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Preview, predictions for Euro 2020 semifinals

A 24-team field has been reduced to four as the Euro 2020 semifinals get set to kick-off in London. We examine the two contests below, highlighting the key factors that will determine which nations advance and predicting the result for each fixture.

Tuesday, July 6

Italy vs. Spain (3:00 p.m. ET)

  • Venue: Wembley Stadium (London)

Spain enters Tuesday’s contest with a tournament-best 12 goals and have more attacks (365), corner kicks (47), possession (67.2%), and successful passes (3,856 – an astounding 1,182 more than next-best Italy) than any side at Euro 2020.

Dominant stuff from a team that’s spent heaps of time in the attacking third, but a deeper look reveals a worryingly toothless frontline. Luis Enrique’s charges had 28 shots against Switzerland – with 10 of those hitting the target – but still needed an own goal and some horrendous penalties from their 10-man opponent after two hours of open play to progress. Out of Spain’s dozen goals, 10 of those came against Slovakia and Croatia – the latter match also required extra time against an inferior foe – meaning La Roja have managed to score only twice across their other three outings.

Strike tandem Alvaro Morata – who has two goals in 293 minutes played – and Gerard Moreno – who’s on zero goals in 197 minutes – have endured the brunt of these failings, and neither offered much against the Swiss. Moreno came on in the 57th-minute for a fatigued Morata and missed four attempts, one of which was a prime chance from close range. Spain’s continued wastefulness could prove costly, especially against an Italian side capable in attack.

Claudio Villa / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Being capable in attack hasn’t always been a hallmark of Italy’s best teams, but that’s precisely what they are under Roberto Mancini. Even without left-back Leonardo Spinazzola – who was one of the best players at Euro 2020 before rupturing his Achilles in the last-16 win over Belgium – Italy’s penchant for probing and relentless attacks should prove a weighty threat against Spain.

Slick interplay and lightning-quick passing sequences have been the calling card of a tactical approach that starkly contrasts Mancini’s predecessors. Antonio Conte’s counter-attacking brand and Gian Piero Ventura’s bumbling and rigid methods that favored back-to-the-wall Catenaccio-inspired defending have been ditched for fluid attacks. It’s been a refreshing change.

While it’s not without its risks, nobody will argue with the results: Italy has won 13 on the spin, outscoring opponents 28-2 over that spell, and are 33 unbeaten – both national team records. The Spaniards will need to have their best performance of the tournament to snap the Azzurri’s stellar streak.

Prediction: Italy wins

Wednesday, July 7

England vs. Denmark (3:00 p.m. ET)

  • Venue: Wembley Stadium (London)

The trauma of talisman Christian Eriksen suffering cardiac arrest on the pitch and the two defeats that followed seemed to consign Denmark to an early exit – until a remarkable 4-1 victory over Russia started to establish the Danes as one of the tournament’s strongest sides.

Mikkel Damsgaard and Joakim Maehle have flourished with the added responsibility in Eriksen’s absence, combining for three goals and two assists while wreaking havoc down the left side. Maehle’s emergence is perhaps the most surprising after an average first season with Atalanta: Only the Netherlands’ Frenkie de Jong has completed more dribbles at Euro 2020 than the wing-back.

This tournament’s timing was helpful to Denmark. Conservative coach Age Hareide’s contract expired during the one-year delay, and his predecessor, the highly rated Kasper Hjulmand, has since melded his attacking instincts with the defensive solidity that was left behind. Kasper Dolberg has scored more goals in his last two appearances (three) than he did in his previous 12 international outings.

Eddie Keogh – The FA / The FA Collection / Getty

England can also count on a striker in form after Harry Kane caught fire near the end of the Three Lions’ last-16 elimination of Germany. The Tottenham Hotspur marksman then notched a brace in the dominant quarterfinal win over Ukraine and has shown a fine understanding with Raheem Sterling throughout the Euros.

But who’s joining Kane and Sterling in attack is one of the biggest talking points leading up to this match. The clamor for Jack Grealish to start contests has led to a peculiar situation where his reputation grows each time he’s named on the bench, while Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, and Marcus Rashford’s qualities are no secret. Bukayo Saka also impressed over his two starts.

The next conundrum is whether Gareth Southgate opts for a four or three-man backline, with the latter option likely providing the best foundation to deal with Denmark. No team has scored more goals from open play at the tournament (eight) than England’s opponent.

Prediction: England wins

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Who's in, who's out? World Cup field taking shape after European qualifying

The European contingent for next year’s World Cup is nearly finalized.

Tuesday brought an end to the group stage of UEFA’s qualifying format, with the Netherlands securing the last of 10 automatic berths allocated to Europe for the showpiece tournament in Qatar; 13 European teams in total will partake in the event.

Below is a breakdown of the nations that already qualified, along with a complete explanation of the new playoff system, which will decide the final three European countries that will head to Qatar in November 2022.

Qualified for World Cup

The 10 group winners from qualifying can officially start booking their flights.

  • Serbia
  • Spain
  • Switzerland
  • France
  • Belgium
  • Denmark
  • Netherlands
  • Croatia
  • England
  • Germany

Going into qualification playoffs

PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP / Getty

With 10 nations earning a ticket to Qatar, that leaves three outstanding World Cup places for UEFA. Those berths will be determined by a new 12-team playoff format. The nations will be drawn into three groups of four – called “Paths” – and play one-off semifinals and a final to decide which teams get the last three spots.

The draw for the playoffs takes place on Nov. 26 at 11:00 a.m. ET.

  • Seeded: Portugal, Scotland, Italy, Russia, Sweden, Wales
  • Unseeded: Turkey, Poland, North Macedonia, Ukraine, Austria, Czech Republic

The six seeded nations will be drawn against the six unseeded teams to create the semifinal matchups; the seeded sides will play those respective games at home. The semifinal matches are scheduled for March 24.

The draw will also determine the potential finals for each of the three “Paths,” meaning each team will know its prospective opponent before a ball is kicked in March.

  • Path A: winner of Semifinal 1 vs. winner of Semifinal 2
  • Path B: winner of Semifinal 3 vs. winner of Semifinal 4
  • Path C: winner of Semifinal 5 vs. winner of Semifinal 6

The three finals are slated for March 29.

Aside from Russia and Ukraine being kept apart for political reasons, there are no restrictions on the draw. That means the two most recent European champions – Italy and Portugal – could potentially meet in a one-off final to determine which continental heavyweight goes to the World Cup and which one misses out.

Italy, which famously failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament by losing in a two-legged playoff to Sweden, could very well meet the Swedes again, too.

Notable absentees

Fran Santiago / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Erling Haaland won’t get the opportunity to play in his first World Cup, as Norway finished third in Group G by virtue of Tuesday’s defeat to the Netherlands, thus failing to earn either automatic qualification or a playoff spot. The Borussia Dortmund superstar missed the 2-0 loss due to injury.

Norway will be joined on the sidelines by the likes of Ireland, Hungary, Greece, Finland, and Iceland.

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10 thoughts from this week's Champions League action

The Champions League rumbled on this week with an entertaining slate of action. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Matchday 3 in Europe’s premier club competition.

What happens if goals dry up for Liverpool?

Liverpool’s exhilarating 3-2 win over Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday was arguably the best match of the competition this season. It had a little bit of everything: an electric atmosphere, great goals, a red card, a penalty, and wild swings in momentum.

And though Jurgen Klopp should be enthused by Mohamed Salah’s sizzling form and his team’s continued ability to fill the net (Liverpool have now scored 18 goals in their last five matches across all competitions), it wasn’t all positive for the German tactician.

After a ferocious start in which the Reds rocked Atletico during the first 15 minutes, Diego Simeone’s side steadied the ship and was the better team over the remainder of the contest. Looking beyond all the noise – the excellent finishing, Antoine Griezmann’s red card, and the late penalty incidents – Atleti probably should have come away with three points; Alisson was forced into some stellar saves on both sides of the halftime interval as Liverpool afforded an uncharacteristic amount of space, especially out wide, to the hosts.

