First two knockout round matches are set: Let’s take an early look at Brazil-Chile, Netherlands-Mexico

Leave a comment

Once you can start filling in the bracket, things get serious. Come Thursday night, this coming up period we call group phase will be gone. T-minus five days until the knockout round.

On Monday, four teams confirmed their spots in that stage, finalizing second round match ups that will take place in Belo Horizonte and Fortaleza.  Here’s an early look:

Brazil vs. Chile
Group A winner vs. Group B runner-up
Where: Belo Horizonte
When: Saturday, 12:00 p.m. Eastern

[ MORE: Neymar lifts Brazil past Cameroon | Chile falls to the Dutch ]

Leading men: Neymar was picked as one of the stars of the tournament. Through three games in front of home fans, he hasn’t disappointed, scoring four goals. Chile, however, will have the best all-around player on the field in Juventus’s Arturo Vidal, though after having meniscus surgery last month, he might not be at 100 percent.

Supporting stars: Oscar, Brazil’s most creative player, will help in attack, while the Paris Saint-Germain pairing of Thiago Silva and David Luiz form one of the tournament’s best central defense duos. Chile has Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez and Valencia’s Eduardo Vargas up top, giving Jorge Sampaoli two talents who can capitalize on their team’s high energy approach.

Strengths: That Chilean style could prove problematic for a Brazil side that didn’t have to face la Roja through qualifying. Between Neymar, Oscar, and Hulk, Brazil has a diverse attack that’s capable of creating openings for the likes of Fred and, from midfield, Paulinho.

Weaknesses: Along with Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho has had trouble controlling play in the middle of the park; at least, Mexico and Croatia were able to have success against the Seleçao’s midfield duo. Between Marcelo (left back) and Dani Alves, Brazil also has two fullbacks who may force Silva and Luiz to live up to PSG’s transfer fees. For Chile, the back line is small and features two natural midfielders.

Early expectations: Brazil will be favored, but Chile’s been getting a lot of dark horse love. Expect some scattered upset predictions.

Three narratives you will hear in the buildup:

  • Neymar will be compared to a series of other Brazilian greats while people forget he’s only 22 years old.
  • Chile’s attractive style will be lauded by pundits who won’t pick them to win.
  • The word “samba” will be tossed around despite having no real connection to Brazil’s current style.

To the winner: Group C’s winner and Group D’s runner-up are in the adjacent pot. That likely means one of Colombia, Italy, or Uruguay in the final eight.

source: Getty Images
Gary Medel, Felipe Gutierrez and Mauricio Isla of Chile try to stop Arjen Robben. (Credit: Getty Images.)

Netherlands vs. Mexico
Group B winner vs. Group A winner up
Where: Fortaleza
When: 
Sunday, 12:00 p.m. Eastern

[ MORE: Dutch clinch first in Group B | Mexico surges past Croatia ]

Leading men: Arjen Robben is drawing attention as one of the tournament’s best players, but in the two games Robin van Persie has been able to partner him in attack, the Manchester United star has been nearly as influential. For Mexico, Héctor Herrera has been one of the competition’s best midfielders, while Rafa Márquez’s sweeper role has allowed him to excel in his fourth World Cup.

Supporting stars: Giovani Dos Santos has made crucial contributions both in linkup play and closer to goal, while Andrés Guardado is making an impact in an unfamiliar central midfield spot. For the Dutch, the three-man defense of Stefan de Vrij, Ron Vlaar, and Bruno Martins Indi opened eyes against Spain, though Martins Indi missed Monday’s game recovering from concussion symptoms.

Strengths: Surprisingly, the Dutch have been one of the most direct teams in this tournament, quickly getting the ball to van Persie and Robben before defenses have a chance to settle in. Allowing only one goal all in group play, Mexico’s defense has been amongst the best at the World Cup.

Weaknesses: To this point, the Dutch haven’t shown any, but with an inexperienced defense, cracks can emerge as the tournament unfolds. For Mexico, speed at the back is a question, as is the ability to create chances for Oribe Peralta up top. The Santos Laguna forward only has three shots thus far.

Early expectations: After their nine-point performance in Group B, the Dutch will be favorites. An underdog to get out of their group two weeks ago, the Netherlands are having to clear space on their bandwagon. Again.

Three narratives you will hear in the buildup:

  • Brilliant Oranje and total football will be evoked despite the Dutch playing much of this tournament in its own half.
  • Mexico will be depicted as a sign of CONCACAF’s emerging strength, though they’ve been to this stage in each of the five previous finals.
  • The low expectations each team carried into the competition will be as discussed as their current form.

To the winner: Whomever emerges from a match between Group C’s runner-up and Group D’s winner. Costa Rica will likely be the latter, while the Ivory Coast is in position to come out of the other group.

Watford signs Will Hughes from Derby County

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Watford has completed the capture of 22-year-old central midfielder Will Hughes, a fantastic transfer for one of England’s younger talents.

Hughes, despite his young age, racked up 189 appearances for Derby County (despite missing significant time in 2015 for an ACL tear) and now gets his first shot at the Premier League, and with it potentially a chance to push his way into the England fold. Hughes has been a staple for the England youth system, making 22 appearances for the country’s U-21 side but is yet to feature for the senior team.

The fee for the transfer was undisclosed but reports have tabbed the amount at around $10 million.

