Confederations Cup preview: Your quick guide to each teams’ standouts

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We’ve gone through the teams, and we’ve walked you through the schedule, but for some fans, the big draw to this summer’s Confederations Cup will be stars they don’t otherwise ee in their favorite leagues. In a tournament too young, infrequent and exclusive to carry much competitive prestige, the names on the back may be as alluring as the names on the front.

This year, neither Argentina (with Lionel Messi) nor Portugal (Cristiano Ronaldo) qualified for the quadrennial event, but between Brazil, Spain, Italy, Mexico, and Uruguay, a number of the world’s top talents will still be on display over the next three weeks.

Here’s a small selection of whom to look for – two players per team that may make your Confederations Cup viewing worthwhile.

Group A

Brazil

source: Getty ImagesNeymar (right) – The former Santos star has been the next big thing for so long, it’s hard to believe the time to put up has finally come. With his recent transfer to Spanish titans Barcelona, the 21-year-old attacker will be leaving South America for the first time, set to begin next season with Spain’s reigning champions. With enough skill on the ball to beat anybody one-on-one, Neymar has 20 goals in 33 appearances for Brazil, even if many are still waiting for that goal rate to translate into success against the world’s most prestigious nations.

Thiago Silva – One of the best defenders in the world, Silva will wear the armband for coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side, playing between Barcelona right back Daniel Alves and Chelsea left-central defender David Luiz. Expect those teammates, as brilliant as they can be, to give the athletic center half plenty of chances to exhibit has talents. Given what the PSG man has shown during his time in Italy and France, there’s little doubt the 28-year-old can handle the burden.

Japan

source: Getty ImagesKeisuke Honda (right) – Rumors that the dynamic CSKA Moscow attacker will leave Russia this summer make June’s tournament a showcase for the 27-year-old. Capable of playing across the width of the pitch at the level just behind a striker, Honda can be as adept creating as he is finishing chances. In 42 appearances for the Samurai Blue, the attacking midfielder has 14 goals.

Shinji Kagawa – Even though the Manchester United attacker’s already 24 years old, he’s still one of the younger players in Alberto Zaccheroni team, but with a style of play very similar to Honda’s, it hasn’t always proved easy to assimilate the former Borussia Dortmund star into the squad. Like Honda, he can play anywhere across the width of the pitch, and like Honda, he often seems as adept at score goals as setting them up.

Mexico

source: ReutersJavier Hernandez (right) – Your philosophical view about goal scoring likely defines how you feel about ‘Chicharito’, who usually is the frosting, not the cake. When his teams are generating goals, the 25-year-old is usually finishing them. But when teams need him to find goals on his own, Hernández still seems to need another dimension, one that prevents him from being considered among the world’s elite. With 32 goals in 47 appearances, Hernández’s production more than justifies his acclaim, but as Mexico’s waned, so has Chicharito.

Giovani dos Santos – Another mercurial performer, dos Santos may be the most talented player in CONCACAF, form he showed while leading El Tri to the 2011 Gold Cup. While he continues to show that talent at club level, scoring six league goals this past season in Spain for Mallorca, the former Barcelona and Tottenham Hotspur attacker has been unable to replicate that production recently for his national team. Quick, highly skilled, with a great natural instinct on the ball, dos Santos is still an elite talent. It’s just a matter of putting him in the right spots.

Italy

source: APGianluigi Buffon (right) – At 35 years old, Buffon’s amassed 128 caps, yet despite his age, the Juventus icon is still among the best goalkeepers in the world. Since the retirement of defender Fabio Cannavaro, he’s also served as the Azzurris captain, leading the team to the final of last year’s European Championships. While prone to the rare inexplicable lapse, Buffon’s reflexes remain strong, as does his ability to read the game as it approaches goal. His decisions on crosses may reflect some age, but as with all aspects of Buffon’s game, it’s a relative concern.

Andrea Pirlo – Pirlo’s move from AC Milan to Juventus two years ago seems to have revitalized his career, an effect that was on display at last summer’s European Championships, where he was the tournament’s best player (in our estimation). Sitting deep in Cesare Prandelli’s midfield, Pirlo will be provided the protection he needs to be his playmaking best, with others doing the manual labor while he sprays the ball to young attackers like Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy.

Group B

Spain

source: APXavi Hernández (right) – One hypothesis for Barcelona’s mild slip in this year’s Champions League: Teams have increasingly focused on Lionel Messi as Xavi has proved less effective at picking apart a defense. The Confederations Cup should prove a good test. Spain is as dependent on Xavi as Barcelona, with no heir apparent for their aging midfield orchestrator. If the Barcelona playmaker’s really transitioning into his career’s final act, his national team should also struggle. Else, Spain will be as formidable as ever.

Iker Casillas – Benched midseason in a political battle with his club manager, Spain’s captain gets back to regular duty in goal on the international level. Along with that comes a chance to show José Mourinho that he’s still the same Saint Iker who has led Spain to two-straight major titles. Perhaps an inflated reputation that cast him atop the world’s goalkeeper rankings has forever been tarnished, but Casillas is still more than capable of being a reliable No. 1.

Uruguay

source: Getty ImagesLuis Suárez (right) – The temperamental forward is coming off a suspension for punching an opponent in World Cup qualifying. His team rallied to win 1-0 in Venezuela on Tuesday, but in the preceding game, Suárez reminded La Celeste how important he was, coming off the bench to score in Uruguay’s 1-0 win over France. Combined with Edinson Cavani, Uruguay rivals Argentina for the top attacking tandem in the world, provided Suárez can keep himself on the field.

Edinson Cavani – If Suárez is the volatile one, Cavani is Mr. Dependable. Tall, skilled, relentless, and versatile, the Napoli man has become one of the best target men in the world, doing the leg work that frees up Suárez to exploit opposing defenses. With his partner absent on Tuesday, it was Cavani that found the goal that gave Uruguay its crucial win in Venezuela. Coming off three straight prolific seasons in Naples, the former Palemo man is drawing attention from Manchester City and Chelsea. A strong tournament could his suitors insatiable.

Tahiti

source: Getty ImagesSteevy Chong Hue – The 23-year-old AS Dragon striker is responsible for Tahiti’s place in Brazil, scoring the goal that won the nation the 2012 OFC Nations Cup – a win that secured the team’s first international title. The only player in the squad born away from Tahiti’s main island, Chong Hue briefly spent time playing low-level Belgian soccer before returning home to play for Dragon. At 23, he has 11 international goals.

Marama Varihua – Varihua, a striker, is the only player on Eddy Etaeta’s roster who plays outside of Tahiti. He’s spent his entire career in France, twice winning the Coupe de France during a six-year spell at Nantes. Born in Tahiti but appearing at U-levels for France, Varihua has also played at Nice, Lorient and Nancy, where he’s under contract today. Capable of playing wide as well as in support of Chong Hue, the uncapped 32-year-old’s contributions could prove key to Tahiti’s chance to earn a point in Brazil.

Nigeria

John Obi Mikel – Only 26, Mikel is one of the young Nigerians’ veterans, with Stephen Keshi naming only four players who are older than the Chelsea midfielder. Normally a holder at club level, Mikel has typically provided more of a box-to-box presence for his country, who he helped lead to this year’s Cup of Nations title. In a group with Spain and Uruguay, his defense may prove more valuable if the Super Eagles are to pull a small upset and advance to the knockout round.

source: APKenneth Omeruo (right) – Another Chelsea talent, Omeruo has yet to make an impact for his club, though for the national team, the 19-year-old started as the Nigerians claimed a surprise confederation title. Only 19 years old, Omeuro just finished an 18-month loan at ADO Den Haag, where he played both on the right and in the middle. While he awaits a decision about where his immediate club future lies, the former Standard Liege prospect will spend his summer in Brazil, starting in the middle of Stephen Keshi’s defense and potentially attracting the attention of a team who can give him playing time next season.

Atlanta leads way with six All-Star Fan XI selections

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It may be hard to believe with all the World Cup festivities going on, but the Major League Soccer season is nearly halfway over.

[ MORE: Toronto FC’s 2018 has been far from their cup-winning 2017 ]

And that means it’s almost All-Star time.

The MLS All-Stars will continue their recent tradition of facing a European superpower in August, with Juventus being welcomed to the United States in early August.

But, which players from MLS will we see in action?

Last season’s expansion sweetheart Atlanta United leads the way in the fan voting with six players from the Eastern Conference side voted into the Fan XI, including attackers Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, Darlington Nagbe and Josef Martinez.

Goalkeeper Brad Guzan and defender/captain Michael Parkhurst also made the team from Atlanta.

In all, only five clubs were represented based on the Fan XI, with the LA Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Los Angeles FC’s Carlos Vela and Laurent Ciman, Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi and Portland Timbers star Diego Valeri each rounding out the squad.


Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan (Atlanta United)

Defenders: Michael Parkhurst (Atlanta United), Laurent Ciman (Los Angeles Football Club), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Miguel Almirón (Atlanta United), Ezequiel Barco (Atlanta United), Darlington Nagbe (Atlanta United), Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers)

Forwards: Josef Martínez (Atlanta United), Zlatan Ibrahimović (LA Galaxy), Carlos Vela (Los Angeles Football Club – EA SPORTS™ “More Than a Vote” Challenge)

Saudi Arabia steals late win over Egypt in Group A finale

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Saudi Arabia pulled off a late 2-1 win against Egypt on Monday in their Group A finale, as the two nations ended their 2018 World Cup run in the group stage.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Salem Al Sawsari scored in the fifth minute of second half stoppage time to give the Saudis a late winner in the match, as the attacker struck the post in the dying moments before the ball crossed the line.

The Pharaohs took the lead in the 22nd minute, after a tremendous run from Mohamed Salah and lob over the Saudi Arabia goalkeeper.

Salah has two goals at the World Cup for Egypt, who were already eliminated heading into Monday’s match.

Saudi Arabia was granted a chance to equalize prior to halftime, however, goalkeeper Essam El Hadary brilliantly stopped Hattan Bahebri’s penalty kick in the 41st minute to preserve the Egypt advantage.

El Hadary became the oldest player in World Cup history to appear in a match at the age of 45.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

The Egypt keeper wasn’t as lucky the second time around though, with Salmon Al Faraj converting a penalty kick in the 51st minute.

Saudi Arabia finishes group play in third place on three points, while Egypt goes winless in its three matches.

Uruguay tops Russia & Group A with perfect record

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The host nation looked strong in its opening two matches, but they ran into a far superior side on Monday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Uruguay finished atop Group A with a 3-0 win over Russia in Samara, behind goals from Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and an own goal from Russia’s Denis Cheryshev.

With the victory, the South Americans win Group A with nine points, while Russia finishes runners’ up with six points.

Suarez gave the Uruguayans the lead after just 10 minutes, when the Barcelona man struck via a free kick on the edge of the penalty area.

The goal for Suarez is his second of the World Cup, which leads Uruguay.

The lead was quickly doubled in the 23rd minute, when Diego Laxalt unleashed a shot from distance that took a wicked deflection and went beyond goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev.

Laxalt’s effort hit Russia attacker Denis Cheryshev before gliding towards the near post for the own goal.

The fortunes for Russia just got worse as the first half wore on, and the hosts were reduced to 10 men just beyond the hour mark when Igor Smolnikov was sent off after picking up his second yellow card.

Meanwhile, it had been a disappointing start to the World Cup for Edinson Cavani, but the PSG man finally got a goal for his country in the late stages of the match to extend the lead to 3-0.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

Uruguay will face the runner up in Group B, while Russia will await the Group B winner in the Round of 16.

El Tri star Lozano staying focusing amid Barcelona rumors

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Hirving “Chucky” Lozano was a player everyone needed to pay attention to heading into the 2018 World Cup, and through two matches, the El Tri star has been every bit the price of admission for his country.

[ MORE: Group scenarios heading into the final group stage matches ]

Mexico sits atop Group F with six points at the moment, and much of the team’s success can be attributed to Lozano’s endless motor and creative attacking vision when he finds space down the wing.

The PSV Eindhoven attacker has been linked with various big clubs, including La Liga giants Barcelona, but that hasn’t halted Lozano’s pursuit of guiding Mexico to an unprecedented run at the World Cup.

“The important thing is to focus on the next [Mexico] game, do as well as possible and go step by step,” Lozano said.

Despite winning their first two games, El Tri needs at least a point in its final Group F match to ensure qualification without any complications.

Mexico will take on Sweden on Wednesday, as Juan Carlos Osorio’s side aims to remain perfect in the group stage.

Meanwhile, Andres Guardado — who has been a mainstay of the Mexican national team for years — only confirmed the work ethic of his teammate and hopes that a dream move becomes a reality for Lozano in the near future.

“It makes me very proud to say he is a kid that is very centered, despite everything he is going through,” said Guardado after Saturday’s 2-1 win over South Korea. “He is conscious that he has to continue like he’s not achieved anything.”

“He’s the same kid I met the first time he came with us,” continued Guardado. “Hopefully he stays like that and the rumors about a possible transfer to a big team become reality. It would be marvelous, he’s a great teammate.”