World Cup 2014: Who’s your dark horse of the tournament?

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According to Wikipedia, a “dark horse” is “a little-known person or thing that emerges to prominence, especially in a competition of some sort.” In the context of the World Cup, it’s the countries that are unlikely to really lift the trophy, but still could give the big-shots a decent scare. 

In other words, the phrase “dark horse” doesn’t apply to the likes of Brazil, Spain, Germany or Argentina. It’s not usually used to describe England, who’ve got a solid history but rarely come close to the Cup, or to talk about France, who also have history but are in a bit of a rebuilding phase.

And it’s probably a bit of a stretch to talk about, say, Honduras as a “dark horse”, as they’re highly unlikely to suddenly “emerge to prominence.”

Finally, Belgium? Colombia? Please. These teams no longer fit the distinction of “little-known,” with their names being bandied about since before they even clinched a trip to Brazil.

So with that criteria set out, let’s talk about four teams that really could cause a few upsets in the 2014 World Cup:

Switzerland
Could the world’s most neutral country really produce a team that wins such a prestigious tournament? It’s possible. First, Switzerland are drawn into the “Group of Life,” with Ecuador, Honduras, and a France side that could very well repeat its disastrous performances of 2010.  Group E’s winner goes on to face the runner-up in Group F, likely to be Bosnia or Nigeria. Right there, you’ve got the possibility of the Swiss advancing further than they have since 1954, when they went out in the quarter-finals.

Then, take a look at their side. If you’re not a fan of German or Italian football, a quick glance might not impress you. But Switzerland have some fantastically talented individuals: Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus in defense, with Napoli’s midfield trio of Gokhan Inler, Blerim Dzemaili and Valon Behrami available to break up play in front of the back line. Gladbach’s Granit Xhaka can link up play, while Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri joins in the attack. Up front could well be young Josip Drmić, third top-scorer in the Bundesliga this season – 17 from a club that scored just 37.

Chile
Ouch. Chile got drawn into Group B, together with Spain and the Netherlands: the two sides that played in the 2010 World Cup final. But there’s a vital piece of information to remember, here: Holland’s performance in Euro 2012. The team was a shambles, and while much of the defense has been given a shake-up, Louis van Gaal is still relying on some rather tired players.

Unlike Chile, whose squad has remained rather consistent. For the most part, they’re not a flashy side, but they do love a good attack. That’s led by La Roja‘s biggest name, Alexis Sánchez from Barcelona. Eduardo Vargas is one to watch as well – the attacker’s been on loan away from Napoli for the past two seasons, something that most fans of the Italian side don’t understand, as he’s an exciting talent who’s already scored 11 goals in 28 appearances for Chile. And, of course, they have Arturo Vidal, a lynch-pin in Juventus’s title-winning side, and one who can both create and destroy an attack.

Ivory Coast
Any squad with Yaya Touré included must be up for discussion. Sure, soccer’s a team sport, but the midfielder almost seems to create a team around him. It seems as though Ivory Coast has been mentioned has having an outside shot ever since Didier Drogba came into prominence, qualifying for the first time in 2006.

But they’ve never made it past the group stage – is this their year? Their back line looks rather weak, but their attack could more than make up for it. In addition to  Touré, they’ve got Gervinho, who’s been an absolute beast for Roma this season, starting 30 games, scoring nine goals, wracking up ten assists and just generally terrorizing defenses. There’s also something to be said for Drogba’s remaining magic. At 36 years old, it’s difficult to believe he can still create a splash, but you just get the feeling that he’ll inevitably score some crazy goal in Brazil.

Croatia
It’s hard to imagine that a side that could barely make it past Iceland in their UEFA playoff match could emerge as a true challenger in the World Cup. But those were Niko Kovač’s first games in charge, and there’s a feeling that under the new manager, Croatia might really flourish. He’s got a plan and he’s sticking to it, and with that clear guidance comes confidence amongst his team.

And then there’s the pint-sized pot of magic known as Luka Modrić. The Real Madrid midfielder doesn’t get much of the spotlight, but it’s clear he’s one of the anchors of los merengues. So too with his national team. Playing alongside Ivan Rakitić, the two build up Croatia’s play, and if Inter’s Mateo Kovačić is added to the midfield, things could really get fun. And up front, there’s the man everyone is hoping to sign this summer, Bayern’s Mario Mandžukić.

Chelsea loans Miazga back to Vitesse for second-straight season

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Matt Miazga is back again in the Netherlands.

Chelsea announced Friday that it had loaned the American international to Vitesse for the second-consecutive year on a season-long loan. Miazga made 19 starts last season in all competitions and another 10 appearances for Vitesse off the bench, with one goal scored in the run to the KNVB Cup title, the club’s first in its history,

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Despite his rise through the U.S. youth ranks and success with the New York Red Bulls in 2015 before moving to Chelsea, Miazga only made his first U.S. Men’s National Team start at the 2017 Gold Cup, playing the full 90 in the USA’s 3-0 win over Nicaragua.

Miazga went straight from the Gold Cup back to Vitesse to join up for preseason training.

“I look back with pleasure on my first year at Vitesse,” the 22-year-old Miazga told Vitesse’s website. “I felt very welcome and we have all made historic success. That success will be expanded this coming season and I will continue to develop myself. That’s why I returned as soon as possible after winning the Gold Cup. We are going to compete for the second prize in the club’s history. ”

While it’s disappointing that Miazga won’t be able to challenge for a place at Chelsea next season, he could do worse than facing the challenge of the Eredivisie’s huge array of talented attackers, and after another year of seasoning, he could be ready to play in England, with or without Chelsea.

More importantly for him, with the World Cup coming up, even though he’s on the fringe of the World Cup roster right now, getting regular matches in the Eredivisie will help his cause more than playing for Chelsea’s reserves.

Pulisic: Dortmund can win the league

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Christian Pulisic isn’t short on confidence these days.

The rising star for the U.S. Men’s National Team is currently in preseason training with Borussia Dortmund, and he believes his side can push Bayern Munich for the title. Bayern has won five-straight league titles, but the last team other than Munich to win was Dortmund itself in 2012.

“We’ve got a big chance to win the league this coming season,” Pulisic said, via German publication Kicker.

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Pulisic has been firing on all cylinders so far in preseason. During Dortmund’s tour of China, Pulisic had three assists in a 3-1 win over AC Milan, and he also started and went the full 90 against Bochum on July 22 back in Germany.

The 18-year-old is coming off a breakout season for the Black and Yellows, scoring five goals with 13 assists over 43 games between the Bundesliga, German Cup and UEFA Champions League.

“Last season was a good step in my development,” Pulisic said, noting he wants to be “more dangerous” in the attack. “I want to build on that.”

Of course, Pulisic followed the U.S. Men’s National Team at the Gold Cup, taking the title for the sixth time. In less than a year’s time, Pulisic will likely be on the field, starting for the U.S. at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, with the hopes and dreams of many Americans on his shoulders.

“(It was) a good victory,” Pulisic said of the final.

Transfer Rumor Wrap: Bale’s agent laughs off speculation

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It appears Gareth Bale has no plans of following Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez out of Real Madrid this summer.

“It’s a ridiculous, stupid story,” Bale’s agent Jonathan Barnett told the BBC, following reports that Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane wouldn’t promise Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo that they’d staying with the club this summer.

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Of course, these prompted counter reports that Manchester United could take advantage of possible instability at the Santiago Bernabeu and swoop in for Bale, but it seems that Bale is not for sale.

Bale played just 27 times for Real Madrid last season in all competitions, scoring nine goals with three assists while dealing with multiple injuries. His entire career at Real Madrid in fact has been plagued by injury, but ahead of a World Cup year with Wales still in contention for a spot in Russia, Bale will be extra motivated to stay fit this season.

Here’s some more transfer rumors from around the world:

(more…)

Neymar storms off after training dustup with teammate

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Neymar just won’t stay out of the headlines.

As his long-rumored “will he, won’t he go” transfer saga between Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona continues, Neymar stormed out of training on Thursday after getting into a tussle with teammate Nelson Semedo.

A video from the Daily Mail shows Neymar pushing Semedo before walking off and removing his training bib.

Neymar has reportedly agreed to personal terms with PSG over a move to France, but PSG have yet to come up with the nearly $260 million it would cost to trigger Neymar’s release clause. The news of Neymar possibly leaving Barcelona came as a shock, as he’s been content since joining the club to play slightly in the shadow of teammates Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

If this fight is any indication, Neymar’s head could be turned and should PSG trigger the release clause, Neymar could be heading to Paris once Barcelona returns this weekend from its American sojourn.

In spite of all the transfer speculation, Neymar has dazzled for Barcelona on its tour of the U.S., scoring three goals in two games and delighting the thousands in attendance.