Asian powers polar opposites in Wednesday friendlies

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While you never want to read too much into February friendly results, two of Asia’s powers provided another hints of growing gap at the top of their region. Japan, who sit eight points clear of Australia in their World Cup qualifying group, posted the expected rout of Lativa, winning 3-0 in Kobe. South Korea, on the other hand, were overwhelmed by Croatia, embarrassed 4-0 at Craven Cottage.

The loss may prove inconsequential for Choi Kang-Hee, but for a head coach trying to gauge his team ahead of the March re-start of World Cup qualifying, the embarrassment will need some processing. Croatia is better than any team Korea will face over qualifying’s last four matches, but after such a lopsided neutral site result, Choi has a decision to make. Is this a one-off — the type of atypical performance from which you can’t make any assumptions — or is it a sign that a team who qualified for the second round of 2010’s World Cup is losing ground on the rest of the world?

Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic put the Croats up in the 33rd minute after heading home a cross from defender Ivan Strinic. Captain Darijo Srna made the lead two just before halftime, and substitute Nikica Jelavic added a third 12 minutes into the second half. Jelavic then assisted on the final goal, an 85th minute tally from Fulham’s Mladen Petric.

With three of their last four qualifiers at home, there’s little chance Korea will miss Brazil 2014. They’re one point behind Uzbekistan in AFC’s Group 1 and have both a match in hand an a home date with the Uzbeks. But for a team with South Korea’s recent accomplishments, World Cup Qualifying should be a given. Results like today’s, however, provide a hint the team’s failing to gain ground on their global competition. How big a hint will depend on how well the team responds to Wednesday’s shock.

source: Getty ImagesLike Korea, Japan’s main challenges lie outside the Asian reason, though none of those obstacles were present in Kobe on Wednesday. Instead, European minnows Latvia were convinced to make the long trip East, allowing the Samurai Blue a home date during the short international break. Not surprisingly, the result was a lopsided score, one that could have been even more one-sided.

The result put all of Japan’s weapons on display, starting with Shinji Okazaki. The Stuttgart striker scored twice including the opener in the 41st minute, an effort that prolonged the form that’s made him the joint-top scorer in Asian qualifying. Sandwiched between Okazaki’s double was Keisuke Honda’s 13th international goal, the CSKA attacker finishing after a pass from Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa.

The trio is part of a Japanese team that’s developed enough talent to have a puncher’s chance against anybody in the world, and unlike their South Korean rivals, they’re building toward Brazil 2014. Returning to Asian qualifying, the Koreans need to regain their feet, while the Japanese will look to widen the gap.

Manuel Pellegrini takes the reins at West Ham United

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West Ham United was said to be chasing Rafa Benitez, and instead got a manager with more recent big time success.

Manuel Pellegrini is the new boss at West Ham, returning to the league which saw him guide Manchester City to a Premier League title and two League Cups.

[ MORE: Man Utd after pair of mids ]

The 64-year-old Chilean is well-traveled, and most recently managed Hebei China Fortune. He was released from his contract with the Chinese Super League side last week.

Pellegrini has also led Villarreal, Real Madrid, and Malaga since arriving from South America in 2004.

From WHUFC.com:

“I think that West Ham had a difficult season last season and I hope that next season we are going to play football that will delight the fans. I always play attacking football and we must try to reach important targets in the season.

“Every time you have a meeting you have feelings about whether it was a good meeting or a bad meeting and I had the meeting with him, just talking about football and talking about West Ham.  We agreed on a lot of things he wants for this Club in the way I think a football club must be managed, so we have a lot of common ideas.”

Pellegrini is missing more than a few elements to play the way he’d like to play, and his arrival could spell the end for long-time players like Mark Noble. It could also be a boon for Pablo Zabaleta as the former Man City pair is reunited in London.

West Ham has spent freely in recent years, and Pellegrini’s status could help it land a breed of player unavailable to Sam Allardyce, Slaven Bilic, and David Moyes.

Transfer rumors: Man Utd after pair of midfielders; Liverpool eyes Lascelles

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The transfer rumors continue as players hope to have their futures sorted ahead of next month’s World Cup.

Manchester United is being linked with a pair of big money midfielders.

[ MORE: Brighton nabs World Cup defender ]

Anderson Talisca, 24, could be leaving Besiktas to join United following a $47 million offer, according to Metro. His 14 goals were fourth in the Turkish Super Lig and his seven assists tied for the team lead. He scored four more times in eight UEFA Champions League matches.

And then there’s highly-sought box-to-box midfielder Jean Michael Seri of Nice, linked with United as well as Manchester City. Club president Jean-Pierre Rivere hinted that the 26-year-old would certainly be headed somewhere this offseason.

Mika Seri is … a very good player who has brought a lot to the club and can legitimately have that desire to go and play abroad.”

— Liverpool could really strengthen its center back situation by buying captain Jamaal Lascelles from Newcastle United, though the hinted fee of $19 million seems low for an integral part of the Magpies’ back line (especially given that English players usually net higher fees on account of being English).

And Lascelles has said Newcastle “is the right club for me at the right time. We have a huge fanbase, an amazing manager, and this club is massive. It has so much history.”

The Chronicle also said Liverpool is also looking at Burnley star center back James Tarkowski, and that Newcastle boss Rafa Benitez has his eye on 19-year-old Sevilla mid Alejandro Viedma.

— A wild rumor out of Diario Gol says Alvaro Morata is set to fight for his starting role at Chelsea and is encouraging Real Madrid buddy Marco Asensio to join him at Stamford Bridge. The report says Asensio would be an important part of any Chelsea sale of Eden Hazard.

— Cardiff City is said to be signing Hamburg striker Sven Schipplock when his Hamburg contract expires in June. He did not score for HSV last season.

Brighton adds Nigerian World Cup defender from Mainz

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Brighton and Hove Albion has added some depth to their center back pairing of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy.

Leon Balogun has arrived from Mainz, the 28-year-old Nigerian heading to the World Cup and then hitting the Amex Stadium on a free transfer.

[ MORE: Zidane praises Ronaldo ]

Mainz avoided relegation by three points this season, and Balogun played in 14 matches. He had been with the Bundesliga outfit since 2015, and has 16 caps.

Balogun has also spent time at left and right back.

Ezequiel Schelotto just finished his first season as a Brighton right back, playing 28 times, but also moved up the right side. Bruno played plenty there as well, but is 37 years old.

Gaetan Bong and Markus Suttner split time at left back. All four of the players will be with the Gulls next season.

Brighton already had a top-half defense in terms of goals allowed. This should only help that.

Xabi Alonso: Liverpool-Real to be “such a special game”

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Xabi Alonso is part of a unique brand of footballer to have played with both Liverpool and Real Madrid.

The retired 36-year-old spent five seasons with each team, winning a UEFA Champions League with both, and now will watch his alma maters tangle for a UCL crown on Saturday.

[ MORE: Zidane praises Ronaldo ]

Alonso said he’s just rooting for “an unbelievable game to watch,” and seems like he’ll be happy either way.

“I have feelings for both clubs. I was lucky enough to win this trophy with both clubs so for me it’s difficult to pick one and I will be happy whatever happens, that’s for sure. For Liverpool, for Madrid [they are in] different circumstances, but it’s such a special game.”

The Spanish legend also seemed a bit torn as to whether Real’s experience or Liverpool’s newbie excitement could tilt the scales:

“For the Real Madrid guys, it’s the opposite. They have played so many finals in the last few years, so they can manage the situation better. Later it’s just 90 minutes for both sides, whatever happens. But the build-up is different.

“For sure it’s good to have that experience. But it’s good as well to have that excitement, that hunger, but you need to control as well the over-relaxation and the over-motivation.

“You need to find the right point of activation for the game. That’s not difficult because you know what it means to play in a Champions League final and you don’t have many chances during your whole career, and that’s one of the key psychological sides of this game. And the emotional side is almost as good as the football side.”

Maybe it’s simply playing both sides of the fence, and there’s no shame in that, but it does seem a hard match to choose. Both have been wildly inconsistent in league play as well as the group stage, but have been quite good in the knockout rounds.

It’s hard to pick against Real, but that’s why they play the games.