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 Preview: Southampton vs. Hull City

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  • Hull won 2-1 on Nov. 6
  • Tigers two points clear of drop zone
  • Saints lead all-time 23W-20D-15L

After back-to-back losses to Man City and Chelsea, Saints meet a different kind of desperation when Hull City arrives at St. Mary’s (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

With a win, Hull can move five points clear of the final relegation spot and heap pressure on Swansea City, who plays Sunday. With a loss, Marco Silva’s men open the 17th place door for Swans.

[ MORE: JPW on Romeu the Destroyer ]

Since the start of the 2011-12 season in the Championship, Southampton has won six of seven matches against Hull. That seventh, however, was the match at the KCOM Stadium earlier this season, one that saw now-West Ham man Robert Snodgrass spur a Tigers comeback.

Saints open the day four points back of eighth place West Brom, and also hold a match-in-hand on the Baggies.

What they’re saying

Saints boss Claude Puel on slump busting“After two losses it’s important to move forward now and take points on Saturday in front of our own fans. We have to improve in the right areas and find a good balance of play, but also a good clinical edge in both penalty areas.”

Marco Silva on Hull’s away troubles““We have conceded goals on the counter-attack away from home in games when the result has been looking good for us – we cannot make it possible for our opponents to do this to us. The second goal we conceded at Stoke is an example of this – conceded at a time when we were in control of the game. Details like this are making the difference and these are things we must look to change. This is clear to me and I pass this on to my players.”

Prediction

Saints have more quality than Hull, but may not have as much fire in the belly. Still, home field means a lot here and Southampton should reverse the score line from November’s tilt. 2-1, with Manolo Gabbiadini and Dusan Tadic leading the way.

La Liga: Sevilla win late to move even with Atletico Madrid in 3rd

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MADRID (AP) Wissam Ben Yedder scored three minutes after entering the game to give Sevilla a late 2-1 win over 10-man Celta Vigo in the Spanish league on Thursday.

The victory moved Sevilla even on points with third-place Atletico Madrid with four matches left. Third place guarantees an automatic spot in the Champions League next season, while the fourth-placed team has to go through a playoff.

Ben Yedder netted the winner from close range after a low cross by Samir Nasri in the 79th minute, beating a defender to the ball and hitting the top of the net with a right-footed shot.

“It was a complex game but the team was able to overcome the difficulties,” Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli said.

Joaquin Correa put the host ahead after halftime, and Iago Aspas equalized by converting a penalty kick just minutes later. Aspas did not celebrate the goal out of respect to fans of his former club.

Sevilla dominated from the start and was pressuring vigorously in search of the winner, especially after Celta went a man down when midfielder Pablo Hernandez was sent off with a second yellow card in the 56th with the game 1-1.

Sergio Escudero and Nasri each struck the crossbar a few minutes apart late in the second half, and Vicente Iborra also had hit the woodwork earlier in the game played under steady rain in Seville.

It was the third win in four matches for Sevilla after a streak of five games without a win.

Sevilla and Atletico are level on points, but the Madrid club is ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Top PL Storylines: Bye-bye, St. Totteringham’s Day? So long, Sunderland?

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Ahead of Week 34 of the 2016-17 Premier League season, we’re most looking forward to keeping an eye on the following storylines…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Cancel St. Totteringham’s Day?

8,018 days (otherwise known as 22.9 years) have passed since Tottenham Hotspur last finished above Arsenal in the Premier League. First of all, that’s a lot of days. Secondly, the time to reset that clock is nearly upon us, as Tottenham take a 14-point lead into Sunday’s North London derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) — perhaps the final one to be played at White Hart Lane. With Arsenal having only five games left to play after Sunday, a 17-point deficit would be mathematically impossible to overcome, and would guarantee Spurs’ first PL finish above Arsenal since the spring of 1995.

The fact that Spurs could end that embarrassing, heinous streak in a game against Arsenal, in perhaps their next-to-last game at White Hart Lane, and maybe even close to within a single point of Chelsea in the title race… it’s almost all too timely and too perfect to believe it could really happen… to Spurs.


Finish the job

With all due respect to Middlesbrough (home), West Bromwich Albion (away), Watford (home) and Sunderland (home), Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they’ve lost on their last two visits (all competitions) and they’ll take on seventh-place Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com), is far and away the toughest remaining fixture on Chelsea’s schedule as they chase a fifth PL-era title (fifth in all eras). Having booked their spot in the FA Cup final by beating Spurs last weekend, Antonio Conte is dreaming of — and a favorite to win — a double in his first season at Stamford.


Someone has to finish top-four

Ahead of the weekend, two points separate Liverpool (third), Manchester City (fourth) and Manchester United (fifth), with Arsenal another four back in sixth (but possessing a game in hand). Given all the points dropped by each of the aforementioned sides in recent weeks, it’s important to remember that someone has to finish third and fourth in the PL this season.

We’ve already discussed Arsenal’s titanic task, so here’s the challenges facing the other three this round: Liverpool, at Watford (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com); Man City, at Middlesbrough (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, on  NBCSports.com); Manchester United, vs. Swansea City (7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com).


So long, Sunderland?

For five seasons now, Sunderland have flirted with relegation from the PL; and every previous season, they’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat and managed to stay up. This season, though, under David Moyes, there appears to be no rabbit. With five games to go, safety is a whopping 12 points away, which means a loss to Bournemouth on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com), coupled with a win or draw by 17th-place Hull City, would officially send Sunderland to the Championship next season. If the Black Cats somehow find their way out of this predicament, a northeastern knighthood awaits Mr. Moyes.

French authorities investigating 2018, 2022 World Cup bids

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PARIS (AP) French financial prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and have heard former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A person with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that France’s financial prosecutor services (PNF) opened the investigation on grounds of private corruption, criminal association, influence peddling, and benefiting from influence peddling relating to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Blatter was questioned in Switzerland last week as a witness, the same person told the AP.

The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said in a statement that “at the request of and in the context of proceedings being conducted by French justice authorities, it has questioned Mr. Joseph Blatter in his capacity as a person providing information on the 20th April 2017 in Zurich.”

The PNF opened its investigation last year.

FIFA has also been targeted by investigations led by Swiss and US authorities. Last month, FIFA sent 1,300 pages of internal investigation reports into suspected bribery and corruption to Switzerland’s attorney general. The documents complete a 22-month probe by legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which FIFA retained in the fallout from United States and Swiss federal prosecutors revealing their sprawling investigations of soccer corruption in May 2015.

Blatter said last week that he met with U.S. Department of Justice investigators and insisted he was not a suspect in their bribery and corruption case linked to FIFA.

Blatter was suspended from office in September 2015 and later banned from soccer by the FIFA ethics committee.