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.

Watch Live: Watford vs. Crystal Palace

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Crystal Palace can all but clinch Premier League safety with an away win over Watford at Vicarage Road on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

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Palace’s twin tower strikers Christian Benteke and Alexander Sorloth are on the bench against the Hornets, who have captain Troy Deeney and Stefano Okaka up top.

LINEUPS

Watford: Karnezis; Mariappa, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Hughes, Capoue, Doucouré, Pereyra; Deeney, Okaka. Subs: Gomes, Britos, Femenía, Janmaat, Richarlison, Sinclair, Gray.

Crystal Palace: Hennessey, Ward, Tomkins, Sakho, Van Aanholt, Loftus-Cheek, Milivojevic, Cabaye, McArthur, Townsend, Zaha. Subs: Speroni, Kelly, Wan-Bissaka, Riedewald, Lee, Benteke, Sorloth.

West Brom 2-2 Liverpool: Baggies fight back

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  • Salah equals Liverpool’s club-record of 31 PL goals in a single season
  • Liverpool unbeaten in last 10 PL games v. West Brom
  • West Brom eight points from safety 

West Bromwich Albion fought back from 2-0 down late on to draw 2-2 against Liverpool at the Hawthorns on Saturday as Jurgen Klopp‘s men threw away three points.

Liverpool led 2-0 with goals from Danny Ings and Mohamed Salah but West Brom fought back in the final 10 minutes as Jake Livermore hooked home and Salomon Rondon equalized with a header.

Despite the point West Brom are still eight points off safety with three games to go and remain bottom of the table as they can be relegated on Sunday if results for Swansea and Crystal Palace go against them. Liverpool lost ground in the race for second place with the late collapse.

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Liverpool got off to a perfect start as a short corner set Mane free and his cross into the box found Georginio Wijnaldum who set up Ings to slam home his first PL goal for Liverpool since 2015. What a moment for the England international who has been through injury hell.

Soon after Salah cut inside from the right and curled an effort towards the top corner which was deflected just wide.

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Ings nodded over a difficult chance, Salah sent a free kick just wide and Ings had another effort well smothered by Ben Foster, but West Brom battled their way back into the game as James McClean‘s effort across goal was almost tapped home by Jay Rodriguez.

Liverpool were just about worthy of their half time lead.

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The second half featured a few flash points early on as Craig Dawson appeared to bring down Ings in the box but nothing was given, then Ahmed Hegazi appeared to punch Ings off the ball but referee Stuart Attwell missed the incident.

Salah then seemed to put the game beyond doubt as he finished off a through ball from substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to give Liverpool a 2-0 lead and take this tally to 41 for the season in all competitions.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

West Brom gave themselves hope late on as a looped ball to the back post found Rodriguez and he hooked it back in for Livermore to make it 2-1.

The Baggies then equalized as Rondon headed home to set up a wild finish, but they couldn’t grab a dramatic winner as their relegation from the Premier League is all but confirmed.

Arsenal reveal plan for Wenger’s successor

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For the first time in almost 22 years Arsenal will have to start a managerial search.

And if you believe the reports, Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis has been busy on this for at least a few months with candidates lined up.

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Speaking at a press conference on Friday after Wenger’s announcement that he will step down as Arsenal’s manager at the end of the season, Gazidis revealed the qualities he and the Arsenal board are looking for in a new manager.

“Tomorrow we have to start thinking about how we move forward. We are going to take what Arsene has given us and continue the values he has instilled,” Gazidis said. “It’s going to be a condensed summer with the World Cup in the middle of it. Having clarity sooner is better. We want someone who plays progressive, exciting football that gets people interested and excited in games we play. Another significant piece is how the candidate represents the club and it must be someone who gives youth a chance.”

That’s a pretty long wish list, Ivan.

The crux of this is that Arsenal want to get this sorted quickly but it seems like they may wait until after the World Cup to see who’s available.

Joachim Loew would be the main man they would wait for, but the likes of Carlo Ancelotti and Brendan Rodgers could come in soon and get started on LAW (Life After Wenger) ASAP.

Rodgers seems to tick the most boxes out of the candidates mentioned so far, with the current Celtic boss always keen to promote youngster and he has always produced exciting, attacking teams at Liverpool and Swansea in the past.

Yet Ancelotti would be a safe hire with his glut of trophies and his experience of managing huge clubs, something owner Stan Kroenke would surely favor in order to safeguard his investments. Get ready for weeks of speculation about Wenger’s successor but it appears Arsenal want to move on quickly as Gazidis has a big decision to make.

But as we saw when Sir Alex Ferguson was replaced at Manchester United, the man replacing a legendary figure such as Wenger will have a huge task to steady the ship, let alone turn Arsenal back into a top four force.

Perhaps the second manager to come in will have greater success as younger managers, and former Arsenal midfielders, Patrick Vieira and Mikel Arteta have been mentioned.

Watch Live: West Brom v. Liverpool

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West Bromwich Albion host Liverpool on Saturday at the Hawthorns (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Premier League’s bottom team aim to pull off another shock win to keep their faint survival hopes alive.

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The Baggies won 1-0 at Manchester United last time to delay their impending relegation as well as hand Manchester City the title and interim boss Darren Moore will want to grab another big win as the Baggies aim to try and pull off the greatest of escapes. Anything other than a win could see West Brom relegated this weekend.

As for Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp‘s men have cemented their spot in the top four and will have one eye on a big week of European action.

In team news West Brom have Jonny Evans back fit and on the bench but are unchanged from the win at Man United, while Liverpool rest several players ahead of their UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg against Roma.

Andrew Robertson, Roberto Firmino, Alexander-Arnold and Oxlade-Chamberlain are all on the bench with Joe Gomez returning to the starting lineup.

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West Brom

Liverpool