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.

FOLLOW LIVE: Two hours to decide it all on Decision Day

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against Colorado Rapids during the first half of the MLS soccer game in Toronto on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. (Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP)
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231 days after First Kick, the 2016 MLS regular season is a mere three hours from its conclusion. Decision Day — 10 games, all kicking off at 4 p.m. ET.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS scoreboard for Decision Day updates ]

Back on March 6, 20 teams dreamt of lifting MLS Cup in December. Nearly eight months later, eight playoff places have been clinched, with another four on the line on Sunday — one in the Eastern Conference, three in the Western Conference.

Also still up for grabs: the Supporters’ Shield. FC Dallas have the inside track on the regular-season “title” and home-field advantage for as long as they may compete in the postseason. Bradley Wright-Phillips (23 goals) and David Villa (22) are neck-and-neck for the Golden Boot, with BWP currently holding the tiebreaker (assists — 5 to 3) in the event of a tie.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — All the Decision Day scenarios ]

For a full list of scenarios in the East, the West — to clinch berths and seeding implications — as well as the Shield race, hit this link and this link. Hit the link toward the top of this post, or right here, to keep up with all the action across the league over a frantic two-hour period (for yours truly, mostly). And, of course, check back on PST for full coverage of the afternoon and the setting of the stage for the playoffs, which begin Wednesday night with the knockout round.

Full schedule of games — all kickoffs at 4 p.m. ET

Eastern Conference

Philadelphia Union vs. New York Red Bulls
New York City FC vs. Columbus Crew SC
Toronto FC vs. Chicago Fire
Orlando City SC vs. D.C. United
New England Revolution vs. Montreal Impact

Western Conference

LA Galaxy vs. FC Dallas
Colorado Rapids vs. Houston Dynamo
Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake
Sporting Kansas City vs. San Jose Earthquakes
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Portland Timbers

Antonio Conte is becoming what Jose Mourinho was

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LONDON – At the full time whistle Jose Mourinho pulled Antonio Conte close and didn’t let go.

It was not a loving embrace.

[ MORE: 3 things learned ]

With his team 4-0 up towards the end of the game, Conte turned to Chelsea’s fans and gestured for them to raise the decibel levels. Manchester United’s fans were the only supporters who could be heard inside a very happy, yet quiet, Stamford Bridge.

On his incredibly embarrassing return to the Bridge — first half goals from Pedro (after just 30 seconds) and Gary Cahill, plus clinchers from Eden Hazard and N'Golo Kante did the damage — Mourinho apparently took exception to Conte’s actions.

Speaking after the game United’s manager refused to reveal what he said to Conte but with TV cameras all over the world were fixed on him a the final whistle.

It was clear something along the lines of: “You don’t wind up the crowd at 4-0. You do it at 1-0. It’s humiliating” was said.

It was a far from magnanimous end to an utterly humiliating return to Stamford Bridge for Mourinho as he suffered his worst-ever defeat as a Premier League manager and United’s worst away defeat in the PL since 1999.

Asked in his post-game press conference about what was said, both Mourinho and Conte declined to comment.

“You know me. I speak to Conte. I don’t speak to you. You know me that I am not this kind of guy to come here and share with you things I don’t want to share,” Mourinho said. “It was with me and Antonio and stays with me and him. Unless he wants to share with you if he wants. That is Antonio’s problem.”

What is clear is that Mourinho’s problems are much worse than Conte’s.

Only once had a team he’s managed conceded four or more goals in a Premier League game and on his first visit back to west London since he was fired as Chelsea’s boss last December, Mourinho’s defense were all over the place as they couldn’t cope with Chelsea’s wide men set up in a 3-4-3 system. Conte’s side were well balanced and had learned from their early season defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal.

Chelsea’s Italian manager laughed a little when asked about Mourinho’s comments — something which will have likely incensed his opponent — then explained why he turned to Chelsea’s fans and gestured for them to sing loudly towards the end of the game.

“I think that the private conversation must remain private. Then if someone discover something, okay. For me a private conversation remains private,” Conte said, smiling. “I think that today it was right to call our fans in a moment I was listening to only the supporters of Manchester United after 4-0. I called the fans to do a great clap to the players after this type of performance. I think that the players after a 4-0 win, they deserved it. It is very normal.”

Did Conte regret his passion on the sidelines? His constant jumping around? His whipping the home fans at Stamford Bridge into a frenzy for the final moments of the game?

“Me? No. I think we live with emotion,” Conte said. “If we want to cut the emotion we can go home, stay at home and change my job.”

This was all about much more than Conte whipping up the crowd late on. Mourinho’s back was up. He was hurting and he lashed out.

Once upon a time he would be the man whipping up crowds and providing plenty of antics on the sidelines. Now he’s lost a large chunk of his sparkle. The 53-year-old is six years Conte’s senior and it shows.

Chants of “You’re not special anymore!” and “You’re getting sacked in the morning!” greeted him from some sections of Chelsea’s supporters as he returned to the club where he delivered three Premier League titles in five full seasons in charge over two spells. With United having just 14 points after nine PL games (the same record David Moyes had) Mourinho has been reduced to moaning and complaining while he watches on at others such as Jurgen Klopp and Conte succeeding.

His comments last Monday about Klopp’s Liverpool being the “last wonder of the world” in attack were telling. He is starting to look like he feels out of the loop, out of touch and some might even say yesterday’s news.

You could argue that Conte is what Mourinho was.

Sure, the Italian boss has never won the UEFA Champions League title and has only had success in Italy, but he is passionate, driven and lives and dies by his relationship with his players and the fans. Sat behind Chelsea’s bench on Sunday, or any gameday for that matter, it is exhausting to see Conte in action. Whether or not his constant gesticulation and shouting makes a difference remains to be seen but in stark contrast Mourinho stood on the sidelines with his hands in his pockets for most of the second half as he watched his team waved the white flag as Chelsea raced into a 4-0 lead.

Mourinho used to be the one running on the pitch and hugging his players at the final whistle and urging Chelsea’s supporters to create a cauldron of noise in the comfy surroundings of Stamford Bridge. Now, Conte is doing that.

Both managers have only been at their respective clubs since the summer but Conte is much further along in stamping his mark on his team.

And when it comes to Conte’s tactics, he’s been brave enough to change his system in recent weeks to great success.

Since Chelsea switched to a 3-4-3 formation, they’ve won all of their last three games, conceding zero goals. ProSoccerTalk asked Conte if the defensive improvement following the 3-0 shellacking at Arsenal, which made him livid, has been the most pleasing in recent weeks.

“After two defeats and conceding two or three goals in every game, it was important for us to change something and to find a new solution. I think this suit is very good for the team and our squad. Now we must continue,” Conte said. “I always thought that the system is not important. It is more important, the commitment to trust in the work and work very hard and also to follow the principles and my idea of football. That pleased me because when you see this in the game you go in your house and you are happy.”

Conte will go home happy on Sunday in west London. Mourinho often did. But not anymore.

Jose Mourinho believes Manchester United “played well” in 4-0 defeat

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Jose Mourinho, as he has so many times this season after slip-ups by Manchester United, has chosen to stay positive.

A monstrous 4-0 defeat at the hands of his former club Chelsea saw a calamatous number of defensive errors lead to goals for the opposition, but the new Manchester United manager is looking ahead already.

“The team played well,” Mourinho claimed after the match. “If we can delete the defensive mistakes we make…if we can delete that, the team played well. Courtois had more work than De Gea, their central defenders had more work than my central defenders, we were always in control, we played in their half for long periods, we put foot in their box many many times, we have what I call chances and half-chances, but they are very dangerous in counter-attack, we knew that.”

“I told the players that at halftime, that if we scored the 2-1 the game is different, but it was not for us to score the 2-1, it was for them to score the third and fourth in counter-attack.”

[ RECAP: Chelsea dismantles Manchester United 4-0 at Stamford Bridge ]

Mourinho believed that every time his team was close to scoring, they would concede on the other end, pegging them back even further.

“It’s one of these games where they scored the goal, then we are close to the 1-1, they scored the second goal, we are close to the 2-1, they score the third goal, we are close to the 3-1, they score the fourth goal, and then we are close to the 4-1, and probably a few more minutes they score the fifth goal.”

In the end, Mourinho chalked up his team’s defensive frailty to human error, backing his defenders despite the ugly performance.

“I think that mistake is crucial, it’s a mistake that is difficult to accept, but that’s football and human beings and you have to accept. And then the game was different.”

Mathieu Valbuena injures shoulder but won’t need surgery

GENT, BELGIUM - SEPTEMBER 16:  Mathieu Valbuena of Lyon runs with the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group H match between KAA Gent and Olympique Lyonnais held at Ghelamco Arena on September 16, 2015 in Gent, Belgium.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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French midfielder Mathieu Valbuena will miss a month with a dislocated shoulder, but while initially it was feared he would need surgery, that is no longer an option, and four weeks should be an adequate recovery time according to reports in France.

The 32-year-old has struggled with injuries this year, missing a pair of matches with a hip problem, and now will be sidelined much longer after a hard landing in the 75th minute on Saturday in a loss to Guingamp.

After the match, president Jean-Michel Aulas told TV channel Canal+ that Valbuena would likely need surgery, but after further testing they will look to get him back by the start of December.

Lyon is struggling mightily, having lost three of four in Ligue 1 play and falling to 10th in the table.

Valbuena has been a regular for the French national team, missing just two matches since late 2012. With this injury, he will most certainly miss France’s World Cup qualifier against Sweden in early November, plus the following friendly against the Ivory Coast.