Top 10 defenders from the 2014 World Cup

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With forwards and midfielders already done, we move on the defenders, making an attempt to have representation across the back line. Continuing our World Cup review, here is PST’s top 10 defenders from Brazil 2014, in alphabetical order:

[ MORE from our 2014 World Cup review ]

Daley Blind, Netherlands – Ostensibly a left wing back, Blind also saw time at left center back and in midfield, all the while building on an opening match performance that helped the underdog Dutch rout reigning champion Spain. Only 24, Blind has yet to play outside the Netherlands, possibly explaining why we heard two different pronunciations of his last name, but after a standout World Cup, it may not be long before the Ajax defender has a chance to make that name abroad.

Stefan de Vrij, Netherlands – Another young player brought into the team by Louis van Gaal, de Vrij excelled on the right side of the Netherlands’ three-man central defense, a group that only conceded four goals in seven games. The 22-year-old led his team in tackles, interceptions, and tied Ron Vlaar for most aerial duels won. Scoring in the opener against Spain, de Vrij also tallied his first international goal, part of the Feyenoord man’s standout World Cup debut.

Vincent Kompany, Belgium – Coming off an erratic season with Manchester City, Kompany was back to his commanding self in Brazil, a tournament where he struggled through the knockout stage with a leg injury. Despite that ailment, Kompany showed why he’s considered one of the world’s best central defenders, with his athleticism proving vital next to the steady if more stoic Daniel Van Buyten.

Philipp Lahm, Germany – Though he started the tournament in central midfield, a switch back to his natural spot saw Lahm remind the world of the unmatched precision he brings to the right back position. That move proved particularly vital against Brazil, where his runs behind Selecao left back Marcelo helped blow open the teams’ semifinal.

Ezequiel Garay, Argentina – Before the final, Alejandro Sabella’s team had one of the highest possession rates in the tournament, making it all the more remarkable Garay led the competition in clearances per game (10, among those that make at least four appearances). While part of that had to do with the performance of those around him, the number speaks to the aerial presence the 27-year-old had in one of the tournament’s best defenses. Though the partner to his right changed half-way through the tournament, Garay remained a rock in the middle for Argentina.

Mats Hummels, Germany – After illness forced Hummels to miss Germany’s Round of 16 match against Algeria, Hummels gave a Man of the Match-caliber performance against France in the quarterfinal, with his work going forward helping Germany blow out Brazil in the next round. Though he was picked out by ESPN analyst Steve McManaman in the final for his lack of pace, the problem was only an issue against Lionel Messi-level players. The rest (read: vast majority) of the time, Hummels justified his reputation as one of the best central defenders in the game.

Gary Medel, Chile – The Bulldog’s contributions will be forgotten amid Chile’s Round of 16 exit, but strong in the air, tenacious on the ground, and incisive in the middle, Medel provided little hint that he’s actually a natural midfielder. Despite being only 5’7″, Medel led his team in aerial duels won, helping an aggressive Chile team hold its opponents to less than one goal per 90 minutes in Brazil.

Jan Vertonghen, Belgium – After the Red Devils’ opener against Algeria, Vertonghen was dropped in favor of Thomas Vermaelen, a move that lasted less then a half. Once back in the team, the Tottenham defender established himself as one of the best left backs in the tournament, scoring the game-winning goal against South Korea before providing a constant threat against the United States.

Ron Vlaar, Netherlands – Premier League fans will know Vlaar as the steady presence in the middle of Aston Villa’s often besieged defense. In Brazil, the veteran center back went from steady to standout, with his physical presence anchoring the middle of the Dutch’s three-man central defense. With young players on his left and right, Vlaar needed to be as decisive as he was reliable. Averaging nine clearances per game, the Villa rearguard anchored his team to a third place finish.

Pablo Zabaleta, Argentina – The Argentine veteran was steady, impactful in all phases of the game, but the fact that he makes this list is as much a testament to a lack of depth at right back as it is Zabaleta’s talent. Without a doubt, Zabaleta is one of the best right backs in the world, but players like Serge Aurier and Mathieu Debuchy looked better at times in Brazil. But as part of a team that played seven games, made it to the final, and had one of the best defenses in the tournament, it was difficult to overlook Zabaleta’s part. While he wasn’t always his normal, dynamic self, he was still one of the best right backs at the World Cup, a fact that speaks to the lofty standards he maintains at club-level.

Four-star Manchester United wins Europa League group

Manchester United Mata Greenwood
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Manchester United is in fine feather and showing it, smashing AZ Alkmaar in a stylish 4-0 win at Old Trafford in Europa League play on Thursday.

Juan Mata had a goal and set up two others, while Mason Greenwood scored twice after Ashley Young opened the scoring in a group-claiming victory.

[ MORE: Saka leads Arsenal comeback ]

United wins the group with 13 points, conceding just twice in six matches.

The Red Devils have won three-straight matches, as AZ joins Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in the loss column. Up next is a Sunday visit from Everton in the Premier League before Wednesday’s League Cup quarterfinal visit from Colchester United.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer handed starts to James Garner, Brandon Williams, and Axel Tuanzebe, bringing youngsters Ethan Laird and Tahith Chong off the bench.

Greenwood, 18, now has six goals in 22 senior appearances, while Mata, 31, gets on the score sheet for the first time this season.

For his career, the award-winning Spaniard is doing okay, though: 125 goals and 149 assists in 542 senior appearances.

Ljungberg hails ‘amazing’ teen Saka after game-changing performance

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Arsenal phenom Bukayo Saka‘s big day spurred the Gunners to a top seed in the Europa League knockout rounds.

Arsenal went behind on two deflected goals in the second half’s first 25 minutes, but Saka answered with a goal and an assist in three minutes to take a point from Belgium in a 2-2 draw at Standard Liege.

[ RECAP, VIDEO: Standard Liege 2-2 Arsenal ]

Saka was at the heart of it of all good things Arsenal, the 18-year-old handed plenty of responsibility. despite his tender age.

“He was amazing,” said interim manager Freddie Ljungberg. “He was a bit upset with me before the game that he had to play wing-back and full-back. He’s a tremendous talent.”

Saka had four key passes to go with his goal and assist, winning six of eight duels while producing two tackles and an interception.

Ljungberg said Arsenal hasn’t sent its young players on loan enough, though that hardly applies to Saka given he was 17 until September.

The injured Gunners used Konstantinos Mavropanos, Emile Smith-Rowe, Joe Willock, and Reiss Nelson in the Starting XI, and brought Gabriel Martinelli off the bench.

“I feel sorry for our young players,” he said. “A lot of them haven’t been on loan, they’ve not had that exposure to men’s football. Some of them made mistakes but they’ll learn from those mistakes and won’t do them again.”

Smith-Rowe was loaned to RB Leipzig last season and Nelson starred on loan at Hoffenheim. Mavropanos played first team football for Greek Super League side PAS Giannina in his late teens.

Arsenal joins Premier League sides Wolves and Manchester United in the knockout rounds, having lost the Europa League final to rivals Chelsea at the end of last season.

The Gunners beat West Ham on Monday and host Manchester City at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday.

Arsenal uses thrilling comeback to win Europa League group

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Nothing Arsenal-related is allowed to be easy, it seems.

The Gunners used a goal and an assist from Bukayo Saka to come back from a two-goal deficit and draw Standard Liege 2-2 in Belgium on Thursday, winning its Europa League group when Vitoria came back to beat Eintracht Frankfurt on a wild afternoon of soccer.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Arsenal trailed on second half goals from Samuel Bastien and Selim Amallah, but rallied behind Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette to score a second-straight win for interim boss Freddie Ljungberg.

Saka sent in a laser cross in the 78th minute and Lacazette did quite well to power it under the bar.

He’s loving this competition, having made a serious entrance earlier in the tournament versus Eintracht Frankfurt. The 18-year-old now has two goals and five assists across all competitions this season.

The Gunners needed just three more minutes to tie the score on a day they outshot the hosts 15-11.

Saka showed his nose for goal to tie the score five minutes later with a dribble to the top of the 18 and a sly finish to the keeper’s left.

This was all happening around the same time Vitoria scored twice in three minutes to take a 3-2 lead on Eintracht Frankfurt.

Standard Liege goes from the knockout rounds to nothing in a blink, while Eintracht goes from winning the group to second.

The field for the Europa League is looking fierce, with Inter Milan, Benfica, Ajax, Club Brugge, Olympiacos, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, and Red Bull Salzburg joining the competition via transfer from the UEFA Champions League.

Arsenal joins Premier League sides Wolves and Manchester United in the knockout rounds, having lost the Europa League final to rivals Chelsea at the end of last season.

The Gunners beat West Ham on Monday and host Manchester City at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks

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Matchweek 17 is here in the Premier League as the games continue to come thick and fast during the festive season.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Listen carefully, because this is very specific.

While you can download the NBC Sports Predictor app (below) and play the Premier League Pick ‘Em game yourself to predict the scores and win the prizes.

DOWNLOAD NBC SPORTS PREDICTOR

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the long shots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Chelsea 3-0 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Liverpool 3-1 Watford – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM] 

Crystal Palace 3-1 Brighton – (Monday, 2:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Leicester 3-0 Norwich – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]


DON’T TOUCH THIS…

Southampton 1-1 West Ham – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

Sheffield United 2-1 Aston Villa – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Man United 2-1 Everton – (Sunday, 9 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM


“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Arsenal 3-3 Man City – (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Wolves 1-2 Tottenham – (Sunday 9 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Burnley 1-2 Newcastle United – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM