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Two Neymar goals, moment of controversy see Brazil start with 3-1 win over Croatia

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Two goals from Brazil’s biggest star got the World Cup off to a successful start for the hosts, but controversy overshadowed Neymar’s brace as Brazil 2014 kicked off in Sao Paolo. After a 71st minute penalty drawn by Brazilian striker Fred left Croatia pleading its case to referee Yuishi Nishimura, the tournament favorites had their first lead, with stoppage time insurance alloying the favorites to claim a 3-1 result.

The underdogs were up after 11 minutes when a ball rolled into the penalty area by Ivica Olic was turned into Brazil’s net by Selecao left back Marcelo – the team’s first own goal in World Cup history. Eighteen minutes later, Neymar converted his first of the day, rolling a ball from the top of the arc inside Stipe Pletikosa’s left post.

After Brazil gained momentum before halftime, Croatia assumed more control of the game in the second. That control was rebuked when Nishimura pointed to the spot in the 69th minute, issuing Croatian defender Dejan Lovren a yellow card after a disputed foul on Fred. Neymar’s finish from the spot delivered full points for the hosts.

One minute into stoppage time, a counterattack against the pursuing Croatians produced a chance from Oscar from just beyond the arc. Poking the ball inside Pletikosa’s right post, the Chelsea midfielder gave Brazil its insurance, producing a flattering two-goal result.

Play in Group A continues tomorrow when Mexico faces Cameroon in Natal. Brazil returns to the field Tuesday against Mexico in Fortaleza, while Croatia will face Cameroon on Wednesday in Manaus.

[ MORE: Nerves, Nishimura, Pletikosa: Talking points after Brazil’s victory over Croatia ]
[ MORE: Dive, poor officiating get 2014 World Cup off to a bad start ]

A slow start from Brazil gave Croatia two chances to strike first, the second of which put Niko Kovac’s team in front. In the seventh minute, a cross from the left by Ivan Perisic found Olic at the far post, but the Wolfsburg attacker’s snap header went just side of Julio César’s upright. Four minutes later, however, play built down Croatia’s left allowed Olic to roll a ball toward the edge of the six. A touch from Nikica Jelavic in the middle of the box caught Marcelo off guard, leading to an own goal.

source: Getty Images
Croatia Dejan Lovren (left) is called for a foul on Brazil’s Fred (right). Neymar converted the ensuing penalty kick to give Brazil a 2-1 lead. (Photo: Getty Images)

By the middle of the half, Brazil had shaken off their nerves, with chances from Paulinho and Oscar just after the 20-minute mark proving the favorites’ first threats on Pletikosa’s goal. In the 29th minute, a more benign chance finally produced the Selecao’s equalizer, with a scuffed shot by Neymar from 24 yards out nestling inside Pletikosa’s lower left hand corner.

Brazil built on that mid-half momentum but were unable to take the lead before half time. When the teams returned to the field, a more settled Croatia saw kept of the ball, with the team content to play around the edges of the Brazilian defense. The edge in possession that saw Brazil hold over 70 percent of the ball in the first half started to even out.

As the underdogs sent in reinforcements and Luiz Felipe Scolari looked for solutions, Croatia continued to bleed time off the clock, dominating the ball amid almost no pressure from the hosts’ midfield. Playing through Luka Modric in the middle, the underdogs spent most of the half’s first 20 minutes probing down the flanks before pulling the ball back toward the center circle. All the danger the favorites posed in the moments before halftime was gone.

In the 69th minute, Nishimura bailed the hosts out. On a ball played into the penalty area from the right by Oscar, Fred went to ground in front of defender Dejan Lovren, drawing a whistle. Pletikosa guessed correctly on Neymar’s try from the spot, but his hands weren’t strong enough to keep out a ball sent high into the left side of goal.

Over the game’s final 23 minutes, César was called on to make three big saves, with chasing Croatia controlling play over the match’s final chapter. In the 91st minute, however, Oscar brought their story to an end, with a ball poked from near 24 yards out getting past Pletikosa at the left post. Where César had stepped up to preserve his team’s points, Pletikosa had let in a second soft goal.

The 3-1 scoreline is what Selecao would have wanted at minute zero, but the form between the whistles left little difference in quality between the tournament favorites and a team hoping to escape Group A. The hosts took full points, but they needed some helped from Nishimura to do so.

[ MORE: Soccerly cover the World Cup ]

Lineups

Brazil: César, Alves, Silva, Luiz, Marcelo; Paulinho (Hernanes 63′), Gustavo; Hulk (Bernard 68′), Oscar, Neymar (Ramires 88′); Fred

Goals: Neymar 29′, (p.k.) 71′, Oscar 90+1′

Croatia: Pletikosa; Srna, Corluka, Lovren, Vrsaijko; Kovacic (Brozovic 61′), Modric, Rakitic; Perisic Olic, Jelavic (Rebic 78′)

Goals: Marcelo (o.g.) 11′

Report: Aguero seeking Real Madrid move at season’s end

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21:  Sergio Aguero of manchester City in action during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on January 21, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Gabriel Jesus was a revelation for Manchester City before suffering an injury, but even with a spot in the lineup for the time being Sergio Aguero may not be coming back to Manchester City next season.

