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.

Paul Pogba urged to cut out the showboating at Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United shows his appreciation for the fans after the final whistleduring the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Paul Pogba‘s opening few months at Manchester United have not gone as expected.

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Pogba, 23, became the most expensive player in history when he joined the Red Devils from Juventus for $113 million this summer but so far he has failed to show his best for and his United side is languishing 13 points off Premier League leaders Chelsea.

That has led to the manager of the French national team, Didier Deschamps, to offer Pogba a very public piece of advice. In a nutshell: stop showing off.

Speaking to French station RMC, Deschamps urged his midfielder for France to forget about trying to impress on a personal note and simply put the team first.

“Even when he does things well it’s not good enough,” Deschamps said. “So we can understand that it may encourage him to do things that are out of the ordinary but not necessarily helpful. He can do things that others do not, but it must also be the reality of what is good for the team. We’re talking about a young player. He is at a club where he is also used in different positions.”

Talking about different positions, Deschamps used Pogba in a much deeper role during France’s run to the EURO 2016 final in the summer and many believe his influence on games was impacted. Nevertheless, Pogba stuck to his task and dug in for France.

With United struggling and pressure already starting to pile not only on his shoulders but those of his fellow star players and manager Jose Mourinho, Pogba must sacrifice his individual flair for the team. Simply put, he must do whatever is needed to get the Red Devils back to grinding wins and challenging for a top four finish.

That all starts this Sunday as they host Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford (Watch live, 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) looking to close the gap on another top four rival.

Pogba has been used in a central attacking midfield role in recent weeks and has looked a lot better than when he played in a deeper role. However, the balance between himself and other midfielders at United just isn’t quite right and that needs to change if Mourinho’s side will be successful this season. He has looked most comfortable with Ander Herrera alongside him in midfield and his link up play with Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been a rare bright spot in yet another poor season, so far, for United.

He’s not the type of player who will scored 15-20 goals from midfield (he only has two thus far in the 2016-17 PL campaign) but he can be so instrumental in dictating the tempo of the game. That’s what United need him to do. Right now.

Klopp takes Liverpool on team-bonding trip to Barcelona

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 14:  Sadio Mane of Liverpool and team mates celebrate his goal with Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool at Emirates Stadium on August 14, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool are heading to Barcelona and the Nou Camp… to watch a game.

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A report in the Liverpool Daily Echo says that Klopp and his first team squad will spend a few days in the capital of Catalonia this week as they prepare for the game against West Ham United on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

According to the report, Liverpool flew to Barcelona on Sunday evening and enjoyed a day off together on Monday, then a light training session on Tuesday.

They will then visit the Nou Camp on Tuesday to watch Barcelona take on Borussia Monchengladbach in the UEFA Champions League. Of course, Klopp’s side have not qualified for European competition this season after their eighth-place in the Premier League in 2015-16, but he feels like this kind of trip will help build team spirit (plus also get them away from the freezing conditions in Liverpool) for the busy festive period ahead.

When it comes to a lack of European travels for games, Liverpool’s players have certainly felt the benefits of not having an increased number of matches as they currently sit four points behind leaders Chelsea after 14 games of the Premier League season.

That said, their stunning 4-3 defeat at Bournemouth last Sunday (Liverpool led 3-1 with 14 minutes to go) perhaps suggests that now was a good time to get away from it all and enjoy some sun in unfamiliar surroundings.

We are all looking forward to seeing a Snapchat story of Klopp strolling down Las Ramblas wearing a sombrero and holding a jug of sangria in hand as his players follow…

VIDEO: Lee Trundle scores amazing penalty kick

SWANSEA - APRIL 24:  Lee Trundle of Swansea City in action during the Nationwide Division Three Swansea City v Northampton Town held at Vetch Field, Swansea on 24 April 2004 (Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images)
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Former Swansea City striker Lee Trundle was always known as a bit of a maverick.

He remains no different.

This penalty kick in a charity game sums him up perfectly.

40-year-old Trundle is now an ambassador for Swansea City and is involved with coaching their academy.

Check out the video below as Welshman Trundle goes to trick a goalkeeper that he’s picking up the ball but instead, without moving forward, he knocks it into the top corner.

Confused?

Let the clip below dazzle you.

Report: Arsenal’s Sanchez, Ozil demanding $370,000 per week contracts

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 17:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal celebrates with team mate Mesut Ozil of Arsenal after scoring the opening goal of the game during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Crystal Palace at the Emirates Stadium on April 17, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil want to get paid.

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A report from the London Evening Standard states that both of Arsenal’s superstars, who are currently in negotiations with the club over a new deal, want in excess of $370,000 per week, which is equal to Paul Pogba‘s salary at Manchester United.

Per the report, Arsenal is willing to offer only $254,000 a week to each of Sanchez and Ozil in their new deal. It is believed that Sanchez currently earns $165,00 per week, while Ozil is the highest earner at Arsenal on $178,000 a week.

Both have just 18 months left on their current deals and in recent months their importance to Arsenal has been underlined.

Sanchez, 27, scored a sensational hat trick at West Ham United in the 5-1 win last weekend and he now has 11 goals in the Premier League this season and is joint-top scorer. Ozil, 28, has eight goals in all competitions this campaign so far, which equals his tally from last season already as the German playmaker has sharpened his focus in the final third.

If the Gunners are going to be serious about challenging for the Premier League not only this season but in the future, they must lock down their star attacking duo for the foreseeable future. However, with Arsene Wenger‘s future uncertain beyond this season the duo may hold out until they have just one year left on their contracts. Previously it is believed Wenger did not want any player to earn more than his $203,000 weekly salary, however Arsenal will have to break the bank, and their notoriously stubborn wage structure, to keep Sanchez and Ozil at the Emirates Stadium.

If they don’t, the likes of Manchester City, Juventus and Real Madrid have been sniffing around the duo and with Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and even the likes of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Manchester United earning over double what Sanchez and Ozil are currently being paid, you can’t argue that they deserve to be pushed up to the next pay bracket.

It’s a huge six or so months in Arsenal’s future with the future’s of Ozil, Sanchez and Wenger still up in the air.