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2014 World Cup team preview: Croatia

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Getting to know… Croatia: Their pedigree as a soccer nation is undoubted as they’ve already made it to the World Cup semifinals despite only being a registered FIFA nation since 1993. At France ’98 a Davor Suker inspired Croatia lost to hosts France in the final four but won plenty of fans. The former Yugoslav nation has only failed to qualify for one World Cup tournament, that was the last time out in South Africa. In their three World Cup appearances they finished third in 1998 but failed to make it out of the group in 2002 and 2006. With a talented squad and a great work ethic, they will be hoping to make it to the last 16, at least.

Record in qualifying: Qualified via the UEFA playoffs after finishing second in Group A of qualifying behind Belgium. Croatia beat Iceland 2-0 over a two legged playoff to qualify for the World Cup, sealing their place with a 2-0 win in Zagreb during the second leg.

What group are they in? Croatia are in Group A along with Brazil, Mexico and Cameroon in a group they will be hoping to make it out of. After Brazil, the hosts are expected to win this group at a canter, Croatia seem to be the next strongest side. However Cameroon and Mexico are no pushovers. The Croats know they are in a scrap for second place but do have the chance to play spoiler in the opening game of the tournament against hosts Brazil.

Game schedule: Group A

12 June, 16:00, Sao Paulo – Brazil vs. Croatia
18 June, 15:00, Manaus – Cameroon vs. Croatia
23 June, 16:00, Recife – Croatia vs. Mexico

Star player: Luka Modric

The Real Madrid midfielder is an absolute machine and has had a magnificent season in the engine room. In the UEFA Champions League final Modric was arguably the best player on the pitch as he buzzed around, tackled ferociously, passed with precision and dragged Real back from the dead to win the UCL crown. He runs and runs and runs. Able to let fly from distance and thread balls through to strikers such as Mario Mandzukic, opposition teams will try to man-mark Modric out of the game… good luck!

source: AP
Modric is a machine in midfield. Can he deliver for Croatia this summer?

Manager: Niko Kovac

Taking charge of the playoff games to get Croatia to the World Cup, former national team captain Kovac and his brother Robert steered the Croats to the finals. Igor Stimac was fired acrimoniously by the federation in 2013 but after the Kovac’s (both former Croatian internationals who played at the 2002, 2006 World Cup) worked wonders with Coratia’s U-21 side, they did the same with full national team. Passionate and having a wealth of experience on the international stage, Kovac will use all of that to help Croatia succeed this summer.

Secret weapon: Strong defense.

Even though they struggled through qualifying, Croatia’s man issue was a lack of goals. They didn’t concede more than two goals in any game since qualifying began back in September 2012. With Dejan Lovren having a fine season in the Premier League and veteran Darijo Srna back there, Croatia will be extremely tough to break down. Plus they have Brazilian born forward Eduardo (who used to play for Arsenal) up top to finish off any chances. He will be crucial, especially in the opener vs. his home nation as Mandzukic is suspended.

Prediction: Croatia will get out of Group A but it will not be easy. Their final group game against Mexico is likely to be pivotal as they battle El Tri for second spot. If Croatia can get their spine of experienced players firing, Srna, Modric, Mandzukic, then they have a chance of being a real dark horse in this tournament. They have done it before, why can’t they shock everyone again?

Superstars on show: Who needs to shine at Copa America Centenario?

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Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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The Copa America Centenario opens in California on Friday, as the stars of North, Central and South America take center stage in the United States.

Well, most of them.

Neymar is out of the tournament thanks to an agreement between Barcelona and Brazil that will allow the superstar to play in August’s Olympics in Rio. And Barca teammate Luis Suarez is expected to miss the group stage for Uruguay while recovering from a hamstring injury.

[ MORE: Police free kidnapped Mexico striker ]

As usual the focus will be on Lionel Messi and Argentina, whose powerful roster has finished runners-up at the 2014 World Cup and three of the last four Copa America tournaments. Opening with Chile before matches against Bolivia and Panama, Argentina will be expected to make a deep run. Critics know Messi is one of the best players in recent memory, but his failure to land a title outside of the Olympics with a squad that often includes Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano and Gonzalo Higuain has haunted him, in a sense, at the international level.

Chile won’t be feeling much pressure after winning the 2015 Copa, albeit in controversial fashion that included whispers of home-cooking and a dirty incident from Gonzalo Jara that pained Uruguay physically and competitively. Still, Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) and Arturo Vidal (Bayern Munich) will put on a show on American soil in an attempt to repeat. And keep an eye out for Eduardo Vargas, whose production with Chile far exceeds what he’s done at clubs Hoffenheim, QPR, Valencia and Napoli.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Gonzalez wins Liga MX with Pachuca ]

Uruguay may be without Suarez for a while — nothing new given his suspension for biting at the World Cup — but Edinson Cavani will look to make amends for his wrongly-given red card in last year’s tournament. Abel Hernandez was dynamite in lifting Hull City back into the Premier League this season, while Uruguay boasts one of the world’s most complete backs in Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin.

EINDHOVEN, NETHERLANDS - MARCH 20: Andres Guardado of PSV in action during the Eredivisie match between PSV Eindhoven and Ajax Amsterdam held at Philips Stadium on March 20, 2016 in Eindhoven, Netherlands. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Guardado (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Andres Guardado of Mexico is criminally underrated and one of the best playmakers on the planet. The PSV man is joined on a solid El Tri roster that includes Bayer Leverkusen star striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.

The USMNT will have to contend with Colombia’s star men, highlighted by James Rodriguez, the Real Madrid forward and star of the 2014 World Cup. Carlos Bacca can also dominate stretches of action for Los Cafeteros.

Neymar is out for Brazil, but holy smoke that roster is terrific. Group B’s favorites will roll out Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho, Chelsea’s Willian, Zenit’s Hulk and Real Madrid’s Casemiro.

Other Premier League players on Copa America rosters

NORWICH, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Duncan Watmore (L) of Sunderland celebrates scoring his team's third goal with DeAndre Yedlin during the Barclays Premier League match between Norwich City and Sunderland at Carrow Road on April 16, 2016 in Norwich, England. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
Yedlin (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)

Salomon Rondon (Venezuela / West Brom)
Geoff Cameron (USMNT / Stoke City)
DeAndre Yedlin (USMNT / Tottenham Hotspur)
David Ospina (Colombia / Arsenal)
Cristian Gamboa (Costa Rica / West Brom)
Bryan Oviedo (Costa Rica / Everton)
Joel Campbell (Costa Rica / Arsenal)
Juan Iturbe (Paraguay / Bournemouth)
Willian (Brazil / Chelsea)
Philippe Coutinho (Brazil / Liverpool)
Juan Carlos Paredes (Ecuador / Watford)
Antonio Valencia (Ecuador / Manchester United)
Enner Valencia (Ecuador / West Ham United)
Jefferson Montero (Ecuador / Swansea City)
Michael Hector (Jamaica / Chelsea)
Adrian Mariappa (Jamaica / Crystal Palace)
Wes Morgan (Jamaica / Leicester City)
Gaston Ramirez (Uruguay / Middlesbrough)
Cristhian Stuani (Uruguay / Middlesbrough)
Abel Hernandez (Uruguay / Hull City)
Sergio Romero (Argentina / Manchester United)
Ramiro Funes Mori (Argentina / Everton)
Marcos Rojo (Argentina / Manchester United)
Nicolas Otamendi (Argentina / Manchester City)
Sergio Aguero (Argentina / Manchester City)
Erik Lamela (Argentina / Tottenham Hotspur)
Alexis Sanchez (Chile / Arsenal)

Major League Soccer players on Copa America rosters

Kaka, Orlando City SC
Kaka

Kaka (Brazil / Orlando City)
Kendall Waston (Costa Rica / Vancouver Whitecaps)
Ronald Matarrita (Costa Rica / NYCFC)
Johan Venegas (Costa Rica / Montreal Impact)
Alvaro Saborio (Costa Rica / DC United)
Christian Bolanos (Costa Rica / Vancouver Whitecaps)
Tim Howard (USMNT / Colorado Rapids)
Matt Besler (USMNT / Sporting KC)
Graham Zusi (USMNT / Sporting KC)
Kyle Beckerman (USMNT / Real Salt Lake)
Michael Bradley (USMNT / Toronto FC)
Clint Dempsey (USMNT / Seattle Sounders)
Gyasi Zardes (USMNT / L.A. Galaxy)
Chris Wondolowski (USMNT / San Jose Earthquakes)
Jermaine Jones (USMNT / Colorado Rapids)
Darlington Nagbe (USMNT / Portland Timbers)
Steve Birnbaum (USMNT / DC United)
Nelson Valdez (Paraguay / Seattle Sounders)
Carlos Gruezo (Ecuador / FC Dallas)
Soni Mustivar (Haiti / Sporting KC)
Andre Blake (Jamaica / Philadelphia Union)
Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica /  New York Red Bulls)
Jermaine Taylor (Jamaica / Portland Timbers)
Je-Vaughn Waton (Jamaica / New England Revolution)
Giles Barnes (Jamaica / Houston Dynamo)

Cameron  of USA blocks out Duk of Bolivia (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

Simon Dawkins (Jamaica / San Jose Earthquakes)
Anibal Godoy (Panama / San Jose Earthquakes)
Blas Perez (Panama / Vancouver Whitecaps)
Alberto Quintero (Panama / San Jose Earthquakes)

NASL players on Copa America rosters
Yasmani Duk (Bolivia / New York Cosmos)
Pascal Millien (Haiti / Jacksonville Armada)
James Marcelin (Haiti / Carolina Railhawks)
Jean Marc Alexandre (Haiti / Fort Lauderdale Strikers)
Jerome Mechack (Haiti / Jacksonville Armada)

USL players on Copa America rosters
Ryan Thompson (Jamaica / Saint Louis FC)

Barcelona unveils “throwback” 2016-17 kits, sans sponsor

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Barcelona will go back to vertical stripes for the 2016-17 season, and La Liga’s champions unveiled the kits without a sponsor on the front.

Reminiscent of the last century’s kits, as well as 2006-07, Barca uses a lighter hue of blue than the dark color from last season’s outfit.

[ MORE: Kidnapped Pulido freed by police ]

The club had worn the logo of groups Qatar Airways, Qatar Foundation and Unicef in recent seasons, but has been working toward a new bumper sponsorship this year.

What do you think?

Rashford, Manchester United make new 4-year deal official

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 28:  Marcus Rashford of Manchester United celebrates scoring his opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford on February 28, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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Marcus Rashford and Manchester United have put pen to paper on a new four-year deal for the breakout striker.

Fresh off scoring his first goal for England, the 18-year-old Rashford is locked into the Old Trafford club through 2020.

[ MORE: Carrick to stay? ]

Rashford scored 8 goals in 18 appearances since joining the First Team under now-fired manager Louis Van Gaal.

Executive vice chairman Ed Woodward urged patience with the youngster on ManUtd.com:

“Marcus is a naturally talented footballer with great potential. He has taken his chances well and has integrated into the first team very quickly. I am delighted that Marcus has signed a new contract, he is at the right club to continue his development. He is still very young and we need to be patient but he is developing in the right way and we believe he has a great future ahead of him.”

With Rashford and Martial, United has tremendous potential in attack at very young ages. Let’s see if the youngster continues to deliver on this early promise.

Omar Gonzalez, Pachuca win Liga MX final in stoppage time, down a man

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Victor Guzman used Pachuca’s first shot on target of the game to score the deciding goal in stoppage time, and Tuzos are champions of Liga MX after a 1-1 draw in Sunday’s second leg of the Liga MX Liguilla final versus Monterrey.

[ MORE: Kidnapped Pulido freed by police ]

Pachuca entered the game with a 1-0 lead, but found things level early before going down a man. But Guzman out-jumped USMNT left back Edgar Castillo for the title-winning goal, giving fellow U.S. back Omar Gonzalez his first Liga MX crown.

Here’s the goal:

Gonzalez was left out of Jurgen Klinsmann’s final 23-man roster for the Copa America Centenario, which begins Friday against Colombia. Castillo was, too, but was called into replace injured Timmy Chandler.

We doubt Gonzalez is thinking about that much right now. He’s more likely thinking about dancing some more: