International friendly: Spain 5 Venezuela 0

Spain ran out comprehensive 5-0 winners over Venezuela in their international friendly in Malaga on Wednesday.

Roberto Soldado marked his first appearance for Spain since 2007 with a clinical hat-trick, while David Silva and Andres Iniesta were also on the scoresheet as the home side dominated their less illustrious opponents.

Spain’s goalkeeper Iker Casillas was forced into making an early save from Venezuela’s Solomon Rondon, after the striker hit an instinctive shot towards goal from the left-hand side of the penalty area.

Iniesta very nearly gave the home side the lead in the 17th after latching on to an incisive ball from Cesc Fabregas and striking a firm effort goalwards. However goalkeeper Dani was a match for the strike and did well to parry the ball to safety.

A swerving effort from Silva gave Dani more problems after 30 minutes, with the keeper perhaps fortunate on this occasion to see the shot flick over the crossbar after the ball had cannoned off his shoulder.

The breakthrough came in the 37th minute courtesy of a neat finish from the edge of the box by Iniesta, after he was found in space by a slick pass from his Barcelona team-mate Fabregas.

Silva added a second for the home side just minutes later with a crisp strike from 20 yards after Fabregas had set him up with a nonchalant back-heel.

Much of the talk before the game surrounded Roberto Soldado’s inclusion in Vicente Del Bosque’s squad following his scintillating form for Valencia this season, and it took the striker just five minutes to leave his mark on the game.

After being introduced at half-time, Soldado scored Spain’s third of the evening on 50 minutes, turning in Santi Cazorla’s cross after some sumptuous build-up play on the edge of the Venezuela penalty area had set the Malaga playmaker free inside the box.

Soldado seemed intent on marking his reintroduction to the Spain setup in style and grabbed another goal just two minutes later, with a confident finish from close range after an inch perfect cross from the right-hand side by Alvaro Arbeloa.

To make matters worse for the away side, they were then reduced to 10 men when Fernando Amorebieta was given a red card for hauling Soldado down inside the penalty area, providing Soldado with the opportunity to seal a fairytale hat-trick with a goal from the spot.

Soldado’s spot-kick was weak however, with Dani diving low to his right to divert it to safety, much to the striker’s despair.

He did not have to wait long for his hat-trick though, scoring the final goal of the game from close range after fine work down the left from his Valencia team-mate Jordi Alba set up the chance.

Wed 29 February, 2012
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International friendly wrap: Messi stars for Argentina, big win for Sweden

Lionel Messi led Argentina to a 3-1 win over Switzerland, while Sweden thumped Croatia in Zagreb in a busy day of international football.

Messi scored his first international hat-trick, while Swiss young gun Xherdan Shaqiri grabbed the home side’s goal, in the match in Bern on Wednesday.

The FIFA World Player of the Year got his first in the 20th minute when he linked with Sergio Aguero who returned the ball to his captain with a neat backheel and Messi scored.

Shaqiri tied the game four minutes into the second half but Messi claimed victory when he dribbled through the Swiss defence and chipped the ball over goalkeeper Marco Wolfli in the 88th minute.

The Barcelona star then completed his hat-trick with a penalty in injury time.

In Croatia, the match was tied at half-time after Jonas Olsson’s own goal had cancelled out Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s early penalty, before a second-half double from Sunderland’s Sebastian Larsson wrapped up the win for Sweden against their fellow Euro 2012 qualifiers.

In another clash involving two teams that will be at the continental championships in June, Russia stunned Denmark 2-0 in Copenhagen thanks to a goal and an assist from Andrei Arshavin.

The visitors hit the front in just the fourth minute when Arshavin set up Roman Shirokov and then doubled their lead just before half-time thanks to a powerful shot from Arshavin.

The two hosts of this year’s European Championships had promising results, with Ukraine winning 3-2 away from home against Israel and Poland earning a 0-0 draw against Portugal.

Of the other Euro 2012 qualifiers in action, Greece were held 1-1 at home by Belgium, while Republic of Ireland and Czech Republic also drew 1-1 in Dublin.

It was a full day of international action around the world, with Austria defeating Finland 3-1, Slovakia overcoming Turkey 2-1, Uruguay drawing 1-1 in Romania, Cyprus holding Serbia to a 0-0 draw, Norway thumping Northern Ireland 3-0, Slovenia tying Scotland 1-1 and Costa Rica beating Wales 1-0.

Elsewhere, Jamaica beat New Zealand 3-2, Georgia won 2-1 at home over Albania, Armenia defeated Canada 3-1, Hungary versus Bulgaria finished 1-1, Latvia and Kazakhstan ended 0-0, and Moldova drew 0-0 with Belarus.

And in other results on Wednesday, Luxembourg beat Macedonia 2-1, Malta won 2-1 over Liechtenstein, Montenegro defeated Iceland 2-1, Peru drew 1-1 in Tunisia and South Africa was held 0-0 at home by Senegal.

Wed 29 February, 2012
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International friendly: Italy 0 USA 1

The United States picked up their first ever victory over Italy on Wednesday, winning their international friendly 1-0 in Genoa.

Fulham’s Clint Dempsey scored the lone goal of the game early in the second half, and despite a flurry of activity from the home side, the Americans held out for the win at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris.

The match turned out to be a lively and open affair. An early attempt came as soon as the fourth minute, when US goalkeeper Tim Howard was called into a great save from the charging Thiago Motta in the box.

Italy’s biggest problem in the first half was being caught offside a number of times as the US defence did well to hold their line.

Juergen Klinsmann’s men had a few promising attacks themselves, such as when Brek Shea’s run through the Italian centre-backs just failed to reach the ball ahead of Gianluigi Buffon.

The visitor’s best chance fell to a set piece with 10 minutes left in the half, but Dempsey’s powerful strike was well parried by Buffon and the half ended scoreless.

The second half began much as the first, with Italy in control and the Americans looking to counter quickly.

Giovinco was flagged offside twice in quick succession as Prandelli’s men continued to be flustered by the United States’ defensive line.

The deadlock was finally broken in the 55th minute after terrible defending from the home side.

Jozy Altidore laid off a pass for Dempsey, who found himself with space in the box and fired right into the heart of the net as the visitors took a shock lead.

Substitute Fabio Borini nearly levelled matters eight minutes later after redirecting Giampaolo Pazzini’s layoff towards goal, but Howard reached high to smother the shot.

The home side continued to pour forward and Borini nearly snatched a goal in the 78th but Howard blocked the forward’s shot. The Roma man proved to be one of the liveliest players for Italy but failed to level matters.

Chiellini fired over from his header with just five minutes to go, and a flurry of shots followed from the Italians but the United States was up to the task.

Wed 29 February, 2012
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International friendly: Germany 1 France 2

France’s revival under Laurent Blanc continued as they inflicted a 2-1 friendly defeat upon Germany in their international friendly in Bremen.

Olivier Giroud scored just 21 minutes into his international debut, before Chelsea’s Florent Malouda gave France a deserved second on 69 minutes.

Cacau did manage to pull one back for the hosts in the dying minutes, but it was more than Germany deserved after a disappointing performance against the revitalised French.

From the outset it was clear that this was a match that was going to be played at a high tempo in an open manner, and though it was Germany who bossed possession, it was France who offered the first threat, with Tim Weise saving well from a Yohan Cabaye header.

France opened the scoring at the midway point of the first half. Mathieu Valbuena’s well-weighted pass released Mathieu Debuchy down the right, and he easily cut inside Dennis Aogo to set up Giroud for a first-time finish.

Thereafter, the home side contrived to miss a string of chances, though they found Hugo Lloris in good form.

The Lyon goalkeeper superbly saved when Miroslav Klose was through, and he also denied Holger Badstuber from close range.

Germany’s pace was posing issues for the guests, and before the first period was up Mesut Oezil created another chance for Klose that the striker missed, before the Real Madrid man skimmed a fine drive just wide.

Joachim Loew’s side showed little of this swashbuckling attacking attitude after the break and instead lost their shape, allowing France to counter into big holes and manufacture numerous chances.

Giroud headed over the top when free in the centre moments before a thumping Debuchy drive was punched clear by Weise.

Eventually the visitors took one of their chances, and again it was Debuchy who was the catalyst, making a lung-bursting run down the right before crossing for substitute Malouda to bundle over the line.

Germany offered a belated response through Cacau, who turned in a cross from the right, but that came too late to change the outcome.

Although not considered one of the favourites for Euro 2012, Blanc’s men successfully showed in Germany that they are not opponents to be taken lightly as they extended their unbeaten run to 18 matches.

Wed 29 February, 2012
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Gilardino eyes Azzurri berth

Injured Genoa forward Alberto Gilardino is determined to regain his Italy place in time for Euro 2012.

Gilardino, 29, has been out of action due to a calf problem since February 10, and Genoa have struggled in his absence, crashing to three consecutive defeats before salvaging a 2-2 draw against Parma on Saturday.

In an interview with Eurosport Italia, Gilardino said his recovery was progressing well and he could return to action in the next two weeks.

“I’m working, I am recovering and I hope to return as soon as possible,” he said.

“When you have an injury to the calf, you must always be careful.”

“I made a gradual recovery during the week and I could join the group soon – then we’ll decide whether to return for Lecce or for the match against Juventus.”

Gilardino also stated his intention to finish the season strongly and regain his place in the national side.

“I lived through the great emotions attached with the Italy shirt and I hope to relive them as soon as possible,” the 2006 World Cup winner said.

“When I’m back to normal, I will have to prove that I deserve to wear the blue shirt by May 13 (when the Serie A season ends).”

Genoa are 13th on the Serie A table and will travel to face Lecce on Sunday.

Wed 29 February, 2012
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Keita considers Liverpool option

Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita says he is flattered to be linked with a move to English Premier League club Liverpool.

British sources have suggested Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish is keen to bring Mali international Keita to Anfield when the off-season transfer window opens.

Keita, who joined Barca from Sevilla in 2008, has struggled to hold down a regular spot at Camp Nou this term, making just 14 competitive starts so far in 2011/12.

The former Lens and Lorient midfielder has confirmed he may move to find regular first-team action, and said a switch to Liverpool is an appealing prospect.

“I am flattered by the interest of Liverpool, one of the biggest clubs in the world,” Keita was quoted as saying by Sky Sports.

“However, let’s wait until the end of the season with Barcelona and see what happens.”

“I love Barcelona and it is difficult to find a better team than them, but I am ambitious and want to play football week in, week out.”

“A challenge somewhere else is attractive to me and Liverpool are a top team with very good players.”

Wed 29 February, 2012
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Luiz backs Chelsea to improve

David Luiz says the Chelsea squad and their under-fire manager Andre Villas-Boas have enough quality to turn around the club’s fortunes.

Chelsea have managed just one victory from their last six matches in all competitions, with the pressure mounting on first-year coach Villas-Boas as a consequence.

Rumours of dressing room unrest have also dogged the English Premier League club.

Brazil defender Luiz has acknowledged the team are feeling the strain, but claims the mood within the dressing room remains largely positive.

“I’m always anxious before games because I love playing football, even when the game finishes I want to play again,’ he told the club’s official website.

“But maybe we are anxious as players because we don’t like having bad moments and we want to respond, for ourselves and for the fans. The moment now is positive, not negative.”

Luiz said he had faith in Villas-Boas and his team-mates, blaming the media for the intense scrutiny Chelsea find themselves under.

“All teams have problems, when Chelsea are first and somebody else is seventh, then they get criticised,” he said.

“That is the job of the media, if there is nobody to criticise, the media don’t have a job, but I believe in Andre and I believe in all of the players.”

“This season is difficult, but it’s important to focus only on the present and not to worry about the past or the future.”

“I’m sad because I want to give more, and the team want to give more to the fans, but when you have a strong personality and believe in the job it is a great moment.”

According to Luiz, the team have an opportunity to improve their situation with positive results in two of their forthcoming matches, an FA Cup fifth-round replay against Birmingham, and the second leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Napoli.

“It’s difficult because we are a big team, and the big teams need to win,” he said.

“We have two matches that are like finals coming up, in the FA Cup and against Napoli, and I believe 100 percent that if we play like we did today we will win those games.”

Wed 29 February, 2012
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Del Piero plots Juve´s March to success

Juventus striker Alessandro Del Piero believes March will be a critical month in the club’s quest to win the Scudetto and the Coppa Italia.

Juve sit one point behind AC Milan in second place on the Serie A standings, with a game in hand over the defending champions.

The Turin club are also close to reaching the Coppa Italia final after defeating Milan 2-1 in the first leg of their semi-final tie at San Siro.

With home matches against Inter Milan and AC Milan and away fixtures to Bologna, Genoa and Fiorentina coming up, Del Piero believes March will be decisive in determining Juve’s fortunes.

“Let’s focus on the coming days,” Del Piero wrote on his official website.

“Pretty soon we will have to face two matches in four days, two extremely important moments in our season, the first one against Chievo at home, the second one is the rescheduled game against Bologna.

“It has been quite a long time since we were in the running for two trophies in March.”

“March is about to start and our future will be pretty much written during this month, so we have to give our best to start it in the best way possible. This is all we are focused on now.”

Wed 29 February, 2012
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Previewing Saturday’s English Premier League fixtures: Part II

Previewing Saturday's English Premier League fixtures: Part II

Today’s segment features betting odds, match previews and predictions for Queens Park Rangers v Everton, Stoke City v Norwich City, West Bromwich Albion v Chelsea and Wigan Athletic v Swansea City.

Now then, let’s get started.

Betting Odds

Queens Park Rangers (11/5) v Everton (7/5); Draw (23/10)

Stoke City (10/11) v Norwich City (7/2); Draw (5/2)

West Bromwich Albion (13/4) v Chelsea (10/11); Draw (5/2)

Wigan Athletic (6/4) v Swansea City (2/1); Draw (23/10)

Queens Park Rangers v Everton: Match Preview

David Moyes and Everton travel to Loftus Road to take on Mark Hughes’ Queens Park Rangers on Saturday, March 3.

These two sides last met on August 20, 2011, when Queens Park Rangers marked their return to the England’s top-tier with a 1-0 victory in front of 35,008 at Goodison Park.

That being said, the Toffees are unbeaten in their last seven games in all competitions, including league wins over Chelsea and Manchester City.

Meanwhile, QPR have lost three straight and have not won since defeating Wigan 3-1 at Loftus Road on January 21.

Prediction

Everton extend their unbeaten streak, while QPR fall yet again. 2-0 Toffees.

Stoke City v Norwich City: Match Preview

Premier League newcomers Norwich City will visit the Britannia Stadium when they take on 12th-place Stoke City on Saturday evening.

The reverse fixture at Carrow Road ended in a 1-1 draw, with Kenwyne Jones rescuing a point for Stoke with a last-minute header.

Stoke City have won just one of their last six Premier League fixtures. Nonetheless, they are on a one match winning streak at the moment.

In retrospect, the Canaries are 4-2-2 in their last eight league games, despite conceding an injury-time winner to Ryan Giggs and Manchester United on February 26.

Prediction

A draw is on the cards, 1-1.

West Bromwich Albion v Chelsea: Match Preview

Andre Villas-Boas leads Chelsea, for now, to The Hawthorns to face West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.

The reverse fixture was played at Stamford Bridge on August 20, 2011, a game that the Blues won 2-1.

However, having won just one of their last six games in all competitions, Chelsea do not look a good side at the moment.

On the other side of the touchline, West Brom have two straight, while netting nine goals and conceding just one.

Prediction

Upselt alert: West Brom dispatch Chelsea at The Hawthorns, 2-1 Albion.

Wigan Athletic v Swansea City: Match Preview

The last fixture on schedule for Saturday is between Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea City and Roberto Martinez’s Wigan Athletic.

The reverse fixture at Liberty Stadium ended in a 0-0 draw. Hopefully Saturday’s fixture at DW Stadium won’t end goal-less.

Swansea are currently in 14th place, while Wigan are bottom of the table with 10 points separating the two sides.

Can Roberto Martinez keep Wigan in the Premier League?

Let’s just say that I wouldn’t bet on it.

Prediction

Wigan stay bottom, 1-0 Swans.

Wed 29 February, 2012
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Ranieri gets Cordoba´s backing

Inter Milan defender Ivan Cordoba has defended Claudio Ranieri, saying the beleaguered coach has the backing of the entire squad.

Ranieri’s position is believed to be under threat after a six-match winless run in Serie A, one which has left Inter languishing in seventh spot on the table, nine points off the Champions League qualification places.

Despite their poor league position, veteran Cordoba claims Ranieri still has the backing of the club’s players.

“This is a difficult moment, but we must be united and do our talking on the field,” Cordoba told La Gazzetta dello Sport.

“We are all with the coach, we are working with him to improve our situation.”

“We want to win again, and do it in a way to revive our season to finish the campaign in a completely different way.”

Inter president Massimo Moratti gave Ranieri a vote of confidence on Tuesday, saying he had ‘cleared things up’ with the coach.

However, fresh speculation has placed Chelsea’s Andre Villas-Boas at the top of Moratti’s list to replace Ranieri.

Wed 29 February, 2012
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