Andres Iniesta

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

3 Comments

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.

PSG down Marseille 2-1 for ninth-straight Le Classique win

HARRISON, NJ - JULY 21:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic #10 of Paris Saint-Germain is congratulated by teamamte Maxwell #17 after Ibrahimovic scored a goal in the second half against AFC Fiorentina during the International Champions Cup at Red Bull Arena on July 21, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.Paris Saint-Germain defeated ACF Fiorentina 4-2.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

France’s biggest rivalry has been quite one-sided, as Paris Saint-Germain defeated Marseille 2-1 on Sunday to take their ninth-straight Le Classique.

Marseille’s last win over PSG in Ligue 1 play was in November of 2011.

[ MORE: Juve win 14th straight ]

PSG got off to a dream start in Sunday’s Classique as Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in the opening two minutes to give the Le Parisiens an early lead. It was Zlatan’s league-leading 21st goal of the season.

On loan from Newcastle, Remy Cabella equalized for Marseille in the 25th minute. Cabella scored on a brilliant individual effort, taking the ball from his own half on a solo run to the PSG box before firing a low shot into the bottom corner.

[ RELATED: Lewandowski’s agent confirms contract talks with Bayern Munich ]

However, PSG pushed on and claimed the win thanks to a 71st minute goal from Angel di Maria, who has been impressing in his first season in Paris. With eight goals and ten assists in Ligue 1 play, only Zlatan has been involved in more goals than di Maria.

Through 25 matches, PSG hold a ridiculous 24-point lead at the top of the Ligue 1 table.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Barca, Juve continue record streaks

VALENCIA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar JR of Barcelona walk on the pitch during the La Liga match between Levante UD and FC Barcelona at Ciutat de Valencia on February 07, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Catch up on all of Sunday’s action from Spain and Italy’s top flights.

Levante 0-2 Barcelona

With a two-goal win over Levante, Barcelona has tied their club-record as the Catalans are now unbeaten in 28 games across all competitions. An own-goal and late tally from Luis Suarez gave Barca the win against Levante, as Barcelona remains three points clear at the top of the La Liga table.

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga & Serie A roundup ]

Granada 1-2 Real Madrid

Granada sits second-to-last in La Liga, but the struggling club nearly took points from Real Madrid, who needed a late strike from Luka Modric to leave with a win. Karim Benzema had put Real ahead, but Youssef El Arabi equalized for Granada who looked to be the more dangerous side for spells of the second half. However, Modric scored the winner with a blistering top-corner strike with less than ten minutes to play as Zinedine Zidane remains undefeated in charge.

Real Betis 1-0 Valencia

Gary Neville is still without a win in La Liga play after nine matches in charge as Valencia fell 1-0 to Real Betis on Sunday. Betis has been struggling as well, as the win was the club’s first league success since November. With both teams on 25 points, the two sides sit just four points above the relegation zone.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Celta Vigo 1-1 Sevilla
Espanyol vs. Real Sociedad (Monday, 2:30 p.m. ET)


Frosinone 0-2 Juventus

After beating Frosinone, Juventus has now won a club-record 14 straight Serie A matches. Juventus’ last league defeat came way back on October 28, as The Old Lady has climbed from 12th to second on the table. Paulo Dybala scored again in the win over Frosinone, as the Argentinian striker is now second in the league with 13 goals on the year.

Napoli 1-0 Carpi

While Juventus’ Dybala is second in Serie A with 13 goals, Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain scored the game’s only goal against Carpi to bring his league-leading tally up to 24. Higuain buried his penalty shot to lead Napoli to another win on Sunday, as Maurizio Sarri’s side remains two points clear at the top of the table. Higuain has been the main man, scoring eight goals in his last six matches while grabbing 24 in 24 appearances on the year.

[ VIDEO: John Terry says he made it “very clear” he wanted to stay at Chelsea ]

Verona 3-3 Inter Milan

After winning their first match of the season last week, Verona nearly won a second-straight against Inter Milan, although they had to settle for a draw against the Italian giants. Verona led the match 3-1 with 30 minutes to play, but goals from Mauro Icardi and Ivan Perisic rescued a point for Inter. With the point, Inter remain fourth place on the table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Sassuolo 2-2 Palermo
Torino 1-2 Chievo
AC Milan 1-1 Udinese
Atalanta 0-0 Empoli
Roma 2-1 Sampdoria

Lewandowski’s agent confirms talks with Bayern over new contract

SHANGHAI, CHINA - JULY 21:  Robert Lewandowski of FC Bayern Muenchen in action during the international friendly match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Inter Milan of the Audi Football Summit 2015 at Shanghai Stadium on July 21, 2015 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

 

Robert Lewandowski’s stellar season has seen the striker linked with all the top clubs in Europe, but he could be staying put at Bayern Munich.

The Bundesliga’s second-leading goalscorer has been tipped for big-money moves to Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain this year, but his agent Cezary Kucharski said “there is no need to change anything.”

[ MORE: Barca unbeaten in 28 ]

Speaking to Polish news outlet Polsat Sport, Kucharski said that he has started talking with Bayern about a contract extension and denied speaking with other clubs.

Yes, we’ve started talking [to Bayern]. I can confirm this.

I won’t talk about specifics, because it’s confidential. Real have not conducted talks over a transfer. It’s just speculation. Rumours around Robert show what a player he is. He’s known not only in Poland or Germany, but throughout Europe.

There are no talks with PSG. The English write about English clubs, the French about PSG, the Spaniards Real Madrid, and Juventus in Italy. In each country a great club is linked with Robert.

But Lewandowski is at a team that suits him, and there is no need to change anything. I know [Bayern chairman] Rummenigge is aware that Lewy is a great player, who has great value for Bayern, and how such a boy should be rewarded.

Lewandowski has scored 19 goals in 19 Bundesliga appearances this season for Bayern, as the German giants hold an eight-point lead at the top of the table. Overall, Lewandowski has scored 27 goals in 29 appearances in all competitions.

[ RELATED: Alexandre Pato eager to make his mark at Chelsea ]

In the midst of the best season of his career, the 27-year-old Polish international could move to any club and be the star player, where at Bayern he is just one of many stars. However, with the amount of success he is having at Munich, there is no reason to leave.

VIDEO: John Terry says he made it “very clear” he wanted to stay at Chelsea

Leave a comment

John Terry will leave Chelsea at the end of this season, although it may be against his will.

The Blues’ captain announced earlier this year that he would not be given a new contract and will move on after 18 years with the club.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Speaking after Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United on Sunday, Terry said he has had no communication with the club about the possibility of signing a new deal, although he made it “very clear” that he never intended on leaving.

The club is the most important thing.

There’s no communication between myself and the club at this minute. I said what I had to say, that’s how it was.

I made it very clear that I wanted to stay.

Chelsea has a policy of giving older players one-year contracts, and one would assume Terry could still help the club on the pitch for another season. However, with the captain saying there has been no communication about even the possibility of signing a new deal, it looks like he is being forced out.

[ MORE: Three things we learned from Chelsea vs. Manchester United ]

With more than 700 appearances for Chelsea and one of the club’s iconic figures, it looks like the end of Terry’s run at Stamford Bridge could be a bit messy. Hopefully, the club can patch this situation so Terry gets the send-off he deserves.