Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba, right, and Yaya Toure, left, practices during a training session of Ivory Coast at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, Friday, June 13, 2014. Ivory Coast play in group C of the 2014 soccer World Cup. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

Game on: Lineups, talking points as Ivory Coast starts Didier Drogba on the bench against Japan

Leave a comment

Overshadowed by the game that comes before it, Ivory Coast’s meeting with Asian champions Japan represents that day’s most interesting clash of styles. This isn’t attack versus defense, as we saw in the day’s opening match between Colombia and Greece. This is the playmaking talent of a technically and tactically adept Japan against the attacking threat and midfield power the star-studded Ivorians.

In the soccer world, those stars have ubiquitous names: Yaya Touré, one of the best players in the English league; Didier Drogba, one of the most famous African players of all time; and the likes of Salomon Kalou, Gervinho, and Wilfried Bony, less famous but well-respected attacking talents.

With a squad heavy in Japan-based talents, the Samurai Blue lacks the same type of fame, but there are two names who, both operating as attackers in midfield, present potential game-winner threats. Shinji Kagawa, who earned a move from Borussia Dortmund to English titans Manchester United two years ago, gives Japan the ability to strike quickly on any ball coming out of the back, while AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda has scored 22 times in 56 appearances for his national team.

Here’s how the teams will look at tonight’s 9:00 p.m Eastern kickoff:

[ MORE, Previews: Ivory Coast | Japan | Group C]
[ MORE, Soccerly: Latest | Follow live ]

Starting lineups

Ivory Coast: Barry; Aurier, Zokora, Bamba, Boka; Serey, Tioté, Touré; Kalou, Bony, Gervinho

Japan: Kawashima; Uchida, Yoshida, Morishige, Nagatomo; Yamaguchi, Hasebe; Osako, Honda, Kagawa; Okazaki

Talking points

1. Balancing attacking Elephants: Didier Drogba has the name, but Wilfried Bony may be the better player, right now. Regardless, Sabri Lamouchi‘s team will be best if a balance can be struck. Today, Bony gets the start, leaving Drogba to what’s probably his best role, at this point of his career: Impact sub.

2. Possession as defense: As the 2013 Confederations Cup showed up, Japan flaws at the back can outweigh its talent going forward, but with such an adept set of players in the middle, there’s an obvious solution: Don’t give up the ball. Against a team with the likes of Touré and Chieck Tioté in the middle, that’s easier said than done, but Japan has the quality to limit their defenses exposure by prioritizing ball retention.

3. This game? Kind of important: If Colombia really is the best team in Group C — a widely held but difficult to justify assumption — this all be the most important game in deciding second place. Unless there’s a draw, today’s loser may have to make up points against the group’s favorites in order to catch up.

Expectations: Most expert predictions have Ivory Coast getting out of this group with Colombia. Implicitly, that means they should be better than Japan, but soccer match ups being what they are, you can’t necessarily say a team that’s generally better will maintain that status in a head-to-head battle. The Ivorians are the favorites, but a Japan win would not shock the world.

One blogger’s prediction: With this match, I’m more clueless than normal, but I do think we’ll see goals. If one team happens to grab the first two, this match will play out more lopsided than it should. If that doesn’t happen, we could see a 2-2.

Juninho hoping Willian breaks his Champions League free-kick record

xxxx during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Southampton at Stamford Bridge on October 3, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Willian has scored six goals for Chelsea this season, with all six coming from free kicks.

Four of those have been scored in the Champions League, as the Brazilian has tied the record for the most free-kick goals in a single UCL campaign.

[ MORE: Premier League roundup ]

Willian is tied with his fellow Brazilian Juninho, known as one of the deadliest set-piece takers of all-time, who scored four times for Lyon during the 2005-06 campaign.

When asked about the possibility of his record being broken, Juninho was glad it would be by another Brazilian player, and said Willian will likely surpass him in the coming matches.

It’s good it’s a Brazilian, and from this new generation of good players we have.

It is very gratifying for me because when I scored these four goals, no one said anything.

I’m being remembered by what Willian has achieved, and I think he has everything to beat the record. The Champions League has barely reached half way and Chelsea still have a few more games to play.

Willian has converted 6 of 12 free kicks this season, scoring at an unheard-of 50-percent clip. All of his goals have come from almost the exact same spot on the pitch, about 20-25 yards out at the corner of the box to the keepers right.

[ WATCH: Jamie Vardy scores in record 11th straight Premier League match ]

Chelsea’s next Champions League match is on December 9 at Stamford Bridge against Porto. The Blues need a draw to advance into the knockout round.

West Brom’s Jonas Olsson backs Zlatan for Premier League move

SOLNA, SWEDEN - NOVEMBER 14: Sweden 10 Zlatan Ibrahimovic durring a European Qualifier Play-Off between Sweden and Denmark on November 14, 2015 in Solna, Sweden.  (Photo by Michael Campanella/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

With his contract at Paris Saint-Germain expiring in the summer, where Zlatan will go next is one of the biggest mysteries in football.

Having already played in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and France, the Premier League would be a logical next step in Zlatan’s career.

[ MORE: Aguero injury update ]

However, at 34-years-old, Zlatan himself has said it is “too late” for him to play in England, adding more mystery to where he will end up.

