Portugal ride Ronaldo’s wave to edge out determined Atlas Lions

Fayçal Fajr lifted the free-kick long into the box. In the dying embers of Morocco’s clash with Portugal, the Atlas Lions were desperately trying to recoup a one-goal deficit that had existed from the fourth minute of the match. At stake were Morocco’s chances of progressing from a tough group, with a loss certainly consigning Hervé Renard’s team to elimination – with one game still to play. Fajr’s free-kick was launched at the mass of bodies now crowding the Portuguese penalty area, and it fell at the feet of Moroccan captain Medhi Benatia, who had space and drew back his left foot to shoot from inside the area. He had missed in an almost identical situation earlier in the half, but surely this time, with the game on the line and everything set up perfectly, he could test Rui Patricio. Once again, the ball cleaved the air over the bar, sailing away from the goals and, ultimately, proving to be Morocco’s last chance to save their tournament. They fought valiantly, but they ultimately fell to a goal from the man who has destroyed so many of Portugal’s opponents: Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Cristiano Ronaldo lunges forward to score the only goal of the game in the fourth minute. After going ahead early on, the Portuguese held onto their lead for the rest of the match.

Whatever plan Hervé Renard had made to deal with Ronaldo after his stunning hat-trick in Portugal’s opening clash with Spain, it didn’t work. Less than five minutes had elapsed when Bernardo Silva and João Moutinho combined to deliver the ball into the box from a Portuguese corner, and Ronaldo, apparently unmarked and in plenty of space, headed home from close range. Manuel da Costa, assigned to stick with the Portuguese captain, was neatly sidestepped, and Munir El Kajoui had absolutely no chance as Ronaldo dived forward and drilled his header into the back of the net. When, a few minutes later, Ronaldo found space to shoot in the box and only narrowly missed, and Morocco seemed incapable of keeping him down.

Then things began to turn. Morocco started to put some sustained pressure on the Portuguese, working to win the ball high up the pitch and beginning to take some control. On the left wing, Hakim Ziyech was the architect, creating their best chance when he picked out Medhi Benatia from a corner and twice working his way into space to fire shots at Rui Patricio. In the meantime, he drifted all over the field, stringing together excellent passes and creating plenty of problems. On the right, Nordin Amrabat, who started the game wearing a skull cap but ditched it after 15 minutes, was the main weapon. He had pace, skill and threatened every time he received the ball, especially in space. Portuguese left-back Raphaël Guerreiro was a man under siege, often left embarrassed by his quicker, more skilled and cannier opponent, and Amrabat looked like breaking the game wide open on a number of occasions. Unfortunately for Morocco, he didn’t. Portugal still carried some threat, and El Kajoui was forced into a tough reflex save to deny Gonçalo Guedes just before the break.

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Nordin Amrabat (left) attempts to take on Portuguese left-back Raphaël Guerreiro. Amrabat was too good for Guerreiro all day, and he created plenty of trouble for Portugal.

Morocco started the second half with all of the zest they showed in the first, but they still struggled to break through Portugal’s defence. Patricio was forced to make a brilliant save to deny Younès Belhanda, whose headed effort from another dangerous Ziyech free-kick was destined for the bottom corner before the experienced goalkeeper deflected it away for the relative harmlessness of a corner. Shortly afterwards, Benatia blasted a shot over the bar, and it seemed like Morocco were beginning to lay a prolonged siege to the Portuguese goal. They couldn’t. The chances continued to come, but Portugal were able to assert just enough control to keep the pressure from mounting. Ziyech had a great chance, but his shot was deflected over the bar. The corner came to nothing. Pepe deflected a Moroccan corner into his arm. Morocco’s protestations for a penalty came to nothing. Morocco fought until the final whistle, and dominated a Portuguese team who didn’t disprove the theory that they’re too reliant on Ronaldo. It all came to nothing.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Portugal 1 (Ronaldo 4)
Morocco 0
Referee: Mark Geiger (USA)
Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patricio – Cédric, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva (Gelson Martins 59), João Moutinho (Adrien Silva 89), William Carvalho, João Mário (Fernandes 70); Guedes, Ronaldo.
Morocco (4-2-3-1): El Kajoui – Dirar, Benatia, da Costa, Hakimi; El Ahmadi (Fajr 86), Boussoufa; N Amrabat, Belhanda (Carcela 75), Ziyech; Boutaïb (El Kaabi 69).

Top 5
1. Nordin Amrabat (Morocco)
Amrabat was in blistering form down the right, terrorising Guerreiro all match and giving the Portuguese defence plenty of problems. His delivery into the box was dangerous, and if Morocco had a clinical finisher in the middle he could have finished the game with multiple assists.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Ronaldo only needed one moment to win Portugal the match. His evasion of da Costa at an early corner and subsequent finish proved to be the only goal of the match, and it gave him a remarkable record of four goals in two games at this tournament. Do Portugal rely on him too much? We shall see.
3. Hakim Ziyech (Morocco)
Ziyech was everywhere as Morocco tried desperately to equalise, and he looked like one of the only Moroccan players capable of creating chances against a solid Portuguese back four. His set piece delivery was brilliant, and caused plenty of nervous moments for Portugal.
4. Rui Patricio (Portugal)
Considering Morocco’s control of possession and territory, Patricio had less work to do than he may have otherwise expected. He was, however, called upon to make some tough stops, with his effort to deny a well-taken Belhanda header a particularly brilliant – and crucial – intervention.
5. Mbark Boussoufa (Morocco)
Boussoufa worked hard on and off the ball and allowed Morocco to control the game with his work in the middle. He created some chances with dangerous deliveries into the Portuguese penalty area, and put good pressure on Portugal when they had the ball.

Iberian thriller ends in high-scoring stalemate

Cristiano Ronaldo was facing off with Nacho. The Portuguese captain had the ball at his feet, and he was looking to put the Spanish under pressure in the opening minutes of the match. In the lead-up to the blockbuster game, Spain’s very public decision to sack coach Julen Lopetegui two days before the tournament threw their preparation into disarray, and created a media storm. Now, under the temporary guidance of Fernando Hierro, they needed to show something. Less than three minutes had elapsed when Ronaldo, with dazzling speed and perfect control, executed a stepover, looked to breeze past Nacho and tripped over the stand-in right-back’s outstretched leg. It was a penalty, and Ronaldo had absolutely no trouble scoring from the spot. Spain’s worst nightmare seemed to be unfolding before their eyes. They needed to show some serious resilience.

The ball was kicked long out of the Spanish defence, to the advantage of Pepe. Spain had started to take control of possession after going behind, creating a few chances with their exquisite passing game. For their part, the Portuguese were looking to hit them on the break, with the dangerous Ronaldo creating a couple of very good opportunities against the flow. Now, Portugal’s strong centre-back just had to beat Diego Costa, Spain’s skilled but slightly controversial striker, in the air. He didn’t. Costa brought the ball to ground, and Pepe went down in an attempt to win a free-kick. Now clear to run at the defence, Costa was faced with two opponents, Cédric and José Fonte. He paused at the top of the box, relying on the space he had behind him, and took a touch to the right. The defence followed. He took a touch to the left. The defence followed. He took another touch to the right. The defence followed again. Behind him, a crowd of Portuguese players reluctant to involve themselves watched as Costa’s shot travelled in between his two markers and eluded Rui Patricio’s dive. Spain, against all odds, were level.

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Cristiano Ronaldo (far left) celebrates scoring the game’s opening goal from the spot. The goal was the first of his brilliant hat-trick.

Pepe’s long pass found Gonçalo Guedes on the edge of the box. Portugal were still struggling to keep pace with the Spanish as the first half wound down, with Isco coming tantalisingly close to scoring with a thunderous strike that hit the bar and landed on the goal line. It bounced out, and Portugal breathed a sigh of relief. 15 minutes after that near-miss, Guedes controlled the ball with a touch before shuffling it to the feet of Ronaldo. Portugal’s talisman had time, space and was in a dangerous position on the edge of the box. It was the chance Portugal were looking for. With his left foot, Ronaldo fired away – and pinpointed goalkeeper David de Gea. It was an easy save, especially for de Gea, the best goalkeeper in the Premier League. At least, it should have been an easy save. Instead, it rolled through his normally safe hands and into the back of the net. Ronaldo had two, and Portugal had the lead at the end of a dramatic and pulsating first half.

David Silva and Koke stood over the free-kick. Since half time, Spain had been fighting hard to recoup the deficit, and the set piece gave them a chance. What happened next was a pretty simply choreographed routine, but it looked like poetry in motion. Silva and Koke played a rather unnecessary one-two, with the ball ending up in the spot of the original free-kick. Then Silva put in his cross. At first glance, it looked too deep for Sergio Busquets to score. As the play unfolded, with Busquets nodding the ball into the centre of the goalmouth, it became clear that Silva had executed his delivery to perfection. In vain, Portuguese defenders scrambled to clear the ball that was hanging on their goal line. Diego Costa was quicker, and the sides were level once again.

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Sergio Ramos (right) blocks a shot from Gonçalo Guedes. Ramos came in the game under fire after becoming a key part of the controversy surrounding Julen Lopetegui, but he managed to put in a strong performance in defence.

An attempted Spanish foray into the Portuguese box came to nothing, cleared into some vacant space outside the area. Spain had not let up after their equaliser, and barely three minutes later they were surging forward again. Now, right-back Nacho was streaming forward at pace. He had spied the ball that was slowly bouncing away from the Portuguese goal, and he was the first to get there. On the pristine turf of Fisht Stadium, the ball bounced truly as Nacho attempted a first-time shot from range. It was unstoppable, slamming into the inside of the left goalpost and ricocheting across the goal line to career into the other post. The only question was which way the ball would rebound, and whether Nacho would be cruelly denied as Isco was at the height of the first half’s action. He wasn’t. After bouncing off both posts it rolled safely into the back of the net. Thanks to Nacho’s wonder strike, Spain had the lead with half an hour left to play. They just needed their experience to see them through.

Ronaldo was fouled on the edge of the box. With two minutes left, the scoreboard still read 3-2 in the favour of the Spaniards. With a late lead, they were passing the ball around as calmly as ever, and they were continuing to evade an increasingly desperate Portuguese press hell-bent on taking the ball from them. For most of the second half, Ronaldo had been a frustrated figure up front, letting his anger show and struggling to make an impact. Now, the captain was preparing to take a free-kick within easy scoring range. Raphaël Guerreiro was also standing next to the ball in seeming readiness to take the kick, but it was obvious that Ronaldo was the man who would shoulder the responsibility. There was no way he would give up such a crucial opportunity. He languidly stepped up to take the kick, showing no sign of pressure or nervousness. Then, with seemingly no effort, he lifted the ball over the wall into the top corner. De Gea didn’t bother to move. There was nothing he could have done. Ronaldo had a hat-trick, Portugal had equalised at the end of a riveting contest, and the Spanish fell just short of a dream start to their World Cup campaign.

For Spain, the result will be a disappointment, but they will take solace from their resilience in coming from behind after all of the off-field drama surrounding the team. For Portugal, a draw with the Spanish is a great way to start the tournament, and Ronaldo’s form will be an added positive to take from the match. For everyone else, the game was a pulsating, high-pressure contest with plenty of goals, plenty of drama and plenty of tension. When this tournament is over, this match may well be remembered as a classic, and if it’s a sign of things to come this World Cup will be a very exciting show.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Portugal 3 (Ronaldo 4 pen, 44, 88)
Spain 3 (Diego Costa 24, 55, Nacho 58)
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Ita)
Portugal (4-2-3-1): Rui Patricio – Cédric, Pepe, Fonte, Raphaël Guerreiro; Moutinho, William Carvalho; Bernardo Silva (Quaresma 69), Guedes (André Silva 80), Bruno Fernandes (João Mário 68); Ronaldo.
Spain (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Nacho, Piqué, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Sergio Busquets, Koke; Silva (Lucas Vázquez 86), Isco, Iniesta (Thiago 70); Diego Costa (Iago Aspas 77).

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Diego Costa (right) leads Pepe to the ball. Costa and Pepe had a running battle going all night, with Costa finishing with two goals.

Top 5
1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Ronaldo was head-and-shoulders above the rest of his teammates, scoring all three of Portugal’s goals and creating plenty of other chances while dropping back into midfield. His game-tying free-kick under pressure was remarkable, and he showed that he has come to play at this World Cup. With the confidence coming from a hat-trick under his belt, he will be a force to be reckoned with.
2. Diego Costa (Spain)
Costa scored two equalisers for the Spanish, firstly beating out three defenders to score into the bottom corner and then positioning himself well to slam the ball home from a metre out. He excelled in getting himself into dangerous spots and finding space, and he was a constant goal threat before his substitution late in the game. If he can keep this form up Spain will be much tougher to face.
3. Isco (Spain)
Isco orchestrated most of Spain’s play from attacking midfield, forming a graceful and effective combination with Silva and Iniesta and showing a zest in attack that his more experienced teammates couldn’t quite provide. He was remarkably unlucky not to score when his shot from the edge of the box bounced out off the underside of the bar, and he looks ready to make an impact.
4. David Silva (Spain)
Silva provided the delivery for Costa’s second goal, and showed his class in combining well with the rest of the midfield. He managed to work into dangerous positions, and he was as sharp as ever on the ball. With his expert touch and scarily effective combination with his teammates in attacking midfield Silva caused plenty of problems for the Portuguese.
5. William Carvalho (Portugal)
William is the unsung hero of Portugal’s team, providing a steadying hand in the middle of the park and doing good work supporting the defence. He was in good form again against the Spanish, always finding himself in the right spot and winning plenty of the ball as a result. He was nowhere near their most flashy player, but he did his job well.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group B

Group B

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Portugal (4), Spain (10), Morocco (41), Iran (37)
Fixtures:
Morocco vs Iran, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
Portugal vs Spain, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
Portugal vs Morocco, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Iran vs Spain, Kazan Arena, Kazan
Iran vs Portugal, Mordovia Arena, Saransk
Spain vs Morocco, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad

Portugal

Head Coach: Fernando Santos
Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo
Previous Appearances: 6 (1966, 1986, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Third Place (1966)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Cristiano Ronaldo (15)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Rui Patricio (Sporting), 12. Anthony Lopes (Lyon), 22. Beto (Göztepe).
Defenders: 2. Bruno Alves (Rangers), 3. Pepe (Beşiktaş), 5. Raphaël Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund), 6. José Fonte (Dalian Yifang), 13. Rúben Dias (Benfica), 15. Ricardo Pereira (Porto), 19. Mário Rui (Napoli), 21. Cédric (Southampton).
Midfielders: 4. Manuel Fernandes (Lokomotiv Moscow), 8. João Moutinho (Monaco), 10. João Mário (West Ham United), 14. William Carvalho (Sporting), 16. Bruno Fernandes (Sporting), 23. Adrien Silva (Leicester City).
Forwards: 7. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), 9. André Silva (Milan), 11. Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), 17. Gonçalo Guedes (Valencia), 18. Gelson Martins (Sporting), 20. Ricardo Quaresma (Beşiktaş).

Portugal only sealed their spot in Russia on the final day of qualifying, beating Switzerland 2-0 and leapfrogging them to take out first place in the group. Portugal’s nine-match qualifying win streak (after losing their first game) came on the back of victory at Euro 2016, their biggest footballing achievement. The defensive solidity they showed in winning the Euros was a change from Portuguese teams of years gone by, and in Cristiano Ronaldo they can rely on a striker who knows how to find the back of the net. Since their triumph at Euro 2016, Ronaldo has been joined up front by young star André Silva, and the pair’s combined 24 goals in qualifying should sound a warning to opponents at the World Cup. Around the ground, the core group of players who won the Euros are mostly intact. João Mário, William Carvalho and Adrien Silva are versatile midfield options who will combine well, and newcomers Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva are both talented players. Pepe will lead a defence that conceded just four goals in qualifying, and Portugal can rely on his experience and quality in Russia. In goal, Rui Patricio is one of the best in the business, making Portugal a very tough team to beat.

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Cristiano Ronaldo lifts the trophy as Portugal celebrate their victory at Euro 2016. Portugal had not won a major tournament before the Euros, despite a number of near-misses.

