WorldCup

ProSoccerTalk’s World Cup Roundtable

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The World Cup is TWO days away and counting!

*Jump around, jump around, jump around*

ProSoccerTalk’s writers did a roundtable-style Q & A where we grabbed a few big narratives coming to us from Brazil and gave our takes.

From South American powerhouses to the USMNT’s position, from specific to open-ended, here’s what we think are some major talking points just before kickoff.

1. What are you most looking forward to this World Cup?

Joe Prince-Wright: I am looking forward to a very open World Cup where at least 6-8 teams enter the tournament with realistic ambitions of winning it all. This is, by far, the most competitive World Cup I have witnessed in my lifetime. Usually there are some teams you know are going to get hammered in every single game, that’s not the case this time around. Also, the fact it is being played in Brazil, the five-time World Champions and the spiritual home of the game, makes it a little bit more special.
Mike Prindiville: Going to Manaus to see the US take on Portugal in the Amazon. The moment that fixture was announced there was just something mystical about it — playing against Cristiano Ronaldo and 4th ranked team in the world, who the US memorably upset in the 2002 World Cup, in the middle of the jungle?! Too weird and too awesome to miss.
Nicholas Mendola: Seeing how the European teams fare in the Western hemisphere, and how the CONCACAF teams perform at an absolutely crucial time for the confederation.
Kyle Bonn:
With so many players injured, the star power of this World Cup has taken a hit for sure. However, with a number of big name players on the sidelines, there is more time to focus on the hidden gems of the world, and those will be on full display in Brazil.  Much of this tournament will be about building new stars, and that’s just as fun.

2. Do you think the USA has a chance to make it out of their group? Is so, what will be the key?

Joe Prince-Wright: The first game is so important. If the U.S. beats Ghana in the opener you get the feeling that Klinsmann’s side will grow in confidence and give Portugal a run for their money, especially given Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury problems. If the USA can bag four points from their opening two games, it may mean Germany will ease up in the final group game and would much rather see the U.S. advance to the last 16 rather than Portugal. The key factor is that the USA beat their bogey team: Ghana.
Mike Prindiville: Of course. Taking three points off either Ghana or Portugal before going into the final match against Germany will be key and for that to happen our attack must capitalize on their opportunities.
Nicholas Mendola: Yes. Beating Ghana and Portugal feeling pressure from a Game One loss to Germany.
Kyle Bonn: Do they have a chance? Sure, especially with news of Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury potentially affecting that assuredly fateful match in Manaus. The key to the United States moving on is their manager Jurgen Klinsmann.  With so many surprises on the roster, he better see something much of the country does not, or else the US is doomed. Team chemistry will be essential. Beating Ghana is a MUST.

source: Getty Images
Will Jurgen Klinsmann still be all smiles if the USMNT flops in the Group of Death?

3. Will Jurgen Klinsmann be under pressure if the U.S. don’t perform in Brazil?

Joe Prince-Wright: Not so much under pressure, but questions will be raised about how much the U.S. have really improved under his stewardship since 2011. Bob Bradley took the USA to the last 16 in the 2010 World Cup and was a whisker away from getting into the last eight. We all know Klinsmann’s men have been drawn into the “Group of Death” this time around, however, there must be a good showing from his players and some of the younger guys really need to step up as Klinsmann seems to be preparing for the 2018 tournament. If the USA lose all three group games, many will say that is what was expected… But it is the manner in which the USA plays that will determine how people assess Klinsmann’s managerial prowess. Pressure will arrive but, so far, Klinsmann has negotiated every hurdle thrown in his way.
Mike Prindiville: Depends on what is meant by ‘don’t perform.’ Assuming the absolute worst and the US lose all three games conceding over 12 goals in the process, possibly. Assuming a slightly less painful scenario and the US lose all three matches by a tight margin, I don’t think so. Klinsmann has raised the profile of the USMNT, brought in a number of game-changing players and plus, the decision-makers at US Soccer are positively enamored with him.
Nicholas Mendola: Define perform. The US really need to beat Ghana but if they draw Ghana and look adequate and competitive against the other two teams, he’s fine.
Kyle Bonn: Absolutely. Klinsmann’s bold, potentially reckless decisions with the roster have made this all about him. If he had selected the 23 players many expected and the United States had failed, there would be much less blame heaped on the coach. But with this roster made up of “his” guys, all fingers will be pointed at the guy in charge if the team is axed early.

4. Which group games are you most looking forward to and why?

Joe Prince-Wright: U.S. vs. Portugal, England vs. Uruguay and Spain vs. Netherlands. I am so intrigued to watch Ronaldo, the best player in the world, go up against the USMNT’s defense and see how they handle him. As for England vs. Uruguay, there are so many storylines swirling around that one… mostly involving Luis Suarez. It will be a real clash of styles and will showcase why European nations are so different to their South American counterparts. Different flavors of soccer from around the world, that’s what the World Cup is all about. Spain vs. Netherlands is a rematch of the 2010 World Cup final and it will be interesting to see how both teams have improved/digressed since they met in South Africa four years ago.
Mike Prindiville: US v. Portugal (see #1), England v. Italy is a classic matchup and Spain v. Netherlands because it’s a rematch of the 2010 final.
Nicholas Mendola: Italy/England, USA/Ghana and Spain/Chile. For the first, because of history and it’s a Soccernomics nightmare. The second, because yep. And the third because I think Chile can surprise teams.
Kyle Bonn: United States vs. Ghana will be a brilliant way to kick off the US slate, and will be a critical match in that group. Another early one will be Spain/Netherlands, and all of Group D (England, Italy, Uruguay, Costa Rica) will be a ton of fun.

source: Getty Images
Mike Prindiville is ready for Bosnia’s Miralem Pjanic to break out in Brazil.

5. If you had to pick one player to shine this summer, who would it be and why?

Joe Prince-Wright: Adam Lallana. Watching him closely all season long in the Premier League, Lallana has got better as the season went on. Form counts for a lot and he is on top of the world right now. His shirt is the # 1 seller in England, fans love to watch him play and Southampton’s captain is being courted by some of the biggest clubs in the world. If England do well this summer, Lallana will likely be at the center of it.
Mike Prindiville: Tough one. I’ll go with Bosnia & Herzegovina attacking midfielder Miralem Pjanic. It seems the world is always a bit late in recognizing the star status of Eastern European players and this guy is a full-blown stud. So technical. So gifted. He’s the ultimate playmaker and one that I foresee bringing his country on a deep run in this tournament.
Nicholas Mendola: Thiago Silva. Playing in France doesn’t get him the shine he deserves, and I think he can take his reputation to another level… and that he knows that.
Kyle Bonn: There’s the possibility France flops hard and this pick flames out early, but I feel that Paul Pogba is due for a breakout moment on the world’s biggest stage. If anyone is in for an upstaging of Neymar (which will be hard to do) Pogba could be the one.

6. Your dark horses for the tournament?

Joe Prince-Wright: I’m not sure if they are dark horses, but the Ivory Coast are certainly stacked with some top class talent. Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba, Kolo Toure, Chieck Tiote, Gervinho, Wilfried Bony and Salomon Kalou stick out as players who possess a vast amount of experience but have yet to grace the World Cup in glorious fashion. In the last two World Cups Cote D’Ivoire have gone out in the knockout stages, now they should advance from Group C and go deep in the tournament. Allez les Elephants!
Mike Prindiville: Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Chile – any of these sides could make the semi-final. Even bolder, I think France could win the whole thing.
Nicholas Mendola: Chile. The doubts over Arturo Vidal’s fitness have people talking about them even less, as if that were possible. Since March 2013, Chile has only lost to Germany and Brazil.
Kyle Bonn: I was going to say France until the Ribery injury came through, but they could still make noise. Everyone’s chic pick of Belgium is bogus since they’re group favorites and therefore don’t qualify as a “dark horse” to me. A true dark horse to me would be Russia, who have been reborn under Fabio Capello. They allowed just five goals in UEFA qualification and beat Portugal to the top spot in their group. They’re dangerous.

source: Getty Images
Can you see any way the European stars have a shot at overtaking Neymar, Lionel Messi, or the rest of the host continent?

7. Can you see past the South American powerhouses for the title?

Joe Prince-Wright: Nope. I mean, Spain and Germany are going to be threats and hanging in there right until the end. However, with home support Brazil will be very tough to beat and Argentina’s star players are due success on the world’s biggest stage. This is Lionel Messi’s time to shine.
Mike Prindiville: Absolutely. The weather argument is a tired one, for me. Last time I checked it’s 2014 and the best players know how to play in all conditions and are aided by stunning technological innovations. Spain and Germany are close favorites for a reason.
Nicholas Mendola: I think Germany wins the entire thing, so yes. The rest of my final bracket is pretty South American though… and never rule out the Italians!
Kyle Bonn: Not really. Spain and Germany both have legitimate shots, but both also have weaknesses. This tournament is Brazil’s for the taking, and if the European giants are to do top them, they’ll have to be near-perfect.

8. Sum up the World Cup in three words…

Joe Prince-Wright: Soccer’s spiritual home.
Mike Prindiville: Decreased work productivity.
Nicholas Mendola: Best month quadrennially
Kyle Bonn: Who steps up?

