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.

“Normal one” Klopp dazzles on Liverpool unveiling

Jurgen Klopp at Anfield is unveiled as the new manager of Liverpool FC during a press conference at Anfield on October 9, 2015 in Liverpool, England.
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LIVERPOOL – Jurgen Klopp strode into the room with the confidence of a man who believes he can turn this great club into something special again.

[ MORE: Klopp’s arrival announced ]

The German coach, 48, was unveiled as Liverpool’s new manager at a packed out “Reds Lounge” deep in the Centenary Stand at Anfield on Friday, as the former Borussia Dortmund coach signed a three-year deal reportedly making him the richest manager in Liverpool’s illustrious history with a salary of over $10 million per season.

His appointment is more than just a soccer-related decision. It’s about uniting everyone at the club and Klopp’s arrival is key to slotting everything together. The German manager is under no illusion as to how difficult this job will be, but is relishing the challenge.

“I am back in the race, it is the biggest honor I can imagine to be here,” Klopp said. “One of the biggest clubs in the world. I will try to help in a situation that is not as difficult as people in this room feel. It is a good moment here and I feel proud. The intensity of the football, of how the people live football in Liverpool, all Liverpool fans around the world. It is not a usual club, it is a special club. I had two very, very special clubs with Mainz and Dortmund. It is the perfect next step for me to be here and try and help.”

[ MORE: Klopp’s 10 best quotes ]

Holding court for almost half an hour with over 100 members of the British, German and worldwide media, Klopp was asked by a journalist if he could perhaps compare himself to Jose Mourinho, who announced himself as “The Special One” when he arrived in English soccer. Klopp paused and then delivered the following.

“I don’t want to describe myself. Does anyone in this room think I can do wonders? No. I am a normal guy. I come from Black Forest. I am the normal one maybe,” Klopp said. “I was a very average player, became a manager in Germany at a special club, Mainz, then I had a great opportunity to take Dortmund, a special club for seven years. For both parties it was best to leave and now I am here. I hope to enjoy my work. All the people tell me about the British press so it is up to you to show me they are all liars.”

Cue roars of laughter from the media, as Klopp’s first box office moment in England had arrived.

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Not since 2004, when Rafael Benitez arrived from La Liga champions Valencia to lead Liverpool to UEFA Champions League glory in 2006, has the arrival of a Liverpool manager been as heralded as Herr Klopp’s. The German realizes the pressure on his shoulders after 25 years without a league title for, but has called for a new era.

“Twenty-five years ago [since the last league title] is a long time,” Klopp said. “History is only the base for us, [we shouldn’t] keep the history in our backpack all day. I want to see the first step next week and not always compare with other times. This is a great club with big potential. Everything is there. Let’s try to start a new way. Everything is different – I don’t know it all but I’m a pretty good listener.”

Even though he says he doesn’t know it all, Klopp did say that he hopes to deliver the title in the next four years at Anfield.

“When I left Dortmund, my last sentence was it was not so important what people think when you come in, it is more important what they think what you leave. Please give us time to work on it. If we want, this could be a really special day,” Klopp said. “We could start in a very difficult league but in a special Liverpool way we can be successful. We can’t wait for it, I don’t want to say we can wait 20 years. If we sit here in four years, I think we win one title. I’m pretty sure. If not the next one, maybe in Switzerland.”

Cue laughter again, as Klopp impressed with his forthright nature and ability to bring humor to what was a hugely important moment as he announced himself to the world as Liverpool’s manager for the first time. In his seven years at Dortmund, Klopp took a beleaguered powerhouse of German soccer to new levels. He won back-to-back Bundesliga titles. He reached a Champions League final. He worked miracles on a shoe-string budget compared to Dortmund’s illustrious neighbors at home and abroad.

Plus, perhaps most importantly, he became a man of the people, a coach who helped bring the fans closer to the club. Dortmund’s famous Westfalenstadion was full to the brim for every home game. Much of that was also to due to the style of play Klopp instrumented, with the two-time German manager of the year admitting he likes “heavy metal” and believes his team play in such a manner compared to the “silent song” and “orchestra” of an Arsenal or a Barcelona who prefer to stroke the ball around.

