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.

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.