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.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday