Women’s World Cup Day 4 — Vero, Spain Debut

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The long awaited World Cup debut of Spain’s Vero Boquete, by any measure one of the best women’s soccer players of her generation, was a dud Tuesday, unfortunately.

But it’s hard to blame Boquete for Spain’s disappointing 1-1 draw with Costa Rica, most of the credit has to go to Las Ticas and their rookie coach Amelia Valverde, who only took over in January after Carlos Avedissian – the man who led Costa Rica to the World Cup by beating Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago last fall – left to take a position in his native Puerto Rico.

Unfortunately for all her greatness, Boquete was surrounded by Costa Ricans at every turn (as Richard Farley demonstrated on his Twitter feed). And they did it in a very modern, organized way. They didn’t hack her every time she got near the ball or man-mark her all over the field, they collectively knew where she was and cut off her space at every turn (primary credit likely going to holding midfielders Katherine Alvarado and Raquel Rodriguez).

[MORE: Complete coverage of 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup]

Boquete did get loose a few times and even set up a couple of glorious chances for her teammates, but they were squandered. Unfortunately for Vero, she’s not the type of superstar who beats you with world-class speed or breathtaking individual runs, which doesn’t make her greatness any less extraordinary if you’ve watched her career, but this isn’t basketball or baseball where stars can often shine through whatever the defense throws at them.

And with Brazil and South Korea remaining, a couple more performances like this could see a disappointing short stay to the first World Cup appearance for the Spanish women.

-Ray Curren

Here are some other things we learned from Tuesday’s play in Groups E and F:

England cannot win the World Cup sitting in: It was not exactly a surprise that England played low pressure in their 1-0 loss against France, but it became clear the No. 6 team in the FIFA World Rankings has no chance to win the World Cup playing that style. The first half-hour saw Mark Sampson’s team concede almost every inch of turf to the French. Once they fell behind by a goal there was no choice but to take some changes but the English still went with low pressure and rarely created anything to offer much trouble to the French defense. The most troubling part is that sitting in created little to no traction on the counterattack. This could be different in their other group matches against Mexico and Colombia, but it won’t cut it once they get to the knockout stage and start seeing more teams like France. The catch-22 is the open secret that the runner-up in the group has a softer entry into the knockout phase than the winner so it is possible that Sampson held some cards in this one and did not pull out all stops to get the result.

-Dan Lauletta

[MORE: Complete coverage of 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup]

Costa Rica is very young, but… Yes, Costa Rica has improved dramatically at youth levels and they are one of the most improved programs in the world, not just in CONCACAF. They started two teenagers in Melissa Herrera and Maria Barrantes, but the backline of Diana Saenz, Carol Sanchez, Wendy Acosta, and Lixy Rodriguez (who set up Costa Rica’s goal) average 26 years old (with Rodriguez being the youngest at 24). Goalkeeper Dinnia Diaz is also 27, while Shirley Cruz, who has led Costa Rica for so long, is now 29. Some credit also has to go to the American college system, which – at least for now – is one of the best training grounds for young women in the world. Several Ticas, including goal-scorer Raquel Rodriguez (Penn State) have played for Division I programs, and have looked organized and disciplined for the last couple of years in CONCACAF, and now have a point at the World Cup as well.

-Curren

Sarah Bouhaddi kept a clean sheet Tuesday but had a few too many adventures along the way (Getty Images)
Sarah Bouhaddi kept a clean sheet Tuesday but had a few too many adventures along the way (Getty Images)

Goalkeeping is an issue around the world: Every time Hope Solo makes a big save we hear the familiar refrain that, altogether now, “no one else in the world makes those saves.” That is usually something of an overstatement, but there is no doubt the United States enjoys a comfort with Solo in goal that many other teams do not have. France is very sound defensively but their keeper, Sarah Bouhaddi, was shaky. She made one extremely poor decision to come off her line and on another occasion somehow gave up a corner kick trying to pass off to a defender. Wind could have played a factor in trying to cut off the lofted ball but on television it never looked like she had a chance to get close. In the Mexico-Colombia match, Mexico scored after a series of punches by Colombian keeper Stefany Castano led two a pair of corners. One of them easily could have been caught cleanly, and both of them at the least could have been cleared beyond the 18. Instead Castano was caught off guard by Veronica Perez’s whipping cross/shot that went in for the goal. On the other side, Colombia nearly scored a goal when Mexico’s keeper Cecilia Santiago went up for a free kick but saw it glide through her hands before she was saved by the post. It feels like before the tournament is over, a goalkeeping miscue will play a role in deciding a result.

-Lauletta

[MORE: Colombia’s first World Cup goal earns draw with Mexico]

Brazil won’t be scared If you want to talk about inexperience in Group E, you have to include Brazil, which somehow has only eight players on its roster with World Cup experience. But in its opener, Brazil overwhelmed South Korea with high pressure and it was the ultimate veteran, 37-year-old Formiga, who took advantage, scoring one (becoming the oldest player in World Cup history to score) and setting up the other in a 2-0 win. Newcomers like center back Rafaelle were strong and physical from the opening kickoff, while Fabiana and Tamires had no trouble marauding down either wing with speed and strength and scaring the daylights out of the South Korean defense. In fact, Marta was able to sit back and let the action come to her for most of the game, rarely taking people on with the ball and content to be a playmaker.

-Curren

Brazil may not know much about itself until the knockout round There were some worrying moments in the second half when South Korea finally let go of the reigns and started sending numbers into the attack, particularly Ji Soyun – who, like Boquete, was a world-class player making her World Cup debut and could have used a little more support. With Formiga playing in midfield along with Thaisa (just 26 caps coming into the World Cup) and Andressa, who just turned 20, Korea did have some joy moving the ball around in the second half. I already mentioned Rafaelle, who picked up just her fourth cap Tuesday, who was paired with Monica (just 21 caps). If you’re a Brazil supporter, you can look at the glass half-full and say all these players will be able to get much needed experience. However, you can also look at it half-empty and say that rolling past Spain and Costa Rica won’t get Brazil ready for what could be a tricky knockout-round game against a team with some serious offensive weapons like Nigeria (Australia and Sweden are the other two options with the United States as a wild longshot).

-Curren

PL Sunday preview: Man Utd and Arsenal chase top five; Chelsea host Liverpool

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures is filled up to the brim of top-six sides in action, as Manchester United and Arsenal look to climb into the top five in the table, while Chelsea looks to send a strong message as they host leaders Liverpool.

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West Ham vs. Manchester United — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Aside from leaders Liverpool, there is no other team in the league experiencing such a positive run as West Ham. The Hammers are unbeaten in their last four bouts – wining twice and drawing twice – as they head into Sunday’s showdown against Manchester United. Equal with five other sides with eight points, Manuel Pellegrini is conscious that it’s the ideal time to make a statement and climb into the top six.

“We have a very strong team in front of us, it will be a strong test against United. It is the only way we can get into the top six, demonstrating you are able to do it,” Pellegrini said heading into Sunday.

As for the Red Devils, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side – who share the podium with West Ham – are looking to extend their current winning form to three games. Ahead of the game, however, the talk surrounding United isn’t Sunday’s game, but Paul Pogba‘s rumored move to Real Madrid this summer. What a better way to get everyone’s mind of theoretical situations and injury worries than with a win.

INJURIES: West Ham — OUT: Michail Antonio (hamstring), Arthur Masuaku (suspended) | Manchester United —OUT: Anthony Martial (thigh), Paul Pogba (back), Luke Shaw (hamstring), Eric Bailly (knee), Timothy Fosu-Mensah (knee)

Crystal Palace vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers — 9 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Not many expected it: Wolves winless throughout the first five games of the season. That, however, is the reality for a team that finished seventh last season. By now, Wolverhampton Wanderers have had plenty of time to pick up on the alarm bells, it’s time for them to respond.

Manager Nuno Espírito Santo, for instance, knows that it’s time for his side to get back into shape before it’s too late.

“This is important,” he said. “We face the reality and the reality says we not performing well so we have to analyse it and find solutions in the team to improve. We must react immediately. We have to take decisions and find solutions for the team because we have to come out of this situation and improve our performance so we can bounce back.”

Crystal Palace, on the other hand, are dealing with adversity of their own after falling to Tottenham Hotspur, 4-0, last week. Playing at Selhurst Park this time around should be a positive, but Palace has only managed to score a goal in three matches in front of their home crowd this season.

INJURIES: Crystal Palace — OUT: None | Wolverhampton Wanderers — OUT: None

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Arsenal have had several things going for them this season: scoring at home, positive first Europa League performance, a healthy and productive Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, among others. One thing they’ve been missing, though, is an effective Nicolas Pepe, especially after shelling record-money for the 24-year-old Ivorian.

“He needs more adaptation,” Emery said in his pre-match press conference. “He is playing good but progressively we know there is going to be more performance in him to help us and I want to do now quickly the last step in the adaptation for us, for example, against Aston Villa.”

With Alexandre Lacazette still out with an ankle injury, Pepe, again, will have the opportunity to showcase his true worth to a packed Emirates Stadium. Arsenal, too, can use his skill to get that much closer to three, vital points.

“When will Aston Villa finally break out of their shell?” is the million-dollar question for the visitors. At times, the newly promoted side has shown the flair that made it so powerful in the Championship last season, only to leave spectators on the edge of their seats, waiting for that final blow. In North London on Sunday, Dean Smith and Co. have the chance to do so with several players back in the mix, but that’s not to say the task will be a walk in the park.

INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Alexandre Lacazette (ankle) | Aston Villa — OUT: James Chester (thigh), Jonathan Kodjia (cheek)

Chelsea vs. Liverpool — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Liverpool, like Chelsea, suffered opening losses in European play midweek; however, there is a different, more positive impetus fueling Jurgen Klopp‘s side. The defending Champions League winners’ immaculate record speaks volume to their current situation, one that’s biggest setback has been the aforementioned loss to Napoli and the injury to goalkeeper Allison, while regaining influential player Nabi Keita in trainings.

It begs to ask: with Manchester City already behind and several top-six sides struggling, how will Liverpool not runaway with the league title this season? That type of talk, however, is exactly what Klopp doesn’t want to hear. The season is green – very, ver green – and this season, for one reason or another, is nothing like last year’s.

“Nothing is won already,” Klopp said. “We have seen teams make big steps. There is nobody you think will go down with no points. Watford and Wolves have been at the bottom, struggling, but will end up going back up. The league is much different (to last season). So many things can happen. Five games is nothing, not even created a basis…”

Klopp’s counterpart on Sunday, Frank Lampard, as a result of his own environment, is managing a different dialogue ahead of the clash, like the possibility of fielding Mason Mount, who came off midweek against Valencia in Champions League play.

On the bright side, Chelsea are unbeaten in their last four league bouts, and have a game against Liverpool under their belts this season already – a penalty-shootout loss in the UEFA Super Cup – that should have seasoned them ahead of this season’s part two of the rivalry.

“Times have changed slightly, but it doesn’t change that feeling,” Lampard said on the Chelsea-Liverpool rivalry. “I think the fans feel it, the players feel it, it does involve a lot of passion whenever it’s played. If your levels aren’t there it’s a game that can get away from you quickly so my first thing to say to the players is to make sure they feel this game, recognise what it is, because it always does have an edge.”

INJURIES: Chelsea OUT: Antonio Rüdiger (groin), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (achilles), Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James (both fitness) | Liverpool  OUT: Alisson (calf), Nathaniel Clyne (knee)

Serie A roundup: Inter win Derby della Madonnina, Juventus edge Verona (video)

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Inter Milan’s rampant run and Juventus’ win headline Saturday’s Serie A action.

[ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

AC Milan 0-2 Inter Milan

The stats books following this season’s first Derby della Madonnina make two things very clear: at the moment, Inter are the best team in Milan and in Serie A.

With four consecutive victories to start the season, Antonio Conte and Co. lead Italy’s top-flight by two points.

 

After nearly being up two goals in the first half, Inter broke deadlock in the 49th minute. From a orchestrated set-piece play, marcelo Brozovic’s strike skimmed the heels of Rafael Leão, deflecting the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma, and into the back of the net. An offside call was reviewed through VAR, but the goal stood.

In the 78th minute, a short, lofted cross from Nicolò Barella found Romelu Lukaku, who headed the ball into the far post. The Belgian, who arrived from Manchester United during the summer, has scored three goals in four league games.

Dominating time with the ball didn’t do much for AC Milan, whose clearest chance came late in the second half when Theo Hernández’s strike inside the box hit the bar.

Yet to taste a draw or defeat, Inter marches on as they host Lazio next, while AC Milan travel to Turin to take on Torino.

Juventus 2-1 Hellas Verona

In a game that could have gone either way, Juventus, with its star-studded team and all, walked away with three points against 10-man Hellas Verona.

Aaron Ramsey, who made a shock switch to the Old Lady in July following an 11-year spell with Arsenal, scored his first Serie A goal. From distance, in the 31st minute, the 29-year-old’s shot deflected Verona’s Koray Gunter, beating Marco Silvestri and into the goal.
Ramsey’s goal, however, only leveled the score.
Following a missed penalty and second chance, Miguel Veloso scored what can be the goal of the week: a first-time, left-footed volley into the top corner of Gianluigi Buffon’s goal. Verona, who had a couple of clear chances in the second half, were unable to get past Buffon again.
With three points desperately needed to keep pace with Inter Milan, Cristiano Ronaldo came to the rescue. The Portuguese converted from the sport – his first of the season – following a solo run from Juan Cuadrado.

With positive momentum behind them, second-place Juventus travels to Brescia next, while Hellas Verona receive a lackluster Udinese side.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Cagilari 3-1 Genoa

Udinese 0-1 Brescia

VIDEO: Kei Kamara scores superb bicycle kick goal against Sporting KC

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Kei Kamara has scored plenty of goals at Children’s Mercy Park, but none like his bicycle kick goal on Saturday.

The 35-year-old, now in his 16th season, showcased his penchant for scoring right before halftime against his former team. The goal makes 12 for the Colorado Rapids’ forward this season, placing him within the top 10 of the league and two begin his 14-goal season last year.

Overall, Kamara is fifth in the all-time MLS scoring list with 124 goals, second among active players behind San Jose Earthquakes’ Chris Wondolowski.

Enjoy a superb goal from a superb goalscoerer.

La Liga roundup: Messi, Barcelona stunned by inspired Granada (video)

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Granada’s shocking 2-0 win over Barcelona and subsequent rise to the top of the table headlines Saturday’s La Liga action.

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Granada 2-0 Barcelona

Not even Lionel Messi, who made his season debut on Saturday, was able to save Barcelona against a red-hot Granada.

Granada, who are off to their best start in their 88 years of existence, had a perfect night in front of their supporters, convincingly getting past a Barcelona that dominated possession, but lacked the offensive ingenuity needed to score.

Barcelona’s defense wasn’t noteworthily robust, either.

Two minutes in, the newly promoted side scored through a headed goal from Ramon Azeez, following a defensive turnover from Junior Firpo.

Unable to record a shot on target in the first half and looking to wakeup a dormant attack, Barcelona brought on wonderkid Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi at halftime. Despite the duo connecting on several occasion and generating a shot on target, it wasn’t enough to get past Rui Silva.

In the 66th minute, following video review, substitute Alvaro Badillo converted from the spot, handing Granada their third win of the season.

Atop of La Liga, Granada set their sights on Real Valladolid, while Barcelona, who are off to their worst league start in 25 years, host Villarreal at Camp Nou.

Atletico Madrid  0-0 Celta Vigo

For a second consecutive week, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid dropped points, drawing with Celta Vigo 0-0 at Wanda Metropolitano.

Tied with league leaders Granada and Sevilla with 10 points, the alarm bells are far from going off in Madrid. However, as Saturday’s performance showed, los Colchoneros are having trouble finishing chances this season, despite fielding an attack with the likes of Joao Felix, Diego Costa and Alvaro Morata.

In five games, Atletico have managed to score only five goals, six fewer than leaders Granada. Against Celta, Atletico registered 20 shots, five on target, but were unable to crack a stellar Ruben Blanco, who registered five saves.

Leveled with Granada and Sevilla, Atletico Madrid look to get back into winning ways as they take on RCD Mallorca. Elsewhere, Celta Vigo, who have won win after five games, host Espanyol next.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Villarreal 2-0 Real Valladolid

Levante 0-0 Eibar