Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images

Five friendlies to watch closely over the next week

Leave a comment

The UEFA Nations League is taking center stage in this international break, but there are several other interesting matches on the docket outside of the new, formal UEFA competition.

[ MORE: Girona-Barcelona in Miami ]

A pair of them involve the United States.

In some circles, you could call that bias (and we certainly care more about U.S. matches than the rest of the world). But there’s hardly such a thing as a friendly against El Tri, and people will have one eye tuned-in any time Neymar hits the pitch.

Here are five top matches to scout this week.

Mexico vs. Uruguay — Friday (Houston)

These two sides boast an even rivalry, though plenty of eyes will be on Mexico without manager Juan Carlos Osorio (he’s off to Paraguay). El Tri‘s hot start to the World Cup cooled with a blowout loss to Sweden and 2-0 defeat by Brazil, and interim boss Ricardo Ferretti will bring a lot of youth to Texas; Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera, and Hector Moreno are among the big names left home.

Uruguay’s World Cup quarterfinal run ended with a loss to champions France, and that was the CONMEBOL side’s lone loss of 2018. Fabian Colto is the caretaker boss as legendary manager Oscar Tabarez’s future is mulled, and Uruguay will have most of its big names: Suarez, Cavani, Godin.

Portugal vs. Croatia — Thursday

We’ll get some tantalizing intra-Europe matches with the top groups of the UEFA Nations League featuring just three teams. This one sees Portugal without Cristiano Ronaldo and with plenty of interesting pieces; Ruben Neves, Andre Silva, Bernardo Silva, and Renato Sanches all bear close watching against a Croatian squad bringing its whole crew.

Colombia vs. Argentina — Sept. 4

While the reception Argentina receives at home to Guatemala earlier in the window will be fascinating, how Lionel Messi-less Argentina reacts to a match-up with Colombia will tell us more much more about the Albiceleste.

This is Paulo Dybala’s chance to shine bright, with no Messi, Sergio Aguero, nor Gonzalo Higuain in sight. Argentina will also hope to see plenty from its inexperienced but tantalizing offensive talent: Giovanni Simeone and Lautaro Martinez are among those hoping to join Dybala in restoring hope to Argentina.

Colombia? James Rodriguez is not coming, but Carlos Bacca, Luis Muriel, and Juan Cuadrado are in the fold, and Los Cafeteros have a lot of young bucks, too; Pay mind to Rangers star Alfredo Morelos and Spurs center back Davinson Sanchez.

USMNT vs. Brazil — Friday (NJ)
USMNT vs. Mexico — Sept. 4 (Nashville)

We’ll dive deeper into these two over the next few days, but the American side’s visits from Brazil and Mexico give us these three fun plot lines.

A) Was the stingy 1-1 draw against France pre-World Cup a fine indicator of progress?

2) How will the Yanks fare in both matches without Christian Pulisic, who’s injured?

D) Who’s deeper: next generation USMNT, or next generation Mexico (the latter featuring relatively-ignored-by-the-Yanks dual citizen Jonathan Gonzalez)?

England beats Colombia in PKs (Yes, in PKs)

AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano
11 Comments

England denied its World Cup penalty kick demons on Tuesday as the Three Lions booked the final spot in the World Cup quarterfinals with a 4-3 defeat of Colombia after 120 minutes of 1-1 in Moscow.

Harry Kane and Yerry Mina traded goals in regulation, with Mina’s coming well into second half stoppage time.

Colombia was playing without star playmaker James Rodriguez.

KICKS
COL – Radamel Falcao scores
ENG – Kane scores
COL – Juan Cuadrado scores
ENG – Marcus Rashford scores
COL – Luis Muriel scores
ENG – Jordan Henderson saved by David Ospina
COL – Manuel Uribe hits the cross bar
ENG – Kieran Trippier scores
COL – Carlos Bacca saved by Jordan Pickford
ENG – Eric Dier scores

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

There were few terrific chances in the first half, with the half focused on fouls and skullduggery.

And with apologies to a Harry Maguire header, the moment of the half was an incident between Colombia’s Wilmar Barrios and England’s Jordan Henderson.

Barrios made head-first contact with Henderson’s chest and head, and Henderson made sure everyone knew it. England supporters wanted a red card, but American referee Mark Geiger only showed yellow after VAR review.

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

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Kane won and converted a penalty kick shortly after the break, as Carlos Sanchez had his second awful moment of the tournament.

The half devolved even more afterward, and the 70th minute saw the match with one yellow for every 10 minutes of play (five for Colombia).

And Kyle Walker nearly gave the game back to Los Cafeteros, but Juan Cuadrado knifed his effort wide of the goal.

Mateus Uribe forced Jordan Pickford into an outstanding save in the third minute of stoppage, earning Colombia a corner kick. Mina headed home and it was 1-1.

The first 15 minutes of extra time belonged to Colombia, but England saw a few chances in the second stanza. Jordan Henderson sent Danny Rose on goal, but the Spurs man dragged his 112th minute shot just wide of the far post.

Colombia thrash poor Poland, set up must-win vs. Senegal

Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
1 Comment

Colombia thrashed Poland, to the tune of 3-0, in the two sides’ must-win game in Group H play at the 2018 World Cup on Sunday, getting goals from Yerry Mina, Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado to leave their destiny in their own hands ahead of Thursday’s decisive group finale against Senegal.

Poland have been eliminated with one group game still to play.

[ SCENARIOS: Who needs what, to finish where, in final round of group games ]

Colombia could have scored two or three goals in the first half, with Cuadrado and Juan Quintero causing constant problems for the left side of the Polish defense, but the necessary finishing touch was consistently lacking until Mina headed home a James Rodriguez cross in the 40th minute.

Poland offered very little, both before or after Mina’s opener, as Robert Lewandowski was effectively contained with the vast majority of his touches coming 30 yards from goal and further out. After disappointing in their tournament-opening loss to Senegal, manager Adam Nawalka made a handful of changes to his lineup — dropping the likes of Arkadiusz Milik, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki — to no avail.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Despite the scoreline remaining 1-0 for the first 25 minutes of the first half, Poland never looked threatening and were put to the sword by Falcao’s first career World Cup goal (missed the 2014 tournament due to a knee injury), courtesy of Quintero’s seeing-eye through ball.

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

James played provider five minutes later, when he slotted what might just be the pass of the tournament across the field, across the Polish defense, and found a streaking Cuadrado with acres of space in front of him. From one end of the field to the other, in no time at all.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

When Colombia (3 points) meet Senegal (4 points) on Thursday, they’ll need a win to overtake them for second place, or for Poland (0 points) to beat Japan (4 points), who currently sit top of the group — but that seems highly unlikely at this point.

Michael Oliver branded “total chaos” by Juve president; Buffon seethes

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
9 Comments

Juventus manager Max Allegri says referees, yes plural, decided the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal between his club and Real Madrid.

The Serie A powers clawed their way back from a 3-0 first leg deficit and seemed destined for extra time after two goals from Mario Mandzukic and an equalizer from Blaise Matuidi.

[ RECAP: Real 1-3 (4-3 agg.) Juve ]

But Mehdi Benatia knocked down Lucas Vasquez before the latter could head home a stoppage time winner, and Cristiano Ronaldo converted the penalty awarded by Michael Oliver.

That added to Allegri’s frustration from a first leg, stoppage time penalty not given to Juve in Turin.

“I feel bad for the lads who did well in Turin for 60 minutes and didn’t score the goals they did tonight,” Allegri said via Football Italia. “The penalty tonight was basically the reverse of what happened on Juan Cuadrado in the first leg… I said even at the time that incident would decide qualification.”

[ MORE: Cristiano Ronaldo reacts ]

Allegri also said he was saving a pair of what he believed to be game-changing substitutions for extra time, and said the ref decided the tie.

Gianluigi Buffon, who was sent off for his protest of Oliver’s decision, was less reserved, saying Oliver wanted to play a major role in the match (from Football Italia):

“Clearly you cannot have a heart in your chest, but a garbage bin. On top of that, if you don’t have the character to walk on a pitch like this in a stadium like this, you can sit in the stands with your wife, your kids, drinking your Sprite and eating crisps.

“You cannot ruin the dreams of a team. I could’ve told the referee anything at that moment, but he had to understand the degree of the disaster he was creating. If you can’t handle the pressure and have the courage to make a decision, then you should just sit in the stands and eat your crisps.”

Juventus president Andrea Agnelli was also quite angry, calling for VAR after the game.

“The referee tonight was in total chaos,” Agnelli said. “It’s a pity, the performance of the boys remains, we confirmed – as did PSG last season and Roma last night – proved you can come back from 3-0 down to turn things around.”

The penalty is one of those calls that is only controversial because of when it took place, as most wouldn’t begrudge the award were it not stoppage time of a UEFA Champions League decider.

Blaise Matuidi out a month with thigh tear

Getty Images
Leave a comment

In the middle of its toughest Serie A title fight in years and an imposing Champions League matchup against Tottenham on the horizon, Juventus has lost its midfield rock.

The Italian club announced Monday that Blaise Matuidi has a muscle tear in his left thigh, and while there was no official timetable given in the club release, reports suggest he will miss at least a month.

The 30-year-old was injured in the 7-0 drubbing of Sassuolo over the weekend, withdrawn after just 26 minutes. The injury was not considered serious at first, and he was taken off with the team already 2-0 up and the game under control. However, tests showed a problem worse than initially feared, and now he will face a spell on the sidelines.

Matuidi has appeared in 20 of the team’s 23 Serie A games, starting 16 of them. He’s also appeared in all six of their Champions League matches so far, with three starts. A strong CM with good ball-winning abilities and a crunching style, Matuidi is a huge loss for Juventus as they prepare for the high pressing Spurs in Champions League play. He will most certainly miss the first leg on February 13, while he could be in contention for a return for the second leg on March 7. His status will also be up in the air for a critical Serie A game against third-placed Lazio on March 3.

In 10 games since a 3-2 loss to Sampdoria on November 19, Juventus has astonishingly conceded just one goal in Serie A play, with Matuidi starting in all but two of those matches.

Massamiliano Allegri has rotated Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic, Sami Khedira, and Stefano Sturaro in midfield for much of the season, the bulk of the work will now fall on the remaining three to take over Matuidi’s minutes. “He has the traits that when I play with 3 midfielders I can play either him or Sturaro,” Allegri said after the Sassuolo match.

Sturaro will likely be the biggest benefactor, having made just seven league appearances thus far. Juve is a point back of Napoli in the title race, with Lazio a significant distance behind in third. They are not scheduled to play Napoli again until late April.

Juventus is already without Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado with injuries.