Beasley, Beckerman, chances in numbers: Three areas of focus for the U.S. against Ghana

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Three hours before kickoff, we still don’t have lineups for the United States or Ghana, but that can’t stop us for looked ahead to the U.S.’s opener at Brazil 2014.

Here are three areas that could prove important when the U.S. faces its World Cup nemesis at 6:00 p.m Eastern in Natal, Brazil:

1. DaMarcus Beasley will have his hands full, regardless – Early hints at Ghana’s starting XI say Asamoah Gyan, André and Jordan Ayew, and Christian Atsu are all in Kwesi Appiah’s starting XI, guaranteed left back DaMarcus Beasley, set to appear in his fourth World Cup will have his hands full. Atsu, a quick Porto product currently on Chelsea’s books, or Jordan Ayew, a more all-around attacking threat who has six seasons’ experience in the French first division, will lineup on Beasley’s flank.

A natural midfielder, Beasley, 32, has slowly entrenched himself at left back for Jurgen Klinsmann, and while he doesn’t lack any of the physical tools needed to succeed at the position (part of the reason why the conversion was attempted before), he still lacks experience. After a career playing higher up the field, the former PSV Eindhoven, Manchester City, and Glasgow Rangers player is still learning his full back’s role. At the start of the  U.S.’s pre-Cup warmups, he was still competing for this job.

That doesn’t mean he’ll come up short today. That inexperience is just an obstacle to overcome, though set to face off against Atsu or Ayew, the margin for error will be small. Atsu is crafty enough to exploit of any mistake, while Ayew could be a goal-scoring threat that will challenge Beasley in the right of the box.

2. The importance of Kyle Beckerman – There’s a flip-side to Ghana starting those four attackers players (as opposed to, say, somebody like Kevin Prince-Boateng, a natural central midfielder): One of them will have to check back on Kyle Beckerman, likely to be the U.S.’s holder in midfield. None of the Ghanaian attackers are used to that job, and while the tack is not so difficult conceptually that any of them couldn’t slide into the role, any lapses will give Beckerman a chance to have more influence on the match than need be.

But this is Kyle Beckerman we’re talking about. How much influence could that be? He is a savvy but, physically, limited player. At least, he is on this level.

Did I mention this all assumes Beckerman starts? He may not. If he does, however, he could be overlooked as Ghana concentrates no the U.S.’s more renown threats, giving the regista his chance.

Left to play the normal, holding role we see the 32-year-old serve with MLS’s Real Salt Lake, he could actually provide an important outlet as Michael Bradley tries to tip the scales higher up. Instead of the U.S. having to work exclusively through their on-field general, Beckerman could help bypass Ghana’s midfield and find Clint Dempsey and Jozy Alitdore, if he’s given enough time to do so. Even if he isn’t so ambitious in his passing, an unfettered Beckerman means the U.S. is more likely to win the possession battle, something that will limit the opportunities for that talented Ghanaian attack.

Of course, we could see Beckerman play more of a mere foundational role, as he did against Nigeria, but if Bradley (when he’s not dropping back), Jermaine Jones, and the U.S.’s other midfielder (Graham Zusi or Alejandro Bedoya) can draw that attacking midfielder deeper, Beckerman could find the time he needs to make his mark. If the RSL linchpin’s allowed to be more than a mere anchor, the U.S. could get some unanticipated production out of one of its least-likely starters.

3. Quantity of chances – Against the best defenses, you want to focus on creating the best scoring chances possible. It takes something special.

Ghana, however, is not one of this tournament’s best defenses. In fact, they can be mistake probe. According to former U.S. men’s national team head coach Bob Bradley, organization can be a problem, and while Bradley failed to take advantage of that during his time with the U.S. or Egypt, the point remains. For all the talent the Ghanaians have going forward, there are some questions at the back.

Quantity of chances will be important, but whereas Jonathan Mensah can step up and snuff the isolated chance, the back four is less likely to hold up under more constant pressure. Keep asking questions, and eventually you’ll get a wrong answer.

This ties back into point two. If Beckerman’s given time at the base of midfield to pick out Dempsey or play long to Altidore, that’s more chance for the Ghanian defense to make a mistake. If the team can spray the ball wide to Fabian Johnson and Beasley, the U.S. will be able to test the organization that drew Bradley’s skepticism.

You always want to create good chances, but against a team prone to mistakes, give them a chance to screw up. The U.S. needs to force that Ghanaian back line to make some (potentially bad) choices.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona, Real Madrid remain level on points after wins (video)

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Routine wins from league favorites Barcelona and Real Madrid, highlight La Liga’s Saturday action.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Barcelona 5-2 RCD Mallorca

It was a special night at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

Fresh from winning the Ballon d’Or for a record sixth time, Lionel Messi was greeted by his three children on the field, who handed him a shinny, golden ball – given yearly to the best player in the world – prior to the first whistle.

From that point on, it was evident that it would be all smiles for everyone tied to the defending champions at the stadium (and for those watching remotely) on Saturday.

 

That was the case.

Antoine Griezmann – a topic of conversation due to lack of productivity at Barcelona this season – kicked off the game with a solo run and subsequent goal in the seventh minute, opening the floodgates.

As a celebration of his latest, individual accomplishment, Messi showcased the power and precision of his left foot at the tune of a hat-trick. The Argentine ace scored twice in the first half and another in consolation time, putting his season total mark at a league-best 12 goals.

The moment and goal of the night (possibly of the season) didn’t directly involve Messi, however. With a daring, emphatic and genius back-heel strike, not only did Luis Suarez put the home side up 4-1, but cemented himself in the ballot for best goal of the season.

With 34 and a better goal differential than Real Madrid, Barcelona remain atop of La Liga ahead of their clash with Inter Milan on Tuesday, while Mallorca hope Ante Budimir can score another brace; this time against a struggling Celta Vigo next weekend.

Real Madrid 2-0 Espanyol

With goals from Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane, Real Madrid comfortably cruised past a struggling Espanyol.

With the majority of Real Madrid in Espanyol’s final third following a recovered free-kick attempt, Benzema charged his way into the box before laying off a ball to Varane, who not a proven goalscorer whatsoever, placed the ball into the back of the net with ease.

It was the 37th minute, and the home side were up 1-0 against a poor Espanyol.

With a notable superior style at hand, Los Blancos continued to surge forward. Opportunities at goal were generated but the ball wouldn’t go past ex-Real Madrid ‘keeper Diego Lopez.

Then, in the 79th minute, Benzema registered his 11th goal of the season, finishing an off-balance pass from Federico Valverde inside the box.

Winners in their last La Liga bouts, Real Madrid now prepare for their Champions League Group Stage finale against Club Brugge midweek. Espanyol, despite being in the drop zone, host CSKA Moscow in their Europa League Group Stage finale. The Catalonian club lead Group H with 11 points after five matches.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Granada 3-0 Alaves

Levante 2-4 Valencia

Ancelotti’s future uncertain after Napoli draws at Udinese

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ROME (AP) Carlo Ancelotti’s future as Napoli coach is uncertain after his team failed to beat Udinese on Saturday in Serie A.

The 1-1 draw extended Napoli’s winless run to nine matches in all competitions. Piotr Zelinski saved Napoli with a late goal that salvaged a point for the visitors.

Amid reports that Ancelotti could soon be fired, Napoli, which had won its last six league matches against Udinese, went a goal down after a counterattack which was finished by Kevin Lasagna in the 32nd minute.

Napoli improved after Fernando Llorente replaced an uninspired Lorenzo Insigne in the second half. It equalized after a good combination between Dries Mertens and Zielinski, who wrongfooted the Udinese ‘keeper with a shot into the bottom corner.

Also, Atalanta twice came from behind after Samuel Di Carmine’s two goals to beat Hellas Verona 3-2 with a late winner from Berat Djimsiti, who volleyed home from close range.

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

Kyle Walker: City catching up to Liverpool ‘difficult’ after derby loss to United

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After a crushing 2-1 loss to archrival Manchester United at home, 14 is the new magic number for Pep Guardiola and company.

14 is the number of points that Manchester City trail league leaders Liverpool by, an uphill battle that is influencing many people on the outside looking in to think that City’s chances of lifting the league’s silverware for a third straight season are officially done and dusted.

That’s not the narrative that is occupying Kyle Walker‘s train of thought, however. Speaking on behalf of his City teammates and himself, the defender is keen on fighting until they’re mathematically out of contention for the title, regardless if the standings show that Liverpool have yet to suffer a defeat this season after 16 matches.

“Can’t fault the manager,” Walker told Sky Sports following City’s second Premier League loss in five games. “He has won numerous trophies. I can’t put my finger on it. It is going to be difficult, Liverpool are on fire. They [Liverpool] are getting wins and we are not. It is a big gap but we will fight until the end.”

A consolation goal from Nicolas Otamendi in the 85th minutes wasn’t enough for the Cityzens, who endured a fourth league loss this season, matching last season’s number of losses throughout 38 games.

After the dispiriting derby day performance from City, the defending champions stand at 32 points after 16 bouts, the lowest point haul for Guardiola in his 11-year top-flight management career.

No team in league history has overcome a 14-point deficit. Since late October, City are yet to record a clean sheet, an apparent issue that Walker believes he and the rest of the team’s defenders need to address in order to return to old ways.

“Us as defenders need to hold our hands up,” he said. “We need to keep clean sheets and strikers maybe need to put more away. They had a game plan and it worked. They have quick players in quick areas and they are going to hurt you on the counter. Credit where credit is due, they stepped up today. Fair play.”

WATCH: Luis Suarez delivers one-of-a-kind back-heel goal

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At 32 years of age and with a 15-year career behind him, Luis Suarez has scored some emphatic goals.

On Saturday, however, he painted a fine piece of art, a goal that became an instant classic the moment the ball came off of his backheel. With Barcelona already up 3-1 against RCD Mallorca, Ernesto Valverde’s men continued to push forward, comfortably and strategically ping-ponging the ball around the defensive-oriented visitors.

And then Frenkie de Jong found the ball at the top of the box.

The Dutch international smoothly placed a through ball, finding Suarez, who with precision and expertise that only he has, belted the ball into the bottom-right corner of Manolo Reina’s goal.

It’s only December, but the Uruguayan’s goal is an automatic La Liga goal of the season contender: