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

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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]
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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.

FIFA’s video-review system under scrutiny again in Russia

Photo by Michael Regan - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
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OCHI, Russia (AP) FIFA’s new video review system is bringing turmoil to the Confederations Cup, with technology designed to deliver quick, clear decisions agitating players and leaving coaches and fans confused.

Perhaps even worse for FIFA, the latest controversy on Sunday – exactly one week after four goal reviews in that day’s two matches – made one of the world’s highest-rated referees look hesitant and wrong.

Wilmar Roldan sent off a Cameroon defender more than three minutes after a high tackle on a German opponent and only after his own case of mistaken identity.

The Colombian official arrived at what was arguably the correct decision following two visits to the touchline to consult video replays and first showing only a yellow card, then a red card, to the wrong Cameroon player.

“I think everyone is confused, including me,” Cameroon coach Hugo Broos said of referee Roldan after a 3-1 loss in Sochi that eliminated his team. “He and he alone can explain what happened there in that moment.”

Cameroon was also involved in two video decisions last Sunday, when possible Chile goals were reviewed for offside rulings. The first goal was disallowed, the second counted in Chile’s 2-0 victory.

Portugal had most to complain about one week ago when a potential opening goal in a 2-2 draw with Mexico was ruled out by an offside judged in an earlier phase of play.

FIFA stressed last week that all decisions proved ultimately correct, and the controversies were simply inevitable overreactions as world football gets used to a new system being put to its highest-profile tests.

Indeed, FIFA President Gianni Infantino felt confident to proclaim video review was “the future of football” and still on track to be approved by the guardians of the game’s laws before the 2018 World Cup.

Human error by Roldan seemed the biggest problem Sunday though it added to the perception that video review is capable of causing as much controversy as it solves.

FIFA has certainly pulled back from its prediction last year that game-changing decisions – goals scored, penalty kicks awarded, red cards, mistaken identity – could be reviewed and resolved in as few as six seconds.

Accuracy is more important than speed, has become the mantra in Russia.

Neither were in evidence Sunday in Sochi as Cameroon defender Ernest Mabouka eventually left the field around three minutes after his boot connected with Emre Can of Germany.

Mabouka’s teammate Sebastien Siani had sarcastically applauded the referee when he was wrongly sent from the field. Eventually Siani’s slate was wiped clean and he completed the match.

Still, the image of a top referee being openly disrespected will not please FIFA.

Roldan arrived at the Confederations Cup trying to rebuild a reputation that was damaged at the 2014 World Cup. There, he was chosen for the second game of the tournament, and incorrectly ruled out two Mexico goals. FIFA did not pick him for another refereeing duty in Brazil.

To further damage Roldan’s standing, Germany coach Joachim Loew said neither he nor Can believed the tackle merited even a yellow card.

“I didn’t have the impression that it was a mean foul with the intent to hurt the opponent. It was not intentional,” Loew said through a translator at the post-match news conference.

Loew, whose Germany team will defend its World Cup title next year, still thinks video review can benefit the game – with one condition.

“I think it can be fine-tuned over time so that decisions can be made more quickly,” the German coach said. “That would be great.”

Mario Balotelli signs new Nice contract

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Italian striker Mario Balotelli has found himself the owner of a new contract after a successful season in Ligue 1 with French club OGC Nice.

Balotelli’s one-year deal was set to expire at the end of June, but he found a career revival in what many believed would be his last chance in major European soccer. The club officially announced his new contract on Sunday, and while they did not release the length of the deal, they confirmed that Balotelli turned down deals from other clubs to stay in France.

The 26-year-old scored 15 goals in 23 league appearances last year, helping Nice to a fabulous third-place finish in Ligue 1, earning them a Champions League playoff spot.

For a player who saw trouble follow him wherever he went, the only trouble he faced last season at Nice was an erratic bout with injury issues including calf and adductor problems. However, the spells on the sidelines didn’t douse Balotelli’s form. The Italian had an incredible start and finish to the season, scoring six goals in his first five appearances of the season and bagging six goals in the last eight games of the year.

The official release by Nice said that Balotelli made “considerable financial sacrifices and chose the sporting aspect with his heart” in re-signing with the French club.

Morris, Acosta, Roldan highlight USA 23-man Gold Cup roster

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Bruce Arena has released his 23-man roster for the group stage of the 2017 Gold Cup, and it appears heavily experimental as expected, with 16 players MLS based.

The experience comes in spurts, with Brad Guzan paired with the less experienced Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid among the goalkeepers. Along the back line, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, and Jorge Villafana all make their way from the World Cup qualifiers to the Gold Cup, joined by Chelsea youngster Matt Miazga and Toronto FC’s Justin Morrow.

In midfield, Kellyn Acosta gets additional international time after positive showings in the most recent World Cup qualifiers. Dax McCarty returns to the national team along with Alejandro Bedoya, while bright 22-year-old Seattle Sounders playmaker Cristian Roldan also makes the squad. In addition, New England Revolution winger Kelyn Rowe and left-sided Kenny Saief could be set for national team debuts. Saief has appeared twice for Israel but has yet to be cap-tied by playing in a competitive match for any country and recently had his one-time switch approved.

Jordan Morris leads the way along the front line, along with 24-year-old Juan Agudelo who has not played a competitive minute for the United States since the 2011 Gold Cup. Dom Dwyer also appears, with the 26-year-old striker also hoping for an international debut. Gyasi Zardes shows up as a midfielder, but provides the United States with another versatile attacker who could play up front.

The United States will take on Panama, Martinique, and Nicaragua in the group stage of the Gold Cup, and once that is complete, Bruce Arena will be able to make changes to the roster should the United States advance as expected. At that time, Arena can swap in up to six players who appeared on the initial 40-man roster, including more experienced players like Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Darlington Nagbe, Jozy Altidore, and Clint Dempsey.

Another name who could see time in the Gold Cup knockout round would be goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez, who does not appear on the initial 25-man roster as his one-time switch paperwork has yet to be cleared by FIFA according to a number of reports. If that happens in time, he can play for the United States. The 22-year-old FC Dallas goalkeeper has played for the Mexico youth setup but has not been cap-tied by either country. After making the 40-man roster, Gonzalez confirmed he would play for the United States should he be called up. However, should he complete the one-time switch, Gonzalez wouldn’t need to be cap-tied, as completing the paperwork is enough to leave him no choice but to play for the United States.

Finally, Christian Pulisic does not appear on the 25-man roster as expected, after Bruce Arena admitted the Borussia Dortmund youngster was unlikely to play for the United States in the Gold Cup. Arena admitted getting rest and then meeting up with his club for preseason was more important for the 18-year-old than playing in the summer international tournament.

Players are set to report to training in Nashville today, with a warm-up match against Ghana scheduled for Saturday in Connecticut before Gold Cup play starts on July 8.

ROSTER

GKs: Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid.

DEFs: Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Hedges, Eric Lichaj, Matt Miazga, Justin Morrow, Jorge Villafaña, Graham Zusi.

MFs: Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, Alejandro Bedoya, Joe Corona, Dax McCarty, Cristian Roldan, Kelyn Rowe, Kenny Saief, Gyasi Zardes.

FWDs: Jordan Morris, Juan Agudelo, Dom Dwyer.

Chile 1-1 Australia: Chile moves on despite Aussie show

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Australia looked the better side for good stretches of the match, and while it wasn’t enough to earn a semifinal place, the Asian champions will go home with a hard-earned point against a top South American team in Moscow. Had it not been for a pair of ugly misses in front of net, the Australians may have had a chance to advance. Alas, an equalizer by Martin Rodriguez was enough to cancel out Massimo Luongo‘s opener and send Chile through.

With Chile holding all the meaningful possession through the first half-hour, their best chance came in the 27th minute. Alexis Sanchez controlled a long ball from Eugenio Mena and was free on goal. While trying to settle and shoot, he was dispossessed from behind by Mark Milligan who recovered brilliantly. Sanchez went to ground, and after no initial call, VAR took a look and determined there was no reason to award Chile a penalty.

[ MORE: Germany eases by Cameroon 3-1 ]

Australia refused to be intimidated by their opponents’ stature. In the 36th minute, James Troisi lofted a brilliant ball for Luongo who had made a scything run into the box. Luongo slid to redirect the ball on net, only stopped by a charging Claudio Bravo.

That was a harbinger of what would come six minutes later. A shot by Robbie Kruse from just inside the top of the box clipped off a defender as he let loose, and the deflection sent the ball straight to Troisi who was free at the far post. With Bravo closing, the Melbourne Victory attacker looped the ball over the goalkeeper and into the back of the net for a shock lead.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

The game opened up from there, and both sides had a chance on net before halftime. Arturo Vidal headed from close range, but it was blocked by a defender out for a corner. Down the other end, somehow three Australia attackers worked free on a failed offside trap, but Trent Sainsbury embarrassingly skied it well over the bar with nobody there to challenge.

After the break, it was more of the same as Australia proved dangerous, forcing Bravo into a number of saves. However, it would be Chile to score next and level the score. Past the half-hour mark, Australia failed to clear, and Eduardo Vargas headed back in front of net where Rodriguez was there to touch it in. Chile nearly took the lead moments later, but Vargas headed just wide after great work by Sanchez.

Australia had another golden opportunity to take back the lead, but when Troisi’s pinpoint ball to the far post found substitute Jamie Maclaren, the Brisbane Roar striker flubbed the huge chance, scuffing his first-time attempt, sending the ball skittering well wide. Chile’s point saw them through into the semifinals, where they take on Portugal. Australia’s two points were not enough to keep them in contention.