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.

2-time defending champions Sevilla back in Europa League final behind Gameiro brace

SEVILLE, SPAIN - MAY 05:  Kevin Gameiro of Sevilla FC celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA Europa League Semi Final second leg match between Sevilla and Shakhtar Donetsk at Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan on May 05, 2016 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Sevilla is getting pretty good at this European competition thing.

The two-time defending Europa League champions are back in the finals after topping Ukranian giants Shakhtar Donetsk 3-1 in Seville thanks to a pair from Kevin Gameiro plus an insurance goal from Mariano.

With the aggregate even at 2-2 coming into the second leg, Gameiro got things started in the ninth minute all by himself when he pilfered the ball off Maksim Malyshev in the attacking half and stuck it home into the far post. Shakhtar hit back just before halftime when former Arsenal striker Eduardo finished off a wonderful through ball by Marlos that split the Sevilla defense, tying things at 1-1 and the aggregate at 3-3.

[ MORE: Liverpool into Europa League final after running Villarreal ragged ]

But with Shakhtar still trailing on away goals, Sevilla put things away straight after the break when Gameiro again proved vital. The 28-year-old Frenchman took a feed from Grzegorz Krychowiak and finished from a very tight angle. Mariano left no doubt when he struck a stunning curler that bent inside the left post and put Sevilla 3-1 up.

Sevilla has not failed in European play since they dropped out of the Europa League qualification round to Hannover 3-2 on aggregate in August 2011. They won the title in 2014 on penalties after drawing 0-0 with Benfica in Turin, and they took down Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk 3-2 in last year’s final from Warsaw.

Liverpool 3-0 Villarreal: Sturridge sends Liverpool to Europa League final

LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 05:  Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool celebrates as Bruno of Villarreal scores an own goal for their first goal during the UEFA Europa League semi final second leg match between Liverpool and Villarreal CF at Anfield on May 5, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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For Liverpool in Europe, there’s just no place like home.

Back to Anfield down 1-0 to Villarreal in the Europa League semifinals, they turned the matchup on its head with a 2-0 win that sent the Reds to the finals in Switzerland. It’s their fifth straight win at home in European play, and the club is undefeated at Anfield in Europe since October of 2014.

The hosts were on the front foot from wire to wire, and who else but Daniel Sturridge provided the winner, a 63rd minute strike on a wonderful link-up with Roberto Firmino. Adam Lallana put the game away with 10 minutes to go, sending the Reds through.

Both sides looked as if they came to play, but Liverpool appeared the most dangerous, and they were rewarded just seven minutes in. A cross from Nathaniel Clyne was tipped by Villareal goalkeeper Alphonse Arreola and fell straight to Roberto Firmino on the far side. He popped back across the face of goal, and while Sturridge inexplicably whiffed with his sliding chance from point-blank range, his effort put off defender Bruno just behind him, and the ball skipped in off the defender’s hip for an own-goal.

[ RELATED: Two-time defending champions Sevilla book spot in Europa League final ]

The visitors appeared rattled by the opening goal, and with Liverpool pressing they nearly doubled the lead five minutes later. The ball finally cleared by Villareal, a wonderful tackle by Dejan Lovren prevented a counter and sent it back at them. James Milner threaded Adam Lallana through past the back line, but the England international put his off-balance effort just wide of the far post.

[ MORE: Liverpool program features Hillsborough tribute ]

Things got chippy past the half-hour mark, with the atmosphere tense. Roberto Soldado went down dramatically after Clyne brushed the back of his head which earned Clyne a caution. Denis Suarez was also lucky to not earn himself a card as well for a few hard challenges.

Following the halftime break, Liverpool came back out on top, with James Milner getting a big chance five minutes in, only to have his shot blocked straight to Areola.

As the Reds continued to push forward, they went two up and into the ascendency in the two-legged tie. A cross by Lallana deflected up front to Firmino, and he expertly unlocked the Villarreal defense sending Sturridge through, and the frontman slotted it home.

It would get worse for Villarreal as Ruiz earned his second yellow with 19 minutes to go as he felled Lallana on the edge of the box, picking up his second yellow and earning an early exit. Liverpool would capitalize, with Firmino cutting back to Sturridge in the box. The striker put a weak effort on net, but it bobbled to Lallana who spun and poked home with the outside of his foot to go 3-0 up and secure the result. Jurgen Klopp brought on Joe Allen for the final 10 minutes, and the hosts locked things down.

The Reds will take on defending champions Sevilla in the Europa League final on May 18 after the Spanish club took down Ukranian giants Shakhtar Donetsk 5-3 on aggregate.

Success, then sustainability. How Leicester City can keep it rolling next season

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 03:  Leicester reacts to Leicester City's Premier League Title Success on May 03, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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It’s well known by now that Leicester City beat 5000-1 odds to win the Premier League. Now that they’ve crested the mountain, staying there is a whole new challenge, one that will present even greater odds.

When Blackburn won the Premier League in the 1994/95 season, they were unable to bottle that season’s success, finding themselves in a tailspin that saw their manager resign by October of 1996, and the club was relegated in spring of 1997. Just by that case study alone, it’s clear that for a small club that finds untold riches, the prospect of saving for the future is one that can easily escape among the chaos of success.

If winning the Premier League is climbing Mt. Everest, then maintaining that success is traveling to Mars.

