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Colombia’s Rodriguez a non-starter against Japan
19 June 2018, 1:55 PM

Attacking midfielder James Rodriguez was left out of Colombia’s starting team to play Japan in their World Cup Group H opener at on Tuesday in a big blow to the Latin American side.

The Colombia talisman, who won the golden boot in Brazil four years ago, has been troubled by muscle fatigue and the onus will be on all-time leading scorer Radamel Falcao to lead the Cafeteros in his absence.

Four-times Asian champions Japan lost 4-1 to Colombia in Brazil and have been hamstrung by a poor build-up to the tournament, including the sacking of Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic in April.

The Blue Samurai included the experienced duo of midfielder Shinji Kagawa and defender Yuto Nagatomo in their starting line-up.

Brazil held to 1-1 draw by Switzerland in Group E opener
17 June 2018, 10:37 PM

A second-half header from Steven Zuber cancelled out a sensational early goal from Philippe Coutinho as Switzerland and Brazil drew 1-1 in a tight Group E World Cup opener on Sunday.

With 20 minutes gone, Coutinho gathered a clearance 25 yards from goal and curled a marvellous shot into the far corner off the post to give the five-times world champions the lead.

However, Switzerland, who had looked toothless throughout the first half, got back on level terms five minutes into the second period when Zuber rose unmarked to head home a corner kick. Coutinho had Brazil’s best chance after the break but shot wide.

The result means that Serbia lead Group E after beating Costa Rica 1-0 earlier in the day.

Preview: Ambitious ‘golden’ Belgians eye flying start vs Panama
17 June 2018, 9:15 PM

Belgium see far beyond Monday’s World Cup opener against debutants Panama but need a solid win to settle nerves and rack up goal difference as a “golden generation” of club greats seek finally to deliver as a team.

Defensive injury concerns for veteran squad leader Vincent Kompany and Barcelona’s Thomas Vermaelen have eased and coach Roberto Martinez has sent standby defender Laurent Ciman home.

In any case, they may be more needed for Tunisia and then England in Group G, than against Panama. Celtic’s Dedryck Boyata may step in to give Kompany’s groin more time to recover.

An unbeaten qualifying campaign under the Spaniard, brought in after quarterfinal disappointment at Euro 2016, had Martinez bring the kind of man-management he used at Everton and Wigan Athletic to meld a core of Premier League talents around Kevin De Bruyne and Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard into an actual team.

Despite a fan revolt over his decision to leave out Roma’s Radja Nainnggolan, Martinez has inspired 11 million Belgians to believe this team can outdo the squad who made the semifinals in 1986.

“What we lacked at the Euros, Martinez wants to get,” said Paris St Germain winger Thomas Meunier, whose performance in a confident warm-up campaign exemplified the selfless movement in attack and defence that many players say Martinez has brought.

For Hazard, who at 27 Martinez is comparing to Lionel Messi at his peak, the four years that have passed since a 1-0 quarter-final exit to Argentina at the last World Cup have seen the Belgians mature: “We have more experience than four years ago,” Hazard said. “We’ve only one goal: get to the final.”

For the likes of Manchester City skipper Kompany, now 32, “it’s now or never” if Belgium are to go one better than their neighbourly rivals, twice-finalists the Dutch, and become by far the smallest nation since Uruguay in 1950 to lift the World Cup.

Panama on paper pose little threat in Sochi to a side likely to line up with three at the back and Hazard and Dries Mertens supporting Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku. Fail to win and it could be a “crisis”, defender Toby Alderweireld admitted.

Narrowly qualifying for a first finals under Colombian coach Hernan Dario Gomez, Panama were thumped 6-0 by Switzerland in their pre-tournament build-up while Belgium disposed of much more fancied Central Americans Costa Rica 4-0 last week before travelling.

For Gomez, his mostly U.S.-based players just want to avoid embarrassment, “to not be the laughing stock of the World Cup”.

Preview: Sweden v South Korea Factbox
17 June 2018, 9:00 PM

Sweden play South Korea in a Group F match in Nizhny Novgorod on Monday.

Where: Nizhny Novgorod Stadium

Capacity: 43,319

When: Monday June 18, 1500 local (1200 GMT/8 AM ET)

Referee: To be announced

Key stats:

– Sweden are back for the first time since 2006 as they compete at a 12th World Cup finals, having upset Italy in the playoffs last November. Their best result was runners-up when they hosted the 1958 tournament.

– South Korea have qualified for every World Cup since 1986, making it now nine in a row, with their best performance reaching the semi-final when they were co-hosts with Japan of the 2002 tournament.

– Sweden have not won their opening game at any World Cup since 1958, when they beat Mexico 3-0 on home soil. Since then, they have drawn five and lost two.

– The Koreans have won only one of their last nine World Cup games, which was a 2-0 victory over Greece in their opening game in 2010.

Previous meetings: They have played four times, with Sweden winning twice and the other two being drawn. Last meeting: South Korea 2 Sweden 2 (Seoul, 2005)

Preview: Belgium v Panama Factbox
17 June 2018, 8:56 PM

Belgium play Panama in a Group G match in Sochi on Monday.

Where: Fisht Stadium, Sochi

Capacity: 44,287

When: Monday, June 18, 1800 local (1500 GMT/1100 ET)

Referee: To be announced

Key stats:

– Belgium go into the tournament hoping to reach the final and so go one better than their best showing, when they lost 2-0 in the 1986 semifinal to eventual winners Argentina. They also want to improve on quarterfinal exits in 2014 and at Euro 2016.

– A streak of six successive qualifications for the finals from 1982 to 2002 was followed by a long period of the wilderness until they reached the last finals in Brazil.

– A country of 11 million, where soccer is one of the rare passions that unites its French- and Dutch-speaking halves, would match neighbours and rivals the Dutch if it makes the final — and outdo them if it could lift the Cup, becoming by far the smallest nation to do so since Uruguay in 1930 and 1950.

– Panama, a country of four million living around the Canal which links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, has never before qualified for the World Cup finals; people have long been more interested in baseball. Panama did not even field a team for World Cup qualifying until the 1978 competition.

– Belgium’s 23-man squad features 13 English Premier League players, of whom 11 from clubs that finished in the top five last season. Only two play in the Belgian championship, as many as play in both Spain and in Italy.

Previous meetings: None. Although, Belgium ominously hammered Panama’s stronger Central American neighbours Costa Rica — the Belgians’ fellow 2014 quarter-finalists — 4-0 last Monday in a friendly.

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