The Euro 2016 victory, however, cannot obscure some of the issues with the Portuguese team. When Ronaldo isn’t playing well Portugal tend to lose, and this over-reliance on him could prove problematic against top-level sides. Ronaldo and André Silva may have been dominant in qualifying, but a dearth of quality back-up options meant that just 8 goals were scored by their teammates. There is also a lack of quality providers within the side, especially with veteran Ricardo Quaresma being deployed as an impact player off the bench. The defence is basically the same as it was at Euro 2016, but centre-backs Pepe (35), Bruno Alves (36) and José Fonte (34) are all two years older and past their respective primes. With left-back Raphaël Guerreiro struggling to get on the pitch due to injuries and other key players in João Mário and Adrien Silva coming off poor individual seasons, the Portuguese are not as strong as they were two years ago and could be vulnerable.

Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo is arguably the best player in world football right now, and his record for both club and country is exemplary. He is a five time winner of the Ballon d’Or, and his ability to find the back of the net is almost unparalleled. He is fast and skilful, and his ability to score in the air was shown by his remarkable bicycle kick goal in the Champions League against Juventus. He has provided Portugal with a reliable outlet for years, and he is likely to continue in Russia.

Key Player: Pepe

Ronaldo is the undisputed star of the Portuguese team, but Pepe is arguably just as important. The combative centre-back has collected 91 caps since making his debut in 2007, and was one of Portugal’s best performers as they won the Euros. He will reprise his role as the anchor of the defence in Russia, and his performances will play a big role in dictating Portugal’s finish.

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Cristiano Ronaldo (right) and André Silva celebrate after Ronaldo’s goal against Andorra during qualifying. Ronaldo and Silva formed a devastating partnership in the qualifiers, netting 24 goals between them.

One to watch: André Silva

Silva made his international debut in Portugal’s first match after Euro 2016 (an insignificant friendly against Gibraltar), and it didn’t take him long to strike up a formidable partnership with Ronaldo. He has since moved to Milan, and after a poor first season with the Italian giants he will be looking to showcase his immense talent with some strong performances in Russia. He has the skills to make a huge mark.

Verdict

Fernando Santos has instilled some solidity into his charges, and with Ronaldo and Silva at one end and Pepe and Patricio at the other Portugal will be a very tough customer. They could win it all, if the rest of their team steps up.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Rui Patricio; Cédric, Pepe, Bruno Alves, Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva, William Carvalho, Adrien Silva, João Mário; André Silva, Ronaldo.

Spain

Head Coach: Julen Lopetegui
Captain: Sergio Ramos
Previous Appearances: 14 (1934, 1950, 1962, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (2010)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group G
Qualification Top Scorer: Diego Costa, Isco, Álvaro Morata, David Silva (5)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. David de Gea (Manchester United), 13. Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao), 23. Pepe Reina (Napoli).
Defenders: 2. Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid), 3. Gerard Piqué (Barcelona), 4. Nacho (Real Madrid), 12. Álvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad), 14. César Azpilicueta (Chelsea), 15. Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), 16. Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), 18. Jordi Alba (Barcelona).
Midfielders: 5. Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), 6. Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona), 7. Saúl Ñiguez (Atlético Madrid), 8. Koke (Atlético Madrid), 10. Thiago (Bayern Munich), 20. Marco Asensio (Real Madrid), 21. David Silva (Manchester City), 22. Isco (Real Madrid).
Forwards: 9. Rodrigo (Valencia), 11. Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo), 17. Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid), 19. Diego Costa (Atlético Madrid).

After a disastrous performance at the last World Cup and an underwhelming effort at Euro 2016, there’s a lot to like about this Spanish side heading into the World Cup. New coach Julen Lopetegui led his side through a flawless qualifying campaign, and their previously ageing core has been rejuvenated with some fresh talent. In goal, David de Gea has been solid as a rock, conceding just 3 times in qualifying. He will be well protected by the experienced defensive pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué, while full-backs Jordi Alba and Dani Carvajal are capable in both attack and defence. Spain’s real strength, however, comes from a midfield that oozes quality. Andrés Iniesta is a legend of the game, and although this is almost certainly his last World Cup he is still capable of performing at the highest level. Alongside Iniesta, Lopetegui can call on quality creators in Koke, David Silva and Isco, and Sergio Busquets is a holding midfielder who can tie any side together. Spain’s silky smooth passing is likely to be a feature of their play, and it should make them a formidable opponent.

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Isco scores from a free kick in a World Cup qualifier against Italy. Isco was one of Spain’s equal top-scorers during qualifying, and knows how to find the back of the net from midfield.

On the flip side, the Spanish are still plagued by their lack of a genuine target up front, which can make it difficult for them to translate their possession into goals. All of their midfielders are capable of finding their way onto the scoresheet, which is a bonus, but no player scored more than five goals in qualifying and it’s not clear who they will look to when in desperate need of a goal. Diego Costa is likely to get the first run, and Iago Aspas, Rodrigo and young gun Marco Asensio provide options, but none of them are proven goal-scorers at international level, a fact which could prove problematic. The Spanish are favoured to go a long way in Russia, but the same thing has been said at their last two major tournaments, and they have underwhelmed with little explanation why. If they are to make a deep run, Lopetegui will need to get his side performing at their peak.

Star Player: David de Gea

There are any number of very good midfielders who could fill this space, but de Gea is a more integral part of Spain’s team. He has been named in the Premier League’s Team of the Year five times in the last six seasons, and he holds a very strong claim to the title of best goalkeeper in the world. His ability to pull off extraordinary saves and keep out the best in the world will give Spain plenty of confidence.

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Sergio Ramos attempts to control the ball during Euro 2016. Ramos is not the prettiest player going around, but he is a very effective defender who has enjoyed plenty of success.

Key Player: Sergio Ramos

Ramos is not a particularly pretty footballer. He is a very physical defender who often dives for free kicks and has been in hot water for a number of incidents. Basically, he is the antithesis of Spain’s beautiful possession game. He is, however, the counterpoint Spain need, marshalling the defence and occasionally popping up to score big goals in big games. He knows how to stand up in big moments, and importantly for Spain, he knows how to win.

One to watch: Marco Asensio

Asensio has the potential to become one of the world’s best, and at just 22 his best years are still ahead of him. He has established himself as an impact player within the Real Madrid set-up, and is likely to be used in the same capacity in Russia. His versatility means he may well be called upon to solve Spain’s problems in attack, and he is a quality player who will be exciting to watch.

Verdict

Spain’s side looks unstoppable on paper, but the pressure of a World Cup is another thing entirely. It’s hard to see how they will fail to progress from the group stage, and they look like they can go a long way.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Carvajal, Ramos, Piqué, Alba; Busquets, Koke; David Silva, Isco, Iniesta; Diego Costa.

Morocco

Head Coach: Hervé Renard
Captain: Medhi Benatia
Previous Appearances: 4 (1970, 1986, 1994, 1998)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1986)
Qualified: CAF, 1st Group C
Qualification Top Scorer: Khalid Boutaïb (4)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Yassine Bounou (Girona), 12. Munir Mohamedi (Numancia), 22. Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti (IR Tanger).
Defenders: 2. Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid), 3. Hamza Mendyl (Lille), 4. Manuel da Costa (İstanbul Başakşehir), 5. Medhi Benatia (Juventus), 6. Romain Saïss (Wolverhampton Wanderers), 17. Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahçe).
Midfielders: 7. Hakim Ziyech (Ajax), 8. Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), 10. Younès Belhanda (Galatasaray), 11. Fayçal Fajr (Getafe), 14. Mbark Boussoufa (Al-Jazira), 15. Youssef Aït Bennasser (Caen), 16. Nordin Amrabat (Leganés), 18. Amine Harit (Schalke), 21. Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord), 23. Mehdi Carcela-González (Standard Liège).
Forwards: 9. Ayoub El Kaabi (RS Berkane), 13. Khalid Boutaïb (Yeni Malatyaspor), 19. Youssef En-Nesyri (Málaga), 20. Aziz Bouhaddouz (St Pauli).

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Hervé Renard congratulates experienced midfielder Karim El Ahmadi during a friendly against the Netherlands. Renard has transformed the Atlas Lions since taking over in 2016, having previously enjoyed success with Zambia and the Côte d’Ivoire.

