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.

Thanksgiving transfer rumors: Bender, Pato to Arsenal; Slimani to Palace

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Happy Thanksgiving!

[ VIDEO: Foxes to stay top? United for the title? ]

It’s time for a healthy dose of transfer rumors before you fill up on Turkey and pumpkin pie, so here is your fix of gossip.

Lars Bender, 26, is reportedly attracting Arsenal’s interest as the Bayer Leverkusen holding midfielder could move to the Emirates Stadium in January. Italian outlet CalcioMercato claim that Arsene Wenger is tracking Leverkusen’s captain as he badly needs reinforcements in midfield after Francis Coquelin went down injured against West Brom last weekend and is set to miss at least three months through injury. Bender, a German international, would certainly fit Wenger’s requirements as “top, top quality” but the transfer price may put Arsenal off as he would cost just under $30 million.

Another player the Gunners are said to be in for is ex AC Milan winger Alexandre Pato. Yeah, remember him? Pato, 26, is currently playing for Corinthians back in his homeland of Brazil but Wenger has met with former Arsenal midfielder, and current Corinthians director of football, Edu, to talk about signing the man who once carried the hopes of AC. Edu confirmed the talks and the Brazilian side are reportedly eager to cash in Pato in January and the player is keen for a move back to Europe. Do the Gunners need more firepower?

Algerian striker Islam Slimani, 27, has been linked with a $20 million move to Crystal Palace. Alan Pardew‘s side have made their best-ever start to a Premier League season this year but it could’ve been even better as scoring goals has been a real issue for the Eagles with midfielder Yohan Cabaye their top scorer with four goals. With Connor Wickham, Marouane Chamakh and Dwight Gayle all injured in recent weeks, the Daily Mirror says Pardew is looking to Sporting Lisbon’s Slimani to arrive in January and deliver the goals which could see them push for Europa League qualification. There’s no doubt Palace need reinforcement up top but is Slimani the man? With new investment from Americans David Blizter and Josh Harris expected by the festive season, Palace could have plenty of cash to spend in the January window.

Finally, Newcastle United have been linked with moves for both Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend by the Daily Mail. Steve McClaren‘s team are hovering just above the relegation zone and creating chances has been a big issue for the Magpies. It’s hard to see Shelvey, who has become a key figure for the Swans, leaving South Wales for a relegation scrap, but Townsend leaving Tottenham is much more likely to happen after he was involved in a bust-up with a fitness coach earlier this month and was suspended from training by Mauricio Pochettino. Townsend, 24, would likely be a regular for Newcastle and ahead of EURO 2016 he could get a good run of games to try and break back into the England squad.

Qatar launches probe after rains exposed poor construction

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Qatar has launched an investigation after heavy rains exposed poor construction in a country set to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, a deluge that saw water cascade through the roof of its $15 billion main airport.

[ MORE: 3 things learned – United v PSV ]

The investigation already is examining the work of five unnamed companies and others could be targeted as well in the probe launched by Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, who also serves as interior minister, the country’s state-run Qatar News Agency said.

“Parties responsible for dereliction or negligence, whether governmental or private, will be held accountable,” the agency said, citing a statement late Wednesday from Qatar’s Government Communication Office.

Reached for comment, officials at Doha’s Hamad International Airport issued a statement simply saying: “There was no impact to operations yesterday.” It referred other questions to the government.

The day before, at least 79.5 millimeters (3.13 inches) of rain fell at the airport, according to the Qatar Meteorology Department. Typically, the hot, desert country sees around 50 millimeters (1.97 inches) of rain in a year.

The sudden rainfall saw water pour out of the airport’s ceiling in several places, captured in online videos.

Qatar opened Hamad International Airport in April 2014, part of its effort to enter the competitive Gulf airline market. The 600,000 square meter (6.5 million square feet) passenger terminal complex was scheduled to be completed in 2009.

The airport is part of a multibillion-dollar building boom in Doha ahead of the 2022 World Cup. However, the push has seen Qatar criticized for the way it treats its large migrant worker population. There also have been accusations of shoddy construction.

Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at .

How can Man United qualify for last 16 of Champions League?

Wayne Rooney, Manchester United FC

Heading into the their final UEFA Champions League Group B game, Manchester United hold their destiny in their own hands, but any slip-up could mean it’s Europa League on Thursday nights for Louis Van Gaal‘s men.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

The Red Devils would have advanced to the knockout stage with a victory over third-place PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday, but slumped to an ugly 0-0 draw instead.

[ MORE: Three things we learned from Man United 0-0 PSV ]

So, here’s all of the scenarios for the final matchday of the group stage, away to Wolfsburg, in which United would advance to the round of 16 advance:

  • A Man United win will see Man United finish top of Group B
  • A Man United draw, coupled with a PSV draw or loss (vs. CSKA Moscow), will see Man United finish second in Group B
  • A Man United draw, coupled with a PSV victory, will see Man United finish third in Group B
  • A Man United loss, coupled with a PSV loss, will see Man United finish second in Group B
  • A Man United loss by more than one goal, coupled with a PSV draw, would see Man United finish third in Group B
  • A Man United loss, coupled with a PSV win, would see Man United finish third in Group B

[ MORE: Champions League schedule

There are your scenarios for Man United as it’s pretty simple to break it down: Win, and they go through. Fail to win, and their fate is completely in the hands of PSV.

VIDEO: Can Leicester stun the world? Man United title favorites?

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The Foxes are top of the Premier League and are led by a surging Jamie Vardy but how long can they keep shocking the world?

With six tough games coming up between now and the start of 2016, Claudio Ranieri‘s men will be pushed to their limit but so far this season they’ve been sensational and Vardy has equaled Manchester United legend Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of scoring in 10-straight PL games.

[ MORE: Full PST Extra archive ]

Can he make it 11 in a row on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via Live Extra) when United visit the King Power Stadium? As for the Red Devils, they sit in second place and are just one point behind the flying Foxes’. Louis Van Gaal‘s men have certainly flown under the radar so far and our churning out wins at an impressive rate.

Jenna Corrado and I discuss that and more in the latest edition of PST Extra. Click play on the video above to see our chat in full.