Zaccheroni’s dare, wondering about Group C: Talking points after the Ivory Coast defeated Japan

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After an hour of struggling to create chances in Recife, the Ivory Coast took a huge step toward its first appearance in a World Cup knockout road. With second half goals from Wilfried Bony and Gervinho, les Elephants claimed a 2-1 over Asian champion Japan, a result that leaves them even with Colombia at the top of Group C after onet match at the 2014 World Cup.

Along the way, we learned a little more about the two teams that are expect to compete for a place along side the Colombians for a spot in the second round. Here are three takeaways from the Saturday’s final match:

1. The Ivorians responded to Zaccheroni’s dare – Japan has the quality to hold the ball and protect its suspect defense, but Alberto Zaccheroni went the other direction. Japan laid off the Ivorians, chose organization over control, and implicitly dared les Elephants to beat them. Take the ball. Try. We don’t think you can beat us. Japan’s defense was that passive in their approach.

For an hour, it worked, arguably to perfection. The Ivory Coast went 35 minutes before registering a shot on target, and although they built momentum going into intermission, a spell of carelessness at the back in the second half’s opening moments only vindicated Zaccheroni’s approach. As long as Japan stayed organized, the Ivorians weren’t going to beat them.

There was, however, one caveat – two questions that nestled in everybody’s mind when the lineups came out: When would Didier Drogba come on, and what would happen when he did?

In the 62nd minute, Drogba’s inclusion turned the match, but it wasn’t because of anything he did with the ball. Switching from a one-front to a two-striker formation, the Ivorians also adjusted how they played, electing to take more chances from wide rather than pass through Japan’s defense.

At least, that’s how it probably would have played out. Given Japan gave up two goals in 100 seconds, it’s difficult to draw any broad conclusions. though was can put the result in more tactical terms.

For the first time in the game, the Ivory Coast went after Japan’s biggest weakness – their central defense. Be it Wilfried Bony winning an individual battle in the 64th minute or Gervinho sitting unmarked outside the six-yard box in two minutes later, the Japanese defense collapsed quickly once its central defense was forced to step to step up. Whether that was personnel, formation, or approach, who knows, but there was a correction between all three and Saturday’s sudden turn.

Ultimately, it result goes back to Zaccheroni’s dare. Whether he was dubious of the Ivorians’ ability to execute or merely trying to protect his suspect defense, the Japan head coach gave his opponents every opportunity to take this match. Ultimately, they did.

2. In one area, Japan was as expected, unfortunately – And that area leads to a more philosophical question about how to deal with a poor defense. Suffice to say, Japan’s didn’t hold up. The goals the Ivorians scored were litmus tests that decent defenses pass. Unable to defend Serge Aurier’s crosses, Japan’s did not.

So what did Zaccheroni do wrong? From where we’re sitting, it’s presumptuous to even assume we have the information to answer that question, but it’s worth considering what the team could have done had they employed a different approach. Instead of regressing into such a deep, passive posture, what if Japan had put more pressure on the Ivorians’ own questionable defenders? What if the technical, fitness, and speed advantages Japan had were put to use?

Zaccheroni knows more about his team that we do, so it’s hard to make a completely persuasive argument. And had the Samurai Blue gone after the Ivorians, that suspect defense could have been beaten earlier and more often, albeit in a different way.

Given how the game played out, however, it’s hard to shake the feeling Japan let the Ivory Coast definite the match. Zaccheroni’s approach didn’t allow his team to put their best foot forward.

3. Group C looks weak – Greece and Japan offered so little, it’d be premature to get too excited about Colombia or the Ivory Coast, though with les Elephants, it’s worth noting the difficulties they had putting something together over the match’s first hour. Whereas the Cafeteros’ attack lived up to expectations, we’re still in wait-and-see mode with the Ivorians.

Contrast that with Group D, where Costa Rica’s impressive performance has helped create a true quartet. Croatia and Mexico both proved capable behind Brazil in Group A, while Group B saw the world champion Spain fall to a Dutch side that may be unexpectedly strong.

By definition, there has to be a weak group at each World Cup. Through three days, it looks like Group C might be it. Though the Ivorians could build on tonight, find their stride in attack, and become the packet’s second knockout round-quality side, we could also see the holes in Colombia’s defense surface when they’re finally tested on Wednesday.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.

Conte feels pressure, but “most important thing is to work”

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Chelsea has sputtered a bit in its bid to repeat as Premier League champions, though this isn’t quite “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

The Blues sit fifth in the Premier League table with 13 points, nine behind leaders Manchester City, and tossed away a 2-0 lead before rallying to draw Roma at midweek.

The Blues host fourth-placed Watford to kick off Saturday’s Premier League action at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

[ MORE: West Ham 0-3 Brighton ]

And while fans are frustrated with the plan, Chelsea was in 15th at the end of October during Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated follow-up to the 2014-15 Premier League title.

Still, manager Antonio Conte feels their pain, although he’s satisfied with the effort. From Chelsea’s official site:

“Do I feel the pressure? Every manager feels pressure, but I try to give all of myself into my job, so I’m happy when I go home because I know in every moment I give all of myself for the fans, the players and the club. In football you know anything can happen, but the most important thing is to work.”

Chelsea may not look as good as Man City or Manchester United, but is still well-positioned to finish amongst the leaders and is leading a very difficult UCL group with Roma and Atletico Madrid. Things are fine, but the gossip storm just won’t leave Conte and his future at Chelsea alone (Thanks, Italian press).