Morocco’s first World Cup qualification since 1998 was based on a stellar defensive record (they conceded no goals in the final group stage) and a 2-0 final day win to qualify at the expense of the Côte d’Ivoire. Hervé Renard is a highly-respected coach who has helped a previously faltering team unearth its potential, and Morocco have the defensive steel required to spring an upset. Romain Saïss’ move from the midfield into central defence has allowed him to form an excellent partnership with Juventus’ Medhi Benatia, and Real Madrid young gun Achraf Hakimi has the ability to play on either side of the defence as required. In Karim El Ahmadi and Mbark Boussoufa, Renard has a pair of experienced and skilled central midfielders. Younès Belhanda, Fayçal Fajr, Nordin Amrabat and Sofyan Amrabat can all complement the creative abilities of Hakim Ziyech to provide plenty of chances. Ziyech has the potential to be a big surprise packet in Russia, and his quality is undisputed.

Morocco’s biggest problems come from the draw which placed them alongside European powerhouses Spain and Portugal. As good as their team spirit may be, their players are no match for some of their opponents, and they could find their issues exposed. First-choice goalkeeper Munir Mohamedi played just one game for second-tier Spanish side Numancia over the course of this season, and he could struggle given his lack of game time. They may struggle for goals given the lack of a top-quality target, although Khalid Boutaïb has found some form in recent times. Their experienced players in defence and midfield are a strength, but many key players are past their primes. Against more skilful opponents Renard’s men may find it difficult to keep control of the ball, and if they are playing with their backs to the wall they may find it tough. All of this will combine to ensure the Atlas Lions will be in for a very tough fight as they look to beat the odds in Russia.

Star Player: Hakim Ziyech

Ziyech could have been a Dutch representative instead of a Moroccan one, and Renard will be counting his lucky stars that he inherited a squad with the talented playmaker. Ziyech can play anywhere behind the sole striker, and he is a technically skilled player who can create chances and find the back of the net himself. He has been one of the best players in the Dutch league for some time, and will be a key part of Morocco’s campaign.

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Hakim Ziyech takes on an opponent during an African Cup of Nations qualifier against São Tomé and Príncipe. Ziyech will be a key part of Morocco’s plans at the World Cup. 

Key Player: Medhi Benatia

Benatia is Morocco’s most experienced defender, having played for European giants Bayern Munich and Juventus among others. This experience playing with and against the world’s best will be invaluable for Renard’s side, and Benatia’s leadership and quality defensive work will be incredibly important if the Atlas Lions are going to make it out of a tough group.

One to watch: Achraf Hakimi

Hakimi is a versatile full-back who will be looking to make his mark coming off a promising campaign with Real Madrid. He is likely to play right-back for the Atlas Lions in Russia, but the 19-year-old is equally capable on the left and can make an impact going forward. He is one of Morocco’s biggest talents, and his experiences playing with the world’s best should serve him well.

Verdict

It would take a miracle for Morocco to progress past the group stage, but Renard’s determined unit cannot be underestimated and could be a tough opponent. If they get through they could do some damage.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Munir Mohamedi; Hakimi, Benatia, Saïss, Mendyl; El Ahmadi, Boussoufa; N Amrabat, Belhanda, Ziyech; Boutaïb.

Iran

Head Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Captain: Masoud Shojaei
Previous Appearances: 4 (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014)
Qualified: AFC, 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Sardar Azmoun (11)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis), 12. Mohammad Rashid Mazahedi (Zob Ahan), 22. Amir Abedzadeh (Marítimo).
Defenders: 4. Rouzbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal), 5. Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny), 8. Morteza Pouraliganji (Al-Sadd), 13. Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), 15. Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), 19. Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), 23. Ramin Rezaeian (Oostende).
Midfielders: 2. Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), 3. Ehsan Hajsafi (Olympiacos), 6. Saeid Ezatolahi (Amkar Perm), 7. Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens), 9. Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), 11. Vahid Amiri (Persepolis), 21. Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest).
Forwards: 10. Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos), 14. Saman Ghoddos (Östersund), 16. Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen), 17. Mehdi Taremi (Al-Gharafa), 18. Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ), 20. Sardar Azmoun (Rostov).

If they hadn’t been drawn into a group with Portugal and Spain, the Iranians would go into this tournament feeling confident. As it stands, Iran are not likely to make it to the knockout stages for the first time in their history, but they will field a strong side. The Iranians built their comfortable qualification around defensive frugality, conceding just twice in the final stage of Asian qualifying. It is their attack, however, which has seen the most improvement since their failed World Cup campaign four years ago. Alireza Jahanbakhsh was the leading goal-scorer in the Netherlands this season, and Sardar Azmoun has regularly found the back of the net in national colours. Saman Ghoddos, Mehdi Taremi and Karim Ansarifard have all enjoyed stellar seasons, but such is Iran’s attacking depth that at least one of them will miss out on a spot in the starting line-up. Down back, Carlos Queiroz can call on some quality defenders, and goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand is a solid presence. Iran have plenty of experience, which should serve them well.

Embed from Getty Images

Morteza Pouraliganji chases the ball during Iran’s World Cup qualifying match against South Korea. Pouraliganji was a key part of Iran’s solid defence in qualifying.

Unfortunately for Queiroz, Iran’s tough draw makes progress from the group stage unlikely. The teams they will face in Russia are a big step up from the teams they comfortably saw off in qualifying, and their disciplined defence will face a much sterner test. That they will be facing it without the experience of Jalal Hosseini, who failed to make the cut, only makes their task harder. Iran’s attack has improved in both depth and quality, but for all their talent they only managed 10 goals in the final 10 games of qualifying. Azmoun is the only member of the side who has regularly performed at an international level, and Queiroz will be relying on Jahanbakhsh and others to fulfil their potential for their country. The midfield is not as strong as it could be, especially with an injury to Ali Karimi, and the Iranians will need to be careful to avoid being dominated in the middle of the park.

Star Player: Sardar Azmoun

Jahanbakhsh could be considered the star after his breakout season in Europe, but Azmoun’s performances for Iran since making his debut in 2014 have placed him at the forefront of the national team’s success. He has aerial ability and skill, and in his brief forays into the Champions League with Rostov he matched up well against top-level competition. He is a class player, and Iran will hope he can show it.

Embed from Getty Images

Alireza Jahanbakhsh (left), Sardar Azmoun (centre) and Mehdi Taremi celebrate after Taremi’s qualifying goal against Qatar. The three forwards are just some of the attacking options Iran have at their disposal, and Azmoun and Jahanbakhsh’s input will be especially important.

Key Player: Ashkan Dejagah

Iran have plenty of attacking weapons at their disposal, but such talent is meaningless if they get no supply. That’s where Dejagah, an experienced player who has featured in the Bundesliga and the Premier League, steps in. He has been hampered by injuries in the last couple of seasons, but if Iran are to progress he will need to create plenty of opportunities from the space behind Azmoun.

One to watch: Saman Ghoddos

Ghoddos was born and raised in Sweden, and even made his international debut for the Swedish national team before deciding to play for Iran. He has plenty of talent and skill, and attracted the attention of a number of English clubs with a brilliant performance against Arsenal in the Europa League knockouts. Facing the best after the anonymity of the Swedish league will be a challenge, but he could make an impact.

Verdict

Iran have gained some quality attacking talent, but they will need to turn that into goals against tough opposition if they are to progress. It’s an uphill battle for Queiroz, and his side will need to play out of their skin.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Beiranvand; Rezaiean, Montazeri, Pouraliganji, Mohammadi; Hajsafi, Shojaei; Jahanbakhsh, Dejagah, Ghoddos; Azmoun.

Prediction

This group seems open-and-shut: the Spanish and the Portuguese simply have too much quality for Morocco and Iran. That may well be the case, but games within the group, such as the hotly-anticipated clash between Iberian rivals Portugal and Spain, could be very competitive Furthermore, it would not be beyond either the Moroccans or the Iranians to pinch a couple of points and make things very interesting. Portugal seem especially vulnerable heading into Russia, and a well-organised team (as all in this group are) could just sneak past them.
1. Spain, 2. Portugal, 3. Morocco, 4. Iran

Portugal outclass directionless Wales

Cristiano Ronaldo rose over Neil Taylor to meet Joao Mario’s looping cross. The ball had come in high, passing over most of the bodies who had amassed in the box and leaving Ronaldo with a perfect match-up at the back post. The Portuguese star had already played a strong game, but he was about to leave his mark on the match. His header into the top corner was just the beginning, and it kicked off a short period which booked Portugal’s spot in the final of Euro 2016.

Over the course of a few minutes Ronaldo transformed the semi-final between Portugal and Wales from an enticing contest into a foregone conclusion. The Portuguese captain scored and provided an assist to put the Welsh two goals down and out of contention. They recovered from a group stage defeat against England, and they recovered after going behind against Belgium, but they would not recover from this. It was over.

Ronaldo’s goal put all the pressure back on the Welsh, and minutes later he provided the sucker punch. This time Ronaldo was the creator, even if he did not intend to be. The Portuguese moved forward in numbers as they looked to counter-attack, and Ronaldo found himself in a good position to shoot. The effort was straight at Wayne Hennessey, but Nani was there and he deflected the shot past the Welsh keeper into the back of the net. The ball rolled over the line, and with it went Wales’ hopes of playing in their first ever major tournament final.

In truth, the Welsh were playing from behind right from the word go due to the unfair suspension of Aaron Ramsey, the player who linked everything together for them. Joe Allen looked lost, Ashley Williams had no-one to pass to and Gareth Bale seemed to be responsible for both setting up goals and scoring them. Unsurprisingly, he couldn’t do both at the same time.

Portugal were on top from the start, but the Welsh were well organised defensively and were not letting anything through. James Collins had Ronaldo covered, and Bale looked more dangerous than the Portuguese despite his relative lack of possession. He looked quick, explosive and powerful. He looked too good for Portugal. He looked too good for anyone. If only he had more of the ball.

The first half passed without too much action, with Bale providing most of the exciting moments. He provided the highlight of the half when he ran 70 metres down the right wing with an explosive burst of pace, but it came to nothing when his shot was drilled at Rui Patricio, who made the easy save. Then the second half began with Portugal’s rapid-fire goals, and the game was all but over.

Bale was working harder than anyone else on the pitch, but he couldn’t do it. He challenged Patricio with powerful long shots and created some great chances which he himself would have converted. He was good enough to penetrate the Portuguese defence, but Sam Vokes and Simon Church were not and he was needed elsewhere. The game trundled on towards its inevitable conclusion until Jonas Eriksson blew his whistle to signal a thoroughly deserved win for the Portuguese. They were more organised, more skilful and more composed, and they have a great chance of winning Euro 2016.

Lyon – Parc Olympique Lyonnais
Portugal 2 (Ronaldo 50, Nani 53)
Wales 0
Referee: Jonas Eriksson (Swe)

Portugal (4-1-3-2): Rui Patricio – Cedric, Bruno Alves, Jose Fonte, Raphael Guerreiro; Danilo; Joao Mario, Renato Sanches (Andre Gomes 74), Adrien Silva (Joao Moutinho 79); Nani (Quaresma 86), Ronaldo.
Wales (5-3-2): Hennessey – Gunter, Chester, Collins (J Williams 66), A Williams, Taylor; Allen, Ledley (Vokes 58), King; Robson-Kanu (Church 63), Bale.

Top 5
1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Ronaldo had an excellent game up front, getting himself involved in the action and looking dangerous throughout. The Portuguese captain scored one goal and set up the other, and was the best player on the ground. He was at the top of his game and will be a massive threat in the final.
2. Gareth Bale (Wales)
Bale worked very hard up front and caused plenty of problems for the Portuguese with his mobility and explosive pace. He never gave up and was still a threat when the final whistle blew. He had an excellent game and can hold his head high.
3. Joao Mario (Portugal)
Mario was poor against Croatia and Poland but he was back at his best against Wales. He was clinical in his ball use and he made plenty of dangerous runs. He assisted Ronaldo’s goal and was continually getting into dangerous positions in attack, nearly scoring on a couple of occasions.
4. James Collins (Wales)
Collins was responsible for shutting down Ronaldo early on, and he did a fairly good job. He was never beaten in the air and he was able to shut down plenty of Portuguese attacks. He was substituted in the second half as Wales looked to come back, but he played well and can take some comfort from his performance.
5. Nani (Portugal)
Nani scored Portugal’s second goal with a clever deflection, and he complemented Ronaldo well in attack. He caused plenty of issues for the Welsh with his pace and ability to get into dangerous positions, and he was one of the best players on the field.

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview – Group F

Group F

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Portugal (8), Iceland (34), Austria (10), Hungary (20)
Fixtures:
Austria vs Hungary, Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux
Portugal vs Iceland, Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Etienne
Iceland vs Hungary, Stade Velodrome, Marseille
Portugal vs Austria, Parc des Princes, Paris
Iceland vs Austria, Stade de France, Saint-Denis
Hungary vs Portugal, Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon

Portugal

Head Coach: Fernando Santos
Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo
Previous Appearances: 6 (1984, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Runners-up (2004)
Qualified: 1st Group I
UEFA Euro 2012: Semi-finals

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Rui Patricio (Sporting), 12. Anthony Lopes (Lyon), 22. Eduardo (Dinamo Zagreb).
Defenders:
2. Bruno Alves (Fenerbahce), 3. Pepe (Real Madrid), 4. Jose Fonte (Southampton), 5. Raphael Guerreiro (Lorient), 6. Ricardo Carvalho (Monaco), 11. Vierinha (Wolfsburg), 19. Eliseu (Benfica), 21. Cedric (Southampton).
Midfielders:
8. Joao Moutinho (Monaco), 10. Joao Mario (Sporting), 13. Danilo Pereira (Porto), 14. William Carvalho (Sporting), 15. Andre Gomes (Valencia), 16. Renato Sanches (Benfica), 23. Adrien Silva (Sporting).
Forwards:
7. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), 9. Eder (Lille), 17. Nani (Fenerbahce), 18. Rafa Silva (Braga), 20. Ricardo Quaresma (Besiktas).

Form Guide

Portugal had a shaky start to their qualifying campaign, losing their first game to Albania and requiring a 95th minute winner from Cristiano Ronaldo to defeat Denmark in their second. The rest of their campaign consisted of one narrow win after another, and while they won their final seven games to qualify comfortably in first they did not set the world alight.

Strengths

Ronaldo is arguably the best player in the world, and he will lead the Portuguese attack at the final tournament. He has plenty of experience, and his scoring record at both domestic and international level is nothing short of extraordinary. Pepe, Bruno Alves and Ricardo Carvalho provide invaluable experience down back, and Ronaldo will be ably supported up front by Eder, Nani and Ricardo Quaresma. Joao Moutinho provides plenty of experience in the centre of midfield, and he will be complemented by plenty of exciting young talent.

Weaknesses

There is a major lack of experience in the middle of the park, with Moutinho the only player in the centre of the park with more than 20 caps worth of experience. William Carvalho, Danilo Pereira, Andre Gomes and eighteen year-old Renato Sanches are all incredibly promising, but most of them are confined to the lower quality Portuguese league and do not have any real big game experience. There is a general dependence on Ronaldo for goals that could prove costly, and if he is shut down they will struggle at the finals.

Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo is arguably the greatest Portuguese player of all time, and while he still has plenty of time left in his career he already has three Champions League titles to his name, as well as having earned plenty of individual awards. He has scored more Champions League goals than any other player, and he will receive more attention than any other player at the finals.

Key Player: Joao Moutinho

Moutinho is the old hand in a very inexperienced midfield, and he will need to call upon his vast experience playing for Portugal, Sporting, Porto and Monaco. He will be relied upon to create plenty of chances for the forwards, and he will be needed to calm the nerves of a young midfield on the big stage. If he can’t there could be some serious issues.

Verdict

The Portuguese are a strong side, and Ronaldo is good enough to take them very far in this tournament. The dependence on Ronaldo is an issue, and there is a general lack of experience throughout the squad, but Portugal are a strong side and have the potential to do very well at this tournament.

