Could Croatia really have done better against Iceland?

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On Friday evening, Iceland and Croatia played out a 0-0 draw in the chilly air of Reykjavik. Iceland, with a population barely over 300,000, were meant to be the tiny minnows in the matchup, a side that should’ve been easily beaten by a Croatia team featuring players in some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Instead, Iceland held on tight to keep the visitors from scoring, despite going down to ten men shortly after the restart.

The hosts had also lost one of their brightest players when injured Ajax striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson came off just before the break. Veteran Eidur Gudjohnsen replaced him, but barely had time to make an impact before moving to midfield to help stem the Croatia attack. Iceland’s compact organization and disciplined defending were already on show during the first half, but were certainly put to the test by a relentless Croatia in the second. Iceland were also helped by the heroic Hannes Thór Halldórsson, with the KR Reykjavik goalkeeper putting on an immense display to stifle shots from Ivan Rakitic, Ivica Olic, Ivan Perisic and Darijo Srna, just to name a few.

To the detached observer, there was little fault to be found in Croatia’s play. Perhaps Eduardo could have done better with his shot in the second minute. Maybe Perisic should have found a way to put in a better strike in the 40th. But their second half display was rather brilliant, with pretty passing, fancy footwork and yes, even some sharp shots on target. Yet Iceland had ten men behind the ball, and that, combined with Halldórsson’s flying saves, prevented the Croats from going home with a win.

But Croatia sees it rather differently. After all, they were supposed to head home clutching an easy victory, and have Tuesday’s leg in Zagreb be a matter of routine. Instead, the draw, particularly against ten men, seemed much more like a loss. Now, the Croats are a-flutter, and the media is in a tizzy. Why, they ask, is this side unable to beat such a weak team, especially after a sending off?

The media attack feels all to familiar to fans of any country that hasn’t lived up to high expectations placed upon them. It followed a particular rhythm: blame the coach for poor player selection. Judge tactics, and find them wanting. Decry the performances of a star player, and state that he doesn’t show up for his country the way he does for his club.

Yet buried in the media onslaught is a small grain of truth. Many expected more from newly appointed manager Niko Kovač. The unpopular Igor Štimac was relieved from his duties after Croatia failed to qualify directly for Brazil, and better things were expected from Croatia’s former captain. Instead, Kovač stuck with a 4-2-3-1 formation — a formation that Croatia does not have the wide players necessary to execute well.

It was the endless tinkering from Štimac (well, it was many things, but this was the major tactical complaint) that brought forth so much criticism. It’s what saw Croatia, who looked so good in the early qualifying matches, lose their momentum in the final matches. Štimac’s selection and tactics saw his side fall twice to Scotland and allow Serbia back into the match for a draw.

With just one match left to secure their trip to Brazil, what Croatia needs now is simplicity. The blame does not lie with Luka Modric, and whether or not he steps up for his country the way he does for Real Madrid. It’s not on Srna, and his way of encouraging his team. Injuries or lack of talent cannot be blamed. Instead, it is up to Kovač to get back to basics in Zagreb: a solid, simple formation (yes, most likely the 4-4-2) that allows Croatia to soak up a rare Iceland attack, while enabling them to get forward quickly enough to perhaps get behind the organized Iceland defense.

A header from Mandžukić. A backheel from Modric to set up a shot from Perisic. A stunning free kick from Srna. It’s possible. But only if Croatia leave the Tinker Toys behind in Reykjavik.

How will USMNT line up versus Costa Rica?

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Saturday brings a first look at the United States men’s national team in 2020, though Gregg Berhalter’s bunch won’t look anything like its best self.

The Yanks have an almost exclusively MLS roster for the match, with Hobro’s Christian Cappas, Wolfsburg II’s Uly Llanez and unattached 17-year-old Bryang Kayo in the fold.

Many of Berhalter’s best MLS stars won’t be in Carson either for the 3:55 p.m. ET Saturday kickoff. Jordan Morris, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley are the biggest names.

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Ronald Gonzalez’s Ticos will be similarly hampered, although more of Costa Rica’s A-side play in MLS and domestically.

We’ll leave the breakdown of the visitors for a later date, but who will rep the U.S. in Saturday’s Starting XI?

The travel roster includes keepers Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid, and Matt Turner, as well as defenders Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman, Reggie Cannon, Julian Araujo, Chase Gasper, Justen Glad, Mark McKenzie, and Sam Vines. Listed midfielders Sebastian Lletget, Jackson Yueill, Brenden Aaronson, Cappis, Kayo, and Brandon Servania are joined by forwards Gyasi Zardes, Paul Arriola, Jonathan Lewis, Jesus Ferreira, and Ulysses Llanez.

Goalkeeper is anyone’s guess, but Johnson’s got the most run of the three during the Berhalter era. The younger Turner or more accomplished Hamid may step in there.

It would be surprising to see any other center backs besides Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long given what we know of Berhalter and his respect for regulars. Reggie Cannon should start at right back and it’s between Chase Gasper and Sam Vines for the left. We’ll choose Vines out of intrigue.

Jackson Yueill, Paul Arriola, Sebastian Lletget, and Gyasi Zardes are safe bets to start, and this would seem a spot to give Jonathan Lewis more than subs’ run. That leaves one spot, and we’re pegging Brandon Servania to be the one chosen of four midfielders aged 17-20.

There’s also the matter of whether FC Dallas striker Jesus Ferreira will be internationally cleared to play Saturday. We sure hope he will be!

How do you think Berhalter will line them up?


How Berhalter may go

Johnson

Cannon — Zimmerman — Long — Vines

Yueill — Servania

Arriola — Lletget — Lewis

Zardes


What we’d like to see

Turner

Cannon — Zimmerman — McKenzie — Vines

Yueill — Cappis — Servania

Arriola — Ferreira — Lewis

Watch our transfer deadline day show from 6-8 p.m. ET on Jan. 31, live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com.

Report: Sheffield United in ‘advanced talks’ for $22M Norway star

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Sheffield United is ready to add one of the game’s brightest young talents to its blossoming Premier League side.

Norway midfielder Sander Berge is the name, and he’s been linked with Liverpool amongst others over the past few months.

Berge turns 22 next month and already has 20 caps for Norway in addition to 113 senior appearances for Genk in Belgium and 43 more for Valerenga in his home country.

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The defensive midfielder has chipped in six goals and four assists. He won the Belgian Super League with Genk last year and has a career-best four goals so this season.

It shows what success brings to a club, as Sky Sports reports that Berge turned down a move to Bramall Lane in the summer.

The fee is said to be $22 million, which isn’t small but completely reasonable given his stature for club and country.

This may move may join the Lys Mousset purchase as one of the Blades’ smartest bits of business, especially as Chris Wilder‘s men look for success on multiple fronts. Their success as a newly-promoted side is one of the great stories of the European season, and a place in Europe would be a fantastic achievement.

From The Yorkshire Post:

“It is going well, no doubt about it,” Wilder said. “On the Premier League front and in the Cup. You probably would not think it, but the win at Millwall has given me an enormous amount of pleasure in confirming, not even seeing, what my team is about. Players have come in with the likes of the skipper (Billy Sharp) and other players who are really driving it forward and want to produce individual performances and the atmosphere is good.”

Watch our transfer deadline day show from 6-8 p.m. ET on Jan. 31, live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com.

Espanyol identify 12 fans who racially insulted player

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BARCELONA, Spain — Spanish club Espanyol says it has identified 12 fans who racially insulted an Athletic Bilbao player in the Spanish league last weekend.

Espanyol said on Monday in a statement that nine of the fans were club members and would face punishment that could include suspension or a full-time ban.

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It said a report of its analysis of the video images of Saturday’s game at RCDE Stadium were sent to authorities.

The club reiterated its “categorical condemnation of any displays of violence and racism.”

The fans made monkey noises directed at Athletic forward Inaki Williams, who is black. Television images showed Williams confronting the section of Espanyol fans who taunted him after he was substituted late in the game in Barcelona.

The Spanish league said it will seek a partial stadium closure for Espanyol and will raise the incident with the Spanish soccer federation’s competition committee, which handles disciplinary issues.

Transfer rumors: West Ham want $44M midfielder, Barca eyes Rodrigo

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West Ham United is being linked with a big transfer splash, and it’s not even a striker.

Uruguayan midfielder Nahitan Nandez is the man in question, and West Ham is reportedly tempting Cagliari with a $44 million offer this January.

Nandez, 23, arrived from Boca Juniors for less than half that fee this summer, and has chipped in a goal with three assists for Tommaso Giulini’s sixth-place Serie A side.

He’s got 31 caps for his national team, and is averaging 1.5 tackles per match with Cagliari. Nandez is also averaging a key pass and 1.1 successful dribbles per league outing.

Football-Italia says that Cagliari will try to tie Nandez to a new deal with a $44 million release clause if the move to West Ham is unsuccessful.

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Meanwhile Barcelona’s pursuit of a Luis Suarez replacement isn’t limited to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, according to Marca.

Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu admits that Valencia striker Rodrigo Moreno is interesting his coaches.

“We don’t talk about players from other teams. But [Rodrigo’s] name is on the table of the coaches, and a replacement will arrive. I do not know whether it will be from Barcelona B or from outside. I like many players.”

The Spaniard has eight goals in 21 caps, and turns 29 in March. Rodrigo has four goals and 10 assists in 23 matches across all competitions this season.

Valencia beat Barcelona this weekend to send the Blaugranas three points back of La Liga leaders Real Madrid.