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.

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 2-2 Colorado Rapids (video)

Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba celebrates his goal against the Colorado Rapids during first half of an MLS soccer game, Saturday, April 30, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): Dropped points from a winning position are the ones that frustrate and come back to haunt managers more than anything. Twice on Saturday, the Montreal Impact conceded goals from a winning position and were forced to settle for a 2-2 draw with the suddenly rampant Colorado Rapids at Stade Saputo. Didieo Drogba scored another magnificent free kick (video below), but a bit of calamitous set-piece defending on the Rapids’ second goal ultimately meant two points dropped by Mauro Biello’s side, though their hold on the Eastern Conference’s top spot remains intact for one more day (third-place Toronto FC will go top of the East with a win on Sunday). The Rapids, meanwhile, are four games without a defeat and top of the Western Conference for the time being (fourth- and fifth-place LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake could claim the spot as their own with wins on Sunday and Saturday, respectively).

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three Four moments that mattered

9′ — Drogba’s latest FK beauty makes it 1-0 — If you haven’t loved watching Drogba destroy MLS since his arrival last August, you must be a Toronto FC fan. Or you hate fun, beautiful things, like this free kick.

47′ — Gashi finishes Williams’ cross for 1-1 — Mekeil Williams served the ball across the face of goal, and Gashi made no mistake on the finish, hammering it past Evan Bush to bring the visitors level.

50′ — Tissot hammers home from distance to restore the lead — As they say, this ball stayed hit. Also, it had eyes.

73′ — Burling smashes home from close range — Gashi’s free kick caused all kinds of problems for the Impact defense, leaving Bush unsure of whether to come out and attack the ball or stay on his line. Axel Sjoberg kept the play alive, playing the ball across the face of goal, and Bobby Burling found himself on the right side of his marker.

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Man of the match: Shklezen Gashi

Goalscorers: Drogba (9′), Gashi (47′), Tissot (50′), Burling (73′)

MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 3-2 Vancouver Whitecaps (video)

New York City FC forward David Villa, left, and New York City FC defender Chris Wingert celebrate Villa's early goal during the first half of the match between New York City FC and Toronto FC, Sunday, July 12, 2015, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)
AP Photo/Kevin Hagen
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The game in 100 words (or less): New York City FC are still Frank Lampard-less (he’s yet to even appear on the bench this season), but at least they’re not seven games without a victory anymore. Having last won a game back on March 6, opening day, Patrick Vieira’s side stole one of the wackier games we’re likely to see all season at — yes, you guessed it — Yankee Stadium on Saturday. From down a goal after 37 seconds, to up 2-1 after a pair of brilliant strikes by David Villa, to staring into the face of another disappointing draw, to late jubilation, being an NYCFC supporter must be super fun awful exhausting. Let’s talk about Villa for a moment: 32 goals and assists combined in 39 MLS appearances. That’s not quite Robbie Keane territory, but alongside Sebastian Giovinco, he’s the only one anywhere close to achieving Keane’s obscene numbers.

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

1′ — Saunders gifts Rivero an early opener — It took NYCFC all of 37 seconds to go a goal behind, and Josh Saunders has no one but himself to blame for this one. Octavio Rivero hadn’t scored a goal in over eight months. This is one way to get going.

35′ — Villa clinical with his chance for 1-1 — Khiry Shelton played the through ball into acres of space, and Villa doesn’t miss chances like this one.

41′ — Villa side-volleys from a corner kick for 2-0 — Having Andrea Pirlo serve up delicate set-piece delivery to the back post for David Villa seems a fairly smart “gameplan” by Patrick Vieira. Villa is simply brilliant.

63′ — Bolaños puts home his own saved-PK rebound — Kekuta Manneh was taken down inside the penalty area, and Christian Bolaños nearly blew the penalty chance, but the Costa Rican followed up on the rebound and pulled the visitors level again.

73′ — Mendoza beats Ousted at his near post for the winner — David Ousted will be seeing this one in his sleep tonight. Beaten at his near post by a worm-burner without too terribly much behind it … not great from the big Dane.

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Man of the match: David Villa

Goalscorers: Rivero (1′), Villa (35′, 41′), Bolaños (63′), Mendoza (73′)

MLS Snapshot: Seattle Sounders 1-0 Columbus Crew SC (video)

Seattle Sounders' Jordan Morris, left, celebrates with teammate Nelson Valdez, right, after Morris scored a goal against the Philadelphia Union during the second half of an MLS soccer match, Saturday, April 16, 2016, in Seattle. The goal was Morris' first career MLS goal, and the Sounders defeated the Union 2-1. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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The game in 100 words (or less): Slowly but surely, it’s all starting to come together for the Seattle Sounders. Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Columbus Crew SC is the latest proof we have that Sigi Schmid’s side is finding its way and realizing its new, post-Obafemi Martins identity. After struggling mightily the first month and a half of the 2016 season, Saturday’s win saw a side full of attacking intent and, most importantly, ever-dangerous on counter-attacks.  As a newly-committed 4-3-3 side, this season’s edition of the Sounders will have to be much sturdier at the back, adept at attacking down the wings, and ruthless with their inevitably fewer chances. It was the last bit of that that eluded them for much of Saturday afternoon, but Jordan Morris provided the late breakthrough to score his third goal in three games, and suddenly the most heralded homegrown player in MLS history is flying.

