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Preview: Expectations weigh heavy on tournament favorites as Brazil faces Germany

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Brazil or Germany will move into the 2014 World Cup final after tomorrow’s match in Belo Horizonte, but if you remember both teams’ expectations, you know: There’ll be no winners tomorrow at Estádio Mineirão. One team will go home, failing to meet its pre-tournament goal. The other will move 90 minutes closer to the only standard they carried into Brazil 2014: Another World Cup title.

That’s the world of a five-time champion, with Brazil’s success in previous finals hinting no matter the team, no matter the competition, the Selecao are expected to find a way. But that’s also the world of Germany, who’ve reached this stage more than any other team in the tournament’s history (13 times). For die Nationalmannschaft, the semifinals aren’t an achievement. They’re an expectation.

In that sense, expectations sure can be brats. Both Brazil and Germany have had good tournaments, fighting through tough groups and overcoming second game draws to reach the final four undefeated. Both survived tough Round of 16 match-ups to post strong quarterfinal wins, context that will be forgotten if either team falls tomorrow. With a loss, Tuesday’s semifinal could turn into a cross-armed five-year-old, whose pouty-lipped punum reminds the team “We’re always to win.”

Title-minded
source: ReutersOnly eight teams have claimed soccer’s biggest prize, but with five titles of their own, only Brazil can claim to be the winningest nation in World Cup history:

Nation Titles
Brazil 5
Italy 4
Germany 3
Argentina 2
Uruguay 2
France 1
England 1
Spain 1

Given the nature of World Cup, it’s insane to think any team is supposed to win. That implies somebody had better than a 50-50 chance before Game 1. That’s wishful thinking. Even Brazil, most people’s favorites at the tournament’s onset, will have to win four near-tossup games to fight through the knockout round. Granted, three weeks ago, most thought they’d be stronger, but there’s no supposed to about those odds.

And what about Germany? In group stage, they had to face a Ghana team that proved slightly better than expected. Same for the United States and Algeria. Their other two match-ups, to date? Against France and Portugal. Perhaps that road hasn’t proven as difficult as Brazil’s, but there was still nothing certain about Germany’s run to the semifinals.

[MORE: Remembering 2002′s Final: Brazil vs. Germany ]
[MORE: Proof that not everything goes Brazil’s way: Silva suspension upheld ]

Yet here we are, with four teams left in the tournament, and two teams that have combined for 24 semifinal appearances making up one half of the bracket. That number alone tells you there’s something more than the player-for-player match-ups involved. The likes of Colombia, Chile, and France look just as capable on paper, but these two titans face capable every four years. Yet more often than not, those potentials become inert. Where no other nation has made more than eight semifinals, there’s clearly something about Brazil and Germany that pushes them to this level.

Life without Neymar, Thiago Silva

That creates a rock-and-a-hard place feel to Tuesday’s meeting, one in which the little things would typically prove decisive, but in the wake of Friday’s match in Fortaleza, it’s a big thing that threatens to be decisive at the Mineirão. Thanks to one misplaced knee by Colombian fullback Juan Camilo Zuñiga, Brazil’s best player is out, with Neymar set to watch from home while he recovers from a broken vertebra. Responsible for four of the Selecao’s 10 goals this tournament, the Barcelona star gives way to whomever’s audacious enough to fill his boots.

Path to Belo Horizonte: Brazil
source: APBrazil has faced three scares on their way to the final four, with Mexico, Chile, and Colombia each pushing the host nation:

Round Opponent Result
Group A Croatia W, 3-1
Group A Mexico D, 0-0
Group A Cameroon W, 4-1
Round of 16 Chile D, 1-1 (pk: 3-2)
Quarterfinals Colombia W, 2-1

That could be Oscar – another 22-year-old attacker, one who should become the focal point of Brazil’s team in the absence of Neymar. It could be Willian, an attacking midfielder likely to move into the starting lineup, or it could be Hulk, whose left foot is capable of unleashing a lightning bolt that could shock the Germans.

Maybe defender David Luiz, who scored one of the competition’s most memorable goals last round, could step up, though with captain Thiago Silva suspended, the Chelsea defender’s attentions will be focused at the back. Regardless, Brazil will need a new hero if they’re to reach an eighth final.

[MORE: Memory lane: Looking back at best World Cup semifinals in history ]
[MORE: How will Brazil and Germany line up in World Cup semifinal? ]

Style over stars (while lacking neither)

Germany, as if playing to its stereotype, won’t need a hero. Though the team features stars like Phillip Lahm, Thömas Müller, and Mesut Özil, they’re built around a style more than any one player. Possession-dominant in a 4-3-3 formation that”s become an homage to Spain (and Barcelona), Germany’s shown the strength of its collective, changing their forward, midfield, and defensive starters over the course of the tournament. Fifteen different players have started for Germany since the tournament kicked off three weeks ago.

The underlying results have been as expected. Average possession: 60.1 percent. Passes per game: A tournament-leading 634 (per Opta). Though they suffered a scare against Ghana and were taken to extra-time by Algeria, Germany’s only allowed three goals in five games. They haven’t conceded in regulation time since Asamoah Gyan put the Black Stars up 2-1 in the 63rd minute of game number two.

With Germany focused on short passing, using possession as its main defense, Oscar could prove decisive, if a more central position allows him to spark Brazil in transition. Perhaps Willian can exploit the space behind an onrushing Lahm to give the Selecao numbers going the other direction. Maybe Hulk will finally break through with his first World Cup goal.

Path to Belo Horizonte: Germany

source: AP

Thömas Müller has four goals in five games, but it’s Germany’s goal-prevention that’s helped the team survive the knockout round:

Round Opponent Result
Group G Portugal W, 4-0
Group G Ghana D, 2-2
Group G United States W, 1-0
Round of 16 Algeria W, 2-1 (aet)
Quarterfinals France W, 1-0

There’s also a chance defensive midfielder Luiz Gustavo will have to be huge game against a collection of players he regularly faces at Wolfsburg. Luiz, wearing the captain’s armband, may have to maintain his all-tournament form, while the heroics Júlio César summoned during the shootout against Chile may be called on before full-time in the semifinals. If Neymar’s absence looms large, Brazil’s defense is as likely to be pushed center stage as its attack.

[MORE: Joachim Low ahead of World Cup semifinal: Brazil lack flair ]
[MORE: Willian to replace Neymar against Germany? Scolari has options ]

And if that absence does loom large, Brazil will have something that mitigates the expectations around them, yet for those inclined to see the host nation as something that transcends one squad’s talent, losing on home soil will never be acceptable, particularly with Uruguay’s win at Brazil 1950 still playing such a big part in Selecao lore. It won’t be Neymar or Thiago Silva, but somebody needs to join the likes of Didi, Pele, Garrincha, Romario, and Ronaldo. Somebody needs to be the hero.

Likewise, for a German soccer nation that sees Brazil 2014 as the payoff for a fundamental shift that began 10 years ago, the semifinals aren’t good enough. Against a wounded team, one that’s been fallible throughout the tournament, the depth of talent Joachim Löw has at his disposal is expected to win out. Home field can only mean so much.

Though it’s impossible to have two favorites, both teams will be treated as such; at least, but their fans. It’s just another nasty byproduct of expectations. Both Brazil and Germany have had strong tournaments, but after 90, potentially 120 minutes on Tuesday, one will go home a failure. The other will advance to Sunday’s World Cup final.

AEK Athens beats Greek league leader Olympiakos 1-0

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) AEK Athens defeated Greek league leader Olympiakos 1-0 in an ill-tempered game on Sunday that saw 12 yellow cards and two dismissals.

[ MORE: Messi brace rescues Barca, Pescara earns second win of season ]

Astrit Ajdarevic scored the only goal in the 34th minute with a free kick that deflected off Olympiakos defender Manuel da Costa.

Olympiakos’ athletic director Francois Modesto was sent to the stands for protesting about the lead-up to AEK’s goal. His team’s central defender Alberto Botia was dismissed after a second yellow card in the 75th for pulling an advancing AEK forward’s jersey.

Despite the defeat, its second of the season, Olympiakos has a 10-point cushion over second-place Panionios, which beat 10-man Iraklis 1-0.

PAOK, a 4-0 winner over Veria, remains in third place, one point ahead of Panathinaikos, which beat Asteras 5-0 on Saturday. AEK is joint fifth with Xanthi.

PSG drops points against Toulouse days after massive UCL win

PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 14:  Julian Draxler of Paris Saint-Germain looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Paris Saint-Germain and FC Barcelona at Parc des Princes on February 14, 2017 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Just days after its massive (and somewhat unexpected) beatdown of Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain failed to close the gap on league leaders Monaco.

[ MORE: Messi brace rescues Barca, Pescara earns second win ]

PSG settled for a 0-0 draw on Sunday at the Parc des Princes against eighth-place Toulouse, leaving the Parisian side three points behind Monaco through 26 rounds of action.

[ MORE: Bielsa returns to Ligue 1 with Lille ]

Despite holding the visitors to just three shots (one on target), Toulouse managed to contain a rampant PSG attack, which posted four goals midweek in their rout of the Blaugrana.

PSG’s first strong chance came in the 14th minute when Lucas Moura’s effort was saved in the bottom corner by goalkeeper Alban Lafont.

Meanwhile, Edinson Cavani may have had the game’s best opportunity to break the deadlock when the Uruguayan attacker struck the post from inside the penalty area.

Unai Emery’s group will be back in action on Feb. 26 when PSG travels to Dimitri Payet and Marseille.

Wenger worried over Sutton’s pitch heading Monday’s clash

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 16:  Pundits Paul Merson (4L) and Matt Le Tissier (2L) take part in a training session alongside Paul Doswell manager of Sutton United (L) and players during a Sutton United FA Cup media day on February 16, 2017 at the Borough Sports Ground in Sutton, Greater London. Sutton United are due to face Arsenal in the Emirates FA Cup Fifth round on 20 February.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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The story of Monday’s encounter between Arsenal and fifth-division Sutton United will be whether the minnows can overcome the mighty Gunners.

[ MORE: Mourinho pleased with United’s “attitude” against Blackburn ]

However, Arsene Wenger already fears a bigger challenge within the game, one that concerns his players’ safety.

Sutton’s 5,000-seat Gander Green Lane features an artificial surface, which is largely uncommon for English and most European venues regardless of club standing.

“First of all the pitch. Secondly their enthusiasm. Thirdly that we are not ready mentally for a big fight and think subconsciously that it doesn’t matter,” Wenger said ahead of Monday’s FA Cup meeting in South London.

In preparation for their meeting with the U’s, Wenger had his side train on their own indoor artificial field on Friday.

“Look, ideally we would like to play on a normal pitch. Competition is as well to deal with what you face, and we’ll face an unusual pitch and we’ll have to deal with it,” he said.

“We practice inside [on Friday] because we have an artificial pitch. It’s not the same as it’s a dry pitch, and at Sutton I’ve heard that’s a wet pitch, they water it before the game. So it will be much quicker than what we have.”

Leipzig beats ‘Gladbach 2-1, cuts Bayern’s Bundesliga lead

Leipzig's scorer Willi Orban, center, and his teammates celebrate their side's 2nd goal during the German Bundesliga soccer match between RB Leipzig and Hertha BSC Berlin in Leipzig, Germany, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
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BERLIN (AP) Leipzig held on for a 2-1 win at Borussia Moenchengladbach to cut Bayern Munich’s lead in the Bundesliga to five points on Sunday.

[ MORE: Messi rescues Barca, Pescara wins second Serie A match ]

Emil Forsberg scored one and set up another for the promoted side to end its two-game losing streak and stay on course for Champions League qualification with its 14th win of the season.

[ MORE: Bielsa makes Ligue 1 return, joins Lille as new manager ]

`Gladbach `keeper Yann Sommer pulled off a brilliant fingertip save to deny Marcel Sabitzer early on, but he was powerless to stop Forsberg from breaking the deadlock after half an hour played.

Sabitzer and Timo Werner played their way through the static `Gladbach defense and Werner laid the ball off for the Sweden midfielder to fire inside the bottom left corner.

The home side was given a lifeline when Marvin Compper brought down Lars Stindl and referee Felix Zwayer pointed to the spot, but Peter Gulacsi saved Thorgan Hazard‘s penalty before the break.

More poor defending allowed Werner grab the second 10 minutes after the break, firing inside the far post after Forsberg played him through.

Jannik Vestergaard pulled one back with a powerful header from a corner to set up an exciting finale. However, six minutes of injury time were not enough for an equalizer.

Leipzig had kicked off to a chorus of whistles from the home fans, who then mostly stayed silent till the 19th minute in protest against the visiting side. Huge banners in the north stand said “Traditional club since 1900” – an apparent protest against Leipzig, founded in 2009 when Austrian energy-drink billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz rebranded a fifth-tier team with his company’s livery before financing its steady promotion through the lower leagues.

COLOGNE 1, SCHALKE 1

Cologne stopped Schalke’s progress but the point was enough for the visiting side to overtake `Gladbach on goal difference in 10th.

Alessandro Schoepf got the visitors off to a flying start in the second minute with the help of the left post, and Leon Goretzka hit the post after half an hour with the home side still struggling to get into the game.

But Anthony Modeste equalized before the break with a fine strike inside the far post, and might even have scored again just minutes later, when his hesitation allowed Benedikt Hoewedes get back and clear.

Guido Burgstaller came closest to a winner for Schalke in the second half, his shot just wide of the far post after beating the goalkeeper.