Iceland

Head Coach: Lars Lagerback and Heimir Halgrimsson
Captain: Aron Gunnarsson
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: 2nd Group A
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Hannes Halldorsson (Bodo/Glimt), 12. Ogmundur Kristinsson (Hammarby), 13. Ingvar Jonsson (Sandefjord).
Defenders: 2. Birkir Saevarsson (Hammarby), 3. Haukur Heidar Hauksson (AIK), 4. Hjortur Hermannsson (PSV Eindhoven), 5. Sverrir Ingason (Lokeren), 6. Ragnar Sigurdsson (Krasnodar), 14. Kari Arnason (Malmo), 19. Hordur Magnusson (Cesena), 23. Ari Skulason (OB).
Midfielders: 7. Johann Gudmundsson (Charlton Athletic), 8. Birkir Bjarnason (Basel), 10. Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea City), 16. Runar Mar Sigurjonsson (Sundsvall), 17. Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff City), 18. Theodor Elmar Bjarnason (AGF), 20. Emil Hallfredsson (Udinese), 21. Arnor Ingvi Traustason (Norrkoping).
Forwards: 9. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (Nantes), 11. Alfred Finnbogason (Augsburg), 15. Jon Dadi Bodvarsson (Kaiserslauten), 22. Eidur Gudjohnsen (Molde).

Form Guide

Iceland came into qualification as outsiders, but they started with a confident 3-0 victory against the Turks and never looked back. They comfortably defeated the Dutch 2-0, with Gylfi Sigurdsson scoring twice, and they had sealed qualification after eight games. Sigurdsson netted six times during the campaign, and as a team they only conceded six goals.

Strengths

The midfield combination of Sigudsson, Aron Gunnarsson, Johan Gudmundsson, Emil Hallfredsson and Birkir Bjarnason is strong, and it contains a great balance of attacking flair and defensive solidity. The defence itself was very frugal throughout qualifying, and with the experience of Kari Arnason, Ragnar Sigurdsson and Ari Skulason they should be able to get the job done. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson has played at a very high level, and he should form a great combination with Alfred Finnbogason up front.

Weaknesses

Iceland have never reached the group stages of a major tournament before, and the first match against Portugal could be a massive wake-up call. Most of the squad play in the relatively weak Scandinavian leagues, and while Gylfi Sigurdsson, Gunnarsson and Gudmundsson are all playing in England only one of them (Sigurdsson) is playing in the Premier League. Iceland have a strong side on paper, but many of their players have not played on this big a stage before, and this could have a huge impact on performances.

Star Player: Gylfi Sigurdsson

Sigurdsson has played in the Premier League and the Bundesliga, and he has played Europa League with Tottenham Hotspur. He is Iceland’s only true world-class player, and they will need him to step up if they are going to succeed. He is an attacking midfielder with plenty of goal-scoring ability, and after a great qualifying campaign he will look to star again.

Key Player: Aron Gunnarsson

Gunnarsson has plenty of international experience, with 57 caps, and his on-field leadership will be key. He has been a key player at Cardiff City for a long time, and will be needed as much for his calming influence in defence as for his contributions to attack. He is the key to Iceland’s midfield, and if he is unable to fire there will be issues.

Verdict

Iceland have a fairly strong side, but they lack a lot of big game experience. They played very well in qualifying, and they will try hard, but the pressure of a major tournament could get to them. With no real expectations Iceland have nothing to lose, and the presence of Gylfi Sigurdsson in attack could well be a game-changer. If they play like they did in qualifying, they will be very dangerous.

Austria

Head Coach: Marcel Koller
Captain: Christian Fuchs
Previous Appearances: 1 (2008)
Best Finish: Group Stage (2008)
Qualified: 1st Group G
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Robert Almer (Austria Wien), 12. Heinz Linder (Eintracht Frankfurt), 23. Ramazan Ozcan (Ingolstadt).
Defenders:
2. Gyorgy Garics (Darmstadt), 3. Aleksandar Dragovic (Dynamo Kyiv), 4. Martin Hinteregger (Borussia Monchengladbach), 5. Christian Fuchs (Leicester City), 13. Markus Suttner (Ingolstadt), 15. Sebastian Prodl (Watford), 16. Kevin Wimmer (Tottenham Hotspur), 17. Florian Klein (Stuttgart).
Midfielders:
6. Stefan Ilsanker (Leipzig), 8. David Alaba (Bayern Munchen), 10. Zlatko Junuzovic (Werder Bremen), 14. Julian Baumgartlinger (Mainz), 18. Alessandro Schopf (Schalke), 22. Jakob Jantscher (Luzern).
Forwards:
7. Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City), 9. Rubin Okotie (1860 Munchen), 11. Martin Harnik (Stuttgart), 19. Lukas Hinterseer (Ingolstadt), 20. Marcel Sabitzer (Leipzig), 21. Marc Janko (Basel).

Form Guide

Austria started their campaign with a 1-1 draw against Sweden, but they did not drop a point for the rest of the qualification process. They were not particularly dominant, but their defence was exceptionally solid and they continued to get the job done. Marcel Koller’s side fired on all cylinders in qualifying and they could have a huge impact at the finals.

Strengths

Austria were excellent in qualifying, scoring 22 goals and conceding just five. The defence of Aleksandar Dragovic, Christian Fuchs, Gyorgy Garics, Sebastian Prodl and Florian Klein is very strong, and will be backed up by a well-rounded side. David Alaba is a world-class player in midfield, and his combination with Zlatko Junuzovic, Marko Arnautovic, Martin Harnik and Julian Baumgartlinger in the middle will be very strong. Marc Janko had an excellent qualifying campaign up front, and the Austrians should not be short on goals.

Weaknesses

The Austrians did not concede many goals in qualification, but Robert Almer is not particularly experienced in goal and may struggle at the finals. Janko is a proven scorer up front, but Rubin Okotie and Lukas Hinterseer do not have much international experience, and neither has a strong scoring record at international level. This could prove a serious issue if one of them is needed to replace Janko late in a key match. Austria have come a long way since their fans petitioned UEFA to ban them from playing in their home tournament, but they could still be overwhelmed at the finals.

Star Player: David Alaba

Alaba is exceptionally versatile, and he has played centre back, left back and centre midfield for Bayern Munich. He netted four times in qualifying and his ability to hit the scoresheet will be valuable. He has plenty of experience in European competitions and he is Austria’s best player by a long way.

Key Player: Aleksandar Dragovic

Dragovic is still young, but he has plenty of experience at the top level and he will marshal the Austrian defence at the final tournament. He is reaching his prime, and Austria are relying on him playing well at the finals. If he is unable to fire then too much will slip through, and Austria will have no chance of success at the final tournament.

Verdict

Austria have an excellent side, and their performances in qualifying see them entering the tournament as one of the form teams. The midfield is filled with top class players and the defence is frugal, and while there is a general lack of depth up front Janko can provide the goals needed. Austria are a very strong side, and will be a very dangerous opponent.

Hungary

Head Coach: Bernd Storck
Captain: Balazs Dzsudzsak
Previous Appearances: 2 (1964, 1972)
Best Finish: Third Place (1964)
Qualified: 3rd Group F (defeated Norway in play-offs)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Gabor Kiraly (Haladas), 12. Denes Dibusz (Ferencvaros), 22. Peter Gulacsi (Leipzig).
Defenders:
2. Adam Lang (Videoton), 3. Mihaly Korhut (Debrecen), 4. Tamas Kadar (Lech Poznan), 5. Attila Fiola (Puskas Akademia), 16. Adam Pinter (Ferencvaros), 20. Richard Guzmics (Wisla Krakow), 21. Barnabas Bese (MTK), 23. Roland Juhasz (Videoton).
Midfielders:
6. Akos Elek (Diosgyor), 7. Balazs Dzsudzsak (Bursaspor), 8. Adam Nagy (Ferencvaros), 10. Zoltan Gera (Ferencvaros), 15. Laszlo Kleinheisler (Werder Bremen), 18. Zoltan Stieber (Nurnberg).
Forwards:
9. Adam Szalai (Hannover), 11. Krisztian Nemeth (Al-Gharafa), 13. Daniel Bode (Ferencvaros), 14. Gergo Lovrencsics (Lech Poznan), 17. Nemanja Nikolic (Legia Warsaw), 19. Tamas Priskin (Slovan Bratislava).

Form Guide

Hungary started their campaign poorly, losing to Northern Ireland and drawing with Romania, although they recovered fairly well. They came back with wins against the Faroe Islands and Finland, and if not for a last game loss against the Greeks they may have qualified automatically. As it stood, they were forced into the play-offs, where home and away victories against Norway were enough to progress.