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three moments that mattered

42′ — Finlay is in one-on-one, blows the finish — The build-up was brilliant, and all Ethan Finlay had to do was beat Stefan Frei with a shot inside of either post. Instead…

50′ — Dempsey heads just over the bar at the far post — Joevin Jones got all the way up the left wing and whipped in a delightful cross to the back post, but Clint Dempsey couldn’t keep his header down and it sailed just over the bar (WATCH HERE).

88′ — Morris bundles home after Clark makes a save — More like Jordan on the Spot, am I right?

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Man of the match: Osvaldo Alonso

Goalscorers: Morris (88′)

PL Sunday preview: The day Leicester are crowned champions?

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 24:  Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City (top) celebrates with team mates as he scores their first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Swansea City at The King Power Stadium on April 24, 2016 in Leicester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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The race for the 2015-16 Premier League title could be officially over by this time tomorrow. The biggest day in the history of Leicester City Football Club awaits…

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Swansea City vs. Liverpool — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

Swansea City (40 points – 15th place) are ever so close to guaranteeing their status as a Premier League club for another season, and a win over Liverpool at the Liberty Stadium would do the mathematical trick for the Swans. Three points would also vault them into 13th place with two games remaining on the season, a dream-land finish to the campaign that months ago looked destined to end in a relegation scrap.

As for Liverpool, the’re 10 points back of Manchester City for fourth place and UEFA Champions League qualification, so don’t be surprised if Jurgen rests a handful of key contributors with both eyes focused on Thursday’s UEFA Europa League semifinal second leg against Villarreal (Liverpool trail 1-0 after the first leg). Winning the UEL is the Reds’ last avenue for Champions League qualification next season, and the kind of recruiting tool Klopp will so desperately need to build his own squad in the summer transfer window.

Injuries: Swansea — OUT: Leroy Fer (hamstring), Alberto Paloschi (hamstring) | Liverpool — OUT: Divock Origi (ankle), Emre Can (ankle), Jordan Henderson (knee), Mamadou Sakho (suspension); QUESTIONABLE: Philippe Coutinho (illness)

[ MORE: PL roundup — Newcastle get massive win in relegation fight ]

Manchester United vs. Leicester City — 9 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

The last nine months have merely been building up to this day, this game, for this team — the soon-to-be Premier League champions, Manchester United Leicester City. Are you prepared to live in a world where, for 12 full months, the tag of “defending Premier League champions” will precede any mention of the Foxes? You better be, because it’s happening, perhaps on Sunday.

Louis Van Gaal has challenged his Man United side to not be the foes against which Leicester win the title, but that’ll be easier said than done against the side with the best points tally from away games (37 points from 17 games) in the league this season, including away triumphs over Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and West Ham United already. When these sides met back in November, it was United who grabbed a second-half equalizer for a 1-1 draw, canceling out Jamie Vardy‘s opener which set a new Premier League record for consecutive games with a game (11). The math is simple: a win for Leicester, and they’re PL champions; a draw for Leicester and a draw or loss for Tottenham at Chelsea on Monday, and Leicester are champions; a loss for Leicester and a loss for Tottenham, and Leicester are champions.

Injuries: Man United — OUT: Bastian Schweinsteiger (knee), Luke Shaw (leg)| Leicester — OUT: Jamie Vardy (suspension); QUESTIONABLE: Leonardo Ulloa (back)

[ MORE: PHOTOS — Arsenal fans hold another protest of club, Wenger ]

Southampton vs. Manchester City — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

West Ham’s thrashing of West Bromwich Albion on Saturday (plus a possible result for Man United on Sunday) at least makes the race for a top-four finish interesting for Man City, inasmuch as they need to win away to Southampton in order to maintain a five point gap between themselves and fifth place (a win would see them go back above Arsenal for third, based on goal differential).

As for Southampton, a win would secure their third straight top-eight finish in the PL, with a decent shot at leapfrogging Liverpool for seventh. When Saints and City met back in November, it was the latter side who took all three points in a 3-1 home victory.

Injuries: Southampton — QUESTIONABLE: Charlie Austin (knee) | Man City — OUT: David Silva (hamstring); QUESTIONABLE: Yaya Toure (thigh), Samir Nasri (hamstring)