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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)

Rafa Benitez to have total control at Newcastle, including player sales

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND - MAY 15:  Rafa Benitez Newcastle United manager reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Tottenham at St James Park on May 15, 2016 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)
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Usually, when teams are relegated to the Championship, squad salaries must be reevaluated to make ends meet, often meaning the axe for players who are deemed too costly.

That won’t be the case with Newcastle next season.

With manager Rafa Benitez back on board with the hopes of navigating the Magpies back to the Premier League as quickly as possible, owner Mike Ashley has handed Benitez the reigns.

Benitez confirmed he will have complete, unmitigated control of the squad roster in exchange for his services.

“What I have is the assurance that if I don’t want to sell any players I don’t have to,” Benitez said in his second unveiling as Newcastle manager. “We can keep all the players who we want to.”

But that’s not all. “For football business I will have responsibility. But the main thing is that I have had assurances we will have a strong team. We will have a winning team and the fans have to be sure I will try to build a strong squad. If I am sat here it is because I am sure we can do it. To clarify I am a person who likes to talk. But if I have to take responsibility I will, no problem.”

This is not only big news for anyone relegated to the Championship, but especially big news for a Mike Ashley club. Not even Sam Allardyce or Alan Pardew were given this type of total control of the club. Ashley knew he had little leverage with such a big name having fallen out of the Premier League, and he needed to make concessions to get his man.

Fernando Torres, back from the depths, can become a Champions League leader

VALENCIA, SPAIN - MAY 08:  Fernando Torres of Atletico de Madrid looks on during the La Liga match between Levante UD and Atletico de Madrid at Ciutat de Valencia on May 8, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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His days in England are well past him. From Liverpool superstar to Chelsea flop, the unconventional route the 32-year-old’s career has taken has all led to this.

Yes, Fernando Torres has a Champions League winners’ medal, but it did not come in the fashion many believed he was destined for when he peaked at Anfield. A shell of his former self at Stamford Bridge, he was second-fiddle to fan-favorite Didier Drogba during the 2011/12 run Chelsea made through the competition. Ridiculed by plenty all across England for his YouTube-worthy misses and sleepy performances, Torres was run out of Stamford Bridge with just his medal to accompany him.

“This is the most important game of my life,” Torres emphatically claimed Wednesday morning ahead of Saturday’s final against Real Madrid in Milan. “A chance to write a page that has never been written in 113 years of Atlético’s history. I have the chance to make my dream come true, a dream I had as a kid, to win this cup with this club”.

Torres does not speak as if this is his team, because it is not his team. Despite his dominance at Liverpool, Torres will never be a standout player on a Champions League final caliber squad. Those days are well in the past. Now, Torres knows his place in the squad, an important cog in an engine with no one part more valuable than the other. Such is the way of Diego Simeone.

“I knew I was risking everything by coming back here to Atletico Madrid,” Torres said. “A lot of people thought it couldn’t get better for me here, but I knew the group I was coming into. I knew this group was destined for something big and I wanted to be part of it.”

For all the praises Simeone gets for his teams’ fitness, grit, and defensive prowess, bringing Torres back from the depths of obscurity might be one of his most underrated achievements. The ridicule Torres was forced to endure towards the end of his time in England can break a person. But Torres somehow managed to stay afloat despite the demons lapping at his ankles, and Simeone pulled him ashore. Now, reborn, Torres has finally shown flashes of his former self that only Anfield remembers. Across April and May, Torres bagged six goals and two assists in eight appearances – all starts – to close out the La Liga season. The Spaniard also fed the ball that sprung Antoine Griezmann free for the goal that won the semifinal against Bayern Munich.

No longer a star but still a valuable piece of the puzzle, Torres is right where he belongs. While his time with Chelsea brought him that medal so many legends in the game fail to achieve, he knows now is where his legacy will truly be judged. “The past can only help you get better,” Torres said. “We only think about Milan, which is the present.”

The key word being “we.” For his entire club career, the narrative surrounding Torres had always been about himself, from superstardom at Liverpool to the abuse he suffered after. Now with a “we” to fall back on, it’s time for Torres to play the most important game of his life.

Copa America 2016 preview, Group B: Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Haiti

Brazil's Willian, left, and United States’ Alejandro Bedoya contend for the ball during the first half of an international friendly soccer match Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
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Brazil

They’ve won five Copa America titles with the last in 2007, but in their previous two Copa campaigns Brazil hasn’t made it past the quarterfinal stage. Despite not having captain and talisman Neymar around they’ll be one of the favorites this summer.

Star player: Douglas Costa – The winger was in fine form for Bayern Munich this season and along with Willian he will be a real threat in support of Hulk.

They will sweep all before them because… They have a huge number of talented attacking midfielders who can rip teams apart on their own. Together it could get rather silly. Expect them to be in the final four.

Really, though, Dunga will be on the hot seat in July: The one thing that stands out about this team is the lack of goals. Only one player in the entire squad has double figures (Hulk, with 12) and anything less than winning a major title is always treated with despair by the Brazilian population. If they don’t win either Copa America Centenario or the gold medal at Rio 2016, Dunga will be under big pressure.


Ecuador

LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - MARCH 28:  Miguel Layun of Mexico (L) fights for the ball with Antonio Valencia of Ecuador (R) during a friendly match between Mexico and Ecuador at Memorial Coliseum Stadium on March 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, United States. (Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)
(Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Man, Ecuador is due a good Copa America performance. They haven’t made it out of the group stage since 1997 and have finished in fourth place twice.

Star player: Enner Valencia – After returning from injury in the final 13weeks of the season we saw just how important he is for Manchester United. That was from right back. Valencia will play in a more advanced role for Ecuador and provides bags of experience.

La Tricolor will go far because of forwards: Goals. Goals. Goals. Ecuador has a ton of talented attackers in its squad. Enner Valencia and Jefferson Montero will be dangerous and through the first five 2018 World Cup qualifying games they’ve scored 12 times and sit second in the table.

Likely heartbreak warning: With top scorer from World Cup qualifying, Felipe Caceido, out injured, Ecuador has been dealt a huge blow. They seem to always be the nearly men.


Peru

Paolo Guerrero, Peru

They’ve won the tournament twice in their history and last summer they were the surprise semifinalists who finished in third place. Anchored by a strong defense, they’ll be hoping to cause another upset.

Star player: Paolo Guerrero – He is their main man up top with 26 goals in 67 appearances. If Peru has a chance in the box, they want it to fall to him.

They will be the darlings of the tournament: If they get off to a flying start against Haiti in Seattle then we can expect big things. Confidence will be key ahead of the final game against Brazil.

Goals will be the big problem: They scored just twice in three games during the group stage last summer and somehow made it through. They will have to do more than that this time out and if they don’t beat Haiti, it is curtains for their knockout stage hopes.


Haiti

Gyasi Zardes, Frantz Bertin
AP

This will be their first-ever appearance in the Copa America and after their successful Gold Cup campaign in 2015, who knows what’s possible? They will fancy their chances of advancing despite all the odds stacked against them.

Star player: Johnny Placide – He shone for Haiti during the Gold Cup last summer and their goalkeeper will be another busy man. A beast.

Beware of the underdogs, they’ll get you: As we saw last summer, we shouldn’t underestimate Haiti. They only lost to the USA 1-0 and beat Honduras on their way to a quarterfinal exit to eventual runners up Jamaica. They will keep it tight and try to grind out wins.

Tight isn’t good enough: As they’ve found out in World Cup qualifying, you have to do more than hang in there. They haven’t scored a goal through four games of 2018 World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF Group B and sit bottom of the table. Placide will have to come up big this summer if they’re going to produce something special.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group B, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Brazil, Ecuador going through; Peru and Haiti going home

Marquee match: I’m going with Brazil vs. Ecuador on June 4 at the Rose Bowl. This two will go at it to try and take control of Group B. Should be a fun one. 

Top players to watch

1) Douglas Costa
2) Willian
3) Antonio Valencia
4) Paolo Guerrero
5) Johnny Placide

French security chief: Strikes won’t threaten sports events

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - OCTOBER 28:Tens of thousands of the French workers protest as the Unions in France launch new strikes against the pension reform plan on October 28, 2010 in Marseille, France. This is the seventh day of protest for French workers angry at the Government's proposed pension reforms. Nicolas Sarkozy, however, has not wavered in his plans to increase the state pension age from 60 to 62 and last night the National Assembly passed the bill.  (Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) France’s interior minister says violent labor protests and strikes causing gas shortages won’t jeopardize the upcoming European Championship or other sporting events.

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About 1,500 people have been detained in recent weeks and hundreds of police officers have been injured in breaking up protests and dislodging protesters from fuel depots.

The tensions have added to concern about security for Euro 2016, already facing what Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called the “double threat” of violent Islamic extremism and hooliganism.

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Cazeneuve told reporters Wednesday that the government respects the right to strike and does not see the labor movement as a “threat.”

He said it won’t disrupt protection of the June 10-July 10 championship, involving an unprecedented 90,000 people ensuring security.