Nail biting Round of 16 stuns Euros which now goes down to Final 8.

The knockouts of the Euro 2020 have started in full swing with exhilarating games and several significant upsets. After four days of knockout games, the bracket for the quarter finals has taken shape with several notable nations bowing out after tough competitions. Let’s take a look at a breakdown of the games and our predictions for the quarterfinals.

Day 1: A poor showing and a nail-biting thriller

Denmark vs Wales: 4 – 0

Key players: Gareth Bale (Wales); Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

The Danes dismantled an unorganized and unprepared Welsh side with ease in this game. The Euro 2016 semi-finalists who narrowly clinched the runner up spot of group A, went down a goal in the first half and were thoroughly outclassed by an inspired Danish side who have played heroically since losing star player Christian Eriksen in their very first game of the tournament. Welsh frustrations were only highlighted by the stoppage time red card to Harry Wilson, which looked soft to be fair. The Danes go through to the next round thanks to an inspirational performance and a newly confident forward in Kasper Dolberg who bagged a brace in this game.

Italy vs Austria: 2 – 1

Key Players: Lorenzo Insigne (Italy), L. Spinazzola, David Alaba (Austria)

Italy came into the tournament not having lost in 15 games in a row and cleared the group without any loss. Considered a darkhorse, they faced a very organized Austrian side led by Real Madrid new boy David Alaba. Italy was tested throughout the game which was goalless for 90 minutes. They then scored two goals in the first half of extra time, once again involved on the goal was the AS Roma man, Spinazzola. The left back has taken the Euros by a storm with his speed and deep penetrating runs. Austrian side put up a great fight until the end having scoring a last-minute goal and creating chaos for the last 8 mins of extra time but, the Italians held on to progress to the next round. If there were any cause for concern for the Italian side, it would be the poor showing of Domenico Berardi who despite some significant key defensive contributions failed to convert key chances to close the game.

Day 2: Passion and Pride

Netherlands vs Czech Republic: 0 – 2

Key Players: Patrik Schick (Czech Republic), Memphis Depay (Netherlands), Gini Wijnaldum (Netherlands)

The Dutch took an early exit after a poor showing against the surprise outfit of the Czech Republic. After losing their defensive leader Matthijs de Ligt early on (sent off for a deliberate handball), the Dutch lost all composure and fell under the pressure from a passionate and organized Czech performance. Patrik Schick was once again the man in the limelight who created the pressure for De Ligt’s send off and scored a fine goal to cap off a brilliant performance.  Now the only question that remains is how far can these underdogs go at the Euros.

Belgium vs Portugal: 0 – 1

Key Players: Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

Belgium go through to the Quarter finals after a decent showing against Portugal. Portugal took a very conservative approach against a star-studded Belgium side, attempting to restrict any gaps. Both sides were very composed throughout the game, with Belgium capitalizing on an early chance with a goal towards the end of the first half. Kevin de Bruyne played his usual game and was constant threat throughout the game often suffering heavy tackles from Portugal’s frustrated defensive line. Belgium manager Roberto Martinez was quick to remove Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard after the early goal and held on to win the game as they prepare to face tougher competition on their expected road to the Final.

Day 3: Two classic games of passionate football that will be remember for years to come

Spain – Croatia: 5 – 3 (AET)

Key Players: Alvaro Morata (Spain), Luka Modric (Croatia) 

Spain came into the knockouts with two questionable performances and a final day 5-0 victory over Slovakia. Many questions were raised against Alvaro Morata’s form and Luis Enrique’s tactics at the Euros. Morata did not score in the win over Slovakia but showed signs of improvement from his first two performances. Spain started the game poorly with keeper Unai Simon missing a straightforward back pass from Pedro that ended up in the back of their own net.  But they quickly took control of the game and went up 3-1 shortly after. They looked all set to advance before Luka Modric who took control of the game in the last 15 minutes and Croatia scored twice to levelled the game in stoppage time with notable contributions from Atalanta man, Mario Pasalic. It looked like the momentum was completely on Croatia’s hands in extra time but, the fatigue of the game finally caught up to Croatian side. But the Spaniards were more clinical in extra time and put the game well beyond reach with two well taken goals to advance to the quarter finals. Heartbreak for Croatia but all in all it was an entertaining game for the fans and neutrals.

Take home: Spain showed grit to come back in extra time, they capitalized on the chances and closed down the game. Morata and Ferran Torres look confident but, defensive issues still persist.

France: Switzerland: 3 – 3 (AET) [4-5 Pens]

Key Players: Paul Pogba (France), Kylian Mbappe (France), Granit Xhaka (Switzerland), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)

The Euro 2016 finalists and 2018 World Cup winners were heavy favourites to win the tournament and looked likely to dispatch the Swiss and advance. With the recall of exiled striker Karim Benzema, France was meant to be an even better team. After an indifferent showing in the group stage, France still managed to clear as top seed of a very tough group. Flashes of brilliance were seen but, poor form of Mbappe and Benzema and lack of chemistry were signs of concern. Karim Benzema came alive in the last group stage draw against Portugal but, the dominance exhibited in previous tournaments was not apparent.  The game again the Swiss exhibited parallels with the earlier game between Spain and Croatia. France went down a goal due to poor positioning in the box and Swiss capitalized on the chance. France abandoned the back three by subbing out Clement Lenglet for Kingsley Coman and moved Rabiot and Pavard to the full backs. But things only got worse when Swiss were awarded a penalty in box. A huge save by the French captain Hugo Lloris led to change of winds followed by a genius first touch by Karim Benzema for a French equalizer. Then, France immediately took the momentum away and scored another goal. Paul Pogba introduced further damage with a worldie from outside the box.

The Swiss made changes to bring on some much needed energy and try to break France’s momentum. France failed to capitalize on several breakaway passes from Pogba and the Swiss pulled one back through another header from Haris Seferovic. A brilliant pass from Swiss captain Granit Xhaka setup the equalizing goal for Gavranovic to force the game into extra time. France then lost their Joker who shifted the momentum after Coman and Benzema exited due to injuries. The Swiss held on through extra time with a composed performance from Xhaka who broke several key passes. The game was settled in a nerve-wracking penalty shootout, the first four penalties were beautifully executed by both teams. The final penalty for the Swiss was taken by veteran Mehmedi who stepped up with a blank expression. He took his time and executed his kick to perfection. The last kick fell onto a superstar Mbappe who had an abysmal tournament, missed several key chances and clearly lacked the confidence but, this could have been his turning point in the tournament. But the penalty was saved by Sommer who waited a few seconds to get the all clear from the referee and celebrated a well-deserved Swiss victory.

Take home: A scar in Mbappe’s career but, a valuable lesson for the 22-year-old. Pogba and Kante both shined in the game with the former creating several key chances. France still possesses a world of talent with the World Cup just around the corner.

Day 4: Redemption and Rejoice

England vs Germany: 0 – 2

England and Germany both possess very young, talented squads with immense potential for years to come. After the initial loss to France, Germany showed a strong performance against Portugal but, drew with a “never say die” Hungary side. Similarly, England also played with the line-ups but, could not bring the best out their talisman Kane.  The two sides faced on in a slow and tactical approach in the first half. A stealthy finish by Sterling gave England the lead late in the second half but, Germany could not capitalize on the mistake by Sterling with Thomas Muller’s shot moving ever so wide of the goal post. Jack Grealish’s introduction opened up the goal for Harry Kane to score for England and they would hold on to a 2-0 lead. Germany’s attacks were unimaginative at this point only sending long balls to the box in hopes of a half chance at goal. England held on to finish a historic win in over 50 years against the former world champions.

Take Home: Grealish may the key to unlocking Kane for England. Germany can rejoice the successful tenure of Joachim Low and look forward to new mastermind in Flick. The German team has plenty of potential and Hansi-Flick with his success at Bayern and his understanding of the next generation may be the key to create another dynasty.

Sweden vs Ukraine: 1 – 2 (AET)

Key Players: Emil Forsberg (Sweden); Andriy Yarmolenko (Ukraine)

Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine created history with a gritty performance and survived a dogged Swedish performance. Sweden missing talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who committed to return to national side for the tournament only to get injured) were still an emboldened team who put forward a strong group stage performance. A war of attrition between two sides who scored early first half goals was at a standstill and looking to be heading into penalties till Ukraine found some reserve energy to put the game to bed.

Predictions for the Quarter-Finals:

Belgium vs Italy:

Considered by many as the match that may provide the winner of the Euros, Belgium and Italy have shown some great football. Belgium will need their talisman Kevin de Bruyne, who took a knock in the Portugal game, in good form if they are to have any chance of winning against Italy. We saw Belgium completely lose their creativity after de Bruyne left the game against Portugal as did Man City in the Champions League final. They will need his dribbles to break through Jorginho and Verratti. Italy on the other hand have looked strong throughout this tournament but, needed extra time to put the game to bed against Austria. A tough game to call but a heavy tackle on de Bruyne might be all it takes to edge this for Italy.

Prediction: 1 – 2 (Italy Win)

Switzerland vs Spain:

Switzerland made headlines with a huge upset knocking out favourites France. Spain played a similar game but, managed to pull through in extra time against Croatia. Morata looks motivated and will be the key to help Spain go thorough to the semis.

Prediction: 0 – 2 (Spain Win)

England vs Ukraine:

England played a good game but, are still trying to figure out their best line-up to support Kane. Sterling has been phenomenal in this tournament and Mason Mount may feature in the next game after his stint in quarantine. Ukraine have done well to get as far as they have but will face a tough test in England who are desperate to get to the final this time around.

Prediction: 2 – 0 (England win)

Czech Republic vs Denmark:

After losing their first two games, the Danes bounced back valiantly with win over Russia and demolished Wales in the round of 16 with Kasper Dolberg rising up to the occasion at the perfect time. The Czechs have also shown resilience restricting the Dutch to a few chances and capitalizing on a mistake. They also have a star in Patrik Schick. This game a bit difficult to predict as Denmark possess a wealth of talent and a world class goal stopper in Kasper Schmeichel but, one cannot rule out the Czechs who are also playing with superior confidence.

Prediction: 1 – 0 (Czech win)

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

Euro 2020 – Who Will Win?

Euro 2020 is just around the corner. The tournament will be played in 11 venues around Europe and will see fans returning to stadiums, some with partial capacity (22% in Munich for example) to full capacity (Budapest). With or without fans, there is plenty of room for drama, upsets and entertainment. We take a look at the tournament itself, the favourites, the rank outsiders and the dark horse and try to predict the winner. Enjoy!

Group A (Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and Wales)

Roberto Mancini has reignited the Italian national team which has lost only twice in three years and also topped their Nations league group. Italy will be captained by their traditional centre back Giorgio Chiellini but won’t be playing their traditional defensive football. Mancini’s team plays free flowing attacking football (tikitalia) through technically gifted midfielders like Jorginho, Veratti and Barella. In the front three of their 4-3-3 system they have quality and dynamism with options in Berradi, Immobile, Insigne and Chiesa. Italy are strong contenders and it wouldn’t be surprising if they made a deep run into the tournament after the disappointment of not qualifying for the World Cup back in 2018.

Turkey can be the ultimate surprise package in the Euros as manager Senol Gunes will look to repeat the heroics of 2002 World Cup. They play counter attacking football in either a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1 formation with defensive midfielder Okay Yokuslu dictating the play. The Turks can do a high press but like to adjust it based on their opponent’s passing abilities. They have a solid centre back pairing of Leicester City’s Soyuncu and Juventus’s Demiral. Midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu provides creativity and flair in attack for Yusuf Yazici and the bulldozer of a striker, and captain Burak Yilmaz who will be crucial for Turkey in the tournament.  They are the dark horses and will be looking to shock the big footballing nations.

Burak Yilmaz will be key to Turkey advancing through the tournament

Switzerland mostly features in a 3-4-1-2 formation. They are a physically strong team and not easy to break down. The wingbacks get heavily involved in the attacks whilst captain Granit Xhaka’s passing sets the overall rhythm. Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri also plays a key role as the no.10, dropping between opposition’s lines and linking up play. Their main strength is defensive solidarity. The Swiss won their Euro qualification group by only conceding 6 goals in 8 games.

Wales also play with 3 centre backs in a 3-4-3 formation with the ball and defend with a 5-4-1 system. They look to hurt teams on counter attacks through pacy wingers in Gareth Bale and Daniel James. Harry Wilson operates as a fluid false 9 and Aaron Ramsey’s late runs in the box provides additional threat. The alternative attacking approach is the deployment of 6’5” striker Kieffer Moore as a target man. Wales do have star power in their starting 11 but lack depth in squad.

Group Prediction: This is a tight group and the toughest to call (other than the group of death), Italy’s home advantage for all 3 games should see them through as winners, with Turkey pipping Switzerland to second space and Wales finishing bottom. 1st- Italy, 2nd- Turkey, 3rd- Switzerland, 4th- Wales

Group B (Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Russia)

The No. 1 ranked international team, Belgium will feature in a 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3 formation. The formidable three man backline of past tournaments is not as solid as it once was as Vertonghen and Alderweireld are past their prime and Vincent Kompany now retired, but they can still keep it tight at the back when needed. The best playmaker in the world, Kevin De Bruyne doesn’t hesitate to take the shooting opportunities and with Romelu Lukaku leading the line, they are arguably the most lethal team in the competition. De Bruyne will miss the first game against Russia due to facial injuries as will Eden Hazard likely who has been injury riddled this season. They also don’t have any “home” games but are still the heavy favourites to top the group.

Can Belgium live you to the hype and lift the European Championships trophy?

New manager Hjumland sets the Danish team in either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Christensen, Kjaer and Vestegaard provide good options for centre back, holding midfielders Hojberg and Delaney provide security in the centre of the pitch whilst playmaker Christian Eriksen is crucial for the team as he often finds the net for his national side. The experienced Braithwaite and Poulsen are decent options upfront as are the younger pairing of Dolberg and Olsen giving Hjumland much to ponder. Denmark will play their three group games at home which definitely boosts their chances for qualification to further stages.

Stanislav Cherchesov is a flexible coach and won’t be afraid to switch his system based on the opposition, but the Russians are most likely to feature in a 4-2-3-1. Artem Dyuba had the best season of his career for Zenit and would be looking to carry that energy to the Euros. Roman Zobnin is the main man in terms of keeping things ticking from the midfield. There are however major doubts about the quality of defence and the lack of experience in goal with the three keepers selected for the squad only earning a combined 13 caps. The Russians will hope the home crowd in the first two games can drive them to good results before travelling to Denmark for their final test.

First time qualifiers, Finland change between a four man and a five man defence and are likely to use the latter given the pedigree of their opponents. They have reliable players in Rangers star Glen Kamara and Norwich’s Teemu Pukki, who has been in good goal scoring form for his country, as well as a good stopper in Lukas Hradecky. That said, they are rank outsiders to get out of the group and are therefore the are the underdogs and like Belgium won’t play any games at home so qualifying for the knockout stages will be difficult.

Group Prediction: It will be a close race for the second spot between Russia and Denmark that will be decided when they face each other on the third matchday.

1st- Belgium, 2nd- Denmark, 3rd- Russia, 4th- Finland

Group C ( Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria and North Macedonia)

Netherlands mostly use a 4-3-3 but Frank de Boer prefers a five man back line against higher quality opponents. Despite missing Virgil Van Dijk, they still have top notch centre backs in Matthijs de Ligt and Stefan de Vrij. Depay, who had a great season with Lyon is deployed as a no. 9 or out wide, and they also have an option of a target man in Luke de Jong. Quality midfielders Marten de Roon and Frenkie de Jong control the tempo of the game well whilst Wijnaldum provides an additional goal threat by playing in advanced positions. There are doubts over de Boer’s ability to get the best out of this star studded squad but their quality should be enough to see out the group stage with ease.

de Boer will have to manage technically if they are to win overall but many fear that he doesn’t have the experience of past tournaments

Like the Dutch, Ukraine also plays a 4-3-3 system and switches to five at the back against stronger opponents. They have a strong midfield with Taras Stepanenko doing the defensive work, Zinchenko providing the creativity and Ruslan Malivnoskyi, who had a sensational finish to his campaign at Atlanta, deployed in the box-to-box role. Their main attacking threat comes from Roman Yaremchuk who had a great season with Gent, scoring 23 goals. The Ukrainians are capable of pulling some impressive results like the draw against France in March and the win against Spain last year in Nations league so they might be on the serving end of an upset or two at Euro 2020.

Austria, who haven’t won a game in a major tournament since the 1990 World Cup, mostly line up in a 4-4-2 formation. Unlike many international teams, Austria has a well oiled press. Similar to Zinchenko, versatile Alaba often features in midfield for Austria rather than in his natural defensive position. Captain Julian Baumgartlinger and Stefan Ilansker also provide composure and experience in midfield whilst the unpredictable Marcel Sabitzer gives the x factor in attack. They have an interesting striker in 6ft 7in, Sasa Kalajdzic who had an amazing campaign for Stuttgart and could be one to watch.

North Macedonia switches between a 4 man and 3 man defence and plays counter attacking football with 2 strikers up front. They are the weakest side in the competition but that win against Germany would give the North Macedonian players and fans much hope. Ilija Nestorovski’s absence will be a big miss meaning that the pressure is on Genoa striker Goran Pandev to be the star player in the no. 10 role. Leeds fullback Ezgjan Alioski at times features in the midfield giving them better coverage and they have an exciting player in Elif Elmas who showed glimpses of his talent this season with Napoli.

Group Prediction: 1st- Netherlands, 2nd- Ukraine, 3rd- Austria, 4th- North Macedonia

North Macedonia take part in their first ever international tournament

Group D ( Croatia, Czech Republic, England and Scotland)

2018 World Cup finalists, Croatia play possession based football in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. With Brozovic, Modric and Kovacic they have a premium midfield, though Modric is well off his prime now. They also have excellent wingers in Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic, who regularly puts up impressive shifts for the national team whilst Mislav Orsic offers another option as a dangerous sub. Andrej Kramaric is likely to be the first choice striker while 6ft 3in Bruno Petkovic will provide a different and useful alternative. 32 year old Domagoj Vida will be anchoring the defence as always looking to add to his 88 caps so far. The Croatians are no longer seen as the dark horse and it would be a shock if they don’t progress through the group stage.

Czech Republic plays high energy counter attacking football mostly in a 4-2-3-1 shape. They like to fill the attacking third with runners in Sampdoria’s Jakub Jankto and West Ham’s Tomas Soucek who grabbed 10 goals for the Hammers in an identical role. Up front, Patrick Schick is a dynamic centre forward who will be their main threat. The Czechs push their full backs high up in attack with Coufal in particular on the right capable of amazing deliveries. Ondrej Kudela’a suspension and Lukas Provod’s injury are big blows, with the centre back’s suspension more so as the Czechs are weak in the defence. They might not be the most skilled team but they will put up a great fight every time.

Southgate prefers a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 system with two holding midfielders and switches to three centre backs against bigger opponents. England have luxurious options for full backs and attacking positions but the fitness of Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson has raised concerns about whether they will be ready or not. Both of them are important parts of the team and would be starters if they are fit. Kane and Mount seem to be definite starters for Southgate and to build a lethal attack around them, he would be trying to find the optimum balance of pace and creativity from Grealish, Foden, Sterling, Rashford and Sancho all in contention to start. Declan Rice has also become vital, protecting the back line and anchoring the play from midfield. Stones would be looking to carry on from an impressive season with Manchester City. England has the star power to go all the way but it would come down to Southgate’s ability to match and outplay teams tactically, which he is not the best at.

Will Maguire and Henderson be fit enough to play in the group stages?

Scotland’s most preferred system is 3-5-2, which accommodates in deploying two brilliant left backs in Tierney and Roberston. Robertson plays higher up on the left whilst Tierney fits in as the left sided centre-back but they have the freedom to switch roles during the game. In midfield, McGregor and McTominay give solidarity whilst John McGinn provides attacking impetus through his runs. And they can also call upon youngster Billy Gilmour who has the ability to turn games on its head despite his lack of international experience. Armstrong takes the responsibility for creating opportunities from midfield and his Southampton teammate, Che Adams will likely be the main man up front although Dykes does offer another option. Steve Clarke’s highly rated tactical skills will be important for Scotland’s European campaign and it won’t be surprising if he shuffles his players and system from game to game.

Group prediction: England and Croatia should be able to progress with ease, albeit the Czechs and the Scots have the potential to pull shocking results.

1st- England, 2nd- Croatia- 3rd- Czech Republic 4th- Scotland

Group E (Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden)

Spain play their traditional possession football in a 4-3-3 shape. They are rich in options from the keeper to the striker. In the absence of their leader Ramos, Laporte has switched national allegiance to give Luis Enrique options for ball playing centre backs alongside Eric Garcia and Pau Torres. Marcus Llorente interestingly plays in the right back position. Rodri or captain Busquets will take the midfield anchor role with Koke, Thiago Alcantara, Fabian Ruiz and Pedri offering creative outlets from midfield. Ferran Torres, one of the few definite starters, cuts into spaces behind and has been making the most of his great finishing ability. Morata and Moreno will compete for the striker position with the latter likely featuring more from the bench. This is a relatively new Spanish team which can play beautiful football like the previous ones but is also capable of playing direct and being threatening in transitions through pacy wingers.

Sweden play a solid 4-4-2 out possession. It was a surprise by manager Janne Andersson to call Zlatan back in the squad after a number of years but only for him to miss the tournament due to injury. Sweden will still have plenty of quality up front despite the absence of their most famous player. Zlatan-esque, Isak is an amazing talent who can run in behind as well as hold up the ball well. On the wing, Emil Forsberg can find spaces and create well while Dejan Kulusevski gives directness in attacks by running straight at defenders. Krasnodar trio of Viktor Claesson, Kristoffer Olsson, and Marcus Berg make up a well bonded midfield/attack combo. They are resolute and can be hard to break down for any team.

Will the lack of Zlatan be a hinderance to Sweden’s chances?

Poland use a flexible approach, with the ball they line up in a 3-4-1-2 and switch to four at the back without it. After sacking manager Jerzy Brzeczek due to complications with star player Lewandowski, Paulo Sousa is still in only his fifth month in charge and has yet to impress. Lewandowski is likely to be paired with Milik up front with Swiderski providing back up from the bench. Left-back Maceij Rybus is important to attacks making overlapping runs and Piotr Zielinski pulls the strings from an advanced midfield role. Lewandowski can win games on his own, especially if he can continue his record breaking season into the tournament. Sousa’s tactical decision will be crucial and that adds a sense of unknown to Poland.

Slovakia, who qualified for the Euros in a dramatic fashion, are a counter attacking side and would be sitting in deep low blocks every game. Skriniar is vital in the centre of defence and he also scored two goals for Slovakia in March. Top Scorer Marek Hamsik who moved to Sweden to gain fitness for the Euros can be deployed as a striker due to poor finishing record of Michal Duris. They are the second weakest side after North Macedonia and it will be some story if they progress through the group stage.

Group prediction: Spain are the clear favourites but it would be interesting to see how they break down the defensive teams. It would be tight between Sweden and Poland for the second spot. 1st- Spain, 2nd- Sweden, 3rd- Poland, 4th- Slovakia

Group E ( France, Germany, Hungary, Portugal)

France play in their well recognized 4-2-3-1 system with one winger cutting inside and the other being Kylian Mbappe. They are the strongest team in the competition with midfield duo of Kante and Pogba and a backline of Varane, Kimbepe and Bayern full backs, Pavard and Lucas Hernandez. National team superstar, Griezmann works in the no. 10 role and will have an eye for another individual award having won the Bronze Ball and Golden Boot separately in the last two major tournaments. Benzema’s return will add more flexibility to an already lethal front line. There will be no room for mistakes against the World Champions especially in the group of death.

Can World Champions France also win Euro 2020?

Joachim Low doesn’t have a defined system for his current German team but he mostly switches between a 3-4-3 and a 4-3-3.  Hummels, who has been called up after a break, will probably form the central defence with Rudiger. Quality of midfield options in Kroos, Gundogan and Goretzka allows Kimmich to feature in a right wing back or full back role with the impressive Robin Gosens on the other side. Their attacking options are as potent as anyone. There is a lot of pace and flair up front in Sane, Gnabry, Werner and Havertz. Muller adds the experience and awareness and often features in the striker role as Werner’s poor club form has transcended into his international form of late. Unlike past German teams, they lack clear identity and individual excellence might be needed to get through this dreadful group.

Defending champions Portugal are even stronger than the last euros and will line up either in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. In defence, Ruben Dias will be paired with a 38 years old Pepe who has aged like a fine wine. They have a prolific pair of attack minded full backs in Joao Cancelo and Raphael Guerreiro. In midfield, Danilo Perriera is the main holding midfielder and Fernandes makes runs into advanced positions. The wide areas are blessed with talents like Bernardo Silva and Jota making inward runs. The extraordinary Ronaldo features in the centre forward position but they also have the option of Andre Silva there who had a sensational season with Frankfurt. They can sometimes appear very cautious and rightly so but a better balance can make them back to back European champions.

Hungary play with a 3-5-2 system which shifts to a five man backline for large portions of the match. Their attacking approach is playing direct to Adam Szalai with Roland Sallai making runs off him. RB Leipzig duo Peter Gulasci and Willi Orban will be core members of the backline. Dominik Szoboszlai, another Leipzig player, is out injured and will be hugely missed. His technical and creative abilities is what the Hungarian side lacks the most. It will be the biggest surprise of the tournament if Hungary progresses through this group. Though they will play their first two games home in a fully packed stadium and a possible German collapse could open the doors in the third game.

Who will survive the Group stage and who will be going home?

Knockout stages and winners prediction

The format of four out of six 3rd place teams progressing offers some room for mistakes in the group stages. And it will also lead to easy opponents for some in the round of 16. Importance of squad depth and tactical flexibility will grow through the stages. Teams’ fates will also depend on avoiding the big giants and unfavoured tactical opponents. 

Winners- Belgium: The squad is in their prime with the average age around 29 and also the most experienced with players averaging around 50 caps each. De Bruyne and Lukaku are entering the Euros on the back of phenomenal individual club campaign’s. This also might be the last chance for the golden generation to win a major trophy as they would need to revamp their defence soon. 

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Pied Piper of Manchester

“Into the street the Piper stepped,

Smiling first a little smile,

As if he knew what magic slept

In his quiet pipe the while;” – Robert Browning’s v. Pied Piper

The people of Hamelin were in a state of distress, awaiting their knight in shining armour to come rescue them from a plight that had been around for far too long. The Hamelin that once breathed the scent of fresh roses, triumph and prosperity, had succumbed to obscurity, and had failed to make a swift recovery. Years’ worth of trial and error had all been in vain, and the near future did not promise any solution.

Until a man came along with his pipe, and was welcomed by the rather desperate highest council of the city. He was promised riches and fame upon delivery, and he did not fail to deliver. Similar is the current situation down in a city northwest of England, where it seems that all woes have vanished and past sins of the otherwise ignorant city council are forgiven. The city blooms in red, and it is conspicuous who the man with the pipe is: Bruno Fernandes from Portugal

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Prior to Bruno’s arrival, Manchester United was going through a drought of victories, and had not seen any fundamental progress in perhaps longer than the time it took to free Hamelin from rats. In late January, Man United fans booed off their own team after a humiliating defeat at Old Trafford at the hands of then 9th placed Burnley; fans jeering their own players is something any Red Devil would know is unheard of at Old Trafford.

When Solskjaer signed Bruno, he stated, “Most importantly he is a terrific human being with a great personality and his leadership qualities are clear for all to see.” Ole apparently hit the bullseye. The paradigm shift in the club caused by Bruno’s advent has been a sight to witness. Morale on and off the field has taken a sharp turn upwards; the previously problematic Paul Pogba has found his Juliet in central midfield, and the “United mentality” that was missing for so long, is finally instilled once again. “He has brought that winning mentality with him that 99% is not good enough – it has to be 100%.” explained Solskjaer at a recent post-match conference.

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The reformed Manchester United are almost adhering to Marxist collectivism ideology: with every player playing purely to achieve goals of the club as a whole, results are inevitable, and individual brilliance still exists as a side effect. Shattering of egos and a newfound passion for the club has made all the difference for Manchester United.

Inevitably, this change in attitude has had a profound effect on performance. Since Bruno’s arrival, Manchester United have been the top club in the Premier League by a country mile, with the club’s young and fiery front three outshining the Premier League Champions’ experienced attackers. Bruno has been involved in 11 goals in only 9 games, (not counting the 6 times he has scored himself). His form has benefited others with the ever impressive youngster Mason Greenwood taking his total goal tally in all competitions up to 15 for the season, just behind Rashford and Martial in the goalscoring charts.

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Source: BBC – PL Table since Bruno joined Man Utd.

This change in crucial statistics and team position is attributed to the change in style of play. Since Bruno’s arrival, Solskjaer has reshaped his men to play in the only way Manchester United have historically known: with a free-flowing, attacking mindset. A team like United, with fans like the Red Devils are simply not meant to park the bus or to play adhering to strict tactics. One may disagree to this, but it has only been proven true with the test of time.

Today, United are finally playing the way they always have, perhaps with stricter adhering than before; with emphasis on scoring goals, not defending them (excluding the back four, of course). This style was evident in the recent 5-2 victory over Bournemouth, when the men in red conceded two goals due to cheap defensive giveaways, but responded with a goal fest, hence covering the defensive mistakes.

However, this extreme approach is also not feasible if Solskjaer’s side want to contest for the title next season. Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous quote goes, “Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles”. Currently, United are only returning to their former attacking self, but still have considerable exploitable weaknesses in defence. United fans are already making comparisons with the 2008 Champions League winning side, but they must be reminded that although the attacking prowess is back like it never left, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are not there anymore with a rock-solid defensive plan to clinch the title.

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To truly get his hands on a Premier League medal next season, Solskjaer needs to make effective use of the summer transfer window to ensure that he can free his side from those troublesome defensive weaknesses. Apart from that, Ole seems to be steering the wheel in the right direction.

However, one must not forget how the Pied Piper of Hamelin’s story progressed. The arrogant high city council officials refused their rescuer what was promised, and all hell broke loose. It would not be wrong to assume that with the people currently in charge of Man United, such an instance is not unlikely to occur. Owing to Bruno’s personality, United will be aware that to keep the Pied Piper playing he needs to be supported both on and off the pitch. If they can do that then Fernandes will continue his dance for years to come. 

“And, whether they pipe us free from rats or from mice,

If we’ve promised them aught, let us keep our promise.”

Post by Sairam Hussian Miran, Special correspondent for Back Of The Net. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram

The Evolution of Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo has been a household name for the best part of 15 years. Introducing himself as a slender winger with a penchant for the unexpected. Raw pace, step overs and flicks were his trademark along with his patented ‘Ronaldo Chop’. We still get flashes from time to time, but not the same frequency. This has been the key to his longevity. Over the years, he has adapted his game in order to stay effective and decisive at the right time. I will detail those changes and the reason, in my opinion, why they were made.

The first real evolution we saw in Ronaldo came after the 2006 World Cup. He came back from a very public falling out with Wayne Rooney. He began adding goals to his game. 17 league goals and 15 assists and 23 goals and 20 assists in all competitions was a massive increase on the previous season (12 goals and 9 assists all comps). The next season was a sign of things to come. His first 40+ goal season and first 30+ league goal season, at 23 years old. Rene Meulensteen, then United coach, instilled into him the idea that a goal was a goal, no matter how it looked. His desire to score the ‘perfect’ or ‘beautiful’ goal diminished and the more cliche ‘number 9’ goal became instinctive. This advice would follow Ronaldo and serve him well later in his career.

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After earning a deserved move to Real Madrid, the progression of his playmaking and goal scoring culminated in what was, what I believe, peak Cristiano Ronaldo in the 11/12 season. In his first two seasons he recorded 33 goals and 12 assists in 35 games and then a career-high 53 goals and 18 assists in 54 games. All that built up to 11/12 where Ronaldo was virtually unstoppable. Lighting pace, ridiculous long shots, otherworldly aerial ability as well as the ability to create for team mates. He was the complete attacker. 60 goals and 15 assists in 55 games on the way to a league title as well as the goal which practically sealed it at the Nou Camp. A truly monstrous season. His first three seasons at Los Blancos brought 146 goals and 45 assists in 144 games.

After 11/12 I feel Ronaldo physically peaked. The two seasons after were slightly less dynamic in terms of lung-busting runs down the left wing, thought still there, he started to focus his area of influence closer to the goal. Wear and tear on his body as well as reoccurring knee issues meant he had to manage his bursts. His productivity didn’t suffer though, 55 goals and 13 assists in 55 games in 12/13 and 51 goals and 17 assists in 47 games in 13/14 including a new record 17 champions league goals in a season. Slightly down on 11/12, but that made it 4 consecutive 50+ goal seasons in a row – a feat not even Messi could manage.

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This brings me nicely onto his final evolution. One I like to call, Second Striker Cristiano. This evolution began in Ancelotti’s first season as he experimented with an asymmetrical 433 formation where, out of possession, Ronaldo would stay up with Benzema to make a front 2 and Bale would drop to make a 4 across midfield with Di Maria/Isco on the left. This took the defensive responsibility from Ronaldo keeping him high to save energy as he aged, but most importantly, finish moves. 14/15 was the real catalyst of this and proved to be his most productive season of his career (61 goals and 22 assists in 54 games) – a lot of them being one touch finishes in the box. Clever movement and deadly precision honed after years of scoring goals made the transition seamless and birthed a new animal at the age of 30. One who lived and breathed goals and clutch moments.

The subsequent seasons, like previously, were used for adaptation. Despite Benitez’s best efforts and knee injuries Ronaldo still managed 51 goals and 15 assists in 48 matches and a second Champions League in three years in 15/16. Although performance wise it was and still remains his worst season, to me. However, it did set the precedent for the level of violation the champions league and those in it were about to receive.

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Zidane’s last two seasons of his first Madrid spell were considered a huge success. A league title and retaining the Champions League in the first and repeating the feat the season after was down to three factors, managing egos, luck and Cristiano. By now Zidane favoured variations of a 442 (either flat or in a diamond) focusing on getting the ball wide to full backs to cross into the box for Ronaldo to finish. The now 32 year old scored was a penalty box bully. Headers, penalties and one touch finishes were his weapon of choice and defences were terrified. 42 goals and 11 assists in 48 games in the first, along with a record 10 knock out stage goals and back to back hat-tricks against Bayern and Atletico. Not bad for an old man. The next season was a mixture of spectacular and disappointment. 44 goals and 8 assists in 44 games as well as the records of scoring in every single champions league group game, most consecutive champions league games scored in (11) and a run of 22 goals in 12 games from January to March in all comps, was enough for Ronaldo to bow out of Real Madrid a legend, in my opinion, their best ever player and their all time scorer with 450 goals and 131 assists in 438 games.

Ronaldo adapted to the demands of his team and later body in a bid to maintain the levels he and his team expected of him. Over 600 club goals later and countless honours and he is still going at the age of 34. Surely he can’t do it again?

Written by David Ngono. Follow him now on Twitter and Instagram

World Cup 2018 – Group by Group Predictions

The wait is over; it’s finally here. After months of anticipation, the 2018 World Cup kicks off today. Hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia in the first match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow in front of a massive crowd which will likely also feature Russian President Vladimir Putin. Robbie Williams will be on hand to “entertain” the crowd (and Mr Putin) in what will be one of the most eagerly anticipated yet controversial World Cups to date. Concerns about Russian hooliganism and the continue threat of terrorist activity plight the tournament before it begins. Questions are being asked about how Russia will cope as a host and what kind of World Cup this will be. On field questions are yet still to be answered too.  Can Germany lift back to back World Cups or will Brazil get their revenge for what happened four years ago. Can Iceland upset the odds again like they did at Euro 2016 and reach the quarter finals. Will Ronaldo add to his growing collection of trophies or will Lionel Messi finally put the ghost of Maradona to bed by lifting his own golden trophy? We try to answer all of these questions and more now.

Group A:

Russia enter this group with a heavy heart knowing that little is going in their favour. History suggests that Russia won’t get out of the group as has been the fate of several other host nations. Added into that an aging squad and a lack of creativity, Russia will likely struggle. However the thought of spending their years wasting away in a Siberian prison which is where Putin will likely send them all if they embarrass him, may be enough to spark some sort of Russian resurgence. Golovin will be crucial if they are to progress. What does work in their favour is the presence of Saudi Arabia in their group who have more chance of collectively being elected US president in 2020 than escaping the group. Uruguay should dominate with ease especially if Suarez and Cavani have anything to do with it but they will need to be on top form to beat a Salah inspired Egypt. The Egyptians sneaked in the back door in qualifying with a late surge by the Liverpool man to get them to Russia but their over reliance on him should be their downfall.

Qualifiers: Uruguay, Russia

Group B:

Without doubt the easiest group to predict in terms of top 1&2, the question is less about who but in what order. Spain and Portugal will be far too good for Iran and Morocco but don’t expect either to roll over without a fight. Spain, whose manager was sensationally sacked yesterday after agreeing to take charge at Real Madrid without informing the Spanish FA have so much strength throughout that they could afford to leave the Chelsea trio of Alonso, Fabregas and Morata behind. The 2010 World Champions are only taking two recognized strikers which sounds baffling until you look at their midfield. Regardless of who is in charge (Hierro looks to be in at present but that could change), Spain should have enough to get out of the group but maybe not much more given the turmoil. Portugal on the other hand will again turn to Ronaldo for inspiration and this time unlike at Euro 2016, the Real Madrid striker is rested and in peak condition. Not that necessarily they need him to be as was shown at the Euros where they shocked more than a few by triumphing. Morocco could challenge both of the Iberian sides especially if flair players like Younes Belhanda show up but the same can’t be said about Iran who will be literally bootless after Nike stuck the boot in just days before the tournament started by pulling out of its agreement to supply boots to the team following new US sanctions.

Qualifiers: Spain, Portugal

Questions over how Spain are coping following their managers sacking will be answered against Portugal (Image from tumblr)

Group C:

Australia arrive at the World Cup with 38-year-old Tim Cahill still very much part of their plans. But there is a freshness about this Aussie squad that arguably hasn’t been seen for a while. Celtics Tom Rogic is in fine form coming into the tournament and will be looked towards to provide forward momentum. However a lack of potent goal threat (Cahill aside) may be the difference between Australia progressing and exiting stage right. Peru on the other hand will be delighted just to be there. Issues surrounding captain Guerrero have been cleaned up with the 34-year-old cleared to play despite being found guilty of doping. It’s a huge relief for the country as without him, Peru offers very little. Three good performances with a chance of an upset in one of them is the best they can hope for. Denmark and France should be competing for the two qualifying spots and it may come down to that match to decide it. Denmark are youthful and pacey with Sisto and Dolberg two to watch. France led by Deschamps for now (Zidane hovers in the shadows) go into the World Cup with one of the most complete squads; such is their wealth that several key players have been left out (Lacazette, Martial and Coman). Much will be expected of Mbappe and Griezmann whilst Pogba will be hoping to leave his Manchester United troubles behind and play a starring role for his country. The issue with France is not about qualifying for the group or likely a round of 16 tie against Croatia but later in the quarters and semis where they will look to the bench for tactical influence and inspiration. Unfortunately Deschamps will be sitting there so the lack of a plan B could be their undoing. Zidane will ready if that happens.

Qualifiers: France, Denmark

Group D:

Much like Group C, this group will be decided by two teams although perhaps not as cut and dry as the other. Croatia have improved vastly in recent years and look more like a collective team rather than individuals running around aimlessly. Modric and Mandzukic will be key but look out for Kramaric to also shine. Defensively solid, Croatia might not score a lot but don’t let many in too so should progress. Argentina on the other hand are clearly coming in with the same mindset as the Real Madrid “Galaticio” era – it doesn’t matter how many we concede as long as we score one more. With a front line of Messi, Aguero, Higuian, and Dybala it’s not hard to understand why many are tipping Argentina to go one further than in 2014 and finally deliver the World Cup that Messi so desperately wants. The biggest disappointment of this front line is who was excluded including Mauro Icardi and the highly impressive Lautaro Martinez but it may be a tournament too soon for the youngster who is destined to shine at future World Cups.

Dybala, Higuian, Messi, Aguero – Argentina certainly aren’t short of firepower up front (image from Tumblr)

Nigeria will pose a threat especially with the pace of Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho upfront. A majority of the squad is based on the UK or Turkey meaning that as a unit they are used to seeing and competing against each other regularly. The issue will be that some key players like the aforementioned pair have struggled for playing time at Leicester this season with Musa eventually engineering a loan move in January back to Moscow in order to protect his selection for the Super Eagles. Making up the group is Iceland, the smallest ever nation to qualify for the World Cup. Two years ago they lit up Euro 2016 with some remarkable performances none more so than against an arrogant England who thought they would breeze past Iceland into the quarter finals. Iceland’s journey in that tournament, which also introduced the world to the thunder-clap cemented their place in the hearts of all football fans and that love affair is likely to extend now to the World Cup where they will be the de facto side to support for all nations who didn’t qualify (USA, Holland, Italy – looking at you). However Iceland find themselves in the so-called group of death and this time they will rightly be treated with respect rather than contentment which should make the challenge of qualifying harder. What goes for them is that Iceland has team spirit in abundance and if they can channel that plus the form they showed in qualifying (where they knocked out Holland and Turkey) they could again have hearts fluttering as they race into the knock out rounds.

Qualifiers: Argentina, Croatia

The Thunder Clap will be out on display at the World Cup regardless of how Iceland perform (Image from Tumblr)

Group E:

With the humiliation of four years ago still fresh in the memory of most Brazilians, their team comes to Russia with a point to make. Winning the World Cup is the only definition of success for Neymar and his teammates and this might be the year that it happens. Manager Tite has created a well balance yet exciting Brazil that usually sets up in a fluid 4-3-3 formation with Neymar, Coutinho and Firmino as the front three. But it’s the midfield that drives the team. Casemiro, Paulinho, Fernandinho and Fred are fairly interchangeable but the setup is not – dropping back to offer cover for the defence when the opposition presses then turning over with slick passing and forward momentum. Brazil you can say have learned their lessons and look better for it. A run to the final should be on the cards unless a team can exploit a weakness (space behind the adventurous left back Marcelo perhaps) and send Brazil home again to rethink. Serbia come into the World Cup as a dark horse with few really knowing which side will show up. On their day, Serbia are a solid outfit who defend well and attack with flair and pace. But more often than not they are found wanting or sometimes not at the races at all. Their midfield is key to any success with Matic often sitting whilst the likes of Milinkovic-Savic and Zivkovic poke holes in opposition defences. Upfront they are a little light with Newcastle’s Mitrovic their main battering ram whilst Luka Jovic provides the flair. Qualifying is not out of the picture; that is if they turn up.

One of the shocks of Brazil 2014 besides the Brazil team were Costa Rica who knocked out Italy in the group stage before eventually falling to Holland on penalties (Tim Krul’s appearance as sub goalie was the killer). Four years on and having qualified again, Costa Rica are older and wiser than before; with the key word there being older. If it weren’t for the inclusion of relative youngsters Ian Smith and Ronald Matarrita, the squads average age would be north of thirty rather than just south of it. Bryan Ruiz captains the side yet again and is likely their key goal threat although Joel Campbell does offers a different option. Qualifying will be tough but wins against Serbia and/or Switzerland and the adventure could be on again. The Swiss are often known for being impartial, never ready to rock the boat. However at the World Cup they may have other plans. Having qualified through the playoffs dispatching Northern Ireland with the thanks of a dodgy penalty call, Switzerland will be hoping that they can show exactly what they have to offer. Stoke midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri may not have had the best season in the Premier League but the little midfielder is still dangerous to play against especially as he comes inside on his left foot. Watch out for Breel Embolo too who is likely to want to stamp his name on the tournament.

Qualifiers: Brazil, Serbia

Group F:

Current World Champions Germany kick off Group F with a match against Mexico on Fathers Day and it’s likely to be one of the most interesting of the tournament as it will be an early indication of how far Germany can go. Germany are on a quest to become the first team to win back to back World Cups since Brazil achieved that feat back in ’58 and then in ’62 (Italy also did it in the 30’s). With a squad riddled with talent it’s hard to look past them but this time the challenge will be much harder. Whilst there is no Miroslav Klose to fire in the goals and Mario Gotze to pop off the bench to snatch the winner, Germany do have a ready replacement in Timo Werner. Although not a carbon copy of either he has traits that suggest that Germany manufactured him in a lab using both players DNA. Quick on the ball, skillful with it at his feet and an eye for goal, Werner will be needed if Germany are to lift the trophy. Which puts a lot of pressure on such young shoulders. That however seems to be a running issue in a team of superstars; the lack of an old wise head who can burden the responsibility of German expectations for the entire team like Lahm did four years ago. Indeed despite having Kroos, Muller, Hummels and Ozil to call upon, Germany lack a Schweinsteiger or Per Mertesacker who can rally the troops when needed. It may instead take a moment of brilliance to get the team excited and that could come from Julian Brandt who’s blistering runs will be sure to have bums everywhere lifting from their seats. Qualification from the group should be a formality but progress to the final could be stopped if Germany falls silent on the pitch.

No Gotze or Klose but they have Werner (Image from Tumblr)

Their opponents on opening day are Mexico who too should be looking at escaping the group. There are a lot of familiar faces in the Mexico squad including the Dos Santos brothers, Javier Hernandez and for a record fifth time Rafael Marquez at the tender age of 39. But it’s some of the not so familiar faces that could excite the masses. Marco Fabian and Hirving Lozano are two such players that given the right tools could have an influence on Mexico’s progression. El Tri have never not managed to get past the round of 16 in their last six attempts so that has to be the goal this time around. If they can do that, then who knows what kind of party they will throw for their returning players. If their ill advised World Cup leaving party was anything to go by (30 prostitutes plus a lot of alcohol are not a good combo), then it could be one hell of a night. Standing in Mexico’s way are potential party poopers Sweden who have resisted the temptation of recalling Zlatan to the squad and are focusing on the task in hand. Unlike Swedish teams of old that had standout goal scorers like Ibrahomivic, Larsson and to a lesser extent Dahlin this current crop looks a little lightweight upfront which could be a problem. The pressure will then be placed on the midfield to create including Emil Forsberg who is coming off a tremendous season with RB Leipzig. Seb Larssen who has just returned to play in Sweden after a career stay in England with various clubs will also be needed if Sweden stands any chance of qualifying. That is of course unless Zlatan just turns up because despite FIFA rules around naming squads, Zlatan plays when Zlatan wants to play.

Rounding out the group is South Korea who are another side that rely too heavily on one player. Spurs Son Heung-min has had his best season ever in England and will be looking to transfer that form into the World Cup. South Korea favour a counter attacking style of play which suits Heung-min perfectly but unlike Spurs who have a solid defence in order to do so, South Korea do not. Added into this, South Koreas manager still flutters between a back four and a back three repeatedly making their chances of progression limited at best.

Qualifiers: Germany, Mexico

Group G:

Arguably next to France and Germany, Belgium have the most complete squad at this years tournament boasting star names in almost every position. Solid at the back with Courtois, Vertoghen, Alderwerield and Kompany, Belgium have a strong foundation in which to build a World Cup winning campaign. Going forward they aren’t sloppy either with Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi feeding off opportunities created by Dries Mertens, De Bruyne, Carrasco and Hazard. All in all Belgium should be considered as dark horses to win. Except for the fact that their manager is Roberto Martinez who doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. The former Wigan and Everton boss has had a mixed spell in charge of Belgium. Like his predecessor, Martinez lacks the tactical ability needed to switch a game when it’s not going well. In a league you can get away with it but in knock out international football, every minute counts. If Belgium are to win it will likely be in spite of Martinez rather than due to him.

To Listen or Ignore – the dilemma for Hazard and his teammates (Image from Tumblr)

England are their toughest group opponents and under Gareth Southgate pose a viable threat to their chances. Southgate’s squad contains a good mix of youth and experience centred along a solid spine with Harry Kane as its focal point. Options are a plenty which is a good thing but can also work against you especially as consistency usually helps to win this tournament. In almost every position with the exception of striker as previously stated, Southgate could go for one of several options – Pickford or Butland, Maguire or Stones, Rose or Young, Alli or Lingard etc. This does place unnecessary pressure on the team regardless of how prepared and relaxed you are. Pressure is not something England cope with well and a majority of it comes from an over excited media who still reflect back to 1966 and England’s only World Cup triumph. In a way, that win has been a curse for the teams that followed with the media elevating expectations repeatedly higher than they should be. The team Southgate has is certainly good enough to win the World Cup but removing the pressure and finding consistency may be too big of a headache for the England boss.

Panama make their World Cup debut after watching the US fail to qualify. Few of the names in the Panama squad will be familiar to the watching fans but what they will see is an extremely passionate team who play for each other like a brotherhood. What Panama lacks in technique they make up for in grit and determination which in itself can be an extremely powerful tool. Traditionally defensive in style, Panama won’t be the most exciting to watch although Gabriel Torres may just have something different to say on that. Three good performances are likely the best they can hope for. Finally Tunisia rounds out the group. They come into the World Cup looking to build upon and improve on their last three appearances where they have failed to get out of the group stages. Unfortunately this side doesn’t look up to the task. Short on pace and lacking a real star, Tunisia will hope like Panama to compete well and hopefully spring an upset. Whabi Kazhri leads the line but it’s midfielder Ellyes Shkiri that could make the difference and in doing so put himself in the shop window. A talented 22 midfielder, Shkiri has a strong passing range and reads the game well but the lack of a supporting cast might mean his efforts are in vain.

Qualifiers: Belgium, England

Group H:

Finally group H sees Poland face Colombia, Japan and Senegal. Possibly the hardest group to call for a variety of reasons with many tipping Colombia and Poland to advance but others naming Senegal in the mix too. Japan is the side that no one really fancies in terms of proceeding and for good reason. Japan’s run up to the World Cup has been dramatic to say the least; sacking head coach Vahid Halilhodzic ten weeks before the tournament started and replacing him with the guy that sacked him, Akira Nishino is hardly the best preparation. Nishino is well liked by the older players in the squad and has a lot of coaching experience however the move has created friction in the Japan ranks which may not have died down before they kick a ball in Russia. Squad wise Japan are not the strongest. Shinji Kagawa and Keishu Honda are remnants of the Japan of old yet still pull the strings in the team. At the back Southampton’s Yoshida organizes best he can around a shaky looking defense. Qualifying would be nice but unlikely.

Halilhodzic departs as Nishino watches on (Image from Tumblr)

Colombia on the other hand should progress and could go as far as the quarters or semis given the right draw. James Rodriguez is their creator and chief architect so expect everything to go through him whilst the return of Radamel Falcao to form has been a welcome boost. At the back Mina and Sanchez are youthful additions but sometimes lack the discipline needed to perform well at international level. Goals however have been an issue of late despite Falcao’s return. The introduction of Miguel Borja might be enough to solve this but it’s unlikely. Beating Poland and finishing top would set up a clash with England in a game very difficult to call. Senegal could alter that plan. Led by former midfield enforcer Aliou Cisse, Senegal have a strong squad with Napoli’s Kalibou Koulibaly at the heart of the defence and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane leading the line. Often criticized for being too conservative in his approach, Cisse focuses on soaking up the pressure with slow painful passing movements and then releasing Mane to run at defences at pace; a strategy that has proven to work in the past. That however was against African opponents so may not work against the likes of Poland or Colombia who press with vigour.

Poland make up the group and are as always ever reliant on their striker Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern hitman is the principle reason why they are at the World Cup but to be fair he had a lot of support in the process. Piotr Zielinski has proven to be an exciting prospect who can create opportunities for Lewandowski up front. Milik and Grosicki too have stepped up with goals and assists. However the concern for Poland is not going forward but it’s at the back. Defensively Poland have been poor, so much so that the manager has switched tactics more times in the last two years than he has had hot dinners. Finally he looks to be sticking with three at the back with Glik, Pazdan and one other occupying those spots. Poland expect qualification from the group but little else which is more realistic than most nations are being.

Qualifiers: Colombia, Poland

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Beginners Guide to Euro 2016 – Part 2 – Groups D, E and F

Group D – Spain, Croatia, Czech Republic + Turkey

Q: Who should top the group? – Spain

Q: Who are the dark horses – Turkey

Q: One to watch: Emre Mor (Turkey)

Having won back to back Euro’s in 2008 and 2012, Spain are looking to make history by completing the treble and lifting the trophy in Paris on July 10th. However a poor performance at the last World cup where they failed to progress out of the group stage has forced a dramatic rethink with Del Bosque tinkering his squad. The result is that several big name players like Diego Costa, Santi Carzola and Juan Mata miss out in favour of the likes of Hector Bellerin, Nolito and the uncapped Lucas Vazquez. The end product is the shortest squad in the tournament (averaging 5ft 9in) but that should matter little as technically they are one of the most gifted squads. Spain did qualify with ease, losing only once along the way to Slovakia but that was to a late goal and against the run of play. Few will bet against Spain at least reaching the final if not going all the way. Croatia however have little chance of making it to the final. They are very much a side in transition under Ante Cacic, a former TV repairman turn fairly unspectacular coach. His appointment was widely slammed at home in Croatia and will need an outstanding Euros to keep his job. he does have a talented squad that contains Real’s Luka Modric, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic but Cacic lack of credbility or tactical knowledge means that Croatia often underwhelm. Only a win against Turkey in their opening game will give them a chance of progressing.

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Sergio Ramos of Spain arrives to defend their title (Image from Tumblr)

Turkey have no such problem under Faith Terim, the legendary three times national manager who also strangely holds a Italian Knighthood. Turkey enter as the lightweights literally with the lightest squad on average of all sides at 74kg. But that wont deter an experienced group who should progress at the expense of the Czech Republic. Led by Barcelona’s Arda Turan who was unable to play for the Catalan’s until January due to the club’s transfer ban, Turkey are a unique mix of youth and experience that almost didn’t click in qualifying. An 89th minute free kick in game ten against Iceland allowed Turkey to scrape through as the best third placed team. Winners of their group in qualifying were the Czech Republic so it will be the third time in a year and a half that the two sides have met in competitive competition. It’s one game a piece but the bookies will favour the Czech’s who topped the group that also contained Iceland and Holland. Despite free scoring hitting 19, the Czech’s failed to keep a clean sheet in ten attempts conceding 14 goals in the process, the most of any of the nations to qualify. Manager Pavel Vrba has a wealth of knowledge and is widely respected having won five consecutive Czech coach of the year awards from 2010-2015.That however may not be enough to progress especially if Spain and Croatia both beat them before they face Turkey on the last match day.

Group E – Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland + Sweden

Q: Who should top the group? – Belgium

Q: Who are the dark horses – Sweden

Q: One to Watch: Yannick Carrasco (Belgium)

In the so called group of death, the smallest of margins will likely determine who advances and who goes home. Speaking of small, Italy happens to have the tournaments shortest player in its ranks. However what Lorenzo Insigne (5ft 6in) lacks in stature he makes up for in raw talent with the Napoli striker key to Italy’s success. Manager Antonio Conte may have already sealed his exit from the national team (he joins Chelsea afterwards) but wants to go out on a high no matter what. Repeating their feat of four years ago when they reached the final is definitely on Italy’s agenda but suffering another 4-0 defeat (the worst defeat in a Euro or World Cup final) is not. Standing in his way is some lofty competition including Sweden who are the tallest squad at the Euros at an average of 1.86m, the most recognisable being their legendary striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. To say they are dependant on Zlatan to ensure they have a good tournament is an understatement with the former PSG striker hitting 11 of the 19 goals they scored in qualifying. In truth it was a difficult campaign with Sweden only making it via the playoffs at the expense of Denmark. Since then 2 wins, 3 draws and a defeat to Turkey highlight their indifferent form going into the Euros.They will need Zlatan to be at his very best if they are to escape the group.

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Yannick Carrasco of Belgium could be one of the stars of the tournament (Image from Tumblr)

One team that is very much on form is Belgium who have assembled the most expensive squad of any of the qualified nations. A total of  $319m in transfers has been paid for Belgian players like Christian Benteke and Kevin De Bruyne both of whom secured big money moves last summer. Many point to attacking options of Romelu Lukaku, Divock Origi, Christian Benteke and Michy Batshuayi  as the reason why Belgiam are considered dark horses for the tournament. However in qualifying, only four goals from 24 were scored by the strikers – with each one only scoring once. A worrying problem for manager Marc Wilmots to think about. Finally the Republic of Ireland are set to make their third appearance at the Euros having first qualified back in 1988. That year only eight teams took place with the Republic finishing third behind eventual finalists Holland and the Soviet Union but ahead of England after a Ray Houghton goal sealed a memorable victory. This time around, the Republic is unlikely to provide a shock having scraped through qualifying (they did beat Germany though). As one of the oldest squads (average age of almost 30), its likely that this tournament will be the last for several of their star players. Robbie Keane has been one of the most constant performers for the Irish but at 35 the LA Galaxy striker is nearing the end of the road.

Group F – Austria, Hungary, Iceland and Portugal

Q: Who should top the group? – Portugal

Q: Who are the dark horses – Austria

Q: Who to watch: Joao Mario (Portugal)

Cristiano Ronaldo enters the tournament with a hunger to rewrite history and finally forget about the horrors that fell upon him at Euro 2008. That year he helped Portugal reach the final on home soil only to fall at the last hurdle to Greece in a shock loss. Cristiano Ronaldo could become the first man to score at four Euro finals if he nets in France. He currently sits on six goals in his career, so is every chance to catch Michel Platini’s nine goals at the top of the tree if Portugal have a good tournament. This time around there will be no Luis Figo or Nuno Gomes to help him, with afresh batch of players being brought into the fold for this tournament. Several members of Portugal’s under 21 winning side from last summer have made the move up to the full team including the impressive midfield trio of William Carvalho, Joao Mario and Andres Gomes but surprisingly Bernardo Silva, the creative force of that team misses out. Another side with an impressive youthful squad is Austria.The former co-hosts of 2008 have improved year over year since that tournament and are one of the most improved sides in Europe rising over 95 places in the FIFA world rankings in less than 8 years. They blitzed group G in qualifying, topping the group with nine wins and a draw scoring 22 and conceding just 5. Bayern Munich’s David Alba has grown into their most important player but its the supporting cast of Stoke’ Marko Arnautovic, Stuttgart’s Martin Harnik and Mainz’s Julian Baumgartlinger that make Austria a tough team to play against. Much is expected of this side and talk of being a dark horse may not be too far from the truth.

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Portugal are pinning their hopes on Ronaldo once again (Image from Tumblr)

Iceland on the other hand are not expected to do much. The expansion of the Euros to 24 means we get the charming inclusion of a country like Iceland, in their first ever tournament. Their population is 330,000, making them the smallest country to ever qualify for a European Championship finals. Co-managed by Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson (a dentist by trade who will replace Lagerback at the end of the tournament), Iceland rely on team spirit to get them over the line. All time record goalscorer Eidur Gudjohnsen makes the squad despite being 37 years young. He wont however be the oldest player at the tournament with Hungary goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly set to take that honour at 40 years old. Known for his tatty grey jogging pants that he wears in every game instead of shorts (based on comfort), Kiraly is looking to add to his 103 caps at Euro 2016 but not much is expected of this Hungary side whose best years are behind them. Despite a troubled qualifying that saw them go through three different managers in the process, Hungary booked their passage to France with a convincing 3-1 aggregate win over Norway. Like the Irish, this will be the final roll of the dice for several of the Hungary players including Zoltan Gera and Kiraly.

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US stopper Tim Howard Agrees To MLS Return

 

In a much anticipated move, MLS side Colorado Rapids have announced that they have signed US goalkeeper Tim Howard from English Premier League side Everton. The player himself announced his return with a quirky 15 second Claymation video by Uninterrupted. The move ends Howard’s thirteen-year stay in England where he has racked up 397 appearances so far, first with Manchester United and now with Everton where he has become a fan favourite. Despite being 37 years old, Howard still has the ability to compete at the highest level but having lost his starting spot in the Everton goal to Spaniard Joel Robles, the American shot stopper has decided that it is time to return home. The move to join Colorado was completed late last month but the club decided to wait to announce their new acquisition to allow the player and Everton to focus on several crunch games in the English league and cup competitions. Howard signs a three and a half year deal with the club to become one of their designated players and joins for a fee of just over $600,000 in the summer.

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Howard has racked up nearly 400 Premier league appearances so far (Image from Matt West/BPI)

The move signals Howard’s return to the league where it all began just under 20 years ago. As a native of North Brunswick, it made sense for Howard to join the New York/New Jersey Metrostars (now New York Red Bulls) as a 18 year old. However few expected that he would have the impact that he did. In his debut game ironically against Colorado, Howard gave a dazzling performance making five crucial saves as the Metrostars ran out 4-1 victors. That performance set Howard up for success and he did not disappoint, establishing himself as a important part of the Metrostars team over the next five years. With his growing reputation came the early accolades of his career, winning MLS goalkeeper of the year in 2001 and representing his country at under 20 and Under 23 level. It wouldn’t be long before Howard started to gain attention from abroad and when Manchester United came calling in 2003, Howard knew that his life was about to change massively.

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Howard’s move to Manchester United propelled him into the spotlight (Image from Getty)

Signed as a direct replacement for the outgoing French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez in a $4m deal, Howard was dropped firmly into the deep end at one of the world’s biggest clubs. Under the management of the legendary figure of Sir Alex Ferguson, Howard would excel in his opening season winning the FA cup (becoming in the process only the second American to do so). However his second season would be more problematic with Howard losing confidence then his place to Roy Carroll. He would eventually regain it but by then the seed of doubt had been planted firmly in Ferguson’s mind. After United signing Edwin van der Sar from Fulham, Howard was sold to Everton where he has made a majority of his PL appearances during a ten year stint with the Liverpool club. Throughout that time, Howard consistently showed the world exactly how good a shot stopper he is helping the club to establish its self as a permanent fixture in the top half of the league table. He would also play a starring role for the United States, earning over 100 caps with stand out performances at the 2010 and 2014 World Cup including a man of the match performance against Portugal in the latter which spawned a million memes and landed him a meeting with the US president.

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Following his breathtaking performance against Portugal, the internet exploded with millions of memes of Howard saving things (Image from Google)

Howard spoke to ESPN Sport center shortly after the announcement, stating that the timing was right for the move and that he will always remember his time in England fondly. Howard returns at a time when Colorado are undergoing a rebuilding exercise after several disappointing campaigns. The signing of Howard adds experience to the side managed by former US international colleague Pablo Mastroeni. The new coach will be hoping that Howard can lend his support both on and off the field potentially paving the way for Howard to move into coaching once he hangs up his boots.

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Portugal Crush Germany To Advance To Under 21 Final

Outclassed, outplayed and outscored was the story of the Under 21 European Championship semi-final match between Germany and Portugal. A 5-0 win enough to seal passage to the final. But somewhat surprisingly were the victors, Portugal who sent the tournament favourites Germany back to Bavaria for a rethink. Despite having a World Cup winning defender at the heart of their defence and a Champions League winning goalkeeper behind him, Germany simply could not contain a rampant and free flowing Portuguese side that appears to grow more in stature as the tournament progressed. They now face one final challenge, a repeat match with Sweden tomorrow to see who will lift the coveted trophy. The last time these two met in the group stage the game was tied 1-1 in the end but in the final only one team can leave victorious.

Germany will be watching that final with disappointment after failing to live up to their promise. The German squad was one of the strongest in a long time. In a week when English FA elite Director Dan Ashworth claimed that they couldn’t possibly ask full established internationals like Sterling, Barkley and Shaw to drop back down to Under 21 level, it was refreshing to see that other nations don’t seem to have the same hang ups. Germany called up Matthias Ginter who was part of the senior teams triumph in Brazil last year as well as goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Stegen fresh of his heroic’s for Barcelona in the Champions League cup final win over Juventus last month. In fact out of the squad of 23 players, six have represented Germany at senior level and have had no issues dropping back down to play in this tournament. That number could have been greater if not for injuries and lack of form towards the end of the Bundesliga season had not ruled out a few other players. Their passage to the semi-final was not exactly to plan with two draws and a win in the group condemning them to a second place finish behind Denmark. That put them up against Portugal rather than Sweden with the ‘Esperanças’ knocking them out.

Ginter (bending over) and ter Stegen were unable to stop Potugal in the semi final (Image from Getty)

Ginter (bending over) and ter Stegen were unable to stop Portugal in the semi final (Image from Getty)

Portugal have been a revelation in this tournament with several players playing key roles in their success. It’s a talented batch that Rui Jorge has arranged with pace, skill and vision throughout. At the heart of his team is captain Sergio Oliveira.  The central midfielder who plays for FC Porto is highly regarded in his homeland as well as throughout Europe with several clubs scrambling for his signature. Technically gifted with incredible close control and a good range of passing, Oliveira has been exceptional in the tournament so far with an 85% average passing accuracy that highlights this. Alongside Oliveira is another highly rated youngster, William Carvalho. The Sporting Lisbon defensive midfielder is wanted by numerous bigger clubs and his performances in this tournament will not have done his chances of securing a move any harm.  A regular for the full senior team, Carvalho like some of his German counterparts had no issue spending his summer competing for the Under 21 Euro title and that dedication could now pay off. Portugal will be considered strong favourites after their stunning win over Germany on Saturday. Sporting Lisbon pair Ricardo and Joao Mario helped themselves to a goal each as did Benfica striker Ivan Cavalerio, Monaco’s Bernardo Silva and Malaga’s Ricardo Horta as Portugal ran riot. Silva in particular was instrumental in the win with the dazzling attacking midfielder proving why many in the game are comparing him to Portugal greats Rui Costa and Luis Figo.

Sergio Oliveira has been exceptional for Portugal so far  (Image from AFP)

Sergio Oliveira has been exceptional for Portugal so far
(Image from AFP)

Winning the final is the end goal but in their way is Sweden who progressed to the final with a convincing 4-1 win over Denmark. Goals from John Guidetti, Simon Tibbling, Robin Quaison and Oscar Hiljemark cancelled out Uffe Bech’s strike for the Danes.  Both Guidetti and Tibbling go into the final looking to score in order to seal the top goal scorer award. Currently both players sit on two goals with Czech midfielder Jan Kilment leading the way on three goals. But scoring against Portugal will not be easy, given that they have only conceded one goal so far in the tournament. That goal however was scored by Tibbling in their 1-1 draw in the group stage which will offer the Swedes hope. The final should be a spectacular end to what has been a fantastic European championship with two talented teams battling it out for the trophy.

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England Fail Again As Calls For Rethink Grow Louder

Most England fans will remember or at least have heard about the events of July 30th 1966 when Bobby Moore famously led England to its first and so far only World Cup triumph. However few England fans will be able to recall what happened almost thirty years later on July 25th 1993. That was the last time that an England side at either under 18, under 19, under 21 or senior level won an international tournament. That day, with a squad that contained the likes of Sol Campbell, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Robbie Fowler, England beat Turkey by a single goal (a penalty by Darren Caskey) to lift the UEFA European Under 18 Championship trophy. Twenty two years later, England are still looking for their next trophy after being dumped out of this years Under 21’s European Championships at the group stage. Gareth Southgate’s side finished bottom of their group after two defeats and a win in yet another disappointing tournament for English fans.

England's 1993 winning team (Image from AFP)

England’s 1993 winning team (Image from AFP)

England entered the tournament as a strong contender with a talented squad at their disposal. With Tottenham’s 30 goal a season striker Harry Kane leading the line, Southampton’s James Ward Prowse in midfielder and Everton’s John Stones solidifying the defence in front of the ever reliable Jack Butland in-goal, England should have at least progressed beyond the group to the knockout stage. But defeat in their opening game to Portugal left Southgate’s side with a mountain to climb. They appeared to be back on track with a nervy 1-0 win over Sweden, with substitute Jesse Lingard striking with five minutes to go but going into the final game against Italy, England looked disheveled and unorganized. What followed was a mauling at the hands of a less than convincing Italy side despite England having the majority of possession and a greater volume of shots. A brace from Torino’s Marco Benassi and one from Andrea Belotti had already sealed the win before Nathan Redmond grabbed a late consolation goal. The result in the end was good for no one with neither side progressing to the knockout stages after Portugal and Sweden drew in their final match and both advanced. Southgate almost immediately sprung to the defense of his team insisting that despite the team being knocked out, there was still a lot of positives in terms of the individual progress of certain players. Hardly what the England fans want to hear from one of their national managers.

There will be an inquest into what went wrong with several influential figures in English football like Harry Redknapp, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville all calling for rapid changes across the board. The first question raised is a valid one and is around selection. Whilst Southgate did select a talented group of players for this tournament, he chose to ignore other more experienced players like Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshire. The make up of his squad was primarily Championship players and fringe Premiership players with the except of Stones, Kane and his strike partner Danny Ings. For comparison, Italy fielded a squad that had between them played over 270 games in Serie A last season whilst England could only boast 130 appearances in their squad with a vast majority of them being in the Championship or below. When questioned before the tournament about his selection, Southgate spoke about being fair and loyal to the group of players that had gotten them to the Championships through qualifying. It’s a fair point but one that should be addressed by the FA with a major rethink into priorities.

Jack Wilshire could have operated in the attacking midfielder role  (Image from Getty)

Jack Wilshire could have operated in the attacking midfielder role
(Image from Getty)

If England does want to win a tournament like this one, then they should be giving themselves the greatest chance of doing so. They need to select the best squad possible with the likes of Sterling, Barkley, Chamberlain, Shaw and Wilshire going in place of others. These players should have been part of this squad from the very start, creating a nucleus that lasted not only for this tournament but beyond. The team needs to grow together and more importantly progress together through the various international stages. In 2009, Germany beat England in the final of the Under 21 Euro Championships with a squad that would largely make up the team that would lift the World Cup at senior level five years later. England needs to adopt a similar approach if its is to build a team that is capable of winning the World Cup or European Championships in the future. Winning breeds confidence and giving a team the chance to be successful at one tournament only benefits them when it comes to their next one.

England must follow Germany's example by developing teams that progress together through the ranks  (Image from Getty)

England must follow Germany’s example by developing teams that progress together through the ranks
(Image from Getty)

There also needs to be a tactical adjustment. England through all levels up to the senior team are being instructed by FA Director of Elite Development Dan Ashworth to play in a 4-2-3-1 formation but without creative midfielders in the squad, this formation simply does not work. At the under 21 level, Southgate has used this formation repeatedly forcing players like Danny Ings or Tom Carroll to operate out of position in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar attacking midfield role. This role should have been played by Rosss Barkley or Jack Wilshire, both of which are comfortable in the role and can create chances. Similarly the inclusion of a player like Raheem Sterling could have offered more width to England and presented Harry Kane up front with more chances, something he was sadly starved off during the whole tournament in the Czech Republic. Southgate’s lack of backbone and willingness to go against the FA’s wishes will no doubt cost him his job. But its far from his fault. The FA should shoulder some of the blame for appointing him in the first place instead of a more progressive manager. Their desire to appoint a yes man to the role has led to failure once again and yet another set back for England. Strangely Southgate still believes that England can win the 2022 World Cup given the quality of players coming through but in order to do so the country’s FA needs to make a fundamental decision into how much they want to win a tournament and what changes will be needed to make that happen.

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“Judas” Jorge Jesus Swaps Benfica For Sporting In Controversial Move

Benfica's coach Jorge Jesus is leaving to join Sporting Lisbon (Image from REUTERS/Rafael Marchante)Ask any fan across the world the same question and you will likely get the same answer. The question – would you be OK with your manager leaving to join your arch rivals? The answer is likely to be a firm no. But for fans of Portuguese side Benfica this scenario is playing itself out in real life after their manager for the past six years, Jorge Jesus announced his departure from the club to join arch rivals Sporting Lisbon. It’s fair to say that the Benfica fans are in a state of disbelief, not over why their faithful coach who has delivered three league titles and seven trophies to the club during his tenure has decided to leave but instead why he has chosen to go to Sporting of all clubs. The rivalry between the two clubs who both play in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon is a fierce one with few players daring to make the switch. So for their manager to do so has sparked a furious reaction from the fans and calls of “judas”.

Under Jorge Jesus, Benfica have won three titles  (Image from Getty)

Under Jorge Jesus, Benfica have won three titles
(Image from Getty)

Jorge has decided to make the move to Sporting after letting his existing contract with Benfica end this summer. He refused to sign a new contract earlier this year so the Benfica board were anticipating his departure for pastures new after six wonderful years including two Europa League cup final appearances along the way. With several clubs across Europe interested in the 60-year-old a move to Italy, Germany or England looked on the cards. At least that is what the Benfica board believed so the news that Jorge has all but agreed a £4.4million a year deal with Sporting and will be staying in the capital will come as a bitter blow to the club. The feelings are understandable as it would be the same if the Celtic manager Ronny Deila left to fill the current vacancy at Rangers or United boss Louis Van Gaal replaced Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City.

Deila to Rangers? Not likely  (Image from Getty)

Deila to Rangers? Not likely
(Image from Getty)

Jorge Jesus is not the first manager though to have made the switch to a rival club although he is one of only a handful of brave men to do so.  Alex McLeish took over at Aston Villa after resigning from arch rivals Birmingham following their relegation from the Premiership in 2011. Further back than that, Terry Neill switched North London allegiances by moving from Tottenham to Arsenal whilst Ron Saunders managed three rival clubs – Aston Villa, Birmingham and West Brom during a busy 13 year managerial spell.  There are numerous managers who have bossed both sides of a city rivalry but have managed other clubs in-between. Arsenal managerial legend George Graham stunned his old club when he signed on as Tottenham manager, after leaving Arsenal and spending a two-year spell at Leeds United.  Alberto Zaccheroni took over at rivals Inter only a year and a half after leaving AC Milan, whilst Brian Clough famously bossed both Derby County and Nottingham Forest during his career.

Terry Neill's switch to White Hart Lane was controversial at the time (Image from PA)

Terry Neill’s switch to White Hart Lane was controversial at the time
(Image from PA)

Benfica fans will be urged to remember that they took a former Sporting Lisbon manager as their own in 2006 with the appointment of Fernando Santos so these moves do happen. But the direct switch will still hurt Benfica, even though they will understand that as a free agent Jorge Jesus is within his rights to do so. The question however is how he intends to stay in the capital after making the switch and expects the Benfica fans to forget. Like most things connected to rivals, they never forget and will be sure to give Jorge Jesus and his new Sporting Lisbon team a rousing welcome when they come to the Estadio da Luz for the first time next season.

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Could A Facebook Post Have Ended Jourden’s France Chances Before They Have Even Begun?

As France gear up to face Portugal on Saturday in an international friendly, spare a thought for Didier Deschamps.  The French national coach has had a torrid week not at the hands of the press or his players but online. For the second time this year, Deschamps has been blasted on social media by the partner of a player he did not select. The wife of Montpellier goalkeeper Geoffrey Jourden took to Facebook to call out Deschamps on his apparent snub of her husband when selecting his squad for the forthcoming friendlies against Portugal and Armenia. Noemie Jourdren vented her anger by saying that she hoped Deschamps died the next day. Her comments come only a few months after Anara Atanes ranted on Twitter about Deschamps excluding her boyfriend Samir Nasri from his World Cup squad. Atanes repeatedly swore about France and Deschamps before calling the former Monaco boss as bad manager.

Anara Atanes, pictured with Nasri blasted Deschamps for not picking him for the World Cup (Image from Getty)

Anara Atanes, pictured with Nasri blasted Deschamps for not picking him for the World Cup
(Image from Getty)

Nasri has since retired from international football citing he was unhappy with everything associated with the national team. Deschamps was questioned by the French media at the time about the exclusion of Nasri, especially given that the midfielder had played a significant role in securing the English Premiership title for his club, Manchester City but the coach simply felt that the player did not play in the same way he did for his country as he did for his club. In the end Nasri’s exclusion matter little with France making it to the quarter finals of the World Cup in Brazil before being knocked out by eventual winners Germany. In the case of Geoffrey Jourden however the player has yet to be capped for France. He has been performing well for his club, Montpellier this season and was in contention for a call up when Saint Etienne goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier pulled out of the initial squad due to injury but Deschamps instead opted to call up Rennes Benoit Costil instead. This was obviously a massive disappointment to Jourden who has dreamed of representing his country at full international level since 2006 when he first pulled on the Les Blues jersey for the Under 21 team. However the actions of his wife may have ironically made that dream a more distant reality than it was before her post.

Jourden must save his international career by speaking to Deschamps (Image from AP)

Jourden must save his international career by speaking to Deschamps
(Image from AP)

It calls into question the impact that social media can have on a player’s career. Whilst a vital tool to connect the players with their fans and give them a voice away from the pitch, it can be argued that it could be detrimental to their careers especially if they are too vocal in their opinions. Both club and international managers are adapting to the way players use social media with some embracing it as a form of expression and free speech whilst others clamp down heavily in order to protect the players from themselves. However controlling those connected to the players is almost impossible as in the case of Jourden and Nasri. It is admirable that both Noemie Jourdren and Anara Atanes felt compelled enough to protect their partners and voice their anger at what they saw as a grievance as many of us would however when it has the potential to have a negative effect, then they must stop and think about the impact before posting. It must fall to the players to control the situation that surrounds them and stop any social media outbursts that could damage their brand or impact their jobs. Football careers are short as they are and given the increased pressures to perform on a regular basis at the highest level, it is to be anticipated that emotions will run high. However like in any job, blasting your boss on social media or going public with your negative view points about how they do their job will only end up with bad consequences.

Tough week for Deschamps (Image from AFP/GETTY

Tough week for Deschamps
(Image from AFP/GETTY)

As national manager, Deschamps has every right to select the players he feels are correct for the games ahead and will not be deterred by the actions of Noemie Jourden or Anara Atanes. In fact, publicly blasting the manager on social media if anything made it harder for their respective partners to be selected.  France automatically qualify for Euro 2016 as hosts so Deschamps is using the time between now and the tournament starting to test players and formations. For Jourden, he had time on his side to continue to impress and eventually win his way into Deschamps plans but the outburst of his wife and in particular the nature of her comments may have made that challenge an impossible one. Jourden would be wise to act quickly to mend the bridge between himself and Deschamps before this situation becomes irreparable or face years of wonder what could have been if only his wife hadn’t written that post.

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Portugal Defeat Spells Trouble For Bento

 

After a disastrous World Cup campaign where Portugal failed to get out of first gear, many questioned were asked whether Paulo Bento should remain in charge. The former Sporting Lisbon coach has only been in charge since September 2010 but his time has been less than spectacular. Despite a positive start to his international managerial career, which saw him lead Portugal to the Euro 2012 semi finals only to be knocked out by eventual winners Spain, Portugal under Bento have struggled of late with the coach coming under some heavy criticism for his lack of imagination or formation flexibility. A dismal World Cup qualifying campaign which saw Portugal sneak into the tournament via the playoffs was followed by three underwhelming performances in Brazil. A 4-0 hammering by Germany, a nerve jangling 2-2 draw with the USA that relied on a late Varela header to steal a point and a weak 2-1 win over an even poorer Ghana side meant that Portugal crashed out of the group stages for the first time since 2002. Yesterdays shock 1-0 defeat to Albania in the first Euro 2016 qualifying campaign match could be the last straw for Bento and his tenure as Portuguese national coach.

Portugal failed to break down Albania (Image from AFP)

Portugal failed to break down Albania
(Image from AFP)

Despite Portugal’s talisman and World player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo missing out, Portugal should have had enough to dispatch an average Albanian side but in the end struggled to break them down. A volley by Slavia Prague striker Bekim Balaj in the 52 minute was enough to give Albania all three points and victory over Portugal for the first time in six attempts. Already in a tough group that features Denmark and Serbia, Portugal needed to get off to a strong start ahead of next month’s crunch game against the Danes but now Portugal face an uphill struggle to get back on track. Albania to their credit stuck to a game plan, to frustrate Portugal on the ball and break through Roshi and Lenjani when possible. The tactics work for the side ranked 70th in the world, giving them a memorable victory and setting themselves up nicely for their next Euro qualifying group match ironically against Denmark, three days before the Danes face Portugal.

Balaj (centre) celebrates after scoring (Image from getty)

Balaj (centre) celebrates after scoring
(Image from getty)

Whether Bento will be in charge for that match is still to be confirmed. The media has already been quick to hand down a death sentence to Bento but is it really his fault or are the problems that Portugal are going through out with his control? The biggest problem Bento has is a lack of depth in his squad. In years gone past Portugal had a wealth of talent they could call on – Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Pauleta and Joao Pinto to name but a few. However this recent batch of players lacks the flair and skill of previous batches. Yes Portugal’s starting eleven does feature Joao Moutinho, Pepe and of course Cristiano Ronaldo but beyond that the talent pool has dried up. Portugal is struggling to produce the same young talent as before, a direct result of the financial problems that the Portuguese Primeira League is facing. Dropping attendances and global interest in the league has lead to a reduction in the money coming into it and the ability for clubs to properly invest in the future. There are some that still do such as Sporting Lisbon and Benfica who are producing players for the national side but not to the same standard as before. For proof, we only have to look at the results of the Portugal’s Under 21 team who have failed to qualify for the Under 21 European Championships at the last four attempts. Even when they did qualify in 2006 and 2007, they struggled to make it out of the group stages. The last squad to progress and actually managed to finish in third place in 2004 featured the likes of Bruno Alves, Raul Meireles, Hugo Almeida and Jose Bosingwa. But the failures of the Under 21 sides since then are now showing in the full national team with a lack of talent for Bento to call on.

Lack of talent like Luis Figo coming through (Image from PA)

Lack of talent like Luis Figo coming through (Image from PA)

The good news for Portuguese fans is that the current Under 21 side, managed by Rui Jorge looks set to make it to the 2015 Under 21 European championships, giving hope that a new generation of players is just around the corner. However for Bento it may come too little too late as he tries to cling on to his job. The result against Albania was poor with several star players like Nani and Joao Moutinho simply failing to show up on the day. Too often his ailing side has leaned on the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo to save them from themselves so when he is not in attendance; Portugal’s other star players don’t appear to know what to do. Bento as manager needs to take a firmer stance with the players he has at his disposal and whip them into shape. He needs to develop a plan B, one that doesn’t include Ronaldo in a starring role and develop it quickly. The cavalry is coming but until then Bento will have to manage with what he has, pull up his sleeves and push his team onwards towards qualification for Euro 2016. That is if he still has the job.

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How Euro 2004 Could Have Solved England’s Defensive Problems

Eric Dier completes move back to England (Image from Getty)

The European Championships held in Portugal in 2004 will be remembered as the year that Greece shocked the world by beating the home nation in the final to lift the trophy. The Greek team, led by German manager Otto Rehhagel and influential captain Theodoros Zagorakis demonstrated how teamwork and dedication can overcome raw talent and upset the odds. Angelos Charisteas 57th minute goal was enough to seal the win and cement Greece’s place in football folklore. But Euro 2004 may turn out to be a significant tournament for England too despite Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men crashing out in the round of 16. It was the tournament itself that led to a ten year old boy moving from England to Portugal in a switch that would change his life forever. Sporting Lisbon’s Eric Dier is not that well known to many England fans at present but he soon will be after sealing a £4million move back to England with Tottenham.

Greece shocked the world at Euro 2004  (Image from AFP)

Greece shocked the world at Euro 2004
(Image from AFP)

The 20 year old move to Portugal fourteen years ago when his mother accepted a job in the country during Euro 2004 and it wasn’t long before his footballing abilities started to catch the eye of his International school’s PE teacher, Miguel Silva. Realizing his potential, Silva recommended him to Sporting Lisbon who signed the player to their youth ranks. Over the next ten years, Dier progressed through the Sporting youth system eventually forcing his way into the Sporting Lisbon B team in 2012 and a year later earned his first team debut aged 19. He made a blistering star to that match by setting up the only goal of the game  against SC Braga in November 2012. Fifteen days later he opened his account for Sporting with a fine strike against Moreiense FC in a 2-2 draw and has not looked back since. Since his debut, Dier played 26 times for Sporting and became a permanent fixture on their team sheet.

Dier spent his formative years in Portugal  (Image from Getty)

Dier spent his formative years in Portugal
(Image from Getty)

But a move back to England was always on the cards and with interest from Newcastle and West Ham, Tottenham had to move quickly to secure the youngster in time for the start of the new season. Comfortable anywhere across the back line or as a defensive midfielder, Dier gives Spurs options and is the third signing of the Mauricio Pochettino era following Ben Davies and Michael Vorm’s arrivals at the club from Swansea. The move will allow Dier the chance to prove himself in one of the world’s biggest leagues for the second time, after spending a brief six month loan spell with Everton back in 2011. The switch is good news for England as well as it is likely to speed up Dier’s development and fast track him towards becoming a full international. Despite interest from Portugal, Dier has committed himself to England and has played at all levels except for Hodgson’s full first team. It would be foolish for Hodgson to ignore the player as he is unlikely any of the other options available to the England manager. Having spent his formative years in Portugal, where technique on the ball and winning with possession is focused on rather than traditional defending techniques like closing down and tight marking, Dier is unique as an England centre half and could offer a new dimension to a somewhat stale defence. Mature beyond his years, Dier has future England captain writing all over him but his soft spoken approach will need to adapt if he is to follow the likes of Butcher, Terry and Ferdinand into the role.

Future England Captain? Eric Dier  (Image from FA)

Future England Captain? Eric Dier
(Image from FA)

Before Dier can start to think about that, he will need to earn his spot in Tottenham’s first team against some tough competition in the form of Dawson, Kaboul and Vertonghen. However with Romanian flop Vlad Chiriches soon to depart and rumours swirling about Dawson’s future at the club, Dier will get his chance to impress sooner rather than later. It will be up to him to prove that the hype around this young talented English defender from Portugal is accurate and that he can go on to lead Tottenham and eventually England to glory.

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Crunch Time For The US As Their World Cup Fate Lies In Their Own Hands

Dempsey has led the charge for the US (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Two games in, four points gained. Not a bad start for a team expected to struggle in a supposed group of death but for US head coach Jürgen Klinsmann it’s the start he expected and he is now looking forward to today’s game against Germany. The job is far from done as mathematically Ghana or Portugal could overtake the US into second spot, knocking them out of the World Cup. Only a point is needed to secure passage although a defeat may still work as long as the goal difference tally remains positive and other results go their way. An electric win against Ghana set them on their way and for a brief moment victory for the second time and secured passage to the knockout rounds was on the cards against Portugal before Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up in the 95th minute of the game to provide a killer cross for Varela to bullet home a header. It was a bitter blow for the US to handle who had taken the game to Portugal from the first kick of the ball. Despite falling behind to a Nani shot in the 5th minute, the US rallied and through Jermaine Jones found the equalizer. When Clint Dempsey drifted into the box in the 81st minute to knock the ball into the net using his stomach, the US bench erupted knowing that they were only 9 minutes away from adding another famous scalp to their repertoire. But any team with Ronaldo in its ranks cannot be discounted and the US paid for a single moment of slack marking that ultimately cost them two valuable points.

Leaving Donovan behind was seen as a strange move  (Image from Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Leaving Donovan behind was seen as a strange move
(Image from Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Going into the tournament, the focus of all discussions was around Klinsmann’s surprise omission of US legend Landon Donovan from his final 23 man squad. Doubters called it the end of the US World Cup campaign before it began but in truth Klinsmann’s side have looked like they hardly miss the LA Galaxy striker. In goal, Tim Howard has shown why he is consistently one of the best goalkeepers in the English Premier League, whilst midfielder Michael Bradley has demonstrated why Toronto shelled out over $10 million for his services. Up front captain Clint Dempsey has rolled back the years with two heart on the sleeve performances and two highly important goals. Added into this the emergence of new stars like Matt Besler, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi have made the US tough to break down and tougher to beat. It really has been a group effort from front to back with all members of the squad playing their part but today’s game will require an extra special push as they face one of the favourites for the tournament. Recent history is on their side with the US beating Germany in a friendly in June of last year by 4 goals to 3. However it would be wise not to be fooled by this result as the German side that Low fielded that day was primarily second string and experimental at best. Today’s team will be tougher, stronger and more technically gifted.

Old Friends - Klinsmann and Low  (Image from Getty)

Old Friends – Klinsmann and Low
(Image from Getty)

Questions have been asked about Germany’s conviction going into the match and whether Germany manager Joachim Low and Klinsmann will have made a deal to draw the game, a result good enough for both countries to progress regardless of the other result. The pair have history, with Klinsmann appointing Low as his assistant manager when he took over as Germany manager in 2004. When Klinsmann quit after the 2006 World Cup, it was he who recommended to the German FA that Low was ready to take over, ultimately handing the baton straight to his number two. But as much as a deal would suit both teams, it is not in either’s nature to agree to such a thing. Klinsmann is keen to prove that his US side is in the knockout stages on merit, not due to a side deal whilst Low, confident of his team’s progression will be aware that mathematically Germany could still be knocked out if results go against them. Having been beaten finalists at Euro 2008 and beaten semi finalists four years ago in South Africa, Low is desperate to pull Germany over the line and hand them their first World Cup in over 24 years. For Klinsmann reaching the knockout stages is a must and a chance to show his critics exactly how good a coach he is. Remember it was Klinsmann who started the Germany revolution back in 2004 by embracing the country’s youth players like Philip Lahm, Bastian Schweinstegier and Lukas Podolski who have been core to the German push in the last 10 years. Klinsmann will be hoping for a positive result today that sees the US progressing to the knock out rounds and hopefully acts as the springboard for the US national team’s progression over the next ten years.

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African Teams Keen To Show They Are Not Just There To Make Up The Numbers

Ghana vs USA 2010 World Cup (Image from afp)

Four years have past since the World Cup was held on African soil for the very first time and it’s safe to say that the buzz in that continent still remains. For the five African nations that have qualified for Brazil, it’s a moment to showcase to the world how football in that region is developing with all five naming exciting squads for the biggest football tournament on the planet. None are expected to win the event but all five have the ability to provide shocks along the way and should be pushing for places in the latter rounds. Nigeria in particular will want to continue to build momentum off of the back of their successful African Nations triumph in 2013 but will be mindful of setting expectations too high given the crash back down to earth the received at the Confederations Cups only months later. Head coach Stephen Keshi has kept faith with the team that won the African Cup of Nations in South Africa last January with Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel likely to play a major role. The recall of Peter Odemwingie and recent addition of former Newcastle striker Shola Ameobi will add experience and options upfront to a fairly young Nigerian side. Last nights friendly against Scotland gave Keshi a better opportunity to assess which 23 of his prelimary squad of 30 will be heading to Brazil and who else will be going home. For the Super Eagles, who often face heavy criticism from various elements back home who want to derail them, it’s a chance to showcase why they are currently the best team in Africa.

Nigeria win the African Cup Of Nations  (Image from Getty)

Nigeria win the African Cup Of Nations
(Image from Getty)

It’s decision making time too for Cameroon who made it to Brazil despite playing poorly in qualification. The ever green legs of Samuel Eto’o carried a lot of the weight and his goals ensure the team qualified. More importantly for Cameroon coach Volker Finke, the issues between Eto’o and several other members of the squad that plagued the team’s qualifying campaign have now been resolved and the group is once again at peace. A freak injury to Pierre Achille Webo during the warm up match against Macedonia is the only fitness concern with Hamburg’s Jacques Zoua already ruled out with injury some time ago. Finke named a 28 man provisional squad and is deciding who to axe before the deadline to bring it in line with the required 23 man limit. One player who has marked his card to go is Lorient striker Vincent Aboubakar who has finished this season in impressive style with a haul of 16 goals. His inclusion alongside the midfield trio of Jean Makoun, Stephane Mbia and Alexandre Song is almost certain but the same can’t be said for Coton Sport duo Cedric Djeugoue and Loïc Feudjou who are likely to be left behind.

Out to Impress - Lorient's forward Vincent Aboubakar (R)  (Image from FRANK PERRY/AFP/Getty Images)

Out to Impress – Lorient’s forward Vincent Aboubakar (R)
(Image from FRANK PERRY/AFP/Getty Images)

The Ivory Coast face one of the easier groups in the World Cup so qualification to the knockout stages is expected. With Didier Drogba still pulling the strings for The Elephants, experience is key for Sabri Lamouchi as he makes his World Cup debut as a manager. Lamouchi will be the youngest international manager at the Brazil tournament and has picked a side packed full of caps to ensure his stay is extended. Alongside Drogba, there are call ups for Kolo and Yaya Toure, Newcastle’s Cheick Tioté, Swansea’s Wilfred Bony and Trabzonspor’s Didier Zokora. The giant Lacina Traoré makes the provisional squad but his place is not confirmed as the Ivory Coast already have a wealth of riches upfront. However the impressive Serge Aurier is likely to make the cut after a fantastic season with Toulouse in the French Ligue 1. How far the Ivory Coast can proceed in the tournament will rest on whether they can fix their defensive problems with an aging yet experienced backline in front of the error prone Baobacar Barry in goal. It will be a major test for Lamouchi who has only been a manager for 18 months so onlookers will be keen to see how he copes with the pressures that come with the tournament.

The youngest coach at the World Cup - Sabri Lamouchi  (Image from PA)

The youngest coach at the World Cup – Sabri Lamouchi
(Image from PA)

Algeria on the other hand name a squad that lacks real international experience with captain Madjid Bougherra as the most capped player on the team with 68 appearances for The Desert Warriors. Algeria’s manager, Vahid Halilhodžić is however highly experienced and will approach this World Cup with the same enthuasism and passion as he has done previously. He will look towards the future and the likes of Granda’s Yacine Brahimi and Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli for inspiration from midfield. A place in the final 23 is also potentially on the cards for Tottenham’s 19 year old winger Nabil Bentaleb but this World Cup may have come too soon for the talented youngster. Leading the line will be either Dinamo Zagreb’s El Arbi Hillel Soudani or Sporting Lisbon’s Islam Slimani with the latter likely to get the nod. Expectaions are low for Algeria who will struggle to get out of a group that includes Belgium, Russia and South Korea. Progress will depend on the result of their second group game against South Korea where if they are able to pick up all three points, playing for a draw against Russia may be enough to snatch second point in the group.

Lead by Example - Captain Madjid Bougherra  (Image from PA)

Lead by Example – Captain Madjid Bougherra
(Image from PA)

Ghana face a similar situation, placed in a group with Germany, USA and Portugal but few would bet against their progression. In South Africa, Ghana reached the quarter finals only to be knocked out by Uruguay on penalties so Kwesi Appiah and the Black Stars will be hoping to go one or two steps further this time. Former Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan will captain the side which has a familour look to it with several members of the 2010 team returning like Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Kevin Prince Boateng but the rest of the squad is made up of Ghana’s fresh crop if talented youngsters, all of which want to use the World Cup as a stage to showcase their skills. Chelsea midfielder Christian Atsu, who was on loan to Vitesse last year is one such player as is Sparta Moscow striker Abdul Majeed Waris who has spent half of last season on loan at Valenciennes. Ghana also has the luxury of calling upon the Ayew brothers (Andre and Jordan) who both possess an abundance of talent and pace. Attacking options will not be an issue but like the Ivory Coast, Ghana’s biggest weakness is at the back with regular goalkeeper Fatau Dauda dropped to the bench in favour of Adam Kwarasey due to bad form and lack of game time. Appiah may play Essien as a holding midfielder in order to protect his weak back four especially against attacking teams like Germany and Portugal but must get all three points against the US in their opening game to stand a chance of progressing to the knock out stages.

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Donovan Out As Klinsmann Holds Onto Long Standing Grudge

Out - Landon Donovan (Image from Getty)

We should know by now that there is no such thing as a sure thing but we would have all put money on Landon Donovan being part of the USA World Cup squad. Unfortunately for Donovan, head coach Jürgen Klinsmann disagreed and has decided he doesn’t need the US poster boy as part of his squad. The shock announcement came yesterday as Klinsmann named his final 23 man squad, opting to leave out Donovan along with a host of other experienced players including Maurice Edu, Terrence Boyd, Clarence Goodson and Michael Parkhurst. But it’s the exclusion of Donovan that has many puzzled, including the player himself. As the US all time leading goalscorer, Donovan has been an ever present in the team since his debut in 2000 and appeared to be one of the first names on the squad list to go to Brazil.

