Nerves, Nishimura, Pletikosa: Talking points after Brazil’s victory over Croatia

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Squint your eyes until the game is a blur, and Thursday’s result looks like a dream start for Brazil. Two goals from their best player? A 3-1 win over Croatia? Luiz Felipe Scolari would have taken that, had you offered him that result before kickoff. His team’s off to a 100 percent start.

Open those eyes and look at the details, and the result doesn’t look so convincing. The first 20 minutes where sluggish. The last 20 minutes tested Júlio César. Brazil was the better team over the full 90, but the two-goal margin flatters the Selecao.

In game one of (what Brazil hopes is) seven, it’s nothing to worry about. Every team has to start somewhere, and at this point of the tournament — for a core that’s never competed together on this stage — three points are enough.

Here are four other thoughts after the Selecao’s win in Sao Paulo:

1. Nerves slowed down Brazil – For 20 minutes in Sao Paulo, Brazil were bystanders, if not worse. After all, they scored Croatia’s goal.

Playing without passion or imagination, the Selecao seemed handcuffed by the occasion. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they were a team that’s never played together a World Cup that was trying to manage the pressures of being favorites on home soil.

Once they went behind, Brazil woke up, but that first 20 minutes is the kind of spell a team has to get out of its system early. In game one, you can overcome it. In game five, six, or seven, it will send you home.

[ MORE: Nerves, Nishimura, Pletikosa: Talking points after Brazil’s victory over Croatia ]

2. Yuishi Nishimura owes Croatia an apology … – The penalty call was ridiculous. If Lovren’s left hand hadn’t been near Fred’s shoulder, it would have been unfathomable, not that Nishimura can use that excuse.

Any experienced referee (and especially one working a World Cup) should be able to distinguish foul from flop on such a routine play. If not, they shouldn’t be at the tournament. Hopefully Nishimura’s seen his last action of the World Cup.

(Also, if you’re inclined to say Brazil’s final goal makes the call irrelevant, that’s just not the case. The way Luka Modric was pinging passes around in the second half, Croatia could have very well played out the final 20 minutes and earned a draw. Goals change games, and Nishimura gifted Brazil their winner. Without it, Oscar doesn’t get the same chance he saw in the 91st.)

[ MORE: Dive, poor officiating get 2014 World Cup off to a bad start ]

3. … and Stipe Pletikosa was the Nishimura of goalkeepers – You have to move those feet, man. On Neymar’s first and Oscar’s insurance, you can’t get get beat on those type of balls. A goalkeeper at this level has to be better than that.

Neither shot was hit well. Both were struck from distance, and each gave the Croatian keeper a chance to stop them. As much as Nishimura changed the match, Pletikosa had a chance to save it. And he didn’t.

[ MORE: Soccerly cover the World Cup ]

4. Despite it all, Brazil got three points – This wasn’t Confederations Cup Brazil, but it was also game one, and for as much as they failed to live up to the hype, the Selecao kept themselves in position to take advantage of what the match presented.

That’s a sign of a good team. Now the question is whether this team can grow into a great one.

On This Day: The Battle of Old Trafford

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Fourteen years ago today, Arsenal headed north to Manchester for a famous matchup with Manchester United.

Taking the field at Old Trafford, Arsenal were unbeaten to start the season, having won its first four Premier League matches before drawing a week prior at home against Portsmouth. Manchester United meanwhile had four wins and one loss in that span.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

By way of Arsenal’s FA Cup title and Man United’s Premier League title the year before, the two teams met for the annual Community Shield a month earlier, and the game descended into a physical battle. Five yellow cards were shown, Arsenal substitute Francis Jeffers was shown a red card and defender Sol Campbell was later banned for kicking at an opponent, and Man United – backed by a young Tim Howard in goal – won 4-3 on penalty kicks after the score was tied at 1-1 after extra time.

With numerous physical encounters over the years, the September 21 encounter was shaping up to be another monumental showdown, and in terms of physicality, it didn’t disappoint.

Each team were shown four yellow cards and there was a combined 31 fouls. The match took a turn when Patrick Vieira was shown a second yellow card and subsequent red card for kicking out at Man United’s Ruud Van Nistelrooy after Van Nistelrooy had fouled Vieira going for a header. The decision set off a scrum in the middle of the field.

Despite being down to ten men, Arsenal held on until the final minutes, when Martin Keown was whistled for a foul in the box on Diego Forlan, giving Man United a penalty kick. But whether it was karma or lady luck, Van Nistelrooy’s penalty clanged off the crossbar and away to safety. Arsenal held on for a goalless draw, which helped boost the team’s belief in itself.

The Gunners went on to finish the 2013-2014 season undefeated, the only team to finish a Premier League season without a defeat. Man United wound up taking the FA Cup crown, settling for third place in the Premier League.

Watch some highlights from the match below.

Former Sunderland forward Scocco scores five goals for River Plate

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Veteran forward Ignacio “Nacho” Scocco is quickly endearing himself to the River Plate faithful.

Nearly three months since joining River, Scocco scored an incredible five goals in the second leg of his team’s Copa Libertadores quarterfinal matchup with Bolivian side Jorge Wilstermann. Scocco scored a first half hat-trick and added two more in the second half as River turned around a 3-0 deficit heading into the second leg.

Scocco had a mostly frustrating spell in 2014 ahead of the World Cup with Sunderland, joining the club as they staved off relegation by one point. Scocco failed to score for Sunderland in eight appearances, all off the bench.

However, since then, he returned to his native Argentina and starred for his hometown club Newell’s Old Boys before moving this summer to River as a replacement for Sebastián Driussi, who completed a transfer to Zenit St. Petersburg.

Here’s a look at all of Scocco’s goals Thursday evening.

Tammy Abraham denies switching national teams

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Fans of the England National Team may still have a chance to see Tammy Abraham don the Three Lions crest one day.

Abraham refuted reports from earlier Thursday that he was in the process of switching his national team to Nigeria from England. The 19-year-old Swansea City forward on-loan from Chelsea has played as high as the England Under-21 Men’s National Team but because of his Nigerian father, he’s eligible for the African nation.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Abraham confirmed that he had met with Nigeria Football Federation chief Amaju Pinnick after Swansea’s last game, but denied that he was looking to play for the Super Eagles.

“I have informed The FA that I remain available for selection for England,” Abraham said, via the BBC. “Contrary to reports in the media I would like to clarify that I have not agreed to switch my national team allegiance. I can confirm I met the President of the NFF after our last game against Tottenham at Wembley on Saturday given he is a friend of my father. However, any suggestion that I have made a decision to change my international representation is incorrect and wide of the mark.”

Earlier in the day, reports emerged that Pinnick said the process was underway for Abraham to switch his international allegiance.

Abraham’s apparently decision to remain with the England set-up is good news for his club Swansea City, who will get to keep him closer to Wales on a regular basis, but Abraham may be missing a chance to play senior national team soccer at a young age.

Paulinho has silenced his critics at Barcelona

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MADRID (AP) Brazil midfielder Paulinho wasn’t greeted with the warmest of welcomes when he arrived in Barcelona.

Fans made it clear they were not too thrilled to see the club spend 40 million euros ($48 million) on a defensive midfielder who was playing in the Chinese league.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule ]

They were expecting a blockbuster signing after Neymar’s departure and ended up getting a player they knew very little about.

Paulinho didn’t have any links to the club’s youth academy and his style apparently didn’t suit the team’s traditional ball-possession game.

A video of Paulinho struggling to juggle the ball during his presentation at Camp Nou Stadium didn’t help, going viral and igniting even more criticism against the player and the club.

But things have changed quickly in favor of the low-key, hard-working Brazilian.

After five Spanish league games, Paulinho has done enough to mollify the critics.

He has two goals, including a late winner against Getafe last weekend, and showed some of the prowess that led him to success in Brazil and made him an indisputable starter for his national team.

He thrived after coming off the bench in his first four matches, and eventually earned a start on Tuesday against Eibar.

“I’m happy with how things have gone for me,” Paulinho said. “I’m glad that I’m playing well, it helps me get adapted to the club. I’m playing alongside some great players and they have all been supporting me a lot.”

The 29-year-old Paulinho has added versatility to the midfield. He is solid as a defensive midfielder but also excels with attacking runs that often surprise defenders.

That’s how he scored the decisive goal in the 2-1 win against Getafe, making a run between defenders and entering the area to fire a firm shot into the far corner. His second goal was a header in a 6-1 rout of Eibar.

“He will end up being a cheap signing,” Brazil teammate and former Barcelona player Dani Alves said.

Paulinho has a lot more presence in the area than some of the team’s other midfielders, including Ivan Rakitic and even Andres Iniesta.

It was this that made Paulinho a key player in the Corinthians team that won Club World Cup in 2012. His success with the Brazilian club prompted a move in 2013 to Tottenham, where he disappointed in his two seasons before moving to Guangzhou Evergrande.

Paulinho, who signed a four-year contract with Barcelona, said he had regained his confidence while playing in China. And his good performances with Brazil also helped.

“He gives us a lot of versatility. He can help us in many different ways,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said.

Barcelona’s next game is on Saturday at Girona. The Catalan club has won its first five Spanish league games and has a two-point lead over second-place Sevilla.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

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