Andres Iniesta

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


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.

LIVE: Man City, Stoke, Everton face second-tier teams in League Cup quarters

Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City FC
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Three of the four Capital One Cup quarterfinals take place on Tuesday with three Premier League teams facing second-tier opposition.

“What’s that, did somebody say banana skin?”

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Manchester City host Hull City at the Etihad Stadium with Manuel Pellegrini‘s side hoping to have David Silva back in the starting lineup but Joe Hart is still out injured so Willy Caballero will continue in goal. Steve Bruce‘s side drew 1-1 at the Etihad last season when they visited City before being relegated from the Premier League. The Tigers are fighting for instant promotion back to the big-time and knocked out Leicester City on penalty kicks in the last round.

Everton face a tricky trip to the Riverside Stadium as Roberto Martinez and the Toffees play Middlesbrough. Aitor Karanka’s side lost in the play-off final to Norwich last season but are looking good for promotion this term as they sit second in the second-tier and knocked out Manchester United on penalty kicks in the last round. Can Everton sort out their defensive frailties?

A third PL club has a tricky test coming up on Tuesday as Stoke City’s reward for beating Chelsea on PKs in the last round is a home game against Sheffield Wednesday. This will be no stroll in the park for Mark Hughes‘ side as the second-tier Owls comfortably knocked off Arsenal in the last round and this game has “cupset” written all over it.

Below are the fixtures for Tuesday as you can click on the link above to follow all the games live.

League Cup quarterfinals


Manchester City vs. Hull City – 2:45 p.m. ET
Middlesbrough vs. Everton – 2:45 p.m. ET
Stoke City vs. Sheffield Wednesday – 2:45 p.m. ET

FIFA sponsors demand “independent oversight” of reforms
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LONDON (AP) Five of FIFA’s sponsors have written to the executive committee of soccer’s scandal-battered governing body demanding “independent oversight” of the reform process.

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Sponsors were originally promised places on the FIFA reform committee. But instead of being invited into meetings discussing the overhaul of the organization, they have only been offered seats on an advisory board which is yet to be appointed.

The sponsors’ letter was sent from Adidas, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Visa and Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch to FIFA’s ruling body ahead of meetings this week.

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The letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press, says it is “clear to us that such independent oversight needs to run long-term through the implementation and evolution of the reform process.”

The reform committee was established following the indictment of soccer officials by American authorities.

VIDEO: Gerrard returns to Liverpool for training in MLS offseason

Liverpool v Sunderland - Premier League
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Steven Gerrard is back at Liverpool.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s new stadium plans ]

The legendary midfielder, 35, has returned to the Reds just six months after leaving his hometown club for a new adventure in Major League Soccer with the LA Galaxy.

Gerrard spent a glittering 17-years at Anfield, guiding Liverpool to the UEFA Champions League title and winning every other major title except for the elusive Premier League crown.

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After suffering an early exit from the 2015 MLS Cup playoffs with the Galaxy, Gerrard is now back in England and he’s using his time at home to train with Liverpool’s first-team and help out in any way he can as Jurgen Klopp has allowed him to come back into the dressing room he called home for nearly two decades.

“It’s a good situation,” Klopp said. “Everybody had a smile on their face when they saw Stevie. It’s good to have him here and we hope we can help him, and he can help us for sure with being in the dressing room. It’s cool.”

Below are photos and videos from Gerrard’s return as Klopp once again quashed any rumors regarding a loan move for the former Liverpool skipper who will enter his first full MLS season in 2016 with the Galaxy.

French PM says Benzema has no place on national team

Karim Benzema, France
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PARIS (AP) The French prime minister joined in the criticism of Karim Benzema on Tuesday, saying the Real Madrid striker “has no place” on the France team at the European Championship in the wake of a blackmail scandal.

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Benzema is one of France’s key players as it gets ready to host the Euro 2016 tournament, but the forward faces charges of conspiracy to blackmail relating to an extortion scam over a sex tape. He is suspected of having played an active role in pressuring France teammate Mathieu Valbuena, a case that has badly damaged his reputation.

“A great athlete should be exemplary,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told French radio Europe 1. “If he is not, he has no place within the France team.”

The investigation, centering on wiretap evidence, started when Valbuena took legal action after being contacted by a man claiming to possess an incriminating sex tape.

In a case that could drag on for months, Benzema’s involvement has not yet been fully determined. But investigators who charged him in October believe he was approached by a childhood friend to act as an intermediary and convince Valbuena to deal directly with the blackmailers.

“If a minister was handed preliminary charges, he would no longer be part of the government,” Valls said.

Benzema denies any wrongdoing but his arguments were undermined last week when Valbuena spoke directly about his attempts to pressure him in an interview with Le Monde newspaper.

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The French football federation has also joined the case as plaintiff.

“There are so many kids, so many youngsters in our suburbs that relate to great athletes,” Valls said. “They wear the blue jersey, the colors of France, which are so important in these moments.”

Preliminary charges under French law mean magistrates have strong reason to believe a crime was committed, and allow time for further investigation. The charges may later be dropped. In 2010, Benzema was handed preliminary charges for soliciting an underage prostitute but was acquitted in a case that lasted more than three years and tarnished his reputation.

Benzema’s image was further dented last month when he spat on the pitch after the national anthem was played at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu stadium in a tribute to the 130 fatalities of the Paris attacks ahead of a match against Barcelona.

Benzema’s action ignited a wave of criticism on social media, prompting his lawyers to issue a statement in which they condemned “the scandalous interpretation” of the incident. Benzema, who has 27 international goals, had posted several messages in support of the victims in the days that followed the attacks.