Preview: USA aim for yet another win vs. old foes Costa Rica

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  • The US have won seven straight games
  • Wondolowski has scored six goals in three games
  • All-time US vs. Costa Rica record, 12-12-6

A feisty and lively encounter will take place as the US national team and Costa Rica meet at Rentschler Field at 8pm ET tonight.

The Gold Cup Group C finale will have an extra edge to it, despite both teams already through to the quarterfinals. But more on that shortly.

With a huge crowd expected in Hartford, the outcome of tonight’s clash will determine which nation faces the easier route to the last four, as the Group C runner-up will have a tough test against Honduras in the quarters.

Here is where it gets even more interesting.

These sides last met in March, in a controversial game that will undoubtedly spill over into tonight’s contest. Costa Rica unsuccessfully petitioned to postpone and reschedule their 1-0 World Cup qualifying loss in near white-out conditions in Commerce City, Colorado. Clint Dempsey scored the winner but as the snowy conditions worsened during the 90 minutes, Los Ticos were clearly unhappy that the game was taking place.

And they may still be harboring grudges about that defeat when kick off rolls around this evening. Expect some hefty challenges from both sides as these CONCACAF powerhouses lock horns in Hartford. Currently the USA sit top of the Hexagonal for World Cup qualifying but Costa Rica are in second place and just two points behind the Yanks. This is about more than Gold Cup standings. Trust me.

(MORE: Rehashing the Kyle Beckerman-USMNT argument. Yes, again.)

Over the years there hasn’t been much to separate the nations, who are dead even at 12-12-6. However the Nats are undefeated against Costa Rica (5-0-1) in the Gold Cup. And after their recent rich-vein of form the USA can win their eighth straight match.

Jurgen Klinsmann is likely to put out a full-strength team to try and secure the best possible passage through to the Gold Cup final, while Costa Rica have several players MLS fans will know well, such as Alvaro Saborio, Rodney Wallace, Jairo Arrieta and Roy Miller. Going forward Costa Rica have struggled thus far in the Gold Cup, while the US are quite the opposite as they lead the way with 10 goals scored in their two opening games. Red-hot forward Chris Wondolowski has five of them.

What they’re saying

Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann on Costa Rica: “Tomorrow we’ll [put out] our best lineup because we want to win this game. Absolutely. We want to send out a signal. We want to see where we’re at right now. We all understand that the previous games we were expected to win and also expected to put some goals in. We know that this is now the first real test for us with this group. We are very well aware of the challenge Costa Rica pose. It’s one of the toughest opponents in CONCACAF.”

US striker Chris Wondolowski on his hot streak: “Yeah, definitely. I think I’m very confident in my play and I think just even getting the goals is so huge. I’m feeling more confident in my passing and in my touch and things like that where it’s really helping me, and it’s really raising my level.”

Costa Rica head coach Jorge Luis Pinto on the US: “We have to know how to control the game. We know they have a lot of important players in the attack. Donovan is raising his game, Corona sees the field and opens it well, Beckerman is someone who provides quite a bit and [Diskerud], too. At the same time, we have to make the U.S. think about us a bit, too.”

Pinto on the snowy defeat in March: “I’ve said 10,000 times that no we shouldn’t have [played that game in those conditions]. It was absurd. After the game, everyone from federations and from soccer around the world said that didn’t make any sense. No one in their right mind would have allowed a match like that to be played.”

(MORE: Klinsmann keeps working hard to establish a “No complacency!” zone)

Prediction

I can see a really entertaining game taking place up in Connecticut tonight, both teams have nothing to lose and want to send out a message ahead of the final few games of World Cup qualifying. Klinsmann will want another offensive outburst but the U.S. must sharpen things up at the back because Costa Rica have some real stars like Saborio who can change a game in an instance. I’m going for a U.S. win, but only just. A high scoring draw is also in the cards but I think the home crowd will roar the USMNT onto yet another victory.

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.

Mata seems to confirm Champions League is Man United’s priority

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With the Premier League title all but wrapped up, English top flight teams are beginning to put their true focus onto competitions they still have a realistic shot of winning.

