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2014 World Cup team preview: Russia

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Getting to know…Russia: With manager Fabio Capello’s stamp firmly planted on the Russian squad, the country is looking for its first ever trip out of the group stage at a World Cup.  They’ve patched up things at the back, and had a strong, simplistic approach to matches, very typical of Capello’s style.  A first-place finish in their qualifying group (ahead of Portugal) signaled their intentions for Brazil, and with a roster almost entirely made up of domestic-based players, Russia hopes their attempts to build from within can help Capello prove he’s more than just a club manager.

Record in qualifying: With Russia finishing first in UEFA’s Group F, it showed they meant business.  They finished a point above Portugal, with the pair facing little competition from anyone else in the 6-team group.  By beating out Portugal at the top, Russia avoided a potential pitfall in the playoff round.  However, they’ve also set the bar for themselves high at Brazil, something that could potentially come back to haunt Capello should they fail to make it out of the group stage yet again.

A look at Group H: Things are going to be much tougher for Russia in the World Cup group stage than it was in the qualifying round. With Belgium and South Korea alongside Algeria, nothing is a given. It seems to be somewhat of a 2-horse race, but Russia’s been here before and flopped. In 2002, a 1-0 loss to Japan proved their group-stage demise, and Capello will be hoping to avoid the same against South Korea, lest the streets of Moscow again rise up in riots.  Anything below 2nd place in their group should be considered a serious disappointment.

Game schedule:

June 17, 18:00, Cuitabá: Russia vs. South Korea
June 22, 12:00, Rio de Janeiro: Belgium vs. Russia
June 26, 18:00, Curitiba: Algeria vs. Russia

Star Player: Alan Dzagoev, Igor Akinfeev

Many have jumped on the Dzagoev bandwagon before the World Cup, with Russia’s number-10 impressing plenty with his grace on the ball and flow off it.  However, it would be remiss to brush by his CSKA Moscow teammate and reigning Russian Premier League Player of the Year, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. With the two club teammates in charge of things at the front and back, Russia is in good hands.

At just 23 years old, Dzagoev is a rising star.  He’s tested under pressure, and led CSKA Moscow to the Russian Premier League title as the club won its final 10 games to beat out Zenit St. Petersburg by a single point.  He also finished joint-top goalscorer at Euro 2012, alongside these names: Mario Balotelli, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mario Mandzukic, Mario Gomez, and Fernando Torres. Quite the crowd.  But the beauty of Dzagoev is that as good as he is at finding the back of the net, he’s even better at creating chances for his teammates, and striker Alexander Kherzakov will benefit greatly.

With Dzagoev at the front, Akinfeev is the rock at the back. Capello’s defense-first mentality has put the 28-year-old into the spotlight, and many are claiming he’s the best Russian keeper since “The Black Spider” Lev Yashin.  The Akinfeev-led defense allowed a paltry five goals during their 10 UEFA qualification matches, and you can expect more of the same at the World Cup from the battle-tested netminder who’s been in goal for Russia since he was just 18 years old.

Manager: Fabio Capello

Known for a stifling defensive approach that still promotes attacking play, Capello saw plenty of success at the club level but is still trying to make his mark on the international game. However, he is also known for having disagreements with many important figures along the way, and isn’t afraid to back down from his position.  His defensive style earned the disdain of many during his reign at Real Madrid, but it’s become an important piece of Russia’s run to the World Cup. With his failures in South Africa at the helm of England still in the back of the minds of many, he would do himself a World of good if he can make it past the group stage with the Russians.

Secret Weapon: Attacking flow

With the team so focused on defense, it’s surprising how the team can still make its way forward with such continuity.  The country’s hard-working midfield is a key component, and getting the ball to Dzagoev will be important.  However, it’s not as difficult for them as some might think, and the Russians should score some entertaining goals in Group H play.

Prediction: With South Korea definitely posing a threat, Russia’s midfield pegs back a young Heung Son-Min and Capello gets the key victory in their first match, propelling them to a second-place finish in Group H and the country’s first foray into the knockout round.

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.