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Favorites Portugal, Mexico meet early in Confederations Cup

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KAZAN, Russia (AP) Two of the top contenders for the Confederations Cup title are meeting early in the tournament, with Portugal and Mexico making their Group A debut on Sunday in Kazan.

[ MORE: Mexico’s Guardado set to join Los Angeles FC ]

It will be European champion Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo in top form, taking on Gold Cup winner Mexico in a game that is likely to decide the group winner.

Ronaldo was making the headlines on Friday because of a report that said he wants to leave Real Madrid and Spain following allegations that he defrauded the country’s tax authorities.

The Portuguese sports daily A Bola published a front-page story Friday saying that Ronaldo was upset with the accusations made against him and that his decision was “irreversible.”

“It’s a high-profile match,” Mexico forward Hirving Lozano said. “It’s good that we get to play it right now, in our first game. Both teams have great players, it will be a tough match.”

Germany is the top-ranked team in the eight-nation Confederations Cup, at No. 3, but it came to Russia with a second-string squad that has only three players from the team that won the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Chile is ranked fourth, but lacks the same tradition as Portugal and Mexico and has struggled in South American qualifying.

Host Russia, ranked 63rd in the world, opens Group A play on Saturday against New Zealand in St. Petersburg. Group B has Germany, Chile, Australia and Cameroon.

The Confederations Cup is the main warm-up event for the 2018 World Cup. It is played by the continental champions plus the host nation and the World Cup winner.

Here are other things to watch when Portugal faces Mexico:

RONALDO’S FORM

Ronaldo was peaking when he ended his season with Real Madrid, and now is looking to continue his good form with the national team in Russia.

“Ronaldo is motivated,” young Portugal forward Andre Silva said. “He is taking this competition very seriously and is fully focused on training and on the match against Mexico.”

Ronaldo has scored 18 goals in his last 11 matches, including two in Portugal’s 3-0 win at Latvia in a European World Cup qualifier last week, the team’s last match before the Confederations Cup opener against Mexico.

Two weeks ago, he had also scored twice in the Champions League final to lead Madrid to its second consecutive title in the European club competition.

Ronaldo has scored 11 goals in five games with Portugal this season.

A good performance at the Confederations Cup will virtually secure him a fifth world player of the year award, equaling Lionel Messi.

WINNING RUNS

Portugal has won six of its last seven games, with the only setback coming in a 3-2 loss against Sweden in a friendly in March. With a team well balanced by coach Fernando Santos, Portugal outscored opponents 28-4 during that streak, with five clean sheets.

Mexico has won five of its last six matches, with a 2-1 home loss to Croatia in a friendly in May.

Portugal is making its debut in the Confederations Cup, while Mexico is playing in the intercontinental competition for the seventh time. The Mexicans won the title in 1999.

Portugal won 2-1 the only time it faced Mexico in an official match, in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The teams drew 0-0 in a friendly in 1969, and in 2014 Portugal won 1-0 in another exhibition match.

KNOWN FOES

Mexico’s squad has three players who have close connections to Portugal.

Defender Miguel Layun and midfielder Hector Herrera play for FC Porto, while forward Raul Jimenez plays for Benfica.

Portugal doesn’t have any player on its squad playing for Mexican clubs. Ten of its players are with Portuguese teams.

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Ronaldo explains his new chin hair at World Cup

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Now that Cristiano Ronaldo has taken to sporting a reasonable hairstyle atop his head, people are talking about the foliage on his face.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

Ronaldo, 33, drew speculation when he stroked his chin following a goal in his hat trick performance against Spain in the World Cup opener. Some said he was demonstrating defiance against Lionel Messi posing with a goat (Greatest Of All Time) in a recent photograph.

Ronaldo scored again on Wednesday, and there was seemingly little doubt his goatee was a wink to the speculators. But what did it mean, CR7? From ESPN:

“This goatee? It’s a joke I had with [Ricardo] Quaresma. “We were in the sauna [before Friday’s match against Spain] and I started to shave and I left the goatee. I said if I score tomorrow, I would leave it for the rest of the tournament. And it gave me luck.

“I scored in that game, I scored in this one, so it stays.”

Personally, I like to imagine Ronaldo starting to get as wild with his facial hair as he did his head hair.

Perhaps a beatnik style, or something like Serj Tankian from System of a Down. Get nuts, C-Ron.

Report: Southampton could sell Tadic to Ajax for $20m

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Could Southampton be selling one of its most creative forces?

Dusan Tadic, 29, is in the middle of a World Cup run with dark horse Serbia, but the Saints star is also being talked about as a purchase item for Ajax.

[ MORE: Serbia tops Costa Rica ]

The celebrated Eredivisie has traditionally been a selling club for the Premier League, but could be a $20 million buy for Ajax.

The report says director of players Marc Overmars and financial director Jeroen Slop have flown to Southampton to work out a deal.

Tadic starred for Dutch sides Groningen and Twente between 2010-14 before moving to St. Mary’s for a reported $12 million.

He’s scored 24 goals with 35 assists in 162 appearances for Saints, 21 and 30 of which came in the Premier League.

Toronto locks down USMNT backstop Bono with extension

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Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono is going to stay Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The newly-capped USMNT backstop, 24, has been attracting interest from abroad since breaking past Clint Irwin to win the TFC job and guiding the club to multiple MLS Cup Finals.

Now general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has locked down his young goalkeeper to an undisclosed contract extension. From TorontoFC.com:

“Alex was a big part of our success last season. He set club records for wins and clean sheets and was a critical piece of our championship team,” said Toronto FC Sr. Vice-President, Soccer Operations & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “Since joining the club as a first round pick in 2015, Alex’s ability to make key saves in big moments has been critical to our success.”

The Syracuse-born product of Syracuse University has made 64 appearances for the Reds.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 8 — Argentina on the edge; France aims for berth

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France, Denmark, and Croatia can clinch knockout round berths on Thursday in Russia, the last nation also holding the opportunity to help deprive the World Cup of an extended Lionel Messi run.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Messi’s Argentina drew Iceland in its opener, the megastar infamously missing a penalty, and will look to beat a Croatian side that looked quite good in dispatching Nigeria.

That’s the final match of the day, which begins with Denmark facing Australia and continues with a tasty match-up between France and Peru.

Below is Thursday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group C
Denmark vs. Australia: Samara, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
France vs. Peru: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group D
Argentina vs. Croatia: Nizhny Novgorod, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE