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.

Transfer rumor roundup: Man City after two backs; Zelalem to Holland?

NAPLES, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 17: Napolis player Faouzi Ghoulam vies with Bologna FC player Simone Verdi during the Serie A match between SSC Napoli and Bologna FC at Stadio San Paolo on September 17, 2016 in Naples, Italy.  (Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images)
Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images
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Here are your transfer rumor headlines on a day when Gerard Deulofeu moves to AC Milan and Lazar Markovic heads to Hull City on loan.

[ MORE: Three players leave USMNT camp ]

Two Premier Leaguers could be heading down to help the Championship leaders. Newcastle United is said to be close to bringing Andros Townsend back from Crystal Palace after just a half-season, while Swansea City’s Mo Barrow is also on Rafa Benitez‘s radar.

An Arsenal blog says USMNT prospect Gedion Zelalem may have found his loan destination. The 19-year-old could be leaving the Emirates Stadium for a loan stint at VVV Venlo, with the Dutch side sitting first in the second tier and in a promotion push.

The Manchester Evening News brings reports of two backs on the radar of Manchester City. Rai Sport is the source for Man City’s interest in Napoli left back Faouzi Ghoulam, who has six assists in 21 appearances for Partenopei between Serie A and the UEFA Champions League. Pep Guardiola may also want to be reunited with Juan Bernat, though that story comes from the wild swings of The Daily Mirror.

Sunderland is going to lose one of its two brightest lights in a dark, dismal season. The Black Cats have taken a lot of calls on Jermain Defoe, but it’s Patrick Van Aanholt who is on the move to rejoin Sam Allardyce at Crystal Palace. The Dutch standout is said to be purchased for $15 million, and would be the equivalent of a transfer six-pointer in the Premier League’s relegation race.

Report: West Ham turns down another Payet bid

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 14:  The Dimitri Payet of West Ham United sign is seen outside the stadium prior to the Premier League match between West Ham United and Crystal Palace at London Stadium on January 14, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
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West Ham United has rejected a third bid for wantaway midfielder Dimitri Payet, according to Sky Sports.

Marseille upped the ante to $28 million when it comes to the French midfielder, who has said he wants to go back to the club for “family reasons“.

[ MORE: Three players leave USMNT camp ]

Payet was given a $1.2 million loyalty bonus from West Ham earlier this season, but has continually tempted the rumor mill. He’s also winked at Arsenal.

He has 15 goals in parts of two seasons with the Irons, the same figure he boasted in two full years with Marseille. Payet has also played Lille, Saint-Etienne, Nantes, and AS Excelsior.

It’s been a rocky month for Payet, who could be doomed to purgatory at West Ham. Will any Premier League suitors come calling at the Irons’ $38 million asking price.

Serbia, Jamaican rosters weakened for USMNT friendlies

U.S. men's national soccer team coach Bruce Arena walks across the field during practice Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in Carson, Calif. Coach Arena opens camp with the team in the same training complex where he spent the past eight years running the LA Galaxy. Arena returned to the U.S. team in November to salvage its run for World Cup qualification. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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The United States will not be at full strength for upcoming friendlies against Serbia and Jamaica, but who will take on the USMNT’s batch of MLS stars?

Both Оrlovi and the Reggae Boyz have announced their rosters for matches. The U.S. faces Serbia on Sunday in San Diego before hosting Jamaica in Chattanooga on Feb. 4.

[ MORE: Three players leave USMNT camp ]

If Arena was looking for a winning start, he couldn’t have asked for much more (or less). In terms of UEFA coefficient, Serbia has the 27th ranked professional league in Europe. Jamaica is bringing a second-choice team as well.

Serbia

Thanks to the non-traditional window, Slavoljub Muslin does not have many players who’ve helped his cause in 2018 World Cup qualifying.

Only eight of Serbia’s players in San Diego will have been previously capped, and only two — Ognjen Cancarevic (27) and Enver Alivodic (32) — are over 25.

Goalkeepers: Filip Manojlović (Crvena zvezda) Ognjen Čančarević (Radnik, Surdulica)

Defenders: Nikola Maraš (Rad), Lazar Jovanović (Borac, Čačak), Vladimir Kovačević (Vojvodina), Nemanja Ćalasan (Spartak), Marko Klisura (Bačka), Nikola Ćirković (Voždovac), Nemanja Miletić (Partizan)

Midfielders: Marko Jevtović (Partizan), Stefan Panić (Metalac), Jovan Đokić (Javor), Marko Gobeljić (Napredak), Aleksandar Paločević (Vojvodina), Enver Alivodić (Novi Pazar), Srđan Plavšić (Crvena zvezda).

Strikers: Marko Mrkić (Radnički, Niš), Saša Jovanović (Mladost, Lučani).


Jamaica

Jamaica’s unit is even less of a threat, traditionally speaking, as even MLS players like Andre Blake, Oniel Fisher, and Shaun Francis were not called up by coach Theodore Whitmore.

Jacomeno Barrett (Montego Bay United), Shaven Paul (Portmore United), Nicholas Campbell (Marverly United), Dicoy Williams (Arnett Gardens FC), Ladale Ritchie (Montego Bay United), Damano Solomon (Portmore United), Rosario Harriott (Harbour View FC), Romaine Brackenridge (Tivoli Gardens), Kareem Manning (Portmore United), Jamie Robinson (UWI), Ewan Grandison (Portmore United), Andrew Vanzie (Humble Lion), Dwayne Ambusley (Montego Bay United), Tevin Shaw (Tivoli Gardens), Owayne Gordon (Montego Bay United), Rohan Richards (Jamalco FC), Allan Ottey (Montego Bay United), Shamar Nicholson (Boys Town FC), Rodave Murray (Waterhouse), Javon East (Portmore United), Jamiel Hardware (Boys Town FC), Dino Williams (Montego Bay United).

AFCON wrap: Tunisia joins Senegal in knockout rounds (video)

Tunisia's Wahbi Khazri smiles during a press conference in Libreville, Gabon, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, ahead of their African Cup of Nations Group B soccer match against Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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Half of the field is set for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations knockout rounds, as Group B completed his final day of group play on Monday in Gabon.

[ FIFA: World Cup draw date at Kremlin ]

Senegal will move onto play Cameroon on Saturday, while Tunisia will take on Burkina Faso.

Senegal 2-2 Algeria

Leicester City’s Islam Slimani scored twice, but it wasn’t enough to get Algeria into the knockout rounds of AFCON.

Papakouly Diop and Moussa Sow answered Slimani’s goals, and Senegal enforced its hold on the group it had already clinched after two matches.

Algeria needed a win and help, and looked to get it when Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani carried over their chemistry from the Foxes of England to the Fennecs of Algeria.

Zimbabwe 2-4 Tunisia

Sunderland’s Wahbi Khazri scored of the fourth of Tunisia’s first half goals as the Eagles of Carthage emphatically clinched their knockout round spot. Tunisia lost in the quarterfinals in 2015.

Lille’s Naïm Sliti was also among the goal scorers for Tunisia, with Youssef Msakni (Lekhwiya) and Taha Yassine Khenissi (Esperance de Tunis) also netting markers.

Tendai Ndoro (Orlando Pirates) and Knowledge Musona (Oostende) scored for Zimbabwe.