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.

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

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The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

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But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.