Will Messi and Aguero lead Argentina to World Cup success?

Will a South American team win the World Cup?

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Will a South American team win the 2014 World Cup? The short answer: yes.

The long answer? Yes.

Ok, it’s not a certainty that a team from South America will wind up hoisting the trophy. There are no certainties when it comes to international soccer, except for the fact that when Brazil is involved, commentators will inevitably mention “samba.” But the continent has hosted the World Cup four times, with a South American country winning each time. South American nations have also won all three tournaments played in North America.

Of course, it can also be argued that this sort of split is sure to disappear with time. In the past, players weren’t used to such extensive travel. It was difficult to adjust to foreign conditions, foreign foods, foreign temperatures. But now that the vast majority of the world’s best players are hopping planes every couple weeks, and many associations have the means to begin preparations early in custom-built training camps, the home-continent advantage might soon be a thing of the past.

Still, the chances of this Cup going to a South American team are still rather high. Of FIFA’s top ten teams, four of them are from the continent. The rankings system may be a bit flawed, but the talent is still evident.

Ecuador
La Tri may have beaten Uruguay to the final automatic qualification spot, but they’re still the weakest side on the continent. Oh, and in Switzerland and France, they’ve got two very tough sides to beat should they want to make it out of Group E (they can probably make it past Honduras, however). Their strength lies in their wingers – Jefferson Montero and Antonio Valencia – but wide play alone isn’t going to cause Ecuador to make a deep run.

Uruguay
Wait, are Uruguay really the fifth-worst side in South America? Perhaps not. But they head to this tournament with fifteen of the same players that went to South Africa, and their age is starting to show. If Luis Suárez isn’t fully fit, it’s difficult to see the 35-year-old Diego Forlán shouldering much of the scoring burden. They’ve still got Edinson Cavani, but the forward had a rather poor season at PSG. Basically, they’re relying on dramatic goals from Suárez to gloss over a lack of shininess elsewhere.

Chile
Attacking, free-flowing, fun-loving soccer. This Chile side also features two world-class players, in Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal and Barcelona forward Alexis Sánchez.  This side has its own weaknesses in defense, but it’s certainly capable of pipping Netherlands to second place in Group B. In fact, their style could even catch the heavily-favored Spain off guard. They’re not one of the most talked-about teams on the continent, but they should be.

Colombia
Colombia’s odds of lifting the World Cup diminished significantly with the news that Radamel Falcao wouldn’t be making the trip to Brazil. But to count out los cafeteros would be foolish. They’ve still got an incredibly talented creator in Monaco’s James Rodríguez, and Teófilo Gutiérrez, of River Plate, is rather good at scoring. Colombia should still be tipped to make it out of the group, and could very well find themselves in the quarter-finals.

Argentina
Argentina have a shaky defense and a goalkeeper that made all of three appearances for Monaco this season. Why are they being named as one of the sides most likely to win the tournament? Here are four reasons: Ángel di María, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Lionel Messi. Coach Alejandro Sabella has Messi playing the best he ever has for the albiceleste, putting to rest the worry that Messi would never be good for his country. And when the Barcelona man combines with the rest of that attack…well, who needs a defense?

Brazil
Don’t underestimate home-field advantage. The host team has won the tournament six times: Uruguay ’30, Italy ’34, England ’66, West Germany ’74, Argentina ’78, France ’98. And Brazil have lifted the Cup five times: ’58, ’62, ’70, ’94, ’02. Put those two together and you have an easy equation for predicting that Brazil will win in 2014. Plus, the Seleção have an incredibly talented squad, one that’s ready to attack without mercy. If Neymar’s at his best, it’s likely Brazil will be unstoppable.

Then again, the last time the World Cup came to town, in 1950, Brazil needed only a draw to emerge as World Champions. They ended up losing to Uruguay.

Electricity restored at Maracana after some late bills paid

This Feb. 2, 2017 shows Maracana stadium with a dry field in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Stadium operators, the Rio state government, and Olympic organizers have fought over $1 million in unpaid electricity bills and management of the venue. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rio’s electricity utility has turned the power back on at the famous Maracana stadium after it was shut off for almost a month in a dispute over $1 million in unpaid bills.

The utility on Thursday said power had been restored after the stadium operator paid 1.3 million reals ($430,000) in late bills from November through January. It was shut off on Jan. 26 in the dispute.

The utility said it is still negotiating for 1.8 million reals ($600,000) in unpaid bills from the organizing committee of last year’s Rio Olympics. Rio 2016 organizers still owe millions to companies which helped prepare the Olympics and Paralympics

The stadium has been vandalized over the last month with seats torn out, televisions stolen and the grass field left untended.

VIDEO: FC Dallas youngster Kellyn Acosta unleashes howitzer goal

Arabe Unido goalkeeper Miguel lloyd (1) reaches up to block a shot from FC Dallas as defender Rigoberto Nino (2) and FC Dallas' Kellyn Acosta (23) watch in the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals soccer match, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 in Frisco, Texas (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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With FC Dallas taking on Panamanian club Aribe Unido in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta grabbed a second for the Major League Soccer club 10 minutes past halftime.

It wasn’t just any old goal. It was a STRIKE.

The Texas native trailed the play, and with Roland Lamah shut off in the box by solid man-marking on the ball, Acosta was there to provide an outlet, and he blasted a vicious strike into the top-left corner. The find by Lamah was a smart one with a host of defenders closing in, and his calm demeanor was rewarded as his teammate launched a rocket into the back of the net.

The goal is a fodder for those who believe Acosta, who has played full-back for much of his career, should be a midfielder instead. His positioning and ability to trail the play with deadly accuracy is what makes this goal so special.

Acosta would bag a third in the dying minutes of the game, giving FC Dallas a 3-0 lead to take on the road as they travel to Panama for the second leg on March 1st.

Top Premier League Storylines – Week 26

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City speaks with his players during the break in extra-time in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round replay match between Leicester City and Derby City at The King Power Stadium on February 8, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Well. This weekend’s return of Premier League action was already slated to be an exciting one, but now with today’s enormous bit of breaking news, it has become even more intriguing.

[ WATCH: Previewing every match in Week 26 ]

There’s plenty to discuss at the top of the Premier League table, as Arsenal and Spurs look to heal their European wounds, but it’s what’s at the bottom that has everyone talking today.

How will Leicester City react after the firing of Claudio Ranieri?

Leicester City vs. Liverpool —  3:00 p.m. EDT Monday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Well. The Foxes had their work cut out for them coming into this match already, but now it has a whole new flavor. Claudio Ranieri has been dismissed just nine months after winning the Premier League title, and sitting just a point off the drop coming into the weekend (and inside the relegation zone coming into the match?) Leicester City will be lead into King Power Stadium by Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell.

Liverpool stopped a five-match winless streak last time out with a quality 2-0 win over Tottenham, but the Reds defense has been leaky all season, and if Leicester is to break its horrid 610-minute goalless streak, it would be here. The Foxes are without a win in five and have not scored a Premier League goal in all of the 2017 calendar year. Can they respond and begin to play for themselves rather than their former manager?

Can Dele Alli and Tottenham bounce back?

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs looked like they had rediscovered their Champions League form with a comprehensive smothering of Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup. Then, they welcomed KAA Gent to Wembley and promptly lost their heads. Dele Alli was sent off for one of the worst challenges you’ll see, and Spurs were vulnerable as a result, crashing out of the Europa League.

Now, Mauricio Pochettino must regroup the squad and get them ready to host Stoke, a team they clobbered 4-0 in the third match of the season. The squad is still healthy, and the loss of European play may actually help them in the long run. Here, however, it provides them with negative form and a short prep time. They need this one badly to solidify a top four place moving forward, can Poch turn it around?

Can Sunderland get a result against surging Everton?

Everton vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Hull City hosts Burnley. Crystal Palace welcomes Middlesbrough. With those two fellow occupants of the relegation zone playing at home against lower-half sides, the spotlight is squarely on Sunderland. The Black Cats have a tough matchup, on the road at Everton.

The Toffees haven’t lost a Premier League match since falling to Liverpool in mid-December, and have scored 19 goals in the eight matches since that blemish. With that in mind, Sunderland must get some kind of a result to pull off the bottom of the Premier League table. Can they snatch points at Goodison Park?

EFL Cup final could leave Chelsea well out in front

Chelsea vs. Swansea City — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Chelsea is already eight points ahead of the pack and looks to be the clear favorite to win the Premier League title. It could get even clearer after this week. Manchester United is off, Manchester City is off, and Arsenal is off. Couple that with Tottenham struggling and Liverpool facing a desperate Leicester City side, and it’s entirely conceivable that a win for Chelsea over Swansea City could leave the Blues as far as 11 points clear at the top of the table, albeit a game ahead of some. That would all but wrap things up, wouldn’t it?

Mario Balotelli handed 2-match ban for abusing referee

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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After being sent off for referee abuse in last weekend’s Ligue 1 win over FC Lorient, Nice striker Mario Balotelli has been handed a two-match ban.

Balotelli earned his second red card of the season in the 69th minute of a 1-0 win that kept Nice within striking distance of the leaders Monaco. It was his second straight red and third sending-off of the season, having already been dismissed in reverse fixture against Lorient after a pair of yellows in the final three minutes of the game.

After the mercurial Italian’s hot start to the season, he has just one goal in the last two months, the third in a 3-1 win over Guingamp. He has not scored a point-winning goal since bagging both in a 2-1 win over Dijon back on December 18th.

Balotelli’s agent, the well-known Mino Raiola, was so frustrated with his client’s continual dismissal problems that he told French media conglomerate RMC Sport that the solution to Balotelli’s problems is to “cut out his tongue.”

“I have already found the solution: you have to cut out his tongue,” Raiola said bluntly. “To play soccer, there is no need for language! In all seriousness, he knows he made a big mistake and he has no excuse. He knows he needs to improve that. He is very sad for him, for the team.”

The suspension leaves Balotelli on the sidelines for tomorrow’s match against 11th placed Montpellier and then on March 4th at 17th placed Dijon. Nice sits in third, level on points with 2nd placed PSG and three back of leaders Monaco.