Klinsmann announces squad for Brazil  (Image from Getty)

Klinsmann announces squad for Brazil
(Image from Getty)

He had been hoping that he would get his chance to play at his fourth World Cup and in doing so join an elite list that includes Pele, Bobby Charlton, Lothar Matthaus and Diego Maradona but it would appear that his chance has now gone. Retirement from the international stage looks more likely which if it is the case would be a sad way to end what has been a glittering international career for Donovan. The player reacted to the news in typical style, releasing a statement on Facebook expressing his disappointment but insisting that he will be cheering on the team regardless.

Donovan was hoping to follow Pele in playing at four World Cups  (Image from AFP)

Donovan was hoping to follow Pele in playing at four World Cups
(Image from AFP)

The US media are already touting the decision as a mistake with a host of well known names adding further fuel to the fire. Donovan’s LA Galaxy coach and former US national manager Bruce Arena commented that if the US has 23 players in its squad that are better than Donovan, then the team should have a successful World Cup, whilst international teammate Tim Howard suggested that when Donovan plays he is one of the best players on the pitch for the US. It’s hard to argue with them and considering the squad Klinsmann has named which includes rookie Julian Green along with Houston Dynamo’s Brad Davis and Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman, Donovan’s absence appears to suggest that there is more than meets the eye on this decision. Donovan, whilst not the player he once was still has more to offer than this trio and could be a useful asset to have, even it is from the bench and especially if the US need a goal.

Surprise inclusion - Having only played once for Bayern and once for the US, Julian Green gets the nod ahead of Donovan  (Image from AFP)

Surprise inclusion – Having only played once for Bayern and once for the US, Julian Green gets the nod ahead of Donovan
(Image from AFP)

It’s a bold move for Klinsmann and one that could come back to haunt him if the US is to crash out in the group stages. Qualifying from a group that include Portugal, Ghana and Germany is a tough enough challenge for the US to overcome without putting itself at a disadvantage by leaving arguably one of its best players behind. Klinsmann told the press that the decision to drop Donovan was the hardest he has ever had to make as a manager and is no reflection on his admiration for the player. He called the decision a tactical one with a few players just marginally performing better than Donovan during the US training camp. But history suggests that the German coach is not being as honest as he should be about his decision to drop Donovan with the two having had a troubled relationship in the past. It is believed that Klinsmann partially blames Donovan for his sacking from Bayern Munich in 2009 after the German coach lobbied hard with the Bundesliga club’s hierarchy that Donovan was the player to transform their poor start to the season. Donovan did arrived on loan but failed to impress and Klinsmann was shown the door a few months later.

Donovan failed to spark at Munich costing Klinsmann his job  (Image from PA)

Donovan failed to spark at Munich costing Klinsmann his job
(Image from PA)

When he took over as US head coach, the frosty relationship continued with Klinsmann often making an example of Donovan by substituting the player earlier on in games than required and leaving him out of squads or worst still relegating him to the B squad. Donovan however didn’t help himself with a loss in club form and a semi midlife crisis in early 2013 that saw him leave football behind for three months to escape to Cambodia and other destinations to “find himself”. The decision to leave him out of the squad is perhaps the final show from Klinsmann that he controls the US team, not Donovan whose influence has been elevated due to his past importance to the team. Indeed Klinsmann’s criticism of the media’s view of Donovan last month, suggesting that the player can do no wrong and that they treat him like a “sacred cow” should have painted an early warning sign to the player. Klinsmann has left the door open to the 156 time capped forward by suggesting he may still go if any of the chosen 23 pick up an injury between now and the start of the tournament but Donovan will know that is a long shot. A final swansong on football’s biggest stage would have been a fitting way for Donovan to sign off his international career before heading through the exit door, but that door now appears to have been slammed shut by Klinsmann in a move that could end both their spells with the US national team.

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European Squad Announcements Shock Few – Part 2

Dzeko will lead the line for Bosnia (Image from PA)Fresh from helping Manchester City secure their second Premier League title in three years, Edin Dzeko’s will now turn his focus towards leading the line for Bosnia in their first ever World Cup appearance. Head Coach Safet Sušić has put his faith in the squad that got them to Brazil naming few changes to his provisional 30 man squad. Bosnia will look towards Roma’s Miralem Pjanic for inspiration from midfield whilst will relay on Dzeko and strike partner Vedad Ibisevic to score the goals needed to advance past the fellow Group F competitors Argentina, Nigeria and Iran. At the back, Stoke’s Asmir Begovic will play in goal whilst Emir Spahic and Sead Kolasinac, who both play in the Bundesliga, will be in place to protect him. The former Yugoslav Republic, who joined FIFA in 1996, qualified top of Group G in the European qualifying stages at the expense of Greece who were forced into the play off’s. They eventually did progress at the expense of Romania and will look to build upon the success they found ten years ago at Euro 2004, when they shocked the world by beating Portugal in the final. Manager Fernando Santos, who will step down after the tournament, has named a familiar looking squad as he finalized his 23 for Brazil. Fulham’s Konstantinos Mitroglou will compete with Celtic’s Giorgios Samaras, PAOK’s Dimitris Salpingidis and Greek legend Theofanis Gekas for the starting striker position after Santos axed three other competitors. Forwards Dimitris Papadopoulos, Nikos Karelis and Stefanos Athanasiadis all miss out as do Olympiacos defender Avraam Papadopoulos and more surprisingly PAOK midfielder Sotiris Ninis. The never aging Giorgos Karagounis will captain the team as part of a highly experienced squad.

Konstantinos Mitroglou is one of four options for Greece  (Image from Getty)

Konstantinos Mitroglou is one of four options for Greece
(Image from Getty)

Also favouring experience is Portugal coach Paulo Bento who sliced his provisional squad down to 23 on Monday much to the disappointment of Ricardo Quaresma and Inter’s Rolando who miss out. Cristiano Ronaldo unsurprisingly makes the cut despite struggling for fitness as does Monaco’s Joao Moutinho and Manchester United’s Nani. Only one Benfica player (Rúben Amorim) makes the cut despite a fantastic season that saw them regain the Portuguese title and end up as runner’s up in yet another Europa League final. Andre Gomes and Ruben Rafael in particular were worth spot in the team but both have time on their sides so playing for Portugal at a major international tournament is likely to happen for them in the future. The same can’t be said for Josip Šimunić who misses out on one last World Cup campaign for Croatia after making a neo Nazi salute after the conclusion of his country’s nail biting playoff victory over Iceland. He was suspended for 10 games by FIFA, meaning he misses out on his last chance of a final swansong. His international career is now surely over which will be a huge blow to the 36 year old. Also missing out in new Barcelona signing Alen Halilovic who was expected to be the wildcard selection in Niko Kovac’s squad. But the head coach has gone for experience over flair and selected the likes of Niko Kranjcar, Ognjen Vukojevic and Luka Modric instead. Whilst he hasn’t cut his provisional squad of 30 down yet, there were some interesting inclusions such as 19 year old Hajduk Splits midfielder Mario Pasalic and Fiorentina’s 20 year old striker Ante Rebic. Both youngsters are part of an exciting new breed of talent (including Halilovic) that is emerging from Croatia, partly due to most teams in the region having to downsize and focus more on youth players to survive the financial crisis. This tournament comes too soon for them but expect to see a more dominant Croatia side in forthcoming international events.

Disappointed to miss out - Alen Halilovic  (Image from Getty)

Disappointed to miss out – Alen Halilovic
(Image from Getty)

Also nurturing youth is Switzerland who have named an interesting team for the World Cup. Alongside the experienced figures of Valon Berhami and captain Gokhan Inler are fresh faces like Wolsbergs Ricardo Rodriguez, Basel’s Fabian Schar, Grasshopper’s Michael Lang and Numberg’s striking sensation Jospi Drmic who finished this season with 17 goals to his name. Speaking of Germany, manager Joachim Low has always been an advocate of developing young talent and Germany have that in abundance. Low named 27 players in his provisional squad including youngsters Julian Draxler, Matthias Ginter and Kevin Volland alongside now permanent fixtures like Mario Gotze and Mezut Ozil. Lazio striker Miroslav Klose is looking to play in his fourth world cup and will lead the line unless Chelsea’s Andre Schurrle can convince Low that he is the better option.

Germany's Young Gun - Julian Draxler  (Image from AFP)

Germany’s Young Gun – Julian Draxler
(Image from AFP)

Striking decisions are also affecting Cesare Prandelli in the Italy dressing room but for all the right reasons. He has a wealth of options to choose from in his provisional list including the experienced trio of Giuseppe Rossi, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano. But a host of young pretenders like Mattia Destro, Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile are all competing for a final spot in the team. At the back, the shock exclusion of Domenico Criscito and Davide Astori still has many wondering why whilst Alberto Gilardino and Pablo Osvaldo’s exclusions are more to do with character rather than talent. New Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal has no such problems as he already knows that Robin Van Persie and Klaas Jan Huntelaar will lead the line for Holland in his final tournament in charge. The disappointment of losing Kevin Strootman to long term injury has forced the Dutch coach into a change of tactics with him now preferring a 5-3-2 formation. That means that the likes of Jean-Paul Boëtius, Quincy Promes and Jonathan de Guzmán all run the risk of being cut from the squad as Van Gaal names his 23. Manchester City defender Karim Rekik, who has been on loan at PSV this season, was a surprise call up into the provisional squad but is likely to be axed as well as Holland gear up for the World Cup.

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Ronaldo Finally Rewarded For His Patience

Ballon D'Or winner Ronaldo (Image from FIFA)Vindicated. That is exactly how Cristiano Ronald felt at this year’s Ballon D’Or as he accepted the accolade of the world’s best player. After playing second fiddle to Argentina ace Lionel Messi, the 28 year old has finally beaten his rival to FIFAs top honour and broke his four year stranglehold on the title. The emotion of the night was clear to see on Ronaldo’s face as he walked up to accept his award with his son Cristiano Jnr in tow. He struggled to hold back the tears as he thanked his teammates at Real Madrid and Portugal. To be honest, it is them that should be thanking Ronaldo who has constantly shone for club and country.

No Love Lost between Ronaldo and Messi  (Image from Getty)

No Love Lost between Ronaldo and Messi
(Image from Getty)

Critics will cite that Messi’s season was hampered by injuries but that would be doing a disservice to Ronaldo who has simply been in the best form of his life. His record speaks for itself – over 1900 passes, just under 200 shots with an accuracy rate of just over 50%. Whilst both Messi and Ribery had better shot accuracy rates and more passes overall, its Ronaldo’s form in front of goal and his all round contribution to Madrid and Portugal that ultimately won him the title. 66 goals in 56 games for any player is impressive and harks to the great players of the past like Puskas, Pele and Eusebio. It was Ronaldo who stepped to single handedly steer Portugal to the World Cup this summer. In the playoffs against a Zlatan Ibrahimovic inspired Sweden, Ronaldo knew that he needed to shine brighter than his Swedish counterpart if Portugal were to progress. And oh how he did. Four goals over two legs, Ronaldo covered every inch of the pitch, dominating the rhythm of the matches, leading to teammate Miguel Veloso proclaiming that he was simply “a machine”.

Ronaldo's vertical leap stuns United in the Champions League (Image from PA)

Ronaldo’s vertical leap stuns United in the Champions League (Image from PA)

The “machine” continues to improve year over year, making tweaks to his game to steadily improve his all round game. He worked hard with the coaches at Manchester United during his time there on his movement and vision, improving his ability to run at high pace and precision. He dedicated time with Real Madrid’s fitness specialist to perfect his vertical leap which has now made him more effective in the air.  And he has spent endless hours watching previous matches he has played in to look for ways to improve his team play. But most of all Ronaldo has matured, from the emotionally frustrated yet talented youngster to the superstar we see today. Becoming a father has undoubtedly helped speed up this process and given him a renewed focus on how he displays himself to the world. This season, we have witnessed a different Ronaldo for Portugal and Madrid. Whilst possessing the ability to win a game single handedly, he now plays for the good of the team. Now playing alongside Gareth Bale, Ronaldo has changed his style and is less selfish than in the past, examining options to pass and incorporate Bale into the play if applicable.  Their partnership has become one of the most terrifying in world football, with opposition defenses left bamboozled and unsure of how to cope with them.  With 20 goals in La Liga so far (including 2 hat tricks and 4 braces), Ronaldo is in the form of his life and if he can keep it going, it’s hard to see how anyone, even Lionel Messi will be able to wrestle the title of the world’s best player away from him.

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Portugal Mourns The Death of The King, Eusebio

Farewell to Eusebio (Image from Getty)The story of the 1966 World Cup in England was all about the home teams first ever triumph and the famous final that was full of controversy and iconic commentary. But undoubtedly the player of the tournament was Portuguese legend, Eusebio who sadly passed away this past weekend. Eusebio da Silva Ferreira scored nine goals during the 1966 World Cup, driving Portugal to a third place finish, narrowly missing out on a spot in the final after a 2-1 defeat to eventually winners England. For the 24 year old, it would be his defining moment for the Portuguese national team and would act as catalyst that would lead to Eusebio becoming a legend in the game. To be mentioned in the same group as Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Puskas and Di Stefano shows how great Eusebio was as a player.  

Eusebio hit 9 goals in the 1966 World Cup  (Image from Getty)

Eusebio hit 9 goals in the 1966 World Cup
(Image from Getty)

Most of his success came during his 15 spell with Benfica where he scored 317 goals in 302 games, guiding them to what they now refer to as their Golden era. During this time Benfica and Eusebio secured 10 Primeira Liga titles, 5 Portuguese Cups and two consecutive European Champions Cups in 1961 and 1962.  The latter was even more remarkable considering Real Madrid dominated the tournament during the late 50’s and early 60’s with Puskas and Di Stefanio terrifying teams across Europe during this time. But in the 1962 Final, when Benfica met Real Madrid in the Olympisch Stadion in Amsterdam, it was Eusebio’s performance that got everyone talking.  In a thrilling encounter that finished 5-3 to Benfica and saw Hungarian legend Fernec Puskas hit a first half hat trick, Eusebio would prove to be unstoppable inspiring the Benfica comeback before sealing the victory with two goals late on in the second half, the first from the penalty spot after he has hacked down in the box by Luis del Sol and the second a fine strike from a laid off free kick just outside the 18 yard box.

Benfica legend Eusebio in action  (Image from Getty)

Benfica legend Eusebio in action
(Image from Getty)

Born in Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique), Eusebio spent a majority of his childhood with a ball at his feet, often skipping school to go and play. Growing up in poverty, Eusebio learned how to play the game with bare feet, kicking around a ball made from old socks and newspapers, dreaming of one day moving to his favourite team, Benfica. After joining one of their feeder teams he eventually moved to Benfica in 1960, despite interest from Juventus in Italy and Sao Paulo in Brazil, as a young 18 year old. He made his first team debut the following season and never looked back. Now European champions, Benfica had a talented squad already before Eusebio came into the picture but it wasn’t long before manager Béla Guttmann realized the potential star in the making that he had. Eusebio quickly established himself as an irreplaceable member of the first team and went on to become a club legend.  After 15 years at the club and now aged 33, he left Benfica and played for a variety of clubs including NASL clubs Boston Minutemen, Toronto Metros –Croatia and Las Vegs Quicksilver, winning the 1976 NASL title with Toronto. Spells at Monterrey, Beira Mar, Uniao de Tomas and New Jersey Americans followed before he retired at aged 37 in 1979.

World Greats - Pele and Eusebio  (Image from Getty)

World Greats – Pele and Eusebio
(Image from Getty)

As a permanent fixture of the Portuguese national team during the 60’s and early 70’s, Eusebio won 64 caps scoring a then record 41 goals  that he held until 2004 when Pauleta and then Cristiano Ronaldo overtook him.  Still considered the best Portuguese player of all time, Eusebio’s legacy will live on for years to come. His death on Sunday aged 71 came after a long battle with heart and respiratory problems but still was a shock to many in his homeland. Portugal has declared three days of national mourning for the player, with his funeral taking place yesterday in the capital Lisbon. Thousand turned out to pay their own personal tributes to the player affectionately known as the Black Panther, with his coffin draped in a Benfica flag. Fellow Portuguese footballers led the tribute to Eusebio with Luis Figo declaring him as the king and the greatest whilst Cristano Ronaldo declared that Eusebio was always eternal and a great man. Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho led a more touching tribute to the fallen star speaking to the media about the legacy he has left behind:

Eusebio is one of the greatest footballers in the history of football. He’s at this level – Eusebio, Charlton, Pele. For Portugal he means more than that. No colour, no clubs, no political sides. For Portuguese people Eusebio is Eusebio and for sure you will get some images over the next couple of days and I think you will understand what Eusebio means for our country. I think he is immortal. We all know what he meant for football and especially for Portuguese football.”

An Audience with The King - Figo and Eusebio watch Portugal play in Euro 2012  (Image from AP Photo/Armando Franca)

An Audience with The King – Figo and Eusebio watch Portugal play in Euro 2012
(Image from AP Photo/Armando Franca)

The footballing world joins Portugal in mourning the passing of world of the game’s greatest players. Eusebio created a legacy for all us to remember and will live on in our memories as an entertainer and as a true legend of football. As Luis Figo said he was the King of Portuguese football – the king is dead, long live the King!

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Brazil Or Bust: The Challenges Facing Teams At The World Cup

Sepp Blatter and Fernanda Lima at the Draw (Image from Getty)Friday’s World Cup draw was anything but easy to understand. The complicated system employed by FIFA to stack rank then draw the 32 teams left many wondering what had just happened. The look on England manager Roy Hodgson’s face said it all. But now that the draw is over, each team has full clarity of the task in hand and who they will be facing next summer. For some the draw was kind whilst others will be wondering whether to go at all. Speculation over who will win the tournament has gone into overdrive with Brazil, Argentina and Spain set as early favourites based on their FIFA rankings and the groups drawn but there are other factors at play that need to be considered.

All eyes on Brazil  (Image from PA)

All eyes on Brazil
(Image from PA)

Just looking at how the groups are laid out is not enough to try and work out who will be victorious in Brazil. There are other mitigating circumstances that will come into play and will affect the overall outcome. First and foremost the location of each game and the travelling required by some nations will have an effect on the condition of the players and how tired they will be. With only a few days between games, logistics will play a huge part in the preparations. Mexico look to have profited with a draw that sees their travel restricted top only a couple of hours each time. All of their matches will be played in the northern cities of Natal, Fortaleza and Recife. In the same group, home nation Brazil will spend a majority of time travelling as they attempt to appease the fans across the country. Whilst accustom to the climate and conditions, the heavy travel schedule over a short space of time make take its toll. Portuguese chances of progressing from the group stage took a hit when the draw was made. Not only did they land in a tough group with Germany, USA and Ghana, the way the fixtures are lined up could also factor into their potential success. A tough opener in Salvador against Germany is followed six days later with a tiring match against the US in tropical Manaus before a lengthy journey to Brasilia to face Ghana four days after that. Like many teams, the strength in depth of the squad will show as rotation will be key to survive the group stage. Squads like Croatia, Iran, Greece and Japan will all struggle as their key starting eleven falter and managers are forced to replace them with lesser quality players.

Travel will play a major role in who wins the World Cup  (Image from Google)

Travel will play a major role in who wins the World Cup
(Image from Google)

The weather and climate will also play a major role. In places like Manaus, centered in the middle of the Amazon, teams will experience high temperatures and lung busting humidity. During July, heavy rain is not uncommon but the summer months fall during the countries “dry spell” so the rain is usually limited to mid afternoon showers. Still this will likely alter the playing surface, forcing teams into tactical changes and potentially player selection. It’s a world away from the cooler temperatures of the south in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro where the weather is more controlled and will suit the European teams more. Don’t be surprised to see dark horses Belgium storm through the group stages after being given a kind draw. With an easy group (Russia, Algeria and South Korea) and all their matches to be played in the south (Rio, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte), Belgium should be refreshed and firing on all cylinders come the knock out stages. France too should profit from having two of their three matches located in the south of the country. Travel will play a role but with a difficult game against the Swiss sandwiched nicely between ties against Honduras and Ecuador, France should progress with ease. England and Italy are both facing a difficult World Cup and will need to start strongly in their opening match against each other in Manaus on Saturday 14th June.  After the match, Italy travel east to Recife where they face Costa Rica then conclude the group with a likely winner takes all match against Uruguay in Natal. England however fly south to Sao Paulo to take on a Luis Suarez inspired Uruguay then north to play Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte. Hodgson will know that the match in Belo will be pointless if his team cannot pick up any points in the first two matches of the group. A tough challenge given the opposition, weather conditions and travel.

Belgium should benefit from an easy draw and little travel  (Image from Getty)

Belgium should benefit from an easy draw and little travel
(Image from Getty)

We are now just over six months away from the kick off of the 2014 World Cup. All 32 teams now know who they will be facing and what other challenges lie in wait for them when they reach Brazil. The toughest challenge for them all will be not necessarily the games themselves but everything around them. With transport infrastructure still an issue, hotels not complete and adverse weather conditions across the country, the winners of Brazil 2014 will have to overcome a variety of obstacles if they are to lift the famous golden trophy.

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Portugal and France Progress To Brazil As England and Spain’s Plans Are Thrown Into Turmoil

Ronaldo celebrates securing Portugals passage to Brazil (Image from PA)It was a dramatic night of international football on Tuesday that sent four more European teams to Brazil and others wondering if they want to go at all. A Cristiano Ronaldo hat trick eclipsed a stunning brace by Zlatan Ibrahimovic as Portugal met Sweden in Stockholm for the second leg of the play offs.  With Portugal leading 1-0 from the first leg, the home fans were determined to help their team as much as possible, including disturbing the sleep of the Portuguese players the night before. Despite the underhanded tactics, Ronaldo would not be deterred from his goal of reaching another World Cup. The Real Madrid star put his team into an early lead before a Swedish comeback inspired by their talisman Ibrahimovic who has been in the best form of his life over the past two years. A quick fire brace including a wonderfully taken second goal pulled Sweden back level on aggregate and back into the match. But Ronaldo would have the last laugh as he stepped up a gear by grabbing a brace himself to complete his hat trick and put Portugal on the plane to Brazil. It wouldn’t be the World Cup without the Real Madrid star but others will be disappointed that Ibrahimovic will not be there as his creativity and flair have light up many a back page with yet another wonder goal.

ibrahimovic was unable to overturn Portugal's lead  (Image from PA)

ibrahimovic was unable to overturn Portugal’s lead
(Image from PA)

Elsewhere a convincing 2-0 victory for Croatia helped sealed their place at the expense of Iceland. The tiny Scandinavian country had reached the play offs against all odds so defeat over the two legs to Croatia will be painful to take. After all this was a Croatian side ripe for the picking having come off the back of a double defeat to Scotland in the group stages. Iceland’s approach and effort in qualifying should have been enough to secure their passage so falling at the last hurdle will be a harsh lesson for their young squad in staying focused and not being distracted by the main prize. Croatia will be joined on the plane by Greece who dispatched Romania over the two legs despite a spirited performance from Victor Piturca’s players.

Croatia and Iceland battled it out during the Play offs (Image from Getty)

Croatia and Iceland battled it out during the Play offs (Image from Getty)

The surprise of the night was the comeback of Les Blues as Didier Deschamp’s French team clawed back a 2-0 first leg deficit against a powerful Ukraine side to win 3-0 in the second leg and book their place. A brace from Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho and a solo strike from Karim Benzema was enough to turn around the tie that many feared was already over. Ukraine were blown away by a determined French side, inspired by Franck Ribery and Yohan Cabaye who were helped in their cause by the dismissal of Ukrainian defender Yevhen Khacheridi just before half time. A passionate crowd sang songs of allez les blues as France romped to victory.

France celebrate reaching the World Cup  (Image from AFP)

France celebrate reaching the World Cup
(Image from AFP)

Meanwhile friendly defeats for England, Spain, USA and Belgium have heaped concerns about their chances in Brazil next summer. England’s failure to trouble a heavily rotated Germany will surely concern manager Roy Hodgson and definitely the over exuberant British press. Spain’s surprising defeat in South Africa also came as a shock especially as Del Bosque had sent out an almost full strength team. Whilst they had chances, the reigning World and European champions looked vulnerable at the back, with some suggesting the exclusion of legendary goalkeeper Iker Casillas being the main catalyst. Dark horses for next year’s tournament, Belgium also suffered defeat for the second time in five days, this time to Japan. The Japanese who have also qualified took their chances well against the young and enthusiastic Belgium side eventually winning the match by three goals to two. In Austria, Jürgen Klinsmann led team USA preparations took a knock with a surprise 1-0 defeat to Austria. Having drawn on Friday with Scotland, Klinsmann was hoping to put Austria to the sword but they had other ideas. A single goal by Marc Janko thirty three minutes into the match sealed a famous victory and gave the German coach much to ponder.

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Bosnia Books Their Place At The World Cup As Iceland Looks To Follow

Job Done - Bosnia reach their first World Cup (Image from Getty)Amongst jubilant scenes in Sarajevo last night, one man stood alone at the centre spot trying to believe what had just happened. Bosnia-Herzegovina striker Edin Dzeko realized that his dreams were coming true as he watched his country qualify for their first ever World Cup. It’s a remarkable achievement for Bosnia after years of struggling to recover from the war that threatened to rip their country apart. Until 1992, Bosnia was part of Yugoslavia but when the country began to break up back into its original components (Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Kosovo and Serbia) the region was engulfed in a turf war known as the Yugoslav wars. Lasting over eight years, it’s often described as Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War II and decimated the regions, killing thousands and sending millions scrambling for the safety of other European countries. Dzeko was only six years old when war was dropped onto his doorstep and lived through the worst of it as his family decided to stay in Sarajevo and attempt to live a semi normal life. As a quiet skinny kid, the future was uncertain for Dzeko but despite uncertainty Dzeko spent his childhood years with a football attached to his foot. Dzeko was always destined to be a footballer and follow in his father’s footsteps who was a fairly successful professional in Bosnia, who also represented his country. But now Dzeko now stands above his father as a national icon, the man who shot Bosnia to their first ever World Cup. Scoring 10 goals in 10 qualifying games helped Bosnia to claim top spot in Group G ahead of Greece, Slovakia and Lithuania, securing their place in Brazil next summer. Dzeko will insist that it was a team effort and that the whole squad deserves the praise but it was Dzeko who led the line and ultimately got the goals to get them to the World Cup.

Dzeko inspired Bosnia seal their place  (Image from Getty)

Dzeko inspired Bosnia seal their place
(Image from Getty)

One team looking to follow Bosnia to Brazil is Iceland. After achieving the impossible by finishing second in a tough group, Iceland now are 180 minutes away from booking their first trip to a world cup as well. Standing in their way is one of seven teams and will face either Portugal, Greece, Croatia, Sweden, Romania, Ukraine or France in a two legged play off to be contested next month. Iceland, who secured a spot after sterling performances against Norway, Slovenia and Switzerland in the group are a mix of youthful exuberance and experienced professionalism. 35 year old Eiður Guðjohnsen, who has played for Chelsea and Barcelona in the past but now represents Club Brugge, leads the line alongside Ajax’s talented young forward Kolbeinn Sigþórsson. The pair are supported from midfield by Tottenham’s Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson, who is in the best form of his career, and by Sampdoria’s dynamic Birkir Bjarnason and exciting AZ winger Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson who’s outstanding hat trick against Switzerland last month salvaged a well deserved point at a time when it looked like Iceland’s dream was falling apart.

Gudmundsson inspired Iceland to comeback against Switzerland (Image from AFP)

Gudmundsson inspired Iceland to comeback against Switzerland (Image from AFP)

Having lost at home to Slovenia in June by four goals to two, Iceland went into the game with Switzerland in Berne knowing that they needed to get something from the match to keep their hopes of a qualification spot alive. But after a disastrous start, Iceland found themselves trailing 4-1 with just over 30 minutes to go. What happened next is an example of the new found belief running through this Icelandic squad who rallied to pull the game level with goals from Sigþórsson and a brace from Guðmundsson including a strike in the dying minutes, to secure a valuable point. In the end, that point plus some luck on the final day with Iceland holding on to a draw with Norway as Slovenia failed to beat runaway winner Switzerland, helped Iceland to finish second and keep their dreams alive.

Iceland mix youth and experience to achieve results  (Image from AP)

Iceland mix youth and experience to achieve results
(Image from AP)

Coach Lars Lagerback will be hoping that his team secures an easier fixture in the draw for the play off’s, with Croatia looking now like the best bet as a beatable team. Having failed to qualify directly and after losing consecutive games to Scotland, the Croatian FA have sacked Igor Stimac as head coach, throwing his team into a state of flux. Under-21 coach Niko Kovac will likely be in charge for the play off matches and looks favourite to secure the job long term after impressing with the junior team but whether he has enough time to revive a now battered Croatia side is still to be seen. Iceland will be weary that if they draw Croatia it might not be an easy game but with the other options being a Ronaldo inspired Portugal or an electric Ukraine side, an injured Croatia might be their best shot.

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Split Focus Leads To Palmeiras Relegation

It was billed as a make or break match for Palmeiras. The São Paulo club needed a win against Flamengo to remain in the league whilst Flamengo were playing for pride only in the match. In the end, Flamengo were the only team that came away happy from the match after the two sides thrashed out a 1-1 draw. Palmeiras, who led the match until an agonising late equalizer thar sealed their fate, how now been relegated from Brazil’s top league for the second time in 10 years. Palmeiras opened the scoring on Sunday with a long-range shot by substitute  striker Vinicius, but Vagner Love’s late goal dashed hopes of a reprieve, in what was already a tense match. Crowd trouble before and after the match brought back memories for some of similar scenes when Argentinian legends Rover Plate were relegated a few seasons ago. In the lead up to the match, the Palmeiras players and coaching staff had been the subject of death threats from fans as they slowly started to realise that the possibility of dropping out of the league could become a reality. Indeed results against Fluminense and Botofogo in previous weeks, when Palmeiras threw away good leads and ended up losing and drawing the matches respectively, confirmed what the fans were dreading.

Palmeiras players face life in Campeonato Brasileiro Série B next season

Palmeiras are one for Brazil’s most illustrious of clubs, having won the most national titles (11) and are current defending Brazilian Cup champions, but this season has not been impressive by any stretch of the imagination. In 36 games, they have only managed to win 9 games, drawing 7 and losing the remaining 20. Goals have been hard to come by, only notching 37 in the entire season (roughly 1 a match) but its their defensive record and goals conceded that has led to their demise – 49 goals this season (1.5 per match). So how did this happen? Nobody predicted this fate in 2010 when the Alviverde (Green and White) welcomed back for the second time legend Luiz Felipe Scolari as head coach. Scolari, who coached the club from 1997 to 2000, came back to the club after having spent the last 10 years coaching a variety of nations and clubs such as Brazil, Portugal, Chelsea and most recently FC Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan. He is remembered fondly in Brazil after leading his country to the 2002 World Cup, despite many critics blasting his tactics and classifying the win as a fluke.

Returning to Palmeiras in 2010 he led them to Copa do Brasil success that year with influential captain Marcos Assunção and goalscorer Luis Fabiano leading the charge. But it was the focus on this cup that led to eventual relegation. Scolari rested several key players in the run up to various cup matches resulted in valuable points being dropped. After the cup success, focus shifted back to the league but by that point Palmeiras was already sitting in the lower half of the table and struggling for form. Scolari eventually left his position and was replaced by Gilson Kleina but he couldn’t turn around the club and eventually conceded relegation in the 1-1 draw this sunday.

The lesson to be learned from this Palmeiras story is that focusing on one tournament can lead to disaster  in another. Palmeiras, desperate to taste success once again, pushed all their energy into the cup competition and took its eye of the league. Although they did win the cup, their squad did not have the depth of talent required to cope with the demands of both and valuable points were dropped. Scolari, who had a spell at mega rich Chelsea in the English Premiership is partly responsible for this failure as he controls selection and transfers but its the players themselves that should take most of the heat as they got caught up in cup fever and forgot that their most important task was staying in the league.