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2014 World Cup Team Preview: Colombia

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Getting to know… Colombia
Colombia are one of the sides tapped to be a dark horse in this year’s World Cup. In fact, they’ve been tipped by so many to make a splash that the term “dark horse” likely no longer applies. Perhaps it’s better to view Colombia as a white knight, riding in to rescue a tournament which might, without them, simply be way too boring.

But the Colombia team hasn’t always been so swift, so intimidating, so…fun. In fact, it’s been more than fifteen years since we’ve seen them at a World Cup. Their last appearance was in France, when they failed to make it past the group stages. In their four appearances in the tournament, their most successful was in Italia ’90, when they made it to the Round of 16.

Los cafeteros have never won more than one game at the World Cup. This could be the year that all changes. They go to Brazil armed with plenty of attacking talent, with (hopefully fit) Radamel Falcao, James Rodríguez and Jackson Martínez just a few of the names that are available to terrorize defenses. But their defense is strong as well, making Colombia a truly formidable opponent.

Record in qualifying
CONMEBOL qualifiers require all South American teams (except with the exception of hosts Brazil this time around) to play each other twice, home and away. So Colombia can’t be accused of having an easy group, or a simpler route to qualifying than the rest of the continent’s sides.

Yet they still managed to reach second in CONMEBOL qualifying, two points behind heavyweights Brazil, and five points ahead of Uruguay, who were so successful in South Africa. Colombia scored 27 goals in 16 matches while conceding just 13, the lowest total on the continent.

A look at Group C 
Will winning the group be a breeze for Colombia? It certainly doesn’t look challenging. First up is Greece, who are known for their defensive style of play. But when up against quality opponents in UEFA qualifying, Greece caved and conceded. It should be no problem for Colombia to get goals.

Then comes Ivory Coast, a rather aging squad. They’ll need to worry about Yaya Touré and the seemingly never-ending threat of Didier Drogba, but again, Colombia should come out on top. Japan may worry the cafeteros defense, but their own back line isn’t the most solid, so the closing match should at least provide plenty of attacking thrills.

Game schedule

Saturday, June 14 at 12 noon ET: Colombia vs. Greece (Estadio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte)

Thursday, June 19 at 12 noon ET: Colombia vs. Ivory Coast (Nacional, Brasilia)

Tuesday, June 24 at 4 p.m. ET: Japan vs. Colombia (Arena Pantanal, Cuiabá)

Star player
For better or for worse, Colombia’s star is Radamel Falcao. He hasn’t played since his injury and subsequent operation in January, but he’s still set to be included when José Pékerman names his final squad. The forward scored nine goals in thirteen qualifying matches, and his partnership with Monaco teammate James Rodríguez should not be understated. The midfielder is a key creator for Colombia, but it’s Falcao that applies the finish. If Falcao suffers another injury setback, Jackson Martínez will step in, but will he and James click the same?

Manager
José Pékerman lead Argentina to the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup, then spent time managing in Mexico. He accepted the position of Colombia head coach in January 2012, becoming the third manager of los cafeteros during the 2014 qualifying stages. He came in after the side lost to Argentina, and that’s when the Colombian revolution began.

It’s Pékerman that has exploited Colombia’s wealth of attacking talent. His 4-2-2-2 system not only takes advantage of the likes of Falcao, but also makes use of Colombia’s talented wide players, like Napoli’s Camilo Zúñiga and Fiorentina’s Juan Cuadrado.

Secret weapon
Coffee!

No, not really. I have no idea if the Colombia national team sips a lot of coffee. But it’s appropriate that their nickname is los cafeterosor the coffee-growers. Although Colombia has left much of its violent past behind, the country’s name still conjures up armed guerrillas and drug cartels. About the only previous positive association most people could make with Colombia was its delicious coffee.

Now, Colombia could very well be associated with free-flowing, attack-minded football as well.

Prediction

I have Colombia emerging top of Group C and going on to face Italy in the Round of 16. After Italy’s performance against Ireland, I’m tipping Colombia to move on to the quarter-finals, where they’ll be knocked out by Brazil.

City Council approves plans for new Los Angeles soccer venue

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LOS ANGELES (AP) The City Council has approved plans to build a $250 million stadium for Major League Soccer’s expansion Los Angeles Football Club.

[ MORE: Can MLS teams begin to create separation in Week 10? ]

The council voted 12-0 Friday to move forward with a 22,000-seat stadium on the site of the old Sports Arena next to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and USC.

The 15-acre complex is also slated to include a conference center, restaurants, 140,000 square feet of plazas and streetscapes, and a soccer museum.

At its center would be the home to the new MLS team when it makes its debut in 2018.

LAFC is owned by Malaysian billionaire Vincent Tan, American venture capitalist Henry Nguyen and a celebrity-studded list of investors including Magic Johnson, Tony Robbins, Mia Hamm and Nomar Garciaparra.

Barcelona reportedly seeking out Nice winger Hatem Ben Afra

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Lost in the 2015-16 campaign has been Nice attacker Hatem Ben Afra.

[ MORE: Leicester can provide more magic at home vs. Everton ]

While Paris Saint-Germain has stolen the spotlight in France for much of this season, the former Newcastle midfielder has been nothing short of special for Les Aiglons.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s PL picks are in for Week 37 ]

That has left La Liga giant Barcelona contacting the 29-year old Frenchman over his services, according to Nice president Jean Pierre Rivere.

Rivere told France 3 he wouldn’t mind Ben Afra exiting the club:

“I would be very happy for him and for Nice if this move comes off,” Rivère said. “You do not reject Barcelona, but it is up to him to decide. If I was a player and Barcelona was offered to me I would not ask questions, I would go! But it is not yet done according to what I am told.”

In 32 appearances this season for Nice, Ben Afra has notched 17 goals and added five assists. He ranks third in goals, only behind PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexandre Lacazette of Lyon.

Barcelona could very well be the frontrunners to acquire the talented attacker, but several European sides have also expressed interest in Ben Afra. Premier League clubs Chelsea and Liverpool, as well as AC Milan have also been named as potential suitors.

[ MORE: What do other PL teams have to say about Leicester? ]

Ben Afra’s age may be a bit of a concern for the Blaugrana though, in addition to the fact that this current season is the only time in his career that he has tallied double-digit goals. The Lyon academy product could provide solid depth to Barcelona’s attack should a deal get finalized.

Follow @MattReedFutbol

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Everton

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  • Leicester simply playing for home pride
  • Everton seek top-10 finish

Leicester City host Everton on Saturday from the King Power Stadium (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra) in hopes of providing its fans with a season-capping victory, after winning the Premier League title on Monday.

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By now everyone has seen Christian Fuchs‘ video of the Leicester players in celebration mode, but there are still two games left to play. The match against Everton may be more about pride than anything else, but it can still represent an important feat for the club and serve as a true celebration in front of their home supporters.

Jamie Vardy‘s return will provide the fans with yet another moment to applaud and you’d expect the Leicester forward to want to add to his 22 PL goals.

[ MORE: Norwich in desperate need of three points vs. Manchester United ]

The Foxes will be met by an Everton side that don’t really have anything to play for either. Toffees manager Roberto Martinez will surely be looking for a win with his job on the line, however, it’s left to be seen whether or not he can actually maintain his position. Everton has finished in the PL top 10 each of the last eight seasons, and a finish outside of that mark would be a huge setback for the club.

What they’re saying…

Ranieri on his team competing: “Inside me there are two people. One is a very aggressive, I want to win, I won the Premier League but now I want to win on Saturday.”

Martinez on Leicester not letting up: “I’m sure any sort of celebration could affect you in the long term if you had to face a difficult month. In a 90-minute game where the stadium is going to be an historic environment, I’m sure that can only be positive for the home team.”

Prediction

The title is already theirs but why wouldn’t Leicester win this match? The KP Stadium will be rocking into the night and the Foxes will come away with a convincing 3-0 win against Everton.

Follow @MattReedFutbol

Premier League Preview: Norwich City vs. Manchester United

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  • Norwich sit two points out of 17th place
  • United in battle with West Ham for Europe
  • Canaries are losers of three straight

Norwich City host Manchester United from Carrow Road on Saturday (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) as the Canaries seek Premier League safety with two weeks remaining.

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With their season on the line, Norwich is facing desperation as they meet Manchester United. The Canaries posted just one win in four matches in April, leaving them 19th in the PL. While neither Newcastle nor Sunderland were able to create separation between themselves and Norwich, a win against United is a necessity with three games left to play.

Goals have come at a minimum this season for the Canaries, leaving Nathan Redmond and Dieumerci Mbokani in need of a big game. Each player has notched five goals this season for the side.

[ MORE: Ranieri’s on-field changes as manager have propelled Leicester ]

Disappointment has surrounded United for much of the 2015-16 season, however, the Red Devils still have important matches to play down the stretch. That starts with Norwich. Sitting four points behind fourth place Manchester City and holding a game in hand, Louis Van Gaal‘s club can close the gap on the Citizens with a strong performance on Saturday.

What they’re saying…

Neil on match’s importance: “Everybody knows the situation, so I don’t think it is going to have massive difference in terms of how we would approach the game or they (relegation rivals) would approach the game. What it does do is apply pressure to their game, but there will be pressure on that anyway. They will recognise and we recognise that all the teams need to win games to stay in the division.”

Van Gaal on injury struggles: “I always talk about facts, not about hypothetical circumstance and activities. I can only say that in the end of November we had first position, after that we had a big decline.”

Prediction

Despite playing in front of a feisty home crowd at Carrow Road and picking up a 2-1 victory early this season against United, the Canaries chances aren’t too optimistic. Norwich hasn’t scored in three straight matches, all of which were losses. With United still playing for something I don’t expect the Red Devils to drop this match. Give United the points on the road, 3-1, leaving Norwich to rely on Aston Villa and Chelsea to pick up wins.

Follow @MattReedFutbol

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