Do you agree or disagree with our writers? Have any answers of your own we didn’t mention here, like your “dark horse” or a player to shine? Are you able to see this one past the continental hosts? Chime in to our roundtable below!

Barcelona tops Levante, ties club record with 28 unbeaten

VALENCIA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Jordi Alba of Barcelona celebrates scoring his team's first goal with his teammate Andres Iniesta during the La Liga match between Levante UD and FC Barcelona at Ciutat de Valencia on February 07, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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Sir Alex Ferguson described the 2010/11 Barcelona team as the best team he ever faced.

This year’s Barcelona side has matched them.

With a 2-0 victory over La Liga basement-dwellers Levante on an own-goal forced by Jordi Alba plus a late score from Luis Suarez, Barcelona has gone 28 matches unbeaten in all competitions, without a loss since a 2-1 defeat to Sevilla on October 28.

Manager Luis Enrique, though, is unmoved. “What matters to me are the team’s objectives,” said Enrique after the win. “These are nice numbers, if they help us win titles at the end of the season, fantastic. We are in good position, but there is still a lot left.”

The Levante victory marked Luis Enrique’s 100th game in charge of Barcelona.

That 2010/11 season, led by Pep Guardiola, Barcelona came a Copa del Rey finals loss to Real Madrid from a quadruple, winning the league, Champions League, and Supercopa de Espana. This time around, they’ve already secured the Supercopa, sit atop the league table by three points over Atletico Madrid and seven above Real Madrid, have yet to lose a game in the Champions League, and the second leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal against Valencia is a complete formality. What’s more, the numbers from this streak are eerily similar to that wildly successful squad five years ago.

That campaign, Lionel Messi scored 31 league goals and 53 overall. An injury sapped him of time in this go around, but Suarez and Neymar have picked up the slack. There has been just one league game in which all three of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez has been held scoreless this season, and to find it you have to travel all the way back to the second game of the year, a 1-0 win over Malaga that saw Thomas Vermaelen score the winner. Those three have combined for 48 league goals this year, more than every team in the Spanish top flight save Real Madrid.

Paris Saint-Germain has a similar streak going at the moment, currently unbeaten in league play throughout the entire season, but their 1-0 loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League on November 3 means their streak across all competitions sits at 19 games.

Watch Live: Bournemouth vs Arsenal (Lineups & Live Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28: Mesut Ozil of Arsenal and Adam Smith of Bournemouth compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Emirates Stadium on December 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Arsenal is hoping to break its four-game winless streak as it travels to Vitality Stadium to take on Bournemouth, live on NBCSN at 8:30 a.m. ET or live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

The Gunners have drawn three and lost one over its last four matches, leaving them unable to keep pace with Leicester City at the top of the table. With Leicester again winning this week and a matchup with the Foxes looming next time out for Arsenal, this match seems a must-win for Arsene Wenger and company if they wish to remain serious title contenders.

[ WATCH LIVE: Bournemouth vs Arsenal live online at NBC Sports Live Extra ]

Wenger has chosen to leave veteran defender Per Mertesacker on the bench in favor of Gabriel. Francis Coquelin also remains among the substitutes for the second straight match, meaning either Wenger prefers Mathieu Flamini in midfield, or Coquelin remains unfit for a full 90 minutes. Tomas Rosicky was injured last weekend and will be out up to three months, which could end his season.

Eddie Howe has named an unchanged starting lineup from their 2-1 away win at Crystal Palace last week. Winger Junior Stanislas is back on the bench after missing last week. In contrast to Arsenal, the Cherries are unbeaten in four and have won four of their last six, a stretch which has propelled them five points off the relegation zone and the same distance away from the top half of the table.

[ MORE: Premier League Sunday Preview ]

There are no new injury concerns for either side. Both have long-term absentees who are on the mend but still not close to a return. Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, and Santi Cazorla are all out for the Gunners, while Bournemouth duo Max Gradel and Callum Wilson are also sidelined for a while but could return before the end of the season.

LINEUPS

Bournemouth: Boruc; Smith, Francis, Cook, Daniels; Surman, Gosling; Ritchie, Arter, Pugh; Afobe.
Subs: Federici, Distin, Stanislas, O’Kane, Iturbe, King, Grabban.

Arsenal: Cech; Bellerin, Gabriel, Koscielny, Monreal; Flamini, Ramsey; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sánchez, Özil; Giroud.
Subs: Ospina, Gibbs, Mertesacker, Walcott, Campbell, Coquelin, Iwobi.

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.