At halftime: Own goal, Neymar score leave Brazil even with Croatia — FOLLOW LIVE

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source: APStory of the half: A slow start from the tournament favorites gave Croatia two chances within 11 minutes, the second of which ended in a Marcelo own goal. Just after the 20th minute, however, the true Brazil started to shine through, leading to a 29th minute equalizer from Neymar. Through the game reached the break 1-1, Brazil was on the front foot at the first half whistle.

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Goals (and how they happened):

11′ Marcelo (o.g.) – Ivica Olic’s ball rolled in from the left looked innocuous enough, but after Nikica Jelavic tipped the pass beyond a sliding David Luiz, Marcelo was caught off guard. His one-touch finish into his own net gave Croatia a shock lead. The was the first own goal in Brazil’s World Cup history. Croatia, 1-0.

29′ – Neymar – It looked like a speculative shot, especially when the Brazil star scuffed his try from 24 yards, but a slow reaction from Stipe Pletikosa saw Neymar’s shot take advantage of Arena Corinthians’ perfectly manicured pitch. The bouncing equalizer inched inside the lower-left hand corner. Even, 1-1.

Other key moments:

7′ – Even before Marcelo’s generosity, Croatia had a chance to draw first blood. Following a pass intercepted at the edge of Brazil’s attacking third turning, a quick opportunity from the right flank allowed Ivan Perisic to cross far post for Ivica Olic. The snap header went wide of the mark, but Croatia had served notice.

21′-22′- More of a span than a moment, but near the middle of the half, Brazil finally woke up. Bursting through the defense in the right of the box, Paulinho put a shot from 10 yards right at Stipe Pletikosa – Brazil’s first serious chance of the match. A minute later, a ball played from the byline by Neymar was tipped out to Oscar, who forced Pletikosa to punch a ball driven toward the keeper’s right post.

27′ – An arm to the head of Luka Modric showed Neymar’s disapproval of the Croatian’s new haircut. It also drew the tournament’s first yellow card. Neymar’s not a particularly foul-prone player, but he has been known to make the most of contact. Now, he’s one card away from being dismissed (or, in another game, earning a suspension).

Impact players

  • Ivica Olic, Croatia – the workhorse forward, deployed wide left, took advantage of a shaky right side of the Brazilian defense, earning an early chance and “assisting” on Marcelo’s 11th minute misstep.
  • Neymar, Brazil – Even before his equalizer, the Brazilian star had started to assert himself. Brought in from wide to play through the middle, the Selecao’s best player had little trouble finding the ball.

Question(s) for the second half:

  • Will Croatia pull back? – The underdogs started a relatively ambitious lineup, but with their success as the onset having waned, will (or, when) Croatia pull back and play for a point?
  • Can Brazil get Oscar involved? – Luiz Felipe Scolari moving Neymar to the middle pushed the Chelsea midfielder to a wide, somewhat anonymous position. If Oscar is not going to be more involved, Brazil may as well play somebody who can help protect Dani Alves.
  • How worrisome is that Brazilian right? – Dani Alves was poor on the Perisic cross, and the Croatia goal was built down the Croatia left. We can only take so much from a 45-minute stretch, but given what we knew about Alves coming into this tournament, how much problematic is the right side of Brazil’s defense?

Europa League final: Man United too tough for Ajax, qualify for UCL

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Though it may have required a minor detour in the journey to the intended destination, Jose Mourinho’s first season as Manchester United manager ultimately reached the promised land: qualification for next season’s UEFA Champions League.

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Once it became clear that Man United’s season was unlikely to result in a top-four finish in the Premier League (they eventually wound up sixth), Mourinho put every Mancunian egg into the Europa League basket, and it paid off on Wednesday, as United topped Ajax, 2-0, in the Europa League final inside the Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden.

Paul Pogba put United 1-0 ahead after just 18 minutes (WATCH HERE), benefitting from a wicked deflection off a defender’s shin, and Mourinho’s famously rigid, organized midfield and defensive structure frustrated a young Ajax side (a starting lineup with an average age of just under 23 years old) that reached the final on the back of a free-flowing, attacking tidal wave.

[ WATCH: Pogba gives United an early lead ]

Down just a goal, Ajax needed little more than a moment of brilliance from any number of rising stars sure to fetch massive transfer fees and land big-money contracts elsewhere in Europe, in the not-so-distant future.

That hope lasted less than 180 seconds into the second half, though, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan doubled the lead, thanks to some unbelievably quick reflexes and a tidy overhead kick from three yards out. Ajax would manage just two shots on goal all night (four for United).

Not only did Mourinho deliver Champions League qualification, alongside a European trophy, United also claimed the EFL Cup back in February. With the allure of UCL football next season, expect another busy (and expensive) summer of spending at Old Trafford.

AT THE HALF: Man Utd lead Ajax in UEL final, thanks to Pogba (video)

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After 45 minutes of Wednesday’s Europa League final, between Manchester United and Ajax, in Stockholm, Sweden, Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils have one foot in next season’s UEFA Champions League.

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After a cagey opening 15 minutes that saw neither side create anything of consequence, Man United pulled ahead on a fair bit of luck in the 18th minute. Paul Pogba received the ball 25 yards from goal, took a touch toward goal and fired a low shot toward goal. Davinson Sanchez did everything he could to get his body in front of the strike, but the ball glanced off his shin, sending it one direction and goalkeeper Andre Onana the other.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Europa League final ] 

Having conceded just eight goals in 14.5 Europa League games thus far this season, would you bet on United conceding an equalizer in the final 45 minutes? Hit the link above to follow along, live.

Valverde dismisses deal to coach Barcelona

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MADRID (AP) Departing Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde has been avoiding talk about a possible move to Barcelona, saying he has not entered into negotiations with any club.

Valverde did not confirm reports that he has already reached a deal to coach Barcelona next season, and did not dismiss taking a year off after four seasons at Athletic.

“I haven’t committed to any club, I haven’t talked to anybody,” Valverde said. “I have an agent and there are teams that have shown interest in me. Now I have to decide whether I will take on a new adventure, and it would have to be a challenging one.”

The 53-year-old Valverde has been widely touted to replace Luis Enrique, who announced earlier this year that he was tired and would not continue as Barcelona’s coach.

The Catalan club ends its season after the Copa del Rey final against Alaves on Saturday.

The Mundo Deportivo newspaper reported this week that Valverde has already reached a two-year deal with Barcelona, with an option for a third season. The newspaper said the announcement would be made next week.

“I don’t know what’s been published,” Valverde said. “I never talk about negotiations with clubs and that won’t change. This wouldn’t be the first time that I have offers from important clubs.”

He said there was still the possibility of taking some time off and not immediately taking over another club.

“Why not?” he said. “In the end I can do whatever I want, no?”

A former forward, Valverde played two seasons with Barcelona in the late 1980s. He spent six years with Athletic from 1990-96.

Valverde didn’t hide that he will be hoping Barcelona wins the Copa del Rey title this weekend, which would guarantee Athletic a spot in the Europa League next season. Athletic finished seventh in the Spanish league, but will play in the second-tier European competition with a Barcelona victory because the Catalan club will play in the Champions League. Only the teams in fifth and sixth places automatically qualify for the Europa League.

Valverde led Athletic to victory over Barcelona in the final of the Spanish Super Cup in 2015, which marked the team’s first title in more than three decades. He also coached the club from 2003-05.

Valverde has also coached Espanyol, Olympiakos, Villarreal and Valencia.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

LIVE: Man United face Ajax in Europa League final

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Manchester United and Ajax square off in Stockholm, Sweden on Wednesday for the UEFA Europa League trophy and a place in the Champions League next season.

[ LIVE: Europa League final ] 

This a huge game for Jose Mourinho and United bad coming less than 48 hours after a suicide bomber killed 22 people in Manchester, this game has taken an entirely different complexion.

The mood around the Friends Arena is a somber one as Manchester United’s fans mourn those lost in the terror attack and people around the world send their love and prayers to Manchester.

Black armbands will be worn by both teams and there will be a minute’s silence before the game to honor the victims.

United have never won this trophy and they will have their work cut out against a young, talented Ajax side.

Click no the link above to follow the action live from Stockholm, while here at ProSoccerTalk we will have all the analysis, reaction and more from the final.