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.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.