Manchester United sits in second place in the Premier League table, but they are a full 18 points back of rivals Manchester City, as so with a Champions League match against Sevilla on Wednesday afternoon, Juan Mata all but confirmed that the Red Devils are putting their main efforts into Europe’s largest competition.

[ MORE: Messi pegs back Chelsea despite winning tactics ]

“If we had less of a gap with respect to the Premier League leaders and we had a chance to fight for it, it wouldn’t be so tough to be eliminated from the Champions League, but now our aim is to progress from every round,” Mata said to Spanish radio station Cadena Ser. “It would be a big blow to be eliminated in the last 16.”

Last season, a similar story played out. Manchester United was out of reach of a top four finish in the league, so manager Jose Mourinho publicly admitted they were putting their main focus on the Europa League due to the automatic berth the competition’s winner received into next year’s Champions League. The gamble paid off, as Manchester United won the competition and earned their spot in the Champions League this season.

Sevilla has not progressed past the Round of 16 since 1958. Manchester United, meanwhile, has not made it past the Champions League quarterfinals since their runners-up finish in 2011, when they lost to Barcelona in the finals at Wembley Stadium.

Wenger confirms Ospina will start pair while Ozil, Ramsey miss out

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Arsene Wenger confirmed in his pre-match press conference that goalkeeper Petr Cech will get an extended rest with a pair of Cup games on the horizon for Arsenal.

In his place, David Ospina will start both Thursday’s Europa League Round of 32 match against Ostersund and Sunday’s EFL Cup Final against Manchester City. Ospina is no stranger to this type of rotation, with the Colombian owning just 30 starts over the last three seasons in national and international Cup competitions compared to just seven Premier League appearances.

In addition, Wenger also confirmed that Mesut Ozil will miss out for Thursday’s match due to illness, but is expected back for Sunday’s EFL Cup final. Arsenal has a 3-0 lead over Swedish club Ostersund after the first leg, with the second leg to be played at the Emirates.

Wenger said Aaron Ramsey is back in training, and while he will not be risked in the Europa League match in his return from a groin injury that saw him miss the North London derby loss, he could be in contention to play against Manchester City. [Ramsey] is not in the squad tomorrow, he had a good training session. We will see how his evolution goes between now and Sunday. I don’t rule him out.”

Ramsey scored a hat-trick in the 5-1 win over Everton in early February, but has played just 181 minutes since picking up a hamstring injury in mid-December.

Finally, Wenger said that Danny Welbeck and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will both receive starting spots against Ostersund, as will some unnamed youth products. Welbeck has been out of Premier League action since mid-January, stuck behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but he received four minutes off the bench in the North London derby and will get another opportunity in the Europa League to prove his worth.

Conte admits job security speculation will always exist at Chelsea

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Antonio Conte admits that he will always face speculation about his tenure as manager while he is employed at Chelsea, but dismissed it as “no problem for me.”

There is a general acceptance that Conte will part ways with Chelsea at the end of the season given the tough times the club has seen this campaign. The Blues are hanging on to a Champions League place by a thread, and struggled through a January that included just two wins across all competitions in six matches.

“I’ve said it very clearly: I’ve got a contract until 2019 and I intend to respect this, but you know anything can happen in football,” Conte told Italian publication Mediaset. “It takes two to be happy and continue a marriage. Our work is unique because we’ve always got our suitcase in our hands.”

Conte did issue somewhat of a warning to Chelsea, however, that if he were to be fired, it could come back to haunt the club, as he would have no shortage of offers. “My intention is to respect my contract, but if something were to happen, it would open up different scenarios.” Big clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid could have job openings this summer if their lofty goals aren’t met, and those places would be attractive destinations for Conte, who won the Premier League title with Chelsea just last year.

“It’s a bit the history of Chelsea and inevitable when, in the past, in 14 years, 10 coaches have been changed,” he said. “Clearly when there is this habit, let’s say, the press play on it and as soon as there is a result or two which don’t go your way, they try to put the pressure on.

“But it’s no problem for me. I hope that this pressure doesn’t harm the players, not me, because I go looking for pressure.”