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.

Europa League: Manchester United thumps Fenerbahce, Zenit avoids upset

Manchester United's Paul Pogba, left, celebrates scoring his sides third goal with Manchester United's Wayne Rooney, during the Europa League Group A soccer match between Manchester United and Fenerbahce at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, England, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Dave Thompson)
AP Photo/Dave Thompson
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Goals, goals, goals and several red cards dotted the landscape of Europa League football on Thursday.

Premier League teams saw mixed results despite controlling performances, while the day avoided a single 0-0 result.

Manchester United 4-1 Fenerbahce

United moved atop Group A, level on points with Feyenoord, after a fairly comprehensive home win.

Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils got a pair of deserved penalty kicks in the first 34 minutes, as Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial converted chances to make it 2-0.

Pogba scored a really nice goal from distance off a Jesse Lingard feed before halftime to put it out of reach, and then Lingard struck just after the break to make it entirely academic at Old Trafford.

Robin Van Persie did score upon this return to Manchester, and the fans gave his announced goal a warm cheer.

Inter Milan 1-0 SouthamptonRECAP

Saints were the better team on the day, but Antonio Candreva scored the lone goal as the hosts gave Southampton its first setback of this Europa League season in front of 7,000-plus traveling fans.

Dundalk 1-2 Zenit Saint Petersburg

The Lilywhites looked ready to leap atop the Group D table for a while, an achievement that would feel a bit like Leicester on PEDs.

The opening goal came from Robbie Benson in the 52nd minute, but Robert Mak equalized for Zenit in the 71st before Giuliano put the Russians ahead six minutes later.

The Irish semi-pro side is now 1-1-1 in group play and remains the first club from the republic to score a goal in a group stage or higher European when they drew at AZ Alkmaar.

Dundalk then became the first Irish side to win a European group stage match when it toppled Maccabi Tel-Aviv 1-0 at the Tallaght Stadium in Dublin. Take this moment to salute their performances, even with a loss on Thursday.

Celta Vigo 2-2 Ajax
Standard Liege 2-2 Panathinaikos
Konyaspor 1-1 Sporting Braga
Shakhtar Donetsk 5-0 KAA Gent
RB Salzburg 0-1 Nice
Krasnodar 0-1 Schalke
Steaua Bucuresti 1-1 Zurich
Osmanlispor 2-2 Villarreal
Hapoel Be’er Sheva 0-1 Sparta Prague
Slovan Liberec 1-3 Fiorentina
Qarabag 2-0 PAOK Salonika

Feyenoord 1-0 Zorya Luhansk
Young Boys 3-1 Apoel Nicosia
Olympiakos 4-1 Astana
Mainz 1-1 Anderlecht
Saint-Etienne 1-0 Qabala
AZ Alkmaar 1-2 Maccabi Tel-Aviv
Roma 3-3 Austria Wien
Viktoria Plzen 1-2 Astra Giurgiu
Genk 2-0 Athletic Bilbao
Rapid Wien 1-1 Sassuolo


Premier League and NBC Sports Group hosted at U.S. Embassy event in London

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The Premier League and NBC Sports Group were recognized today at a U.S. Embassy event in London.

The event, held at Winfield House, the residence of Ambassador Matthew Barzun, celebrated the growth of the Premier League in the United States, highlighted by NBC Sports Group’s innovative coverage and promotion of the league.

Attendees included Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, and NBC Sports Group’s U.K.-based Premier League announce team of Arlo White, Lee Dixon and Graeme LeSaux.

Ambassador Barzun introduced Scudamore and Jon Miller (President of Programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN) at the top of the program.

“We are honoured to represent NBC Sports inside the hallowed halls of Winfield House,” said White, who moderated a Q&A at the event. “We thoroughly enjoy bringing the excitement of the Premier League to fans in the United States, and are thrilled that we are playing a prominent role in growing the game stateside.”

As the exclusive U.S. home of the Premier League since August 2013, NBC Sports Group’s presentation of the Premier League has reached nearly 30 million American viewers in each of its three full seasons as the league’s exclusive U.S. home – more than double the U.S. audience in any year prior.

WATCH: Pogba puts Europa League match to bed for Manchester United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 20:  Anthony Martial #11 of Manchester United is cogratulated by teammate Paul Pogba after scoring his team's second goal from the penalty spot during the UEFA Europa League Group A match between Manchester United FC and Fenerbahce SK at Old Trafford on October 20, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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Manchester United’s first two goals of Thursday’s easy win over Fenerbahce came off penalty kicks, but the third was far more pleasing to the eye.

Paul Pogba nabbed his second of the night by tearing into a Jesse Lingard lay-off from 20 yards away, ensuring that halftime might as well have been full-time.

[ MORE: Saints fall in Milan ]

Anthony Martial joined Pogba in converting a penalty, while Lingard made it 4-0 just after halftime.

More than 7,000 Saints fans see Southampton fall in Milan (video)

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 20:  (R) Antonio Candreva of FC Internazionale celebrates his first goalduring the UEFA Europa League match between FC Internazionale Milano and Southampton FC at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Milan, .  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
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Antonio Candreva’s 67th minute goal gave Inter Milan a lead against the run of play, and dominant Southampton failed to take advantage of an Inter red card in a 1-0 loss at the San Siro on Thursday. (video)

The setback was Southampton’s first in Europa League play this season, and costs them the top spot in Group K at the group stage’s midpoint.

[ MORE: Atleti accepts January transfer ban ]

Saints had the edge in shots and attempts on target, but couldn’t get the better of their historic Italian opponents.

Sparta Prague beat Hapoel Be’er Sheva 1-0 to move ahead of Saints on six points. Southampton has four, as does Hapoel. Inter sits fourth with three points.

The winner was a classy goal, by the way, for the 43-times capped Italian winger:

Our own Joe Prince-Wright was on the scene as Saints were very well-represented in Italy.