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.

La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid hold serve in tight title race

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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Super-duper Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of top 7 ]

Espanyol 0-3 Barcelona

Barcelona are doing all they can do — win — in their bid to usurp Real Madrid in the race for the title. While they entered the weekend — and still are — ahead of their El Clasico rivals based on head-to-head results this season, Los Blancos still have a game in hand which will surely decide whether Madrid claim their 33rd top-division title, or a 25th for Barca.

On Saturday, Luis Enrique’s side had more than just the title at stake — also at stake: the Derbi Barceloni, against fellow Catalan side Espanyol.

For 45 minutes, the home side held firm and refused to break, but once Luis Suarez put the Blaugrana ahead in the 50th minute, that was all she wrote. Ivan Rakitic doubled the advantage in the 76th minute, and Suarez completed the scoring 11 minutes later.

Real Madrid 2-1 Valencia

By the time the derby kicked off, Madrid had already applied the pressure and gone three points clear with a 2-1 victory that was a whole lot closer than the final score indicates.

Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring just before the half-hour mark, and Zinedine Zidane’s side was well on its way to victory. Ronaldo followed up his opening goal with a missed penalty kick 10 minutes into the second half, and Daniel Parejo pulled the visitors level with a sensational free kick just eight minutes before the end of regular time. Points looked sure to be dropped, and the door opened wider for Barca, but Marcelo was prepared to play the part of hero on the day, and the Brazilian left back bagged one of the season’s more improbable goals, a right-footed strike from the top of the box, in the 86th minute.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Las Palmas 0-5 Atletico Madrid
Real Sociedad 2-1 Granada

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Osasuna vs. Deportivo La Coruña — 6 a.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Alaves — 10:15 a.m. ET
Eibar vs. Leganes — 12:30 p.m. ET
Celta Vigo vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:45 p.m. ET

Monday’s La Liga schedule

Malaga vs. Sevilla — 3 p.m. ET

Championship Focus: It’s all about the playoff places now

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With Brighton & Hove Albion and Newcastle United having already clinched the Championship’s two automatic promotion places, all eyes turn to the four teams behind them still jockeying for playoff positioning…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s coverage of the Championship ]

3rd — Reading — 82 points, +2 GD
4th — Sheffield Wednesday — 81 points, +16 GD
5th — Huddersfield Town — 81 points, +1 GD
6th — Fulham — 77 points, +27 GD

First of all, the Championship remains the least sensible league in the world. Disagree? Just try to explain the above wildly varying points totals and the corresponding goal differentials. Go ahead, I’ll wait

As for the weekend’s results, Reading and Wednesday did themselves major favors in the race for third with victories over Wigan Athletic (1-0) and Ipswich Town (1-0), respectively, while Huddersfield, who entered the weekend in that top playoff place, played 67 minutes with a man advantage against Birmingham City, and lost 2-0. All three of Reading, Wednesday and Huddersfield have clinched their place in the promotion playoffs, which begin two weeks from Saturday, on May 13.

[ MORE: PL Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of the top 7 play ]

Given Leeds United’s 3-3 draw with Norwich City, a win would have clinched the fourth and final playoff place for Fulham, but the Cottagers dropped a pair of points themselves in a 1-1 draw with Brentford at Craven Cottage. Still, Fulham are all but into the playoffs with a three-point lead on Leeds, and a goal differential that’s 13 goals better.

PL Sunday preview: North London derby; clarity for the top-four?

Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images & Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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There’s Super Sunday, and then there’s this Sunday, when six of the top seven sides in the Premier League will be in action…

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Manchester United vs. Swansea City — 7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com

Injury crisis — noun: see, also: United, Manchester

With five games to go in the PL season, and a top-four place very much within reach — as well as the Europa League trophy — Jose Mourinho is without a half-dozen players whom would have been considered automatic first-choice starters at the season’s start (see below). Fortunately for him, he’s got players like Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan beyond anxious for additional playing time.

Following a 0-0 draw with Manchester City on Thursday, Man United have climbed to within two points of third-place Liverpool (with a game in hand), and control their own destiny as far as finishing in the top-four goes. Following three straight defeats to Swansea in 2014 and 2015, order has somewhat been restored with the Red Devils winning the last two meetings between the sides. As badly as United need three points to qualify for the UEFA Champions League, the Swans need them more in their bid to stave off relegation from the PL (they currently sit three points back of 17th-place Hull City, with a better goal differential).

INJURIES: Man United — OUT: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (knee), Paul Pogba (leg), Marcos Rojo (knee), Juan Mata (groin), Marouane Fellaini (suspension), Chris Smalling (knee), Phil Jones (toe) | Swansea — OUT: Angel Rangel (foot), Nathan Dyer (achilles), Wayne Routledge (hernia)

Everton vs. Chelsea — 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com

Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they are winless in their last two visits (PL and FA Cup), looks to be Chelsea’s toughest remaining fixture as Antonio Conte‘s side seeks to lift the club’s fifth PL trophy (sixth in all eras). After a pair of losses in four games’ time saw their lead cut from 10 points to four, the Blues reasserted themselves as the team to beat with an FA Cup semifinal victory over Tottenham Hotspur, their last remaining challenger, and a convincing 4-2 victory over Southampton in league play on Tuesday.

INJURIES: Everton — OUT: Seamus Coleman (leg), Ramiro Funes Mori (knee), James McCarthy (hamstring), Yannick Bolasie (knee), Muhamed Besic (fitness) | Chelsea — OUT: None

[ MORE: Sunderland officially relegated to Championship ]

Middlesbrough vs. Manchester City — 9:05 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com

Following that 0-0 draw in the Manchester derby, Man City remain fourth in the league table, a single point back of Liverpool (with a game in hand). Given the mathematics involved, their margin for error is greater than any of the three sides fighting for the final top Champions League places. With that said, a loss away to 19th-place Boro would be horrendous, season-defining result — one that would take their destiny out of their own hands and see them rely on results elsewhere to finish top-four in Pep Guardiola‘s first season.

INJURIES: Boro — OUT: Victor Valdes (ribs); QUESTIONABLE: Grant Leadbitter (hamstring) | Man City — OUT: John Stones (knock), Ilkay Gundogan (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Sergio Aguero (back), David Silva (ankle), Gabriel Jesus (fitness)

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Arsenal — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

It was confirmed on Friday that Sunday’s North London derby would be the very last meeting between Tottenham and Arsenal ever played at White Hart Lane, as the 118-year-old stadium will be demolished this summer as construction on Spurs’ brand new, 61,000-seat stadium continues. As fate would have it, not only can Spurs round out the White Hart Lane era with another famous derby when at the Lane, but Sunday also offers Mauricio Pochettino‘s side the chance to do something the club has failed to do in each of the last 22 seasons: clinch a finish above Arsenal in the league table.

Everything is in Spurs’ favor, too, as they’ve won eight straight league games for just the third time in club history (the first time in the PL era), by a combined score of 23-4. Following back-to-back 4-0 wins, over Watford and Bournemouth, their title hopes were kept alive by a brilliant, late strike from Christian Eriksen on Wednesday at Selhurst Park. At the same time, Arsenal were fortunate to top Leicester City courtesy of a comical own goal scored by Robert Huth. If any of those things — stadium nostalgia, form, or current standing in the league (Spurs sit second, 14 points clear of the Gunners — mattered, we’d hand Spurs the three points now. But, this is still Spurs we’re talking about, and why would we ever skip out on the North London derby?

INJURIES: Tottenham — OUT: Erik Lamela (hip), Harry Winks (ankle), Michel Vorm (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Danny Rose (knee)| Arsenal — OUT: Santi Cazorla (achilles), Shkodran Mustafi (thigh); QUESTIONABLE: Laurent Koscielny (knee)

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern Munich wins 27th German title in style

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Make it five in-a-row and a record 27 titles for German powers Bayern Munich.

[ MORE: Sunderland relegated ]

No other club has won more than Nurnberg’s nine titles, while Borussia Dortmund (8), Schalke (7), and Hamburg (6) are deep in the rear view mirror.


Wolfsburg 0-6 Bayern Munich

Bayern entered the day knowing a win would put the title out of reach for RB Leipzig, and David Alaba scored before the match was 20 minutes old to put the Bavarians on their way.

Robert Lewandowski added to the score line twice before half, passing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Borussia Dortmund) atop the goal scoring chart with his 27th and 28th of the season.

Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, and Joshua Kimmich contributed second half goals.

Here’s Lewandowski’s first.

RB Leipzig 0-0 Ingolstadt

Despite a 15-6 advantage in shot attempts and three times as many passes completed, RB Leipzig cast aside its slim chances for a Bundesliga title. Still, a shot at second in their first season is far from a shame.

Elsewhere
Bayer Leverkusen 1-4 Schalke – Friday
Borussia Dortmund 0-0 Koln
Werder Bremen 2-0 Hertha Berlin – Bartels, Kruse score
Mainz 1-2 Borussia Monchengladbach – Schulz scores winner
Darmstadt 3-0 Freiburg – 3rd-straight W for basement dwellers
Augsburg vs. Hamburg – 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Hoffenheim vs. Eintracht Frankfurt – 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday

Standings

 

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 31 22 7 2 79 17 62 11-4-0 11-3-2 73
 RB Leipzig 31 19 6 6 56 31 25 12-2-2 7-4-4 63
 Borussia Dortmund 31 16 9 6 65 35 30 11-4-0 5-5-6 57
 1899 Hoffenheim 30 14 13 3 57 32 25 10-5-0 4-8-3 55
 Hertha BSC Berlin 31 14 4 13 38 37 1 12-1-2 2-3-11 46
 Werder Bremen 31 13 6 12 52 51 1 8-1-7 5-5-5 45
 SC Freiburg 31 13 5 13 38 55 -17 9-1-5 4-4-8 44
 1. FC Köln 31 10 12 9 43 37 6 7-6-2 3-6-7 42
 Mönchengladbach 31 12 6 13 41 45 -4 7-3-5 5-3-8 42
 FC Schalke 04 31 11 8 12 43 36 7 8-4-4 3-4-8 41
 Eintracht Frankfurt 30 11 8 11 32 34 -2 7-6-2 4-2-9 41
 Bayer Leverkusen 31 10 6 15 44 50 -6 5-5-6 5-1-9 36
 FSV Mainz 05 31 9 6 16 40 51 -11 6-4-6 3-2-10 33
 VfL Wolfsburg 31 9 6 16 30 49 -19 5-2-9 4-4-7 33
 Hamburger SV 30 9 6 15 30 55 -25 7-3-5 2-3-10 33
 FC Augsburg 30 8 8 14 29 49 -20 4-5-6 4-3-8 32
 FC Ingolstadt 04 31 8 5 18 33 54 -21 4-3-8 4-2-10 29
 Darmstadt 31 7 3 21 26 58 -32 6-3-7 1-0-14 24