Confederations Cup semifinal preview: Spain face Italy team looking for Euro revenge

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The questions start with last summer’s Euro 2012 final and boil down to the same purpose – trying to determine how Italy can beat Spain. There’s always the Switzerland and United States model – sit deep, disrupt in midfield as the attack approaches the final third, hope fortune shines on your counterattack – but aside from that kind of low percentage play, is there any way the Azzurri can compete with the reigning World Champions?

In fairness to Cesare Prandelli’s side, it’s unclear anybody in the world can go toe-to-toe with Vicente del Bosque’s armada. Since shaking the monkey off their back in 2008, Spain’s swagger’s matched their talent, with only two teams able to meaningfully compete with the Spanairds without resorting to the sit-and-wait model. In 2010, Bert van Maarwijk’s Dutch side chose a deplorably cynical approach in taking Spain to extra time in South Africa, while Portugal may have legitimately outplayed the Furia Roja in the semifinals of last summer’s European Championships.

Along the way, Spain have claimed two major titles while coming to the verge of one of their last unclaimed trophy. So if Italy shouldn’t play like the Dutch, can’t play like the Portuguese, and probably won’t play like the Swiss or Americans, what’s left?

Courage, is what Prandelli might say. That was the value he espoused in the lead up to the Brazil match, and although Italy lost that group stage battle 4-2, they showed better than they did in last year’s European final. If the Italians can play with the same vigor on Thursday, they ‘ll live with whatever outcome befalls them.

The truth of this tournament is that outcomes don’t matter a lot. Yes, you always want to play your best, but nobody’s going to cry over having failed to claim the Confederations Cup. So if Italy can play with heart, stay strong defensively while executing going forward, they’ll live with the result. Building from 2010’s disappointment, theirs is still a process, once which culminates with next year’s World Cup.

Particularly with Mario Balotelli out, Italy may have to look for signs of progress rather than watershed results. That means getting a better performance in goal from Gianluigi Buffon. That means making sure the defense can plug the holes. Can the midfield compete with Spain’s dynamos? And is there an attacker that can show Italy need not be so dependent on Mario Balotelli?

source: Getty ImagesFor Spain, however, the results do matter, just as they always do whenever their first team players play. Any slip sends chinks into the armor of invincibility that’s be built despite their periodic upsets. If a team like Italy does go toe-to-toe, does compete with the armada, then there’s no reason Argentina, Germany, and perhaps Brazil can’t do the same.

Four-nil is the benchmark carried over from last year, but Spain doesn’t need to replicate that to maintain their perch. Nor do they need Jordi Alba, the left back who scored twice against Nigeria, to keep up his goal-scoring ways in order to build on what they’ve done. While it would help of Roberto Soldado firmed up his place in the team or Cesc Fabregas justified del Bosque’s selection, what Spain really needs is for Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, and Sergio Busquets to play as they did against Spain. They need Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué to continue to be the ultimate insurance policies. And they need Iker Casillas to be the man he was two years ago.

If all that happens, Thursday’s game in Fortaleza should be similar to most Spanish national team games: Entralling but predictable – reaffirming the hegemonic state of the current soccer world.

PL Sunday preview: Man United, Tottenham in action; Arsenal host Man City

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures promise to have it all as an in-form Manchester United host a new-era Everton; Wolves look to continue a historic unbeaten run against Jose Mourinho and company; and Arsenal take on Manchester City, who are in dire need of three points.

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Wolves vs. Tottenham  — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Just how much do Portuguese managers Jose Mourinho and Nuno Espirito Santo about Sunday’s clash between their teams?

So much that both managers elected to omit key players during European midweek duty in order to have full-power lineups for a match that has serious implications on their chances of qualifying for European competition next year.

Wolves will have a fresh Raul Jimenez and Adama Traore, while Harry Kane will reappear for Spurs after being absent midweek against Bayern Munich. But the 26-year-old striker will not have any additional breaks ahead of a busy festive period, according to Mourinho.

For now, it’s tough to say who has the upper hand from resting key players. That said, Wolves had more players sidelined, and while two-thirds watched Wolves pulverize Besiktas from the stands, Diogo Jota bagged a hat-trick.

With a club-record 12-match unbeaten run in Premier League play, there are no doubts that things are going well for Espirito Santo and company. They are the team to beat.

“[He] is getting some praise for the work he is doing,” Mourinho said ahead of the match. “In my opinion, not enough. He deserves more than what he is getting. Fantastic work.”

“He is a much better manager than a player. I’m not saying he was a bad player, but he’s a much better manager. Wolves are one of the best teams from a tactical point of view.”

If Spurs want to stand a chance, they’ll have to correct their defensive deficiencies. There’s a 99-percent chance Mourinho knows that already, though.

