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.

Tactics Session: Inside the mind of Kevin De Bruyne

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If not for Harry Kane‘s prolific scoring of goals during the early days of this season, Kevin De Bruyne would almost certainly be the early runaway favorite for 2017-18 Premier League Player of the Season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

Alas, Kane, the one-season wonder that he is, seems hellbent on cracking the century mark in the PL this season, rather than waiting until 2018-19. This sets up what should be a thoroughly exhilarating seven-month battle between two polar opposite players — Kane, the goalscorer; and De Bruyne, the assist machine.

On Saturday, NBC Sports’ Robbie Earle delved into the mind of De Bruyne (above video) in light of last weekend’s 7-2 thrashing of Stoke City, during which De Bruyne notched another pair of assists to take season tally to five through eight games. Later on Saturday, De Bruyne added another in Man City’s 3-0 victory over Burnley.

[ MORE: Matchday experience — behind the scenes at Southampton ]

The first thing pointed out by Earle is the recovery — though deployed as more of a central midfielder on the day, De Bruyne sits wide with City in possession high up the field, just waiting for the opportune moment to surge forward and join the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero (now that he’s back from injury). When Jesus’ ball is too lightly weighted, De Bruyne reacts quickest to make the recovery.

From there, his head is up and scanning the entire field. One touch forward, and he’s already accounted for the positioning of each of his teammates, as well as the Stoke defenders, and every pocket of space into which he’ll either carry or play the ball. He knows the precise spot on the field he must get to in order to pull the defense to him, thus opening the necessary space (and time) for the final man — Sane, in this instance — to make his run in behind.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

This is the part of De Bruyne’s game which he does better than anyone else in the world right now; no one can hold a candle KDB’s timing and vision — not Henrikh Mkhitaryan, not Isco, not Mesut Ozil, not even his brilliant teammate (and fellow six-assist man) David Silva. He’s almost operating at peak-Andres Iniesta level right now, which makes KDB and Co. appointment viewing every weekend.

Even now, after creating the passing lane and providing Sane the extra half-second to get level with his man before accelerating past in the blink of an eye. Even then, having seen the pass he has to play, there’s still the (major) matter of threading the needle through and around four defenders. On this occasion, the perfect pass is nearly 15 yards in front of Sane, and far less than that distance in front of the goalkeeper. An inch or two too short, it’s cleared by the right back; and inch or two too long, and the goalkeeper collects it easily.

As usual, no player in the world comes close to matching De Bruyne’s genius.

PL Sunday preview: Spurs take on bogey Reds; Everton vs. Arsenal

Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images
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Every club in the world has a bogey team (or teams) that no matter what they try, no matter the circumstances, it always seems to go sideways when they meet — a side that everyone associated with the club dreads when they see their name on the upcoming schedule.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Man United shocked by Huddersfield; City, Chelsea win ]

For Tottenham Hotspur, the thorn currently in their side is Liverpool, who they’ll host at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, following Arsenal’s seasonal trip to Goodison Park to take on Everton.

Everton vs. Arsenal — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After starting the 2017-18 Premier League season with just two wins from eight games, every game could very well be Ronald Koeman‘s last game in charge of Everton, thus a visit from top-four-chasing Arsenal is anything but well-timed for the distressed Dutchman. What’s worse, the Toffees are also without a win in their last four games (all competitions) and on the verge of crashing out of the Europa League group stage.

“The performance was under level in the first half,” Koeman said following Thursday’s home defeat to Lyon. “We made a lot of mistakes, and the team played with a lot of doubts and little confidence. It’s very difficult (to reach the next stage). Most of the time you get your points at home but we have only got one out of the two we have had at Goodison. Nothing is impossible, but to gain more points — and I think we need six or seven — we need to improve the level and that is more important.”

Sounds similar to their league performances, strangely enough — Everton currently sit 16th in the PL table, mere months after spending in excess of $200 million during the summer transfer window.

European competition has treated Arsenal far better this season, as Arsene Wenger‘s side is three-for-three in the Europa League following Thursday’s win away to Red Star Belgrade. A number of key figures — Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette, Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny, to name a few — were left in London, as a reserve- and youth-heavy side got the job done courtesy of an Olivier Giroud goal five minutes before full-time.

Still, the Gunners are in desperate need of a quick rebound following last weekend’s late defeat to Watford, after which Watford captain Troy Deeney publicly characterized the Arsenal players as mentally weak and said they lack the necessary “cojones” to compete at this level. On the bright side, Deeney’s 71st-minute equalizer (from the penalty spot) was the first goal Arsenal had conceded in 444 minutes in the PL, a streak they’ll look to start anew and build off Thursday’s win in Serbia.

INJURIES: Everton — OUT: Ross Barkley (back), Morgan Schneiderlin (knock), Ramiro Funes Mori (knee), Seamus Coleman (leg), James McCarthy (fitness), Yannick Bolasie (knee) | Arsenal — OUT: Danny Welbeck (hamstring), Shkodran Mustafi (thigh), Calum Chambers (hip), Santi Cazorla (achilles)

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Mauricio Pochettino has never beaten Liverpool in six tries as Tottenham manager (two triumphs in his 18 months at Southampton); in fact, Spurs themselves haven’t beaten Liverpool in the PL since Nov. 28, 2012 (three draws and six defeats in nine tries) — the north London side’s truest bogey club this decade. Having already fallen eight points behind leaders Manchester City, Pochettino’s side will have to clear that mental hurdle on Saturday if they’re to go on and challenge for the PL title for a third straight season. On the other hand, they’re unbeaten in 10 games (seven wins) across all competitions.

Fortunately for Spurs, the Wembley monkey is off their back after narrowly edging past Bournemouth their last time out at home. Harry Kane is without goal in his last 241 minutes for club (two for England during the last international break), which is practically an eternity after scoring seven goals in the previous 188 minutes.

As for Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp‘s side enters Sunday’s clash mired in a month-long slump, having won just one of their last four league games, and just two of their last nine in all competitions. A major part of the problem is more of the poor defending that dogged the Reds last season, but perhaps they’ve been a bit unfortunate as well.

“We had bad luck in the last three or four games,” summer signing Mohamed Salah said this week. “Everyone was confident a good result was coming.”

The tough stretch has seen Klopp somewhat recalibrate his expectations in the direction of reality, dubbing his side the “challenger” when they take on Tottenham.

“(Spurs) are in a really good moment as a club and we are the challenger when we go there, that’s how it is,” he said this week. “But they know it will not be an easy game, so good, let’s play and let’s see what happens.”

INJURIES: Tottenham — OUT: Mousa Dembele (foot), Victor Wanyama (knee), Danny Rose (fitness), Erik Lamela (hip) | Liverpool — OUT: Sadio Mane (hamstring), Adam Lallana (thigh), Nathaniel Clyne (hamstring)

PL Roundup: City separation; Stunning goal show (video)

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From Pedro‘s pipe cleaner to Boufal’s wondrous solo march, the Premier League’s day started and ended with glorious goals.

[ SUNDAY PREVIEW: Spurs face bogey reds; Everton vs. Arsenal (streams) ]

Manchester United lost for the first time this season along the way, one a few notable score lines on Saturday in the United Kingdom.

[ MORE: Bundesliga wrap ]


Southampton 1-0 West Bromwich AlbionRECAP

Tony Pulis tried to park the bus, but Sofiane Boufal is a stunt driver. Southampton found a winner late at home to move into the top half.

Huddersfield Town 2-1 Manchester UnitedRECAP

It had been 65 years since Town beat Manchester United, and the way it looked Saturday it won’t be that long before it happens again. Maybe United was beat from the UEFA Champions League midweek, or just wasn’t prepared to answer the bell, but goals from Aaron Mooy and Laurent Depoitre gave Town a 2-0 lead before Marcus Rashford provided for a tighter ending.

Manchester City 3-0 BurnleyRECAP

United’s neighbors took advantage of their loss, as Sergio Aguero converted a penalty before Nicolas Otamendi and Leroy Sane barged down the door and carried all three points with ease.

Swansea City 1-2 Leicester CityRECAP

A Federico Fernandez own goal gave interim manager Michael Appleton an early lead, and red-hot Shinji Okazaki made it 2-0 just after halftime. Alfie Mawson pulled one back for Swans, but that was all she wrote: Leicester had leapt out of the drop zone, and ahead of its hosts.

Newcastle United 1-0 Crystal PalaceRECAP

Rafa Benitez‘s men might’ve been second-best over 90 minutes to Roy Hodgson’s Eagles, but it was a Matt Ritchie corner kick to the noggin of Mikel Merino that did the trick and lifted Newcastle sixth before Sunday’s matches.

Stoke City 1-2 BournemouthRECAP

Mame Biram Diouf’s pull back was not joined by another Stoke goal, as an Andrew Surman goal and Junior Stanislas penalty kick combined to give the Cherries a notable win at the Potteries. Bournemouth is now just one point back of four teams with eight points, including 18th place Stoke.

Chelsea 4-2 WatfordRECAP

When Abdoulaye Doucoure canceled out Pedro’s fantastic 12th minute goal just before halftime, the Blues and Hornets went to the locker room with very different feelings. When Roberto Pereyra made it 2-1 Watford four minutes into the second, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte was desperate. Fortunately, super sub Michy Batshuayi scored a brace wrapped around Cesar Azpilicueta’s 87th minute marker to give Chelsea a big win after its midweek draw with Roma in the UEFA Champions League.

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Manchester City 9 8 1 0 32 4 28 4-1-0 4-0-0 25
 Manchester United 9 6 2 1 22 4 18 4-0-0 2-2-1 20
 Tottenham Hotspur 8 5 2 1 15 5 10 1-2-1 4-0-0 17
 Chelsea 9 5 1 3 17 10 7 2-1-2 3-0-1 16
 Watford 9 4 3 2 15 17 -2 1-2-1 3-1-1 15
 Newcastle United 9 4 2 3 10 8 2 3-1-1 1-1-2 14
 Arsenal 8 4 1 3 12 10 2 4-0-0 0-1-3 13
 Liverpool 8 3 4 1 13 12 1 2-2-0 1-2-1 13
 Burnley 9 3 4 2 8 9 -1 1-2-1 2-2-1 13
 Southampton 9 3 3 3 8 9 -1 2-2-2 1-1-1 12
 Huddersfield Town 9 3 3 3 7 10 -3 2-2-1 1-1-2 12
 Brighton & Hove Albion 9 3 2 4 9 10 -1 2-1-1 1-1-3 11
 West Bromwich Albion 9 2 4 3 7 10 -3 1-3-0 1-1-3 10
 Leicester City 9 2 3 4 12 14 -2 1-1-2 1-2-2 9
 Swansea City 9 2 2 5 6 10 -4 1-0-4 1-2-1 8
 Everton 8 2 2 4 5 13 -8 2-0-2 0-2-2 8
 West Ham United 9 2 2 5 8 17 -9 2-0-2 0-2-3 8

 Stoke City 9 2 2 5 10 20 -10 2-1-2 0-1-3 8
 Bournemouth 9 2 1 6 6 13 -7 1-1-2 1-0-4 7
 Crystal Palace 9 1 0 8 2 19 -17 1-0-3 0-0-5 3

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern, BVB level on points; USMNT’s Johnson scores

Marius Becker/dpa via AP
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Borussia Dortmund’s dominant start to the season is no more, and new Bayern Munich boss Jupp Heynckes has his side very much in the race for yet another Bundesliga crown.

[ MORE: LFC prospects buries U.S. ]


Hamburg 0-1 Bayern Munich

Strikers Bobby Wood (Hamburg) and Robert Lewandowski (Bayern) were frustrated, combining for just 47 touches, and it took a fittingly messy goal to separate the two. It came from French midfielder Corentin Tolisso and pulled Bayern level with leaders BVB on points, three goals back in differential.

Eintracht Frankfurt 2-2 Borussia Dortmund

BVB is, quite officially, in a bit of a funk. Nuri Sahin and Marvin Philipp gave the visitors a 2-0 lead, but Eintracht sprung for goals in the 64th and 68th minutes to deny the leaders more than a point. Christian Pulisic ran his socks off, as usual, with more than 11km covered, but will not look back on his 90 minutes fondly. It happens.

Borussia Monchengladbach 1-5 Bayer Leverkusen

American left winger Fabian Johnson buried a seventh minute goal… then watched the visitors put five of their six shots on target home for a gnarly home loss.

Elsewhere
Schalke 2-0 Mainz — Friday
RB Leipzig 1-0 Stuttgart
Augsburg 1-2 Hannover 96
Koln vs. Werder Bremen — 7:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Freiburg vs. Hertha Berlin — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Wolfsburg vs. Hoffenheim — Noon ET Sunday

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Borussia Dortmund 9 6 2 1 25 7 18 3-0-1 3-2-0 20
 Bayern Munich 9 6 2 1 22 7 15 3-1-0 3-1-1 20
 RB Leipzig 9 6 1 2 16 10 6 3-1-0 3-0-2 19
 FC Schalke 04 9 5 1 3 12 9 3 3-1-1 2-0-2 16
 1899 Hoffenheim 8 4 3 1 15 10 5 3-2-0 1-1-1 15
 Hannover 96 9 4 3 2 10 7 3 2-1-1 2-2-1 15
 Eintracht Frankfurt 9 4 2 3 10 9 1 1-1-2 3-1-1 14
 Mönchengladbach 9 4 2 3 13 17 -4 3-0-2 1-2-1 14
 Bayer Leverkusen 9 3 3 3 20 14 6 2-2-0 1-1-3 12
 FC Augsburg 9 3 3 3 12 10 2 2-1-2 1-2-1 12
 FSV Mainz 05 9 3 1 5 10 15 -5 3-0-2 0-1-3 10
 VfB Stuttgart 9 3 1 5 6 11 -5 3-1-0 0-0-5 10
 Hertha BSC Berlin 8 2 3 3 8 10 -2 2-2-1 0-1-2 9
 VfL Wolfsburg 8 1 5 2 8 11 -3 0-3-1 1-2-1 8
 Hamburger SV 9 2 1 6 6 15 -9 1-1-3 1-0-3 7
 SC Freiburg 8 1 4 3 5 16 -11 1-3-0 0-1-3 7
 Werder Bremen 8 0 4 4 3 9 -6 0-1-3 0-3-1 4
 1. FC Köln 8 0 1 7 3 17 -14 0-0-3 0-1-4 1