2014 World Cup team preview: England

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Getting to know… England
In this part of the world, England, as well as its importance to world soccer, needs little explanation. The country’s contribution to the game makes it one of the cornerstone nations in the sport, a status emboldened by its domestic league. The Barclays Premier League is the most popular in the world.

The national team, known as the Three Lions, is one of eight to have claimed the World Cup, doing so when the nation hosted the tournament in 1966. Unfortunately, the last generation of returns have been more mixed. Since failing to qualify for the tournament at USA 1994, England has never gotten past the quarterfinals, though it has reached that depth twice (2002, 2006). Having never won a European championship, the 1966 title remains England’s only major honor.

Record in qualifying
A tricky group with Ukraine, Montenegro, and Poland broke the Three Lions’ way when the team posted a 6-0-4 record, scoring 31 times while only giving up four goals. With the Ukrainians on their heals, however, qualifying was in doubt until the last round, when a 2-0 win over Poland at Wembley Stadium ensured England qualified its fifth straight World Cup.

What group are they in?
Group D with Costa Rica, Italy and Uruguay. While few have lumped this group in with Spain’s and Germany’s (seen as the tournament’s toughest), England’s packet will ensure one Round of 16-quality team leaves before the knockout round.

Game schedule: Group D

14 June, 18:00, Manaus – England vs. Italy

19 June, 16:00, Sao Paolo – Uruguay vs. England

24 June, 13:00, Belo Horizonte – Costa Rica vs. England

Star player: Wayne Rooney

The Manchester United attacker is the biggest name in England’s team. Whether he’ll be its best is the subject of debate before every major tournament.

Since scoring four times as a 18-year-old at Euro 2004, Rooney’s scored one goal at the last four majors. Injuries and suspensions have played a big part in that disappointment, but with a team built around his talents, Rooney will be expected to produce more in Brazil. Whether that means scoring more goals or setting up chances for others, it’s difficult to see England going far without a productive Rooney.

Manager: Roy Hodgson

In addition to winning league titles in Denmark and Sweden, Hodgson has taken Inter Milan and Fulham to European finals. On the international level, he’s managed Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, and Finland, and while he’s primarily known for pragmatic tactics that are often characterized as negative, he’s brought a stability to England that was much-needed in the wake of Fabio Capello and John Terry’s dramatic exits. With his team eliminated on penalty kicks at Euro 2012, Hodgson also showed he can get results with his home nation, even if those results looked a lot like some of his predecessors’.

“Secret” weapon: Leighton Baines

Regular visitors to this site are well aware of one of the Premier League’s best fullbacks, but particularly if England starts Danny Welbeck wide left in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 setup, the Everton left-sider’s ability to create chances could provide a needed balance the formation. It will also help take the load off Rooney. If Costa Rica, Italy, and Uruguay don’t commit a winger to tracking Baines, the 29-year-old will have an even greater impact on the opposite flank.

Prediction
At the risk of making each team into a cliché, England and Italy – teams that played to a draw over 120 minutes at Euro 2012 – seem destined to end tied. If England can do the same against Uruguay five days later, they’ll go into Group D’s final round knowing a win will probably take them through. It isn’t glamorous, but it could get England into the second round.

Transfer rumor roundup: Van Dijk to Chelsea, Ox to Anfield

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More and more players are being linked with Manchester United, but — believe it or not — the Red Devils aren’t the only club seeking talent.

DiMarzio is reporting that Antonio Conte is close to securing the services of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, insisting the Dutch back is Conte’s top choice ahead of Juventus power house Leonardo Bonucci (which isn’t to say there isn’t room for both). The price? An eyebrow-raising $77 million.

[ MORE: Confederations Cup scenarios ]

Meanwhile, Conte is selling talented Bertrand Traore outside the Premier League. A solid season on loan at Ajax upped interest in the 21-year-old striker, and L’Equipe says it’s a $22 million move to Lyon for Traore.

How much do you think Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is worth? Liverpool may think his value is as high as $32 million, as The Independent reports that Arsenal is prepared to sell the Southampton Academy product to the attacker-heavy Reds.

Meanwhile, Serge Gnabry‘s wild journey looks to have another stop despite a purchase from Bayern Munich this summer. Gnabry was one of Germany’s heroes at the Olympics and left Arsenal for Werder Bremen last summer. He thrived, and earned a deal to Bayern, but Kicker brings quotes from a Hoffenheim player that are hopeful of a loan for this season.

Messi offers to pay $558,000 to avoid 21-month jail sentence

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi has offered to pay an additional fine of 500,000 euros ($558,000) to ensure he avoids a 21-month prison sentence for tax fraud that a judge is expected to suspend, a Spanish state prosecutor said Friday.

State prosecutor Isabel Lopez Riera told The Associated Press the fine-for-time deal was presented by Messi’s lawyers to the judge who will rule on whether to suspend Messi’s sentence – as is widely expected. Lopez Riera said she has told the judge that her office is not opposed to the deal.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

Lopez Riera said Messi’s lawyers have made a similar offer for the Barcelona player’s father, Jorge Horacio Messi. He is offering to pay 360,000 euros ($402,000) to avoid his 15-month sentence for helping his son cheat on his taxes.

In Spain, prison sentences under 24 months for first-time offenders can be suspended by a judge.

The government attorney representing Spain’s Tax Office in the case will also be able to weigh in on the proposed deal. As state prosecutor, Lopez Riera is impartial in the case as a defender of the public interest.

Last year, a court in Barcelona found Messi and his father each guilty of three counts of defrauding tax authorities of 4.1 million euros ($4.6 million) from 2007-09. The unpaid taxes were from money made through endorsement deals, not Messi’s salary paid by Barcelona.

Messi was fined 2 million euros and his father 1.5 million euros. Both were originally sentenced to 21 months, but his father’s sentence was later reduced to 15 months.

In the last two weeks, Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo and former Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho have been accused by a Madrid-based state prosecutor of having defrauded Spain’s Tax Office of millions of euros (dollars) in unpaid taxes.

Both have denied wrongdoing.

WATCH: Pair of inspiring Academy videos from Men In Blazers

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Men In Blazers produced a pair of videos on two teens from rival academies that should give all young players a sense of gratitude and inspiration for their chances in American soccer.

New York City FC Academy center back Prince Amponsah and New York Red Bulls Academy destroyer Amadeo Chapru-Tate get the mini-doc treatment from Roger Bennett.

Amponsah comes from Ghana, and his family moved to the United States where their son found his way to the youth national team.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

Chapru-Tate comes from Haiti, adopted by his parents after a three-year process. His first game saw him score an own goal, but that was not a sign of what’s to come for the 15-year-old.

Confederations Cup: Scenarios before final group matches

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Seven of eight nations remain alive for the knockout rounds after two-thirds of the group stage at the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia.

Only New Zealand has been eliminated, though the underdogs aren’t the sort of nations who will quit ahead of its group finale against Portugal.

That’s one of two Saturday matches, along with Russia versus Mexico, with two more on the docket for Sunday when Germany meets Cameroon and Chile duels with Australia.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

We’ve seen zany finishes at the Confederations Cup before, as the U.S. beat Egypt 3-0 and Brazil topped Italy 3-0 on the final day of group play in 2009 to send the Americans past Italy and into the knockout rounds despite a tournament-opening 3-1 loss to the Italians.

Group A

Draws will be enough to send Mexico and Portugal into the knockout rounds, with Mexico currently leading the group by virtue of a single goal scored (The two sides drew 2-2 in the opener).

We mentioned New Zealand’s status as a wild card, but hosts Russia will be under immense pressure against Mexico. The cynic will note that the tournament’s location could help the Russians beyond simple home-field advantage, while a bigger cynic may not that Mexico has been the beneficiary of plenty of officials’ whistles and non-whistles in recent years.

The safe bet is Portugal to win and Mexico to advance via draw or win.

Group B

No one’s safe, but Chile is feeling very good about its chances coming into Sunday’s match against Australia in Moscow. The Chileans battered Australia at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and a draw would give them a place in the next round.

The Socceroos need a two-goal win to pass Chile and assure a spot in the next round. A one-goal win could also do the trick for Australia if Germany loses and Australia outscores the Germans (who currently hold a one-goal advantage).

Germany knows it’s result-and-in for them, while Cameroon faces the longest odds. Not only do the Africans need to upset the Germans, but they need a two-goal win and help. If Cameroon won by one, it would fail to pass Germany.