Confederations Cup schedule: The matches you’ll want to watch

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Sixteen games, 16 days, and although the Confederations Cup is merely an opening act for next year’s World Cup, there are enough intriguing, rarely seen match-ups to justify setting your DVR. Among the games you’re guaranteed to see: Brazil vs. Italy, Spain vs. Uruguay … Tahiti vs. Nigeria?

Not every game will be a gem, but thanks to a stacked Group A, most of them will. Those following CONCACAF qualifying know Mexico’s struggling for goals and poinst, but when Chepo de la Torre’s team may be the worst side in a group, that a pretty stacked set.

The tournament starts this Saturday in Brasilia, when the host nation plays their first competitive match since the 2011 Copa America. Televised on ESPN, most of the games slide into that nice, mid-day, Champions League slot. Plan your lunch breaks accordingly.

Here’s the schedule, with our recommended views in bold.

Group A Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
 Brazil 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
 Japan 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
 Mexico 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
 Italy 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Group B Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
 Spain 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
 Uruguay 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
 Tahiti 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
 Nigeria 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Group stage

June 15, Brazil vs. Japan (Group A), Brasilia, 3:00 p.m. ET: Brazil has more riding on this tournament than anybody, as it’s a proof of concept for a squad which won’t play another competitive match until the 2014 World Cup. Japan, however, may very well be a better team right now. The Selecao have the home field advantage, but the Samurai Blue have the form.

June 16, Mexico vs. Italy (Group A), Rio de Janeiro, 3:00 p.m. ET

June 16, Uruguay vs. Spain (Group B), Recife, 6:00 p.m. ET: This is the only major trophy at Spain’s disposal that they don’t hold. Opening against Uruguay, they get their toughest group test first. La Celeste have faded from a strong start in South American qualifying. If they can trouble Spain, it might be our first indication that South America’s qualifiers will have an advantage over their UEFA counterparts in Brazil.

June 17, Tahiti vs. Nigeria (Group B), Belo Horizonte, 3:00 p.m. ET

June 19, Brazil vs. Mexico (Group A), Fortaleza, 3:00 p.m. ET: Anytime Mexico faces Argentina or Brazil, it’s a major occasion, but just under one year after El Tri claimed gold at the Summer Olympics over the favored Brazilians, this match may have a minor rematch-like atmosphere to it. Brazil will not have forgotten their missed chance to claim the one honor that’s eluded them.

June 19, Italy vs. Japan (Group A), Recife, 6:00 p.m. ET

June 20, Spain vs. Tahiti (Group B), Rio de Janeiro, 3:00 p.m. ET

June 20, Nigeria vs. Uruguay (Group B), Salvador, 6:00 p.m. ET: Assuming Nigeria beats Tahiti, this will likely be the Super Eagles’ chance to claim a place in the semifinals. Stephen Keshi’s is a young team, but one that has the experience of a Cup of Nations run under their belts. If they can spring one upset, they’re through.

June 22, Italy vs. Brazil (Group A), Salvador, 3:00 p.m. ET: In a group out of which any team could advance (well, Mexico would have to wake up), this could be a must-win for both teams, if both sides can’t avoid upsets in their first two matches. Not a bad way to close group play: Two world titans in win-and-move-on scenario.

June 22, Japan vs. Mexico (Group A), Rio de Janeiro, 3:00 p.m. ET

June 23, Nigeria vs. Spain (Group B), Fortaleza, 3:00 p.m. ET: Nigeria needs to take care of business before getting to this point, because with Uruguay likely to defeat Tahiti, Keshi’s team doesn’t want to be in a position to need points from Spain. Nigeria need a win against Uruguay in Salvador with the hopes of making this match meaningless.

June 23, Tahini vs. Urugual (Group B), Recife, 3:00 ET

Knockout round

Semifinals

June 26, Group A winner vs. Group B runner-up, Belo Horizonte, 3:00 p.m. Eastern: This looks like any of Brazil, Italy or Japan against Uruguay, the likely Group B runner-up. If Brazil has any home field advantage, it will be the Selecao facing their South American counterparts.

June 27, Group B winner vs. Group A runner-up, Fortaleza, 3:00 p.m. Eastern: Which Group A team is opening round slip and been drawn against Spain (assuming the Spaniards can handle Uruguay). Regardless, the European Champions against any of Brazil, Italy or Japan will be an entertaining game.

Third Place Game

June 30, Semifinal losers, Salvador, Salvador, 3:00 p.m. Eastern: Don’t watch this game

Final

June 30, Semifinal winners, Rio de Janeiro, 9:00 p.m. Eastern: Four years ago, everybody assumed Spain and Brazil would meet in South Africa’s final. An upset by the United States in the semifinal round knocked the eventual world champions into the third place match. This year, we’ll see if another team will rise up and claim and unexpected spot in the finals.

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

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“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.