[ MORE: Lucky Man United, Mourinho begin trophy haul ]

According to the Sun, Spanish giants Real Madrid are eyeing up a move for Aguero in the hopes that the Argentine striker will join the club at the conclusion of the Premier League season.

Prior to joining City back in 2011, Aguero played five seasons in La Liga with Atletico Madrid, where he scored 101 goals in all competitions for the Rojiblancos.

While Aguero is likely to hold his starting spot for some time due to Jesus’ injured metatarsal, manager Pep Guardiola had heavily favored the young forward over Aguero since officially joining the club in January.

U.S. U-20s paired with Mexico, El Salvador in CONCACAF knockout round

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Tab Ramos’ side completed their first task, but now the U.S. Under-20 national team has its next challenge lying in front of them.

[ MORE: Whitecaps acquire Brek Shea from Orlando City in trade ]

The U.S. U-20s finished second in Group B at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship after winning two of its three group stage matches.

Now, Mexico and El Salvador await the U-20s in the classification stage with a spot at May’s Under-20 World Cup in South Korea on the line.

During the classification round there will be two groups of three teams, with the top two teams advancing to the World Cup. Each group winner will meet in the CONCACAF Championship final.

Classification stage schedule

Group D

Feb. 27 — U.S. U-20s vs. Mexico

Mar. 1 — Mexico vs. El Salvador

Mar. 3 — U.S. U-20s vs. El Salvador

Group E

Feb. 27 — Panama vs. Honduras

Mar. 1 — Honduras vs. Costa Rica

Mar. 3 — Panama vs. Costa Rica

Claude Puel calls for video replay after Gabbiadini goal called off

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  Manolo Gabbiadini of Southampton takes on Eric Bailly of Manchester United during the EFL Cup Final match between Manchester United and Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Manolo Gabbiadini performed brilliantly in Sunday’s EFL Cup final, but was the Southampton striker unfairly gipped of a hat-trick?

[ MORE: Lucky Man United, Mourinho begin trophy haul ]

Saints manager Claude Puel certainly believes so.

[ MORE: Three things from Man United’s win vs. Southampton ]

While the back-and-forth final between Southampton and Manchester United presented a tremendous matchup, the Saints had every right to be furious with the officiating in the early going after Gabbiadini’s 11th minute finish was called off for offsides.

“I would like, of course, video in the future for these situations,” said Puel. “It’s very hard when we see this game to lose. It was cruel.”

Gabbiadini went on to score a pair of goals at the tail end of the first half and early in the second stanza, but Puel was pleased with his side’s resilience after going down 2-0 inside the opening 38 minutes.

“We kept the good attitude and spirit to stay in the game after going 2-0 down,” said the Southampton boss. “We played since the beginning of the season every two or three days. We played to a strong and fantastic level. It’s important now to continue this work, to put away this disappointment and come back in the Premier League with this strength and this quality.”

Video replay has been a common discussion for some time now, but more leagues are beginning to examine the possibility. FIFA is prepared to introduce new experimental trials over the coming months and could present a form of replay at next summer’s World Cup in Russia.

La Liga & Serie A: Real resilient against Villareal, Roma tops Inter

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 26:  Mario Gaspar (R) of Villarreal competes for the ball with Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid during the La Liga match between Villarreal CF and Real Madrid at Estadio de la Ceramica on February 26, 2017 in Villarreal, Spain.  (Photo by Fotopress/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Sunday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Villareal 2-3 Real Madrid

The Yellow Submarine did everything right to open the second half but Real Madrid proved resilient once again to earn a victory at El Madrigal. Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata each netted after the hour mark to help Los Blancos pick up three points and remain leap over Barcelona at the top of the table. Manu Trigueros and Cédric Bakambu scored within six minutes of one another to give Villareal a 2-0 early in the second half but Real began to press harder after the setback.

Atletico Madrid 1-2 Barcelona

It surely wasn’t the most attractive match at times, particularly for the visitors, but Lionel Messi was up to his old tricks once again and helped lift Barcelona into the top spot in La Liga. The Argentine attacker was persistent inside the Atletico box with the match nearing the end and Messi managed to break the deadlock in the 86th minute. Both sides traded goals earlier in the second stanza, with Rafinha getting Barca on the board before Diego Godin equalized six minutes later.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Espanyol 3-0 Osasuna
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Celta Vigo
Athletic Bilbao 3-1 Granada


Inter Milan 1-3 Roma

Mauro Icardi gave Inter a brief glimmer of hope, but Roma continued its fine form on Sunday against the Milan side. Radja Nainggolan’s incredible double helped provide the Giallorossi with a two-goal advantage in the second half before substitute Diego Perotti sealed Roma’s victory from the penalty spot.

Sassuolo 0-1 AC Milan

Controversy struck at the Mapei Stadium but it didn’t benefit the hosts. Carlos Bacca netted the game’s lone finish just 22 minutes in from the penalty spot but it was the Colombian that came into question for his attempt. Bacca slipped while taking his spot kick and appeared to hit the ball with both feet before it crossed the goal line, leaving Sassuolo players furious. Milan now sits in seventh place in Serie A, just four points outside of the top four.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Palermo 1-1 Sampdoria
Chievo 2-0 Pescara
Crotone 1-2 Cagliari
Genoa 1-1 Bologna
Lazio 1-0 Udinese