Cristiano Ronaldo, memories of 2010, and Spain-Portugal: Wedneday’s Euro 2012 playlist

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source: Reuters

At the beginning of the month, Portugal looked set to be an unfortunate casualty of the Group of Death, with Germany and the Netherlands picked to get through. Two and a half weeks, a Dutch collapse, and some exorcizing of Danish demons later, the Seleccao are riding a three-match winning streak into Wednesday’s semifinal with Spain. And if debunking conventional wisdom wasn’t enough for the Portuguese, they have one big reason to like their chances against the defending world and european champions: a 4-0, November win in Lisbon.

It was, however, just a friendly, and given some of the other stumbles Spain have had in the last year, Portugal would be wise not to take too much from it. Since the World Cup, Spain has also lost to Argentina, Italy, and England – all friendlies. hrough Euro qualifying and the finals, they’ve stayed undefeated, implying they’ve developed two gears: play, and play to win.

Which gear they’ve been in during this tournament’s been unclear. Three wins in four matches is a record bested by only Germany, yet in most of their games, the holders have looked more controlling than dominant. La Roja dazzled in their group stage win over Ireland, but in their other three matches, Spain played to their emerging stereotype: Unwilling to take the risks necessary to score goals. Just like all stereotypes, the reputation’s part hyperbole, part truth.

Portugal represents a big step up. Yes, Spain has faced and survived Italy, but with an in-form Cristiano Ronaldo, Iberia’s other power may be primed for the biggest win in their history.

Match kicks off at 2:45 p.m. Eastern. Here’s your playlist.

1. We’ve been here before

The most important defender for Real Madrid, Portugal center half Pepe is not only used to playing Barcelona, he’s used to succeeding. At least, he’s used to experiencing as much success as anybody has against Barça, experience that should serve him and his teammates well on Wednesday. As Spain keeps Portugal’s defense under constant pressure, Pepe can help maintain the Seleccao’s organization, his teammates having the confidence of knowing he’s been there before.

The same effect can be seen in midfield, though the leader there is more unlikely. Raul Meireles served as one of the keys to Roberto Di Matteo’s conservative set up as Chelsea claimed Champions League. He may not be Portugal’s best midfielder, but he’s the one that’s actually been crucial to a team that’s beat a Spain-like attack.

Portugal has the talent and approach to thwart Spain, but they don’t have experiences getting it done. With Pepe and Meireles, they have two players who’ve successfully implemented the plan, if not for Portugal.

2. Cristiano

Portugal can beat Spain without Cristiano Ronaldo having a big day, though it would be a lot easier if he did. Having scored all the Portuguese goals in their last two wins, Ronaldo has shown he’s capable of carrying his team to the semifinals. He’s also left Paulo Bento in search of a Plan B.

Nani seems like the most likely understudy, especially if Portugal can get him behind Jordi Alba. Even though Nani’s been most effective this tournament when providing for Ronaldo, he’s still capable of getting goals, especially when Joao Moutinho’s providing for him.

Beyond that, set pieces are a possibility, but with Portugal unlikely to hold much of the ball, corners and restarts could be few and far between.

Portugal has built their team around Cristiano Ronaldo, so for better or worse, they’ll need him to have a big day if they’re going to get past Spain. Based on how Ronaldo’s played over the couple of weeks, there are worse places to be.

3. Staying back

Given Portugal’s strength on the wings, Vicente del Bosque has a choice to make regarding his fullbacks. As the tournament’s progressed, both Jordi Alba and Arvalo Arbeloa have been pushing forward with little regard with what goes on behind them. Against Ronaldo and Nani, it’s not a strategy del Bosque’s likely to be comfortable with, given his four years of risk aversion.

Del Bosque might be thankful for some middle ground. Keeping Arbeloa back isn’t that big a deal. He hasn’t contributed much in attack anyway. Alba, however, has improved with each game and provided an assist from the left against France. Keeping him back could have a much bigger effect.

It might not be an issue. Against the Netherlands and Germany, Nani often played very deep on the right – much deeper than Ronaldo’s corresponding position on the left. If Portugal reveres Spain as much as they revered the Germans and Dutch, Nani won’t be asked to pin Alba back. Instead, he’ll likely the one asked to run with the soon-to-be Barcelona left back.

4. Patience

And if Spain’s not going to release their fullbacks, Portugal’s going to be very difficult to break down. But if we’ve learned anything about Spain, it’s that they will break you down. Just give them time. All the 1-0s in South Africa attest to that, with the world champions needing extra time to convert their dominance over the Dutch into the 2010 World Cup.

It may take as long to get past Portugal, but Spain needs to stay patient. That doesn’t mean they should refrain from diversifying their attack by using Jesus Navas, Santi Cazorla, Fernando Llorente – they definitely should do all those things. Along the way, they should remember that it took them 63 minutes to get their goal against Portugal in South Africa. They should remember that’s not uncommon.

For all the danger Portugal presents, they’re not better than the German team Spain dominated in the 2010 semifinals. Spain needed 73 minutes to break through them. Portugal’s not better than the Dutch team Spain dominated in the final. It look La Roja 116 minutes to get that goal.

ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.

Three key battles for Champions League Final

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Saturday brings Real Madrid’s journey toward a third-straight UEFA Champions League title to a close, with just Liverpool standing in the way.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

The Reds attack promises danger and entertainment, while Zinedine Zidane’s personnel choice may be just as important as his tactical decisions in Kiev.

Van Dijk, Lovren against… Ronaldo and whoever Zidane decides

It’s difficult to highlight the match-up problems for Liverpool’s center backs because Zinedine Zidane has used three different set-ups atop his line-up.

At times, it’s been Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Sometimes, Gareth Bale takes Benzema’s spot, and occasionally Ronaldo has been played up top as a center forward.

Believe it or not, that may be the best case scenario for Liverpool, though Ronaldo will undoubtedly roam across the top of the formation. While many think of Ronaldo and visualize his laser shots from distance, he’s quite dangerous in 1v1 aerial battles as well as tight spaces inside the box.

Quite frankly, matches like this highlight why the Reds signed Virgil Van Dijk. And, opinion alert, human bowling ball Benzema and his Juggernaut-esque approach to attacking may be a unique challenge Liverpool has not seen outside of Romelu Lukaku.

Marcelo vs. Mohamed Salah

Marcelo is an unbelievably silky, savvy left back who uses an elite attacking skill set to keep the opposition’s entire right side off kilter.

In some ways he can be partially neutralized by the danger presented by Reds right wing Mo Salah, but Zidane isn’t going to tell Marcelo to camp out in his own end when left center back Sergio Ramos is the next man up to defend, one of the finest players of his generation.

So it’s on Salah to assert himself on the game, something that shouldn’t be a problem after a couple weeks away from match action.

Can Real defend Liverpool on the counter?

We’ve seen Liverpool expose a number of teams on the counter attack, and Real certainly has a handle on how to do the same.

But building on our second key, there’s danger for both sides when Marcelo or Dani Carvajal get up the pitch. When Liverpool regains the ball and attacks at pace, there are big choices to be made.

Say Marcelo is up the pitch. Now Ramos may have to take Salah and leave Roberto Firmino to Raphael Varane. Now Carvajal may be alone with Sadio Mane. It’s not that Carvajal or Marcelo cannot defend, but these are not situations anyone wants in a one-off.

And that’s the key for Liverpool, really. This is a one-off. Over two legs, it’s hard to imagine the Reds as constructed pulling off another heavily-outchanced two-leg win like it did against Manchester City. The answer to this counter question may be what tells the story in Kiev.

Ancelotti hired to end Napoli’s scudetto drought

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Is Carlo Ancelotti the right man to end Juventus’ seemingly ages-old hold on the scudetto?

Napoli hopes so, and has inked the former Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Bayern Munich boss to a three-year deal.

Ancelotti’s resume speaks for itself, and the hiring promises more Serie A drama after the Neapolitan club nearly got the job done this season under Maurizio Sarri.

[ MORE: Top takeaways from Emery’s Arsenal unveiling ] 

Ancelotti won scudetti as a player with Roma (1) and AC Milan (2), once more as a manager for the latter. He also led Milan to two Champions League crowns, winning the tournament with Real Madrid as well, while bringing league titles to Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, and Bayern Munich.

Napoli has finished Top 3 in six of eight seasons, finishing four points behind Juve this season. Juventus has won the last seven scudetti, and Napoli’s only title came in 1987.

The club announced the move after owner Aurelio De Laurentiis let go of Sarri, thanking the previous manager for three seasons of work which included a Serie A Coach of the Year Award and wins in 97 of 147 matches.

“I’d like to thank Maurizio Sarri for his valuable contribution to the Napoli cause. He brought joy and prestige to Naples and Napoli fans all over the world with an entertaining brand of football that drew praise from all quarters. Well done, Maurizio.”

Transfer Rumors: Seri to Arsenal; Vagnoman to Chelsea

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Nice’s Jean Seri is reportedly Unai Emery’s first target as Arsenal boss.

A report from the Daily Mail states that Seri, 26, is available for $46 million and although both Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund are interested, the Ivorian midfielder is a long-time target of the new Arsenal boss.

[ MORE: Top takeaways from Emery’s unveiling

Seri almost signed for Barcelona in the past and Emery tried to sign him in January while he was in charge of PSG.

The defensive midfielder is in the N'Golo Kante mould, but slightly more attack-minded than Kante. He has an incredible engine, exceptional reading of the game and is able to protect the ball while also starting attacks with surging runs on the ball. Yep, that’s the type of player who would thrive at Arsenal.

Seri’s arrival would also be much-needed following Santi Cazorla leaving after a two-year injury nightmare, plus Jack Wilshere out of contract on July 1 and likely to leave the Gunners. With Granit Xhaka‘s big-money arrival never quite working out, especially defensively, Seri could be a key part of the jigsaw in Emery’s rebuild as he can keep the ball and also spark the new high-pressing style the Spaniard wants to say.


Teenage defender Josha Vagnoman is being linked with a move to Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton, according to multiple outlets.

A report from ESPN states that the 17-year-old Hamburg full back (the second youngest player in Bundesliga history) will move on this summer and clubs across Europe are lining up to sign the German youth international as his contract with recently relegated Hamburg ends in July.

Vagnoman is interesting Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig but the report claims Arsenal have the edge due to their new head of recruitment, Sven Mislintat, keeping a close eye on his countryman over the years. Vagnoman is able to play left or right back.

Joining the likes of Arsenal, Bayern and Chelsea would likely mean a few years in the reserve squad for Vagnoman, while he could well play soon for either Dortmund or Leipzig given their penchant for giving youth a chance in their first team.

Argentina goalkeeper Romero out of World Cup with injury

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero will miss the World Cup because of a right knee injury.

The Argentine soccer federation says the Manchester United reserve may need surgery.

Romero was one of the three goalkeepers chosen by Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli for the 23-player squad he will take to the World Cup in Russia. Franco Armani and Wilfredo Caballero were also named in the squad.

Romero was a starter for Argentina at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.

The federation says Sampaoli will announce a substitute for Romero in the coming days.