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.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images
Leave a comment

TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.