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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.

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 29:  Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur battles with Kenedy of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at White Hart Lane on November 29, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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  • Chelsea leads all-time: 65W-39D-50L
  • Spurs 8 back of Leicester
  • Clubs drew 0-0 in November

If Spurs want to keep their unlikely title charge alive, they’ll need to start in a historically difficult place (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

Tottenham heads to Chelsea on Monday knowing a win at Stamford Bridge would be their first road London Derby win over the Blues since 1990.

[ MORE: Vardy wins English Player of the Year award ]

Spurs are leading the form table with 14 points from its last six matches, but hasn’t been able to gain ground on Leicester and would forfeit their title chances by losing even a single point on Monday.

Chelsea’s Diego Costa is 10th in the Premier League in goals with 11, but that’s 13 back of league leader Harry Kane. The Spurs forward has a one goal edge on Sergio Aguero and two on Jamie Vardy with two weeks left in the season.

What they’re saying

Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink on Monday’s match: “That’s almost a personal challenge, but whoever will play in defence will like that challenge with Harry Kane. He is having an admirable season. He has maintained his form [from last season] and is doing very well.”

Harry Kane on trying to topple Chelsea“Playing London rivals is always a big game for us and this is no different. With the situation that we’re in as well, I’m sure Chelsea will be wanting to try to beat us but we’ve got to be prepared for that and make sure we go out there, play the way we have been and really take the game to them.

“We try to play the same way every game – we try to attack, play good football, keep possession and press high. We’ll do the same this week. Chelsea know the way we’re going to play but hopefully if we do it well enough they won’t be able to stop it.”

Prediction

Will Leicester’s miracle run to the Premier League title be completed while the Foxes crowd around a television? It wouldn’t fit the story line, but we have a feeling Chelsea has enough in the tank to make a season-ending stop. 1-1.

Leicester’s Jamie Vardy wins English player of year award

FILE - This is a Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015 file photo of Leicester City's Jamie Vardy as he celebrates his goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Newcastle United and Leicester City at St James' Park, Newcastle, England. Jamie Vardy’s unconventional route to the English Premier League’s record book began with heartbreaking rejection at 16 and back-breaking work in a carbon-fiber factory.  (AP Photo/Scott Heppell) UNITED KINGDOM OUT  NO SALES NO ARCHIVE
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LONDON (AP) Leicester forward Jamie Vardy has won England’s Footballer of the Year award on the day his team could clinch an unlikely Premier League title.

The Football Writers’ Association said Leicester players swept the top three places and seven in total got votes for the award seen as the most prestigious individual prize in England.

Vardy won 36 percent of journalists’ votes “making him a clear winner” ahead of teammates Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante, the writers’ organization said Monday.

[ MORE: Ranieri up in the air while Spurs play Chelsea ]

“It’s been an amazing season for all of us at Leicester, based on the teamwork not individuals, which you can see in the voting,” Vardy said in a statement. The 29-year-old forward gets the honor just four years after playing in the fifth-tier division.

His 22 Premier League goals include a streak of scoring in 11 consecutive early-season matches, which launched Leicester’s historic title challenge after being a 5,000-1 outsider.

Vardy also scored his first goals for England, against Germany and the Netherlands, in March.

Leicester will win the league with two rounds to spare if second-placed Tottenham fails to win at Chelsea later Monday. Victory for Leicester at home to Everton on Saturday would also secure the title.

Leicester swept the main individual awards, after 17-goal Mahrez won the players’ vote last week.

Coach Claudio Ranieri is near-certain to win the manager of the year award later this month.

Champions League: Bayern Munich promise “fireworks” vs. Atletico Madrid

Atletico's Gimenez, left, and Bayern's Robert Lewandowski challenge for the ball during the Champions League 1st leg semifinal soccer match between Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, April 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul White)
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BERLIN (AP) Thomas Mueller has promised “fireworks” as Bayern Munich seeks to overturn a 1-0 defeat to Atletico Madrid and reach the Champions League final, where Real Madrid or Manchester City await.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

Five-time champion Bayern could go out to Spanish opposition at the semifinal stage for the third straight season, after defeats to Real Madrid and Barcelona in 2014 and 2015.

