World Cup Today: Brazil, Mexico compete for Group A; Group H kicks off

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WORLD CUP TODAY: TUESDAY, JUNE 17

Each of the 32 World Cup teams will have played one tournament match by the end of Tuesday, as Group H makes its maiden voyage in Brazil. Meanwhile, Mexico and Brazil will duel in the hopes of securing frontrunner status for the knockout rounds, as each teams won its first match.

Group H is the group that will be paired with the winners of the United States’ Group G come the first knockout round.

As for Monday, the United States survived a game test from Ghana thanks to a late John Anthony Brooks header, Germany dominated Portugal, and Nigeria and Iran tested eyelids in a scoreless draw.

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MATCH 15: BELGIUM VS. ALGERIA
Location: Estádio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte
Time: Noon ET
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Cheater’s guide: Time to see whether Belgium is the giant many claim. With a wide variety of Premier League stars and plenty of depth at every position, Belgium should be able to handle stingy Algeria. After being shut out at the 2010 World Cup, Algeria seeks its first tournament goal since 1986.

What they’re saying:
Belgium head coach Marc Wilmots: “The international press have called us an outsider and a favourite at the same time. It is a great pleasure to be back in the competition with players who are hungry and have a desire to achieve.”For Hazard and les Diables Rouges, back on the world stage after too long away, it is time to deliver.

History:
Belgium has beaten Algeria once, and the two nations drew their other encounter but haven’t squared off since 2003.

Premier League players:
Belgium: Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur), Nacer Chadli (Tottenham Hotspur), Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Adnan Januzaj (Manchester United).
Algeria: Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City), Nabil Bentaleb (Tottenham Hotspur)

RELATED: World Cup news, analysis from Soccerly

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source: Getty ImagesMATCH 17: BRAZIL VS. MEXICO
Location: Estádio Castelão, Fortaleza
Time: 3pm ET
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Cheater’s guide: The hosts got plenty of officiating breaks in their opening win over Croatia, while Mexico had to overcome brutal linesman work in its victory over Cameroon. This one’s for group dominance, most likely, and it remains to be seen whether the hosts will find their form… and if Mexico can keep theirs.

What they’re saying:
Brazil head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari on Hulk’s fitness: “If there is a problem with Hulk I will have to completely change the system we have used for some time. The way he positions himself, on the right and on the left (makes him a threat). But I have players with different characteristics and qualities who can bolster the team.”

History:
Brazil has a 22W-6D-10L record against Mexico, but El Tri triumphed in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Premier League players:
Brazil: David Luiz (Chelsea), Oscar (Chelsea), Ramires (Chelsea), Willian (Chelsea), Paulinho (Tottenham), Fernandinho (Manchester City)
Mexico: Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (Manchester United)

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source:  MATCH 16: RUSSIA VS. SOUTH KOREA

Location: Arena Pantanal, Cuiabá
Time: 6pm ET
SOCCERLY PREVIEW | SOCCERLY MATCHCENTER

Cheater’s guide: Two teams that bring a bit of mystery to the World Cup, as both clubs have a remarkable amount of home-based club players. Russia actually has zero players plying their trades outside their borders. This could be a great prime time match-up for neutrals.

What they’re saying:
Korean captain Koo Ja-Cheol on their height disadvantage: “The Russians are a lot taller than we are.We’ve taken that into consideration. If it happens on the pitch we know what to do, how to defend ourselves against it – the main thing is to focus on our concentration.”

History:
The two nations paired up in November, with host Russia winning 2-1.

Premier League players:
Russia: None
South Korea: Yun Suk-Young (Queens Park Rangers), Park Chu-Young (Arsenal).

Gold Cup Final preview: USMNT needs a trophy vs. Jamaica

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The major selling point of Bruce Arena’s hire, aside from his being the anti-Jurgen Klinsmann, was that the United States men’s national team would not be out-foxed tactically (or at least not be caught without a game plan).

