Andres Iniesta

Confederations Cup semifinals preview: Spain, Brazil favorites in Cinderella-free final four

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It’s get a bit strange when an American writer tries too hard to force an U.S. angle into an international story, but this year’s Confederations Cup knockout rounds sure seem to be missing that U.S.-factor. They also missing that South Africa-factor, but few people remember the Bafana Bafana were the other underdog in 2009’s final four. It was the U.S.’s shock win over Spain that gave the tournament its Cinderella story, albeit one that was squashed in the final.

This year, Brazil and Spain are back (shocking, I know), though 2009’s Rudys have replaced by two relative titans. Though think of Uruguay as a top shelf option, a résumé that includes two World Cups, a pair of fully open Olympic titles, and 15 South American championships casts La Celeste as more than plucky underdogs. And Italy? The fourth semifinalists? Less than two cycles removed from a world title, nobody’s going to buy them as a South Africa or U.S.

So in lieu of contrast, we’ll have to lean on quality, something that’s been in no short supply during this year’s tournament. Whereas we came into the Confederations Cup with continued questions about a competition that’s seen as a pre-World Cup dress rehearsal, Italy’s trio of matches (especially their 4-3 win over Japan) reminded us world-class talents always justify soccer for soccer’s sake. Spain’s opened showed their unprecedented dominance will always be worth two hours of our time, while Brazil’s surprisingly strong performances give the home crowd reason to discard pessimism and embrace hopes for 2014.

Along with Uruguay, those three create a quartet to rival 2005’s as tournament’s strongest semifinal field. That year, Germany and Argentina came out of one group, facing Mexico and Brazil from the other. The two South American teams navigated close semifinals before the Selecao blitzed their rivals in a 4-1 final.

How long ago was that? Adriano, on his way to a career as the Michelin man’s Brazilian stunt double, won both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball. That so few people remember (or care) about that may be a testament to this tournament’s historical insignificance, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect a few more amazing performances.

source: Getty ImagesBrazil vs. Uruguay, Wednesday, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte

Context: Uruguay won the 2011 Copa America to qualify for this tournament, a campaign that saw them avoid the Selecao. And unless you count the Olympics (a weird U-23 hybrid tournament), it’s also the last time Brazil played a competitive match before this tournament.

With the re-hiring of Luiz Felipe Scolari, Brazil seem to have moved on from that strange, ineffectual side that lacked an identity under Mano Menezes. Though you could apply the same description to Scolari’s team before this tournament, group stage hinted his team has turned the corner. Brazil’s three games, three wins, and a +7 goal difference in what was expected to be a tough group? No one should have expected such a convincing run.

Uruguay hasn’t been as convincing, but there’s reason to think they’re improved over the team that’s struggled though World Cup Qualifying. With Diego Forlán re-emerging, Óscar Tabarez could go back to using the broken formation that served them so well in South Africa, a setup that can look like a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-3 (depending on how high Maxi Pereira’s played on the right).

Matchup: With that approach, expect Uruguay to willingly cede possession to Brazil, using three midfielders deep with the hopes they can hold their hosts at arm’s length while trying to hit them on the counter. It will be up to Oscar to create, Fred to find space, and Paulinho (if healthy) to surge forward, all with the hope they’ll either create a threat to complement Neymar, who has scored in every game.

For Tabarez’s team, it will be up to that midfield three — Árvaro Gonzalez, Arévalo Rios, and Christian Rodriguez — to hit those forwards. Forlán will do most of the connecting, but if needed, Edinson Cavani can win a ball anywhere across the width of the pitch. All of which, when working, should lead to chances for Luis Suárez, one of the world’s most dangerous goal scorers.

Outlook: A Brazil loss would be considered a mild upset, yet had you predicted the same result before the tournament started, you wouldn’t have gotten any crazy looks. If Uruguay can justify those picks, they’ll merely show Brazil, for all the potential they’ve shown in group stage, has a couple of important steps remaining before next year’s World Cup.

source:  Spain vs. Italy, Thursday, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza

Context: Spain continues to be the world’s best team. If anything, this tournament’s only enhanced that stature. Their dominance of Uruguay in match one (attempting nearly 1,000 passes) reminded us of their potential. They galloped to a 10-0 win over Tahiti. While a strong performance from the Nigerians provided an unexpected test, there was never a sense Spain were going to be upset. It may not have been the toughest route, but in its hard to imagine another team cutting through Group B with the same ease as Spain.

In contrast, Italy’s run to the knockout round was more entertaining than assured, their eight goals shredding defenses at the same rate the Azzurri were conceding at their own end. After giving up only a penalty kick goal in their opener against Mexico, Italy’s allowed seven in their last two games, including four in their final 46 minutes against Brazil.

The quartet allowed to the hosts was only the second time in Gianluigi Buffon’s career the Juventus icon’s been beaten four times. The other came last year, when Spain routed Italy in Ukraine to claim La Furia Roja’s second consecutive European title. Unfortunately, while Italian fans will hope that embarrassment was a one-off, little appears to have chanced since last year’s agony.