Saul Niguez’ brilliant strike in the first leg in Spain is the difference between the sides. Another Bayern fightback in front of 70,000 fans is expected Tuesday, with Pep Guardiola’s side counting on the spirit that helped it recover from 2-0 down against Juventus to win 4-2 after extra time earlier in the campaign.

Guardiola still hopes to lead Bayern to the treble and match the feat of his predecessor Jupp Heynckes in his last season before he leaves for City.

City could yet meet its future coach in the final if it completes the job against Madrid on Wednesday. After a scoreless first leg in Manchester, Manuel Pellegrini‘s side knows a score-draw will be enough to reach the final for the first time.

[ MORE: Man City, Real Madrid draw | Atleti top Bayern at home ]

Here is a closer look at this week’s Champions League matches:

Bayern missed the chance to clinch its fourth successive Bundesliga title on Saturday, when it was clear that thoughts were already on Atletico’s visit.

With the league title all but certain to arrive sooner or later, Guardiola decided to rest Xabi Alonso, Javi Martinez, Philipp Lahm, David Alaba, Arturo Vidal, Thiago Alcantara, Douglas Costa and Robert Lewandowski in the 1-1 draw against Borussia Moenchengladbach.

“Tuesday’s match is going to be different, we have to play better then,” Guardiola said.

Since losing the 2014 semifinal to Madrid, Bayern has won all 11 Champions League games at home.

[ MORE: Ronaldo back in training three days before decider vs. Man City ]

However, Bayern has been made to sweat in the Champions League this season, leaving it very late against Juventus and scraping past Benfica 3-2 on aggregate.

“The assurance has suffered a bit the last few weeks,” Mueller said. “We stand together well as a team but it’s no longer as easy as it was.”

Most fans were surprised to see Mueller starting the first leg in Madrid on the bench. The 26-year-old scored his 20th league goal of the season Saturday, bringing his tally across all competitions to 32, and it was his injury-time goal that forced extra time against Juventus.

If Bayern had trouble breaking through Atletico’s defense in Madrid, it will now have to deal with the addition of Diego Godin to the Spanish team’s backline. Godin, a key player for Atletico, and winger Yannick Carrasco were both cleared to play on Sunday after recovering from injuries.

Coach Diego Simeone also rested most of his first-choice players over the weekend, starting only four players from his lineup that beat Bayern. Atletico won 1-0 against Rayo Vallecano to stay level on points with league leader Barcelona.

MLS Snapshot: Sporting KC 1-1 LA Galaxy (video)

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, front, works in front of the net while covered by Los Angeles Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme, back, during the first half of an MLS soccer match in Kansas City, Kan., Sunday, May 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
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The game in 100 words (or less): In theory, playing with a man advantage is supposed to provide just that — an advantage. In practice, it’s been a largely fruitless exercise for Sporting Kansas City in 2016. Following Sunday’s 1-1 draw with the LA Galaxy, Sporting KC have played 153 minutes with a man advantage (four red cards shown to opponents on the season), and scored all of one goal on the season, all the way back on the opening day of the season. Ashley Cole was the latest to see red against Sporting (video below – if you’re anything other than a Chelsea fan, you’ll enjoy this one), and once again Peter Vermes’ side failed to hit pay dirt in the game’s final 20 minutes. The draw sees the two sides pick up a point each, with the Galaxy climbing one spot in the Western Conference standings, up to fourth, while Sporting hold steady in sixth.

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three moments that mattered

30′ — Davis curls a left-footed beauty for 1-0 — Attention, defenders of MLS; Brad Davis’s left foot — it’s still good.

42′ — Dos Santos finishes off a devastating counter — In the blink of an eye, from one end of the field to the other, and the Galaxy were back on level terms through Giovani dos Santos. Cheeky, cheeky.

70′ — Cole sees two yellows in the span of 13 seconds — Cole has mostly flown under the radar while in MLS. That is no longer the case.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Roger Espinoza

Goalscorers: Davis (30′), Dos Santos (42′)