Italy's Buffon and head coach Cesare Prandelli attend a news conference ahead of their Confederations Cup semi-final soccer match against Spain at the Estadio Castelao in Fortaleza

Confederations Cup semifinal preview: Spain face Italy team looking for Euro revenge

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The questions start with last summer’s Euro 2012 final and boil down to the same purpose – trying to determine how Italy can beat Spain. There’s always the Switzerland and United States model – sit deep, disrupt in midfield as the attack approaches the final third, hope fortune shines on your counterattack – but aside from that kind of low percentage play, is there any way the Azzurri can compete with the reigning World Champions?

In fairness to Cesare Prandelli’s side, it’s unclear anybody in the world can go toe-to-toe with Vicente del Bosque’s armada. Since shaking the monkey off their back in 2008, Spain’s swagger’s matched their talent, with only two teams able to meaningfully compete with the Spanairds without resorting to the sit-and-wait model. In 2010, Bert van Maarwijk’s Dutch side chose a deplorably cynical approach in taking Spain to extra time in South Africa, while Portugal may have legitimately outplayed the Furia Roja in the semifinals of last summer’s European Championships.

Along the way, Spain have claimed two major titles while coming to the verge of one of their last unclaimed trophy. So if Italy shouldn’t play like the Dutch, can’t play like the Portuguese, and probably won’t play like the Swiss or Americans, what’s left?

Courage, is what Prandelli might say. That was the value he espoused in the lead up to the Brazil match, and although Italy lost that group stage battle 4-2, they showed better than they did in last year’s European final. If the Italians can play with the same vigor on Thursday, they ‘ll live with whatever outcome befalls them.

The truth of this tournament is that outcomes don’t matter a lot. Yes, you always want to play your best, but nobody’s going to cry over having failed to claim the Confederations Cup. So if Italy can play with heart, stay strong defensively while executing going forward, they’ll live with the result. Building from 2010’s disappointment, theirs is still a process, once which culminates with next year’s World Cup.

Particularly with Mario Balotelli out, Italy may have to look for signs of progress rather than watershed results. That means getting a better performance in goal from Gianluigi Buffon. That means making sure the defense can plug the holes. Can the midfield compete with Spain’s dynamos? And is there an attacker that can show Italy need not be so dependent on Mario Balotelli?

source: Getty ImagesFor Spain, however, the results do matter, just as they always do whenever their first team players play. Any slip sends chinks into the armor of invincibility that’s be built despite their periodic upsets. If a team like Italy does go toe-to-toe, does compete with the armada, then there’s no reason Argentina, Germany, and perhaps Brazil can’t do the same.

Four-nil is the benchmark carried over from last year, but Spain doesn’t need to replicate that to maintain their perch. Nor do they need Jordi Alba, the left back who scored twice against Nigeria, to keep up his goal-scoring ways in order to build on what they’ve done. While it would help of Roberto Soldado firmed up his place in the team or Cesc Fabregas justified del Bosque’s selection, what Spain really needs is for Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, and Sergio Busquets to play as they did against Spain. They need Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué to continue to be the ultimate insurance policies. And they need Iker Casillas to be the man he was two years ago.

If all that happens, Thursday’s game in Fortaleza should be similar to most Spanish national team games: Entralling but predictable – reaffirming the hegemonic state of the current soccer world.

West Ham extend Payet’s contract in “enormous show of faith”

West Ham’s Dimitri Payet celebrates after scoring while soap bubbles are blown during the English Premier League soccer match between West Ham and Newcastle at Boleyn Ground in London, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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West Ham United hope Dimitri Payet is going absolutely nowhere after the club announced on Thursday the 28-year-old Frenchman has signed a contract extension through the summer of 2021.

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Payet’s current contract was scheduled to keep him at the Premier League club through the summer of 2020, but a series of standout performances (6 goals, 4 assists so far this season, mostly during the season’s opening three months) and rumors of interest from “bigger” clubs meant tacking on another year — and plenty more cash — was the best way to keep Payet in east London for the foreseeable future. The club confirmed earlier this week that negotiations over an extension were underway.

“He’s the best player I’ve signed in 25 years,” said West Ham co-owner David Sullivan. “He’s a [$43 million] player. He’s a supreme footballer. He makes every player in our side play better. On his day, he’s world class, he’s unstoppable.”

Payet, who’s been at West Ham just eight months after signing last summer, could still depart in the summer should he finish the current season strong and/or show up and show out at the European Championship, which kicks off in June. In that event, West Ham would now bag a much heftier transfer fee than they would have done prior to the extension.

VIDEO: Dele Alli’s magnificent juggling goal recreated in hand-drawn crayon

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Remember that Dele Alli goal? No, not that one… that one. Of course you remember it. How could you not?

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How often does a player receive the ball out of the air, flick it over his head, spin 180 degrees and hit an inch-perfect volley from 20 yards out to secure all three points for his team? The answer is, of course, not very often.

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Thus, a goal such as Alli’s stunning winner against Crystal Palace last month has been, and will continue to be, immortalized through numerous recreations in this Digital Age. Above is Alli’s goal recreated in hand-drawn crayon.

Watch Live: Guatemala vs. T&T; Canada vs. Guyana in Olympic qualifying

Canadian players wave to fans after a 2-1 loss to England in a quarterfinal of the Women's World Cup soccer tournament, Saturday, June 27, 2015, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP
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Group B is set to kick off Thursday night at the 2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship, as Canada, third-place finishers at the 2012 Olympics, begin their quest to qualify for this summer’s games in Rio de Janeiro.

Guyana versus Trinidad and Tobago is up first (6 p.m. ET) from BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, Tex, followed by the Canadians, who will take on Guyana (8:30 p.m. ET) in the nightcap.

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The U.S. women’s national began its Olympic qualifying campaign in impressive fashion on Wednesday with a 5-0 victory over Costa Rica, while Mexico jumped to the top of Group A with a 6-0 victory over Puerto Rico.

Sunderland terminate Adam Johnson’s contract after guilty pleas in sex case

Sunderland winger Adam Johnson arrives at Bradford Crown Court, England, Wednesday Feb. 10, 2016. Johnson has pleaded guilty in court to one count of sexual activity with a child and another of grooming. The 28-year-old Johnson, who has made 12 appearances for England, denies two charges of sexual activity with a girl under the age of 16. (Peter Byrne/PA via AP) UNITED KINGDOM OUT NO SALES NO ARCHIVE
Peter Byrne/PA via AP
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SUNDERLAND, England (AP) Sunderland has fired winger Adam Johnson after he pleaded guilty to grooming and sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl at the start of his trial.

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Johnson, who has played 12 times for England, continues to deny two further counts of sexual activity with a child.

Sunderland dismissed Johnson ahead of his trial resuming on Friday at Bradford Crown Court.

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In a statement, Sunderland announced Thursday that “in light of Adam Johnson’s guilty pleas, the club has today terminated his contract with immediate effect.”

The former Manchester City player joined Sunderland in 2012 for 10 million pounds (now about $14.5 million).