World Cup Preview Group H: Belgium and the pack- Algeria, Russia, South Korea

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In terms of talent, there is no group at this year’s World Cup that sees such a huge gap between its leaders and the pack than Group G. Though Belgium, the group favorites, haven’t qualified for a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup, the Red Devils will arrive in Brazil as one of the most talented teams on the planet. Only a lack of experience and notable results keeps the Belgians from being more than a dark horse.

The rest of the group, however, may be the least inspiring two-through-four of the tournament:

  • Russia are in a partial transition from the Zenit St. Petersburg-dominated teams of the last six years;
  • inexperience through South Korea’s team makes the group’s second Red Devils a better bet for 2018;
  • while an Algeria side that will be better than its 2010 version are more scrappy than dangerous.

Let’s take another look at Group H (click on country name for full preview)

Belgium: Though the Belgians have one of the world’s most enviable cadres of young talent, the team hasn’t qualified for a major tournament in 12 years, leading many to ask how they could have possibly been seeded. Led by Eden Hazard in attack and Vincent Kompany in defense, however, Marc Wilmots’ team is clearly the best in this group. Only inexperience can trip them up.

Algeria: Moujid Bougherra’s presence anchors a defense that’s capable of competing with the South Koreans and Russians, but the team’s big questions are in attack. In South Africa, the Desert Foxes failed to score a goal. The lack of a proven scorer means goals could prove equally problematic in Brazil. Sofiane Feghouli’s playmaking will be vital.

Russia: The steel Fabio Capello instilled saw Russia confidently manage qualifying, but a slow defense could have problems with the speed of Group G’s opponents. Going forward, the loss of captain Roman Shirikov will hurt, leaving Russia hoping Aleksandr Kokorin will break out or Aleksandr Kerzahkov is more productive than he did in his last big tournament (Euro 2012).

South Korea: Threats going forward from Son Heung-min and Lee Chung-yong give the South Koreans the ability to take advantage of Russia and Algeria’s slower defenders, while a midfield triangle featuring Koo Ja-cheul and Ki Sung-yeung provides the quality and creativity to make use of Hong Myung-Bo’s most dangerous players. The side’s inexperienced center backs could prove problematic, while Park Chu-young may not give them the threat they need in the middle of attack.

Who’s going through: Belgium and Russia, though with Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski in defense, the speed of Algeria and South Korea could hurt them

Who’s going home: Algeria and South Korea. Algeria will consider this tournament a moral victory if they prove more dangerous than they were in South Africa, while 2014 sees the Koreans caught between two worlds.

Top players to watch:

5. Son Heung-min, South Korea

4. Romelu Lukaku, Belgium

3. Thibaut Courtois, Belgium

2. Vincent Kompany, Belgium

1. Eden Hazard, Belgium

 

Pep sticking with Bravo for final: “Locker room more important”

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Petr Cech and Ederson will watch from the bench as their clubs start the League Cup Final on Sunday.

Pep Guardiola announced that Manchester City will turn to Claudio Bravo between the sticks against Arsenal, which has already appointed David Ospina as its backstop for the final.

[ MORE: Europa League draw ]

And if you think Pep, having seen his side lose to Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup, should go back to Ederson for the final, he gets it.

“You can have an opinion, I am the manager. We are here for Claudio. He saved two lots of penalties. He deserves to play in the final. The locker room is more important than the final.”

The points aren’t completely independent, of course, but at this point the final is pretty darn important as Man City could see its trophy potential drop from 4-2 in little more than a week’s time.

Bravo has played just 45 minutes in the Premier League, against Liverpool in relief of Ederson, but has been the man for each of eight League and FA Cup matches.

City has just one clean sheet in that group, but won the seven matches apart from the 1-0 Wigan defeat. Two of those, against Wolves and Leicester, came in penalty kicks.

Arsenal gets AC Milan in Europa League Round of 16

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Arsenal’s path to the UEFA Champions League just got a whole lot tougher.

[ MORE: Arsenal loses 2nd leg, advances ]

Already eight points back of the Premier League’s Top Four, the Gunners have drawn Gennaro Gattuso’s AC Milan in the UEFA Europa League’s Round of 16.

The first leg is March 8 at the San Siro before moving to the Emirates a week later.

Milan is currently 7th in Serie A despite its big-spending summer, and faces a similar problem to the Gunners; Gattuso’s men need to make up eight points on Lazio and seven on fifth-place Inter Milan.

Elsewhere, Moscovian sides CSKA and Lokomotiv got no favors with trips to Lyon and Atletico Madrid, respectively.

Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund will be pleased to see Red Bull Salzburg, while the latter’s sister club, RB Leipzig, was held apart from it by a draw with Zenit Saint-Petersbug.

Here’s the draw in full.

UEFA Europa League Round of 16
Lazio vs. Dynamo Kiev
RB Leipzig vs. Zenit St Petersburg
Atletico Madrid vs. Lokomotiv Moscow
CSKA Moscow vs. Lyon
Marseille vs. Athletic Bilbao
Sporting Lisbon vs. Viktoria Plzen
Borussia Dortmund vs. Red Bull Salzburg
AC Milan vs. Arsenal

CCL: Lodeiro from 45; Royer’s diving header — SEA, RBNY lead (video)

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After 45 minutes of their respective CONCACAF Champions League knockout-round quests, things are going unnervingly well for the Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls.

[ MORE: FC Dallas disappoint in CCL; Club America flying ]

If you’ve watched Major League Soccer teams try, try and try again — only to eventually fail in spectacular fashion — in CCL over the years, you might say things are going a little too well.

There’s still another 45 minutes to be played on Thursday — plus the return legs next week — but both the Sounders and Red Bulls hold 1-0 halftime leads, and the vitally important away goals which come with it. Nicolas Lodeiro’s 45-yard, first-time lob of the Santa Tecla (El Salvador) goalkeeper in the 15th minute has already been eternally etched into the memories of Sounders fans.

Just 15 minutes later, Daniel Royer perfectly executed the diving header and got on the end of Bradley Wright-Phillips’ curling ball into the box to Jesse Marsch’s side ahead of Honduran side CD Olimpia.

Villarreal DF Semedo charged with attempted murder

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MADRID (AP) A Spanish judge has charged Villarreal defender Ruben Semedo with attempted murder and ordered him to be temporarily detained without bail.

Court officials in Lliria say on Thursday the Portuguese player is also charged with assault, robbery, illegal detention, and illegal possession of firearms.

Semedo testified before a judge on Thursday, and left the court in handcuffs.

The 23-year-old Semedo was detained early Tuesday, accused of tying up, assaulting and threatening another man last week. Authorities say he and two other men allegedly held the victim captive while they robbed his apartment.

Semedo’s agents told Spanish media the player denies any wrongdoing.

Villarreal on Tuesday said it was investigating Semedo and would take appropriate disciplinary action.

Villarreal signed Semedo from Sporting Lisbon last summer for a reported fee of $17 million.