Matchup: Under Cesare Prandelli, Italy’s often eschewed the stereotype of possession-shunning opportunists, yet against teams whose on-the-ball skills match the Azzurri’s, even Prandelli’s teams have played to type. While Italy may now be more willing to retain the ball, shunning quick, dramatic movements for sustained-if-direct attacks, they’re not afraid to sit back, allow their opponents to dictate the game, and wait for cracks to emerge.

Part of that shift against better opponents is due to the personnel at Prandelli’s disposal. Italy are an older side, and with few exceptions, their team lacks speed. Asking them to pursue younger, quicker challengers would see them to play to their weaknesses. Against the world’s best, Italy has to recognize their limitations.

Unfortunately for them, those limitations play right into Spain’s hands. Their midfield and defense lacks the speed to keep up with a Spanish game that offers unparalleled quickness and movement. Players like Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets move the ball too quickly and too often, their experience picking apart defenses sure to create opportunities for Roberto Soldado and Pedro Rodríguez.

When Italy do win the ball, they’re ill-equipped to possess it against Spain’s maniacal pressure, their squad lacking quickness from the players between deep midfielder Andrea Pirlo and striker Mario Balotelli. Those players who do have the foot speed lack the quality to best the Spaniards.

As with most teams, Italy will left hoping their individual talents can do something to transcend the vortex Spain’s talent and style create for each opponent.

Outlook: It’s not difficult to see why Italy lost 4-0 last summer, but even by Spain’s standards, that’s an aberrational result. The Italians should hope that patient, stalwart defending will keep them close enough for a couple of moments of brilliance to matter. But make no mistake about it: It’s going to take something special for the Italians to redeem last summer’s result.

Premier League Player Power Rankings – Week 14

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Here are the latest batch of Premier League Player Power Rankings, with Chelsea and Arsenal leading the way.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

Antonio Conte‘s Blues have won eight on the spin and there’s no surprise that seven of their players feature in our top 20. There are also three players from Arsenal as the Gunners have now gone 13 games without a defeat in the PL.

Middlesbrough and Sunderland both have multiple players included which goes hand-in-hand with their recent good form, while Liverpool, West Brom, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace are also represented.

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players over the past seven days in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections of the top 20 players in the Premier League right now.


  1. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – Up 1
  2. Diego Costa (Chelsea) – Down 1
  3. Mesut Ozil (Arsenal) – Up 16
  4. Harry Kane (Tottenham) – New entry
  5. Eden Hazard (Chelsea) — Up 6
  6. N’Golo Kante (Chelsea) – Up 1
  7. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham) – New entry
  8. Gaston Ramirez (Middlesbrough) – Up 5
  9. Victor Moses (Chelsea) – New entry
  10.  Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea) – New entry
  11. Jordan Pickford (Sunderland) – New entry
  12. Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal) – Down 2
  13. Matt Phillips (West Brom) – New entry
  14. Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea) – New entry
  15.  Jermain Defoe (Sunderland) – New entry
  16. Alvaro Negredo (Middlesbrough) – Down 7
  17. Divock Origi (Liverpool) – Even
  18. Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace) – New entry
  19. Gary Cahill (Chelsea) — Down 5
  20. Ryan Fraser (Bournemouth) – New entry

VIDEO: Leicester academy product scores stunner from halfway line

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 08:  Layton Ndukwu of Leicester City crosses the ball during the FA Youth Cup semi final, second leg match between Leicester City and Manchester City at The King Power Stadium on April 8, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
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Take a bow, Layton Ndukwu.

Leicester City’s U23 side played Liverpool over the past weekend and video has emerged showing the English teenager scoring a sensational goal.

[ MORE: Klopp takes Liverpool on vacay ]

Ndukwu, 18, picked the ball up in his own half after latching onto a loose ball, took one touch and then sent a shot from well over half-field which caught the Liverpool goalkeeper out and went into the net.

Since David Beckham’s halfway line special back in the day, there is nothing quite like seeing a goal from that far out.

Drink it in below, while remember the name: Layton Ndukwu

David Villa wins 2016 Landon Donovan MLS MVP honors

CARSON, CA - AUGUST 23:  David Villa #7 of New York City FC scores on a penalty kick against Los Angeles Galaxy during the second half at StubHub Center August 23, 2015, in Carson, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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The league has spoken…

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After a second consecutive season of brilliance in the Big Apple, New York City FC striker David Villa has been named the 2016 Landon Donovan MLS MVP.

This season, Villa notched an impressive 23 goals and four assists for NYCFC and helped the club advance to the postseason for the first time in the team’s brief history.

Since joining MLS ahead of NYCFC’s inaugural season in 2015, the Spaniard has notched 41 goals in 65 matches, including the playoffs.

Villa beat out New York Red Bulls duo Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan for this season’s honors.

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.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

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.