INJURIES: Wolves — OUT: Boly (leg), Gibbs-White (back)| Tottenham — OUT: Lamela (hamstring), Ndombele (groin), Vorm (calf), Lloris (elbow), Davies (ankle)

Manchester United vs. Everton — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

All of the parallels between Manchester United and Everton are conjoining at the Theater of Dreams on Sunday.

Around this time a year ago, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed caretaker of Manchester United. A former standout Red Devil, the task to take the helm of the club was not only a tall one given the popularity of Manchester United, but one that was emotionally taxing given his past with the team.

A year later, Duncan Ferguson – a striker who also made a name for himself in the ’90s – has the keys to the club that considers him a legend.

When the first whistle goes off, the subplots will evaporate, however.

Manchester United will go for their third consecutive league win since January, while Everton – still probably feeling the side effects of Marcelo Silva’s sacking – look for a second consecutive win in their new era. It’s not probable that it will be the case, but “Big Dunc” will go for it.

“It is going to be difficult for us but it’s one we will be up for,” he said. “United are on the up at the moment and they are a very good team. It will be a big ask but I am sure we can give a good account of ourselves.”

“I’d be on the roof if we get a win there,” he added. “But we can do it and that’s what we’ll try to do.”

INJURIES: Manchester United — OUT: Bailly (knee), Fosu-Mensah (knee), Pogba (ankle) | Everton — OUT: Walcott (calf), Schneiderlin (calf), Gbamin (thigh), Gomes (ankle)

Arsenal vs. Manchester City — 9:00 a.m ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Just how tough is the main job at Arsenal? If we strictly zero in on Freddie Ljungberg’s latest request, it becomes apparent that managing the Gunners at this point in time comes with unique challenges and limitations that not every manager-in-the-making can bare.

The 42-year-old Arsenal legend, who is currently serving as Arsenal’s interim manager, is calling for the club’s board to swiftly come to a resolution in their search for a full-time manager, according to The Guardian.

In three league matches at the helm of Arsenal, Ljungberg has earned four points, losing only to Brighton 2-1 at the Emirates. That said, the former winger has yet to face a side that sits higher than his team on the table.

That will change with Manchester City visiting on Sunday.

Looking to bounce back from their Manchester Derby defeat, Pep Guardiola reveled that he’s studied his opponent’s new look, although when going against the North London team, it’s all about not letting them feel comfortable.

“I have not watched the previous games with Unai,” he says “I watched the games they played with Ljungberg to try to figure out what they’ll try to do.”
“But normally Arsenal have a typical style of play. If you let them play, they have the quality to play. Arsenal away is always a big test for any team.”

INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Ceballos (thigh), Xhaka (concussion), Holding (knee), Tierney (shoulder) | Manchester City — OUT: Agüero (thigh), Stones (thigh), Laporte (knee), Sané (knee)

Pellegrini: ‘I’ve felt everyday the commitment from the players’

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Saturday’s 1-0 win against a nonclinical Southampton was a big break for West Ham United, specifically for Irons’ manager Manuel Pellegrini, who was reportedly going to lose his job if he’d fail to capture three points at St. Mary’s Stadium.

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Despite starting the season in spectacular shape, West Ham started slipping, winning a lone match in an 11-match stretch. Even then, Pellegrini managed to hold on to his day-one bravado (and optimism), claiming that his team are still in contention for “European football.” They aren’t. But what is a new reality at West Ham is that after their first December win, the Irons are four points clear of the relegation zone, and Pellegrini, himself, has some room to breathe.

To the BBC:

“I can’t divide myself from the team,” Pellegrini said after the victory. “For West Ham it was an important three points. Maybe we have had a difficult moment but I have never lost trust in what we do. I don’t read the media but I am not stupid. I always focus on the win.

“I said before the game that I felt everyday the commitment of the players in the work that they do. I am happy for the players. We started the season very well and I hope now we have recovered our best performance for the next games.”

With more possession throughout the 90 minutes and an aggressive attacking product in the second half, struggling Southampton were unlucky to not hit the back of the net. Saints’ boss, Ralph Hasenhuttl, described the game as the type that his side “need to win.”

No stranger to scrappy wins, Mark Noble is well aware that his team need to embrace any positive light shined their way. To him, it builds character, camaraderie, and the confidence that West Ham will need to get out of the overwhelming situation that they find themselves in: a team fighting mediocrity.

“We looked a lot more compact tonight,” Noble said. “When you win not so pretty like that, it gives you a lot more confidence because the players are fighting for each other. It was such an important win for us. Sometimes we need to start attacks from the defense and I think that’s really important. It builds confidence in the team that we can defend and we can build. You don’t get anything in this league if you don’t try hard.”

UPSL playoff match abandoned after coach punches referee

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A United Premier Soccer League playoff game was abandoned after a referee assault in Maryland on Saturday, the latest in a long line of referee abuse stories.

A player from Mass United had been shown a red card, and a member of the club’s coaching staff punched the referee.

The match between Mass United and World Class Premier FC (Maryland) was a Northeast Championship match, and would send a winner to the UPSL’s national finals in Miami.

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The match was tied at 1 around halftime when the referee stopped play after a foul led to a skirmish between players.

According to a source, the referee mistakenly removed a red card from his pocket when he meant to show a yellow. Before the referee could correct himself, an assistant coach punched him in the face. The game was abandoned and the win awarded to World Class Premier.

The UPSL is considered to be the fifth-tier of the American Soccer Pyramid and is sanctioned by the United States Adult Soccer Association.

Referees in Berlin protested increased incidents of violence earlier this year, while Franck Ribery and Neymar have both been suspended for making contact with officials. In 2014, an American referee was killed after a player punched him in the face after a red card incident. The player was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Here’s how it looked from the local angle in Maryland, with The Montgomery County Sentinel reporter Carlos Alfaro Rodriguez on scene. He confirmed the incident with ProSoccerTalk.

Bundesliga wrap: Leipzig, BVB, Bayern all win in routs

Sancho Borussia Dortmund
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Bundesliga has a new leader, at least for a day.

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RB Leipzig cruised to a win on the road and will now wait to see how Borussia Monchengladbach responds to bombing out of Europe.

Bayern and Borussia Dortmund also ran up the score lines on a busy day in Germany.

Fortuna Dusseldorf 0-3 RB Leipzig

Nordi Mukiele scored twice as Julian Nagelsmann’s men moved top of the table for at least a day. Patrik Schick also scored for Leipzig.

USMNT backstop Zack Steffen was under fire all day, making four saves, two high claims, and a clearance, but was at fault for one of the goals.

And ICYMI: Leipzig’s American midfielder, Tyler Adams, should return by the end of the month.

Bayern Munich 6-1 Werder Bremen

Milot Rashica supplied a surprise lead for the visitors, but it was all Bayern from the 24th minute onward. Philippe Coutinho scored the first goal of his hat trick in the 45th and Robert Lewandowski started his brace in stoppage time. Thomas Muller added a 75th minute goal as Bayern rose fourth, six points of Leipzig.

Mainz 0-4 Borussia Dortmund

Marco Reus and Jadon Sancho both had a goal and an assist for BVB, who pulls into third on the table. Nico Schultz and Thorgan Hazard also scored in the 0-save clean sheet for Roman Burki.

Hertha Berlin 1-0 Freiburg

Czech midfielder Vladimir Darida scored in the 53rd minute to help Jurgen Klinsmann to his first win as Hertha manager. Hertha is now three points clear of the relegation playoff spot, and the win comes over a Freiburg side flirting with the European places.

Elsewhere
Hoffenheim 2-4 Augsburg — Friday
Paderborn 1-1 Union Berlin — Rare point for the hosts
Koln 2-0 Bayer Leverkusen — Visitors finish with 9 men
Wolfsburg v. Borussia Monchengladbach — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Schalke v. Eintracht Frankfurt — Noon ET Sunday

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 RB Leipzig 15 10 3 2 42 16 26 4-2-1 6-1-1 33
 Mönchengladbach 14 10 1 3 30 16 14 6-1-1 4-0-2 31
 Borussia Dortmund 15 8 5 2 37 19 18 5-2-0 3-3-2 29
 Bayern Munich 15 8 3 4 41 21 20 5-1-2 3-2-2 27
 FC Schalke 04 14 7 4 3 25 18 7 3-3-1 4-1-2 25
 SC Freiburg 15 7 4 4 24 18 6 4-2-1 3-2-3 25
 Bayer Leverkusen 15 7 4 4 22 20 2 3-4-1 4-0-3 25
 1899 Hoffenheim 15 6 3 6 21 27 -6 3-1-4 3-2-2 21
 VfL Wolfsburg 14 5 5 4 15 14 1 2-3-2 3-2-2 20
 1. FC Union Berlin 15 6 2 7 19 20 -1 5-0-3 1-2-4 20
 FC Augsburg 15 5 5 5 24 28 -4 3-2-2 2-3-3 20
 Eintracht Frankfurt 14 5 3 6 24 22 2 4-3-1 1-0-5 18
 Hertha BSC Berlin 15 4 3 8 21 29 -8 3-0-4 1-3-4 15
 FSV Mainz 05 15 5 0 10 20 38 -18 3-0-4 2-0-6 15
 Werder Bremen 15 3 5 7 23 35 -12 1-2-4 2-3-3 14
 Fortuna Düsseldorf 15 3 3 9 16 32 -16 2-1-4 1-2-5 12
 1. FC Köln 15 3 2 10 14 30 -16 2-1-4 1-1-6 11
 SC Paderborn 15 2 3 10 18 33 -15 1-1-6 1-2-4 9