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2014 World Cup Team Preview: Greece

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Getting to know… Greece
Greece are quietly (and some might say, boringly) one of the world soccer’s greatest powers. Well, of the 21st century, anyway. Prior to 2004, no one paid Greece much attention. Then they went on to win the 2004 European Championship.

Their success in the Euros ten years ago marked them out as formidable opponents, although they failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, and only made it to the group stage of Euro 2008. Greece then went to South Africa but failed to get out of the group stages.

However, they’re currently ranked 10th in the world, however surprising that might be. Greece did manage to make it to the quarterfinals of Euro 2012, but needed to win a playoff to reach Brazil. In this case, focusing on their ranking may be overestimating the side – but it’s always wise to remember that this strong defensive unit can take points off top teams.

Record in qualifying
Greece finished even on points with Bosnia in UEFA Group G, both winning eight, losing one and drawing one for a total of 25 points. But Bosnia’s +24 goal difference far outweighed the Greeks’ +8.

That meant a two-legged playoff with Romania, who’d finished behind Netherlands. Surprisingly, considering Greece had scored no more than two goals in any match in qualifying, they ran out 3-1 winners in the first leg. The second finished a 1-1 draw, but it mattered little. Greece won 4-2 on aggregate and were set for Brazil.

Oh, and Kostas Mitroglou scored three of Greece’s four goals in the playoff round. The same Kostas Mitroglou who went to Fulham and was never seen again.

A look at Group C
Nothing about Group C looks easy. Colombia, the top seeds, are one of the dark horses in this year’s World Cup, even if Radamel Falcao doesn’t get back to full fitness in time. Ivory Coast are getting on in years, but they have Yaya Touré, who had a superb season at Manchester City, and Didier Drogba, who might be 36 but can still score some immense goals. And then there’s Japan, whose attacking threat may be enough to wear down Greece’s defenses.

Game schedule

Sunday, June 15 at 12 noon: Colombia vs. Greece (Estadio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte)

Thursday, June 19 at 6 p.m.: Japan vs. Greece (Arena das Dunas, Natal)

Tuesday, June 24 at 4 p.m.: Greece vs. Ivory Coast (Estadio Castelão, Fortaleza)

Star player
Greece lack a certain star quality. They’ve got a few players in Italy, two at Fulham, and most of the rest in the domestic league. The star, almost by default, becomes Kostas Mitroglou, he of the famed $20m move to Fulham, back in January. But a persistent knee problem, combined with doubts expressed by manager Felix Magath, kept the forward out of the starting lineup. In his four months at the club, Mitroglou started just once.

But Mitroglou has scored eight goals in 28 appearances for his country, including those vital goals in the playoff against Romania. And considering coach Fernando Santos cut three other strikers from his preliminary squad, it makes sense to keep one that’s been able to step up in important games.

Manager
Fernando Santos has been at the helm since 2010, after coaching domestic club PAOK for three seasons. Despite being voted Greece’s best coach of the decade in 2010, the shadow of his predecessor still lingers.

Santos took over from Otto Rehhagel, the coach that lead Greece to their Euro triumph. And while the Portuguese tactician has attempted to introduce a different style to the national team, little has changed. Greece are still known primarily for their defensive strength…

Secret weapon
Which is, of course, their not-so-secret weapon. If you’re not an avid watcher of European tournaments or qualifiers, you may not know just how much Greece rely on their defense. After all, they lost to both South Korea and Argentina by a 2-0 scoreline in 2010, and beat Nigeria 2-1.

But Greece pride themselves on being as stingy as possible. They conceded just four times in qualifying, a record bettered only by Cup holders Spain. Yet Greece faced rather weak competition from the rest of Group G, and in their second meeting with Bosnia, the latter knocked in three. Will their weapon fail them in Brazil?

Prediction
Greece will barely have any time to unpack their bags. It’s highly unlikely they’ll make it out of the group stages, and a last-place finish in Group C is well within the realm of possibility.

Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Copa del Rey Round of 16 first leg match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on January 6, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi has won every individual award imaginable, but now he can add another trophy to his shelf.

For the first time in his career, Messi was named La Liga’s Player of the Month for January.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings, Vol. VIII ]

It’s hard to believe, but somehow the Barcelona superstar had never won this honor before. Despite winning a record five Ballon D’or trophies as the best player in the world, this trophy had eluded Messi since its inception in 2013.

Messi scored six goals in six January matches as Barcelona sit atop the La Liga table, currently holding a three-point lead over Atletico Madrid.

Despite their dominance in La Liga, this is only the second time a Barcelona player has won this monthly award, as Neymar took home the honor in November of 2015.

USWNT-Mexico preview: Energized Yanks look to keep rolling toward Rio

FRISCO, TX - FEBRUARY 10:  Team USA poses for a photo before play against Costa Rica during 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at Toyota Stadium on February 10, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
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The United States women’s national team looks to keep rolling through CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying with a match with Mexico on Saturday.

Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, is again the scene after the Yanks battered Costa Rica 5-0 on Wednesday.

[ MUST WATCH: Christen Press’ dazzling first touch, spin, goal ]

A win over Mexico would move the USWNT into the all-important semifinal, where a win would gain them entry into this Summer’s Olympic Games.

Mexico staged a blowout of its own on Wednesday, cruising past Puerto Rico 6-0 thanks in large part to a hat trick from Maribel Dominguez.

[ VIDEO: Alex Morgan caps off a 12-second, six-pass goal ]

Mexico has only beaten the USWNT twice in history, and only the 2010 Gold Cup semifinal is considered official.

In recent history, the USWNT beat up Mexico 5-1 last year, and thrice in 2014 by a combined score of 15-0. Expect very little to change with an energized, impressive U.S. side on Saturday.

[ SATURDAY: Watch USWNT vs Mexico live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks: Big boys to turn up

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Week 26 of the Premier League season is here. This will be a lot of fun with massive games at both ends of the table.

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live online ]

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out.

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.

BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Arsenal 3-2 Leicester City – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Norwich City 0-2 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, USA) –  [STREAM]

Man City 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur – (Sunday 11:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Sunderland 0-2 Manchester United – (Saturday, 7:45 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS…

Everton 2-1 West Brom  – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Swansea 1-1 Southampton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM] 

Crystal Palace 2-1 Watford – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM]

Chelsea 3-2 Newcastle – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Bournemouth 2-1 Stoke City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM]

Aston Villa 2-1 Liverpool – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Ranieri on Leicester City’s dream season: “Nobody wake us up please!”

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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There’s plenty to like about Leicester City’s run to the top of the Premier League, but perhaps nothing is more enjoyable that its manager’s musings.

Claudio Ranieri, the Tinkerman himself, has provided some of the best quips of the season.

[ MORE: Top 5 storylines to look for in PL ]

From “I want to be the crazy man in the Premier League” to “It’s like nobody wants to win the league“, the 64-year-old Italian has offered plenty of beauties.

Make way for some more gems, from LCFC.com:

“I think we work so hard to achieve this level. We want to stay at this level. It’s no pressure for us. The pressure was at the beginning to start well, to carry on and maintain the standard of our performance.
“Now we are safe and we want to fight with respect with all our opponents. Face to face, we play with our strength and they play with theirs. If we win, fantastic. If we lose, next match.
“I think the pressure is on the other teams. We have pressure for our little gap. We continue to dream with our fans and we want to continue to dream. Nobody wake us up please!”
We love this man. To go from a short-lived run in Euro qualifying with Greece to this remarkable roll with Leicester has to be a bit dream-like. We get it. And we love that he’s going with it.