“I am not here to today to speak too much about our football. First I want to talk to my team about the football. Everyone knows me, I don’t change in four months,” Klopp said. “It is emotion inside, it is speed, it is transition game so you will see this. All the things make football interesting for me, I want to see on the pitch. We have to see how much time we need. In this time we have to win, to make points, that is true but it is not the day to promise a style of football.”

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Klopp stepped away from Dortmund in the summer. He left on his own terms and was revered by fans, players and officials at the German club. It has always been expected he would go on to bigger things. The truth is, had there been a vacancy at a big club across Europe over the past three months, at Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona or either of the Manchester clubs, Klopp would have been one of the first names on the list. Liverpool landing him is a coup and the euphoria of fans upon his arrival on Merseyside is palpable. Excitement levels are on the rise with a $165 million redevelopment of the Main Stand underway to help take Liverpool into a new era with more fans, revenue and a charismatic manager leading the way.

In the crowded press conference we asked Klopp if he can compare the situation he found himself in at Dortmund, to the job he has on his hands at Liverpool.

“We did in Dortmund what we had to do, to improve the players, to work for a common idea of play. That is what we did and its the same thing we want to do here. They are not the same players of course,” Klopp told NBC Sports ProSocerTalk. “These players from Liverpool are better, more experienced in some ways and younger in other cases. Everything is okay, I am here. I am not here only because LFC was calling. I believe in the potential of this team. Four or five strikers you can work with when they are not injured, midfielders is really good, defenders experienced and very young, goalkeeper is really good. Everything is there.

“Now we have to work. The problem in football is that you can be as good as you want but you always have to play against other teams. You have no influence on how good they are before the game. But in the game, if they are better, you have to bring them to your level. On your level you can kill every team. If they are not so good, you have to win. That is football.”

Liverpool’s much-maligned American owners, the Fenway Sports Group (FGS), have finally got their marquee manager as they approach their fifth anniversary at the club on Oct. 15, 2015. The decision to fire Brendan Rodgers last Sunday seemed inevitable, as they gambled on a young manager who was unproven at the elite level and failed to deliver trophies but came agonizingly close to winning the Premier League title in the 2013-14 season. Now, they have a man who can help transform their talented, yet drastically under-performing squad which was assembled by Rodgers and Liverpool’s much talked about transfer committee, into contenders for at least a top four spot going forward.

That transfer committee which many blamed for the demise of Rodgers is not an issue, as some had anticipated, for Klopp.

“This is a really crazy discussion because it was not a problem for (even) 10 seconds,” Klopp said. “We talked about it before. It’s enough for me to have the first and last word. We only want to discuss about very good players and discussing on the highest level and I hope that’s what we do. I’m not a genius, I don’t know more than the rest of the world. I need these people.”

Klopp’s first media appearance on UK soil as Liverpool’s boss ticked all the boxes fans could hope for, as the “Normal One” showed signs he is capable of being far from a normal personality, or manager, in the Premier League.

“Overweight” Costa comes to Mourinho’s defense

Diego Costa, Chelsea FC
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Diego Costa says he and his Chelsea teammates are to blame for Chelsea’s horrid start to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

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Speaking Thursday, during a bit of downtime over the current international break (Costa was left out of Vicente del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s final two EURO 2016 qualifiers this week), Costa placed the majority of blame at the feet of the entire team, but went on to most harshly critique himself for coming into the season unfocused and “overweight.”

Costa, on his lack of fitness and form to begin the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“We know we’re not in the form we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season. We need to blame the players because we came back from holiday very confident, thinking we could go back into how it was last season, and then realized the team was already in a bad situation.

“I’m going to be very honest: maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 percent as we were supposed to be when we got here. I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game. You can be selfish and blame it on the manager but I’m not going to do that. I’m responsible 100%, and so are the other guys.

Given that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with the defending Premier League champions, hearing someone — anyone — speak up and explain the club’s worst start to a season in 37 years will surely be a welcome sound to any Blues supporter’s ears.

[ MORE: Liverpool appoint Klopp as manager | Allardyce to Sunderland? ]

Costa, who is eligible to return from suspension next weekend when Aston Villa visit Stamford Bridge, has scored just one goal in league play this season (six appearances) after scoring 20 in 26 games last season.