Klopp, who correctly pointed out that winning “dirty” is an important attribute of successful teams, isn’t blind to the issues facing his squad at the moment.

“We are not that confident, to be honest,” he said after the match. “We know our struggles, we know our problems but we try to ignore them very often.”

In their last eight games in all competitions, Liverpool have conceded two or more goals in four of them, looking wobbly at the back against AC Milan, Brentford, Manchester City, and now Atletico. With Salah absolutely destroying his opponents right now, Liverpool can outscore their defensive issues, but at some point, they’ll have a spell when the goals don’t flow quite so freely. Hopefully, Klopp will have sorted out a suddenly susceptible backline by then.

PSG still lack a clear plan

With seven points from their opening three matches, Paris Saint-Germain are well-positioned to emerge from Group A and reach the knockout stages of the competition. But, not for the first time this season, the star-studded French side lacked cohesion and coherence, relying instead on individual quality from Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe to claim a 3-2 comeback win over RB Leipzig on Tuesday.

Mauricio Pochettino obviously has a plan for his team, but outside of scoring early and then using their elite attackers to wreak havoc on the counter, it’s been difficult to discern what, exactly, PSG want to do this season. Case in point: PSG had an open-net tap-in on the goal line – Messi’s first goal of the match – and still lost the overall expected goals (xG) battle when you exclude penalties from the equation.

Give the ball to Messi and Mbappe, and get the hell out of the way is, in fairness, an approach that will work more often than not. It was enough on Tuesday, after all. Conventional wisdom suggests that plan should be even more fruitful when Neymar is fit and involved, but something is still missing.

Great attacking tridents can carry a team very, very far – we’ve seen it happen in the past – but more than most sports, football truly is a team game. There needs to be balance all across the pitch, or the system crumbles. Barcelona’s famed “MSN” triumvirate, for example, was aided by an elite supporting cast, including a brilliant midfield.

Messi, Mbappe, and Neymar will deliver goals, but what Pochettino does with the rest of his squad will likely determine how successful PSG are this season.

Foden makes Manchester City tick

Amid doubts this season over Manchester City’s ability to get results without a traditional No. 9, victory in Belgium was proof that the Premier League club is doing just fine without a center forward in the fold.

In what was another example of Pep Guardiola’s tactical prowess, Manchester City produced one of their best attacking performances of the season in Tuesday night’s lopsided away win over Club Brugge.

VIRGINIE LEFOUR / AFP / Getty

With Phil Foden deployed as a false nine, City dominated en route to a 5-1 victory. The versatile 21-year-old was on another level, as his vision, passing, and movement off the ball caused problems for defenders all night long. This is a quality Brugge side that beat RB Leipzig and held PSG to a draw in its previous Group A matches, so such a thorough hammering is nothing to scoff at.

Foden’s confident display was one that City fans have come to expect from the exciting English international – and one that would be nearly impossible for just about any “traditional” striker in the world to replicate. With Ferran Torres out injured and Gabriel Jesus’ continued struggles with consistency in front of goal, Foden could be the target man of the future for Guardiola.

Toothless Milan on brink of humbling exit

AC Milan’s return to the Champions League has been nothing short of a disaster. Despite their impressive start in Serie A, the Rossoneri have struggled to get their Champions League campaign off the ground and now face the threat of an embarrassing exit after another frustrating night.

Stefano Pioli’s men arrived in Portugal with their best opportunity yet to secure their first Champions League point since 2014. Instead, a controversial goal from Luis Diaz lifted FC Porto to victory over the seven-time European champions, who were also the victims of very dubious officiating decisions that factored into their loss to Atletico Madrid on Matchday 2.

Regardless of their poor luck with the officials, Milan now have a mountain to climb just to avoid finishing last in Group B after losing their opening three matches; they sit four points back of Porto and Atletico, and nine behind leaders Liverpool.

The assignment was always going to be difficult given the strength of the quartet. But toothless displays such as the one on Tuesday night – when Milan managed only one shot on target – are likely to result in a humiliating departure from the tournament that fans were so desperate to see the club compete in again.

Just how far can Ajax go this season?

After years of consistently developing prodigious talents and selling them at huge profits, Ajax have often been relegated to underdog status during their recent Champions League endeavors. Based on some of their upsets, it’s a role the young Ajax teams of late have cherished.

But Tuesday felt like a turning point.

picture alliance / picture alliance / Getty

Ajax thwacked Borussia Dortmund, claiming a resounding 4-0 win befitting of a juggernaut, not an underdog. That’s exactly what the Dutch side has looked like this season; between the Eredivisie and Champions League, Ajax have racked up 43 goals in 12 games, conceding only three times.

Erik ten Hag’s team is supremely skilled in virtually every area on the pitch, and the imposing Sebastien Haller offers a change of pace up front that is, somewhat surprisingly, jiving perfectly with his more technical teammates.

FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index (SPI) has the usual suspects rated as the best teams in this season’s Champions League: Manchester City, Bayern Munich, and Liverpool occupy the top three spots at the moment. However, Ajax are fourth.

Until we see evidence to the contrary, the storied club should be viewed as a legitimate candidate to make serious noise in the tournament.

Barca’s unspectacular win papers over cracks

It took them until Matchday 3, but Barcelona got their Champions League campaign up and running with a 1-0 win over Dynamo Kyiv on Wednesday.

But the path to victory was rougher than it should have been against a team Barcelona would have historically been heavy favorites to beat. Less than a year after winning 4-0 on a trip to Ukraine, Barca had to grind their way to victory at the Camp Nou.

On an evening when the hosts struggled to generate scoring opportunities, it took the heroics of a defender to decide the match. Gerard Pique scored the winner and became the first player to register a Champions League goal for the club since Lionel Messi’s departure.

Despite getting the three points, it was a brutal performance that won’t fill fans with confidence ahead of the season’s first edition of El Clasico this weekend. If Koeman can’t inspire his men ahead of the showdown with Real Madrid, it could spell the end to the Dutchman’s time in charge.

Ronaldo rescues Solskjaer … again

Of course.

For the second consecutive Champions League match, Cristiano Ronaldo saved the blushes of Manchester United and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, delivering a late header to cap a stirring 3-2 comeback win over Atalanta.

Villarreal know the feeling, too.

Martin Rickett – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Solskjaer, who has come under increasing pressure amid the club’s poor run of form, was surely the most relieved person inside Old Trafford as he watched Ronaldo’s header hit the back of the net in the 81st minute. Though United created some chances in the first half, they again looked disorganized in defense and cumbersome overall, and the team, down 2-0 at halftime, was jeered off the pitch. The home crowd was growing restless.

Such a thrilling comeback will surely placate some – being able to turn that game around was no small feat, and praise is warranted – but getting into that situation in the first place should keep the alarm bells ringing. All is not solved, and the same pressing questions remain.

Does Solskjaer have the tactical nous to fix what’s ailing the team? Or, as has long been suggested by his detractors, is he more of a cheerleader who needs to make way for a more celebrated tactician who can get the best out of a very talented squad?

Welcome to the De Sciglio renaissance?

Mattia De Sciglio was an afterthought for many Juventus supporters following his return from a loan spell with Lyon, but the versatile Italian has shown in recent matches why Massimiliano Allegri continues to have faith in him.

The 29-year-old, never the most buccaneering full-back, has directly contributed to Juventus’ last two goals, whipping in delicious crosses against Roma this past weekend and Zenit St. Petersburg on Wednesday. Juve claimed 1-0 victories in both contests.

De Sciglio is often afforded plenty of space by the opposition, who have clearly identified him as the Bianconeri’s least threatening outlet, regardless of which flank he takes up. It’s not an unwarranted approach, to be fair, but if he continues to make worthwhile attacking contributions, opposing teams will eventually need to account for a player who some didn’t expect to see wearing a black and white shirt at all this season.

Time for Tuchel to get creative

Chelsea cruised to a 4-0 win over Malmo on Wednesday, but any delight was tempered after watching strikers Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner both leave the contest in the first half with worrying injuries.

