2014 World Cup Team Preview: Greece

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Getting to know… Greece
Greece are quietly (and some might say, boringly) one of the world soccer’s greatest powers. Well, of the 21st century, anyway. Prior to 2004, no one paid Greece much attention. Then they went on to win the 2004 European Championship.

Their success in the Euros ten years ago marked them out as formidable opponents, although they failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, and only made it to the group stage of Euro 2008. Greece then went to South Africa but failed to get out of the group stages.

However, they’re currently ranked 10th in the world, however surprising that might be. Greece did manage to make it to the quarterfinals of Euro 2012, but needed to win a playoff to reach Brazil. In this case, focusing on their ranking may be overestimating the side – but it’s always wise to remember that this strong defensive unit can take points off top teams.

Record in qualifying
Greece finished even on points with Bosnia in UEFA Group G, both winning eight, losing one and drawing one for a total of 25 points. But Bosnia’s +24 goal difference far outweighed the Greeks’ +8.

That meant a two-legged playoff with Romania, who’d finished behind Netherlands. Surprisingly, considering Greece had scored no more than two goals in any match in qualifying, they ran out 3-1 winners in the first leg. The second finished a 1-1 draw, but it mattered little. Greece won 4-2 on aggregate and were set for Brazil.

Oh, and Kostas Mitroglou scored three of Greece’s four goals in the playoff round. The same Kostas Mitroglou who went to Fulham and was never seen again.

A look at Group C
Nothing about Group C looks easy. Colombia, the top seeds, are one of the dark horses in this year’s World Cup, even if Radamel Falcao doesn’t get back to full fitness in time. Ivory Coast are getting on in years, but they have Yaya Touré, who had a superb season at Manchester City, and Didier Drogba, who might be 36 but can still score some immense goals. And then there’s Japan, whose attacking threat may be enough to wear down Greece’s defenses.

Game schedule

Sunday, June 15 at 12 noon: Colombia vs. Greece (Estadio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte)

Thursday, June 19 at 6 p.m.: Japan vs. Greece (Arena das Dunas, Natal)

Tuesday, June 24 at 4 p.m.: Greece vs. Ivory Coast (Estadio Castelão, Fortaleza)

Star player
Greece lack a certain star quality. They’ve got a few players in Italy, two at Fulham, and most of the rest in the domestic league. The star, almost by default, becomes Kostas Mitroglou, he of the famed $20m move to Fulham, back in January. But a persistent knee problem, combined with doubts expressed by manager Felix Magath, kept the forward out of the starting lineup. In his four months at the club, Mitroglou started just once.

But Mitroglou has scored eight goals in 28 appearances for his country, including those vital goals in the playoff against Romania. And considering coach Fernando Santos cut three other strikers from his preliminary squad, it makes sense to keep one that’s been able to step up in important games.

Manager
Fernando Santos has been at the helm since 2010, after coaching domestic club PAOK for three seasons. Despite being voted Greece’s best coach of the decade in 2010, the shadow of his predecessor still lingers.

Santos took over from Otto Rehhagel, the coach that lead Greece to their Euro triumph. And while the Portuguese tactician has attempted to introduce a different style to the national team, little has changed. Greece are still known primarily for their defensive strength…

Secret weapon
Which is, of course, their not-so-secret weapon. If you’re not an avid watcher of European tournaments or qualifiers, you may not know just how much Greece rely on their defense. After all, they lost to both South Korea and Argentina by a 2-0 scoreline in 2010, and beat Nigeria 2-1.

But Greece pride themselves on being as stingy as possible. They conceded just four times in qualifying, a record bettered only by Cup holders Spain. Yet Greece faced rather weak competition from the rest of Group G, and in their second meeting with Bosnia, the latter knocked in three. Will their weapon fail them in Brazil?

Prediction
Greece will barely have any time to unpack their bags. It’s highly unlikely they’ll make it out of the group stages, and a last-place finish in Group C is well within the realm of possibility.

Liverpool sign teenage sensation Van den Berg

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Sepp van den Berg is officially a Liverpool player with a $1.6 million deal agreed.

Plenty of top clubs across Europe have been chasing the PEC Zwolle teenager, but the 17-year-old center back has chosen to sign for Jurgen Klopp‘s reigning European champions.

Van den Berg made his debut in the Dutch Eredivisie during the 2018-19 campaign, making 15 appearances, and has already progressed to play for the Netherlands U19 national team four times.

Speaking about his arrival at Anfield, the youngster seems pretty happy to be calling Liverpool home.

“It’s just an amazing feeling. It is, for me, the biggest club in the world and it’s a dream come true. I am really excited,” van den Berg said. “I’ve seen what kind of players from the Academy grew into the first team here. It is unbelievable, especially when this kind of big club does that. Of course, the trainer [Jurgen Klopp] is a great guy and one of the reasons they are successful – and also one of the reasons I came here. I think this is the best place for me to grow and hopefully play a lot of games here.”

This is a long-term signing for Liverpool, but with Dejan Lovren eager to leave this summer to play regularly, VDB could be straight in as Liverpool’s fourth-choice center back. He is a defender who has a turn of pace but is also calm on the ball, and that seems to slot in perfect with what Liverpool want from their defenders.

Fellow Dutchman Virgil Van Dijk will be the perfect role model for the youngster (van den Berg mentioned that he can’t wait to learn “everything” from van Dijk) while Joel Matip and Joe Gomez will battle it out for the spot alongside VVD at center back in the next few seasons.

Having VVD pass the baton to VDB in a few years time seems like the plan for Klopp and Liverpool. NBD.

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.