Game on: Lineups, talking points as Brazil kicks off 2014 World Cup against Croatia

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Our reward for surviving J-Lo and Pitbull? Actual World Cup soccer. Congratulations, folks. Not only is that opening ceremony done, but Brazil 2014 is here, with the tournament favorites kicking off the competition at 4:00 p.m. Eastern against Croatia.

That tournament favorite is Brazil, of course. The reigning Confederations Cup champions will start their tournament amid a sea of trademark yellow at the new Arena Corinthians, hoping to manage building expectations that the 2010 quarterfinalists will win the country’s sixth World Cup.

Here are your starting lineups, talking points, and predictions:

[ MORE, Previews: Brazil | Croatia | Group A ]
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Starting lineups

Brazil: César, Alves, Silva, Luiz, Marcelo; Paulinho, Gustavo; Hulk, Oscar, Neymar; Fred

Croatia: Pletikosa; Srna, Corluka, Lovren, Vrsaijko; Brozovic Kovacic, Modric, Rakitic; Perisic Olic, Jelavic

Talking points

1. Let’s get this started …: The first game of a 64-match, month-long journey is here, and it’s about dang time. For some, the countdown to today’s kickoff began at minute 120 of Spain’s win over the Netherlands four years ago. Even for some more patient souls, the window from the end of the European season to today’s game was too long. Give us back our soccer!

Now we can slam that window shut. We can close all those preview tabs, and yes, we can stop worrying about whether this World Cup will need to be moved.

Soccer, people. Actual soccer, on its biggest stage. The World Cup is minutes away.

2. … and started right: Brazil right back Dani Alves emphasized the need to win decisively. Obviously, in the standings, a 1-0 win with a stoppage time goal will do, but for a team that has accrued such high expectations, a decisive win over a plucky non-contender may delay more pressure. Brazil and its fans will feel a lot better if this is an easy one.

3. South America vs. Europe: Perhaps you’ve heard, but a European team hasn’t won a World Cup on South American soil. You may have also heard that the World Cup hasn’t been waged on the continent since 1978, and statistics being the bummer they are, this factoid looks like more of a “gee, don’t know” that a hard-fast rule. Why can’t evidence just stay of this?

Regardless, the hypothesis is still out there: European teams won’t be strong in Brazil. Croatia’s matchup against a favorite is unlikely to prove the case either way, but if the ball movement is there, players seem as quick as normal, and there’s not major drop off in the second half, we’ll know a little more about the European hypothesis (though only a little). 

Expectation: Brazil wins easily

One blogger’s prediction: Expectations are met

Premier League player Power Rankings

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With the Premier League players on international duty this week before the league resumes on March 31, now seems like a good time to take stock of which stars are shinning brightest.

[ MORE: Power Rankings archive ]

Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham were all in action over the past week, with four Premier League games and four FA Cup games taking center stage. The likes of Manchester City and Arsenal weren’t in action, so none of their players can be involved.

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections.

  1. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – Up 8
  2. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham) – New entry
  3. Willian (Chelsea) – Up 1
  4. Riyad Mahrez (Leicester) – Down 2
  5. Romelu Lukaku (Man United) – Down 2
  6. David De Gea (Man United) – Up 4
  7. Heung-Min Son (Tottenham) – Down 1
  8. Nemanja Matic (Man United) – New entry
  9. Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham) – New entry
  10. Sadio Mane (Liverpool) – Up 1
  11. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool) – New entry
  12. Jamie Vardy (Leicester) – Down 3
  13. Erik Lamela (Tottenham) – New entry
  14. Junior Stanislas (Bournemouth) – New entry
  15. Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace) New entry
  16. Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea) – New entry
  17. Cenk Tosun (Everton) – New entry
  18. Theo Walcott (Everton) – Up 1
  19. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Southampton) – New entry
  20. Alvaro Morata (Chelsea) – New entry

Dutch police detain 25 England supporters for violence

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AMSTERDAM (AP) Dutch police say they detained 25 English soccer supporters overnight after drunken fans threw beer bottles at officers ahead of a friendly match between the Netherlands and England.

Police say riot police were deployed to downtown Amsterdam to deal with the rowdy supporters. Police detained the England fans for offenses including public disorder.

England will play the Netherlands at the Amsterdam Arena on the southern edge of the Dutch capital. Police say they plan to beef up security before and after Friday’s match.

About 1,500 England fans traveled to the Dutch capital for the match.

LA Galaxy announces Zlatan Ibrahimovic signing

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LA Galaxy have confirmed that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has signed for them.

The Swedish veteran, 36, is the new No.9 for the Galaxy and in the video below he is shown alongside a lion and simply says: “Los Angeles, welcome to Zlatan!”

Classic Zlatan. The fact he announced his arrival in Los Angeles by taking out a full page ad in the LA Times on Friday also says it all.

[ MORE: Where will Zlatan rank in big-name players?

Major League Soccer now has a new icon as Ibrahimovic continues his glittering career in the USA after he terminated his contract with Manchester United earlier this week.

“I decided to sign with the Galaxy because I decided it was the best place for me. I have a lot to give. I can help them a lot. They are the best team in the U.S. There were no doubts,” Ibrahimovic said. “Hopefully it goes like I want and we can all share the happiness by winning. I feel good. I am training very hard. I need to play games to go in the rhythm. The more I play, the better I will be.”

With that positive update on his own fitness following some recent setbacks, Ibrahimovic was asked what he wants to achieve in MLS.

“I want to accomplish as much as possible,” Ibrahimovic said. “Wherever I went, I won. I played in the best clubs in the world, different countries, and I won. I am coming with this objective. I come to win. I want to win. I think it’s in my DNA that I am winning my trophies. It is no luck, no special moment. It is just me. Different place but same Zlatan.”

LA confirmed that Ibrahimovic has arrived via Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) as they currently have filled all three of their Designated Player spots.

It is believed Zlatan has joined on a two-year deal reportedly worth around $3 million per year. He could make his debut against new crosstown rivals LAFC on Mar. 31.

No doubt he will probably score the winner late on after jumping off the bench, then declare himself the Mayor of LA…

Where does Zlatan rank in MLS superstar signings?

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has announced his arrival in Major League Soccer in a typically understated fashion…

The big question surrounding Zlatan’s arrival at the LA GAlaxy on a two-year deal is if he can still produce goals on a regular basis following his serious knee injury last year which kept him out for eight months and continued to hamper him this season at Manchester United.

Yet another question is intriguing to many: where does the 36-year-old stack up in terms of the biggest signings in MLS’ 23-year history?

It’s an intriguing question to ponder and despite Zlatan’s status as one of the most recognizable players on the planet, the impact he will have on MLS will be determined on what he produces on the pitch. Some of the other star names who previously arrived haven’t produced star moments, even if they remained stars after their retirement.

With the Designated Player era ushered in by David Beckham in 2007 (Zlatan reportedly won’t be a DP and will received close to $3 million per year via TAM) many stars have come and gone in MLS with varying degrees of success. It isn’t an exact science as you need big name players to buy into the different challenges MLS brings up and, in essence, almost adapt their own games and reinvent themselves a little.

Some of the biggest names have struggled massively, while others have excelled and even elevated their previous status among the U.S. and global soccer community due to their play in MLS.

Below is a look where Zlatan’s arrival currently ranks in terms of the superstars to come to the U.S., with his ranking no doubt set to rise if he bangs in goals and keeps up his impressive artistry of the English language off the pitch.

Remember: below is a ranking of the top overseas stars to arrive in MLS during the DP era, so there are no U.S. national team or Canadian national team players because Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Landon Donovan and others would all be in this list otherwise.

Let’s be clear, we are talking about big-name overseas stars who have arrived as much for their superstar status off the pitch as well as their obvious playing talent to help the status of the league grow. We are focusing on the star power in the list below, with current MLS players in bold.

  1. David Beckham (LA Galaxy)
  2. Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC)
  3. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy)
  4. Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy)
  5. David Villa (New York City FC)
  6. Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)
  7. Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
  8. Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers)
  9. Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls)
  10. Didier Drogba (Montreal Impact)
  11. Juan Pablo Angel (New York Red Bulls, Chivas USA, LA Galaxy)
  12. Nemanja Nikolic (Chicago Fire)
  13. Miguel Almiron (Atlanta United)
  14. Carlos Vela (LAFC)
  15. Bastian Schweinsteiger (Chicago Fire)
  16. Federico Higuain (Columbus Crew SC)
  17. Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact)
  18. Frank Lampard (New York City FC)
  19. Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps)
  20. Kaka (Orlando City SC)
  21. Jermain Defoe (Toronto FC)
  22. Steven Gerrard (LA Galaxy)
  23. Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
  24. Andrea Pirlo (New York City FC)
  25. Rafael Marquez (New York Red Bulls)