasco raced toward a pitch side suite and into the arms and lips of what we presume is his partner for a gift that must count as much as a few dozen roses (but probably smelled much worse).