2014 World Cup team preview: France

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Getting to know… France 

For a generation of viewers that came into their fandom around France’s 1998 World Cup triumph, Les Bleus will always be a world power. The recent reality, however, is less flattering. Since Zinedine Zidane’s retirement after Germany 2006, France has qualified for three major tournament but failed to make an impact at any. At Euro 2008 and South Africa 2010, France failed to advance out of its groups, while Euro 2012 saw Laurent Blanc’s team make a meek exit at the quarterfinals.

From an inability to replace icons (Zidane, Lilian Thuram, Thierry Henry) to off the field issues, there are a number of reasons why France has failed to live up to its global reputation. With an easy group draw in Brazil, however, head coach Didier Deschamps has a chance to send Les Bleus in a new direction.

Record in qualifying

France’s hopes of unseating Spain in Europe’s Group I were given a boost when Olivier Giroud’s 94th minute goal snared a point in Madrid with Les Bleus’ third (of eight) qualifiers. When France gave that point back with a 1-0 home loss to the world champions five months later, Deschamps’ team was destined to return to the playoffs.

Once there, a 2-0, first leg loss at Ukraine on Nov. 15 had France on the verge of missing the finals, but a switch in formation and personnel allowed Deschamps to turn the tide in Saint-Denis. First half goals from Mamadou Sahko and Karim Benzema had France even by the 34th minute, with a second half winner from Sahko putting the team through to its fifth consecutive World Cup.

What group are they in? 

Switzerland was the seeded team others wanted to draw. When Ecuador and Honduras joined Ottmar Hitzfeld’s side in Group E, it became one of the tournament’s easiest groups.

While France’s name value makes the nation the favorite in the eyes of some, that may not necessarily be the case. Regardless, this group will prove kinder than most France could have been drawn into.

Game schedule:

15 June, 15:00, Porto Alegre – France vs. Honduras

20 June, 16:00, Salvador – Switzerland vs. France

25 June, 16:00, Rio de Janeiro – Ecuador vs. France

Star player: Franck Ribéry

The reigning French Player of the Year, Ribéry’s one-on-one ability could prove lethal wide left of Les Bleus’s dangerous midfield. With Yohan Cabaye, Blaise Matuidi, and Paul Pogba in the middle, Deschamps has a threesome that could force opponents to dedicate numbers to the problem. The more room that creates for a winger who averages just under 14 goals per season with Bayern Munich, the longer France is likely to last in Brazil.

Manager: Didier Deschamps

Hired in the wake of Euro 2012, the former Juventus midfielder has slowly instilled some of his reputed steel into his national team. Part of that can be seen in the more robust 4-3-3 the coach has used after experimenting with 4-2-3-1 and various versions of a 4-4-2. Another symptom of that edge: Excluding one of the team’s most talented players, Samir Nasri, after the Manchester City midfielder’s displays is dissent. A former World Cup and European champion as a player, Deschamps is trying to lift France to the same heights as a coach.

Secret weapon: Blaise Matuidi

The extent to which any of France’s prospective starters is a secret is debatable, but still operating in the relative anonymity of Ligue 1, Matuidi’s virtues tend to be underappreciated. A strong, two-way, connecting force for Paris Saint-Germain, the 27-year-old could serve a similar role for Les Bleus, though his influence at either end of the pitch could prove just as important. With 15 goals over the last two years at PSG, the former Troyes and Saint-Etienne man continues to show his value going forward, while his ability to be a stalwart in front of the defense provides liberties to the talented Cabaye and Pogba.

Prediction: If Ecuador proves strong in a South American World Cup, there will be a three-way fight to get out of Group E. Else, whether France finishes ahead of Switzerland will depend on Les Bleus playing to their potential. Regardless, Deschamps’ team is expected to get to the knockout round.

PHOTOS: Chelsea submit stunning 60,000 stadium plans

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 26:  An aerial view of Stamford Bridge home of Chelsea Football Club on July 26, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images)
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Chelsea announced on Tuesday that they have submitted plans to upgrade their existing Stadium Bridge to hold over 60,000.

[ MORE: City valued at $3 billion

The Blues will have to play away from their home for up to three seasons while the current stadium is upgraded, with most of the existing structure being demolished and revamped as Russian owner Roman Abramovich will finance the new stadium which could cost over $750 million.

[ MORE: Costa’s time up at Chelsea? ]

Via the club website, Chelsea issued the following message to fans and their neighbors in West London, as anybody who has ever visited the Bridge will tell you that it’s squeezed into a tight 12-acre site banked by housing, two train lines, a cemetery and more.