Thirteen games into the tenure, the jury is out on whether the American boss’ second stint is on the path to World Cup success — those assumed goal posts will likely be moved depending on the group draw in Russia — but he has brought stability to the team and engineered a positive change in mentality.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up? ] 

I have a great deal of respect for Joe Prince-Wright’s view of the national team, and ProSoccerTalk’s editor wrote today that U.S. Soccer would be proven right in its hiring of Arena if the Yanks won the Gold Cup with a Wednesday win over Jamaica.

But it doesn’t take a devil’s advocate to ask if it is quite that simple?

As much as I’m sure the removal of Klinsmann became necessary due to the morale of the USMNT and its players’ opinions of the German manager, I’m far from certain we’ve learned much about the hiring of Arena. Frankly, I can’t imagine any of the results being much worse under Peter Vermes, or Caleb Porter, or Ben Olsen.

The best win of Arena’s second tenure so far was probably the semifinal defeat of Costa Rica this weekend, and the best moment was the 1-1 draw at Azteca against Mexico. There’s no denying he’s righted the World Cup ship —  and that’s paramount — but it’s hard to imagine just qualifying for Russia should give Arena some sort of status, 0-2 hole or not. Any coach needs to be judged by his tournament, and Arena knows this. He’s helped author the best World Cup performance in modern U.S. men’s history, and he’s also presided over a train wreck (Imagine pulling that performance with that roster into the 2018 supporters’ climate. I’m shuddering on behalf of social media).

Which brings us to the import of Wednesday in Santa Clara. The United States lineup is experienced in big games and superior to Jamaica, which is coming off one day less rest. Yes, Jamaica’s squad features an incredible goalkeeper in Andre Blake and a half-dozen MLS players, but the rest are largely players who ply their trade in the U.S. second tier or Jamaica’s top flight.

Again, against Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, et cetera, et cetera.

The bookmakers say a Jamaica win would pay off 8:1. Just getting to penalty kicks would pay 3:1.

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The U.S. should win the 9:30 p.m. ET start, and put one foot in the 2021 Confederations Cup in Qatar. If it doesn’t, it’ll be because the side couldn’t sort out its wobbly back line or find its way past Blake. The latter would be more forgivable than the former, but really only in a “Tim Howard vs. Belgium but unblemished” fashion.

And it could be wrong to call Arena’s tournament a failure if the Yanks lose, depending on how it happens, but this is a man who helped a much lesser U.S. side to a 1-0 home friendly win over Jamaica just a few months ago (a Jamaica side who’s only missing player of consequence was Darren Mattocks). Arena trotted out Luis Robles, Graham Zusi, Steve Birnbaum, Walker Zimmerman, Jorge Villafana, Dax McCarty, Chris Pontius, Benny Feilhaber, Sebastian Lletget, Jordan Morris, and Juan Agudelo. The team he’ll start on Wednesday will be miles better.

Mattocks and his Reggae Boyz are true to their country’s national reputation of electrifying speed, and it’s imperative that Arena sets his backs to handle that. That means true outside backs — sorry, Graham Zusi — and center backs who won’t be forced to foul too often. That is, after all, the only way Jamaica found its way past Mexico via a free kick from a dangerous spot.

Mexico attempted 200 more passes, converting 150 more than Jamaica in the semifinal. It’ll be on Arena’s enterprising attackers to find a way past a stacked defense without opening up the midfield too much to counter attacks. Jamaica also played a borderline perfect game when it did have the ball, missing on just 16 of 143 passes and, again, scoring on a free kick.

Frankly, if the U.S. loses to Jamaica in the same way as Mexico did, it probably wouldn’t be proper to lay it on Arena. It would mean another batch of American players had failed to find a way to goal. But what we’re counting on is a better organized team than the baffled bunch that fell 2-1 to Jamaica under Klinsmann in the 2015 Gold Cup.

