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.

Lionel Messi picks up hamstring injury, will travel with Argentina anyways

BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 20: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Betis Balompie at Camp Nou on August 20, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi’s “return” to the Argentinian national team may have to wait.

Barcelona has revealed their superstar picked up a left hamstring injury at an unspecified time, and discovered them during tests earlier on Monday. The statement said he would still travel to Argentina to link up with the national team for the international break, and will have more tests there.

Argentina, sitting in the third spot in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying and just two points above elimination, have vital matches against Uruguay and Venezuela over the next week. “His presence in those matches will depend on how the injury develops,” the statement from Barcelona read.

It is unclear when Messi developed this injury. He has played the full 90 minutes in all four of Barcelona’s matches this season, including the 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, the first of the four matches in which he did not score or assist a goal.

This also could be a bit of gamesmanship from Barcelona. Obviously, it benefits clubs for their players to rest during international breaks instead of play international matches, and for them to suddenly announce an injury to Lionel Messi would put pressure on Argentina to consider sitting their superstar. Of course, in attempts to dispel this idea, Barcelona included in their statement that the injury report was “approved by the FC Barcelona Medical Services and the Argentinian Football Association.”

A legitimate injury to Messi would be a devastating blow to Argentina considering Sergio Aguero has already withdrawn from the squad following an injury picked up against West Ham this weekend. Aguero was substituted in the 88th minute of Manchester City’s 3-1 win over the Hammers.

Messi was expected to make his first appearance to the national team setup after his brief “retirement” following the loss in the Copa America finals.

VIDEO: What will Southampton’s new star Boufal provide?

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Sofiane Boufal is a name many will be familiar with.

After his $21 million move to Southampton on Monday for a club-record fee, plenty of people are getting excited about seeing Boufal in the Premier League.

The Moroccan international is the type of player who has already become a cult figure due to the “Football Manager” video game, as his potential to become a star of European soccer has been well documented with huge teams interested in signing him over the past six months.

[ MORE: Fabregas wants Chelsea stay ]

That’s because Boufal, 22, shone for Lille last season, scoring 12 goals and his trickery, pace, set pieces and direct running saw him named as the best African player in Ligue 1.

He chose Southampton and it seems like a very wise choice after they helped turn the likes of Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw, plus many more, into top international players.

So, what have Southampton got in Boufal?

Take a look at the video above which gives a great overview of Boufal from his time at Lille after making the step up from Angers in Ligue 2 in January 2015.

That’s right, those comparisons with Riyad Mahrez seem pretty legit.

Late show? Chelsea linked with transfer deals for James Rodriguez, Alonso

Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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Chelsea may be set to do some late business in the summer transfer window.

According to Marca in Spain they will sign Fiorentina defender Marcos Alonso for $27 million.

[ MORE: Boufal signs for Saints ]

Alonso, 25, previously played for Bolton and Sunderland in the Premier League but the Real Madrid product moved to Serie A in 2013 and has flourished for Fiorentina. He is able to operate as a left back and in midfield and could provide Antonio Conte with another option in defense so he can switch Cesar Azpilicueta to right back and potentially Branislav Ivanovic to center back.

Another player who could be on his way to Chelsea is Real Madrid’s forward is James Rodriguez. This is one we’ve heard before, many times.

The Colombian national team captain, 25, was subject of a $80 million bid from Chelsea but according to the Daily Mirror the bid was turned down by Real Madrid.

[ MORE: McCourt to buy Marseille ]

James has found himself a bit-part player at the Santiago Bernabeu with Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema around. However he has a huge release clause in his contract and Chelsea would have to pay close to $100 million for his services. Is he really worth that? When you have Oscar, Pedro, Willian, Eden Hazard, Victor Moses and others already in your squad, probably not.

In terms of outgoings at Stamford Bridge, Kurt Zouma has been linked with a move to Schalke in the Bundesliga as the French central defender continues his long comeback from a horrendous knee injury he suffered against Manchester United in February last season. Zouma, 21, is said to be close to joining Schalke on a season-long loan deal wit a view to a permanent move.

Nacer Chadli signs for West Brom

COLCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 30:  Nacer Chadli of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his team's third goal during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round match between Colchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Weston Homes Community Stadium on January 30, 2016 in Colchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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West Bromwich Albion have signed Nacer Chadli from Tottenham Hotspur in a deal said to be worth $17 million.

[ MORE: Boufal signs for Saints ]

Chadli, 27, has spent the past three seasons with Spurs after arriving from FC Twente in 2013 for $9.1 million.

The Belgian international fell down the pecking order at Tottenham last season under Mauricio Pochettino and has now moved on to secure regular minutes in the Premier League.

Speaking to West Brom’s website about his move to the Hawthorns, Chadli was delighted to be on board with Tony Pulis‘ side.

“I feel very good to be here. It came very quickly but I spoke to the Club and they have a good team, a good manager and I am very pleased to be here,” Chadli said. “My ambitions? I just want to help the team win as many games as possible.”

Chadli can operate in central midfield, out wide, in a No. 10 role or even up front and he is very good on the ball and has an eye for goal with 25 goals in 119 appearances in all competitions for Tottenham.

With Spurs possessing Dele Alli, Victor Wanyama, Dele Alli, Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen and Heung-Min Son in the central and attacking midfield areas, Chadli wasn’t guaranteed minutes at White Hart Lane.

West Brom have picked up a player who can create chances and is a powerful presence in midfield. With his creativity Chadli should slot in nicely in front of Darren Fletcher in the Baggies’ midfield and Pulis will be hoping he can lay chances on for Salomon Rondon up top.

This seems like a really shrewd piece of business by West Brom, while Spurs are also looking to offload Ryan Mason and Son according to multiple reports. Is Pochettino lining up some last-minute business in the transfer window?

Could West Brom’s Saido Berahino be heading for Spurs with Chadli the sweetener in the deal? Let’s see what the next 48 hours or so brings before the transfer window slams shut at 6 p.m. ET on Wednesday.