Strengths

Hungary have plenty of experience, especially in the middle of the park. The experienced combination of Balazs Dzsudzsak and Zoltan Gera is a strong one, and they will be essential in ensuring that the rest of the team stays calm under the pressure of a major tournament. Tamas Priskin, Krisztian Nemeth and Adam Szalai are all excellent players in attack, and Szalai, who has plenty of Bundesliga experience, could provide a great showing at the finals. Hungary have plenty of options in the middle of the park, and could be tough to beat.

Weaknesses

Hungary’s defence is fairly inexperienced at the highest level, and the omission of Liverpool goalkeeper Adam Bogdan does not help. In the weakest group in qualifying their attack was unable to fire, and their final tally of 11 goals in 10 games is assisted greatly by a 4-3 loss to Greece in the last match. Hungary have not reached a level this high since the days of the Mighty Magyars, and while the side does not have any real expectations they will feel the pressure of the big stage and are unlikely to push for the round of 16.

Star Player: Balazs Dzsudzsak

Dzsudzsak is the captain of the side, and with 77 caps to his name he has plenty of experience. He has played at the highest level in the Netherlands, Russia and Turkey, and he has racked up 57 European appearances throughout his career. He is a quality player on the wing, and if he fires he will be very dangerous for opposition defences.

Key Player: Zoltan Gera

Gera may be 37, but he has plenty of experience and this will be key to the side’s success at the final tournament. He has played in a Europa League final and he is very versatile, being able to switch between attack and defence easily enough. The solidity and calmness he provides in the middle will be essential if Hungary are to succeed at the final tournament.

Verdict

Hungary have some very strong players in attack and in midfield, but that attack did not function at all in qualifying and is not necessarily going to do so against better opponents at the final tournament. There are no expectations, but the side is just not good enough to match it and will struggle to progress.

Prediction

This group could well be the tightest of all, and while Hungary are simply not up to scratch the matches between Portugal, Iceland and Austria will be great to watch. The Austrians are probably the most well-rounded side in this group, and it would be no real surprise for them to take down Portugal to finish first. Iceland could be strong, but a lack of experience could prove costly.
1. Austria, 2. Portugal, 3. Iceland, 4. Hungary.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group A

The world’s premier club football competition is back, the draw is set, and on September 15 it will kick off with teams from all around Europe. Over the next couple of weeks I will be looking at all the teams and groups in depth. Enjoy.

Paris Saint-Germain FC (France)

Manager: Laurent Blanc
Captain: Thiago Silva
Ground: Parc des Princes, Paris
Qualified: Ligue 1, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Semi-Finals (1994-95)
2014-15 Champions League: Quarter-Finals

Form Guide

PSG won their third straight league title last season, although they faced stiff competition after a slow start to the season, with Marseille and Lyon both enjoying extended periods at the top of the table. Despite this, they rallied late and took home the title by eight points over Lyon. In the Champions League they made it through to the round of 16 comfortably, and after knocking out Chelsea they were comfortably beaten by eventual champions Barcelona.

Strengths

As with any side blessed with near-unlimited transfer funds, PSG have got a stacked side. Mercurial Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the frontline act, having scored 75 goals in 92 league games since joining in 2012. Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lucas, Angel Di Maria and Javier Pastore provide more than adequate support, and the midfield group of Blaise Matuidi, Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta provides solidity. Kevin Trapp has seemingly upstaged Salvatore Sirigu as first choice goalkeeper, and this must be encouraging given the ability of the latter. Down back, Thiago Silva and David Luiz are both stars, and formed the backbone of the Brazilian side at the World Cup.

Weaknesses

The side may have taken vast amounts of money to compile, but questions remain about the defence. The fullbacks are not particularly strong, especially when compared to the stars in the rest of the team, and questions must be raised about Luiz, who struggled defensively against Barcelona in last season’s quarter-final. Trapp, who is now the first choice goalkeeper, is still inexperienced in European competitions, and the French champions are a massive step up from Eintracht Frankfurt. While they should pass the group stage, they will be under pressure to succeed and pass the quarter-final stage, and this could rub off on the results of the team.

Star Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Ibrahimovic is one of the biggest characters in world football, and his European record is incredible. He has scored 46 times in 116 matches, and he has freakish athleticism and skill, meaning that he has scored some truly incredible goals. He has been very successful for PSG, finding the back of the net an incredible 106 times in just 126 matches for the French side.

Key Player: Blaise Matuidi

Matuidi has been a fixture of PSG’s side since 2011, playing 135 out of a possible 152 league matches. He is a very capable midfielder, and he provides a very important link between attack and defence. He is a strong runner and is able to get forward, but he is also very solid and PSG will be hoping that nothing gets past him.

Real Madrid CF (Spain)

Head Coach: Rafael Benitez
Captain: Sergio Ramos
Ground: Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid
Qualified: La Liga, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1955-56, 1956-57, 1957-58, 1958-59, 1959-60, 1965-66, 1997-98, 1999-2000, 2001-02, 2013-14)
2014-15 Champions League: Semi-Finals

Form Guide

Last season may have been considered a disappointment for Real Madrid, with bitter rivals Barcelona edging them out for the title and an away goals loss to Juventus knocking them out in the semi-finals. They sat in first for much of the season, but after Barcelona wrestled it from their grasp they did not give it back, holding on to clutch the title by 2 points. Carlo Ancelotti paid for his side’s inability to win a title with his job, and Rafael Benitez will hope to succeed.

Strengths

Real Madrid have incredible amounts of money to play around with, and they have built an elite squad. The current squad took 554 million euros to compile, and has three players who cost over 80 million. Just this transfer window alone they have spent 86.9 million euros on new acquisitions such as Danilo, Mateo Kovacic, and Kiko Casilla. On the park they are incredibly strong, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale forming what could be a great forward line. With James Rodriguez, Isco, Kovacic, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in midfield the side has immense quality. Down back, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Danilo, Dani Carvajal and Raphael Varane ensure nothing gets past them.

Weaknesses

While the side has plenty of stars all over the park, they have had some fairly big losses as well. Iker Casillas may have been slightly out of sorts, but he had massive experience, and while Keylor Navas acquitted himself well with Costa Rica in the World Cup he now has much more expectation on his shoulders than before. The losses of Asier Illarramendi and Sami Khedira leave the midfield slightly lacking in depth, and an injury to a couple of their centre midfielders could leave them in a bad position. Despite having 20 shots to 3 in their first league encounter with Sporting Gijon, they were not able to return a goal, a disappointing result given the quality of the opposition.

Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo

The most expensive player ever when he joined from Manchester United in 2009, he has been a revelation at Real. He has scored 225 times in 201 league games, and in 64 Champions League outings for Los Blancos he has netted 64 times, averaging a goal a game. Since joining Real he has scored more goals, and he is now the primary source for Spain’s biggest club.

Key Player: Toni Kroos

Kroos first played for Bayern Munich at the age of 17, and after winning the World Cup with Germany he was signed by Real. His first season saw him play 36 times, and he is likely to be just as much of a fixture this time around. He can play as a central or attacking midfielder, and he has a great free kick which sets up plenty of goals. He will be relied upon to create chances in midfield, and also from free kicks.

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)

Manager: Mircea Lucescu
Captain: Darijo Srna
Ground: Arena Lviv, Lviv
Qualified: Ukrainian Premier League, 2nd (defeated Fenerbahce SK and SK Rapid Wien in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Quarter-Finals (2010-11)
2014-15 Champions League: Round of 16

Form Guide

Shakhtar failed to take home the Ukrainian title for the first time since 2008-09, and consequently had to go through qualifying. Entering in the third qualifying round, they took on and beat Fenerbahce, before a 1-0 victory in Vienna against Rapid was enough to send them into the group stage. Last season the Ukrainians passed a group consisting of Porto, Athletic Bilbao and BATE Borisov, before a 7-0 defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich spelt the end of their campaign.

Strengths

Mircea Lucescu has built an impressive side, with a solid defence consisting of Darijo Srna, Oleksandr Kucher, Ivan Ordets, Yaroslav Rakitskyi and Vyacheslav Shevchuk,while Andriy Pyatov provides great back-up in goal. The side played impressively in qualifying, a 3-0 aggregate win over Fenerbahce the highlight, and will hope to continue that form. Marlos, Alex Teixeira, Bernard and Taison are all strong in attacking midfield, and Fred will combine well with Taras Stepanenko in behind the attack. Oleksandr Hladkiy is up front with support from Facundo Ferreyra, Dentinho and Eduardo.

Weaknesses

Shakhtar have not lost many players in this transfer window, but the ones they have lost will leave holes. Star striker Luiz Adriano has departed for Milan after playing in Donetsk since 2007, and he will be sorely missed, especially considering his 9 goals in last year’s Champions League. Hladkiy will be responsible for replacing him, and he will be under some pressure. The loss of Douglas Costa to Bayern is also a fairly big one, although they do have replacements in his position. The loss of Fernando to Sampdoria takes away some of the depth that they have in midfield. Despite this, big losses are nothing new for Lucescu and Shakhtar, and they should be able to cope.

Star Player: Alex Teixeira

Teixeira has started the Ukrainian season in stunning form, with 7 goals in his first 6 league outings. After a quiet start at Shakhtar, he is now vice-captain, and was the leading scorer in the Ukrainian Premier League last year, with 17 goals. This kind of form is exactly what Shakhtar are looking for, and if he can keep it up he will be a big threat.

Key Player: Oleksandr Hladkiy

With Luiz Adriano’s departure to Milan it is Hladkiy who will most likely need to fill the void left by his departure. While no goals in 6 games is not a great start, Teixeira has been providing enough, but he will need to improve if Shakhtar are to defy the odds and defeat PSG or Real in a very tough group. Two goals in qualifying is a start, but this form has to continue.

Malmo FF (Sweden)

Head Coach: Age Hareide
Captain: Markus Rosenberg
Ground: Swedbank Stadion, Malmo
Qualified: Allsvenskan, 1st (defeated FC Zalgiris Vilnius, FC Red Bull Salzburg and Celtic FC in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (1978-79)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage

Form Guide

After a fairly unsuccessful run in a tough group in last season’s Champions League, Malmo managed to defend their Swedish title, something that had not been done since 2003. As a result they went back into the qualification system, and they scraped through a seemingly simple tie with Zalgiris of Lithuania by a margin of 1-0. After going down 2-0 to Red Bull Salzburg they claimed a 3-0 victory in the second leg, and a similar thing happened against Celtic, a 2-0 win in Malmo enough to proceed.

Strengths

Malmo have a fairly strong squad headlined by Markus Rosenberg, who has experience playing in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and England. He leads the team, which also contains Johan Wiland in goal and internationals such as Rasmus Bengtsson, Yoshimar Yotun and Kari Arnason in defence. Former Ajax midfielder Tobias Sana is backed up by former Cardiff City players Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Jo Inge Berget, as well as Enoch Kofi Adu, Oscar Lewicki and Vladimir Rodic. Guillermo Molins and Nikola Djurdic provide support for Rosenberg up front, capping off a fairly strong set-up.

Weaknesses

Malmo are a strong side, but a lack of real competition and world-class players means that they will seriously struggle. They have produced great players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but the comparative standard of the Allsvenskan means that they cannot keep players and cannot attract stars either. When compared to the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid they stand no chance, and the group they have been drawn is tougher than the group they had last year, but this lack of expectation could prove helpful as the side has absolutely no pressure upon their shoulders.

Star Player: Markus Rosenberg

Rosenberg has plenty of experience playing against the world’s best, and has been capped 33 times for his native Sweden. His experience paid off for Malmo last season, and he has netted 22 times for the club in 48 Allsvenskan matches. He was also strong in the Champions League too, scoring 7 times in 12 Champions League outings.

Key Player: Johan Wiland

Wiland has lots of experience, having played 206 times for Elfsborg and 142 times for Kobenhavn. With Kobenhavn he also took part in the Champions League, and so has experienced the competition. His experience will be key for Malmo, as will be his goalkeeping, which has seen him regularly called up to the Swedish national team.

Prediction

With PSG and Real Madrid in the same group it is almost certainly going to end one way, as Shakhtar and Malmo simply cannot match it with the hordes of stars being brought in. Real Madrid should just edge out PSG for 1st place, but the match-ups between the two will be sure to entertain. Despite this, Shakhtar and Malmo should not be ruled out, but progress is unlikely.
Prediction: 1. Real Madrid, 2. Paris Saint-Germain, 3. Shakhtar Donetsk, 4. Malmo.

Dominant Portugal defeat Sweden

Portugal have defeated Sweden 1-0 at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, but for the majority of the game it looked as if the Swedish team would hold out against a wasteful Portuguese attack. The game was in the end decided by an 82nd minute Cristiano Ronaldo header after he went one-on-one with Martin Olsson. The Portuguese had an early chance through João Moutinho in the 5th when Ronaldo put him past the defence but he could only manage to hit the side netting. Sweden had their first real chance a minute later when Johan Elmander’s volley missed the target after a great cross from Mikael Lustig. Sebastian Larsson had another chance for the visitors in the 20th, but his shot was saved by Rui Patricio. Not much else came from the first half however, with Portugal unable to break Sweden’s defence.
The second half saw the best chance of the game go to Portugal, after Andreas Isaksson’s save came to Hélder Postiga, whose shot was blocked by Lustig on the line. Lustig cleared but the ball came off Pepe to Ronaldo, who then proceeded to fire the ball over the bar. Four minutes later Nani had his cross headed away by Per Nilsson. Three minutes after that Fábio Coentrão made his way past Larsson, but the ball was booted away by Lustig. In the 62nd Moutinho got a shot off only for it to be blocked brilliantly by centre-half Mikael Antonsson. Portugal continued to create and waste chances, with wayward shooting their main issue. This continued for a long time until Ronaldo finally struck. Miguel Veloso put the cross in towards Ronaldo who was one-on-one against Olsson, who couldn’t match the Portuguese captain aerially. Portugal and more specifically Ronaldo had another chance three minutes later when substitute Hugo Almeida’s cross found the head of Ronaldo who hit the bar. Nothing else happened in the match which was too eventful, as Portugal claimed a well-deserved 1-0 victory, giving them the advantage for the return leg at Friends Arena in Solna.
In other matches
Laugardalsvöllur, Reykjavik: Iceland and Croatia have drawn 0-0 despite the visitors having 11 shots to 1 and the home side having Olafur Skulason sent off in the 51st minute.
Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex, Kyiv: Second half goals to Roman Zozulya and Andriy Yarmolenko have given Ukraine a 2-0 victory over France.
Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus: Greece have defeated Romania 3-1 at home after a brace from Kostas Mitroglou and a goal from Dimitris Salpingidis. The Romanian goal was scored by Bogdan Stancu.
Lisbon – Estádio da Luz
Portugal 1 (Cristiano Ronaldo 82)
Sweden  0
Referee: Rizzoli (Ita)
Portugal: Rui Patricio – Fábio Coentrão, Bruno Alves, Pepe, João Pereira, Raul Meireles (Josué 78), Miguel Veloso, João Moutinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Hélder Postiga (Hugo Almeida 66), Nani.
Sweden: Isaksson – Olsson, Antonsson, Nilsson, Lustig, Källström (Svensson 78), Elm (Wernbloom 72), Kačaniklić, Larsson, Ibrahimović, Elmander.
Top 5
1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Ronaldo had an excellent game, scoring the only goal and nearly scoring a couple of others. He was constantly providing a target in attack against a very solid Swedish defence and created numerous chances.
2. Mikael Antonsson (Sweden)
Antonsson was the main man in the Swedish defence, and was one of the main reasons that they held on for such a long time. He was there to meet most of the Portuguese crosses and made a perfect sliding block to deny a near-certain goal in the 62nd.
3. João Moutinho (Portugal)
Moutinho was one of Portugal’s top attacking players on the night, getting numerous scoring opportunities through great positioning. He was unlucky not to score a goal in the 5th when great positioning got him past the defence.
4. Mikael Lustig (Sweden)
Lustig played a brilliant game at right back, quelling many a Portuguese move. He was also very effective going forward, putting in a perfect cross for Elmander early on. Made a critical block to a shot from Postiga early in the second half.
5. Sebastian Larsson (Sweden)
Larsson was a great transitional player for the Swedes, creating chances and helping out in defence. Was unlucky not to score in the twentieth when his shot was well-saved by Rui Patricio.