World Cup 2014: Who’s your dark horse of the tournament?

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According to Wikipedia, a “dark horse” is “a little-known person or thing that emerges to prominence, especially in a competition of some sort.” In the context of the World Cup, it’s the countries that are unlikely to really lift the trophy, but still could give the big-shots a decent scare. 

In other words, the phrase “dark horse” doesn’t apply to the likes of Brazil, Spain, Germany or Argentina. It’s not usually used to describe England, who’ve got a solid history but rarely come close to the Cup, or to talk about France, who also have history but are in a bit of a rebuilding phase.

And it’s probably a bit of a stretch to talk about, say, Honduras as a “dark horse”, as they’re highly unlikely to suddenly “emerge to prominence.”

Finally, Belgium? Colombia? Please. These teams no longer fit the distinction of “little-known,” with their names being bandied about since before they even clinched a trip to Brazil.

So with that criteria set out, let’s talk about four teams that really could cause a few upsets in the 2014 World Cup:

Switzerland
Could the world’s most neutral country really produce a team that wins such a prestigious tournament? It’s possible. First, Switzerland are drawn into the “Group of Life,” with Ecuador, Honduras, and a France side that could very well repeat its disastrous performances of 2010.  Group E’s winner goes on to face the runner-up in Group F, likely to be Bosnia or Nigeria. Right there, you’ve got the possibility of the Swiss advancing further than they have since 1954, when they went out in the quarter-finals.

Then, take a look at their side. If you’re not a fan of German or Italian football, a quick glance might not impress you. But Switzerland have some fantastically talented individuals: Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus in defense, with Napoli’s midfield trio of Gokhan Inler, Blerim Dzemaili and Valon Behrami available to break up play in front of the back line. Gladbach’s Granit Xhaka can link up play, while Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri joins in the attack. Up front could well be young Josip Drmić, third top-scorer in the Bundesliga this season – 17 from a club that scored just 37.

Chile
Ouch. Chile got drawn into Group B, together with Spain and the Netherlands: the two sides that played in the 2010 World Cup final. But there’s a vital piece of information to remember, here: Holland’s performance in Euro 2012. The team was a shambles, and while much of the defense has been given a shake-up, Louis van Gaal is still relying on some rather tired players.

Unlike Chile, whose squad has remained rather consistent. For the most part, they’re not a flashy side, but they do love a good attack. That’s led by La Roja‘s biggest name, Alexis Sánchez from Barcelona. Eduardo Vargas is one to watch as well – the attacker’s been on loan away from Napoli for the past two seasons, something that most fans of the Italian side don’t understand, as he’s an exciting talent who’s already scored 11 goals in 28 appearances for Chile. And, of course, they have Arturo Vidal, a lynch-pin in Juventus’s title-winning side, and one who can both create and destroy an attack.

Ivory Coast
Any squad with Yaya Touré included must be up for discussion. Sure, soccer’s a team sport, but the midfielder almost seems to create a team around him. It seems as though Ivory Coast has been mentioned has having an outside shot ever since Didier Drogba came into prominence, qualifying for the first time in 2006.

But they’ve never made it past the group stage – is this their year? Their back line looks rather weak, but their attack could more than make up for it. In addition to  Touré, they’ve got Gervinho, who’s been an absolute beast for Roma this season, starting 30 games, scoring nine goals, wracking up ten assists and just generally terrorizing defenses. There’s also something to be said for Drogba’s remaining magic. At 36 years old, it’s difficult to believe he can still create a splash, but you just get the feeling that he’ll inevitably score some crazy goal in Brazil.

Croatia
It’s hard to imagine that a side that could barely make it past Iceland in their UEFA playoff match could emerge as a true challenger in the World Cup. But those were Niko Kovač’s first games in charge, and there’s a feeling that under the new manager, Croatia might really flourish. He’s got a plan and he’s sticking to it, and with that clear guidance comes confidence amongst his team.

And then there’s the pint-sized pot of magic known as Luka Modrić. The Real Madrid midfielder doesn’t get much of the spotlight, but it’s clear he’s one of the anchors of los merengues. So too with his national team. Playing alongside Ivan Rakitić, the two build up Croatia’s play, and if Inter’s Mateo Kovačić is added to the midfield, things could really get fun. And up front, there’s the man everyone is hoping to sign this summer, Bayern’s Mario Mandžukić.

PL Club Power Rankings: Week 15

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The congested schedule means we’ve had two match days since we last took stock of the Premier League.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

We’ve got a brand new Top Five (well, in terms of the four behind eventual champions Liverpool) and two teams dipping to season lows on our ol’ litmus test.

Green: New season-high ranking
Red: New season-low

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings archive ]


20. Watford — As many losses as goals (9), and that figure is one more than the Hornets’ total points. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise to see them on the verge of full-time manager No. 3, as full-time manager of Watford is a bit more like seasonal help.
Last week: 18
Season high: 17
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 3-0 v. Burnley
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Southampton

19. Everton — A top half team in terms of talent seeks the manager who can organize its way out of the drop zone.
Last week: 17
Season high: 5
Season low: 19
Last match: Lost 2-0 v. Norwich City
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday at Leicester City

18. Norwich City — The first team to 10 losses is four points shy of 17th.
Last week: 16
Season high: 10
Season low: 20
Last match: Won 2-0 at Everton
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Arsenal

17. West Ham United — A gigantic ball of “blah.” Should thank the world Everton exists so people aren’t more focused on this particular collection of currently squandered talent.
Last week: 20
Season high: 5
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 3-2 v. Spurs
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Chelsea

16. Bournemouth — It’s just not good enough, is it? To have held onto Callum Wilson and get another step up in class from Philip Billing and still be so wildly inconsistent.
Last week: 11
Season high: 6
Season low: 17
Last match: Lost 2-1 v. Wolves
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Spurs

15. Southampton — It really feels like the Danny Ings revival show could rival any story for the best individual one in the league this season. Happy to see Ralph Hasenhuttl get some good performances, as he was being scapegoated in a hurry.
Last week: 19
Season high: 13
Season low: 20
Last match: Drew 2-2 at Arsenal
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday v. Watford

14. Aston Villa — Allowing a league-worst 18.8 shots per game, but staying in the mix thanks to Nick Pope and Tyrone Mings.
Last week: 13
Season high: 8
Season low: 15
Last match: Won 2-0 v. Newcastle United
Up next: 11 a.m. ET Sunday at Manchester United

13. Arsenal — The Gunners back line gets a lot of heat, and rightly so, but maybe a little help from the midfield would be nice considering Sokratis Papastathopoulos and David Luiz have combined for 39 blocks. Sokratis is third in the PL and Luiz fourth.
Last week: 12
Season high: 4
Season low: 12
Last match: Drew 2-2 v. Southampton
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Norwich City


12. Brighton and Hove Albion — First win ever away to Arsenal is another feather in the cap of Graham Potter, especially nice considering they had lost four on the bounce.
Last week: 14
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Lost 2-0 v. Leicester City
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Liverpool

11. Newcastle United — No one is punching above its weight more than Steve Bruce‘s Magpies, and they’ve been aided in a big way by Martin Dubravka. The Slovakian goalkeeper has a league-best 44 saves from shots inside the 18.

Also, according to Understat’s xG numbers, they should’ve lost to the Blades. In fat, the xG table says they should be dead last. Life’s funny like that. It’s Steve Bruce’s world and we’re living in it.
Last week: 15
Season high: 11
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-0 at Aston Villa
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday v. Man City

https://understat.com/match/11786

10. Sheffield United — Just lost for the first time since September. That’s amazing.
Last week: 6
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Drew 3-3 v. Manchester United
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Wolves

9. Burnley — Striker Chris Wood has been credited with 12 “big chances missed” by Sofascore, more than any player in the league.
Last week: 7
Season high: 5
Season low: 15
Last match: Won 3-0 at Watford
Up next: 10 a.m. Saturday v. Crystal Palace

8. Spurs — Jose Mourinho learned Wednesday that Moussa Sissoko is nice for the squad, but not to be leaned on.
Last week: 9
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Won 3-2 at West Ham United
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Bournemouth

7. Crystal Palace — Wilfried Zaha‘s 68 dribbles are 13 more than anyone else in the league.
Last week: 10
Season high: 5
Season low: 18
Last match: Lost 2-1 v. Liverpool
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Burnley

6. Manchester United — Ole had himself a moment in outfoxing Mourinho without Pogba or Martial.
Last week: 8
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Drew 3-3 at Sheffield United
Up next: 11:30 a.m. Sunday v. Aston Villa

5. Chelsea — We told you, Frank. WE TOLD YOU.
Last week: 4
Season high: 2
Season low: 12
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Man City
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. West Ham United

4. Manchester City — Aymeric Laporte is still two months away and that’s two months too long.
Last week: 2
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 2-1 v. Chelsea
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday at Newcastle United

3. Wolves — This is going to sound nuts, but there are days I’d rather see Liverpool on my schedule than Wolves. The Reds are obviously better weaponized, but Wolves come at you in waves, man, and Nuno Espirito Santo is doing it without his best center back.
Last week: 5
Season high: 3
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 2-1 at Bournemouth
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Sheffield United

2. Leicester City — How’s this for an unsustainable stat? Wilfred Ndidi and Ricardo Pereira rank first and second in the league in tackles, with 67 and 62.
Last week: 3
Season high: 2
Season low: 10
Last match: Won 2-0 at Brighton and Hove Albion
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday v. Everton
1. Liverpool — Big Virgil Van Dijk is on track to become the first Premier League player to complete 1000 passes this season, currently at 953.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 2-1 at Crystal Palace
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Brighton and Hove Albion

Report: Everton targeting former Porto, Fener boss Pereira

Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images
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Everton might be looking to the Chinese Super League for its next manager.

Vitor Pereira is the top target for the Merseyside set, report our partners at Sky Sports, as the Toffees begin life after Thursday’s firing of Marco Silva.

Pereira, 51, has been in management since 2002, leading Porto, Olympiacos, Fenerbahce, and current club Shanghai SIPG amongst others.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

He’s won titles in Greece, China, Saudi Arabia, and his native Portugal, but there are suitors beyond the Toffees’ reported interest.

The 51-year-old is currently one of the highest paid coaches in the world and was recently offered the job of managing the Chinese national team.

It is understood he is currently considering a new contract offer from Shanghai, which will guarantee he earns £30m a year.

Duncan Ferguson is the interim boss as Everton hosts Chelsea this weekend.

MLS teams no longer will play every opponent each season

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NEW YORK (AP) Major League Soccer is breaking away from soccer’s tradition of having each team play every opponent in its league.

MLS is expanding to 26 teams in 2020 with the additions of Miami and Nashville but will keep a 34-game regular-season schedule. A team will play each of its 12 conference opponents home and away, and will face only 10 of the 13 teams in the other conference.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Nashville opens Feb. 29 at home against Atlanta and David Beckham’s Inter Miami starts March 1 at Los Angeles, the league said Thursday in announcing all home openers. Defending champion Seattle opens March 1 against Chicago.

Other Feb. 29 openers are Colorado at D.C., New England at Montreal, LA Galaxy at Houston, Toronto at San Jose, Philadelphia at Dallas, Salt Lake at Orlando and Kansas City at Vancouver. Games the following day include New York City at Columbus, Cincinnati at New York Red Bulls and Minnesota at Portland.

Home openers on March 7 are Chicago at New England, Red Bulls at Salt Lake, NYC at Toronto, Cincinnati at Atlanta, Houston at Kansas City, Orlando at Colorado and Vancouver at LA Galaxy. Four more home openers are set for March 14: Dallas at NYC, LA Galaxy at Miami, D.C. at Cincinnati and San Jose at Philadelphia.

The final home openers are Red Bulls at Minnesota on March 15 and Atlanta at Chicago on March 21 as the Fire return downtown to Soldier Field, their home from 1997-2005. The played in suburban Bridgeview from 2006 through last season.

More AP soccer https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Saint-Maximin proud to score first Premier League goal on mom’s birthday

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Newcastle United is reveling in another win, the Magpies claiming a point for the fifth time in six matches with a 2-0 win at Sheffield United.

Allan Saint-Maximin was richly rewarded for his effervescent season with a first Premier League goal, though it came in unexpected fashion.

[ RECAP: Blades 0-2 Newcastle ]

The dribbling wizard rose above his mark to head a Javi Manquillo cross past Dean Henderson for the first goal of the match at Bramall Lane, and he was quite happy to do it on a memorable day for his family.

“It’s special because I score with my head and I never think I can score with my head,” he said, via The Chronicle.  “I’m really proud because today is the birthday of my mother, and I score my first goal for my mother and I’m really happy to do that.”

Saint-Maximin has quickly become a fan favorite, and the Frenchman showed he’s ready with a joke, too, when noting midfield Jonjo Shelvey scored his team-best fourth goal of the season thanks to some decisive refereeing from Stuart Atwell and VAR.

[ MORE: Wilder enraged with VAR ]

“I’m happy for the best striker in Newcastle – four goals.”

Funny stuff from the man his manager Steve Bruce once described by saying, “He’s only 22 and he’s got more outfits than I’ve seen.”