In that way, yeah, we can count on Arena being a relative success. But winning this tournament, especially given who Mexico called up, needs to be treated the same way you’d view it under any other manager: expectation. Anything less wouldn’t make Arena a failure, but would certainly qualify as a failure for the U.S. program.

PSG, Barca quizzed on Neymar rumors; Pique blasts Ligue 1

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We don’t have a ton of sympathy for them, but credit to Barcelona stars Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique for giving actual answers when put in the awkward position of hearing the media’s Neymar-to-PSG questions on Tuesday night.

PSG boss Unai Emery was far less interested in doing that.

Emery has refused to comment on speculation linking Neymar to big move to the Parc des Princes.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s International Champions Cup match against Juventus, Emery had nothing of substance to say to the idea of Brazil’s captain heading to his stable.

“Our focus is to talk about the game tomorrow and a season to get ready for. I prefer to focus on the present moment and the preparation with the team.”

As for Edinson Cavani?

On the Barca side of things, Mascherano said he thinks Neymar will stay because he’s very important to the team, while Pique backed off a little after causing a stir by posting a photo of the defender with Neymar captioned, “He stays.”

“The post was nothing official, it was a gut thing, it doesn’t depend on me. Only (Neymar) can say what will happen, but I hope he stays. I tried to explain to Neymar, as a team-mate and a friend, the situation he’s in. I would say don’t go to a league which, with all due respect, is not as good.”

Boom, roasted (Though there’s some pot-kettle-black here, as there’s a fairly precipitous drop-off further down La Liga’s table, too).

Spanish report claims Coutinho (not Liverpool) agrees deal with Barca

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According to Sky Sports’ transfer centre, Spanish radio station RAC1 reports that Barcelona has agreed a deal with Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho.

The report comes on the heels of the half-hour delay of Barca’s nightly press conference, though that could be coincidental.

It also states that the agreement is between Barcelona and Coutinho, and that no fee has been agreed between Liverpool and the La Liga giants. That’s a huge obstacle, with Liverpool maintaining that no offer will work this summer, so the idea of a transfer being imminent could be beyond the pale.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

A sale like this risks overturning Jurgen Klopp‘s apple cart, as the Reds boss was quoted this week as saying, “The very important message is that we are not a selling club and that’s how it is.”

Mohamed Salah is good, but he’s no Coutinho. Meanwhile, Coutinho has the potential to be as close to a like-for-like replacement for Neymar — one of the Top Five players in the world — as there is on the market.

The two clubs have done business before, and in more trying circumstances; Barcelona bought Luis Suarez from Liverpool within a month of the Uruguayan striker being banned for a biting incident at the 2014 World Cup.

A spectacular deal, Liverpool would have to make such a move this early in the summer when it can invest what would have to be a wild amount of money given the fees splashed about this transfer window.

Source close to Van Dijk expects Liverpool move within window

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It wasn’t too long ago that Liverpool apologized for its pursuit of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, ending its quest for the big Dutchman.

Is it apology accepted and then some at St. Mary’s? Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol says not much has changed since the big sorry toward Anfield, but that a source close to Van Dijk expects Van Dijk will be a Red “by the end of the window.”

[ MORE: JPW’s take on the Van Dijk saga ]

That said, Sky’s report makes it unclear what’s changed to lead to such a proclamation.

There is no suggestion that Liverpool have done anything wrong since they apologised and ended their interest. Southampton’s position remains that Van Dijk is not for sale but Chelsea and Manchester City are also interested.

So… it’s happening then? Money does talk, and a massive fee from Liverpool could make Southampton’s life easier in explaining the sale to its fans. It would also mean Saints sold Van Dijk and Jose Fonte within a year. For more on the possible transfer, here’s JPW’s take.

Van Dijk averaged 1.9 tackles, 2.6 interceptions, 6.8 clearances, and 4.7 aerials won per Premier League matches last season, his second since a Summer 2015 move from Celtic.

[ MORE: Milan talk to Costa, Falcao agent ]