Andres Iniesta

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.

Manchester United players respond to Louis van Gaal leaving

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Manchester United’s players have been reacting to the news that Louis Van Gaal is no longer their manager.

On Monday United released a statement confirming the Dutchman, 64, was no longer in charge at Old Trafford with his three-year deal cut short after a fourth-place finish in the Premier League last season and a fifth-place finish this season.

[ MORE: Mourinho in talks with United

Despite winning the FA Cup last weekend at Wembley, it wasn’t enough for LVG to keep his job after his players failed to finish in the top four and qualify for the UEFA Champions League. Jose Mourinho is reportedly in talks with United about succeeding Van Gaal and is expected to be appointed by the end of this week.

Dutch utility man Daley Blind was signed by Van Gaal two years ago for $19 million from Ajax and his father, Danny, was LVG’s assistant with the Dutch national team and is the current head coach of the Oranje.

[ PHOTOS: Ronaldo injured in training for Real ]

Speaking to the media as the Netherlands are in Portugal preparing to face the Republic of Ireland, Poland and Austria in upcoming friendlies, Blind shared his thoughts on how Van Gaal was treated.

“I always worked well with him and would have been keen that the co-operation lasted longer,” Blind said. “A manager who has achieved so much already deserved more respect. Even though there was so much being written about him losing his job over the last months, he always looked to protect and shelter us.

“It is not easy for a coach if you are repeatedly being fired in the newspapers. Still, we as a squad kept believing in the manager and showed that with our FA Cup win. That we did together for the supporters, the manager and for ourselves. It was in the end a good finish to the season.”

Blind’s words are perhaps not a surprise as the Dutch international was often seen out having dinner in Manchester with Van Gaal’s family, plus his own father Danny who is a long-term LVG man.

Memphis Depay, 22, was another Dutch player LVG brought in but after arriving from PSV Eindhoven for $37.5 million last summer he scored just two goals in the Premier League and wasn’t even on the bench for the FA Cup final win against Crystal Palace last Saturday. Despite all of that, he still wants to stay at United next season.

“I don’t know why it wouldn’t be. I am happy to be there and the management know I’m happy to be there,” Memphis said. “A love-hate relationship? I’m not sure about that. But him leaving is part of life in football and you learn from that and it makes you stronger.”

The rest of United’s squad are yet to speak on the matter or share any message on social media about the outgoing Dutch manager.

Perhaps that’s the most telling indication of how LVG was really thought of by the vast majority of the United dressing room as reports of severe unrest have surfaced multiple times throughout his eventful two years in charge at Old Trafford.

Let’s see who says what in the coming days as the dust begins to settle.

Cristiano Ronaldo hands Real Madrid injury scare

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 24:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid is helped after getting injured in the team training session during the Real Madrid Open Media Day ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final against Club Atletico Madrid at Valdebebas training ground on May 24, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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With the UEFA Champions League final in Milan this Saturday, the last thing Real Madrid want is to have Cristiano Ronaldo go down injured.

That’s exactly what happened in training on Tuesday.

[ LIVE: Follow UCL final ] 

The pictures below show Ronaldo, 31, receiving treatment on the floor and grimacing as he was helped to his feet after a clash with goalkeeper Kiko Casilla. It was an open media day ahead of the UCL final, a repeat of the 2014 between Real and Atletico Madrid, hence why pictures of the incident have been published.

Zinedine Zidane must have been sweating as the Portuguese national team captain missed the first leg of Real’s UCL semifinal against Manchester City in late April and they badly missed his cutting edge and power in attack.

Speaking about the knock, Ronaldo had this to say: “It was a minor scare, a knock, but in a few days I will be well.”

[ MORE: Mourinho in talks with United ]

Ronaldo had suffered from a reoccurring thigh injury this season, missing three games in April and he also came off at half time of Real’s final La Liga game as well as failing to complete the last three training sessions.

With the UCL final against crosstown rivals Atletico in just four days, most Real fans feared the worst when they heard the news. However, Spanish publication Marca has since reported that Ronaldo’s injury was assessed by the medical team at Real and it doesn’t appear to be too serious but any setback like this certainly isn’t ideal.

The three-time Ballon d’Or winner is Real’s leading goalscorer this season with 51 goals in all competitions and is also the leading scorer in UCL history with 93 goals, plus has 16 goals in 11 UCL games this season.

Flick through the images below to see more on Ronaldo’s injury scare.


 

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 24: Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid is helped after getting injured in the team training session during the Real Madrid Open Media Day ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final against Club Atletico Madrid at Valdebebas training ground on May 24, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 24: Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid reacts after getting injured in the team training session during the Real Madrid Open Media Day ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final against Club Atletico Madrid at Valdebebas training ground on May 24, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 24: Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid reacts after getting injured in the team training session during the Real Madrid Open Media Day ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final against Club Atletico Madrid at Valdebebas training ground on May 24, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 24: Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid leaves the team training session after getting injured during the Real Madrid Open Media Day ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final against Club Atletico Madrid at Valdebebas training ground on May 24, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 24: Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid leaves the team training session after getting injured during the Real Madrid Open Media Day ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final against Club Atletico Madrid at Valdebebas training ground on May 24, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 24: Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid leaves the team training session after getting injured during the Real Madrid Open Media Day ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final against Club Atletico Madrid at Valdebebas training ground on May 24, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

Jose Mourinho set for talks with Manchester United

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Jose Mourinho is closing in on taking over at Manchester United.

Multiple reports claim Mourinho’s agent, Jorge Mendes, will meet with United’s executive vice chairman Ed Woodward and other representatives in London on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after Louis Van Gaal left the Red Devils.

[ MORE: LVG issues statement ]

It is believed that a deal may be struck on Tuesday but confirmation of Mourinho’s arrival at Old Trafford will not come until later this week, perhaps within the next 48 hours.

Late on Monday it was confirmed that Van Gaal was fired by United after two seasons in charge which saw them finish in fourth-place and fifth-place in the Premier League. Just two days after securing the FA Cup at Wembley — United’s first trophy since Sir Alex Ferguson left in 2013 — LVG was gone.

Van Gaal’s Dutch coaching staff also departed but mystery over the future of United legend Ryan Giggs remains. Giggs, 42, was LVG’s assistant but now seems set to be overlooked for the second time in the last three years when it comes to being handed the job permanently. Will he stay on and accept a lesser role on United’s coaching staff if Mourinho rolls up?

All the focus is now on the future and that next step and Mourinho arriving seems inevitable, as well the most logical and best available option.

Is it a risk? Of course it is.

[ VIDEO: Most bizarre moments of LVG’s reign ]

Mourinho, 53, was fired by Chelsea last December, just seven months after delivering a third PL title for the Blues. Their title defense was woeful and Mourinho left them one point above the relegation zone as his off-field antics — the Eva Carneiro situation, cryptic post-game press conferences and public condemnation of his star players — saw Chelsea rapidly unravel at the seams.

However, he is a born winner and has delivered trophies wherever he has managed.

He’s won two UEFA Champions League titles, three PL trophies, two Serie A’s, a La Liga crown and two Portuguese titles. He is a trophy machine and everything points to him delivering short-term success at United.

For the long-term, he may not align fully with their philosophy and ideology of promoting youth and being a proponent of sportsmanship and fair play, yet Mourinho is a winner and he gets the job done whatever way he can. Right now, that’s exactly what United need.

This is not the perfect fit but it is a necessary one as one of the most powerful and wealthy clubs on the planet looks to get back to winning where it matters most: on the pitch.

Pardew says Crystal Palace need a “big name” signing this summer

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21:  Alan Pardew manager of Crystal Palace gives a thumbs up during The Emirates FA Cup Final match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium on May 21, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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After losing to Manchester United in the FA Cup final on Sunday, Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew is already looking ahead to next season.

The Eagles’ boss was happy with his team’s performance against United, but admitted that the club needs to bring in some more talent over the summer transfer window.

MORE: All 2015-16 PL season reviews ]

Speaking about his summer plans, Pardew said he wants to bring a “big name” to Selhurst Park to help Palace continue their plan of growth.

We have shown that we have got talent in the group. We need to refine it a little bit, and we are going to try to do that in the transfer market. But we were a force to be reckoned with against Manchester United. We have given a real good, honest account of ourselves.

I think we have got to get players who are better than this. There is no point in getting players who are not potentially better than the ones we have got. Well, then they have got to be good players. So will there be a big name in there? There’s going to need to be.

After a hot start to the 2015-16 Premier League season, many believed Pardew had a Palace side that was able to compete in the top half of the table for a spot in Europe. However, after sitting fifth on Boxing Day, Palace won just two of their final 21 matches and slid all the way down to 15th on the table.

[ MORE: The best moments of LVG’s memorable yet bizzare tenure at Man United ]

Palace has far too much talent to be languishing near the relegation zone, but Pardew is right that work must be done over the summer. If the club’s new American ownership is willing to spend, a quality striker will be Pardew’s first target.

Last summer’s striker signing Connor Wickham finished the season tied for the team lead with five goals, level with Yohan Cabaye and Scott Dann. When considering that four of Cabaye’s five goals came from the penalty spot and that Dann is a center-back, the Eagles’ lack of attacking depth is quite clear.