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.

LIVE: Europa League Round of 32 – Spurs, Ajax, Bilbao in action

Tottenham's Harry Kane, 2nd right, is congratulated by his teammates after scoring his side's 2nd goal during the Champions League group E soccer match between Tottenham Hotspur and CSKA Moscow at Wembley stadium in London, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
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The Europa League Round of 32 second legs keep coming on Thursday.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

After Manchester United, Schalke and Krasnodar all booked their spots in the last 16 on Wednesday, the 13 remaining clashes take place across Europe on Thursday.

Tottenham Hotspur host Belgian outfit Gent at a sold-out Wembley Stadium as close to 90,000 fans will roar on Mauricio Pochettino‘s men. Harry Kane and Co. will need all the help they can get too as Tottenham trail 1-0 from the first leg in Belgium last week.

Elsewhere, APOEL Nicosia, Borussia Monchengladbach and Shakhtar Donetsk will all look to overturn narrow deficits, while Ajax, Osmanlispor and Genk will be hoping to make home advantage count with their ties locked in a stalemate.

It’s an uphill battle for Villarreal, Sparta Prague and AZ Alkmaar, but strange things happen in this tournament (See: Liverpool’s stunning comeback against Borussia Dortmund).

The draw for the last 16 of the Europa League will take place on Friday and it could get quite tasty as there are no seedings and no protection against being drawn against teams from your own association and from your group stage.

So: Manchester United vs. Tottenham?

Click on the link above for live scores, updates and stats from the three games on Thursday, while we will have updates and analysis on all the action right here at Pro Soccer Talk.

Here’s the Europa League schedule below, with the score from the first leg in parenthesis.


Thursday’s Europa League Round of 32, second legs

Full Thursday schedule

11 a.m. ET
Osmanlispor vs. Olympiacos (0-0)

1 p.m. ET
APOEL Nicosia vs. Athletic Bilbao (Bilbao leads 3-2)
Besiktas vs. Hapoel Be’er Sheva (Besiktas leads 3-1)
Ajax vs. Legia Warsaw (0-0)
Roma vs. Villarreal (Roma leads 4-0)
Zenit Saint Petersburg vs. Anderlecht (Zenit trails 2-0)
Fiorentina vs. Borussia Monchengladbach (Gladbach trails 1-0)

3:05 p.m. ET
Lyon vs. AZ Alkmaar (Lyon leads 4-1)
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Celta Vigo (Shakhtar trails 1-0)
Sparta Prague vs. Rostov (Rostov leads 4-0)
Genk vs. Astra Giurgiu (2-2)
Copenhagen vs. Ludogorets (Copenhagen leads 2-1)
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Gent (Spurs trail 1-0)

Wayne Rooney issues statement on Man United future

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - NOVEMBER 03:  Wayne Rooney of Manchester United looks on during the UEFA Europa League Group A match between Fenerbahce SK and Manchester United FC at Sukru Saracoglu Stadium on November 3, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
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Wayne Rooney has issued a statement saying he will remain at Manchester United.

[ MORE: What is Rooney’s best option? ]

Rooney, 31, has been heavily linked with a move to the Chinese Super League and after his agent flew to China to meet with interested clubs those reports intensified. 

However, the all-time leading scorer for Manchester United and England has issued the following statement on his decision to stay at United.

Over to you, Wayne.

“Despite the interest which has been show from other clubs, for which I’m grateful, I want to end recent speculation and say I am staying at Man United. I hope I’ll play a full part in leading the team in its fight for success on four fronts. It’s an exciting time at the club and I want to remain part of it.”

Rooney is contracted to United until 2019 and although he has become a bit-part player at United this season he still has a big part to play.

With the emergence of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, not to mention Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Zlatan Ibrahimovic around, Rooney is no longer the first name on the teamsheet in the attacking area.

That’s something he will have to accept under new manager Jose Mourinho and, after a little bit of soul-searching while on the sidelines injured for the past three weeks, it’s obviously something Rooney has begrudgingly come to terms with.

For now.

He will still contribute at key moments for United and get plenty of minutes between now and the end of the season as United are in the last eight of the FA Cup, the last 16 of the Europa League and face Southampton in the EFL Cup final this weekend as well as continuing their top four hunt in the Premier League.

Still, Rooney will want to play regularly and after 13 years at Old Trafford the chance of that happening seems very unlikely as long as Mourinho is in charge. That could impact his chances of being called up by England boss Gareth Southgate which will be especially damaging ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia (Rooney has already said that will be his final major tournament) next summer.

It’s likely Rooney will reassess the situation this summer and could still head to the Chinese Super League, or even Major League Soccer. The other option is to go back to boyhood club Everton to see out his playing days, if (and it’s a big if) the Toffees can afford his wages.

Right now, though, it seems like Rooney is set to become the next Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs as he prolongs his career with the Red Devils. He may not stick around as Giggs and Scholes, but given all he has achieved for United he deserves to leave or remain on his own terms.

Premier League player Power Rankings – Top 20

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 04:  Ngolo Kante of Chelsea runs with the ball under pressure from Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on February 4, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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The Premier League action is back after the FA Cup and European action took center stage. Hug someone. This is awesome.

[ MORE: Power Rankings archive

With that in mind, there are a handful of new faces in our Power Rankings, with Chelsea and Man City continuing to dominate.

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections of the top 20 players in the PL right now.


  1. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – Even
  2. Harry Kane (Tottenham) New entry
  3. N’Golo Kante (Chelsea) – Down 1
  4. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Man United) – New entry
  5. Sadio Mane (Liverpool) – Down 1
  6. Raheem Sterling (Man City) – Even
  7. Paul Pogba (Man United) – New entry
  8. Sergio Aguero (Man City) – New entry
  9. David Luiz (Chelsea) – Down 4
  10. Manolo Gabbiadini (Southampton) – Down 4
  11. Diego Costa (Chelsea) – Up 7
  12. Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea) – Down 5
  13. Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Man United) – Down 4
  14. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham) – New entry
  15. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City) – Down 4
  16. Juan Mata (Man United) – Even
  17. Leroy Sane (Man City) – Down 4
  18. David Silva (Man City) – Down 1
  19. Eden Hazard (Chelsea) – Down 9
  20. Anthony Martial (Man United) – Down 4

Previews of every Premier League game – Week 26

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Diego Costa (R) of Chelsea celebrates scoring the opening goal with his team mates during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Hull City at Stamford Bridge on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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There are eight Premier League games in Week 26 as the EFL Cup final sees Southampton and Manchester United both out of PL action.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live

With the FA Cup break over, we are now looking forward to plenty of big battles across the league as some teams try to scramble for points in their quests to finish in the top four, while others are scrapping away for their lives at the wrong end of the table.

With 13 games to go, it’s all getting rather tense out there…

Below you can find previews, team news and score predictions on every game coming up this weekend.


Tottenham vs. Stoke City

Everton vs. Sunderland

Chelsea vs. Swansea City

West Brom vs. Bournemouth

Leicester City vs. Liverpool

Crystal Palace vs. Middlesbrough

Hull City vs. Burnley

Watford vs. West Ham