Thomas Tuchel said after the victory that the Belgian star twisted his ankle, adding that the German speedster sustained a hamstring issue. He suspects the duo will miss “some games,” according to James Olley of ESPN. The extent of their ailments will be learned later this week.

Darren Walsh / Chelsea FC / Getty

Barring a rapid recovery, Tuchel will need to get crafty with his lineup selections in the coming weeks. Kai Havertz, who found the net in Wednesday’s rout, figures to see some time as a false nine.

There’s never a good time for injuries, but the Blues will take solace in the fact that Lukaku and Werner’s setbacks come during the most favorable portion – at least on paper – of Chelsea’s schedule.

Adeyemi ready for big move

Karim Adeyemi will very likely be the subject of a bidding war in January.

The Red Bull Salzburg forward, 19, brought his tally to three goals in as many matches in this season’s Champions League, scoring an early marker in his side’s 3-1 triumph against Wolfsburg. The Austrian club is now sitting pretty atop Group G and will fancy its chances of reaching the knockout stage.

The German international’s explosiveness has been central to Salzburg’s success. In addition to his scoring prowess, the teenager has won four penalties in three games. Defenders can’t handle him.

Manager Matthias Jaissle should probably enjoy the next couple months while he’s able to call upon Adeyemi; a handful of Europe’s top clubs are apparently eyeing an opulent transfer for the youngster, who looks destined to be the next big star to come through the vaunted Red Bull pipeline.

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Chiesa, Son among 5 Ballon d'Or snubs

The finalists for the 2021 Ballon d’Or award were unveiled Friday, with many of football’s biggest stars occupying a spot on the prestigious list.

As is the case every year after France Football releases its 30-man shortlist, there are a handful of controversial omissions.

Here are five of the biggest snubs for the 2021 Ballon d’Or award:

Heung-min Son (Tottenham/South Korea)

Adam Davy – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

On the heels of another sensational season at Tottenham Hotspur, Heung-min Son somehow failed to make the cut for the revered honor.

Son was brilliant for Spurs last term, forming a dynamic partnership with Harry Kane on his way to finishing the 2020-21 Premier League campaign with 17 goals and 10 assists. But even though his statistics eclipsed the figures that earned him a place in the top 30 two years ago, the South Korean’s best season in north London went unrewarded by the French outlet.

Federico Chiesa (Juventus/Italy)

There’s not much more Federico Chiesa could’ve done to earn his place among football’s elite.

The 23-year-old winger developed into an integral component for both club and country last season. But even after playing an influential role in spearheading Italy’s journey toward capturing the Euro 2020 title and emerging as a star for Juventus, his heroic efforts weren’t enough for some, apparently.

Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich/Germany)

Alexander Hassenstein / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Joshua Kimmich is perhaps the most puzzling omission of the lot. The versatile German is one of Bayern Munich and Germany’s most consistent players, yet he’s been overlooked by France Football for the second time running.

There’s no doubting the 26-year-old will eventually get recognized in the near future. But there’s also no doubt that, right now, Kimmich is arguably one of the most important and talented players for a Bayern Munich side that habitually competes for – and wins – titles.

Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid/Slovenia)

There wasn’t any room for Jan Oblak in this year’s list of Ballon d’Or contenders, with Italian Gianluigi Donnarumma singled out as the lone representative of the goalkeeping brotherhood.

While there are cases to be made for other goalkeeper snubs – such as Manchester City’s Ederson, Liverpool’s Alisson, Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer, and Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy – Oblak’s exclusion may be the most egregious considering his commanding performances in helping Atletico Madrid end their seven-year wait for a La Liga title.

Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain/Brazil)

Simon Stacpoole/Offside / Offside / Getty

A trophy-less season at Paris Saint-Germain could be one of the explanations for overlooking Marquinhos. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good reason to omit one of the world’s top defenders.

While it was a disappointing season overall for PSG, Marquinhos was a force throughout the campaign before going on to play a vital role during Brazil’s journey to the Copa America final last summer.

Honorable mentions: Marcos Llorente (Atletico Madrid/Spain), Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich/Germany), Edouard Mendy (Chelsea/Senegal), Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich/Germany), Kyle Walker (Manchester City/England)

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