A planning application for a new stadium at Stamford Bridge with an expanded seating capacity has been submitted. This follows a successful consultation process during which we received very helpful feedback. This application will now be examined by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

The main details of the application are:

– Stadium seating capacity to expand from 41,600 to 60,000 spectators

– An outstanding view of the stadium from every seat

– An arena designed to create an exciting atmosphere

– Direct access to and from Fulham Broadway Station, making travel more efficient

– Stadium facilities improved for every area

The planning process will last beyond the end of the season; if the application is granted planning permission there will still be a lot of work to do before redevelopment can start, including obtaining various other consents. We will inform you of progress through this process.

This will not be an easy project to get over the line but looking at the stunning photos below, if Chelsea can get this through the planning stage and put a shovel in the ground sometime soon, then their ability to attract almost 20,000 extra fans to home games will see them able to compete and surpass Europe’s big boys financially.

After searching for numerous other sites in London to build a new stadium, Chelsea have instead opted for the costlier option of staying at Stamford Bridge. The redevelopment would involved a complex excavation which would see the pitch lowered into the ground in order to squeeze in all 60,000 fans. If they get the green light the stadium would have the same capacity as Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, while expansions to Anfield, the Etihad Stadium and White Hart Lane will also see those stadiums hover around the 60,000 mark.

With a capacity of 75, 731 Old Trafford remains the biggest stadium in the Premier League but the others are catching up as UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules continue to kick in and generating more revenue from ticket sales is key for clubs like Chelsea who aim to perennially challenge for the top titles domestically and in Europe.

If Chelsea are able to build a new stadium at Stamford Bridge they will have to find a temporary solution in London with both Wembley Stadium and Twickenham mentioned as options. However, with Tottenham also looking for a temporary home while White Hart Lane is redeveloped, there could be quite a battle between those two for a solution.

Anyway, take a peak at these photos below to see how a new Stamford Bridge would look.

Source: Herzog & de Meuron
Source: Herzog & de Meuron
Source: LBHF
stamford bridge ground_tcm21-199539
Source: Herzog & de Meuron

Chinese group buy 13 percent stake in Man City for $400 million

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It turns out Manchester City is valued at $3 billion.

[ MORE: Costa’s time at Chelsea up? ]

On Tuesday it was announced that after six months of talks a 13 percent stake in the City Football Group (CFG), owned by Abu Dhabi based Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was sold to investors from China for $400 million.

CFG comprises of the jewel in its crown, Man City, plus New York City FC in Major League Soccer, Melbourne City FC in Australia’s A-league and a stake in the Yokohama Marinos in Japan.

This huge investment from a Chinese consortium — made up of China Media Capital Holdings and CITIC Capital — comes less than a month after China’s President  Xi Jinping visited City’s training ground during a tour of Britain.

Why are Chinese investors pumping millions of dollars into the already wealthy club?

The chairman of China Media Capital — a state-backed media firm — Ruigang Li believes that the consortium’s investment can help the growth of soccer in China.

“We and our consortium partner CITIC Capital also see this investment as a prime opportunity for furthering the contribution of China to the global football family,” Li said.

As for City, they aim to make the most of this link up with China with chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak hopeful of the extra growth opportunities this deal will provide.

“Our belief is that we now have an unrivaled platform to grow CFG, our clubs and companies both in China and internationally,” Al Mubarak said. “We will be working hard with our new partners to realize the potential that this deal creates.”

[ MORE:  Who is favorite for MLS Cup 2015? ]

Perhaps more important than this investment from China is the fact that the company which owns Man City is now valued at $3 billion on the New York Stock Exchange. Their close neighbors Manchester United are currently valued at $3.05 billion on the NYSE. United seeing their so called “noisy neighbors” not only succeed on the pitch but now challenge their financial dominance off the pitch, the Red Devils will be wary of City’s rise to the upper echelons of English and European soccer, and now way beyond that with their ventures overseas and particularly in China after this huge influx of cash.

If, as seems to be the case, it’s a matter of if and not when the sport of soccer explodes into mainstream society in China, City being owned by companies with close links to the Chinese state will certainly help them generate more fans, revenue and business from the country with the largest population on planet earth. Tapping into that potential — other teams like Real Madrid, Liverpool and United have a strong and loyal fanbase in East Asia — seems like a savvy move for a club who have invested billions of dollars in building themselves into a world superpower.

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

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When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

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Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers