Andrea Pirlo, false nines, and Spain-Italy: Sunday’s Euro 2012 final playlist

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It’s strange to think of Italy as upstarts, but given what the Azzurri have been through since their 2006 World Cup, their presence in Sunday’s Euro 2012 final is a minor shock. They floundered at Euro 2008, leading to the dismissal of their coach. They finished last in their group at South Africa 2010. Grouped with Spain and Croatia at this tournament, Italy weren’t a sure bet to make the quarterfinals, particularly given a squad that lacked proven international scorers.

Three weeks later, Italy has earned a rematch their chance to claim another improbable title. In 2006, the Azzurri won their fourth world championship while their country’s domestic league was in the middle of the calciopoli scandal. This year, with another match-fixing probe engulfing Italian soccer, Italy has made another strangely timed run. That they’ve done so with a less-talented team than the one that won Germany 2006 emboldens conspiracy theorists ascribing undo connections between scandal and success.

Spain – the defending world and european champions – aren’t worried about the mystical as much as the practical. Italy has neither lost nor trailed in the tournament, having already claimed an opening match draw from the Spaniards. That the world’s top-ranked team played well against Italy and wasn’t able to get a win had to be engender some doubts.

Doubts or not, Spain still go into Sunday’s final marked favorites. They haven’t allowed a goal since Toto Di Natale scored in the teams’ first meeting, setting a record Euro record for the longest span without allowing a goal (a streak now up to 419 minutes). Between European Championships and World Cups, Spain have not allowed a knockout round goal since World Cup 2006.

Their quest to extend that streak begins at 2:45 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, when they’ll meet Italy in Kiev for the title of 2012 European champions. Here’s your playlist:

source:  1. Stories of threes and nines

Italy and Spain’s first meeting nearly broke the internet, with tactics freaks freaking out when a sweeper system went up against a team employing a false nine. Crudely translated: One team (Italy) was playing with too many defenders against another (Spain) with not enough forwards. Somehow, we got two goals out of a match that’s turned out to be one of the tournament’s best.

On Sunday, Italy will start with a conventional back four, though it’s unclear what Spain will do. They could see their first match struggles as caused by their lack of a striker. That would almost assuredly push Cesc Fabregas to the bench, even though Fabregas has arguably been their best attacker (when playing). He scored the goal versus Italy and was the team’s best playmaker when coming on against Portugal.

In that match, Vicente Del Bosqure gave Alvaro Negredo his first start of the tournament, trying yet another striking option. Negredo was also Del Bosque’s first sub after the Sevilla striker never properly utilized. Ultimately, the choice was little more than a hint that Del Bosque doesn’t have things figured out. Who knows which direction he’ll go in on Sunday.

2. Andrea and Mario

Italy’s had been a one-man show throughout most of the tournament, but with Mario Balotelli bagging two goals against Germany, Andrea Pirlo’s no longer the only star Spain will have to worry about. Fortunately for Vicente Del Bosque, the holders are well-equipped to handle both.

Against Pirlo, Spain will have a number players capable of pestering him. Xavi Hernandez is most likely. If Spain goes striker-less from the start, Cesc Fabregas will help. Also expect David Silva and Andres Iniesta to help, with Italy having almost no threat from the fullback positions. All of Spain’s players are used to the kind of high-intensity pressing that could disrupt Italy.

At the back, the holders have two defenders who match up well with Balotelli, even if a Sergio Ramos-Mario Balotelli confrontation could be explosive. But both Ramos and partner Gerard Pique have a combination of footspeed, athleticism, and strength that will keep them from being overmatched in one-on-one situations.

The bigger worry for Spain is whether their defense can avoid the mistakes that befell Germany – the type of mistakes that were responsible for Italy’s only goal during the teams’ group stage meeting.

source:  3. Relying on Andres

Even through all three of Spain’s forwards played well against Italy, Andres Iniesta was by far Spain’s most effective player. His willingness to dribble at and through defenders was Spain’s most reliable tactic, with the Barcelona star often forcing sweeper Daniele de Rossi into evasive action to snuff out movements.

Unfortunately, that tactic didn’t produce any goals in the first game. Though Iniesta started the movement that led to Spain’s equalizer, that goal came via combination play through the middle (David Silva finding Cesc Fabregas running through the left channel). It didn’t come through Iniesta’s ability to beat a man.

On Sunday, Iniesta will be going at a right side anchored by Andrea Barzagli. His injury during Italy’s first two matches caused Cesare Prandelli to go to a 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation. Since he’s been back, Italy’s gone 4-4-2 (or, 4-3-1-2) and have not allowed an open play goal.

Iniesta may be one of the best players in the world, but Italy’s performance since Barzagli’s return serves as a cautionary note. If Spain’s relying on Iniesta to break down Italy’s right side, the tactic’s unlikely to be more successful than it was three weeks ago.

4. No more patience

Last round, we noted many of Spain’s opening goals during their string of knockout round victories have come in the second half. Although they didn’t break through against Portugal, Spain certainly looked better at minute 120 than minute one, hinting Spain’s still capable of winning an attritional battle.

Italy doesn’t seem likely wilt by attrition. Though Cesare Prandelli has Italy playing with the ball more, they remain very comfortable ceding control of the game and waiting for their opponents to make mistakes in attack. That’s how they got their two goals against Germany.

That leaves Spain in the uncomfortable position of needing to increase pressure on Italy while maintaining more than a mere safety net at the back . You would think, given Germany’s problems breaking down Italy, one of those two things would have to give. Spain would either have to be more aggressive – more readily push the likes of Jordi Alba and Xabi Alonso higher into the attacking third – and push for a goal, or they could prioritize their shape at the back and perhaps end up waiting for an Italian mistake.

That paradoxical tension will define Sunday’s match. The more aggressive Spain are, the more they play into Italy’s hands. But if they aren’t aggressive enough, they risk Italy taking the game from them, as the Italians almost did in group play.

In that way, this will be the most difficult of Spain’s three major finals since 2008. Both Germany (`08) and the Netherlands (`10) were there for the taking. The Spanish could control the game without worrying about how that fed into their opponents’ attack. On Sunday, unless they’re careful (or happen to score early), the qualities that make Spain so dominant could become their undoing.

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.

Transfer news: Gabriel to Arsenal; Lewis to Liverpool

Gabriel to Arsenal
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In the latest transfer news Gabriel Magalhaes has been linked with a move to Arsenal, while Jamal Lewis to Liverpool is a surprising transfer rumor.

[ MORE: Predicting 2020-21 PL table ]

Starting in north London, Arsenal appear to be kicking on with their pursuit of Brazilian defender Gabriel Magalhaes who has also been linked with Manchester United, Everton and Napoli.

The Lille center back, 22, is certainly a wanted man and Gabriel will cost $35 million. According to France Bleu, Arsenal are now at the front of the queue for Gabriel.

Arsenal want to strengthen their defensive unit and big changes are expected at the back with Pablo Mari, William Saliba and now Gabriel expected to be the new wave of talent at center back. That said, with David Luiz and Rob Holding playing really well in recent weeks, plus Shkodran Mustafi turning things around too and Sokratis and Calum Chambers around, why do Arsenal need so many center backs?

If Mikel Arteta could move on plenty of these defensive players then he should be good to bring in Gabriel. Expect plenty of outs at Arsenal this summer as the north London club continue to battle through the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Jamal Lewis to Liverpool
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Moving up to Liverpool and a slightly surprising report, as Norwich’s Jamal Lewis to Liverpool is not a move many expected this summer.

Multiple reports claim that Liverpool value Lewis at $13 million but Norwich want closer to $26 million, so there’s some negotiating that needs to happen here.

Lewis, 22, is a rising star at left back but with Andy Robertson around at Liverpool, he will be an understudy for many years to come. The Northern Ireland international had a very solid first season in the Premier League with Norwich as he and Max Aarons stood out as attacking full backs for the Canaries.

Robertson has no cover at left back and when he has been out injured, Jurgen Klopp has used James Milner as an emergency left back and in a pinch Trent Alexander-Arnold can switch over to the left.

Predicting the 2020-21 Premier League standings

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The 20 teams for the 2020-21 Premier League season are now set and we are releasing a prediction for the standings.

That’s right.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

With Fulham only sealing their spot in the Premier League on Tuesday via the playoffs, usually we would say this is very early to be releasing this standings prediction. But with the 2020-21 season kicking off in 40 days from now due to all of the schedule changes, it doesn’t seem too outlandish to have a crack at this.

Of course, transfers in and out will heat up between now and Sept. 12 when the new season kicks off and the transfer window open until Oct. 5, a lot can change with all 20 teams.

That said, Leeds United, West Brom and Fulham will all add something slightly different to the Premier League as the newly-promoted teams and it will be intriguing to see if teams who finished the 2019-20 season in red-hot form can carry that into the start of next season given the short break over the summer.

Champions Liverpool and Manchester City will be the favorites to win the Premier League title, while Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham will battle it out for the remaining two Champions League spots as they are rebuilding and nowhere near being title contenders, although Man United are closer than the other three.

[ PHOTOS: Ranking the Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

At the bottom, it’s tough to see how the three newly-promoted teams can prosper given the short turnaround between the 2019-20 season and the 2020-21 campaign but Leeds seem the most prepared to solidify their spot in the Premier League.

In the fight for Europe, Wolves, Leicester and Everton look like the best bets of challenging the established top six but watch out for Southampton. Other surprise packages could be Brighton and West Ham, while you worry for Burnley and Crystal Palace given a lack of squad depth, plus Sheffield United and Newcastle United limped to the finishing line in 2019-20.

All in all, a lot will change in the coming weeks before the 2020-21 season kicks off, so we will do another one of these predictions post before the season starts.

For now, here’s my 2020-21 Premier League standings prediction and how I think the table will look when the final whistle blows on May 16, 2021.

Prediction for the 2020-21 Premier League standings

1. Manchester City
2. Liverpool
3. Manchester United
4. Chelsea
5. Arsenal
6. Tottenham
7. Leicester City
8. Wolves
9. Everton
10. Southampton
11. West Ham
12. Brighton
13. Burnley
14. Sheffield United
15. Leeds United
16. Aston Villa
17. Newcastle United
18. Crystal Palace
19. Fulham
20. West Brom

Do Man United need to sign Jadon Sancho?

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Jadon Sancho to Manchester United is set to be the transfer saga of the summer/fall and the big question is this: do Man United really need Sancho?

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Sancho, 20, is no doubt one of the top young players on the planet. So, in theory, every club needs Sancho.

Dortmund want $140 million for him and want a deal soon, while Man United are playing it cool despite talks of them already agreeing personal terms with Sancho and a breakthrough in negotiations being made with Dortmund.

Our partners at Sky Sports in the UK have the latest update, as they say Man United are determined not to be bullied over a deal for Sancho and will not agree to a Aug. 10 deadline.

It is believed United want to spend a lot less than $140 million for Sancho, especially given the current financial situation. I keep thinking ‘is their money better spent elsewhere on their squad?’ Perhaps on a center half or a holding midfielder?

The answer is somewhere between yes and no.

In their current front four they have a wonderful mixture of pace, trickery and creativity. Marcus Rashford flying off the left. Anthony Martial holding the ball up and running in-behind up top. Bruno Fernandes pulling all the strings just behind. Then there’s Mason Greenwood on the right, the prodigious talent who has burst onto the scene at the age of 18.

Greenwood’s emergence is the main reason we can question this deal for Sancho.

There’s no doubt Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to sign the former Man City academy star but Sancho is more of a luxury signing for Man United at this point. Nobody expected Greenwood to burst onto the scene the way he has this season and not allowing him to be a regular starter next season and beyond would be a harsh, and damaging move for Solskjaer.

Rashford and Martial are guaranteed starters at this point and the only other way Sancho would fit into this team is if Martial dropped to the bench and Rashford played centrally with Greenwood and Sancho on the wings.

Rashford, Martial and Greenwood are similar players and combine well but we saw how United’s attack stuttered a little against teams who defended deep and Sancho’s trickery would give them something slightly different.

Aside from United’s current front four they have Odion Ighalo (on loan until January 2021), Jesse Lingard, Daniel James and Juan Mata. That’s quite a drop off in terms of quality but those are also players who are happy enough to play 15-20 games a season and play supporting roles. Sancho is not and if he arrives he will obviously start most games.

Jadon Sancho to Manchester United will rumble on but he’s a luxury signing. Man United will be fine without him but better with him, even though it could cause a few headaches for Solskjaer.

Scott Parker’s first season as a manager ends in Fulham promotion

Fulham promotion
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after just one season in the EFL Championship, and that means Scott Parker has worked something of a minor miracle in west London.

[ MORE: Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship ]

Parker took on a hefty challenge when he accepted his first senior managerial job last year. Fulham were a virtual lock to be relegated from the Premier League when he was named interim boss in February, and their place in the second division had long since been confirmed by the time he was named Claudio Ranieri’s permanent successor in May. The squad was expensive, bloated and full of players who had no intention of sticking around after relegation.

Given the club’s wealth of resources relative to the rest of the Championship, promotion at the first time of asking was more an expectation than a hope at Craven Cottage. Fast-forward 15 months, and the 39-year-old has quickly proven himself the right man for the job after doing just that — taking Fulham back to the PL by way of Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final.

Promotion may have been sealed on Tuesday, but Parker believes it was earned over a long period of transition and self-reflection by the players, beginning when he first took the job — quotes from the BBC:

“We’ve done what we’ve done tonight, but there’s still improvement, and that’s what makes me so proud and happy.

“For all of the good players and everything you see, what makes me so happy is I see a group of players who only a year ago were struggling psychologically, didn’t have a mindset or mentality.

“I’ve driven this team every single day and what makes me proud is I stood on the touchline tonight and seen a team that represents what I’ve been saying over the last 12 months.”

Now comes the the truly difficult challenge for Parker: after winning Fulham promotion he must assemble a squad of players not only good enough to stay in the PL, but also one full of individuals who want to be at his club and not simply any club that just so happens to be in England’s top division.