Considering Uruguay and the collective might of South American soccer

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Third-place matches are odd things, once described in the venerable Guardian as “non-events, played out by desperately disappointed, and possibly thunderingly depressed, men who know all too well their only chance of immortailty has gone.” A bit dark, I’d say, but you get the point.

But we certainly can learn things. To wit:

If you saw the Confederations Cup third-place match on Sunday, you saw a strong Uruguayan side that may have deserved that third-place medal, probably doing more than Italy to take the consolation prize.

The Italians, predictably strong in the tournament – and, mercifully, not the same old Italy in terms of stylistic approach – were better in penalty kicks, leaving the Confederations Cup with a flourish of promise for one year hence.

As for one good lesson, let’s have a quick word about Uruguay and how the South Americans performance fits into a bigger World Cup picture.

When we talk about berths for the big show, opinions about South American representation can vary wildly. Too many spots? Or too few? This year there is a very good chance that six of the 10 nations will find their way to Brazil 2014.

By percentage, that is far more than Europe, where 13 of 53 (just 24 percent) will book passage.

So this is classic debate.

Part and parcel to the argument (as it relates to our part of the world especially) is the South American confederation’s northern neighbor, CONCACAF, which will put three or four teams into the field.

At this point, Uruguay isn’t even in position to automatically qualify for the World Cup. Again, that is a very strong side currently sitting mid-pack in the South American qualifying proceedings. It’s hard to argue what Uruguayan man of the moment Edinson Cavani said of his nation’s performance:

Well, I’m content for having scored goals today, but the nicest thing is that Uruguay leaves the Cup with a very good image, and walking tall. I don’t want to speak about luck, but they did enough to win the game. This makes a difference in a moment like this. But we did well, we played with honor, fought hard and now we leave with reasons to believe in this team.

“We did a beautiful job, with wins and good results like this one. We’re showing again the same Uruguay that did well at Copa America and the World Cup qualifiers. And that’s all that matters so close to the World Cup.”

Don’t forget, Uruguay finished atop its group at South Africa 2010, and then pushed the Netherlands in a highly competitive semifinal.

And yet, at this point Uruguay sits fifth in South American qualifying (actually tied for fifth, but with a game in hand over Venezuela). The group’s fifth-place team will face Asia’s fifth finisher for a berth in Brazil.

Too many teams for South America? The evidence, especially when held against a CONCACAF final round group that has hardly fulfilled expectations, suggests the better answer is “not enough.”

Europa League final: Man United too tough for Ajax, qualify for UCL

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Though it may have required a minor detour in the journey to the intended destination, Jose Mourinho’s first season as Manchester United manager ultimately reached the promised land: qualification for next season’s UEFA Champions League.

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Once it became clear that Man United’s season was unlikely to result in a top-four finish in the Premier League (they eventually wound up sixth), Mourinho put every Mancunian egg into the Europa League basket, and it paid off on Wednesday, as United topped Ajax, 2-0, in the Europa League final inside the Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden.

Paul Pogba put United 1-0 ahead after just 18 minutes (WATCH HERE), benefitting from a wicked deflection off a defender’s shin, and Mourinho’s famously rigid, organized midfield and defensive structure frustrated a young Ajax side (a starting lineup with an average age of just under 23 years old) that reached the final on the back of a free-flowing, attacking tidal wave.

[ WATCH: Pogba gives United an early lead ]

Down just a goal, Ajax needed little more than a moment of brilliance from any number of rising stars sure to fetch massive transfer fees and land big-money contracts elsewhere in Europe, in the not-so-distant future.

That hope lasted less than 180 seconds into the second half, though, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan doubled the lead, thanks to some unbelievably quick reflexes and a tidy overhead kick from three yards out. Ajax would manage just two shots on goal all night (four for United).

Not only did Mourinho deliver Champions League qualification, alongside a European trophy, United also claimed the EFL Cup back in February. With the allure of UCL football next season, expect another busy (and expensive) summer of spending at Old Trafford.

AT THE HALF: Man Utd lead Ajax in UEL final, thanks to Pogba (video)

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After 45 minutes of Wednesday’s Europa League final, between Manchester United and Ajax, in Stockholm, Sweden, Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils have one foot in next season’s UEFA Champions League.

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After a cagey opening 15 minutes that saw neither side create anything of consequence, Man United pulled ahead on a fair bit of luck in the 18th minute. Paul Pogba received the ball 25 yards from goal, took a touch toward goal and fired a low shot toward goal. Davinson Sanchez did everything he could to get his body in front of the strike, but the ball glanced off his shin, sending it one direction and goalkeeper Andre Onana the other.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Europa League final ] 

Having conceded just eight goals in 14.5 Europa League games thus far this season, would you bet on United conceding an equalizer in the final 45 minutes? Hit the link above to follow along, live.

Valverde dismisses deal to coach Barcelona

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MADRID (AP) Departing Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde has been avoiding talk about a possible move to Barcelona, saying he has not entered into negotiations with any club.

Valverde did not confirm reports that he has already reached a deal to coach Barcelona next season, and did not dismiss taking a year off after four seasons at Athletic.

“I haven’t committed to any club, I haven’t talked to anybody,” Valverde said. “I have an agent and there are teams that have shown interest in me. Now I have to decide whether I will take on a new adventure, and it would have to be a challenging one.”

The 53-year-old Valverde has been widely touted to replace Luis Enrique, who announced earlier this year that he was tired and would not continue as Barcelona’s coach.

The Catalan club ends its season after the Copa del Rey final against Alaves on Saturday.

The Mundo Deportivo newspaper reported this week that Valverde has already reached a two-year deal with Barcelona, with an option for a third season. The newspaper said the announcement would be made next week.

“I don’t know what’s been published,” Valverde said. “I never talk about negotiations with clubs and that won’t change. This wouldn’t be the first time that I have offers from important clubs.”

He said there was still the possibility of taking some time off and not immediately taking over another club.

“Why not?” he said. “In the end I can do whatever I want, no?”

A former forward, Valverde played two seasons with Barcelona in the late 1980s. He spent six years with Athletic from 1990-96.

Valverde didn’t hide that he will be hoping Barcelona wins the Copa del Rey title this weekend, which would guarantee Athletic a spot in the Europa League next season. Athletic finished seventh in the Spanish league, but will play in the second-tier European competition with a Barcelona victory because the Catalan club will play in the Champions League. Only the teams in fifth and sixth places automatically qualify for the Europa League.

Valverde led Athletic to victory over Barcelona in the final of the Spanish Super Cup in 2015, which marked the team’s first title in more than three decades. He also coached the club from 2003-05.

Valverde has also coached Espanyol, Olympiakos, Villarreal and Valencia.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

LIVE: Man United face Ajax in Europa League final

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Manchester United and Ajax square off in Stockholm, Sweden on Wednesday for the UEFA Europa League trophy and a place in the Champions League next season.

[ LIVE: Europa League final ] 

This a huge game for Jose Mourinho and United bad coming less than 48 hours after a suicide bomber killed 22 people in Manchester, this game has taken an entirely different complexion.

The mood around the Friends Arena is a somber one as Manchester United’s fans mourn those lost in the terror attack and people around the world send their love and prayers to Manchester.

Black armbands will be worn by both teams and there will be a minute’s silence before the game to honor the victims.

United have never won this trophy and they will have their work cut out against a young, talented Ajax side.

Click no the link above to follow the action live from Stockholm, while here at ProSoccerTalk we will have all the analysis, reaction and more from the final.