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.

Swansea City 1-2 Watford: Hornets win away again

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  • Richarlison scores late winner
  • Gray gave Watford the lead
  • Watford have three-straight away wins 

Watford beat Swansea City in the final minute at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday with Richarlison netting a late winner for Marco Silva‘s men.

Andre Gray gave Watford the lead but Swansea equalized through Tammy Abraham and then Richarlison snatched all three points late on as the Hornets won 2-1 in South Wales.

With the victory Marco Silva’s men move on to 11 points for the season after winning all three of their away games, while Swansea stay on four points and haven’t won at home this season.

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The Hornets took the lead through Gray, his first goal for Watford, as the former Burnley striker made the most of a bad mistake from Wilfried Bony.

A poor back pass was picked up by Gray who played it wide to Andre Carrillo and his cross was half cleared but the ball fell to Gray who swept home to make it 1-0.

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Swansea struggled throughout the first half with plenty of misplaced passes and Alfie Mawson gave the ball away cheaply in a poor area but Gray couldn’t grab his and Watford’s second of the game.

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After making two half time subs with Roque Mesa and Abraham coming on, Swansea rallied at the start of the second half and they equalized through Abraham.

Bony’s effort was saved by Heurelho Gomes but half time sub Abraham poked the ball home to make it 1-1.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ] 

Swansea improved dramatically after the equalizer with Mesa going close as the Welsh side pushed hard for the winner late on.

However Watford won it in the 89th minute as Richarlison made the most of mistakes from Mesa and Mawson and sent a shot over Lukasz Fabianski and in.

WATCH LIVE: Leicester City vs. Liverpool

Mike Egerton/PA via AP
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Liverpool hopes a better lineup at the same venue will make the difference when it visits Leicester City at King Power Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

Leicester beat Liverpool 2-0 midweek in the League Cup, but the Reds didn’t have their top center back duo in Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip. They’ll start Saturday.

The Foxes have red-hot Shinji Okazaki playing with Jamie Vardy up top.

LINEUPS

Leicester City: Schmeichel, Simpson, Morgan (c), Maguire, Chilwell, Ndidi, King, Albrighton, Mahrez, Okazaki, Vardy. Subs: Hamer, Fuchs, Amarety, Iborra, Gray, Iheanacaho, Slimani.

Liverpool: Mignolet, Gomez, Lovren, Matip, Moreno, Can, Henderson, Wijnaldum, Coutinho, Salah, Firmino. Subs: Karius, Milner, Sturridge, Solanke, Klavan, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexander-Arnold.

Manchester City 5-0 Crystal Palace: City helps Eagles make history

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  • De Bruyne pulling strings
  • Sterling scores two
  • Sane goal, assist

Leroy Sane’s magical playmaking lifted rampant Manchester City to a 5-0 win over Crystal Palace, whose futility made history at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.

Raheem Sterling scored twice, while Sergio Aguero, Fabian Delph, and Sane also scored as leaders City moved past Manchester United on goal differential.

Palace remains winless and goalless, the first Premier League team to start a season without a goal through six matches.

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Mamadou Sakho‘s attempt to deal with a Kevin De Bruyne cross beat his own keeper, and Wayne Hennessey was happy to see the ball bump off his far post.

Hennessey was then in position to block Fernandinho‘s point blank attempt off a corner kick.

Palace did have a chance thanks to one of its early stars of their slow-starting season, but Ruben Loftus-Cheeks’ shot from outside the 18 bounded off the post.

A tough angle for Aguero saw him chop Leroy Sane’s cutback over the bar from seven yards. Sane was the one who made it 1-0 minutes later.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Sterling made it 2-0 just after halftime, as Sane put it on a platter with a square ball from the left.

He added his second when De Bruyne found Aguero with a diagonal ball and the Argentine cut back for Sterling to touch into the goal.

Play had hardly restarted when Sane was stopped by a sliding Hennessey at the doorstep.

And Sane sent a marvelous, powerful cross for Aguero to head home in the 79th minute.

Delph curled a gorgeous shot home in the 89th minute to put an exclamation point on the result.

Everton 2-1 Bournemouth: Niasse the hero

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  • Niasse scores first PL goals for Everton
  • King gave Bournemouth lead
  • Everton’s first win in five

Everton battled back to beat Bournemouth 2-1 at Goodison Park on Saturday with Josh King‘s strike canceled out by two Oumar Niasse goals.

The Cherries took the lead early in the second half but substitute Niasse made it three goals in two games for the Toffees as the former Hull loanee has been brought in from the cold by Ronald Koeman.

With the win Everton move on to seven points, while Bournemouth have now lost four of their opening six games.

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Wayne Rooney suffered a nasty injury as Bournemouth’s skipper Simon Francis elbowed him in the eye as a ball looped into the box.

No penalty kick was given and Rooney had to receive treatment as blood poured out of a wound above his left eye.

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Aside from that injury to Rooney neither side created clear cut chances as Everton’s fans started to get restless.

Those groans grew as Bournemouth took the lead four minutes into the second half.

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Charlie Daniels picked up the ball on the left and played it into King who ran towards goal and Everton’s defense opened up for him to drill a low shot into the bottom corner.

Jermain Defoe then had a glorious chance but Jordan Pickford saved well down low with his feet.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ] 

Tom Davies and Niasse came on for Rooney and Davy Klaassen to try and get Everton back into the game and that’s exactly what they did.

First Mason Holgate had a header cleared spectacularly off the line from Andrew Surman and then Davies played in Niasse superbly with the Senegalese striker smashing home to make it 1-1.

He did it again late on as a shot from Davies was blocked and the ball looped into the air and Niasse prodded home to send Goodison wild.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin almost added another late on from close range but the Toffees held on to secure their first win since the opening day of the season.