That being said, Leicester could not have picked a better time to catch lightning in a bottle. With the influx of money at an all-time high, the player pool deeper than ever, and other English clubs in a state of transition, now is the time to pounce on the foundation they’ve built.

So how should the Foxes ensure the club returns to glory? Here are a few general rules for Claudio Ranieri and the rest of the Leicester City management to follow.

Forget about winning the title again

Having beat the odds, shocked the world, and captured the crown, everyone from the players to the staff will be hungry for more. It’s human nature. The key is to fight that. For the club to be successful, they cannot go into next season with a goal of winning the Premier League. There’s nowhere to go but down.

[ RELATED: Will Leicester City keep their stars? ]

The key is to keep expectations in check. There will be many more distractions, many more theaters of war to battle, and many more fronts to cover. Should the team specifically gun for another title run, it may hinder the long-term goals. The saying goes “shoot for the moon; if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply here. Could it happen again? Who’s to say no after this year’s magical run? But that wasn’t their goal this season, and they’ll need to resist the lust for blood in the upcoming campaign.

Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha has plenty of work in front of him this summer. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha has plenty of work in front of him this summer. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Don’t overspend

Money will be flying every which way this offseason. With every Premier League club earning a massive cut of the new television deals, there are sure to be much-inflated prices for lots of players. A sports marketing and data firm estimates this title run could be worth a massive $220 million to the club. Leicester’s own players will surely be tempted by heavy contracts and monstrous transfer deals.

What the club must avoid is overspending on one or two players. The staff must evaluate every player they scout, place a value on their head, and stick to that evaluation. Queens Park Rangers learned the hard way how overspending for players they wanted, and it cost them dearly when they could not stay in the Premier League. It’s hard to resist the temptation to plunk down big bucks for a flashy name, but it will only turn out poorly.

Build depth and anticipate injuries

The Foxes enjoyed untold luck this season on the injury front. None of their core group of players were injured for any significant length of time, and the club used the fewest players of any Premier League team this campaign. That is an anomaly. Next year, the club will need to significantly improve its depth, especially with Champions League play added to the Premier League, FA Cup, and League Cup competitions. European play has doomed many other smaller clubs looking to bigger pastures, so this is a must.

[ MORE: Claudio Ranieri’s best quotes and moments of the season ]

Unfortunately, depth is one of the most difficult things to achieve in sports. Players naturally want to play, and therefore luring talented players to sit on the bench and be an insurance policy is nearly impossible. This will be a puzzle that Ranieri must solve if Leicester is to navigate four separate competitions next season.

Crucial players such as Wes Morgan, Robert Huth, Riyad Mahrez, and others all maintained a pristine bill of health throughout the season (Photo: Getty Images)
Crucial players such as Wes Morgan, Christian Fuchs, Riyad Mahrez, and others all maintained a pristine bill of health throughout the season (Photo: Getty Images)

Develop a transfer plan

A number of Leicester players saw their value skyrocket this season. The likes of N'Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, and Danny Drinkwater will be highly coveted players in the transfer window. In addition, there will be plenty of high-profile players on other teams who will be available and could be lured by money and Champions League play.

[ MORE: Game-by-game look at Leicester City’s magical season ]

It’s easy for fans and media to aimlessly shout “hold onto your players!” but we aren’t the ones with $30 million waved in our faces. It’s just as easy for those same sheeple to toss transfer targets out ad nauseam – hunker down, because it’s happening. The key for Leicester management will be to meet, develop a transfer plan, and stick to it. Some players may go, their price too valuable to turn down. Others will join, as the decision-makers determine what they need and where to fill those needs. Should they blindly follow the mad shoutings of the silly season, things will go downhill quickly.

Maintain their identity

Above all, the club must not lose focus on what makes it Leicester City. This is a vague and difficult notion to conceive, but nonetheless an absolutely vital one. The quickest way for a club – successful or not – to lose its supporter base is to deviate from what makes those supporters love the club. It’s hard to say exactly what that is, and only Leicester City supporters can truly identify what magnetizes them to the badge. It is management’s job to identify what makes the Foxes the Foxes, and do everything in its power not to stray from that feeling.

This is an important concept for every club from the first tier to the seventh, but it’s worth pointing out in this case particularly because newfound success can intoxicate those in power, leaving them vulnerable to violating this code. It is of the utmost importance that Leicester City stays grounded, and keeps true to who they really are as a club.

Liverpool game program for Europa League match features Hillsborough tribute

LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 05:  Programmes for sale prior to the UEFA Europa League semi final second leg match between Liverpool and Villarreal CF at Anfield on May 5, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Ahead of today’s game against Villarreal in the Europa League semifinals, the Reds have paid a wonderful tribute to the 96 who passed away in the Hillsborough tragedy.

On the heels of last Tuesday’s verdict that cleared the crowd of any wrongdoing in the disaster, the game program for Thursday’s match featured the Anfield crowd visible through a giant “96” on the front. On the back, a list of the 96 who lost their lives stands alone, along with the ages of the fans when on that day, with a “96” flanked by the torches from the Liverpool crest.

The jury’s verdict found in a 7-2 majority that the 96 who died in the crush were “unlawfully killed” due to “gross negligence” on the part of David Duckenfield and the rest of his security staff. It also stated that “fan behavior did not contribute to the tragedy.”

Jurgen Klopp was also featured in the program, urging his team and the fans on with the quote, “Tonight we are at our home, we are back at Anfield. this is our place and it is a place where special moments happen.”