Kind draws could give Messi, Ronaldo head start on World Cup 2014’s Golden Boot

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Lionel Messi went scoreless in the last World Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo scored once. In a combined four finals (both players debuted at Germany 2006), the world’s marquee duo have a combined three goals. For some, that lack of success on the biggest stage keeps them out of any best player ever debate. Thankfully, those people are outnumbers. Most have come to acknowledge the World Cup isn’t the be all, end all of world soccer.

But if Messi or Ronaldo fans are hoping their favorite players can dispel that minority opinion, Friday’s 2014 FIFA World Cup draw delivered good news. While Portugal was drawn into a difficult group (Germany, Ghana, U.S.A.), that quartet shares one quality with Argentina’s (Nigeria, Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina): Neither group offers a lot of defense.

[MORE: 2014 World Cup Draw: Recapping the event]

For Messi, Bosnia-Herzegovina may end up the group’s second-best team, but in seven games against World Cup qualified countries over the last two years, Bosnia’s given up 11 goals, including four at home to the United States on Aug. 14. In late 2011, Bosnia gave up six to Portugal. Though they’re talented going forward, the World Cup debutants can be had at the back. Sure to play a more advanced role than he did at the last World Cup, Messi could be one of the beneficiaries, Argentina having already beaten Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-0 without Messi in St. Louis on Nov. 18.

The other members of Group F are less tested, with Nigeria and Iran having played a combined seven games against World Cup opposition since 2011. The African champions gave up 10 goals in five games this year to qualified nations (Italy, Spain, Uruguay, Mexico, Ivory Coast), while Iran kept clean sheets in both of their World Cup Qualifiers against South Korea. Carlos Queiroz’s team is generally considered one of the weakest in the field, but with the former Portugal boss in charge, they may prove the most difficult for Argentina to break down (though two games against South Korea are hardly cause for conclusions).

source: ReutersAs for Ronaldo, Germany is the big name in Group G, but Joachim Löw’s team has posted a terrible defensive record over the last two years. In 13 games against World Cup qualifiers, Germany has given up 21 goals. They gave up four to the United States in June (albeit with a mostly reserve team) and five to Switzerland last May. Among their more disturbing performances against non-World Cup competition, Germany has conceded four on one occasion (Sweden, Oct. 2012) and three on two others (Sweden, Oct. 2013; Paraguay, Aug. 2013). Although Germany kept a clean sheet against Portugal at Euro 2012, the broader defensive record is much more suspect.

The United States has been boom-or-bust, keeping seven clean sheets in 15 games against World Cup qualifiers over the last two years. They’ve also had two games where they’ve give up four goals (Brazil, May 2012; Belgium, May 2013) and three others where they conceded three times (Germany, June 2013; Bosnia-Herzegovina, Aug. 2013; Costa Rica, Sept. 2013). As others have noted, the U.S.’s current glaring weakness is at fullback, something that could cost them against Ronaldo.

Group G’s other team, Ghana, has played four 2014 World Cup teams since Jan. 2012 and never kept a clean sheet. Their latest such game was in August against Japan, with the Black Stars conceded three times against Asia’s champions.

The draws are encouraging if you’re hoping for goals from the game’s biggest stars, but there are a couple of problems with looking at Messi and Ronaldo’s prospects in this way. The players selected for the games in question may not have been part of their country’s “A team,” and even if they were, those players may have fallen out of favor over the last two years. The teams that show up in Brazil could be very different from those that had trouble keeping goals out.

But any other type of analysis brings in player and roster evaluations that can become subjective. From the right eyes and minds, those evaluations can be powerful. From those relying on reputation over performance, they’ can be useless. For this exercise, for better or worse, we only look at actual results from the last two years, letting you decide how much validity to give the “method.”

If you find any meaning in past results, you probably see a lot of room for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to put up some nice group stage numbers, perhaps sending them toward the tournament’s Golden Boot. If you don’t find the numbers convincing, you have to at least concede: Most of the teams trying to stop Messi and Ronaldo will need to be better in Brazil than they’ve been leading up to the World Cup.

Watford appoint Marco Silva as new manager

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Watford have appointed Portuguese coach Marco Silva as their new manager.

The 39-year-old has signed a two-year deal at Vicarage Road.

Walter Mazarri was fired by Watford before their final game of the season as a dramatic slump in the second half of the season saw them finish one place above the relegation zone.

Silva left Hull City earlier this week, exercising a clause in his 18-month contact that he could leave the Tigers if they were relegated from the Premier League.

After successful stints at Sporting Lisbon and Olympiacos, Silva arrived at Hull in January for his first job in England and made sweeping changes to their squad and almost kept the Tigers up against all the odds.

In a statement on Watford’s website Chairman and CEO Scott Duxbury revealed his excitement at Silva’s arrival.

“Marco was one of the most sought after Head Coaches in the Premier League,” Duxbury said. “His pedigree and promise speaks for itself with his achievements in top divisions elsewhere across Europe, as well as his work at Hull City last season.”

The managerial merry-go-round at Watford continues.

Why Southampton should consider keeping Claude Puel

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It has all gone quiet at Southampton. But for how long?

[ MORE: Saints’ fans take over Milan ]

Media speculation has been rampant over the past few weeks that Claude Puel, Southampton’s first-year manager, would be shown the exit door at St Mary’s this summer amid fan unrest about the style of play and their regression from a team challenging for the top six.

But, even in these times where fans demand instant success and patience is severely lacking, is that really the right answer?

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Puel, 55, delivered an eighth place finish, the fourth-straight season Southampton have finished eighth or higher, which is the first time they’ve achieved that feat in club history.

Yet many supporters point to the fact that Southampton finished just five points above Swansea City who finished in 15th place, plus they complain about Puel’s dull demeanor in his press conference as he struggles to express himself in English. He is a figure which truly divides the fanbase between those wanting him fired and those wiling to give him another chance.

Saints are a club who finished in a higher league position in seven-straight seasons before this campaign, so perhaps the vast majority of the fanbase have become too accustomed to overachieving and this reality check was always on the horizon.

A top 10 finish and a cup run should always be a superb season for a club of Southampton’s size but fans want more. With talk of a potential Chinese takeover this summer, they want to dream that they can push for a top six finish and qualify for Europe each season and aren’t sure Puel is the right man to deliver it.

That’s fair enough, but when you dissect the entire season and the key stats which came from it, getting rid of Puel seems incredibly hasty. He had many unfortunate obstacles to overcome in his first season in England and it’s unlikely he’ll have so much to deal with next season, and possibly beyond.

Club captain Jose Fonte was sold midway through the season after a disagreement with directors, while leading scorer Charlie Austin (yes, he was out since December but still finished top scorer, with nine) was injured for five months in early December and star center back Virgil Van Dijk was also injured in January as it ended his season. Along with all of this Puel had to deal with Saints’ first-ever Europa League group stage campaign and the agony of missing out on the knockout stages by one goal.

The constant chopping and changing of the team dominated Puel’s reign in the early months as he made 97 lineup changes throughout the season. Only Manchester City and Manchester United made more in the PL in 2016-17. Perhaps one of the major criticisms was that he tinkered too much to try and keep his squad fresh as they pushed to qualify for the Europa League knockout stage, with the previous high-tempo style of play impossible to replicate across a 53 game season.

Hence the slower pace of play which frustrated many fans and perhaps failed to get the best out of a team built by Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman to play a fast, high-pressing style, which in turn led to reports of many senior players unhappy at the tactics deployed by the Frenchman.

Another big factor of the rotation was reaching the EFL Cup final where Saints, again, agonizingly came up short as they lost 3-2 to Manchester United at Wembley in a game which they should have won.

In the Premier League his team scored just 17 goals in 19 home games with no goals in any of their final five home games of the season which led to fans booing and plenty calling for Puel to be fired. But if you look a little deeper, the chances are being created but with Austin out, Manolo Gabbiadini‘s hot streak over after his initial burst and the duo of Shane Long and Jay Rodriguez failing to step up, Saints’ shot conversion rate was the lowest in the PL.

That’s right, Southampton converted just 7.47 percent of the 549 shots that had at goal, which was the seventh-highest number of shot attempts in the PL. Saints created chances but could Puel really do much about his players not converting them? It sounds simplistic, but think about it. With Austin back fit next season, plus Gabbiadini and Sofiane Boufal acclimatized to life in England, will this shot conversion rate really be this low again?

Saints also had two players in the PL’s top 18 in terms of chances created, Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond, and away from home they had the seventh best record but had the 17th best record at home, suggesting their prowess as a counter-attacking team. Had Saints scored penalty kicks against Hull City and Manchester United in two of their final three home games then they would have finished more comfortably in eighth place and had a much better home record.

Small margins.

Southampton also had the second youngest starting XI in the PL at 26 years and 169 days, with Redmond and James Ward-Prowse making their full England debuts, plus no PL club had more than Saints’ seven players in the full and U-21 England teams when they were announced at the end of the season.

As well as English talent like Sam McQueen, Ward-Prowse, Redmond and Jack Stephena improving drastically, Puel helped the likes of Oriol Romeu, Maya Yoshida and Cedric Soares reach new heights too. It shouldn’t be all doom and gloom and Puel is a man who can deliver steady progression at a club which lost its past two managers, Pochettino and Koeman, to bigger teams in the PL just when it appeared they were on the verge of great things at St Mary’s.

Another reason to keep the faith, for at least another season, is the fact that wherever Puel has been he has delivered improved results beyond his first season. There’s a hope he can do that at Southampton, especially without the extra rigors of European action next season.

He took charge of AS Monaco in January 1999 and they won the French title in May 2000. He took charge of Lille in 2002 and improved them from 14th to 10th to 2nd place finishes in his first three seasons at the club. Puel spent six seasons at Lille and helped the likes of Eden Hazard and Yohan Cabaye break into the team.

In 2008 he took charge of Lyon and in his second full season he took the French outfit to the UEFA Champions League semifinal for just the first time in club history, plus Hugo Lloris and others broke through under his guidance. In 2012 he took charge of Nice and in his first season he led them to fourth in Ligue 1 (their highest Ligue 1 finish since 1976), then did it once again in 2015-16 with 17th and 11th place finishes in-between. The Nice team he left behind last season just finished third in Ligue 1.

All of this proves that Puel can improve teams given time.

What is Saints’ alternative to Puel? Some reports suggest Marco Silva would be the main man but he appears to be joining Watford after impressing at Hull City, while the names of Slavisa Jokanovic and Alan Pardew have also been mentioned as potential replacements.

Do Southampton really want to become a club know for hiring and firing managers after a season which presented plenty of challenges but still ended up with a top half finish, a decent run in Europe and a EFL Cup final appearance?

If Saints put faith in Puel, he may just surprise everyone. Of course, like every manager, he needs a bit of luck to drop his way but fans calling for his head should think closely about what the alternative would be.

Antoine Griezmann dismisses Man United reports

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Antoine Griezmann isn’t saying he is close to signing for Manchester United, but he isn’t saying he isn’t close either…

[ MORE: United win Europa League

The French forward, 26, has been at the center of intense media speculation over the past few weeks that he will sign for United this summer as the Red Devils will likely meet his $110 million release clause.

Sending out a message via his Twitter account, Griezmann said the following regarding the rumors he has agreed a contract and reaffirmed his connection to Atleti.

“All the rumors are unfounded, I’m always Colchonero,” Griezmann said. “My direction will be established after discussion with my sports consultants.”

The man who scored 26 goals in 53 appearances for Atleti in 2016-17 is said to be at the top of United’s summer wishlist and it is not like the the PL giants can’t afford to sign any player they want. They proved that last summer by paying Juventus a world-record fee of $114 million for Paul Pogba, who just happens to be Griezmann’s good friend…

Jose Mourinho said after United’s Europa League final win on Wednesday, which secured them a place in the UEFA Champions League group stage for next season, that “Ed Woodward has my list, what I want, what I would like for more than two months. So now it’s up to him and the owners.”

With Zlatan Ibrahimovic recovering from a serious knee injury and out of contract at United this summer, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have chipped in with important goals in the past few months but United are lacking a talismanic striker. That’s where Griezmann comes in.

Alongside a star center back and a new left back, United’s main target is Griezmann.

Whether or not the Frenchman admits it now, United are chasing him hard and there only seems to be one outcome: Griezmann wearing the No.7 jersey at Old Trafford next season.

Toronto FC beats Crew 5-0 to extend unbeaten streak to 8

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TORONTO (AP) Victor Vazquez scored twice and Toronto FC routed the Columbus Crew 5-0 on Friday night to extend its unbeaten streak to a franchise record-matching eight games.

[ MORE: Pulisic pleased with U.S. Soccer’s improved landscape ]

Toronto (8-1-5) is 7-0-1 since its lone league loss of the season, a 2-1 decision in Columbus on April 15. Columbus (6-7-1) has lost five of seven since topping Toronto.

Justin Morrow and substitutes Jonathan Osorio and Jordan Hamilton also scored for MLS-leading Toronto. The Canadian team also was unbeaten in eight games (4-0-4) from May 8 to July 10, 2010.

Toronto was reduced to 10 men in the 81st minute when midfielder Marky Delgado was red-carded for a studs-up tackle on Columbus captain Wil Trapp. Osorio and Hamilton then scored to pad the lead for Toronto in its sixth shutout of the season.

Toronto played without the starting forward tandem of Sebastian Giovinco (injured) and Jozy Altidore (suspended for yellow card accumulation). Defender Nick Hagglund also is injured.