Early look: Colombia faces Uruguay, Greece takes on Costa Rica in World Cup’s Round of 16

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Four more places have booked in World Cup 2014’s knockout round. Here’s an early snapshot of the two match ups that were set with Tuesday’s results:

Colombia vs. Uruguay
Group C winner vs. Group D runner-up
Where: Rio de Janeiro
When: Saturday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern

[ MORE: Rodríguez fuels Colombia | Uruguay eliminates Italy ]

Leading men: We’ve sang James Rodríguez’s praises throughout the day, so rather continue fawning over one of the best players in the tournament, all me to point you to this post on him and Neymar as well as the recap from today’s win over Japan. Coming in at halftime, Rodríguez turned the game on its ear.

For Uruguay, this is where I’d normally say something about Luis Suárez, how he’s one of the four or five players on the planet that can win a game on his own, and tactics could go out the window if he’s on his game. But our friend Luis has a little impulse control problem. You may have heard about it.

As a result, Uruguay needs a new leading man. Perhaps it will be Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani. Maybe Diego Forlán, the best player at the last World Cup, will give Father Time the slip for two weeks. Regardless, somebody needs to step up.

Supporting stars: For Uruguay, it’s Diego Godín. The veteran defender has carried over his play from a Spanish title-winning season at Atlético Madrid, helping La Celeste limit England and Italy to one goal over the last 180 minutes. He also shouldered home the game-winner in his team’s 1-0 victory over the Azzurri.

With the Cafeteros, there’s a small army of talented attackers who’ll vie to benefit from Rodríguez’s playmaking. Teofilo Gutíerrez started the team’s first two games at striker, but Jackson Martínez, Adrián Ramos, Victor Ibarbo, and Juan Cuadrado could all play significant roles. Though Colombia has a headlining star, the cast is an ensemble.

Strengths: Uruguay is able to slow a game down, stay strong at the back, and allow games to be defined by its talented attack, even though it’s often unclear how exactly they’re making the connections. For Colombia, as you can tell by the cast of attackers, the team will score goals. José Péckerman’s side averaged three goals per game in the opening round.

Weaknesses: If you pack that Uruguayan midfield back, they have to rely on the likes of Forlán and/or Nicolas Lodeiro to get the team out of its own half. If that doesn’t work on Saturday, Suárez’s absence will loom especially large. For Colombia, there’ve been no weaknesses through three games, but quality in defense and the ability to control play in midfield were questions coming into the tournament.

Early expectations: Particularly with Suárez out, the Colombians will be favored. They finished above La Celeste in qualifying. They’re stronger going into the knockout round.

Three narratives you will hear in the buildup:

  • Uruguay is nothing without Suárez. Just don’t worry about that Cavani guy over there.
  • This is Colombia’s best team since the ill-fated side the went to USA 1994.
  • South America’s depth has been on display at this World Cup … though CONMEBOL also put five teams into 2010’s knockout round.

To the winner: It will be an all-South America quarterfinal. Brazil and Chile face-off in the adjacent pod.

source: AP
Greece’s Giorgos Samaras celebrates with teammates during the group C match between Greece and Ivory Coast. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Costa Rica vs. Greece
Group D winner vs. Group C runner-up
Where: Recife
When: Saturday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern

[ MORE: Draw leaves Ticos top of Group | Samaras wins it late ]

Leading men: Thanks to strong play in front of him, Keylor Navas hasn’t been too stressed in Costa Rica’s goal, but as we saw against England, that may be changing. If it does, the Levante goalkeeper will be up to the challenge. Navas was one of the top goalkeepers in Spain last season.

Greece is a side devoid of stars, but because of his ever-present nature, attacker Georgios Samaras has become the face of the team. Though he only has nine goals in 77 international appearances, he’ll be the danger man on his team’s counterattacks. With a goal and an assist on Tuesday, he’s had a part in both of his team’s World Cup goals.

Supporting stars: At 35 years old, Kostas Katsouranis is one of two players in the team (along with Giorgos Karagounis) who were part of Greece’s 2004 European Championship squad. While he’s in the twilight of his career, he’s still a vital part of Fernando Santos’s midfield. Set to return from a one-game, red card suspension, Katsouranis will slot back into the heart of his team’s formation.

For Costa Rica, Joel Campbell will be familiar with his Greek counterparts, having spent last season on loan from Arsenal with Olympiacos. Joining him in attack, Bryan Ruiz’s versatility should help los Ticos break down a notoriously stalwart defense.

Strengths: Greece is defense and little else. Even the damage they do going forward almost always starts in the back. The team’s built its reputation on its ability to hold out.

Likewise, Costa Rica’s strength is in defense, with the Ticos’ five-man back line leaving the team amongst among the worst in the tournament in terms of shots per game (9.3) and possession (42.5). Those numbers, heavily influenced by the quality of Costa Rica’s opposition, don’t reflect the team’s willingness to be more confrontational than their Round of 16 opponents. They’ll defend, but they won’t be as quick to recede into their shell.

Regardless, one of these teams will have to move out of its comfort zone.

Weaknesses: For Costa Rica, between a solid defense and capable scorers is a midfield that’s lackluster but this tournament’s standards. Celso Borges and Yeltsin Tejada have been as solid as their teammates thus far, but against that renown Greek defense, Borges may struggle to create chances for Campbell and Ruiz.

For Greece, there’s no reliable scorer in a team which, short on creativity, is reliant on set pieces and counter attacks for goals.

Early expectations: Nobody anticipated this matchup, so there are no expectations. These are two teams that were expected to finish last in their groups.

Three narratives you will hear in the buildup:

  • Greece’s spots in the knockout rounds at Euro 2012 and Brazil 2014 aren’t about soft groups. No, no, no. It’s about team ethic and sums that are bigger than their parts, and … well, really easy groups, too. (You won’t hear that last part.)
  • Costa Rica’s quality debunks the notion of a thin CONCACAF (just don’t look too hard at Honduras).
  • Defense, not the combination of defense and offense, wins championships.

To the winner: Either the Netherlands or Mexico. Does CONCACAF dare to dream a place in the semifinals?

Europa League roundup: Lyon tops Everton, Giroud guides Arsenal

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It was a wild and crazy Thursday full of UEFA Europa League action, and while one Premier League side lucked out, another continued its fall from grace.

Arsenal picked up a 1-0 win over Red Star Belgrade on the road after Olivier Giroud’s 85th-minute overhead kick give the Gunners three points and complete command of Group H.

[ MORE: Dusan Tadic tells his story of his move to Southampton ]

Meanwhile, Everton fell 2-1 to Lyon on the day, as the Toffees remain at the bottom of Group E with one point in three Europa League matches. Toffees defender Ashley Williams was very lucky not to earn himself a straight red card after a terrible challenge on Lyon keeper Anthony Lopes.

The challenge came four minutes prior to Williams netted the equalizer for Everton. However, Bertrand Traore scored the winner for Lyon with a quarter hour remaining in the match.

Elsewhere, Real Sociedad scored six goals en route to a comfortable win over Vardar, while AC Milan had to settle for a scoreless draw against AEK Athens.

Here are all of Thursday’s results from around the Europa League.

Astana 4-0 Maccabi Tel-Aviv
BATE 1-0 Cologne
Hapoel Beer Sheva 1-2 Steaua
Konyaspor 2-0 Red Bull Salzburg
Lugano 3-2 Viktoria
Marseille 2-1 Guimaraes
Nice 1-3 Lazio
Ostersunds FK 2-2 Athletic Bilbao
Red Star Belgrade 0-1 Arsenal
Vardar 0-6 Real Sociedad
Zenit 3-1 Rosenborg
Zorya 2-1 Hertha Berlin
Zulte-Waregem 1-1 Vitesse
AC Milan 0-0 AEK Athens
Atalanta 3-1 Apollon Limassol
Austria Vienna 1-3 Rijeka
Dynamo Kyiv 2-2 Young Boys
Everton 1-2 Lyon
Fastav Zlin 1-1 Copenhagen
SC Braga 0-2 Ludogorets
Sheriff 1-1 Lokomotiv Moscow
Skenderbeu 0-0 Partizan
TSG Hoffenheim 3-1 Istanbul Basaksehir
Villarreal 2-2 Slavia Prague

Video: Giroud gives Arsenal three points with superb overhead finish

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Red Star Belgrade posed a big test to Arsenal on Thursday, but it was Olivier Giroud that had the last laugh for the Gunners.

[ MORE: Atlanta’s Gressel is emerging as a legitimate MLS ROTY candidate ]

The Frenchman delivered in spectacular fashion five minutes from time when Giroud scored a makeshift-bicycle kick following Theo Walcott‘s headed pass inside the penalty area.

Arsenal went on to win the match, 1-0, and currently sits atop Group H in the UEFA Europa League on nine points through three matches.

Giroud, who went the full 90 minutes for the Gunners, has had a knack for scoring some fine goals in an Arsenal kit over the years. That includes last year’s tremendous scorpion-kick goal against Crystal Palace in Premier League play (watch below).

Atlanta’s Julian Gressel making strong impression as ROTY candidate

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In the United States, U.S. Men’s National Team star Christian Pulisic continues to make waves overseas after forgoing college and the opportunity to play in Major League Soccer.

While his case is a bit different, one of Atlanta United’s young stars has taken a path less traveled, but is finding similar success in his first season in MLS.

Julian Gressel was drafted in the first round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, after boasting a strong college soccer career with Providence. The 23-year-old finished second all-time in school history in goals, while making a strong name for himself on the American soccer scene prior to being drafted in January.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan considering U.S. Soccer presidency run ]

Pro Soccer Talk had the chance to catch up with Gressel as the Atlanta rookie and his side prepare for their final match of the regular season before the MLS Cup Playoffs.

“It definitely helped because you get competitive games in and obviously also get national recognition from within the college system from playing in a big conference and going to a good school like Providence,” Gressel said in regards to playing in the Big East — one of the traditional power soccer conferences. “We made it really far in the NCAA tournament as well so it wasn’t just the Big East. The conference usually has three, four, sometimes five really good teams that make it to NCAAs, so it really helped me develop as a player.”

Although it’s become a common path for players not just in Germany, but throughout Europe and other prominent soccer regions, to pursue a professional career without much schooling beyond high school, Gressel opted to better himself both on and off the pitch.

“It was mostly school that was just a way for me to have a chance to do something after soccer,” Gressel said. “In Germany, I probably would’ve had the chance to play in the third or fourth division. Possibly 2.Bundesliga, but I only had a high school degree and I didn’t want to leave it at that.

The first-year MLSer finished with a degree in business management at Providence.

Gressel plied his trade with several smaller German sides prior to his arrival in the U.S., including FC Eintracht Bamberg of the Landesliga Bayern-Nordwest in Germany’s sixth-flight.

Like many other players that weren’t accustomed to following MLS across the pond, Gressel wasn’t certain what the league would bring for him, however, he didn’t buy into any misconceptions about it.

“I honestly didn’t follow MLS before coming here,” Gressel said . “As I came here my roommates and I started watching games basically every weekend and I also got to go to Gillette Stadium as a freshman to get my first live game with the Revolution.

“That experience gave me a bigger look at the league and then I figured out more about MLS as time has gone on and I’ve spent more time in the United States.”

“I always knew it was a difficult league and there were too many misconceptions overseas that the speed of play is slower in MLS and other things like that. I wanted to experience it [MLS] myself first before making an assessment.”

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With one match remaining in the regular season, Gressel has tallied an impressive five goal and nine assists, while starting 23 matches for Atlanta.

Gressel will surely be in the running for Rookie of the Year, along with Minnesota forward Abu Danladi, Jack Elliott of the Philadelphia Union and others. However, it has been Gressel’s ability to put together a complete season that really separates him from the pack.

The first-year attacking player has shown his technical ability throughout his rookie campaign (as seen in the video below), but Gressel believes that while he does exhibit a fair amount of composure, that it also helps playing alongside budding stars like Miguel Almiron and Atlanta’s top goalscorer, Josef Martinez

“It helps having the guys on my team that I get to play around as well,” Gressel continued. “Miguel [Almiron] and Josef [Martinez] are some of the guys that help elevate my game on a weekly basis. And you never want to be the one that lets your team down so that’s always another motivational factor. You don’t want to play that bad pass that breaks down an attack.”

In addition to being the beneficiary of playing with good teammates, Gressel has had the opportunity in his first season to play under one Gerardo “Tata” Martino — widely regarded as one of the top-tier managers around the world.

[ MORE: D.C. United’s Bill Hamid exploring European options ]

Most are aware of his time at Barcelona, but Martino’s expertise goes beyond that — including managing the Paraguayan and Argentine national teams.

To Gressel, it’s no surprise that Martino’s name has gained some traction as a potential boss for the USMNT following Bruce Arena’s decision to leave the Americans last week.

“I think he’s a great manager,” Gressel told PST. “He has great ideas tactically. He’s definitely the best I’ve ever seen or had the opportunity to work around. I haven’t been around so long, but tactically he has ideas that I never would’ve imagined and then they end up working. He’s one of the greatest coaches out there.

“It’s no secret that he’s had success with other national teams beyond just performing well at the club level. To have this rumor out there it’s pretty clear that people view him highly. I’m not sure how well he’d work because of the language barrier, which doesn’t help.

“It’s up to U.S. Soccer at the end of the day, but I hope he stays with me and the guys here for longer because I learn so much every single day.”

Premier League Preview: West Ham vs. Brighton

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  • Brighton has just one point away from home this season
  • Both clubs sit on eight points through eight matches
  • Hernandez, Caroll potentially out for Hammers
  • West Ham has won last three fixtures against Brighton

West Ham United will host Brighton & Hove Albion on Friday from the London Stadium (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE ONLINE AT 2:30 P.M. ET FRIDAY

 

Both the Hammers and the Seagulls sit on eight points through their opening eight Premier League matches, which puts each club just two points above the bottom three. West Ham enters the weekend unbeaten in its last two fixtures, including last week’s 1-1 draw at Burnley.

Slaven Bilic will have some difficult decisions to make for the match as he’ll be without Andy Carroll and Diafra Sakho, while Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez could potentially miss the clash as well with a hamstring issue.

The biggest challenge for newcomers Brighton thus far has been how the club has handled itself away from Amex Stadium. The team’s 0-0 draw against Watford is the only match in which the promoted side has picked up a point this season on the road.

What they’re saying

West Ham boss Bilic said in regards to better performances of late“We have improved results. We have players back from injury and the players who missed a big part of pre-season have their match-fitness. We improved and we are on the right path, so it’s much better.”

Brighton manager Hughton stressed the importance of gaining road results“It’s going to be about away form that’s going to be the most challenging. It’s a game away from home, in a big stadium, against a very talented team.”

Prediction

Brighton has had its fair share of struggles away from home, but West Ham is certainly at a disadvantage with some of its biggest names likely out for Friday’s encounter. The fact that they’re playing on a Friday allows less time for Bilic’s men to get healthy, so it’s easier to lean towards Brighton. They’ll get their first victory on the road this week. 2-1 Brighton.