Hughes came close to making the Premier League with Derby County on multiple occasions, reaching the Championship playoffs in both 2014 and 2016. Now, he’ll battle the likes of Valon Behrami, Tom Cleverley, Etienne Capoue, Abdoulaye Doucoure for a spot in Watford’s midfield.

The club release confirmed that Hughes has not yet completed his medical, and will do so when he returns to the U.K. from competing in the U-21 European Championships in Poland.

New Zealand 0-4 Portugal: Ronaldo, Portugal win Group A

Leave a comment

New Zealand gave the 2017 Confederations Cup all they had, but they go home empty-handed as Portugal won the Group A finale 3-0 to advance to the knockout round.

Portugal held much of the possession as expected, but they found little at the end early on. The first true chance fell to Cristiano Ronaldo in the 24th minute, who latched onto a Ricardo Quaresma cross from wide right and produced a powerful header, but it was poorly directed straight to New Zealand goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic for the easy save.

[ RECAP: Mexico eliminates Russia with 2-1 comeback ]

Ronaldo had another headed chance minutes later, but he rocketed the attempt back off the post. Portugal would eventually find the opener just past the half-hour mark via the penalty spot. Danilo was clearly shoved by a pair of defenders on a set-piece, and Ronaldo easily dispatched the spot-kick for a 1-0 lead.

The favorites would double their lead just a few minutes later as Eliseu on the overlap came down the left flank and cut horizontally into the box. He fed a charging Bernardo Silva, and the in-demand Monaco attacker jumped to meet it and poked home. Silva was unable to celebrate after turning his ankle heavily on the landing, but he would come back onto the field.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

Portugal finished things off with 10 minutes to go in the game as Andre Silva burst through the midfielder, shucked his defender, and fired past Marinovic to seal the game for good. Nani added a fourth The win means Portugal finishes level on points with Mexico at the top of Group A, winning the group on goal differential thanks to Silva’s final goal.

Mexico 2-1 Russia: Comeback seals semifinal place

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Mexico again produced a poor first half, but were saved in the final 45 minutes as Juan Carlos Osorio led the CONCACAF squad to the semifinals of the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Right off the bat, there was a controversial moment. Just five minutes into the game, Yuri Zhirkov burst into the Mexico box and went to ground under a challenge from Hector Moreno. The referee waved play on, but it appeared on replay that Moreno tripped Zhirkov. Nevertheless, no call was made and no word came from the video assistant referee.

[ RECAP: Portugal eases by New Zealand 4-0 ]

The hosts had another huge penalty shout, but the referee again waved play on as Fedor Smolov was sent flying to ground as Nestor Araujo contacted his leg from behind in the 17th minute. After about a minute of play, the VAR called for a review, but even after a look at the monitor, the referee decided there was not obvious reason to reverse the call.

With Russia applying all the pressure, they would find the breakthrough in the 25th minute. A pair of fantastic saves from Memo Ochoa went for naught as Alexandr Erokhin whiffed, but he was able to find Aleksandr Samedov who struck low past Ochoa for the opener.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

The lead wouldn’t last long. Mexico didn’t exactly seem sparked by the deficit, but they would draw back level against the run of play just past the half-hour mark. It appeared that Nestor Araujo’s looping header was meant to set up a teammate at the far post, but it ended up chipping Igor Akinfeev and tucking inside the woodwork for the equalizer.

After halftime, Mexico scored completely out of nowhere. A bombed clearance out of the back by Hector Herrera seemed an easy collect for Akinfeev, but as the ball bounced high up into the air, Hirving Lozano charged it down and headed the ball under feeble pressure from the Russian goalkeeper. The ball bounced unchallenged into the net, and Mexico took a shock 2-1 lead.

Mexico appeared to have a third to pad the lead, but VAR took 34 seconds to correctly reverse the call as replay spotted goalscorer Hector Moreno in an offside position on the delivery. Russia was doomed to defeat when Zhirkov was given a second yellow card for a clear elbow to the face of Miguel Layun. Somehow, the hosts still had one big chance in the 72nd minute despite the disadvantage, but Igor Smolinkov somehow missed the net on what should have been a tap-in.

The win for Mexico sees them into the knockout stage, but they fail to win the group, finishing level with Portugal on 7 points but coming up short on goal differential by one. Mexico will be without Andres Guardado in the semifinals, as he was shown his second yellow card of the tournament in the first half.

Report: Arsenal owner calls Bellerin to state intentions

Getty Images
Leave a comment

According to a report by Spanish radio station Cadena SER, Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke has personally called defender Hector Bellerin to tell the Spaniard he would not be sold.

The 22-year-old experienced a serious regression at the Emirates last season, and with media speculation surrounding his potential departure, Kroenke wanted to make sure his intentions were clear. Reports had linked Bellerin with a return to his home country, most notably to Barcelona.

With Bellerin under contract through 2021 having just signed his extension last summer, it’s clear the club has decided who they believe keeping should be a priority.

The defender lost his place briefly down the stretch run last season, finding himself on the bench in seven of the club’s final 17 Premier League matches. Despite that, Arsenal still clearly values Bellerin’s talent and durability and hope to ward Barcelona’s interest off. Bellerin didn’t help cool speculation when he bought a house in Barcelona just a short time ago.

Reports say that Arsenal would not take any less than $57 million for their right-back.