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.

The 2 Robbies: Terriers Triumph And Chelsea Leave It Late

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe start today’s show off by discussing Huddersfield Town’s surprising win against Manchester United (00:20), Jose Mourinho’s measured post-match interview (03:50), praise Manchester City again (10:30), discuss Sean Dyche’s next move (16:10), analyze that exciting match between Chelsea and Watford (18:30) and finally, weigh in on Slaven Bilic’s future at West Ham United (27:30).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

La Liga: Barca win to maintain lead, but Valencia won’t go away

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona regained a four-point cushion atop the Spanish league with a ho-hum 2-0 win over visiting Malaga and surging Valencia dismissed Sevilla 4-0 at home on Saturday.

Barcelona faced last-placed Malaga in the closing match of the day, with added pressure from second-placed Valencia, which has won five in a row.

Barcelona is unbeaten after starting with seven straight wins and drawing with Atletico Madrid last week.

Seldom-used Gerard Deulofeu opened the scoring for Barcelona after just two minutes, and Andres Iniesta celebrated his first of the season in the second half thanks to a brilliant assist by Lionel Messi.

Defending champion Real Madrid hosts Eibar on Sunday.

Barcelona benefited from a flagrant referee misjudgment to get its go-ahead goal against Malaga. Left back Lucas Digne was allowed to center the ball after it clearly crossed the byline, and Deulofeu acrobatically back-footed it inside the net.

Despite the blow, the visitors got back up and managed to neutralize Barcelona for most of the first half, but lost striker Diego Rolan just before the second period. The Uruguayan import was forced off by injury.

Without Rolan, Malaga lacked bite in its pressure of the home backline, and Barcelona was able to polish ball circulation and find Messi with more frequency.

Messi received a clean pass from defender Javier Mascherano, drew the defense, and dropped a perfect pass for Iniesta, whose shot was deflected by defender Roberto Rosales on its way to the upper left corner.

Malaga surrendered and Barcelona dominated the rest of the way.


Gonzalo Guedes opened the scoring for Valencia near halftime with a majestic strike from outside the box after deftly outmaneuvering two defenders on the chase.

Simone Zaza added his eighth league goal after the break with a spin and low cross shot. Santi Mina came off the bench and scored the third with just five minutes to go, finishing off a speedy counterattack for the hosts.

But the show was all Guedes, and the Portuguese midfielder rounded off his great game with the closer, subtly poking the ball over goalkeeper Sergio Rico in added time.

Sevilla has lost three in a row in all competitions. Managed by Eduardo Berizzo, the team started off red-hot in La Liga but has floundered lately, ranking fifth.

 

Serie A: Napoli’s perfect season ends after draw with Inter

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MILAN (AP) Napoli’s perfect start to Serie A finally came to an end on Saturday in an enthralling 0-0 home draw with Inter Milan, the only other unbeaten side in the Italian top flight.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

There were plenty of chances at the San Paolo, and Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic was kept busier than his Napoli counterpart Pepe Reina.

It was the first time since April and a 2-2 draw at Sassuolo that Napoli has failed to win in Serie A.

Napoli remained top of the standings, two points above Inter and six above Juventus and Lazio, which face Udinese and Cagliari respectively on Sunday.

[ TACTICS SESSION: Inside the brilliant mind of Kevin De Bruyne ]

Napoli was looking for a ninth successive league win. It was boosted by Lorenzo Insigne passing fit to start after injuring a thigh on Tuesday in the Champions League defeat at Manchester City.

Inter was full of confidence after Mauro Icardi’s hat trick helped it win last week’s derby against AC Milan, but it hadn’t won in Naples in 20 years.

Napoli almost went in front but Handanovic pulled off a stunning double save to deny first Jose Callejon and then keep out Dries Mertens’ rebound attempt from point-blank range.

Handanovic then kept out an effort from Insigne following a great ball over the top from Marek Hamsik.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

Inter went close shortly before halftime but Reina did well to fingertip Borja Valero’s close-range attempt over the bar.

Insigne had more chances after the break, going closest with a curling effort just past the right post.

Hamsik also fired narrowly wide, and Handanovic parried a powerful shot from substitute Piotr Zielinski.

Mertens should have won the match for Napoli in the final minute but Handanovic was again on hand to keep out his close-range volley.

Tactics Session: Inside the mind of Kevin De Bruyne

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If not for Harry Kane‘s prolific scoring of goals during the early days of this season, Kevin De Bruyne would almost certainly be the early runaway favorite for 2017-18 Premier League Player of the Season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

Alas, Kane, the one-season wonder that he is, seems hellbent on cracking the century mark in the PL this season, rather than waiting until 2018-19. This sets up what should be a thoroughly exhilarating seven-month battle between two polar opposite players — Kane, the goalscorer; and De Bruyne, the assist machine.

On Saturday, NBC Sports’ Robbie Earle delved into the mind of De Bruyne (above video) in light of last weekend’s 7-2 thrashing of Stoke City, during which De Bruyne notched another pair of assists to take season tally to five through eight games. Later on Saturday, De Bruyne added another in Man City’s 3-0 victory over Burnley.

[ MORE: Matchday experience — behind the scenes at Southampton ]

The first thing pointed out by Earle is the recovery — though deployed as more of a central midfielder on the day, De Bruyne sits wide with City in possession high up the field, just waiting for the opportune moment to surge forward and join the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero (now that he’s back from injury). When Jesus’ ball is too lightly weighted, De Bruyne reacts quickest to make the recovery.

From there, his head is up and scanning the entire field. One touch forward, and he’s already accounted for the positioning of each of his teammates, as well as the Stoke defenders, and every pocket of space into which he’ll either carry or play the ball. He knows the precise spot on the field he must get to in order to pull the defense to him, thus opening the necessary space (and time) for the final man — Sane, in this instance — to make his run in behind.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

This is the part of De Bruyne’s game which he does better than anyone else in the world right now; no one can hold a candle KDB’s timing and vision — not Henrikh Mkhitaryan, not Isco, not Mesut Ozil, not even his brilliant teammate (and fellow six-assist man) David Silva. He’s almost operating at peak-Andres Iniesta level right now, which makes KDB and Co. appointment viewing every weekend.

Even now, after creating the passing lane and providing Sane the extra half-second to get level with his man before accelerating past in the blink of an eye. Even then, having seen the pass he has to play, there’s still the (major) matter of threading the needle through and around four defenders. On this occasion, the perfect pass is nearly 15 yards in front of Sane, and far less than that distance in front of the goalkeeper. An inch or two too short, it’s cleared by the right back; and inch or two too long, and the goalkeeper collects it easily.

As usual, no player in the world comes close to matching De Bruyne’s genius.