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Brazil, Argentina set for epic Copa America semifinal showdown

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The list of storylines set to litter the field in Belo Horizonte Tuesday night reads like an unfurled medieval scroll.

Lionel Messi and his international goose egg is yet again put to the highest of tests. Brazil returns to the site of a painful memory, the stadium where the Selecao was pummeled by Germany in its own World Cup five short years ago. Star striker Sergio Aguero has just one international goal since last summer’s World Cup. Brazil’s brutal recent results in the Copa America are staggeringly disappointing, while Argentina’s dismal decade against Brazil makes for equally painful reading.

All the talking points come to a head as the two heavyweights go head-to-head in a headlining Copa America semifinal on Tuesday, with kickoff set for 8:30 p.m. ET.

[ MORE: Preview USWNT vs. England in World Cup semifinals ]

The Copa America hosts have failed to reach the final – or even the semifinal, for that matter – since they last won the competition in 2007, a title which gave Brazil a second straight Copa America win and four of five. Since, they have two quarterfinal exits and a group stage flop, not much to boast about for a country that sees itself as a world soccer superpower.

Argentina, meanwhile, hasn’t beaten Brazil in a competitive match since way back in 2005 during World Cup qualification for the tournament in Germany that following year. They have since lost four and drawn two against their rivals, sandwiching a six-year gap without a competitive meeting between the two sides from 2009-2015.

Brazil will have much of the obvious pressure as hosts of the competition, but Argentina has plenty on the line as well. This competition could be one of Lionel Messi’s last chance for a major trophy with Argentina, with just the 2020 Copa America in Colombia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar reasonably remaining on the docket, as the next continental competition doesn’t come around again until 2024.

With Neymar injured and Richarlison recovering from illness, much of the goalscoring threat for Brazil lies at the feet of Roberto Firmino (Photo by Kaz Photography/Getty Images).

Still, the visitors have a personnel edge as Brazil must work around a growing collection of injuries. Most notably Neymar still finds himself sidelined for the foreseeable future, but that is only the beginning of Tite’s worries. Important midfielder Fernandinho isn’t expected to play thanks to a right knee injury that has seen him miss the last two matches, and defender Felipe Luis is also a doubt after picking up an injury in the win over Paraguay. Richarlison, who has been fantastic in his short international career, has missed the last two matches after contracting the mumps, and while he’s expected to be in the squad, he’s unlikely to start.

Argentina has not played well in the competition, but put forth its best performance last time out against Venezuela, finally  looking more comfortable and mistake-free at the back than previously against the likes of Colombia and Paraguay who were happy to sit back and let the Albiceleste beat itself. Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni has slowly brought young players into the fold to rousing success, with Giovani Lo Celso finally utilized centrally, Lautaro Martinez scorching hot up front, and Juan Foyth the most recent positive addition at the back. The coaching staff has finally come to the realization that running out retreads like Angel di Maria or out-of-form attackers like Paulo Dybala brings little value to the side, and the young players deployed instead have proven hungry to bring Argentina back to the top in a competition they have not won since 1993.

Brazil, meanwhile, had looked its best in quite some time during the group stage, only to draw a blank against Paraguay, requiring penalties to advance after a 0-0 draw that featured 26 shots – eight of which hit the target but none found the back of the net. A rejuvinated Philippe Coutinho and new Champions League winner Roberto Firmino had looked strong until the Paraguay game, and the pair will need to return to form.

While this edition of the Copa America has been generally a dud through the quarterfinals, the semis present fans with a mouth-watering matchup to erase the earlier doldrums. It may not be an electric, high-scoring affair – these anticipated meetings between world giants rarely are – but should prove a tense, well balanced clash that will leave fans on the edge of their seats.

Brazil, Argentina mired in pressure for Copa America tie

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BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) Brazil will be under pressure for its future and Argentina for its past when they meet in the Copa America semifinals on Tuesday at Mineirao Stadium.

The hosts need the title to try to calm the waters for coach Tite until the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Lionel Messi’s team seeks its first trophy in 26 years, which would also be the first major one for the superstar in the white and blue shirt.

[ MORE: USWNT-England preview ]

In the other semifinal, defending champion Chile and underdog Peru play in Porto Alegre on Wednesday.

In a change from the quarterfinals, teams will play extra time if the first 90 minutes are drawn.

Neither Tite nor Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni have given much suggestion into how their teams will play their superclasico in Belo Horizonte. Sunday’s training sessions were closed to the media.

The Brazilian coach doesn’t like to make changes, meaning his team could stick to the 4-1-3-1 formation it has used for most of the tournament, with sensation Everton, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino closing midfield gaps and helping Gabriel Jesus up front. Tite is under pressure for his conservative approach since he picked a squad filled with veterans, which signaled his desperation to win.

Scaloni has made changes to his inexperienced team for every Copa America match, and is under pressure to be more conservative against Brazil by ending its effective offensive trio of Messi, Lautaro Martinez and Sergio Aguero. The latter two could be replaced by winger Angel di Maria, who has performed well in roles that include defending, or midfielder Giovani Lo Celso.

Brazil’s and Argentina’s Copa America campaigns have been far from impressive.

The hosts have two victories and two draws, advancing to the semifinals only after a penalty shootout win against Paraguay following a goal-less first 90. The team was booed by fans in three of the four matches, and misses the injured Neymar to break stronger defensive lines.

Argentina comfortably beat Venezuela 2-0 in the quarterfinals in its best performance so far, but it started with a defeat by the same score against Colombia, drew Paraguay in a match which almost sent it crashing out of the tournament, and won against Qatar 2-0 to advance to the knockout stage. In none of those matches did Messi deliver a Barcelona-like performance.

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Recent history puts Brazil slightly favored for their clash.

The last time they faced off at Mineirao Stadium in November 2016, Brazil won 3-0 in 2018 World Cup qualifying. Since then, Tite has kept his job, and Argentina has had three coaches; Edgardo Bauza, Jorge Sampaoli, and Scaloni, on an interim basis.

The last time Brazil lost to Argentina at home was in April 1998 in a friendly before the World Cup in France. Striker Claudio Lopez scored at Maracana Stadium.

Messi, who admittedly is not playing well at Copa America, has also struggled in most of the superclasicos. In nine matches between the two South American soccer powers, the superstar has lost five and won three, all those in friendlies against below-strength Brazil lineups.

The last great performance by Messi against Brazil was in July 2012, when he scored a hat trick in a 4-3 win on U.S. soil.

Before the tournament, he said Argentina was “not a candidate” for the Copa title. In recent days, he’s changed his mind.

“What matters is that we are in the semifinals, and matches have been very tight at this Copa America,” Messi said after the win against Venezuela.

Brazil will count again on Richarlison as an option on the bench. The striker was isolated for days in Porto Alegre because of mumps, which made him miss the quarterfinal match against Paraguay. He has rejoined his teammates in Belo Horizonte.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Transfer rumor roundup: Neymar for Coutinho plus cash? Dembele to Liverpool?

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The rumors are plenty to finish the work week, so let’s dive right into the buzz around the Premier League summer.

The Rodri-to-City reports have been long-running, but that didn’t stop another team from trying a 23rd hour move for the Atletico Madrid midfielder.

Kicker in Germany reports that Bayern Munich tried to swoop into the picture and snatch the player away from Man City, but that Rodri remains sold on working with Pep Guardiola and the Premier League champions.

Barcelona’s hopes of acquiring Neymar for far less than what some say could be a $300 million transfer fee involves a part-swap deal.

AS says that Barca would offer Paris Saint-Germain $100 million plus Philippe Coutinho in exchange for Neymar’s services.

Given Neymar’s injury history and off-field issues, maybe PSG will jump at that and use the $100 million on one of the many players linked with the club this offseason. From Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi to Real’s James Rodriguez, that money would be useful.

And Barca is going to be selling any number of players this offseason, but would you believe they’d admit failure in the case of Ousmane Dembele?

Don Balon reports that Liverpool of all teams is ready to spend nearly $170 million on Dembele, giving them at-worst insurance and at-best a replacement for any moves made by Sadio Mane or Mohamed Salah (who are widely reported as happy at Anfield).

Finally, Sky Sports says Inter Milan’s action on Romelu Lukaku could not happen until June 30 when Financial Fair Play sanctions relax on the Serie A unit.

United apparently wants around $90 million for the Belgian striker, while Inter is hoping to spend a little more than half of that figure.

Inter would also, Sky says, have to sell Mauro Icardi and there’s been little interest in the prolific but controversial striker. Not a huge surprise.

Report: Barcelona in negotiations with PSG to sign Neymar

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In a stunning development, Neymar could be returning to the Camp Nou as early as this summer.

Brazilian media giant Globo Esporte reported Monday afternoon that Barcelona is currently negotiating with Paris Saint-Germain over the signing of Neymar. According to the report, the deal could include a payment of around $112 million along with one or more players moving to Paris, including Ivan Rakitic, Ousmane Dembele and Samuel Umtiti.

[READ: USWNT: We have the best, and second best team]

There’s so many layers to this deal, so let’s break it down.

The news that Neymar could return to Barcelona comes on the heels of an interview by PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi and France Football, in which he called out Neymar, stating “nobody forced him to sign here,” and that Al-Khelaifi said earlier in the interview he didn’t want “to see stars anymore.”

“I want players willing to give everything to defend the honor of the jersey and to join the club project,” Al-Khelaifi told France Football. “Those who do not want, or do not understand, we see each other and we talk to each other. There are of course contracts to be respected, but the priority now is total membership of our project…nobody forced him to sign here. Nobody pushed him. He came knowingly to join a project.”

Meanwhile, Neymar has plenty of time now to think of his future. Ever since moving to PSG, it feels like he’s been stricken by the injury bug. While he’ll probably go down as a Brazil legend when he retires, he’s on the precipice of being a what if player, as in, what if he wasn’t injured for parts of the last two World Cups, and for picking up an ankle injury that’s kept him out of the 2019 Copa America.

It’s been ankle injuries as well in February of each of the last two seasons at PSG that has effectively ended his season just as it was reaching the important stages, the start of the UEFA Champions League knockout stage.

Remember, Neymar decided to force his way out of Barcelona and move to PSG in an effort to break the hegemony of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to win the Ballon d’Or and truly write his name in the history books. Instead, his time in Paris will be remembered abroad more for his antics, injuries, and of course, the incident with the fan at the Coupe de la Ligue final.

Of course, that’s not to say Neymar didn’t have success in France. He’s scored an incredible 49 goals in 55 games in all competitions, including in both Ligue 1 and the UEFA Champions League. But ultimately, Neymar wasn’t able to score goals when it mattered, like in the Champions League knockout stages or in high-pressure games.

At Barcelona, Neymar achieved some of his biggest club success and took his game to new heights after being a raw diamond needing polishing at Santos in Brazil. Perhaps Neymar has realized that it’s better to play in Messi’s shadow, and potentially win the UEFA Champions League again, than try and stake it out on his own. Neymar has a good relationship with Messi and Luis Suarez, among other South Americans on the team, and on paper he’d clearly be a big upgrade at left wing over the duo of Ousmane Dembele and Neymar’s Brazil teammate, Philippe Coutinho.

The deal makes sense for both sides, but will it get done? That’s the big question this summer, and it will remain unanswered until the second of September, the close of the Spanish transfer window.

Coutinho arrives as Brazil downs Bolivia in Copa America opener

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Philippe Coutinho had an extremely difficult first season at Barcelona, but he put those struggles behind him when his country needed him the most. Missing the injured Neymar, Coutinho stepped up and delivered a brace as Brazil downed Bolivia 3-0, with Gremio winger Everton adding the cherry on top.

The first half Brazil completely dominated, but were wasteful as they looked to create the perfect goal. They put 12 shots towards net but only found the target with one in the first 45 minutes, failing to find the breakthrough.

After the break Brazil boss Tite made changes tactically and Brazil was far more dangerous, paying off almost immediately. A Richarlison cross in the box clipped the arm of Adriano Jusino and using VAR the referee gave the penalty. Coutinho arrived at the spot to dispatch the penalty with a low, driving effort and open the scoring.

The Barcelona frontman wasn’t done, making a wonderful late run to meet Roberto Firmino‘s cross at the far post and heading in Brazil’s second just three minutes later.

After the second goal, Brazil immediately shut it down, controlling possession and passing around at a slow tempo. Bolivia hardly saw a touch of the ball after Brazil took its 2-0 lead, with the hosts winning every aerial battle and getting to every loose ball. They finished the game with a passing advantage of 553-145. Gabriel Jesus came on for the final 25 minutes in place of Firmino, and Everton replaced David Neres. The latter would prove fruitful, as the 23-year-old danced past two defenders into the box and delivered an absolutely beautiful curler that left Carlos Lampe with no chance.

The win is the fourth in a row for Brazil who has now kept three straight clean sheets as well. Bolivia, meanwhile, is in real trouble given the monumentally difficult group they were drawn in, with Peru and Venezuela also real threats to reach the knockout stage.