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It’s too early to discount Spain, but there were some definite warning signs on Sunday

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In previewing Spain’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Italy, we noted that with the possible exception of Portugal at last year’s European Championships, no team had been able to go toe-to-toe with Spain and survive. Yes, Switzerland (World Cup 2010) and the United States (Confederations Cup 2009) had beat La Furia Roja in competitive matches, but they did so by employing a low-percentage approach that gave them the proverbial puncher’s chance. Like Holland in the 2010 World Cup final, they didn’t exactly play their game.

Yet in the span of four days, we’ve seen two teams stay true to themselves, stand flat-footed in front of the world champs, and survive. Other teams have done this in friendlies – Italy and France are two that come to mind – but Italy’s semifinal performance was the first time since Portugal we’ve seen a team truly trouble the Spaniards.

And then Sunday, Brazil not only troubled Vicente del Bosque’s side, they routed them. A goal in the second minute followed by a half of pressure led to a 2-0 lead by intermission. Scoring two minutes into the second half, Brazil couldn’t have made it look simpler. It was an unfathomably easy win over a team many consider to the best of all time.

Since there’s no way to know whether this was just an off day or the first cracks in the dam, it’s of little use to proclaim this is the end of the Spanish armada. It might be. Results as dramatic as these often hint at something bigger. But without the context of future matches, we can’t draw broad conclusions. All we can do is look at possibilities.

As it concerns their future dominance, the most concerning part of today’s performance was their midfield’s ineffectiveness. Yes, their defense was troublesome, but that’s never hindered them before. And although Iker Casillas was bad, Spain has a slew of other goalkeepers. But they don’t have another Xavi Hernandez. They don’t have another Andres Iniesta. If other teams can find ways to limit that duo’s effectiveness, be it through athleticism and physicality (like Brazil) or pure numbers (like Italy), Spain is in as much trouble as their doubters may proclaim. You don’t need super talent, only a particularly type of talent, to implement either of those approaches.

Compounding this possibility – and as this point, it’s nothing more than a distant possibility – is Spain’s unwillingness to develop another option. Jesus Navas’s wide play could be thought of as a significant change, but there was a time before Vicente del Bosque where Spain used to make better use of their forwards, be they David Villa, Daniel Guiza, or an in-form Fernando Torres. Now, with Spain rarely playing real wingers and seemingly accepting forward’s a synonym for black hole (they’re still starting Torres), there are no alternatives. They’ve imposed their own tactical limitations, making themselves a sitting duck.

It’s a testament to Spain’s talent that they haven’t been exploited before, exactly why predictions of their demise are so confounding. We can talk Xs and Os all day, but those are ultimately mere plans which make teams more or less likely to win. At some point, Iniesta can just better than his opponent. Same for Xavi. Same for any of the myriad of options del Bosque has at his disposal. Even if that doesn’t mean reintegrating a player like Fernando Llorente, Spain is more than capable of adjusting.

The question is whether they will. Their lack of adjustments over the last five years is both understandable and what’s led to this point of doubt. Is this a flaw in their DNA, something that can’t be changed without compromising what makes them Spain? Or will Spain evolve?

Or, is this result just a one-off? Spain is old. Their Barcelona and Real Madrid-heavy squad has played an unprecedented number of games (club and country) during Spain’s run, and unaccustomed to the Brazilian heat, La Roja may have wilted. Had they not played four games leading into the Brazil match, or if they had more preparation ahead of the games (as they will at next year’s World Cup), perhaps we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

We are, in fact, having this conversation, though. Brazil proved Spain was not only mortal but potentially vulnerable: exploitable. While it’s too early to know the extent to which Spain have faded, based on the lofty stature they held after their game against Uruguay, it’s fair to say they have faded. If only a little.

 

Ahead of huge top four showdowns, who are the title favorites?

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This weekend is massive. Huge. Monumental.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview ]

In terms of the Premier League title race having two games between all of the current top four means one thing: bedlam.

Following the Arsenal vs. Leicester City (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) and Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) encounter, we should be provided with a much better idea of where the title is heading.

[ VIDEO: Man City-Tottenham preview

Then again, if Arsenal beat Leicester and Man City draw with Spurs, there will be just five points between all four teams. With 13 games to go this is tight and tense and the most open title race we’ve had in decades. It is also awesome.

[ MORE: Arsenal to play in 2016 MLS All-Star Game ] 

Let’s take a look at all four title contenders and try to see who has the best chance of winning this thing on May 15.


Leicester City
Current position: 1st (53 points)
Biggest plus: No pressure, they were meant to be relegated
Biggest negative: None of their current squad have ever been in this situation. How will they cope?
Key man: Jamie Vardy – A few off days in front of goal recently for the PL’s main man. If he regains his touch, the Foxes will win it.
3 key games: Feb. 14 at Arsenal, Apr. 30 at Man United, May 15 at Chelsea
Strength of remaining schedule (1 is weak, 10 is tough): 2/10 – The best of any of the title contenders, on paper, and no cup games.


Tottenham Hotspur
Current position: 2nd (48 points)
Biggest plus: Mauricio Pochettino. He’s met every major challenge head on.
Biggest negative: Having the FA Cup and Europa League to contend with. Relatively small squad compared to the rest.
Key man: Harry Kane – If he can hit yet another purple patch, combined with Spurs’ solid defense, then that will be huge.
3 key games: Feb. 14 at Man City, Mar. 5 vs. Arsenal, Apr. 9 vs. Chelsea
Strength of remaining schedule: 3/10 – A very soft run-in for Spurs between now and the end of the season.


Arsenal
Current position: 3rd (48 points)
Biggest plus: They have the biggest squad and with Cech in goal their defense looks very settled.
Biggest negative: How many times have we been here before? Have to get over mental barrier, plus UCL and FA Cup to focus on too.
Key man: Alexis Sanchez – Hasn’t quite hit top form since returning from his hamstring injury. Can he hit top gear during crunch time?
3 key games: Feb. 14 vs. Leicester City, Mar. 5 vs. Tottenham, May 7 at Man City
Strength of remaining schedule: 6/10 – Probably the toughest out of all the contenders. Really need Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to pull through.


Manchester City
Current position: 4th (47 points)
Biggest plus: Strongest squad and Vincent Kompany should be returning soon. That, and wanting to send Pellegrini out on a high.
Biggest negative: Guardiola arriving means plenty of uncertainty. If Aguero or Kompany go down injured, title run could be over.
Key man: Vincent Kompany – City will always score goals with Aguero, Sterling, Silva and De Bruyne but they need Vinny back. Big time.
3 key games: Mar. 2 at Liverpool, Mar. 20 vs. Man United, May 7 vs. Arsenal
Strength of remaining schedule: 5/10 – Marginally easier than Arsenal’s because they play United and the Gunners at home. Still. Very tough.


 

Arsenal named as 2016 MLS All-Star Game opponent in San Jose

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28:  Mesut Ozil (C) of Arsenal celebrates scoring his team's second goal with his team mates Hector Bellerin (L) and Aaron Ramsey (R) during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Emirates Stadium on December 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Arsenal is coming to San Jose, California.

On Thursday it was announced that the Premier League giants will take part in the 2016 MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

The decision to play against another PL opponent makes it the ninth time that’s happened and MLS’ best will have faced seven different PL clubs in Fulham, Chelsea, West Ham United, Everton, Manchester United, Tottenham and now Arsenal.

The venue for the 2016 ASG will be San Jose’s splendid, yet slightly compact, Avaya Stadium and the game will take place on July 28 at 9 p.m. ET.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview

Gunners fans in North America hoping to get tickets for the clash will have to act fast as the ‘Quakes home only holds 18,000 people, but there will be another chance to watch Arsenal play as they will face Chivas Guadalajara at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. on July 31.

Safe to say Arsene Wenger won’t need to don his famous long padded jacket for matches in California this July…

As well as seeing Arsenal stars Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Petr Cech, Olivier Giroud and more, the chance to watch young U.S. international Gedion Zelalem in action will excite many. That said, with the game coming late in July, plenty of Arsenal’s top stars may be on extended breaks due to their exertions for their national teams at the 2016 European Championships and the 2016 Copa America Centenario also being staged in North America.

VIDEO: Previewing the massive Man City vs. Tottenham encounter

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On the same day Arsenal host Leicester City in a clash between two title contenders (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) the two other teams in the top two also meet on Sunday.

Your Valentine’s Day is officially sorted.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

On Sunday Manchester City welcome Tottenham Hotspur (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) to the Etihad Stadium as second-place Spurs sit just one point above fourth-place City. It could not be tighter at the top.

Earlier this season Spurs hammered an injury-hit City 4-1 at White Hart Lane and revenge will be sweet for Sergio Aguero and Co. as both teams are in serious contention to win the Premier League this season.

[ MORE: Preview – Arsenal vs. Leicester ]

In terms of their clashes at the Etihad, Spurs have not found it a happy hunting ground in recent years as they’ve lost four of their last five games away at City. Their last two defeats have been 6-0 and 4-1. Expect a tighter clash this time around as Harry Kane looks to keep his hot-streak going and City will aim to bounce back from their demoralizing, and potentially crucial, home defeat to Leicester last weekend.

So much on the line this Sunday. Click play on the video above to hear all the major headlines heading into this clash.

Mourinho to Man United: Key players to be sold? Locker room unrest, transfer gossip

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The papers are having a field day with the Jose Mourinho to Manchester United whispers.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

Several different outlets are reporting numerous pieces of gossip about Mourinho, 53, taking over at United this summer and now seems like a good time to round it all up and have a look at what is out there.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview

Here it goes…

[ REPORT: Mourinho tells friends he’s going to United


First up, the wages.

Okay, Louis Van Gaal, 64, still has a contract with the Red Devils through the 2016-17 season but many believe that barring a miraculous finish to the current campaign the Dutchman will be let go this summer. If that’s the case — and with United six points off the top four it certainly seems like another season of disappointment will play out — then El Confidencial is reporting that Mourinho will be handed a contract worth $20 million a year. That may seem like a lot, but actually it would be $9 million less a year than Manchester City is paying Pep Guardiola to be their boss. Interesting.

Juicy nugget number two: The Daily Mail states that Mourinho has already instructed executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to sell Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini. The midfield duo aren’t in Mourinho’s plans with the Portuguese coach selling Mata to United during his time in charge of Chelsea, while he doesn’t appear to be a fan of Belgian midfielder Fellaini either.

No. 3: The Daily Star reports that Mourinho will be handed $420 million to spend on new players and totally rebuild the under-performing squad. The same report claims Mourinho has his eye on Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Thomas Muller, Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane to help restore United to past glories and add to his tally of three Premier League titles during five full seasons with Chelsea.

And finally, and perhaps not unsurprisingly, the Sun reports that United’s locker room is split over whether Mourinho arriving would be a good thing. Well, yeah, with a massive cull on the horizon if he does arrive, it’s not too difficult to understand that the general feeling among the players will be one of trepidation. However, the main issue seems to be where No. 2 Ryan Giggs will fit into Mourinho’s plans if he does get the job.

Again, take these reports with a pinch of salt but it’s certainly interesting to keep your ear to the ground and listen to all of the tidbits circling about Mourinho’s potential arrival at Old Trafford.