Confederations Cup preview: Your quick guide to each teams’ standouts

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We’ve gone through the teams, and we’ve walked you through the schedule, but for some fans, the big draw to this summer’s Confederations Cup will be stars they don’t otherwise ee in their favorite leagues. In a tournament too young, infrequent and exclusive to carry much competitive prestige, the names on the back may be as alluring as the names on the front.

This year, neither Argentina (with Lionel Messi) nor Portugal (Cristiano Ronaldo) qualified for the quadrennial event, but between Brazil, Spain, Italy, Mexico, and Uruguay, a number of the world’s top talents will still be on display over the next three weeks.

Here’s a small selection of whom to look for – two players per team that may make your Confederations Cup viewing worthwhile.

Group A

Brazil

source: Getty ImagesNeymar (right) – The former Santos star has been the next big thing for so long, it’s hard to believe the time to put up has finally come. With his recent transfer to Spanish titans Barcelona, the 21-year-old attacker will be leaving South America for the first time, set to begin next season with Spain’s reigning champions. With enough skill on the ball to beat anybody one-on-one, Neymar has 20 goals in 33 appearances for Brazil, even if many are still waiting for that goal rate to translate into success against the world’s most prestigious nations.

Thiago Silva – One of the best defenders in the world, Silva will wear the armband for coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side, playing between Barcelona right back Daniel Alves and Chelsea left-central defender David Luiz. Expect those teammates, as brilliant as they can be, to give the athletic center half plenty of chances to exhibit has talents. Given what the PSG man has shown during his time in Italy and France, there’s little doubt the 28-year-old can handle the burden.

Japan

source: Getty ImagesKeisuke Honda (right) – Rumors that the dynamic CSKA Moscow attacker will leave Russia this summer make June’s tournament a showcase for the 27-year-old. Capable of playing across the width of the pitch at the level just behind a striker, Honda can be as adept creating as he is finishing chances. In 42 appearances for the Samurai Blue, the attacking midfielder has 14 goals.

Shinji Kagawa – Even though the Manchester United attacker’s already 24 years old, he’s still one of the younger players in Alberto Zaccheroni team, but with a style of play very similar to Honda’s, it hasn’t always proved easy to assimilate the former Borussia Dortmund star into the squad. Like Honda, he can play anywhere across the width of the pitch, and like Honda, he often seems as adept at score goals as setting them up.

Mexico

source: ReutersJavier Hernandez (right) – Your philosophical view about goal scoring likely defines how you feel about ‘Chicharito’, who usually is the frosting, not the cake. When his teams are generating goals, the 25-year-old is usually finishing them. But when teams need him to find goals on his own, Hernández still seems to need another dimension, one that prevents him from being considered among the world’s elite. With 32 goals in 47 appearances, Hernández’s production more than justifies his acclaim, but as Mexico’s waned, so has Chicharito.

Giovani dos Santos – Another mercurial performer, dos Santos may be the most talented player in CONCACAF, form he showed while leading El Tri to the 2011 Gold Cup. While he continues to show that talent at club level, scoring six league goals this past season in Spain for Mallorca, the former Barcelona and Tottenham Hotspur attacker has been unable to replicate that production recently for his national team. Quick, highly skilled, with a great natural instinct on the ball, dos Santos is still an elite talent. It’s just a matter of putting him in the right spots.

Italy

source: APGianluigi Buffon (right) – At 35 years old, Buffon’s amassed 128 caps, yet despite his age, the Juventus icon is still among the best goalkeepers in the world. Since the retirement of defender Fabio Cannavaro, he’s also served as the Azzurris captain, leading the team to the final of last year’s European Championships. While prone to the rare inexplicable lapse, Buffon’s reflexes remain strong, as does his ability to read the game as it approaches goal. His decisions on crosses may reflect some age, but as with all aspects of Buffon’s game, it’s a relative concern.

Andrea Pirlo – Pirlo’s move from AC Milan to Juventus two years ago seems to have revitalized his career, an effect that was on display at last summer’s European Championships, where he was the tournament’s best player (in our estimation). Sitting deep in Cesare Prandelli’s midfield, Pirlo will be provided the protection he needs to be his playmaking best, with others doing the manual labor while he sprays the ball to young attackers like Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy.

Group B

Spain

source: APXavi Hernández (right) – One hypothesis for Barcelona’s mild slip in this year’s Champions League: Teams have increasingly focused on Lionel Messi as Xavi has proved less effective at picking apart a defense. The Confederations Cup should prove a good test. Spain is as dependent on Xavi as Barcelona, with no heir apparent for their aging midfield orchestrator. If the Barcelona playmaker’s really transitioning into his career’s final act, his national team should also struggle. Else, Spain will be as formidable as ever.

Iker Casillas – Benched midseason in a political battle with his club manager, Spain’s captain gets back to regular duty in goal on the international level. Along with that comes a chance to show José Mourinho that he’s still the same Saint Iker who has led Spain to two-straight major titles. Perhaps an inflated reputation that cast him atop the world’s goalkeeper rankings has forever been tarnished, but Casillas is still more than capable of being a reliable No. 1.

Uruguay

source: Getty ImagesLuis Suárez (right) – The temperamental forward is coming off a suspension for punching an opponent in World Cup qualifying. His team rallied to win 1-0 in Venezuela on Tuesday, but in the preceding game, Suárez reminded La Celeste how important he was, coming off the bench to score in Uruguay’s 1-0 win over France. Combined with Edinson Cavani, Uruguay rivals Argentina for the top attacking tandem in the world, provided Suárez can keep himself on the field.

Edinson Cavani – If Suárez is the volatile one, Cavani is Mr. Dependable. Tall, skilled, relentless, and versatile, the Napoli man has become one of the best target men in the world, doing the leg work that frees up Suárez to exploit opposing defenses. With his partner absent on Tuesday, it was Cavani that found the goal that gave Uruguay its crucial win in Venezuela. Coming off three straight prolific seasons in Naples, the former Palemo man is drawing attention from Manchester City and Chelsea. A strong tournament could his suitors insatiable.

Tahiti

source: Getty ImagesSteevy Chong Hue – The 23-year-old AS Dragon striker is responsible for Tahiti’s place in Brazil, scoring the goal that won the nation the 2012 OFC Nations Cup – a win that secured the team’s first international title. The only player in the squad born away from Tahiti’s main island, Chong Hue briefly spent time playing low-level Belgian soccer before returning home to play for Dragon. At 23, he has 11 international goals.

Marama Varihua – Varihua, a striker, is the only player on Eddy Etaeta’s roster who plays outside of Tahiti. He’s spent his entire career in France, twice winning the Coupe de France during a six-year spell at Nantes. Born in Tahiti but appearing at U-levels for France, Varihua has also played at Nice, Lorient and Nancy, where he’s under contract today. Capable of playing wide as well as in support of Chong Hue, the uncapped 32-year-old’s contributions could prove key to Tahiti’s chance to earn a point in Brazil.

Nigeria

John Obi Mikel – Only 26, Mikel is one of the young Nigerians’ veterans, with Stephen Keshi naming only four players who are older than the Chelsea midfielder. Normally a holder at club level, Mikel has typically provided more of a box-to-box presence for his country, who he helped lead to this year’s Cup of Nations title. In a group with Spain and Uruguay, his defense may prove more valuable if the Super Eagles are to pull a small upset and advance to the knockout round.

source: APKenneth Omeruo (right) – Another Chelsea talent, Omeruo has yet to make an impact for his club, though for the national team, the 19-year-old started as the Nigerians claimed a surprise confederation title. Only 19 years old, Omeuro just finished an 18-month loan at ADO Den Haag, where he played both on the right and in the middle. While he awaits a decision about where his immediate club future lies, the former Standard Liege prospect will spend his summer in Brazil, starting in the middle of Stephen Keshi’s defense and potentially attracting the attention of a team who can give him playing time next season.

PL Preview: Brighton vs. Stoke City

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  • Stoke leads all-time 16W-14D-9L
  • First league meeting since 2006
  • Potters have won last 8 in series

Brighton and Hove Albion meets Stoke City for the first time in Premier League history when the two battle at the Amex Stadium on Monday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Brighton is unbeaten in its last four PL matches, with a pair of away wins and two draws at home.

They’ve been led at the back end by Shane Duffy and in attack by Pascal Gross, but it’s been a well-traveled Premier League veteran filling the goals. Glenn Murray has historic motivation to keep scoring, knowing that a marker versus Stoke would make him the first Brighton player to ever score a goal in four successive top flight matches.

Stoke followed up its win over Watford with a draw against Leicester City. The Potters have two goals and four assists from Swiss attacker Xherdan Shaqiri, and three and one from Senegalese scorer Mame Biram Diouf.

What they’re saying

Brighton’s Chris Hughton on bagging wins“For a club like us to get back-to-back wins would show the level we are playing at. It’s tough. I remember being told by somebody with one of the promoted teams that they didn’t get their first away win until February-March. That can happen and it’s exactly the same for a team getting promoted to get back-to-wins. They are hard to come by. Any way we are able to do that would certainly be a major boost for us.”

Stoke manager Mark Hughes on Xherdan ShaqiriHe is taking on more the role of the main instigator of our attacking threat. When he gets the ball, I think the whole team responds to that. You sense that maybe something’s going to happen. And I think the crowd sends it as well. And I know opposition team sense it too.”

Prediction

Few matches are more of a toss-up than this one, and there’s no recent match-ups on which to rest our heads. So we’ll side with the home team managing a point, and maybe a pair of old-timer goals from Murray and Peter Crouch, in a 1-1 draw.

Italy soccer chief resigns after failure to reach World Cup

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ROME (AP) Italian football federation president Carlo Tavecchio has resigned a week after the Azzurri failed to qualify for the World Cup.

Monday’s announcement came following calls for a complete overhaul of the nation’s most popular sport, from the amateur leagues right up to Serie A and the national teams.

[ MORE: What’s next for West Brom? ]

Sweden’s playoff win over Italy kept the four-time champion out of the World Cup for the first time in six decades.

Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura was fired two days after the loss.

For the last week, Tavecchio has resisted calls to step down but he eventually lost the support of the federation’s board of directors.

Former federation chief Giancarlo Abete said as he left the board meeting where Tavecchio resigned that a new election would be held within 90 days.

Managerial change a slippery slope for West Brom

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Tony Pulis brought much needed stability to West Bromwich Albion before his tenure soured in a hurry.

When Pulis took over at the Hawthorns, West Brom had seen both Pepe Mel and Alan Irvine do little winning in abbreviated managerial stints. Mel won three of 17 matches in charge, while Irvine could only nab five in 22.

[ MORE: Pulis sacked ]

So there is little debating, even for those who West Brom fans who revel in the club’s former free-flowing ways, that Pulis had a productive time in charge from January 2015 right on through most of last season.

But Pulis was seemingly limited to setting a points total and then kicking his heels up once Premier League safety was reached.

While that sounds a bit laughable, the facts are that the Baggies finished 10th last season despite an impressive start that saw the club comfortably eighth for much of the season. However, West Brom won five points from its final 12 matches to finish 16 points behind a European place (including five shutout losses at home).

The Baggies finished 14th the previous season, Pulis’ first full year in charge, but collapsed again after hitting the rarefied air of 11th. That final stretch? Five losses and four draws including shutout losses at home to Norwich City, Watford, and West Ham.

In doing so, Pulis belied his own budgetary critiques by proving the Baggies had the talent to compete for something relatively special.

Pulis was good at getting his side to play with the fury of a relegation contender from Day One, but it was so clear the side was sated once safety was secure. It wouldn’t be callous to opine that the manager would’ve viewed the Europa League as a nuisance to his “never been relegated” reputation (an idea buttressed by West Brom’s performances in Cup competitions, where Pulis never advanced to a quarterfinal while losing to Reading, Norwich City, Derby County, Northampton Town, and, this season, Man City).

What West Brom does next will say a lot. If it’s as simple as a rehashing of the “never been relegated” deck with Sam Allardyce, well, that’s something. But the Baggies are in the tricky predicament of having to replace a relatively stable hand who was their first good hire in three tries, while also running with the knowledge that their players clearly are capable of so much better than 17th.

The names on the bettor’s lists show what’s expected of West Brom: gritty style from an island manager. Derek McInnes is the favorite, with Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill just ahead of Sam Allardyce. Alan Pardew is next, followed by Ronald Koeman (For what it’s worth, bookies are still milking money from gamblers by including Jurgen Klinsmann’s name at 20:1 or so).

West Brom is in its eighth-straight Premier League campaign. The firing will jostle an already rocking ship, but the Baggies have steady leadership in Jonny Evans, Ben Foster, Chris Brunt, Gareth Barry, Gareth McAuley, and Craig Dawson. They have the wherewithal to achieve safety again, and can even look good in the process should a manager find the right way to use Salomon Rondon, Matty Phillips, Jay Rodriguez, Nacer Chadli, and others.

Who’s the right man for the job?

West Brom fires manager Tony Pulis

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Tony Pulis‘ reign over the Hawthorns is over, as West Bromwich Albion has fired the 59-year-old after just under three years in charge of the Premier League outfit.

Assistant coach Gary Megson takes over on an interim basis.

[ MLS: Steve Bruce to Miami? ]

The Baggies have not won a game since August, and were belted 4-0 at home by Chelsea on Saturday to leave the club one point above the drop zone.

Overall, Pulis oversaw wins in just 36 of his 121 matches, losing 49, in what will go down as one of the least successful stints in his well-traveled career. Only three PL clubs have scored less than the Baggies’ nine goals.

Here’s the club statement:

“These decisions are never taken lightly but always in the interests of the Club.

“We are in a results business and over the back end of last season and this season to date, ours have been very disappointing.

“We would like to place on record our appreciation of Tony’s contribution and hard work during a period of transition for the Club which included a change of ownership. We wish him well in his future endeavours.”

Pulis will almost certainly be back on the touch line soon, as he hasn’t spent more than a few months out of work since 2002.