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.

Watch Live: Newcastle-Palace, Stoke-Sunderland; all 10am ET games

during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Swansea City at St James' Park on April 16, 2016 in Newcastle, England.
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Five Premier League games are coming your way at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday, with plenty of tasty matches on the slate which have huge implications in the battle against relegation.

[ LIVE: Stream PL via Live Extra 

Click on the link above, or the individual links below, to stream every single game live online via Live Extra. Plus, if it’s lineups, stats and a box score you are after, click on the link below.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

So, here is your one-stop streaming shop for every PL game kicking off at 10 a.m. ET.


Saturday, 10 a.m. ET kick offs

Newcastle United vs. Crystal Palace – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, USA Network) –  [STREAM]

Former Newcastle boss Alan Pardew is back at St James’ Park. Will he be the villain? Rafael Benitez’s men have gone three unbeaten but must win this if they want to stay up.

Stoke City vs. Sunderland – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Sunderland are outside of the bottom three and have their destiny in their own hands. Stoke has conceded four goals in each of their last three games amid a severe loss form.

Watford vs. Aston Villa – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM]

Two teams out of form clash at Vicarage Road. Villa are already relegated and trying to avoid a club record 11th-straight defeat. The future of Watford’s Quique Sanchez Flores seems under threat.

Everton vs. Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Home fans are on Roberto Martinez’s back, big time. The Everton manager could go this summer and badly needs a big home win. The Cherries have lost four of their last five but should be safe.

West Brom vs. West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

The Baggies put a huge dent in Tottenham’s title hopes earlier this week, can they end West Ham’s top four hopes? Slaven Bilic‘s side have drawn four of their last five games.

Wenger ahead of Arsenal protests: “Banks demanded I signed for five years”

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Arsene Wenger has a message for Arsenal fans ahead of widespread protests planned from the home fans at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday as they face Norwich City (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via Live Extra).

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After 20 years in charge Wenger, 66, wants to remind Gunners fans of his commitment to their future as it is claimed he turned down Manchester City, Real Madrid and Barcelona in order to safeguard the future of Arsenal.

He believes the current criticism of him and his team is unjust, despite Arsenal not winning a Premier League title in 12 years and seeing their title dreams turn into a top four scramble in the closing months of this season with Tottenham and Leicester City above them.

In regards to Arsenal’s move to the Emirates Stadium and the complicated financial deal to get it over the line, Wenger had the following to say to the media (courtesy of the Guardian) ahead of what promises to be a difficult day for him.

“When we built the stadium the banks demanded I signed for five years,” Wenger said. “I did it. Do you want me to tell you how many clubs I turned down during that period? I have shown I am committed.

“The banks wanted the technical consistency to guarantee we had a chance to pay back [the loan],” Wenger added. “I did commit and I stayed, under very difficult circumstances. So for me to find [his critics] are reproaching me for not winning the championship during that period I think is a bit overboard. I accept criticism but I think that it is a bit too far.

“When we built the stadium, we knew we’d have five to seven difficult financial years where we had to pay the money back: we had to be three years in the Champions League out of five and have an average of 54,000 people [to meet costs], and we didn’t know we would be capable of that. We had to sell our best players every year to survive but we didn’t do three years out of five in the Champions League. We did five out of five. Now the club is in a stronger position and we can compete again with our main opponents.”

Arsenal fans, do you agree with Wenger on this?

Many aren’t disputing the fact that Wenger has his hands tied as the likes of Robin Van Persie, Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas moved on to help finance the move to the Emirates, but they want success. They’ve had over a decade of hearing Wenger talk about how finances have dictated that the team can’t compete for trophies. They showed their disdain last week by staying away in their thousands from the 2-0 win over West Brom. 

[ MORE: Empty seats galore at the Emirates mean big problems

The protests on Saturday will be against Wenger, but only because he’s a focal point of the club. The main criticism will go against Arsenal’s board and majority shareholder Stan Kroenke for failing to invest heavily in the squad and make any managerial change which is needed.

