Paulinho shines as Brazil defeat Uruguay, move into Confederations Cup final

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What was supposed to be a dry run for next year’s World Cup has slowly become a coming out party for an international giant who’d come into the Confederations Cup with more questions than renown. But after tonight’s 2-1 victory over Uruguay, where an 86th minute winner from Paulinho sank the South American champions, Brazil have done all anybody would have hoped for at the beginning of the tournament. Perfect through games against Japan, Mexico, Italy and Uruguay, the 22nd-ranked Selecao will face the winner of tomorrow’s Spain-Italy match in Sunday’s final having already reaffirmed their place among the elites of the world’s game.

Brazil opened the scoring just before halftime, with a sellout crowd in Belo Horizonte erupting when Fred put home the rebound of a Neymar shot, sending the home side into half time up 1-0. Uruguay equalized through Edinson Cavani three minutes into the second, putting the match on a course for extra time, but off a late corner kick delivered by Neymar, Paulinho sent Brazil into the final.

It was a standout match for the Corinthians midfielder, linked with a move to Tottenham Hotspur or Chelsea. A superb long ball sent over the defense from the center circle sprung Neymar ahead of the first goal, and elevating for an eventually uncontested header near full time, Paulinho played the most important part in both of Brazil’s goals. In the process, he continued a rise that’s mirrored his team, both bringing some much deserved attention to themselves with standout Confederations Cup runs.

The teams set up as expected, with Brazil’s attacking three of Neymar, Fred, and Hulk relying on the playmaking of Oscar to break through a Uruguayan 4-3-3 that started their back seven at the top of their arc. Óscar Tabarez choice of Luis Suárez, Diego Forlán, and Edinson Cavani up top saw Uruguay revert to their successful World Cup formula, one that would rely on the trio’s supreme skill in limited chances to balance out what was sure to be a severe possession deficit.

Through most of the first half, Tabarez’s tactics worked. Brazil monopolized the ball but saw the worse of chances, with a Forlán penalty kick saved by former Inter Milan teammate Julio Cesar keeping the match scoreless after 13 minutes. When another Forlán chance from 23 yards out saw his half-volley sail just outside the upper-left hand corner, Uruguay’s plan seemed to be working.

But in the 41st minute, Brazil turned the tables, a long ball from Paulinho finding Neymar streaking between Maxi Pereira and Diego Lugano in Uruugay’s back four. Dropping his pass with the position of a Brazilian Pirlo, the Tottenham target sent Neymar in on Fernando Muslera, with only a decisive read from the Uruguayan keeper preventing another Neymar goal. The rebound, however, fell to the middle of the box, where a hop and a scissor kick from Fred saw a shot go off his shin and inside the right post, giving Brazil a 1-0 lead.

The score highlighted the risk of Tabarez’s approach, but given how well the Celeste had executed their plan, it was easy to feel the visitors were hard done. With a back three that laid off Brazil’s defense, Uruguay begged the Selecao to bring the game to them. And for 40 minutes, they couldn’t, the Brazilians seemingly rekindling the uncertainties they carried into the tournament. Even though they went into halftime up one, the direct nature of their goal left you wondering the extent to which Brazil’s capable of coping with a plan like Uruguay’s.

Those musings were amplified three minutes into the second when a series of failed clearances at the edge of the Brazilian era ended with the ball at Cavani’s feet, his left-footed roller just inside the far left corner from 16 yards out equalizing for the Uruguayans. Though it was a softly hit shot, the movements Cesar was making to keep up with the series of deflections left him off guard, his shift to his left to square up for Cavani’s shot coming too late to save the Celeste’s opening goal.

With the score even, the match initially resumed the first half’s tenor, Brazil dictating play but failing to stress Fernando Muslera. Chances for Lugano and Cavani broke up spells of Brazilian control, the home side racking up advantages in shots that had little chance of deciding the game. As time built, and as Luiz Felipe Scolar tweaked his team, brining on Bernard and Hernanes for Hulk and Oscar, extra time not only seemed invited but inevitable. There was a curiosity in the growing tension of the Belo Horizonte crowd, a wonder of where the atmosphere would stand after 120 minutes.

That curiosity ended in the 86th minute, with the man who was so crucial to Brazil’s opening goal getting his name on the scoresheet. Off one of the slew of late corners they’d earned from their dominance of play, Brazil Neymar loft a ball for the far post from the left flank. There Paulinho was allowed to rise uncontested, putting his header just below the crossbar to give Brazil a place in the final.

In a match the rekindled doubts, the winner proved vindication – proof the still building team was capable of pushing through a experienced, resilient side. In their first full tournament since 2011’s Copa America, Brazil came into the Confederation Cup an untested team, and given the still-building reputation of the competition, it was unclear to what extent they’d be pushed this month. But like the tournament itself, Brazil has proved to be more than expected, with Japan, Mexico, Italy and Uruguay providing a validating gauntlet for Scolari’s melding team.

