Three 2014 World Cup dark horses across three continents

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There aren’t too many labels that can cause debate more than “dark horse.” In fact, an earlier post calling Bosnia & Herzegovina a World Cup dark hose was derided by several of you in our comments section.

After all, it’s difficult to pluck a squad from a major tournament that features the best of the best and not meet resistance (save labeling Iran or Australia a favorite for Brazil 2014). Still, let’s take a look at some nations with opportunities to surprise the world.

Japan – The Japanese have challenged themselves with immense competition over the past year and while it hasn’t been all sunshine, Samurai Blue will not be frightened by any opposition. That includes a Group C with the Ivory Coast, Greece and Colombia.

Over the past year Japan has beaten Belgium and drew the Netherlands in Belgium, while defeating Ghana and Australia in Asia. Their Confederations Cup performance — aside from a 3-0 loss to hosts Brazil — proved they can score against anyone, with a 4-3 loss to Italy and a 2-1 defeat versus Mexico, games backed up by a 4-2 loss to Uruguay.

The players who get the lion’s shares of pub are Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) and Keisuke Honda  (CKSA Moscow), but Japan national teamers have found a foothold  in the Bundesliga; Nine Samurai Blue players are active in Germany’s top flight.

Certainly they’re a dark horse at best, but Alberto Zaccheroni has a 28-11-11 record as manager of the Japan side after plenty of time in Serie A with Milan, Inter and a brief spell at Juventus.

Japan is 2-1 all-time against the Ivory Coast, though the last matchup was a 2-0 loss. They won their only matchup against Greece in the 2005 Confederations Cup and are 0-1-1 against Colombia.

Ghana –  Yes, the Black Stars face what’s widely perceived as the Group of Death, but pressure hasn’t crippled them in previous competitions. Ghana showed up to its first World Cup in 2006 and promptly finished 13th before improving to 7th in 2010.

American fans are well aware that Ghana has beaten the Yanks in successive World Cups heading into their Group G opener in Brazil, but how many know the Black Stars have a 4-0 record all-time against the U.S. with a goal differential of 10-2.

German captain Per Mertesacker has hailed Ghanian star Kevin Prince-Boateng, who will have a family rivalry with half-brother Jerome Boateng. Germany has handled Ghana in both past meetings, 7-1. Portugal and Ghana have never met.

There are questions in net for Ghana — could Richard Kingson be back? — but there’s no lack of international class in attacking, as the team has options from the Premier League to the Bundesliga and beyond.

Anyone who watched the Black Stars simply throttle Egypt 7-3 on aggregate knows they play with flair and swagger, plus surviving Group G can net a nice path to the quarters as we’ve previously detailed. Are you betting against Ghana?

Bosnia and Herzegovina – Let’s finish with the aforementioned Golden Lillies, who sit at No. 21 in the FIFA rankings four months after reaching its peak at No. 13. Until 2010, the nation had never been higher than 44 in the world and were well below that number in years prior.

First, the negative: Competing in a group with Argentina, Iran and Nigeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina has little history with its competition and most of it isn’t good. They lost to Argentina 2-0 in a friendly on American soul on Nov. 18. Sergio Aguero scored both goals though most accounts say the Western Hemisphere powers were put to the test.

They’ve never squared off with Nigeria and haven’t faced Iran since 2009, but the Middle Eastern country boasts a nearly pristine 4-1-0 mark versus Bosnia.

On to the positive: it’s a veteran unit that features the four-most capped players in national history, including its two-highest goal scorers in Edin Dzeko and Zvjezdan Misimović. There’s good depth in the back and up top for Bosnia, who should reverse its Iranian struggles and cause loads of problems for Nigeria’s defense. They’ve got a stud goalkeeper is Asmer Begovic. That’s for certain.

If Bosnia and Herzegovina were to come out of Group F, they face a promising matchup with Group E (Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras).

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

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There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

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In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

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In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80