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.

 

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks

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Week 28 of the Premier League is almost here as the battle for the top four and against relegation takes center stage at a pivotal moment in the season.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Listen carefully, because this is very specific.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush”

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the long shots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for. 


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Crystal Palace 0-2 Tottenham Hotspur – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Liverpool 3-1 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) –  [STREAM

Leicester City 2-0 Stoke City – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]  

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Brighton 1-2 Swansea City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Burnley 1-1 Southampton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

Bournemouth 1-1 Newcastle – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Watford 1-2 Everton – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

West Brom 1-2 Huddersfield – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Manchester United 1-3 Chelsea – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Roma winger Under is a hero for Turkey’s government

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ROME (AP) From unknown status to Roma’s savior. From future star to national hero.

In the space of 2 1/2 weeks, Turkey winger Cengiz Under has undergone quite a transformation.

That’s what five goals in four matches do for a 20-year-old footballer.

Add in Under’s pro-military salute after his two-goal performance against Benevento this month, and it’s easy to see why he’s become an emblem for the government of Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The salute was seen as supporting Turkey’s offensive against a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria.

A day after the brace, Turkey Minister of Youth and Sports Osman Askin Bak tweeted “No need to explain” next to a photo of Under saluting. The tweet included emojis of a Turkish flag and clapping hands.

The reception comes in sharp contrast to what NBA player Enes Kanter has faced from his home country.

Turkish prosecutors are seeking more than four years in prison for the New York Knicks player on charges of insulting Erdogan.

Kanter cannot return to Turkey because his passport has been canceled. He is a vocal supporter of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric blamed by Turkey for last year’s failed military coup.

Likewise, former national soccer team players Hakan Sukur and Arif Erdem have been stripped of their medals by the government for criticizing Erdogan.

As for Under, Erdogan reportedly called him in July to offer good luck when he completed a 13 million euros ($16 million) transfer from Basaksehir, an Istanbul club owned by the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

But Under was not involved in any goals in his first 14 matches with Roma and was starting to be seen as a misplaced acquisition by new sporting director Monchi.

Until he scored 43 seconds into a 1-0 win over Hellas Verona at the start of the month that ended Roma’s five-match winless streak in Serie A.

Then came the brace and an assist as Benevento was beaten 5-2.

“Under has done extraordinary things and improved a lot,” Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco said. “Right now he’s a decisive player.”

In a 2-0 win at Udinese last weekend, Under scored the opener with a powerful, rising shot from beyond the area.

The fine form extended to Under’s Champions League debut against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday. Under’s opener in a 2-1 loss kept alive Roma’s hopes of advancing after the second leg at home in three weeks.

While there have been no more salutes from Under since the Benevento match, that hasn’t lessened his popularity.

“Our national pride scored his first goal in the giants’ league,” the Haberturk newspaper headlined on Thursday.

Up next for third-place Roma and Under: AC Milan on Sunday.

Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

Premier League TV, streaming schedule

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Week 28 of the Premier League season is here and the main talking points are the battle for the top four and the ever-changing relegation situation.

MORE: Sign up for NBC Sports Gold ] 

Remember: due to the League Cup final on Sunday, finalists Arsenal will host Manchester City on Thursday, Mar. 1 as they were also scheduled to play in the PL this weekend. That worked out smoothly.

The full TV schedule for the games this weekend are below, plus you can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com,the NBC Sports App and by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold.

Gold also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Premier League Download and much more.

[ STREAM: Premier League live here ] 

You can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” at for all the goals as they go in around the grounds. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App.

[ MORE: Premier League “Goal Rush” ] 

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here for the games streamed on NBCSports.com and here for the games on NBC Sports Gold.

Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.


FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday
7:30 a.m. ET: Leicester City vs. Stoke City – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Liverpool vs. West Ham – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Bournemouth vs. Newcastle United – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Brighton vs. Swansea City – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Burnley vs. Southampton – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM
10 a.m. ET: West Brom vs. Huddersfield Town – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM
12:30 p.m. ET: Watford vs. Everton – NBC [STREAM]

Sunday
7 a.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:05 a.m. ET: Manchester United vs. Chelsea – NBCSN [STREAM

LIVE, Europa League: Arsenal v Ostersunds; huge last 32 clashes

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The UEFA Europa League takes center stage on Thursday as the second legs of the Round of 32 take place.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores

Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Lyon, Sporting Lisbon, Marseille, AC Milan, Athletic Bilbao and RB Leipzig are a few of the clubs who can breath relatively easily after big first leg wins, but with nothing to lose we could well see plenty of stunning comebacks as we’ve seen many times in this tournament over the past few years.

The long Premier League representatives left in the competition, Arsenal, have a 3-0 advantage over Swedish minnows Ostersunds in the second leg at the Emirates and although Arsene Wenegr is set to give plenty of youngsters a chance to play, he remains wary of a comeback as he prioritizes ahead of the League Cup final on Sunday against Manchester City.

In USMNT watch, Borussia Dortmund and Christian Pulisic head to Italy to play Atalanta in the second leg taking a slender 3-2 advantage with them after an incredible first leg which saw Michy Batshuayi grab another two goals to continue his heroic start to his loan spell from Chelsea.

Celtic head to Zenit with a one-goal advantage, while Lazio must overturn a first leg deficit and Napoli have plenty of work to do at Leipzig if they’re to make it through to the last 16.

One team has already made it through to the Round of 16 with CSKA Moscow edging by Red Star Belgrade 1-0 on aggregate on Wednesday.

Below is the full schedule for Thursday’s games (the first leg scores are listed after the kick off time), while you can click on the link above to follow the action live and we will have reaction and analysis from all the Europa League right here on Pro Soccer Talk.


Thursday’s Europa League Round of 32, second legs

Lokomotiv Moscow v. Nice — 11 a.m. ET (3-2)
Atletico Madrid v. Copenhagen — 1 p.m. ET (4-1)
Sporting Lisbon v. Astana — 1 p.m. ET (3-1)
RB Leipzig v. Napoli — 1 p.m. ET (3-1)
Villarreal v. Lyon — 1 p.m. ET (1-3)
Lazio v. FCSB — 1 p.m. ET (0-1)
Zenit Saint-Petersburg v. Celtic — 1 p.m. ET (0-1)
Plzen v. Partizan Belgrade — 1 p.m. ET (1-1)
Dynamo Kyiv v. AEK Athens — 1 p.m. ET (1-1)
Red Bull Salzburg v. Real Sociedad — 3:05 p.m. ET (2-2)
Atalanta v. Borussia Dortmund — 3:05 p.m. ET (2-3)
Arsenal v. Ostersund — 3:05 p.m. ET (3-0)
Milan v. Ludogorets Razgrad — 3:05 p.m. ET (3-0)
Athletic Bilbao v. Spartak Moscow — 3:05 p.m. ET (3-1)
Braga v. Marseille — 3:05 p.m. ET (0-3)