The next test for that group is likely to be the ultimate one. Though Spain still have to navigate Italy in tomorrow’s semifinal, the world is anticipating the meeting they didn’t get four years ago. On Sunday, Brazil should get their crack at the world champions.

“The Moment” of each Premier League team’s season

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Sometimes the moment that defines a Premier League team’s season is a turning point. Other times it’s a wonderful goal or a horrific mistake while others find that moment off the field.

Sometimes, that moment is easy to select  — See: City, Leicester — while others aren’t so simple.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

Arsenal – They fooled us again, you know? Arsenal ran through the Premier League following an Opening Day loss to Liverpool, not seeing another ‘L’ until a Dec. 13 loss at Everton. That one could count as a moment, but we’ll choose the following match. Raheem Sterling finished a classy Kevin De Bruyne pass to give the Gunners’ two losses in a row, and Arsenal wouldn’t beat a PL contender until toppling injury-hit Manchester United on May 7.

Bournemouth – Eddie Howe‘s bunch were winless in seven and trending downward when it arrived at Old Trafford on March 5. Marcos Rojo put United ahead in the 22nd and ex-Red Devil forward Josh King leveled via penalty in the 40th. The Cherries seemed doomed when Andrew Surman was sent off in the 45th, but somehow held on to grab a point (A missed Zlatan Ibrahimovic penalty didn’t help things). Bournemouth won its next two, then drew Liverpool and Southampton en route to a top half finish.

Burnley – The Clarets can thank Mike Dean for their signature moment, a 1-0 win via a handled Sam Vokes effort that moved Burnley into ninth place in the league. Ninth place for little old Burnley. Sean Dyche‘s club would stay up. Now where will it go?

Chelsea – The Blues led the Premier League after August, but had dropped to eighth by the end of September. By the start of November, Chelsea sat fourth in the table. Everton arrived at Stamford Bridge, and the Blues absolutely throttled the Merseyside club. Eden Hazard scored twice, the first moments before Marcos Alonso made it 3-0, and both Diego Costa and Pedro had also scored before the match was through. 5-0 spelled the fifth-straight win, and the Blues went on to win a historic 13-straight PL games.

(Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Crystal Palace – This one’s pretty easy. With respect to Sam Allardyce‘s record of not being relegated as a manager, Palace opened the vaults to buy Patrick Van Aanholt and Luka Milivojevic, also scooping Mamadou Sakho on loan from Liverpool. The club was already talented in attack, so the January window was the “moment of the season” for Palace.

Everton – It was a season, or at least half-season, of “so close” for Ronald Koeman‘s men. It didn’t get much clearer than the match that followed the Toffees’ second loss in the Merseyside Derby. Everton looked set for a rebound and a win at Old Trafford when Ashley Williams’ handled Luke Shaw’s stoppage time shot to allow Zlatan Ibrahimovic a penalty kick that stole a point for the Red Devils.

Hull City – Unsure if this counts as “the season”, but Steve Bruce quitting the club three weeks before the season because of a lack of transfer ambition (amongst other things) spelled doom for the club far before Marco Silva nearly saved their season.

Leicester City – Firing Claudio Ranieri was a massive risk. The Foxes had posted the most remarkable season in world soccer less than a year before cutting ties with the Italian. While some — like me — would argue that transfer pick-up Wilfred Ndidi was the real reason for the turnaround, it also coincided with the managerial change.

Liverpool – The Reds had a knack for playing like results were expected against lesser lights, and late conceded goals are easy to find when reviewing their season (See Swansea below). It happened against powerful Manchester United, but it also happened against Sunderland. Jermain Defoe scored the second goal of his brace in the 84th minute to cost the Black Cats two points… again.

Manchester City – Pep Guardiola led City to six-straight PL wins at the start of the season, but could only watch as Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs bettered him 2-0 at White Hart Lane to drop City to 6-1. It was one of just six losses on the season, five of which came away from the Etihad Stadium. That away form didn’t impress Guardiola, and it didn’t help City chase the title.

Manchester United – While their moment may still be coming in the form of Wednesday’s Europa League Final against Ajax, we’ll go with Jose Mourinho’s first tournament win with United: the EFL Cup Final. NBC analyst Robbie Earle often talks about good teams needing to find a way to win when they aren’t at their best, and United did it at Wembley. It could be a harbinger of what’s to come.

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Middlesbrough – Boro went to West Brom on Aug. 28, unbeaten in a pair of PL matches. It remained unbeaten following the 0-0 draw, but the zero on its side of the scoreboard was extra significant for one reason: It was the first of a whopping 19 times that the Smoggies were kept off the scoreboard, including seven scoreless draws.

Southampton – Most of these moments are related to Premier League play, but the perfect summation of Saints’ up-and-down season may be the EFL Cup Final. Many believe Saints were the better side that day, only to fall short. The same can be said for their Europa League campaign. But results matter, and Saints didn’t make it back to Europe via either route.

Stoke City – Mark Hughes‘ bunch suffered through a slow start to the season, going winless in seven matches. And every time the Potters started to build a head of steam, it would find a hiccup like this 1-0 home loss to Bournemouth. But let’s not dwell on the negative, instead focusing on Stoke’s vibrant fan base, and Peter Crouch giving his jersey to a man in a Speedo.

Sunderland – The Black Cats managed to take multiple steps back for every step forward, so it’s fitting that we mark the 4-0 loss at home to Southampton on Feb. 11. It followed a 4-0 win against old manager Sam Allardyce and Crystal Palace and a scoreless draw against Spurs. Sunderland was battered by a pair Manolo Gabbiadini goals, and the loss started a run that saw the Black Cats manage points in a whopping three of its 14 remaining matches.

Swansea City – Swans could’ve crumbled after tossing aside a 2-0 lead to Liverpool at Anfield on Jan. 21, but Gylfi Sigurdsson‘s 74th minute goal started one of two winning runs that saved its Premier League status. Swans had never won in league play at Anfield, and Paul Clement had a result on which to hang his hat.

Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs lost just four Premier League matches this season, and responded to each with a PL win. Three of those were blowouts, and the fourth was a 2-1 May win over Manchester United. One of those bounce backs happened to be two weeks after a road loss to Liverpool and three days after Spurs were bounced from the Champions League by Genk, as Harry Kane scored one of his four season hat trick and Dele Alli also scored in a 4-0 demolition of Stoke City.

(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Watford – Every time the Hornets looked on the cusp of dipping into the relegation battle, Walter Mazzarri‘s men engineered an exit. The most gritty? Probably holding onto a 2-0 lead for a long spell with only 10 men to their credit in dispatching West Brom late in the season.

West Bromwich Albion – There’s a moment in every season which sees Tony Pulis‘ Baggies tease us with what they could do if they just allowed a little bit of open play to hamper their “Just Survive” mentality. This year it was a 3-1 win over Arsenal which begged West Brom supporters to imagine life in the Top Seven, only to let them down with another post-safety collapse. Woof.

West Ham United – The club offered fans the opportunity to bring in their old Dimitri Payet jerseys for a free replacement, but finding the player to fill his void wasn’t nearly that easy.

Hertha Berlin signs Australia forward Mathew Leckie

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BERLIN (AP) Hertha Berlin has signed Australia forward Mathew Leckie from relegated Ingolstadt for next season.

Hertha says the 26-year-old Leckie signed a contract on Monday, though it doesn’t give details of its length nor the transfer fee.

Kicker magazine reports that Hertha took advantage of a release clause in his contract at Ingolstadt and the club is paying around 3 million euros ($3.4 million) for his transfer.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 PL season reviews

Hertha coach Pal Dardai says, “Leckie is a versatile player and has shown that he has the pace to bomb up and down the flanks, and that’ll benefit us a lot when it comes to attacking.”

Leckie has already played for Borussia Moenchengladbach, FSV Frankfurt, and Ingolstadt since switching from Adelaide United in 2011.

He has 39 appearances for Australia.

Carli Lloyd sent off after throwing elbow in FA Women’s Super League (video)

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“Hey Annie, you played in Buffalo, too, right?”

“Yeah, Carli. Why?”

“Taste some wing.”

That’s a fictional account of a conversation occurring between Yeovil Town’s Annie Heatherson and Manchester City star Carli Lloyd a moment before the USWNT star threw a ruthless red-card winning elbow in the mug of her mark.

No need for that Carli.

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The red card will bring a three-match ban for Lloyd, which could keep her from seeing the field again before the end of her loan to Man City from the Houston Dash.

The 33-year-old Heatherson scored seven goals in nine appearances for the Buffalo Flash, the precursor to the Western New York Flash that employed Lloyd from 2013-14.

Griezmann says move to Manchester United “6/10” chance

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Atletico Madrid fans should be on red alert regarding the future of their star attacker.

Antoine Griezmann is openly flirting with Manchester United in the press, essentially giving the Premier League club a 60 percent chance of securing his services.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews ] 

The talk gives both Atleti, United, and agents the pressure to find what’s best for their groups and Griezmann… and soon.

Like two weeks soon. From the BBC, and French outlet Quotidien:

“I think I will decide [on my future] in the next two weeks,” he said.

Asked if United would be his new club he replied: “Possible, possible.” Asked to give the chances on a scale of one to 10, Griezmann added “six”.

There’s a reported $112 million release clause in Griezmann’s contract, and few clubs will be able to meet it. The player has said he’s loyal to Diego Simeone, and the manager said he’s staying at Atleti.

Still, is Griezmann to Old Trafford fait accompli?