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Golden Ball and Golden Boot predictions

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The World Cup is just a day away, and with World Cup Eve here, we take one more look at the tournament.

We’ve dissected the team events just about as much as possible, so we should take a look at the event with an individual focus.

When we discuss the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards, often a prerequisite is playing more games, since it gives the players more games to score goals as well as a bigger stage to prove their dominance on the field.

First we’ll run down the list of outside contenders who ultimately may not have the best squad or best situation to pull out the awards, and then the list of players who are favorites and will have a great chance to pick up trophies of their own.

Golden Boot:

The Golden Boot is given to the player who scores the most goals across the entire tournament.  The record-holder is France’s Just Fontaine, who scored 13 goals in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Nobody has come close to toppling that, with Gerd Müller in second with 10 at the 1974 West German World Cup.

The pretenders:

Hulk – The Brazilian forward is one of the best attackers on one of the best attacking teams in the World Cup, but with so many options for Luis Felipe Scolari up front, like Neymar, Fred, and Jo, the goals will be spread around, and nobody is going to upstage Neymar this summer (more on that later).

Miroslav Klose – The German very well may set the record for most career World Cup goals, needing one to tie and two to lead.  However, in a German squad dominated by world-class midfielders, it will be difficult for Klose to be the focus of Germany’s attack enough to pick up the Golden Boot.  Germany’s goals will likely be spread across the squad, meaning we may not see one single German to dominate the discussion, no matter how far they go.

Karim Benzema – With Franck Ribery down and out, Karim Benzema is now the biggest name in France’s squad. The Real Madrid winger, however, has a number of things against him as he looks to contend for individual honors.  France is a squad that is difficult to figure out. Likely they will advance from their group, but we saw what happened four years ago, and for Benzema to pick up the Golden Ball, he must not only outshine strike partner Olivier Giroud, but also make sure his country doesn’t yet again flop.

Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal is good, but for the Ballon d’Or winner to pull out a Golden Boot performance, his team will have to help him out.  Portugal is the #4 ranked team in the world according to FIFA, but few have them advancing far enough for Ronaldo to put together the games required to win the award. The clear leader of Portugal, the team will need to look more creative than they did in their recent friendlies for Ronaldo to have a shot.

The contenders:

source: AP
Lionel Messi is obviously a favorite to bag plenty of goals for nearby Argentina.

Neymar – Brazil is the host, and Neymar is the star.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  The 22-year-old likely won’t be upstaged, and barring a shocking early exit, Neymar will prove – like he did in the Confederations Cup – that he is one of the world’s best.  The kid thrives under pressure, and he’ll have the country on his shoulders the next month.

Lionel Messi – Argentina’s superstar has his best chance yet to add international success to his legendary club resume. As the best player on one of the best teams, his chances for the Golden Boot are obvious.

Mario Balotelli – The Italians aren’t one of the favorites, but Cesare Prandelli’s bunch are serious contenders to make the semifinals, and if Balotelli can leave his volatile personality back in Italy, he has plenty of service to bag a bunch of goals.

Luis Suarez – Uruguay’s on-fire striker is primed to continue his incredible Premier League goal-scoring tally at the World Cup. They are in a difficult group and may not be 100%, and those could ultimately destroy his chances, but it’s impossible to look past Suarez’s form at the end of the Premier League season.

Golden Ball:

The Golden Ball is given to the best player in the tournament.  Along with the players listed above, who all have legitimate shots to pick up the award if their teams can go along with it, here are a few more names who may not be goalscoring threats, but are certainly players who could shine on the big stage.

The pretenders:

Angel Di Maria – The 26-year-old winger proved a wealth of doubters wrong at Real Madrid this season, but Di Maria by trade is not a player who will take the star role, and on an Argentina team already bursting at the seams with stars, Di Maria has an outside shot if he upstages his teammates but likely will take a back seat.

Eden Hazard – The best player on a talent-stocked Belgium squad, it remains to be seen how that group will perform with so many expecting them to perform well.  If they make to the semifinals, Hazard will definitely be in the discussion for this award, but unfortunately their path is a tough one for such an inexperienced group.

Andrea Pirlo – While Mario Balotelli will look to rack up the goals, Pirlo is in charge of leading the creative unit for Italy.  Pirlo’s been a part of both ends of the spectrum of World Cup, winning in 2006 and flopping out of the group stage in 2010, so he’s seen it all. The beard is feared, but there are players likely to upstage Pirlo in Brazil.

The contenders:

Sergio Aguero – Should Sergio Aguero win the Golden Ball, that means something has gone horribly wrong for someone else.  Either Messi had a down tournament and questions will arise about his legacy with the national team, or Messi had a great tournament and Aguero bested it, with Argentina demolishing the field.  Aguero is key to Argentina getting over the hump.

Andres Iniesta – The maestro of Spain’s midfield, he won a World Cup last time out in South Africa but saw none of his teammates come in the top-two in Golden Ball voting.  This time around, if Spain lives up to their own expectations, it’s a good bet Iniesta’s in the thick of things.

Mario Götze – Speaking of maestros, Götze is a master on the ball for Germany.  In a squad bursting with talent, it’s highly possible the 22-year-old shows the universe what his wealth of talent can bring the world of soccer.

VIDEO: Arsene Wenger apologizes for being sent off

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While his team was fighting for second position in the Premier League table, Arsene Wenger was watching from the depths of the Emirates.

Incensed at the (correct) decision to award Burnley a penalty two minutes into stoppage time after Arsenal had controlled much of the game, Wenger lashed out at fourth official Anthony Taylor, causing referee Jon Moss to send Wenger off the pitch.

The Frenchman was forced to watch Alexis Sanchez score a penalty of his own, giving Arsenal a stunning 2-1 win over the Clarets. After the match, Wenger was pleased with the victory, but apologized for his actions, which included shoving Taylor slightly on three separate occasions.

“I saw it [the winning penalty] on television, I at least saw what happened,” Wenger said. “I didn’t see a penalty from outside, but I should have kept my control and I apologize for that. [I should have] not said a word. I should have shut up.”

It’s possible that Wenger sees punishment from the FA for his actions, as it isn’t the first time he’s clashed with referees this season.

The Frenchman was complimentary of Burnley’s defense, with Arsenal controlling much of the game but failing to score more than one goal through regulation.

“My team was well organized, which makes the game simple but efficient. It’s kind of frustrating games that you get here, and you have to deal with it tactically, and we did it well. We won over there in the last second with a little bit of a dodgy goal, and we won today again just in the last second again, so they’re a very strong team.”

Wenger was non-committal when asked about Granit Xhaka‘s dismissal, saying it was on the other side of the field so he did not get a good look at the decision.

Xhaka’s latest red makes him the most sent-off player in Europe

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Granit Xhaka (R) of Arsenal protests to referee Jonathan Moss after shown a red card during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Burnley at the Emirates Stadium on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Granit Xhaka was a marked man before he came to England. With four dismissals over the last two club seasons, Arsenal fans were aware they were bringing in a talented passer and midfield destroyer, but also a man who had trouble staying on the pitch.

That has manifested itself in the Premier League, and has been maybe even exacerbated.

With his second straight red card of the season, Xhaka’s disciplinary issues are a hindrance to the Gunners and leaves Arsene Wenger with a big decision to make – to continue Xhaka’s selection in the matchday squad when he returns from suspension, or leave him on the sidelines as to not risk again falling down to 10 men.

Over the last 2-1/2 calendar years dating back to the start of the 2014/15 Bundesliga season when he was with Borussia Monchengladbach, Xhaka has been sent off six times in league play, once in the Europa League, and another for his international team during 2018 World Cup qualifying this past summer. The league record alone is more than any other player in the top 5 European leagues.

While obviously the sheer numbers are a major issue, the true problem is in the eye test. Xhaka isn’t learning from his mistakes. No, his dismissal against Burnley wasn’t the most malicious of challenges, but it was a textbook straight red card. The Swiss international passed the ball straight to Steven Defour, and long after the Burnley midfielder unloaded the ball to a teammate, Xhaka went lunging in with both feet showing studs, forcing referee Jon Moss to show him the showers after a quick conference with the assistant referee who was in perfect position to make the call.

If the 24-year-old wishes to find his way back to the field in Arsenal colors, he needs to start learning from his actions, or he will end up on the bench, either through suspension or selection. It nearly cost Arsenal a chance at second place against Burnley, with the Clarets energized by their man advantage. He has four domestic matches to think about what he’s done.

Chelsea 2-0 Hull City: Costa return sends Chelsea eight points clear

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Diego Costa (R) of Chelsea celebrates scoring the opening goal with his team mates during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Hull City at Stamford Bridge on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Chelsea didn’t miss a beat with Diego Costa out, but they sure are glad to have him back.

The Spaniard bagged a goal in lengthy first-half stoppage time and Chelsea eased its way to all three points to take advantage of a host of slip-ups near the top of the table to work an eight-point gap at the summit. A late goal from Gary Cahill secured the points as the Blues were on their way.

The Blues had the opening chance just 11 seconds into the game as they boomed a long ball forward, one that Diego Costa chested down and volleyed just inches wide left.

Past the 12 minute mark, there was a lengthy injury delay after Ryan Mason and Gary Cahill had a very nasty clash of heads. Cahill came out relatively unscathed and was able to stay on but Mason was down for several minutes, requiring full medical attention as he received oxygen and was carefully placed on a backboard before being stretchered off.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The game seemed to fall asleep after the delay, with Mason replaced by David Meyler. Hull had a spell of possession, including a corner, before Chelsea got back on the ball. The Blues nearly got a break when a shot from Marcos Alonso took a massive deflection and nearly looped into the top corner, but Eldin Jakupovic was there to tip it behind.

That moment began a huge spell of pressure for the Blues. David Luiz rose high to meet a Victor Moses cross but couldn’t get the contact, and then Pedro went to ground for a penalty shout but was denied. Hull’s defensive shape was fantastic in the first half, and while Chelsea held the bulk of possession, they had little to show for it in front of net. In significant first half added time they came close again, with Alonso on the left wing cut one across the face of goal, but it was just out of reach for a sliding N'Golo Kante and into Jakupovic’s arms.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Before the break, Chelsea would break through. Victor Moses cut a ball across the penalty area that somehow made it all the way to Diego Costa without a touch, and the Brazilian put himself back in the spotlight with a powerful finish.

The second half was a spirited one, but didn’t produce much in front of net. The television commentators called the game “plucky” which accurately described the action. After 70 minutes, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte brought off Eden Hazard for Cesc Fabregas. Hull City had a healthy amount of attacking intent, but couldn’t get by the Chelsea back three.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

It wasn’t enough for the Tigers, as Chelsea put the game away with 10 minutes to go. Substitute Cesc Fabregas delivered a free-kick into the box, and Cahill snuck in around the back, getting free and heading in from point-blank range. Fabregas earned his sixth assist of the Premier League season, tied for most on Chelsea despite playing just 521 minutes. Costa nearly had a third four minutes later, but was stuffed by Jakupovic from a tight angle.

The three points pushed Chelsea eight points clear at the top, with Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester City dropping points. Hull City’s loss sees them remain in the relegation zone, in 19th on 16 points, three from safety.

Real Madrid loses Modric and Marcelo to injuries in Malaga win

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 21:  Marcelo of Real Madrid CF comes off substituted during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Malaga CF at the Bernabeu on January 21, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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The 40-game unbeaten run seems like a distant memory.

Real Madrid had lost two straight matches before a 2-1 La Liga win over Malaga on Saturday, but despite the three points, they still did lose in a way.

Los Blancos lost both Marcelo and Luka Modric to injury in the match, and both could potentially miss up to a month of time.

Modric has been in and out of the squad this season due to injuries, and during his other lengthy spell on the sidelines, he was replaced adequately by 22-year-old Mateo Kovacic, and he was the man to replace Modric against Malaga with 12 minutes remaining. Reports say the Croatian suffered an adductor injury which can be quite painful and could keep him off the field for a number of weeks.

Marcelo, meanwhile, has been a staple in the Madrid lineup, appearing in the last 11 league matches and starting all but two of those. Marcelo was brought off just 25 minutes into the Malaga win reportedly with a hamstring problem, replaced by Isco. The likely long-term replacement for the 28-year-old Brazilian would be Nacho Fernandez, who has seen time this season on both defensive flanks.

The injuries puts not just the immediate La Liga and Copa del Rey futures of the two in jeopardy, but also could affect their availability for the start of the Champions League knockout stage which begins on February 15th against Napoli.