World Cup Today: Sunday builds to mouth-watering finale

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WORLD CUP TODAY: SUNDAY, JUNE 15

Three matches grace our televisions today, and while they all have something to offer, none are as drool-inducing as the last one of the day, when we get to watch Lionel Messi begin his quest for a World Cup title.

All three games today have a clear favorite and a clear underdog, but if we’ve learned anything so far in this World Cup, it’s expect the unexpected.

Yesterday Costa Rica went out and shocked Uruguay, as CONCACAF continues to perform well in Brazil.  Ivory Coast also came back from a 1-0 deficit against Japan after looking lackluster for much of the first half.

The moral of the story is there are no pushovers in the World Cup, something we should have expected coming in, but still our minds tend to offer us doses of expectations such as “team x should run over team y.”

That is hardly the case, unless of course you’re the defending champions, whose besting by the Netherlands on Friday still resonates in the back of our minds.

Yesterday did its best to write its own story, as the busiest slate of the month-long journey also gave us Italian solidity with a convincing 2-1 win over England that featured a winner from none other than Super Mario.

One game that was never in doubt was yesterday’s opener, when Colombia made a statement by thoroughly dominating a defensively solid Greece side 3-0.

source: AP
Xherdan Shaqiri remains the most recognizable name in a very young Switzerland squad.

MATCH 9: SWITZERLAND vs ECUADOR
Location: Estadio Nacional, Brasilia
Time: 12:00pm ET
SOCCERLY PREVIEW | SOCCERLY MATCHCENTER

Cheater’s guide:
Group E begins with an intriguing matchup between two relative unknowns. Switzerland won its European qualifying group, but the group was nothing to boast about, consisting of such powerhouses as Iceland, Slovenia, Norway, Albania, and Cyprus. This Swiss team has changed much since then, and the world still doesn’t know what to make of their young squad. However, they have done what top teams do against inferior competition, and that’s amounted to just one loss in their last 18 matches over the past two years. Ecuador knows that they don’t have to face group favorites France until the final round, meaning a pair of wins here and against Honduras could send them through before even facing its toughest test.

What they’re saying:

“We began the revolution in 2011 when we brought in younger players,” Said Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld said at the stadium yesterday. “We have a very strong younger generation and we also have young, yet experienced, players. In that sense we have a better mix and in human terms the team is better suited to each other. We are a bit more creative going forward and in defence we are still well organized.”

They’re really, really young.

History:
This is the first time the two sides will meet.

Premier League players:
Switzerland – Philippe Senderos (Aston Villa)
Ecuador – Antonio Valencia (Manchester United)

MLS players:
Switzerland – None
Ecuador – Oswaldo Minda (Chivas USA)

RELATED: World Cup news, analysis from Soccerly

 

source: AP
Karim Benzema (left) will lead France without Franck Ribery, who was replaced by Real Sociedad’s Antoine Grizemann (right).

MATCH 10: FRANCE vs. HONDURAS
Location: Estadio Beira-Rio, Porto Alegre
Time: 3:00pm ET
SOCCERLY PREVIEW | SOCCERLY MATCHCENTER

Cheater’s guide:
The Group E matchup of the day with a more expected outcome, we get our first look at France sans Franck Ribery.  Keep an eye on Antoine Griezmann, who has replaced Ribery in the starting lineup. The highly coveted 23-year old winger has  burst onto the scene since Ribery’s exclusion, making the most of his opportunity in the pre-Cup friendlies for France. For Honduras, the 33rd team in FIFA’s rankings, they’re just looking to make noise.  The hope of advancement may not be entirely there, but crazier things have happened, and in essentially a throwaway game to start, they could look to leave it all on the table with nothing to lose.

What they’re saying:
Hondurans felt incredibly disrespected by a TV program played in France called “The Miserables of Honduras.” Honduran journalist Copan Alvarez:

“It is true that this story was very badly received in the country. Not for the content, as it is told is a good reflection of the reality of our football and our society, but for the title. The word “miserable” insulted some.”

History:
None.

Premier League players:
France – Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur), Mathieu Debuchy (Newcastle), Bacary Sagna (Manchester City), Mamadou Sakho (Liverpool), Patrice Evra (Manchester United), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Moussa Sissokho (Newcastle), Morgan Schneiderlin (Southampton), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), Loic Remy (QPR).
Honduras – Maynor Figueroa (Hull City), Wilson Palacios (Stoke City)

MLS players:
France – none
Honduras – Victor Bernardez (San Jose), Boenik Garcia (Houston), Marvin Chavez (Chivas USA), Jerry Bengtson (New England).

 

source: Getty Images
Manchester City teammates Edin Dzeko (left) and Sergio Aguero will be on opposite sides at the Maracana.

MATCH 11: ARGENTINA vs BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA
Location: Estadio Maracana, Rio de Janeiro
Time: 6:00pm ET
SOCCERLY PREVIEW | SOCCERLY MATCHCENTER

Cheater’s guide:
Looking at the power of the Bosnian side, it’s easy to forget the country is making its World Cup debut this summer. As a reward? They’re handed Argentina in its opener, one of the most storied countries in this event. But even they have plenty of question marks, and many of them surround Lionel Messi. Will Messi, in the prime of his career, finally produce the form he has so often displayed at Barcelona for his country? Can he get over the hump? Will he cement his place alongside Diego Maradona as an Argentinian legend, or will he simply be that guy who was really good in Spain? The journey of Messi, Sergio Aguero, and the star-studded squad begins with about as tough a test as they could have asked for, a Bosnian squad boasting its own set of stars in its first-ever World Cup.

What they’re saying:
“It is hard not to feel honoured when important people compare you with Maradona – he’s the best there’s ever been,” said Lionel Messi. “My message, though, is please don’t compare me with him yet. He won a World Cup for our nation, and until I’ve managed to do the same the comparisons are not something I welcome or accept. I know I have a responsibility, especially as captain, to the people of Argentina but I try not to let that pressure get to me. I approach every game – it doesn’t matter if it is a Champions League final or a World Cup game – as I did as a child … and that is to have fun.”

He’s saying all the right things, now can he perform on the field?

History:
They’ve met twice, with Argentina winning both matchups.

Premier League players:
Argentina – Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City), Martin Demichelis (Manchester City), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)
Bosnia-Herzegovina – Asmir Begovic (Stoke City), Edin Dzeko (Manchester City)

Liga MX wrap: Pachuca earns first win, Leon stays unbeaten

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All of Saturday’s action from around Mexico’s top flight…

Pachuca 3-1 Lobos BUAP

A strong first-half push from the hosts was all Pachuca needed on Saturday night to earn their first victory of the 2018 Clausura season. Angel Sagal brought the home side in front after just 10 minutes off of a near-post header, before Pachuca’s lead soon doubled 14 minutes later from the penalty spot when strike Franco Jara converted on the dead-ball attempt.

Just prior to halftime, Pachuca was out to a 3-0 advantage when 20-year-old outside back Erick Aguirre tallied his first goal for the club.

Last-place side Lobos got on the board three minutes into the second stanza via a finish from Heriberto Olvera, however, it wasn’t enough to provide anything more than a consolation for the visiting side.

Necaxa 1-3 Chivas Guadalajara

Mexican international Alan Pulido made it a dream start for the visitors from Guadalajara at the Estadio Victoria, however, that lead was cancelled out in first-half stoppage time after Carlos Gonzalez leveled the match up at 1-1.

The difference proved to be with 25 minutes left to play, when a goalkeeping error by Marcelo Barovero allowed Chivas to regain possession inside the Necaxa penalty area, before Ronaldo Cisneros tapped home the winner.

Then, a third goal came just prior to the end of regulation when Edwin Hernandez killed the game off for Matias Almeyda’s men, who also earned their first victory of the Clausura season.

Rest of Saturday’s Liga MX action

Cruz Azul 0-0 Club Leon
Queretaro 0-0 Tigres UANL
Monterrey 0-0 Club Tijuana

Sunday’s matches

UNAM vs. Club America — 1 p.m. ET
Santos Laguna vs. Morelia — 7 p.m. ET

The 2 Robbies: Alexis/Mkhitaryan transfer saga and more

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle recap all the key stories from the latest Premier League Saturday fixtures including Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Newcastle (0:20), Chelsea’s 4-0 victory at Brighton (10:15) and the latest on the Alexis Sanchez/Henrikh Mkhitaryan saga after wins for Arsenal and Manchester United (19:00). Plus, a closer look at the bottom of the table and thoughts go out to James McCarthy after his serious injury against West Brom (29:00).

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:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Video: Stoke’s Imbula scores stunner on loan at Toulouse

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Stoke City supporters know the name Giannelli Imbula, and perhaps they’ll be clamoring for the Frenchman to return to the bet365 Stadium if he can score more goals like this.

[ MORE: PL Roundup — Top three all victorious; Gunners thrash Palace ]

The holding midfielder is currently on loan with Ligue 1 outfit Toulouse, and for the first time this season, Imbula opened his goalscoring account in some fashion.

Right on half-hour mark, Imbula unleashed a left-footed strike from nearly 40 yards out to give Toulouse the lead over Montpellier (below).

Imbula joined Stoke during the 2015/16 PL season, and has made 26 appearances for the Potters in his time with the club, prior to his loan to France.

Willian proves he’s Chelsea’s x-factor against Brighton

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There’s a considerable difference when watching a Chelsea team that plays with and without one of its Brazilian influences in the attacking part of the field.

Willian — who first debuted for the Blues back in 2013 — hasn’t always managed to be a regular starter for Chelsea, whether it was Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink or current manager Antonio Conte at the helm, though.

[ SOURCES: Jack Harrison expected to join Stoke City this winter ]

The 29-year-old plays with considerable flair, something that certainly isn’t uncommon amongst many players that have grown up in Brazil.

At times Willian’s overconfidence is a significant blessing, and at others it can be considered a curse, however, the former Corinthians player’s presence is something that Chelsea needs now more than ever.

That was on display on Saturday during the side’s 4-0 win at Brighton, a match in which Chelsea dominated from start to finish with Willian on the pitch. While the performance cannot solely be attributed to the attacking midfielder’s showing, it’s easy to argue that the Blues midfielder is becoming the club’s biggest x factor — one that can determine the outcome of a match.

Just look six minutes into the match, when the Blues put together one of the best team goals you’ll see in a match this year (or any year for that matter), which of course, was started and finished by none other than Willian.

What stands out about the play isn’t the brilliant slicing shot into the near post corner by the veteran playmaker, but instead the confidence that Willian exudes and brings to a Chelsea lineup that has plenty of talent to be considered one of the best teams in England and all of Europe.

After all, Conte’s group is just a season removed from winning the Premier League and still sits inside the top three in the world’s top league.

Then, there’s the Blues’ third goal against Brighton, which was set up by a smart, and instinctive, through ball played into the path of Eden Hazard by Willian (below).

Even though Hazard ends up with a ton of time on the ball to make his next decision, which was ultimately to cut inside on his preferred right foot, the run by Willian towards the end line dragged a defender away from the Belgian international — allowing the sequence to progress.

Arguing Willian’s importance isn’t a knock on Hazard — a world-class player in his own right — or Alvaro Morata, who has had the intolerable task of replacing a key player like Diego Costa.

Instead, it simply shows that Chelsea has a plethora of talent, and that some of the club’s attacking struggles throughout the 2017/18 season can be chalked up to Willian being left out of the starting XI on a regular basis.

[ MORE: Sergio Aguero continues to display brilliance for Man City ]

The Brazilian international has scored eight goals and added seven assists this season in all competitions for the Blues, despite only starting 19 matches.

The mind of manager Conte is an ever-changing one, so maybe Willian still doesn’t get the starting nod on an every week basis, but just by watching the team’s performance at the Amex Stadium it’s quite hard to argue against the player being on the field as much as possible.