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.

Ranking toughness of UCL groups for Leicester, Arsenal, Tottenham, Man City

Kompany and City's defense struggled to contain Messi and Barca in the first half.
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Leicester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City all entered the UEFA Champions League at the group stage and they found out their fate on Thursday following the draw in Monaco.

[ MORE: UCL group stage draw ]

Right now Leicester, Arsenal and Spurs will be feeling pretty good about their chances of advancing to the UCL’s Round of 16. As for Man City, boy, it will be a tough route through the group stage once again for them.

[ MORE: Ronaldo wins top award ]

Below is a look at the toughness of the group stage draw for all four PL teams.


GROUP G: Leicester City, FC Porto, Club Brugge, Copenhagen

Their first-ever season in the UCL, the draw could not have gone any better for reigning PL champs Leicester in terms of their dreams of advancing. Claudio Ranieri‘s side have FC Porto, who will be a very tough test, but in Club Brugge and Copenhagen they drew two of the easier teams they could have faced. Overall, this is not a tough group especially when you see the full draw. Looks like the fairytale for the Foxes will go deep in the Champions League this season. Toughness ranking: 3/10


GROUP A: Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal, FC Basel, Ludogorets

Arsenal will fancy their chances against PSG and when it comes to FC Basel and Ludrogorets they will expect to take two wins from each of these teams. But this is Arsenal so they’ll probably need a 3-0 win in their last group game to make the knockout rounds… Seriously, though, Arsene Wenger will be a relieved man to avoid the likes of Bayern Munich and Barelona in the group stage but Arsenal’s games against PSG will be pivotal in their chances of getting a good draw in the last 16. Overall, could’ve been a lot tougher. Toughness ranking: 4/10


GROUP C: FC Barcelona, Manchester City, Borussia Monchendgladbach, Celtic

It just had to happen for Pep Guardiola, didn’t it? He will return to the Nou Camp in his debut season at City to face his beloved Barcelona and Man City’s fans will be sick of the sight of Lionel Messi and Co. after they knocked them out of the competition in two of the last three seasons. That said, there will be two magnificent games between the giants with Barca the favorites to win the UCL this season. As for Monchengladbach, they are quietly a very strong team and even Celtic (who famously beat Barca in the group stage in 2012) will provide a tough challenge for City at Celtic Park in the away game. All in all, couldn’t have been tougher for City but they will likely squeeze through with Barca to the Round of 16.

Toughness ranking: 8/10


GROUP E: CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham Hotspur, Monaco

Maurcio Pochettino’s side will be grinning like a Cheshire cat with this draw. Arguably it is even easier than Leicester’s with CSKA Moscow perennial strugglers in the UCL, plus German side Bayer Leverkusen very beatable and Spurs have done well against Monaco in the Europa League recently. Overall, if Spurs don’t win this group they will be very disappointed. A great draw for the north London club. Toughness ranking: 3/10


Best Player in Europe: Cristiano Ronaldo beats Bale, Griezmann to win award

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal kisses the Henri Delaunay trophy to celebrate after their 1-0 win against France in the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
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Cristiano Ronaldo was named the Best Player in Europe by UEFA on Thursday in Monaco, following the group stage draw for the UEFA Champions League.

Ronaldo, 31, beat other finalists teammate and Welsh international Gareth Bale and France and Atletico Madrid striker Antoine Griezmann to the award for the 2015-16 season. Barcelona duo Lionel Messi came fourth and Luis Suarez finished in fifth.

[ MORE: UCL group stage draw ]

The Portuguese striker scored 51 goals in 48 games for Real Madrid last season and led Portugal to its first-ever major title as a nation, winning the EURO 2016 trophy.

Ronaldo said on stage that he was “living his dream” by playing football as he won the award for a second time in his career, the list title coming in 2014.

Previous winners of this prestigious award, which takes into account the form of the player both for this club team in Europe and also for his national team, include Messi (the only other player to win the award twice), Andres Iniesta and Franck Ribery.

UEFA Champions League group stage: Premier League teams learn their fate

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  The  UEFA Champions League trophy is displayed prior to the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Premier League teams got off very lightly, overall, in the UEFA Champions League group stage draw.

The draw took place in Monaco on Thursday as reigning Leicester City were handed a very comfy group of opponents in Group G with FC Porto, Club Brugge and Copenhagen, as were Tottenham Hotspur who were placed in Group E with CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco.

Arsenal also got a very decent draw with Paris Saint-Germain, FC Basel and Ludogorets in Group A, but Manchester City once again got a very tough draw at the group stage along with FC Barcelona, Borussia Monchengladbach and Celtic in Group C.

[ MORE: Full UCL schedule

Reigning champs Real Madrid have been drawn in Group F alongside Borussia Dortmund, Sporting Lisbon and Legia Warsaw, with Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid drawn together in Group D.

Below is the group stage draw in full with the opening group games to take place on Sept. 13/14 and a further five group games taking place — each team plays one another home and away — between September and December. The knockout stages then begin in February 2017 ahead of the UCL final in Cardiff, Wales on June 3.

You can click on the link above for the full schedule for group games.


GROUP A
Paris Saint-Germain
Arsenal
FC Basel
Ludogorets

GROUP B
Benfica
Napoli
Dynamo Kiev
Besiktas

GROUP C
FC Barcelona
Manchester City
Borussia Monchendgladbach
Celtic

GROUP D
Bayern Munich
Atletico Madrid
PSV Eindhoven
Rostov

GROUP E
CSKA Moscow
Bayer Leverkusen
Tottenham Hotspur
Monaco

GROUP F
Real Madrid
Borussia Dortmund
Sporting Lisbon
Legia Warsaw

GROUP G
Leicester City
FC Porto
Club Brugge
Copenhagen

GROUP H
Juventus
Sevilla
Lyon
Dinamo Zagreb

LIVE – Europa League play-offs: West Ham within reach of group stage

STRATFORD, ENGLAND - AUGUST 04: Reece Oxford of West Ham United and Elvis Bratanovic of NK Domzale in action during the UEFA Europa League Qualification round match between West Ham United and NK Domzale at London Stadium on August 4, 2016 in Stratford, England. (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the UEFA Europa League play-off round takes place on Thursday with the final 22 places in the group stage

West Ham United are drawing 1-1 from their first leg in Romania against Astra Giurgiu, the team who knocked them out in the qualifying rounds last season.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ] 

Slaven Bilic‘s men have a vital away goal and will fancy their chances of getting past Astra this time  as the second leg takes place at their new home at the London Stadium.

Plenty of the 22 ties hang in the balance with Shakhtar Donetsk, Sparta Prague and Olympiakos all with a little work to do to secure their spot in the next stage.

Premier League sides Southampton and Manchester United have already qualified for the Europa League group stage and the draw to decide their opponents will take place in Monaco on Friday.

Below is the full schedule for the second legs which take place on Thursday, while you can click on the link above to follow all the games live.


Europa League schedule 

FK Qarabag vs. IFK Goteborg (0-1)
Brondby vs. Panathinaikos (0-3)
Grashoppers vs. Fenerbache (0-3)
Rosenborg vs. Austria Wien (1-2)
Slovan Liberec vs. AEK Larnaca (1-0)
Partizan Tirana vs. FC Krasnodar (0-4)
PAOK vs. Dinamo Tblisi (3-0)
Genk vs. NK Lokomotiva (2-2)
Osmanlispor vs. Midtjylland (1-0)
Sparta Prague vs. Sonderjyske (0-0)
West Ham United vs. Astra Giurgiu (1-1)
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Istanbul Basaksehir (1-2)
AZ Alkmaar vs. Vojvodina (0-3)
Anderlecht vs. Slavia Prague (3-0)
BATE Borisov vs. Astana (2-0)
FK Shkendija vs. Gent (1-2)
Hajduk Split vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv (1-2)
NK Maribor vs. Gabala (1-3)
Red Star Belgrade vs. Sassuolo (0-3)
St Etienne vs. Beitar Jerusalem (2-1)
Olympiakos vs. Arouca (1-0)
Rapid Wien vs. Trencin (4-0)