Spain, Uruguay are through to the Confederations Cup semifinals

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Let’s thank Nigeria for giving us one surprise from today’s action, though surprise may be too strong. The Super Eagles came out and tried to go toe-to-toe with the world champions, their speed, athleticism and willingness to fly forward giving early indications Spain were in for their tournament’s most difficult match. Though their eventual 3-0 win may look like Spain’s typical score-and-control approach, there was little typical about the challenge Nigeria posed in Fortaleza.

For their effort — one that saw Spain struggle to impose their typical control on the game — Stephen Keshi’s team were rewarded with a tournament exit, their loss combined with Uruguay’s 8-0 walk over Tahiti allowing the South American champions to clinch second place in Group B. Along with Spain, they join Brazil and Italy from Group A in the semifinals, with La Celeste opening the tournament’s knockout round Wednesday against the host nation.

The Uruguayans started a much-changed side against the Tahitians, though their depth in attack prevailed when Palermo forward Abel Hernández posted a first half hat trick, sending his team into intermission up 4-0. Early in the second, veteran defender Andre Scotti had a chance to add to his team’s lead only to see his penalty kick saved by Gilbert Meriel.

Moments later, the 37-year-old became the first player dismissed at this year’s tournament, earning a second yellow card that left Uruguay with 10 for the last 39 minutes. Undeterred, Uruguay added goals from Nicolas Lodiero, Hernández, and Luis Suárez (twice), leaving Tahiti with 24 goals allowed over their three Confederations Cup matches.

In Fortaleza, Jordi Alba’s early goal gave Spain a quick lead, an advantage that proved valuable as a fearless Nigerian side constantly disrupted Spain’s buildup as it approached the attacking third. The resulting counters tested Spain’s central defenders, though that only gave Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué a chance to remind us of qualities they’re rarely able to show amid Spain’s possession-hogging ways.

Mid-way through the second half, Fernando Torres provided Spain with some much-needed insurance, coming off the bench to record his fifth goal of the tournament. Although his club teammate John Obi Mikel tried to push his Nigerian team back into the match, the team’s ambitious forays never paid off, with Mohamed Gambo’s 75th minute chance the closest the Super Eagles came to opening their account.

An 89th minute breakaway converted by Alba gave Spain’s left back an unlikely brace. The goal left Nigeria with a deceptively lopsided 3-0 loss and us to marvel at the type of quality that can put up a three-goal win against such a strong Nigerian effort.

Next up for the Spaniards is a rematch of last year’s European Championships final, with Italy coming out of Group B to meet them in Thursday’s semi. The winner will face Brazil or Uruguay in next Sunday’s final, with the loser relegated to the tournament’s third place match.

FOLLOW LIVE: 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
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The knockout round of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs concludes on Thursday, as four teams vie for the final two places — one in the Eastern Conference, one in the Western Conference — in the conference semifinals, which begin on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round ]

Up first, the East’s fourth-seeded D.C. United welcome the five-seed Montreal Impact to RFK Stadium for the two sides’ third meeting of the 2016 season. Each of the year’s first two clashes finished a 1-1 draw, in July and August. Didier Drogba is expected to be unavailable for the win-or-go-home tie. United finished the regular season with four wins in the last five games, while the Impact won just two of their last eight.

[ MORE: Preivewing Thursday night’s knockout-round games ]

In the nightcap, the West’s fourth-seeded Seattle Sounders will take on the five-side, Sporting Kansas City, at CenturyLink Field. Sporting were victorious in both regular-season meetings this year — 1-0 on opening day, and 3-0 in late-July, the day the Sounders essentially quit on Sigi Schmid. Since that blistering hot day in KC, the Soudners have lost just twice in 14 games (eight wins, four draws).

Thursday’s MLS Cup Playoffs schedule

D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC — 10 p.m. ET

Cristiano Ronaldo says Ashley Cole is the toughest player he faced

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Cristiano Ronaldo has faced the best defenders in the world during his time with Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team.

He has also caused fits for most of those defenders with goal after goal for club and country. But, there have been some players who have at least made it difficult for the all-time leading goal scorer in Real Madrid and Champions League history.

According to Ronaldo, former Chelsea and Arsenal defender Ashley Cole was the toughest player he has faced in his career.

[ MORE: VIDEO: Incredible Pelle goal in China ]

“Over the years I had some great battles with Ashley Cole, he does not give you a second to breathe,” Ronaldo told Coach Mag. “He was such a tenacious player when he was at his peak, quick, tough in the tackle. You knew it would never be an easy game.”

During his time with Manchester United, Ronaldo faced Cole on numerous occasions while Cole was with Arsenal and Chelsea. The two have also faced off in international competition between Ronaldo’s Portugal and Cole’s England.

It’s certainly high praise for Cole, who now plays in MLS for the LA Galaxy. At the age of 35, Cole has started 25 matches for the Galaxy this season, scoring one goal.

Phil Neville praises Juan Mata’s play to Manchester United

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Juan Mata has appeared in 116 matches for Manchester United since moving to Old Trafford in 2014. In that time, Mata has scored 29 goals and recorded 18 assists.

Despite his performance for the team, some thought Mata would be moved when Jose Mourinho came to town, including former United player and assistant coach Phil Neville.

Neville told Sky Sports, “I actually thought he would be the first out of the door when Jose came, but he’s actually becoming one of the most important players.”

Neville praised Mata’s contributions and versatility for United. “He is never injured, he provides a lot of assists, he plays in two or three different positions, and he scores important goals.”

Manchester United has lacked an identity under Mourinho and recently faltered in the Premier League as the team is winless in its last three matches.

[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]

Could Mata be the answer to some of United’s problems?

The Spaniard is a classic No. 10 with the ability to dictate his team’s attack and create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Mata can also put the ball in the back of the net as evidenced by his winner against Manchester City in the EFL Cup.

Mourinho has options in the center midfield with the likes of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick in addition to Mata on the roster.

However, given the team’s Premier League struggles, it could be worth giving Mata a chance as the team’s No. 10.

David Moyes faces FA charges after being sent off during EFL Cup

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David Moyes and Sunderland have gotten off to one of the worst starts in Premier League history.

If they fail to earn a point against Arsenal this weekend, they will tie the 1995-96 Manchester City team for the worst start ever through 10 matches with two points.

It appears those frustrations carried over to the EFL Cup for Moyes. On Wednesday, the manager was forced to leave the dugout toward the end of Sunderland’s 1-0 loss to Southampton after he protested a no-call from referee Chris Kavanagh.

Moyes was charged by the FA for his protests, saying the manager “used abusive and/or insulting words towards a match official”.

It’s just another thing to add to Moyes’ plate as he looks to keep Sunderland’s hopes of safety alive in the Premier League.