Andres Iniesta

Confederations Cup semifinals preview: Spain, Brazil favorites in Cinderella-free final four

3 Comments

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.

Report: Steven Taylor to join Timbers, give PDX another nasty CB

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - MARCH 02:  Steven Taylor of Newcastle United during the warm up prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Newcastle United at the Britannia Stadium on March 2, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Nat Borchers’ achilles injury was a huge blow for Portland, but the Timbers are about to make up for it (perhaps and then some).

Longtime Newcastle United defender Steven Taylor is set to join ex-Premier League center back Liam Ridgwell in the Portland back line, according to Sky Sources.

[ MORE: Immobile finds new team ]

Taylor, 30, has made 265 appearances for Newcastle but did not have a place under new coach Rafa Benitez.

Any concerns about how he’ll fare in Major League Soccer have nothing to do with skill or intelligence, rather his injury history; Taylor has dealt with achilles, knee and head injuries in several of his 13 seasons with the Magpies.

It’s a huge pickup for Portland, though the Timbers need a lot of help to repeat the form that got them to the 2015 MLS Cup; Portland is 7th in the West and winless on the road.

Shy of injuries, Taylor’s skill set will instantly translate to MLS. Look for him to pitch in offensively as well, and be an instant leader. Most notably, Taylor turned down interest from around the PL when Newcastle was relegated in 2009, opting to stay alongside Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez in instantly returning NUFC to the top flight.

Immobile on the move again, switching to Lazio

MONTPELLIER, FRANCE - JUNE 29:  Ciro Immobile of Italy speaks with the media during a press conference at Casa Azzurri on June 29, 2016 in Montpellier, France.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

The Ciro Immobile odyssey continues, though this move is within Serie A.

Since debuting for Juventus in 2009, Immobile has played for eight teams. He joins a ninth, Lazio, this season, after playing for Torino on loan from Sevilla last season.

[ MORE: Conte questions PL spending ]

Immobile, 26, earned a move away from Juve after scoring 28 goals for Serie B side Pescara in 2012.

He’s also played for Borussia Dortmund, Genoa, Siena, and Grossetto, and has 15 caps with one goal for the Italian national team.

Immobile appeared as a sub in two matches at EURO 2016, while Lazio finished eighth in Serie A last season.

Mascherano to stay at Barcelona through 2018-19 season

Javier Mascherano, FC Barcelona
AP
Leave a comment

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Argentina international Javier Mascherano has agreed to extend his contract with the Spanish champions until June 2019.

[ MORE: Guardiola bans pizza

Club executive Albert Soler says “we have reached an agreement to improve (Mascherano’s) contract” without specifying the financial details.

The 32-year-old Mascherano plays as a central defender for Barcelona alongside fellow first-choice centerback Gerard Pique.

[ MORE: Zlatan reveals MLS offer ]

Since his arrival in 2010 from Liverpool, he has played in 282 games for Barcelona and helped it win 16 titles, including two Champions League crowns.

Also on Wednesday, Barcelona presented new midfielder Andre Gomes.

Transfer Rumors: Koulibaly to Chelsea, Stones to Man City, Arsenal chase CB

MILAN, ITALY - APRIL 16:  Mauro Icardi (L) of FC Internazionale Milano controls the ball against Kalidou Koulibaly of SSC Napoli during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale Milano and SSC Napoli at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on April 16, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
Getty Images
2 Comments

It has been reported by Sky Italy that Chelsea have made a $50 million bid for Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly.

The towering Senegalese defender has been liked with both Chelsea and Everton and Koulibaly’s agent has recently said that his client will leave the Serie A side this summer.

[ MORE: Guardiola bans pizza

Koulibaly, 25, is refusing to sign a new deal with Napoli and with John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill as Chelsea’s three experienced options at center back — Kurt Zouma is still recovering from a serious knee injury and Matt Miazga is still developing at Stamford Bridge — new Chelsea manager Antonio Conte appears to favor strengthening his central defensive options.

Leaking goals was a big problem for the Blues last season as their title defense started woefully and they ended up finishing 10th in the Premier League table. Conte will shore things up and this reported bid for Koulibaly suggests he is ready to splash some more cash, despite questioning the sustainability of big money transfers less than 24 hours ago.


Manchester City is reportedly closing in on deals for four different players as Pep Guardiola looks to bring in plenty of new faces ahead of his first season in charge.

According to the BBC, Everton and City are discussing the transfer of John Stones for $65 million. The 22-year-old center back has long been linked with City and the England international has reportedly told Everton he wants to leave Goodison Park. Stones struggled for most of last season after breaking through in the previous two PL campaigns but he believes his fluid passing from the back game will flourish in Guardiola’s system.

[ MORE: Zlatan reveals MLS offer ]

Three attacking players are also linked with City as Leroy Sane returned to training with Schalke on Wednesday. The 20-year-old attacker is valued at over $52 million by Schalke and Sky Sports is reporting that the two clubs are in talks about the transfer fee.

Sky also says that City are close to tying up two deals for South American teenage forwards Gabriel Jesus and Marlos Moreno. Atletico Nacional in Colombia want around $11 million for Moreno, while Palmeiras value Jesus at over $26 million. The latter will be playing for Brazil at Rio 2016 Olympics and there is a slight snag with both of these deals as obtaining work permits could be an issue.


Arsene Wenger has made his transfer target clear: “We have to look for an option to get a bit more experience.”

He was, of course, talking about an experienced center back.

The Gunners could be without Laurent Koscielny for the start of the season as he continues to recover from a busy summer with the French national team, while Per Mertesacker has been ruled out with a long-term knee injury leaving Wenger with only Gabriel, Rob Holding and Calum Chambers (maybe even Nacho Monreal shifting in from left back) to choose from.

It will be interesting to see who Arsenal go for in their hunt for some cover. Maybe Martin Demichelis who is a free agent?