Despite what Zlatan says, his teammate on the Sweden national team Jonas Olsson believes the PSG striker is more than capable of playing in the Premier League.

Olsson, who has made nearly 400 appearances for West Bromwich Albion over the past eight seasons, said Zlatan’s elite talent would be fit for England’s top flight.

He’s still at the top of his game. He is the strongest player I have faced. I really hope he comes.

Zlatan on his day is the most talented footballer in the game. He has played under Mourinho before and the only place where he’s not 100% appreciated is in the UK.

I think he can play for any team in this league – he is still that good.

Even at 34, Zlatan has proven he is still one of the best strikers in the world. He recently became Paris Saint-Germain’s all-time leading scorer, and has scored at least 30 goals in each of the past four seasons.

[ VIDEO: Jamie Vardy speaks after scoring in 11 straight Premier League matches ]

The Premier League certainly has the money to entice Zlatan, and it is the biggest league in the world that he hasn’t conquered yet. Expect his name to be linked with a move to every major club in Europe for the rest of the year, as we’ll just have to wait until June and see what he decides.

Three questions ahead of Sunday’s MLS Conference Finals

PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 22: Goal keeper Adam Kwarasey #12 of Portland Timbers slides in on Michael Barrios #21 of FC Dallas during the second half of the match at Providence Park on November 22, 2015 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

There are only two matches remaining before MLS Cup, with both conference’s top seeds in need of a big result.

FC Dallas lost to the Portland Timbers 3-1 in the first leg out West, while the New York Red Bulls fell 2-0 to Columbus Crew SC in the East.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Leg 2 of the Conference Finals will both be played on Sunday, as we will know the MLS Cup finalists by the end of the night.

WEST: FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers — 5 p.m. ET
EAST: New York Red Bulls vs. Columbus Crew SC — 7:30 p.m. ET

With each home-side needing to overcome a two-goal deficit, here’s what to look out for in the Conference Finals.

Will FC Dallas capitalize on home-field advantage?

Despite being down 3-1 on aggregate, FC Dallas will be looking forward to Sunday’s second leg. Dallas finished the season 13-2-2 at Toyota Stadium, the best home record in MLS. After scoring a crucial away goal in Portland, a 2-0 win for Dallas will see the side advance to the final. Their 33 goals scored at home was the second-best mark in the Western Conference, as Oscar Pareja’s men will feel confident despite the aggregate.

[ VIDEO: USMNT’s Fabian Johnson scores twice for Monchengladbach ]

Is Norberto Paparatto ready to replace Liam Ridgewell?

Norberto Paparatto has played just six matches for Portland this season, but it looks like he’ll be starting on Sunday. Liam Ridgewell, who started all 32 matches at center-back, injured his calf in the first leg and manager Caleb Porter said Paparatto will “most likely” be starting, as Ridgewell was seen warming up separately from the rest of the team in training. With FC Dallas in need of goals, Paparatto will have his hands full on defense, especially with the likes of Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz bombing forward.

Can Luis Robles keep a clean sheet for RBNY?

The Red Bulls’ Luis Robles was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year this season, and he’s going to need to play like that on Sunday. After losing 2-0 in the first leg without scoring an away goal, New York needs a 2-0 win themselves just to force extra-time. If Columbus scores at Red Bull Arena, New York needs to score four goals to advance. While it will have to be a collective team effort to keep the Crew off the scoresheet, Robles will have to make some big saves in goal to keep his side in it.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona win big in another dominant performance

<> at Camp Nou on November 28, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Catch up on all of Saturday’s La Liga action, as the trio of Messi-Suarez-Neymar continues to terrorize defenses.

Barcelona 4-0 Real Sociedad

In case you haven’t heard, Barcelona is scary good. Coming off of brilliant 4-0 and 6-1 wins over Real Madrid and Roma respectively, the Catalans trounced Real Sociedad at Camp Nou. It was the usual suspects once again, as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar (x2) scored the goals in another masterful performance. The M-S-N trio has accounted for 30 of Barcelona’s 33 goals in La Liga this season.

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Espanyol

While the boys from Barcelona may be getting all the headlines, Antoine Griezmann has been having a great season for Atletico Madrid. The French international scored the game-winner in Atletico’s 1-0 win over Espanyol, his tenth in all competitions this season. The good news is that Atleti sit second on the table with a five-point lead over Real Madrid in third, while the bad news is that midfielder Tiago broke his leg in the match.

[ WATCH: Everton, Bournemouth trade late goals in stoppage-time thriller ]

Malaga 2-2 Granada

In a battle of teams fighting for La Liga survival, Granada came from behind to steal a draw at Malaga. The home-side was leading 2-0 until Granada tallied twice in the final ten minutes to take a huge point for the club. Malaga remains glued to the bottom of the table, while Granada is currently out of the drop zone on goal differential.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Levante 0-1 Real Betis
Las Palmas 0-2 Deportivo
Celta Vigo 2-1 Sporting Gijon
Getafe vs. Villarreal (Sunday, 6 a.m. ET)
Eibar vs. Real Madrid (Sunday, 10 a.m. ET)
Rayo vs. Athletic Bilbao (Sunday, 12:15 p.m. ET)
Sevilla vs. Valencia (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET)