Pre-game focus: Three areas to watch when U.S. faces Portugal

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Ghana’s draw against Germany has given the United States a chance to move first in Group G, but with Cristiano Ronaldo and a desperate Portugal next in line, qualifying for the next round is far from certain. The U.S. needs two points over its next two games to clinch a spot in the final 16, though in the eyes of some, Jurgen Klinsmann’s team will be underdogs against both the Seleccao and the attack-heavy Germans.

But to the extent there is a talent gap between the U.S. and Portugal, a slew of absences that will help. Goalkeeper Rui Patricio, left back Fabio Coentrão, and forward Hugo Almeida are all injured, while central defender Pepe will be suspended after drawing a red card in game one. As questions about Ronaldo’s left knee persist, it’s unclear how strong FIFA’s fourth-ranked team will be at kickoff.

That leaves the U.S. with a chance to make history. The team’s never won two group stage games, let alone their first two, but if the team can summon the spirit of 2002 to help send another Portuguese team home, they’ll make history 180 minutes into their 2014 World Cup.

[ POSNANSKI: Confidence and the unconventional Klinsmann ]

Here are three areas of focus ahead of tomorrow’s 6:00 p.m. Eastern kickoff:

source: Getty Images1. Where moving Fabian Johnson could pay off – Johnson’s switch from the left side to right back late in club season is paying off for the U.S., though given Klinsmann’s liberal view of positions, the Germany-born wide man could have ended up at the position, regardless. Drawn into a group where the likes of Ronaldo and German Marco Reus posed game-deciding threats, Klinsmann may have prioritized his previously ailing right back position, and while Reus’s injury means Johnson will face a slightly less dynamic foe on Thursday, the move should still pay off against Ronaldo.

Scour the U.S.’s player pool, and there’s no better player to lineup opposite the Real Madrid star than the 26-year-old Johnson. To the extent that anybody can challenge a player like Ronaldo, the Germany-born Johnson has the profile to do so, combining speed, strength, size, athleticism and experience. While that hasn’t produced perfect performances in his last four starts, it does provide the U.S. a surprisingly viable option against the Portuguese star. Not many squads have a player like Johnson.

Team defense will be more important. Denying Ronaldo the ball in dangerous spots and preventing him from having chances cutting in on his right foot will be key. And when Portugal build down their right, Ronaldo’s often going to be isolated one-on-one at the far post against Johnson. Denying good service will be crucial.

Still, the U.S. will be lucky to have a player like Fabian Johnson at right back, and while that doesn’t mean Ronaldo will be kept off the scoresheet, it does increase the chance that one of the team’s best athletes will lineup against Portugal’s biggest star. Five weeks after installing him at the position, Klinsmann may see his move pay off.

[ MORE: Germany’s formation sheds light on Klinsmann’s roots ]
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source: Getty Images2. Prioritizing what to prevent in the middle – It’s not that Portugal’s midfield’s particularly dangerous. In fact, if you go player-for-player, there are some encouraging similarities, from the U.S.’s point of view. Michael Bradley is the U.S.’s João Moutinho, Jermaine Jones (right) provides the same versatile, volatile presence that Raul Meireles brings to his side, while Kyle Beckerman and Miguel Veloso each provide protection for their defenses.

The obvious difference: The U.S. has one, sometimes two extra men in the middle, and while that means they’re sacrificing something up top, it also means Alejandro Bedoya (should his hip pointer allow him to start over Graham Zusi) and Clint Dempsey will help clog things up for Portugal. To the extent this game becomes a battle in the middle, the U.S. should control it.

Portugal, however, will likely play around that battle. With Ronaldo on one flank, Manchester United’s Nani on the other, the Seleccao won’t need to control the middle of the park to get the ball to its biggest threats. If the U.S. plays the narrow midfield we saw against Ghana, the space that allowed the Black Stars to attempt 35 crosses could translate into chances for Ronaldo and Nani to decide Sunday’s match.

That not necessarily the worst thing. Often you have to decide before the match how you’re willing to let your opponent beat you. Perhaps Jurgen Klinsmann will see Portugal’s wide play as the lesser of evils, knowing players like Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya will be able to provide help when Portugal’s danger men cut to the middle of the park.

If, however, the U.S. wants to provide more resistance on the flanks, its approach will have to change.

[ MORE: Conditions in Manaus won’t be new for the U.S. ]

source: Getty Images3. How will ‘not-Jozy’ do? – Jozy Altidore is the most scrutinized player in the U.S. squad, but if Klinsmann can’t figure out how to replace him, he may prove one of the team’s most indispensable, too. Ruled out with a left hamstring injury, the Sunderland striker will watch as Aron Johannsson, Chris Wondolowski (right) or Dempsey try to replace him.

Unfortunately, none of those understudies will provide the same outlet at the top of the team’s formation. Even though he plays in the middle of an attacking three in the Netherlands, Johannsson’s lack of physicality leaves him ill-equipped to consistently win battles against defenders at this level. Physically, Wondolowski is a better option, but rarely utilized in that matter at club (or, to this point, international) level, it’s unclear how he’ll perform. Put Dempsey up top and you make your best attacker your focal point, but the team’s captain could also end up disappearing when an attacking midfield lacking his skills can’t connect with its forward.

Perhaps wondering how the U.S. can replace Altidore is too presumptuous. Maybe Klinsmann will have to embrace his squad’s new limitations. Instead of deploying a system that relies on a ball-winning striker, the U.S. may need offer support to whomever they start up top.

VIDEO: What do Liverpool, Spurs need this summer?

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There are just 25 days until the 2018/19 Premier League season kicks off.

With that in mind, it is time to focus on what the big boys need to do in order to challenge for the title.

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We’ve already focused on the top two from last season and what each of Manchester City and Manchester United need to do to get better, but what about the third and fourth place teams from 2017/18?

Both Mauricio Pochettino‘s Tottenham and Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool had a fine campaign but silverware still evades them.

Below we look at how Liverpool have, and can continue, to strengthen their squad, while we also take a look at the key things Pochettino must do to keep Spurs on track for another top four finish.


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Key takeaways from 2018 World Cup

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The 2018 World Cup will go down as one of the most entertaining in history, as a month-long soccer celebration in Russia didn’t disappoint.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

From stars shinning, big teams falling early, the hosts surprising and stunning moments galore, we were treated to a wondrous spectacle from June 14 to July 15.

When it comes to it being the best World Cup, all-time, many will point to France 1998 and Mexico 1986 as being the best-ever World Cups, but Russia 2018 is right up there in terms of pure drama and memorable moments.

Let’s focus on the key takeaways from a special World Cup.


SUMMER OF FUN

With concerns aplenty about Russia hosting the World Cup, all of that was put to one side for the majority of the tournament as all eyes were on the pitch. With more late goals (90th minute or later) at this World Cup than the last three combined, we were treated to incredible drama. Plus, 164 goals at an average of 2.64 goals per game was pretty decent too as that was just under the 2.67 goals per game haul in 1998 and 2014.

Overall this was a summer of extreme fun spread across the vast European region of Russia as fans were welcomed by locals, stars delivered on the pitch and countries across the world rejoiced or cried depending on how their teams fared. I’m not sure this World Cup could have gone any better for Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and their organizers.

As it always does, this tournament captured the imagination of fans across the world.


BIG BOYS OUT EARLY

Germany became the third-straight reigning champions to crash out of the World Cup at the group stage and that was one of the biggest storylines of the tournament. How on earth did Joachim Low’s star-studded side fail epically? Warnings signs were there as Manuel Neuer was rusty and the likes of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mueller were out of sorts, but still, Die Mannschaft’s title defense was woeful.

Argentina’s organization was woeful throughout as Jorge Sampaoli basically surrendered control of the team to the players as they scraped by Nigeria in their final group stage game, then lost 4-3 in a thriller against eventual winners France in the Round of 16. Lionel Messi may never grace the World Cup stage again and Argentina were an unbalanced, top-heavy shambles in this tournament. So sad.

Omnishambles can be used to describe Spain’s World Cup. On the eve of the tournament they fired head coach Julen Lopetegui after he agreed to take over as Real Madrid manager without informing the Spanish Football Association and although they made it to the last 16 under caretaker boss Fernando Hierro, something wasn’t quite right as they crashed out to hosts Russia on penalty kicks in the last 16.

Portugal departing in the last 16 wasn’t too much of a shock but did deprive us of seeing Cristiano Ronaldo in the latter stages of the tournament, while Poland didn’t show up at all as they crashed out of the group stage with Robert Lewandowski a shadow of his usual self.


FRANCE WORTHY, PRAGMATIC WINNERS

Swashbuckling, they weren’t. Champions, they are.

France didn’t exactly set the tournament alight but Didier Deschamps set up his team to be tough to beat and they battled their way through the stacked side of the bracket (beating Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium to reach the final) to win it all.

Les Bleus conceded once in the group stage and apart from a wobbly display against erratic Argentina in the last 16, they shutout Uruguay and Belgium to reach the final. For all of their young attacking talents, France’s title was built on a solid defensive foundation as they bounced back from the agony of defeat on home soil in the European Championships two years ago.

Kylian Mbappe was the young star of the tournament at the age of 19 and became just the second teenager in history to score in a World Cup final with the only other being Pele in 1958. While the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Hugo Lloris and Paul Pogba delivered when it mattered as the second youngest team in the tournament prevailed.

There was plenty to like about this stubborn French side as young defenders Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti were sublime at center back and Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez excelled after being thrown in at the deep end.

Deschamps also became just the third man in history to win the World Cup as a player and manager as he captained France’s first World Cup success in 1998 and 20 years later he masterminded a second success by cutting his cloth accordingly and making smart tactical decisions throughout.


TOP GOALS

So many to choose from but Lionel Messi’s goal v Nigeria, Benjamin Pavard’s beauty against Argentina, Nacho’s lazer for Spain v Portugal, Denis Cheryshev’s cracker against Croatia, Philippe Coutinho‘s stunner v Switzerland and Angel di Maria’s long-range effort against France stand out.

There was also Cristiano Ronaldo’s epic free kick against Spain, Dries Mertens’ volley, Kevin De Bruyne‘s smash against Brazil, Jesse Lingard‘s curler versus Panama, Ricardo Quaresma’s outside-of-the-foot beauty and Toni Kroos’ amazing late free kick against Sweden.

That’s 12 goals of this highest quality right here. Here’s a look at a few of our favorites.


SET PIECE, VAR STARDOM

The unsung stars of this World Cup? Set pieces and VAR.

The former saw more goals from set pieces at a World Cup since 1966, and the latter caused a few issues but was largely brilliant in getting the decisions correct in a speedy manner.

Nothing is perfect but VAR proved it is here to stay and set piece dominance may well be the theme of the next few years as smaller clubs and nations continue to improve and close the gap to the elite.


EUROPEAN DOMINATION

Six of the final eight teams were from Europe and all of the final four were from the same continent as the European teams stood tall on what could be considered as home soil. What does this say for the future? With England, Belgium and France all having young squads, they could also be in the latter stages of the 2022 World Cup if they continue to develop their talented youth teams.

With their talented youngsters nurtured in stable academy environments in England, Belgium and France and quickly moved into the big leagues, their central models are all working as we are starting to see St. George’s Park being reminiscent of Clairefontaine and Belgium’s model of integrating their club teams at youth level.

Having a clear plan has clearly worked to develop Belgium’s golden generation which came third, while France and England preferred to give youth a chance and it worked.

South America has some incredibly talented individuals in Neymar of Brazil, James Rodriguez of Colombia, Luis Suarez of Uruguay and of course Messi of Argentina, but the organization of the European nations in terms of youth development has improved drastically and we may now see European domination in the next few World Cups. A seismic shift in the power of world soccer occurred the summer as the huge wealth of the European game has been invested into better resources to develop young players. It is working superbly.


MEXICO FLY CONCACAF FLAG

Contrasting that European domination was CONCACAF disappointment. Only Mexico made it out of the group stage from the three teams CONCACAF sent to Russia and both Panama and Costa Rica failed to win any of their games at the tournament. Mexico almost blew their chance too as they were thrashed 3-0 by Sweden in their final group game and had South Korea beating Germany to thank for advancing to the last 16.

El Tri lost 2-0 to Brazil in that feisty encounter as Juan Carlos Osorio blamed Neymar flopping and referees but, in all honestly, Mexico weren’t good enough to dine at the top table of this tournament.

Sure, they beat Germany in their group opener to set themselves up to make the knockout rounds, but we saw that something wasn’t right with Germany. A seventh-straight exit at the last 16 for Mexico underlined that CONCACAF has a lot of catching up to do and the fact that the U.S. national team didn’t even qualify for this tournament hit home just how poor the USMNT were during qualifying.


SPARE A THOUGHT FOR…

There are always teams who deserved to make it out of the group but it doesn’t happen due to small margins and just plain bad luck. Enter: Iran, Peru, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Serbia. All six of those nations put in gutsy displays but it wasn’t to be as Senegal went out due to having more fair play points than Japan (two more yellow cards, to be exact), while Morocco and Iran almost upset powerhouses Spain and Portugal in their wild final group games which included VAR galore and there was late drama throughout Group B. Morocco, in particular, were one of the best teams to watch in the tournament as Herve Renard’s team scored a last-gasp own goal to lose to Iran, then somehow drew with Spain in their final group game despite giving them a heck of a scare.

Serbia were another team who started the tournament well but succumbed to their attacking instincts late on against Switzerland, while Nigeria dazzled when defeating Iceland but came unstuck late on against Argentina to lose out on making the last 16. Peru also came up short against France and Denmark despite positive displays as they beat Australia comfortably in their group stage finale to end on a high.

This was a tournament were some of the more exciting teams vanished early on as giants turned to pragmatism to find a way out of the group stage.

Oh, and spare a thought for Michy Batshuayi, who will be remembered only for this moment from the World Cup. Sorry, Michy, but what did you think would happen!?


AWARD WINNERS

Luka Modric dazzled in midfield to lead Croatia’s charge to the final, the first time they have reached that stage in history, and deservedly won the Golden Ball.

Perhaps Kylian Mbappe deserved third, but he won the Young Player of the Tournament, so Griezmann getting third seemed about right, while Eden Hazard was superb alongside Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne as Belgium’s stars showed up.

Below is a look at the full list of awards.


Golden Ball (player of the tournament)
1st – Luka Modric, Croatia
2nd – Eden Hazard, Belgium
3rd – Antoine Griezmann, France

Silver Ball (young player of the tournament) – Kylian Mbappe, France
Golden Boot (top goalscorer)Harry Kane, England
Golden Glove (top goalkeeper)Thibaut Courtois, Belgium


RONALDO, MESSI, NEYMAR STRUGGLE

All three of these players had major highs and lows in this tournament, with Ronaldo scoring twice, Neymar twice and Messi once.

The latter missed a penalty kick in Argentina’s opener against Iceland and his struggles summed up La Albieceleste crashing out at the last 16 stage. Messi’s stunning control and finish against Nigeria in their crucial group finale will live long in the memory, but that was about it from a World Cup where it looked like the pressure of a nation was too much for him to handle.

Ronaldo scored four goals, including a hat trick in Portugal’s wild 3-3 draw with Spain to open up group play and the former Real Madrid star (who has since signed for Juventus) scored the winner against Morocco too. Yet he couldn’t do it all on his own as Portugal’s other star attackers failed to show up.

Neymar, ah, yes. Brazil’s talisman may have broken the record for most rolls after being fouled in a World Cup tournament as his theatrical dives overshadowed all of his good work. After working his way back to full-fitness following three months out, Neymar scored a late goal against Costa Rica to set Brazil on their way but he also annoyed many with his antics. Against Mexico he was treated brutally but many neutrals seem fed up with him.


BREAKOUT STARS

Every single World Cup will scour the rosters for who will be the breakout stars of this World Cup and a couple really stood out: Mexico’s Hirving “Chucky” Lozano had a great tournament with two goals and was a constant pest as the PSV Eindhoven winger will surely get a move to one of Europe’s elite teams.

The unfashionable English trio of Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford saw their stocks rise significantly, while Japan’s Takashi Inui was a star as it seems like Real Betis have found themselves a star playmaker at the ripe age of 30.

French youngsters Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez came of age at full back for France, while Emil Forsberg impressed for Sweden and Yerry Mina delivered goals and desire to Colombia’s defense. Kasper Schmeichel starred in goal for Denmark and Aleksandr Golovin was a hero for Russia in their run to the quarterfinals.

Overall, it was a World Cup of lovely surprises and even after a month we wish it was still going on.


Courtois to join Hazard in Chelsea exit?

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Chelsea may have a new manager in charge after Antonio Conte was finally fired, but the uncertainty at Stamford Bridge doesn’t end there.

[ MORE: France win World Cup

Less than 24 hours after Eden Hazard hinted at a move to Real Madrid and that his time at Chelsea could be up, his countryman and close friend, Thibaut Courtois, is saying something similar.

Courtois, 26, won the Golden Glove award at the 2018 World Cup as the best goalkeeper in the tournament as he helped Belgium to third-place with some stunning saves, especially against Japan and Brazil in the knockout rounds.

Yet Courtois, who has often been linked with a move to Real Madrid, had the following to say when talking about his future via the London Evening Standard.

“Wherever I go, Hazard must come along. We will not let each other go. We’ll see. Now first vacation. And agree with my entourage in between.” Courtois said. “Now I’m going to talk to my manager to see what the possibilities are. All options are open to me. Also stay at Chelsea, yes. People always complain that players do not comply with their contracts, but maybe I will. I do not think they will keep someone with my qualities on the bench, even if I do not sign. But maybe that’s possible because I like being in London.”

What does Courtois mean by that “even if I do not sign” comment?

He has just one year left on his current deal at Chelsea and talks haven’t progressed in quite some time, with the Belgian goalkeeper seemingly not happy with the contract offer on the table. 2

Via the Daily Mirror, Courtois said “what was on the table obviously is different than what I can have” when it comes to Chelsea’s contract offer.

Is he worth over $330,000 per week? Quite possibly. Alongside David De Gea and Manuel Neuer, neither of whom shone at the World Cup, Courtois is among the top three goalkeepers on the planet. He may now be the top after his star performances for Belgium this summer and he knows that has strengthened his hand in negotiations with Chelsea.

Courtois loved his two years on loan at Atletico Madrid as a Chelsea youngster and both of his children live in the Spanish capital, so returning to Madrid would obviously make sense for him on a personal level.

Intriguing times at Chelsea as the Belgian boys could both be swapping London for Madrid.

Croatia fears World Cup chance may never come again

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MOSCOW (AP) The rain hid Croatia’s tears.

After Luka Modric collected his Golden Ball award in a downpour, he shared an emotional embrace with Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, both wearing the country’s red-and-white checkered uniform.

Croatia knows Sunday’s 4-2 loss to France in the World Cup final was a chance that may not come again anytime soon.

“We were so close and we played the best soccer. We deserved more,” said Modric, who at 32 may have played in his last World Cup match.

Croatia’s first golden generation lost to France in the 1998 World Cup semifinals, and its second went one better. Besides Modric, goalkeeper Danijel Subasic will be 38 at the next World Cup in Qatar, midfielder Ivan Rakitic will be 34 and forward Mario Mandzukic will be 36.

“I wish we are now 24, everyone and Luka especially,” Croatia defender Dejan Lovren said. “There is a time when something needs to end.”

Among a crowd of men in dark suits on the World Cup podium, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, Grabar-Kitarovic’s team shirt showed her passion for Croatia, a country of barely 4 million people.

While some of the players shed tears on the field, fans at home celebrated in the thousands despite the loss.

“Overall, we’ve been better,” Lovren said, critical of the way France played. “They did it the other way. They didn’t play football. They waited for their chances and they scored. They had their own tactic and you need to respect that. They played the tournament like that every game.”

Croatia went down with the same grit that had taken it through three extra-time matches, all won after conceding the opening goal. When Ivan Perisic scored in the 28th minute after Mario Mandzukic’s own-goal had given France the lead, Croatia looked ready to do it again.

Then came a penalty, called after a video review, which Antoine Griezmann converted.

Trailing 2-1, Croatia conceded two more goals but kept fighting. Mandzukic then took advantage of a goalkeeping error to make it 4-2, becoming the first player to score for both teams in a World Cup final.

“When you want to be the best then you need to win, simple as that,” said Lovren, who lost the Champions League final with Liverpool in May. “It’s not easy to accept that. It’s something that I will carry for my life.”

James Ellingworth is at https://twitter.com/jellingworth

More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup