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.

Man City: Guardiola updates De Bruyne, Kompany injury status

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 20:  Vincent Kompany and Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City talk during a training session at the City Football Academy on October 20, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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Kevin De Bruyne has been as valuable an attacker as any in the Premier League season, so his injury suffered this weekend is quite a big deal.

There were fears that Manchester City’s Belgian attacker would be gone for more than a month, but manager Pep Guardiola has quelled those concerns to an extent.

[ MORE: NCAA star’s fastest hat trick ]

De Bruyne will miss Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League match against Celtic, which shouldn’t bother the club too much, though his absence Sunday against Tottenham Hotspur could be felt more keenly.

Guardiola said that both De Bruyne and his Belgian teammate, Vincent Kompany, should be back in two to three weeks time. In De Bruyne’s case, Guardiola’s specifically mentioned after the international break. That puts him in line for an Oct. 15 trip to Everton.

The manager also related that he’s excited for his first trip to Celtic Park, as he’s not been to Glasgow to face Celtic in his career.

From ManCity.com:

“Everyone talks to me about the atmosphere, I’m looking forward to playing here. I know how strong they are here. I spoke with my old players, and they have said this is a special environment.”

Kickoff from Scotland is 2:45 p.m. ET.

Champions League preview: Arsenal match sees Xhaka vs. Xhaka; Man City hosts Celtic

ST ALBANS, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27:  Manager Arsene Wenger of Arsenal talks to Granit Xhaka during an Arsenal training session ahead of the Champions League Group A match between Arsenal and Basel at London Colney on September 27, 2016 in St Albans, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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There are some absolute beauties on tap for Wednesday in the UEFA Champions League, with two Premier League clubs in play and a pair of matches pitting top teams from Germany and Spain.

[ MORE: UCL Tuesday roundup ]

All Wednesday matches kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET.

Celtic vs. Manchester City

Having been hammered 7-0 at home by Barcelona, Celtic’s “reprieve” is a trip to face Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. Brendan Rodgers will need to pull every trick out of his hat to avoid another blowout, as City had little trouble in dispatching a solid Borussia Monchengladbach side 4-0.

Arsenal vs. FC Basel

Both Group A matches were 1-1 draws to open the stage, though few expect draws on day 2. That’s because giants Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain move onto perceived lesser lights in Basel and Ludogorets Razgrad.

The Gunners are flying, having gotten their toughest fixture out of the way in a 1-1 draw at PSG. Arsene Wenger‘s crew is fresh off a 3-0 thumping of Chelsea, and will be aware of Basel’s best: Serey Die, Birkir Bjarnason, and Taulant Xhaka, brother of Arsenal’s Granit. That’s right… all the Xhakas.

Atletico Madrid vs. Bayern Munich

A road goal led Diego Simeone’s Atleti past Bayern in last year’s UCL semifinal, and the Bavarians will hope for a better fate under new boss Carlo Ancelotti.

Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Barcelona

Man, this group. A very good Gladbach side will have to rebound from a 4-0 loss to Man City by hosting Barcelona. The good news for the Germans is that Barcelona will be without Leo Messi, though that mattered little in Barca’s 5-0 win in La Liga play this weekend.

Elsewhere
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Napoli vs. Benfica
Besiktas vs. Dynamo Kyiv
FC Rostov vs. PSV Eindhoven

Albert Ruiz scores fastest hat trick to start game in NCAA history

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After being named the NCAA Soccer Men’s Player of the Week, Spanish junior Albert Ruiz went out and set the base for a repeat.

The Florida Gulf Coast striker scored three goals in three minutes and 19 seconds on Tuesday, and the Eagles needed everyone in what turned out to be a 6-5 thriller.

FGCU was up 5-0 after 16:16, but saw that lead drop to 5-4 by the 55th minute.

[ MORE: Pochettino happy with “must win” defeat of CSKA ]

Back to Ruiz, his three goals all came before the game was 10 minutes old (9:02 to be exact). The team’s Twitter account says that’s a record to start a game, besting the record was set by Indiana’s Steve Burks on Oct. 6, 1973. Burks scored his three goals by the 11:41 mark of the first half.

If you look at the clock, too, we think it’s more like nine minutes on the dot.

Ruiz scored seven times in 11 games as a sophomore, and is battering that impressive mark this year. It’s not even halftime at FGCU, and he’s up to 11 goals in his ninth game of the season. That puts him into a tie with Buffalo’s Russell Cicerone for the most goals in men’s D1 soccer (and Ruiz has more than 45 minutes to play).

The 6-foot-2 forward is going to be attracting a lot of attention, especially considering this is his second hat trick in 10 days.

PST Extra: Breaking down the 1v2 clash between Spurs, Man City

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Manchester City visits White Hart Lane for a match-up of this early season’s first and second place Premier League clubs.

City will have one less day of rest than its Premier League rivals, though both are coming off road matches in Europe.

Spurs beat CSKA Moscow 1-0 on Tuesday, while Man City is battling Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany a day later.

[ MORE: Pochettino happy with “must win” defeat of CSKA ]

A win would pull Spurs to within a point of the leaders, while a City victory would guarantee, at-worst, a five-point table advantage for Pep Guardiola‘s bunch.

Kickoff is at 9:15 a.m. ET Sunday, and our own Joe Prince-Wright has the preview for you with the latest PST Extra (above).