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.

 

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

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“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.