2014 World Cup team preview: Croatia

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Getting to know… Croatia: Their pedigree as a soccer nation is undoubted as they’ve already made it to the World Cup semifinals despite only being a registered FIFA nation since 1993. At France ’98 a Davor Suker inspired Croatia lost to hosts France in the final four but won plenty of fans. The former Yugoslav nation has only failed to qualify for one World Cup tournament, that was the last time out in South Africa. In their three World Cup appearances they finished third in 1998 but failed to make it out of the group in 2002 and 2006. With a talented squad and a great work ethic, they will be hoping to make it to the last 16, at least.

Record in qualifying: Qualified via the UEFA playoffs after finishing second in Group A of qualifying behind Belgium. Croatia beat Iceland 2-0 over a two legged playoff to qualify for the World Cup, sealing their place with a 2-0 win in Zagreb during the second leg.

What group are they in? Croatia are in Group A along with Brazil, Mexico and Cameroon in a group they will be hoping to make it out of. After Brazil, the hosts are expected to win this group at a canter, Croatia seem to be the next strongest side. However Cameroon and Mexico are no pushovers. The Croats know they are in a scrap for second place but do have the chance to play spoiler in the opening game of the tournament against hosts Brazil.

Game schedule: Group A

12 June, 16:00, Sao Paulo – Brazil vs. Croatia
18 June, 15:00, Manaus – Cameroon vs. Croatia
23 June, 16:00, Recife – Croatia vs. Mexico

Star player: Luka Modric

The Real Madrid midfielder is an absolute machine and has had a magnificent season in the engine room. In the UEFA Champions League final Modric was arguably the best player on the pitch as he buzzed around, tackled ferociously, passed with precision and dragged Real back from the dead to win the UCL crown. He runs and runs and runs. Able to let fly from distance and thread balls through to strikers such as Mario Mandzukic, opposition teams will try to man-mark Modric out of the game… good luck!

source: AP
Modric is a machine in midfield. Can he deliver for Croatia this summer?

Manager: Niko Kovac

Taking charge of the playoff games to get Croatia to the World Cup, former national team captain Kovac and his brother Robert steered the Croats to the finals. Igor Stimac was fired acrimoniously by the federation in 2013 but after the Kovac’s (both former Croatian internationals who played at the 2002, 2006 World Cup) worked wonders with Coratia’s U-21 side, they did the same with full national team. Passionate and having a wealth of experience on the international stage, Kovac will use all of that to help Croatia succeed this summer.

Secret weapon: Strong defense.

Even though they struggled through qualifying, Croatia’s man issue was a lack of goals. They didn’t concede more than two goals in any game since qualifying began back in September 2012. With Dejan Lovren having a fine season in the Premier League and veteran Darijo Srna back there, Croatia will be extremely tough to break down. Plus they have Brazilian born forward Eduardo (who used to play for Arsenal) up top to finish off any chances. He will be crucial, especially in the opener vs. his home nation as Mandzukic is suspended.

Prediction: Croatia will get out of Group A but it will not be easy. Their final group game against Mexico is likely to be pivotal as they battle El Tri for second spot. If Croatia can get their spine of experienced players firing, Srna, Modric, Mandzukic, then they have a chance of being a real dark horse in this tournament. They have done it before, why can’t they shock everyone again?

Barcelona sign Neto in goalkeeper swap with Valencia

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Brazilian goalkeeper Neto will sign a four-year contract with the Spanish champions.

The transfer completes a swap a day after Barcelona sold Jasper Cillessen to Valencia.

Barcelona says it is paying 26 million euros ($29.5 million) plus possibly another 9 million euros ($10.2 million) in variables for Neto. Valencia paid Barcelona 35 million euros ($40 million) for Cillessen.

Neto will replace Cillessen, who played as a backup for Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the Champions League and the Spanish league and only regularly started in the Copa del Rey.

The 29-year-old Neto helped Valencia qualify for the Champions League with a fourth-place finish for the past two seasons in Spain. He also played in Italy at Juventus as a backup to Gianluigi Buffon and at Fiorentina after starting at Brazilian club Paranaense.

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

USMNT v. Panama: Three things we learned

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It wasn’t always pretty, but the U.S. Men’s National Team eked out a 1-0 win over Panama in Kansas City, Kan. on Wednesday night to win its group. Jozy Altidore scored the game’s only goal in stunning fashion, finishing an overhead kick to put Panama away and set up a quarterfinal bout with Curacao on Sunday evening.

Here are three of the biggest takeaways from Wednesday’s win:

[READ: All the latest USMNT news here]


Jozy Altidore is still the best we’ve got

Many U.S. Men’s National Team fans have called for the forced retirements of Altidore and Michael Bradley, among many others, after the debacle that was the last World Cup cycle.

Until tonight, Altidore wasn’t in the USMNT picture, in part due to Dave Sarachan using younger players and Altidore continuing to suffer a series of muscle injuries since October 2017. And yet, if tonight’s game showed anything in Altidore’s 83 minutes on the pitch, it’s that he’s still the best option for the USMNT up top. While Gregg Berhalter clearly prefers Gyasi Zardes right now based on their previous work history together in Columbus, Zardes doesn’t have the strength or skill that Altidore does. It’s hard to imagine Zardes executing an overhead kick and it going in as sweetly as Altidore did.

What does this mean going forward? Regardless of if Zardes starts the rest of the way, Berhalter knows that he has Altidore always around who can give the U.S. a goal, especially on home soil and when fit. But it also lays the marker down for Zardes, Tim Weah, Josh Sargent and the other up and coming strikers that this is the level they need to meet, and beat, if they want to break into the starting lineup under Berhalter.

There’s speed to burn on the wings

It may not have had a huge impact on Wednesday, but in bringing Tyler Boyd and Christian Pulisic off the bench, Berhalter showed exactly why he’s brought so many speedy skill players along the wings.

While Jordan Morris and Jonathan Lewis couldn’t figure out the final pass or final touch in the box to score a goal, just their presence for 65-70 minutes tired out the backline, and the introductions of Pulisic and Boyd could have really unlocked the Panama defense. While it didn’t totally work on Wednesday, it could in the later stages of the tournament, especially in a potential rematch with either Panama or Jamaica in the semifinals and Mexico in the finals.

With Lewis and Morris likely available off the bench, that adds a new piece opponents have to worry about, both in terms of speed and dribbling ability.

Few impressed in a chance to earn a starting spot

It’s been nearly two years since the debacle in Trinidad and Tobago, and yet aside from maybe Matt Miazga or Nick Lima, there have been very few players who have done much to impress and prove they’re better than the previous cycle’s players. That continued on Wednesday with an MLS-heavy lineup. Wil Trapp, a midfielder with so much promise a few years ago, appears to have stalled. He had multiple turnovers and certainly didn’t look as sharp as Michael Bradley.

While Lewis and Morris have plenty of pace, their final pass was woeful and they didn’t do themselves any favors. Djordje Mihailovic was never going to push Pulisic out of the starting lineup, but Mihailovic didn’t exactly do enough to say that he should be the first man off the bench either, or to push Pulisic into a wing role with Mihailovic in the middle.

Aside from Matt Miazga and Omar Gonzalez in the middle, along with Altidore up top, no one in the lineup really did enough through the first 65 minutes to warrant another start in the tournament. It’s yet another disappointment as young players get chance after chance to prove they belong as starters, only to waste the opportunity, enabling the veterans to keep their role. More players need to keep pushing for those spots, whether through club form or national team performances. Otherwise, we’ll end up in the same situation as before.

 

USMNT remains perfect, tops Panama to win group (video)

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In his first start since the U.S. Men’s National Team’s infamous defeat to Trinidad and Tobago, Jozy Altidore showcased his strength, speed and technical ability to help lead the U.S. to victory.

Altidore’s outstanding bicycle kick goal proved to be the difference in a sometimes dour game as the USMNT topped Panama, 1-0, Wednesday evening at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan. The win kept the U.S. perfect through the Gold Cup group stage with no goals allowed, and it has somewhat erased the memory of the USMNT’s horrible run-up to the tournament, with defeats to Jamaica and Venezuela now firmly in the rear-view mirror.

[MUST-SEE GOAL: Jozy Altidore]

With the win, both teams head to Philadelphia for the quarterfinals this Sunday. Panama plays the undercard matchup against Jamaica while the USMNT faces Curacao.

Coming off two wins to open the Gold Cup, Berhalter decided to use a completely changed starting lineup, featuring ten players from MLS teams along with Chelsea loanee Matt Miazga. Although there was some familiarity of the players on the field, it was at times a very poor match, with the USMNT struggling badly in the final third and even turning the ball over at midfield or leading the attack.

Despite winning the possession battle, 62-38, the USMNT didn’t do much with it. Jordan Morris and Jonathan Lewis, both of whom were subbed out, struggled on their crosses after beating a defender. The pair provided energy and hard running defensively but it didn’t lead to many chances. Altidore had the best of the first half when he was played into the box, but his strike from the right just went wide of the net.

In the 65th minute, Berhalter tried to inject some life in the game with the introduction of Christian Pulisic. It turned out a goal could come just after, but without the intervention of Pulisic.

Djordje Mihailovic drilled the corner kick to the far post where it was met by the head of Matt Miazga who sent it back towards goal. A missed clearance from Panama popped the ball up in the air above the back post, allowing Altidore the time he needed to lift off the ground and bicycle kick it in for the game’s only goal.

Berhalter later brought on both Tyler Boyd and Gyasi Zardes off the bench to try and score an insurance goal, but Panama’s defense held strong and the U.S. failed to threaten the rest of the way. However, the U.S. backline kept a third-consecutive clean sheet and key players such as Michael Bradley got the entire game off to rest before likely returning to the lineup this weekend.

 

 

Must-See Goal: Jozy Altidore puts USMNT in front with Bicycle Kick

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Jozy Altidore put his stamp on the game and gave U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter more to speak about with one fell swing.

Altidore finished off a corner kick in spectacular fashion, executing a perfect bicycle kick to put the USMNT up 1-0 in the 66th minute. The goal came one minute after the entrance of Christian Pulisic, which perhaps was on the mind of the Panama defense.

It was Altidore’s second-straight game vs. Panama with a goal. His last two were in October 2017, when the U.S. pummeled Panama, 4-0. Of course, a few days later, a tired USMNT failed to win at Trinidad and Tobago.