Arsenal seem highly likely to finish in the top four for the 19th-straight season and qualify for the UEFA Champions League. That achievement under Wenger should not be understated, especially as we see giants like Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool struggling to finish in the top four in recent seasons.

The biggest issue is, even if Wenger was to move on this summer, who is a a better option than him right now? Maybe that’s the biggest point of contention for Arsenal fans. They are stick between a rock and a hard place.

MLS Snapshot: New York Red Bulls 4-0 FC Dallas (video)

HARRISON, NJ - NOVEMBER 29:  Felipe Martins #8 of New York Red Bulls drives around Federico Higuain #10 of Columbus Crew during their match at Red Bull Arena on November 29, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): Is it too early to say the Red Bulls have their mojo back? While FC Dallas will be leaving Harrison dazed and confused, the Red Bulls found success offensively for the second consecutive match, while also shutting out a potent attack. Head coach Jesse Marsch recently said that the Red Bulls’ win over Orlando City could spark a positive chain reaction moving forward, and it appears he was right. The Red Bulls looked dangerous every time they came down the Dallas end, finding the back of the net four times. Dallas still holds the top spot in the Western Conference, while New York makes a jump in the East, now sitting on nine points this season.

[ MORE: Previewing Week 9 around MLS ]

Three moments that mattered

37′ — Clever Red Bulls free kick finished by Sam — After two players ran over the ball, Sacha Kljestan’s chip to the far post was perfectly placed toward the run of Sal Zizzo. The right back nodded it into the center, where Lloyd Sam smashed the close-range chance home for the Red Bulls opener.

52′ — Kljestan doubles lead in style — Sam continued his impressive night for the Red Bulls after a long-range effort struck the bar from 40 yards out. Sacha Kljestan’s hustle put him in the right place at the right time and slid in to head the ball into the open net. FC Dallas keeper Jesse Gonzalez made his best effort but the initial shot’s bounce threw him off.

71′ — Grella heads home third — Sam was arguably the most dangerous man on the pitch Friday night, and he was directly involved in New York’s third goal. The 31-year-old found himself down the right wing, before laying the ball off to Felipe. The Brazilian crossed the ball into a striding Grella, who headed the ball home, giving Gonzalez no chance.

82′ — Felipe concludes the rout  — The Brazilian got in on the action for the fourth time on the night. The central midfielder received the ball at the top of the box from rookie Alex Muyl, before ripping a effort to the top corner. Gonzalez managed to get a hand to it, but Felipe’s shot was too strong to keep out.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Lloyd Sam

Goalscorers: Lloyd Sam (37′), Sacha Kljestan (52′), Mike Grella (71′), Felipe (82′)

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Crotone promoted to Serie A for 1st time in its history

CROTONE, ITALY - APRIL 23: Team of Crotone celebrate after the Serie B match between FC Crotone and Como Calcio  at Stadio Comunale Ezio Scida on April 23, 2016 in Crotone, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
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MODENA, Italy (AP) Crotone secured promotion to Italy’s top flight for the first time in its history Friday, drawing 1-1 at Modena in Serie B to spark scenes of celebration in the Calabrian city.

[ MORE: Preliminary Brazilian Copa America roster features Kaka, Coutinho ]

There are three rounds remaining but a point was enough to guarantee Ivan Juric’s team will finish in the top two in the second division and earn automatic promotion to Serie A.

Cagliari is second, seven points behind Crotone, with Trapani eight points further back.

Davide Luppi gave Modena the lead in the 17th minute but former Juventus and Italy forward Raffaele Palladino leveled with a penalty on the stroke of halftime.

Around 1,200 fans had travelled to Modena, while thousands of people are celebrating in the streets of Crotone, where there were two giant screens set up for fans to watch the match.

It is Juric’s first season in charge of Crotone. The former Croatia midfielder also spent five years as a player for Crotone, before moving to Genoa in 2006.

The Stadio Ezio Scida, where Crotone plays its home matches, holds less than 10,000 people.

Fellow minnows Carpi and Frosinone were promoted to Serie A for the first time in their history last season.

Carpi is currently three points above the drop zone, while Frosinone is five points from safety.