Dominant Rodriguez leads Colombia past Japan, top of Group C

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It was supposed to be a day of rest for James Rodríguez, but after Colombia struggled for 45 minutes against Japan, the 22-year-old was called on to preserve his team’s spot atop Group C. Over the next 45 minutes, a dominant performance that produced one goal and two assists blew open a 1-1 game, sealing Colombia’s perfect group stage with a 4-1 win over Japan.

The Colombians broke through early in the first half with a penalty converted by Juan Cuadrado, but after 45 minutes of control by Japan, the Samurai Blue crafted a stoppage time equalizer, with a Shinji Okazaki header sending the teams into halftime tied 1-1.

After being brought on at halftime, Rodríguez set up Jackson Martínez in the 55th minute for the go-ahead goal, with the Monaco star’s through ball into the right of the area in the 82nd minute allowing his teammate to double Colombia’s lead in the 82nd. Seven minutes later, Rodríguez finished from close range to close the scoring, sending the Cafeteros through with a lopsided score.

With the win, Colombia becomes the second team this tournament to complete a perfect group stage. That honor earns them a Saturday meeting with Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro. Japan, after making the final 16 four years ago, leaves Brazil 2014 with one point in three games, finishing last in their group.

[ RESULTS: Greece shocks Ivory Coast | Costa Rica clinches Group D | Uruguay eliminates Italy ]
[ RELATED: World Cup news, analysis from Soccerly ]

Initial pressure toward the underdogs’ goal gave way to Japan control, something that generated 63 percent possession and 14-3 edge in shots by halftime. Colombia, however, was able to get on the scoresheet first thanks to a Yasuyuki Konno foul in Japan’s penalty area, allowing Cuadrado to put the group leaders in front in the 17th minute.

That edge looked set to last into intermission before Keisuke Honda, in the first minute of injury time, cut in from Japan’s right to chip a ball toward the penalty area. Curling around a defender, Okazaki headed the ball inside David Opina’s left upright, rewarding the Samurai Blue with a  1-1 scoreline at halftime.

Coming out of intermission, Colombia head coach José Pekerman, who made eight changes to his starting XI for the day’s game, brought on Rodriguez and Carlos Carbonero in an attempt to gain a handle on the game. Rodríguez’s inclusion quickly paid off. Having already taken over the game in the half’s first 10 minutes, the Colombian attacker drew three defenders to him at the top of area in the 55th minute. Flicking to his left for Martínez, the Monaco star set up his team’s go-ahead score, with his teammate finishing into the right of goal to make it 2-1.

While Japan pushed for a response, Colombia maintained their newfound threat going forward. In addition to controlling more possession, the Cafeteros had new life on the counter attack. In the 82nd minute, that threat came good when Rodríguez set up Martínez for Colombia’s insurance – a left-footed finish from the right of goal to make it 3-1.

In the 89th minute, a dominant half from Rodríguez ended with the young star’s name on the scoresheet. After sending Japanese defender Maya Yoshida spinning to ground just outside the six-yard box, Rodríguez chipped Eiji Kawashima for the game’s final goal, capping the tournaments best individual performance.

With the win, Colombia becomes the second team to finish their 2014 group stage with a 3-0-0 record. On Saturday, the Cafeteros will put that mark on the line when they face South American champions Uruguay in the tournament’s second round.

Lineups

Japan: Kawashima; Uchida, Yoshida, Konno, Nagatomo; Hasebe, Aoyama (Yaamguchi 62′); Okubo, Honda, Kagawa (Kiyotake 85′); Okazaki (Kakatani 69′)

Goals: Okazaki 45+1′

Colombia: Ospina (Mondragón 85′); Arias, Valdes, Balanta, Armero; Cuadrado (Carbonero 46′), Guarin, Mejia, Quintero (Rodríguez 46′); Ramos, Martínez

Goals: Cuadrado 17′, Martínez 55′, 82′, Rodríguez 89′

Albanian federation denounces “extremist acts” of their fans in Italy

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) Albania’s soccer federation has strongly denounced the incident that halted the World Cup Group G qualifier with Italy for nearly nine minutes on Friday.

During the match, which was won by Italy, 2-0, a group calling itself Illyrian Elite threw flares onto the pitch.

“Such totally extremist actions from the grouping Illyrian Elite have nothing to do with the excellent Albanian fans” who were distinguished in the EURO 2016 finals in France for their friendship and camaraderie in their festivities, the statement added.

The federation said an coach Gianni De Biasi also was “upset by the flares,” adding that during five years he has been in charge “I’ve seen something that’s never happened before.”

USMNT: 4 players, including Brooks, Lletget, released; Arriola added

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Hours after his side’s 6-0 thrashing of Honduras to resuscitate dreams of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Bruce Arena announced on Saturday five changes to the U.S. national team roster ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier against Panama.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

John Brooks (sinus infection), Sebastian Lletget (foot), Jordan Morris (knee) and Michael Orozco (knee) were all released back to their club teams, while Club Tijuana midfielder Paul Arriola was added to the squad.

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Brooks dealt with the sinus infection throughout USMNT camp this past week, as Morris did his knee injury which he picked up last weekend. Lletget left Friday’s win over Honduras in the 18th minute and will undergo further tests to determine the severity of his injury; he was seen leaving the stadium on crutches and wearing a walking boot.

The USMNT’s roster for Tuesday’s qualifier in Panama City, Panama, now stands at 23 players, and reads as follows:

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Rapinoe won’t back down on social issues despite U.S. Soccer policy

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Megan Rapinoe recently earned her spot back in the U.S. Women’s National Team squad ahead of next month’s friendlies against Russia, but the veteran won’t remain silent when it comes to her stance on the social climate of America.

[ MORE: Looking back on USMNT’s big win over Honduras ]

The 31-year-old was scrutinized for joining NFL player Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when they knelt during their respective sporting events, along with dozens of other athletes across the United States.

While Rapinoe admits that the form of protest is up for discussion, she also states that social inequality issues in the U.S. go far beyond that.

“What has surprised me the most, especially post-election, is that people are still sort of arguing against it. It’s really obvious that we have very serious inequality in this country across many different spectrums,” Rapinoe told the Guardian. “Yes, we can talk about the form of protest, or the way it’s done, or this or that. But it’s still not really the conversation that I think we desperately need to have more of in this country.”

A few weeks back, U.S. Soccer announced that it now requires all players that represent the Stars and Stripes to stand when the national anthem is played, and Rapinoe has agreed to do such.

While her days of kneeling on the pitch are in the past, Rapinoe believes she wouldn’t do anything different because she was simply trying to spark discussion amongst the American people.

“I don’t think there’s any perfect way to protest. I think if there was something else being done, something else would have been said about it. I can’t look back and say that I would have done this different, this different or this different.

“I can sleep at night knowing that I genuinely tried to have a really important conversation, or at least tried to open it up. I think I came to it with an open mind, an open heart and tried to get as many people to talk about it as I could.”

Report: Chelsea planning Hazard, Courtois pay raises

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Eden Hazard has returned to his old self under Antonio Conte this season, and now Chelsea is hoping to lock down their star attacker.

[ MORE: Lukaku says decision has been made on Everton future ]

According to the Mirror, the Premier League leaders are planning on offering up a pay raise to Hazard, who has 11 league goals this season for the Blues.

Hazard signed a nearly $250,000 per week deal two seasons ago, but the Belgium international will likely rake in significantly more under the reported deal as Chelsea hopes to keep the 26-year-old away from Spanish giants Real Madrid and others.

The Mirror is also reporting that goalkeeper and Hazard’s Belgian teammate Thibaut Courtois is likely to be handed a raise is salary as well.

The shot-stopper is set be handed a deal roughly in the range of what Hazard is currently making after allowing just 21 goals in 28 PL matches this season.