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.

Seven unheralded stars of this Premier League season

during the Barclays Premier League match between A.F.C. Bournemouth and Tottenham Hotspur at Vitality Stadium on October 25, 2015 in Bournemouth, England.
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Look, it’s been a crazy year in the Premier League. Leicester City is top by five points, Chelsea is a bottom-half side, and not one of the league’s top three scorers hails from a team in last season’s Top Four.

So it follows that among the league’s other statistical leaders — advanced and traditional — are some surprisingly shining stars.

[ MORE: West Ham 3-2 Liverpool | Coutinho’s slick free kick ]

Or at least they aren’t mentioned a ton. We plan to rectify that here. By no means do we claim these statistical leaders without fault this season, but hats off to the good they’ve done (or, in some cases, the pain they’ve felt).

Most saves in a starring role

You wouldn’t know it from the goal totals these past few weeks, but Stoke City’s Jack Butland has been playing otherworldly between the sticks. His 87 saves lead the Premier League, and the Potters would be in the thick of a relegation battle if he hadn’t shone as brightly.

Ironman

Eleven players have played every minute of their side’s Premier League campaign this season (a 12th, Gareth Barry, has played all but one). Four of those 11 are goalkeepers, and six more are defenders. The only midfielder? Bournemouth’s South African standout Andrew Surman (above).

Top thief, too

Surman is also the league leader in interceptions with 92. The next seven players on the list, headed by Chris Smalling, are all defenders.

The most under-appreciated of the underdogs

Kante (Mark Thompson / Getty Images)

Leicester City has been fantastic, and people are quick to name Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy as big parts of the table-topping effort at King Power Stadium. Then, perhaps they’ll say something about goalkeeper Kaspar Schmeichel or defender Wes Morgan.

But how about the Premier League’s leader in tackles. Midfielder N'Golo Kante (right) has 115 tackles, 12 more than second-best Yohan Cabaye of Crystal Palace.

An all-expense paid journey to the massage parlor for…

Five players have been fouled more than 50 times this year, and you need to be around the ball a lot for that to happen. The four also-rans are Southampton’s Sadio Mane, Swansea City’s Andre Ayew, Everton’s Ross Barkley and Mahrez, but the man who deserved to skip to the head of the ice bath line is from Crystal Palace: Wilfried Zaha has been fouled 59 times. And that’s the amount of times the foulers were caught in the act.

Let Newcastle United’s captain climb in second, though; Fabricio Coloccini‘s 47 blocked shots are eight more than runners-up Neil Taylor (Swans) and Christian Fuchs (Leicester).

A man possessed

He hasn’t been heralded like a year ago, and most witnesses would tell you the midfielder’s been playing much worse. No, touches don’t equal success, but Cesc Fabregas‘ 2,027 credited touches are 74 more than the next player despite the fact that he’s the only player in the top four to have started less than 25 matches. He’s also completed 83 more passes than the closest competitor (Surman).

All-around stars

Advanced stats site Squawka uses an algorithm to generate statistics on who just might be the most complete player in the Premier League.

It’s certainly not foolproof, but the best player per-90 minutes would likely surprise you: Mousa Dembele of Spurs (Minimum 15 matches).

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As for who’s produced the most when numbers are averaged out over the entire game, one man rises to the top: Ross Barkley.

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Oft-targeted in the Premier League, Carvalho extends deal at Lisbon

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William Carvalho has been running through the rumor mill for ages, and Sporting Lisbon has made sure they’ll get their due if he ever stops somewhere else.

The Angola-born Portuguese defensive midfielder with 15 caps has extended his contract with Sporting through 2020, a date that carries him through his 28th birthday.

[ MORE: West Ham 3-2 Liverpool | Coutinho’s slick free kick ]

Carvalho is 23 now, and has been linked with loads of big name clubs from Manchester United to Chelsea, Arsenal to PSG.

His new buyout clause is said to be as high as $53 million, and Carvalho hopes his commitment calms his supporters.

“Sportinguistas, I say to you that I am very happy with the deal which I signed up to 2020 and that you will have total effort on my part to be champions.”

Sporting is tied with Benfica atop the Portuguese table, second on goal differential. The club leads third-place Porto by six points, and is still alive in the Europa League. Bayer Leverkusen is up next.

Klinsmann hints at Euro-heavy roster for World Cup qualifiers

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 08:  Danny Williams #14 of the United States looks on before an international friendly against Brazil at Gillette Stadium on September 8, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
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If your favorite Major League Soccer players don’t make the cut for Jurgen Klinsmann’s next roster, don’t think you won’t see them in the red, white and blue this summer.

[ JPW: What’s the best XI for USMNT’s World Cup qualifiers? ]

Perhaps it’ll be different for the players who were a part of January camp — stars Lee Nguyen and Steve Birnbaum chief among them — but Klinsmann says the late start of the MLS season can affect fitness for the critical qualifiers home and away to Guatemala.

That means there’s a better chance to see in-form Championship midfielder Danny Williams (above) or Pachuca’s Omar Gonzalez then, say, Orlando City’s Brek Shea or Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman.

From USSoccer.com:

“We are basically looking all over the place. We monitor all the players in Europe. We monitor all the players in Mexico, and obviously we can’t wait until MLS starts as well. It’s really kind of crucial that we see everybody getting in the best shape possible, everybody getting into a rhythm and making statements.

“Then you say, ‘Is the roster you see at the end of March the same one as Copa America?’ Probably not. The end of March comes early for MLS players. The European players are in the full swing, and also Mexican players because they started already a month ago with Liga MX. So we’ll be monitoring everyone.”

We’ve already covered the obstacle that is the CONCACAF-CONMEBOL Olympic qualifying playoff occurring at the same time as the Guatemala matches, but this is still good news for players in England, Germany and other European locales seeking caps in March.

Klopp on struggling Benteke: “He wants to score and we need him to score”

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09:  Christian Benteke of Liverpool reacts as he foiled by goalkeeper Darren Randolph of West Ham United during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Jurgen Klopp had his appendix removed this weekend, but it’s doubtful he’s feeling as sore as his big Belgian striker.

Christian Benteke had the opportunity to put himself in the good graces of Liverpool fans with a number of decent chances in Tuesday’s FA Cup loss to West Ham, but couldn’t get the job done.

[ MORE: Match recap | Watch Coutinho’s slick free kick ]

In one case, Benteke put himself in a prime spot only to lash his shot wide of the post. Instead, he’s now at 11 appearances without a goal (despite ripping nine shots against the Irons).

From the BBC:

“I don’t believe in the easy goal. He has to carry on like this. It’s not the nicest moment in his career but he has to work hard. He wants to score and we need him to score. We will work on it in the days, weeks and months.”

Klopp maintained that Liverpool was “the better team” on the night — counterpart Slaven Bilic disagreed — despite conceding a pair of very similar looking goals.

The game could’ve avoided extra time through Benteke’s boots and body, but he couldn’t find his finish again.

The 25-year-old has seen his goal production drop by nearly half since joining from Aston Villa in the summer, and it’s sure to return… just maybe not under Klopp.