Tempers flare as City go down

Sergio Aguero was streaming down the left wing, and quickly running out of space. Over 95 minutes into the game between Manchester City and Chelsea, the hosts didn’t stand a chance, and when Aguero lost the ball to David Luiz his frustration boiled over. He kicked out, leaving his opponent on the ground and sparking confrontations on the left sideline. Aguero was sent off for the foul, and shortly afterwards referee Anthony Taylor gave Fernandinho his marching orders after the Brazilian grabbed the throat of Fabregas. It rounded out the most disappointing night of City’s season, and left them asking where it all went wrong and, more importantly, how it can be fixed.

The game had started with few chances either way, but it was incredibly physical as the two sides went at it with everything they had. City, looking to win to jump ahead of ladder-leaders Chelsea, seemed to have more of the ball, but nothing was really happening as Chelsea defended well. It was Eden Hazard who had the first clear cut chance of the game, with Chelsea’s Belgian playmaker unleashing an excellent strike from the edge of the box which just missed Claudio Bravo’s goal.

After the pace and physicality of the opening stanza the game began to open up, and when City were denied the chance to take the lead by the linesman’s flag it sparked a furious wave of action at both ends. It was a perfect free kick from Kevin de Bruyne on a night where nothing quite went right for him, and while Fernandinho headed it home he was one of many players in an offside position. Then Hazard went to work. He capitalised on an error of judgement from Nicolas Otamendi, who missed a long ball, and took a touch to run past Bravo and leave him out of position. He cut it back for a teammate in the centre of the box, but Aleksandar Kolarov was the only man there.

Classy: Willian (left) scores Chelsea’s second goal on the break.

Then came the big controversy of the match, as Luiz and Aguero collided as the latter looked to capitalise on a poor pass from Cesar Azpilicueta. No foul was called, drawing the ire of the fans, who believed that the Brazilian should have been expelled for a deliberate block on his opponent. City continued to push, and soon Chelsea were well and truly on the back foot. A delightful ball over the top from David Silva was controlled by Leroy Sane and found Aguero, whose shot was blocked. Aguero missed another chance when he failed to convert de Bruyne’s pinpoint cross. Then City went ahead.

It was a beautiful finish, with one minor hitch. The scorer was on the other team. Jesus Navas played in a dangerous cross, and Gary Cahill, Chelsea’s captain, leapt up to clear the danger. Instead, he was wrong-footed, and his right-footed attempt at a clearance only led to the ball being volleyed into the back of the net. He couldn’t have replicated it if he tried, Courtois couldn’t stop it, and City had the lead to cap off a solid first half.

The second half began, and City’s dominance continued, pegging Chelsea back and keeping the pressure firmly on the shoulders of their opponents. They had a great chance shortly after the resumption when Marcos Alonso’s otherwise innocuous back-pass went horribly awry when both goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and Cahill left the ball for each other. Aguero swooped, running in between the two, taking the ball and turning his attention to the now open goal in front of him. Cahill got back, and saved the day by sliding to make the block. The dominance continued. Silva, by now the architect of all of City’s play, found Navas, who crossed into the box. The ball was past all defenders, and within a few yards of the goal, when de Bruyne conspired to hit the bar, getting under it and failing to convert from point blank range.

Frustration: Players from both sides remonstrate after Aguero’s foul.

It seemed like déjà vu for City when the equaliser came, just minutes after de Bruyne’s incredible miss. Diego Costa had been quiet in the first half, but he had immersed himself in the second half and proceeded to control Cesc Fabregas’ long ball into the box, turning Otamendi in the process. All of a sudden, he was one-on-one with Bravo, and he didn’t miss. City’s worst nightmare had been realised, and Chelsea were back level.

It didn’t end there. City were pushing hard to get back in front, and in doing so they left themselves open as Chelsea’s defence held firm. It started with Ilkay Gundogan, who beat a number of opponents before looking for someone in the middle. Alonso was the only player there, and after a couple of passes Costa had space to work with in a dangerous position. He laid it off for Willian, who had given Chelsea the spark they needed off the bench, and the Brazilian cruised through before putting it past Bravo with ease.

City needed to score, and quickly, with time running out, but they could not find the clarity of attack they needed. The third goal was just window-dressing, with Alonso’s long ball finding Eden Hazard over the top and allowing the Belgian to score easily. It was over. The expulsions further soured the loss for City, leaving more negatives from a forgettable day.

Manchester – Etihad Stadium
Manchester City 1 (Cahill 45 og)
Chelsea 3 (Costa 60, Willian 70, Hazard 90)
Referee: Anthony Taylor

Manchester City (3-4-3): Bravo – Otamendi, Stones (Iheanacho 78), Kolarov; Navas, Fernandinho, Gundogan (Toure 76), Sane (Clichy 69); de Bruyne, Aguero, Silva.
Sent-off: Aguero 90+7, Fernandinho 90+8.
Chelsea (3-4-3): Courtois – Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso; Pedro (Willian 50), Costa (Chalobah 85), Hazard (Batshuayi 90+4).

Top 5
1. Diego Costa (Chelsea)
Costa stepped up when the game was on the line in the second half, and he provided a constant threat as City looked to regain their former position. His goal displayed excellent skill and strength, and his pass to find Willian for Chelsea’s second was well spotted and executed.
2. David Silva (Manchester City)
Silva was excellent throughout, although his influence waned as the game progressed and City grew increasingly desperate. In the first half, his supply was top class, and his lofted balls over the top of Chelsea’s defence were perfectly delivered and provided a huge threat.
3. Willian (Chelsea)
Willian turned the game on its head upon entering shortly after half time, with the Brazilian scoring one goal and providing the energy which Pedro had lacked in both attack and defence. He played well, and his combination with Costa and Hazard was incredibly dangerous.
4. Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
Hazard was not at his marauding best, but he was still very good, unleashing flashes of brilliance and sealing the deal for Chelsea seconds before injury time. His nonchalant displays of skill were incredible, and his ability to work into dangerous positions and beat opponents made him hard to stop.
5. Jesus Navas (Manchester City)
Navas was in top form on the right wing, playing in plenty of dangerous crosses and working into space in attack. His cross was accidentally knocked into the back of the net by Cahill to give City their only goal, and he was unlucky not to provide any more with his accurate delivery.

De Roon stuns City at the death

Sometimes there are goals which live long in the memory. They may be terrific long-range strikes, incredible feats of athleticism, or wonderful dribbles and finishes. Middlesbrough’s only goal against Manchester City was none of these things, but its memory will last just as long, irrespective of how their season finishes. For City fans, it could prove to be the stuff of nightmares, the image of Boro’s players crowding around the advertising hoardings in a state of absolute euphoria.

The game itself was a mismatch from the start. City, who had players worth more money on their own than their opponent’s whole team, started as they always do: in control. Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan ran the show, and Boro barely got a touch as they packed numbers into their defensive half. Alvaro Negredo, a former City player himself, was completely isolated in attack, with little to no support or chance of receiving the ball.

Soon the chances began to come for City, as they started to unlock Boro’s defence. Gundogan was denied by a brilliant tackle from Adam Forshaw. Sergio Aguero played de Bruyne in on goal, but his attempt was just wide. Aguero himself received a nonchalant backheel from Silva before unleashing a powerful shot at the bottom corner. It was saved, and the rebound found an offside Silva. Silva had a chance when a dangerous cross from Jesus Navas was brought down by Aguero. Victor Valdes ran off his line to deny Navas, who created a gash in the keeper’s thigh in the process. The list goes on.

Collision course: Victor Valdes (left) comes off his line to deny Jesus Navas.

Finally, it came. It was de Bruyne who set it up with a ball which was impossible to defend, granting Aguero his 150th goal for City on a silver platter. The ball was whipped in from the edge of the box to the Argentine, splitting Calum Chambers and Antonio Barragan perfectly and finding its target on the edge of the six-yard box. Aguero finished easily, leaving Valdes with no chance as he found the bottom corner.

The half ended shortly afterwards with Navas, whose dangerous shot from the right wing hit the post. It proved to be a perfect symbol of City’s performance in the match itself: so close, but never quite able to put the game to bed. Either way, at that point it was clear that something had to change, or Boro would be blown away completely in the second half.

From the start of the second period, Aitor Karanka’s side slowly began to find a way into the contest. It was Negredo who started it, intercepting an errant pass from Fernandinho and looking for a way up field. With no support, he shot from halfway, forcing an excellent stop from Claudio Bravo and with it a corner. Shortly afterwards, Adama Traore and Forshaw combined to put the latter in one-on-one, but Bravo was too good and the save was duly made.

Eventually City began to suck the life out of the game, playing with less urgency and ensuring that they weren’t caught out by their opponents. It looked as if the game was done, and they should have doubled their lead when de Bruyne’s cross again found Aguero on the edge of the six-yard box. In hindsight, a wonderful thing to have in these situations, it was more costly a miss than it seemed at the time.

Boro were still finding chances at the other end, but they were becoming few and far between as Pep Guardiola’s men effectively slowed the game down. Aguero had another brilliant chance when Navas found him inside the box, acres of space in all directions. Inexplicably, he missed, squandering yet another opportunity to go two up. Shortly afterwards, he was booked, kicking out after a frustration foul on the edge of the box. His emotions were beginning to show, and he was soon replaced.

Euphoria: Middlesbrough players celebrate Marten de Roon’s late equaliser.

As the visitors tried harder for the equaliser there was more space available, and as the clock ticked over into stoppage time de Bruyne nearly capitalised on a defensive error. Valdes came off his line to cover a ball that George Friend had already covered, and the resulting collision spilled the ball to de Bruyne, who had an open goal to aim at. From well outside the area, he couldn’t hit the target. Mere seconds later came the equaliser.

It started with Traore, who ran in a strange arc around the defence, working towards the centre and looking for an opening. He found Friend on the left wing, and the left back fired it in to the area one last time. It proved to be all they needed. The cross hung near the back post as Marten de Roon met it at pace, sending a powerful header past a flailing Bravo to snatch a draw against all odds.

This draw does not go close to saving Boro from the drop, and it is entirely possible that they could find themselves relegated at the close of the season. Yet de Roon’s goal, and the manner in which it was scored, will last long in the memory for Middlesbrough fans. For City, de Roon’s header could well come to signify one of those moments that can come to define a failed title charge, moments in which it could have been so different, where it could have been won but it wasn’t. Only time will tell.

Manchester – Etihad Stadium
Manchester City 1 (Aguero 43)
Middlesbrough 1 (de Roon 90+1)
Referee: Kevin Friend
Manchester City (4-1-4-1): Bravo – Zabaleta, Stones, Kolarov, Clichy; Fernandinho; Navas (Garcia 87), de Bruyne, Gundogan (Nolito 75), Silva; Aguero (Iheanacho 90).
Middlesbrough (4-2-3-1): Valdes – Barragan, Chambers, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Forshaw; Traore (Stuani 90+3), de Roon, Downing (Fischer 78); Negredo.

Top 5
1. Jesus Navas (Manchester City)
Navas was excellent throughout, making incisive runs on the right wing and causing plenty of problems for the Middlesbrough defence with his pinpoint crosses. He had a massive impact on the match, and had the chances he created been converted City would have won easily.
2. David Silva (Manchester City)
Silva was as brilliant as ever, working his way into little pockets of space and creating big problems for his opponents. He had to be denied on a couple of key occasions, once by the flag and once by Valdes, and he barely made a mistake in his distribution. A class act.
3. Fernandinho (Manchester City)
Fernandinho was in control in central midfield, reinforcing City’s strong positions in attack and ensuring that Boro were unable to break in numbers. His game was not flawless, but he played very well and was as solid as ever for the whole ninety minutes.
4. Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)
De Bruyne was not quite at his rampaging best as he looked to take care of business, but he was still able to show flashes of brilliance which were very nearly enough to win City the game on their own. His ball to set up the goal was pure perfection, and he backed it up with plenty of other chances which could have been converted.
5. Adam Forshaw (Middlesbrough)
Forshaw was ever-present in both attack and defence, making key challenges at one end and attempting to string passes together at the other. He very nearly scored when he found himself in on goal early in the second half, and he will be very happy with his efforts.

Stekelenburg the hero as Everton clinch draw

Maarten Stekelenburg has been to the final of the World Cup in an impressive career spanning 14 years, but he won’t have played many games better than this. Playing against a dominant Manchester City side, the Dutch keeper saved two penalties and made a string of top-drawer saves as Everton held on for a 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium, defying all the odds in the process.

It didn’t take long to work out who was the superior team. Leroy Sane, playing with pace and skill, wreaked havoc for Bryan Oviedo, breezing past him as if he wasn’t there. Kevin de Bruyne sprayed the ball around in attack, and David Silva was everywhere, collecting the ball on the edge of the box and distributing it as he saw fit. Everton held on, but they had no presence in attack.

Things only got worse for them as the game went on. Their attack looked less dangerous by the minute, and as the half started to draw to a close it seemed as if something had to give. Gerard Deulofeu was offside almost every time he found the ball, and Yannick Bolasie’s delivery rarely hit the mark. Romelu Lukaku, in such good form throughout Everton’s rise up the table, was non-existent due to City’s dominance, and it seemed only a matter of time before the goal came.

Then came the first penalty. Silva made a dangerous run into the area, and as he looked to get in behind Seamus Coleman and Phil Jagielka he was tripped. Jagielka was the culprit, mindlessly stretching out his leg into Silva’s path, and a lead for the hosts seemed to be the only possible outcome. Enter Stekelenburg, who dived well to bat away de Bruyne’s effort, keeping the game scoreless against all odds. They were still afloat, but they seemed to be on borrowed time as the break came and went.

The second half immediately took up a similar rhythm to the first, with City dominating possession and still looking to penetrate Everton’s solid defensive front. Deulofeu forced a solid save from Claudio Bravo to win Everton their first corner of the game, but the hosts were still on top and did not look like being threatened. Then, less than twenty minutes into the second half, it was Everton who broke the deadlock.

Foul: Sergio Aguero (second from left) is brought down in the box by Phil Jagielka.

It started with Bolasie, who had drifted deeper into midfield as the game had worn on. He flicked an otherwise innocuous pass from Idrissa Gueye past his man, leaving Lukaku with half the field to himself, Gael Clichy the only man in his way. The Frenchman tried to corral him onto a tighter angle, but Lukaku was simply too quick. He created the opening, and drove a cool left-footed finish past Bravo into the back of the net.

If Manchester City had been going hard before, the goal forced them to turn it up a gear. They kept fighting and trying to get through, before another brain explosion from Jagielka looked to have handed them a leveller on a silver platter. If the first penalty was mindless, the second was even worse. Sergio Aguero looked to turn the Everton captain, and he was taken down by a wild hack as he looked to progress.

This time, it was Aguero who stepped up to the spot, as he had done so often before. This time, it seemed as if he could not miss. And yet, there was still a niggling doubt, the thought that maybe, just maybe, Stekelenburg could do it again. He could. Aguero’s penalty was a carbon copy of de Bruyne’s and the Dutchman was in a perfect position to make the save. Yet again, Manchester City had been denied. It just didn’t look like their day.

Then things happened very quickly, and within minutes the two combatants were back on level terms. Silva and Aguero played their way through the defence, and Stekelenburg was only just able to bat the ball away for a corner. Then, mere seconds after entering the game, Nolito was on the end of Silva’s perfect cross from the left wing. The ball was headed home into the bottom corner, the one which Stekelenburg couldn’t get.

Job well done: Maarten Stekelenburg applauds the fans after a man-of-the-match performance.

The mission wasn’t over for City, but their intensity had left them. Stekelenburg made yet another fine save to deny de Bruyne from long range, but amidst the injury breaks and bookings for time-wasting the moment had passed. City were the better side on the day, but they simply couldn’t break through no matter how hard they tried. City were the better side on the day, but Stekelenburg was always there to deny them. It was just one of those days.

Manchester – Etihad Stadium
Manchester City 1 (Nolito 72)
Everton 1 (Lukaku 64)
Referee: Michael Oliver

Manchester City (3-4-2-1): Bravo – Stones, Otamendi, Clichy; Sane (Nolito 71), Fernandinho, Gundogan (Kompany 90), Sterling; de Bruyne, Silva; Iheanacho (Aguero 56).
Everton (4-3-3): Stekelenburg – Coleman, Jagielka, Williams, Oviedo; Gueye, Barry, Cleverley (Funes Mori 90+1); Bolasie (Mirallas 84), Lukaku, Deulofeu (McCarthy 57).

Top 5
1. Maarten Stekelenburg (Everton)
Stekelenburg was in incredible form, saving penalties from both de Bruyne and Aguero and knocking City back on countless occasions. He didn’t make any mistakes in his execution, and he was the only reason Everton were able to come away with a point in a tough fixture. A brilliant effort.
2. David Silva (Manchester City)
Silva was a dangerous presence throughout, roaming freely inside and outside the box and using his skill and experience to good effect. He was unlucky not to score on a couple of occasions when he found himself in dangerous positions, and his delivery was always accurate and effective.
3. Ashley Williams (Everton)
Williams didn’t make a mistake all day in central defence, cutting off cross after cross and making tackles when he needed to. He was not beaten, and his coolness and experience at the back was key as Everton looked to hold firm. He played well, and will take confidence from his efforts.
4. Leroy Sane (Manchester City)
Sane burst out of the blocks quickly, beating his man with incredible ease and proving a real threat for Everton’s defence. His work rate and ability to track back on defence was incredible, and the skill and poise he showed on the ball bodes very well for his future at the club.
5. Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)
After a two-week absence de Bruyne was slightly rusty, but he was still able to find the ball in very dangerous positions and play some effective passes in behind. His first-half penalty was saved, but he was a key reason for City’s dominance and he made life very difficult for Everton.

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview – Group D

Group D

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Spain (6), Czech Republic (30), Turkey (18), Croatia (27)
Fixtures:
Turkey vs Croatia, Parc des Princes, Paris
Spain vs Czech Republic, Stadium Municipal, Toulouse
Czech Republic vs Croatia, Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Etienne
Spain vs Turkey, Allianz Riviera, Nice
Croatia vs Spain, Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux
Czech Republic vs Turkey, Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens

Spain

Head Coach: Vincente del Bosque
Captain: Iker Casillas
Previous Appearances: 9 (1964, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Champions (1964, 2008, 2012)
Qualified: 1st Group C
UEFA Euro 2012: Champions

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Iker Casillas (Porto), 13. David de Gea (Manchester United), 23. Sergio Rico (Sevilla).
Defenders:
2. Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), 3. Gerard Pique (Barcelona), 4. Marc Bartra (Barcelona), 12. Hector Bellerin (Arsenal), 15. Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), 16. Juanfran (Atletico Madrid), 17. Mikel San Jose (Athletic Bilbao), 18. Jordi Alba (Barcelona).
Midfielders:
5. Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), 6. Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), 8. Koke (Atletico Madrid), 10. Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea), 14. Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munchen), 19. Bruno Soriano (Villarreal), 21. David Silva (Manchester City).
Forwards:
7. Alvaro Morata (Juventus), 9. Lucas Vazquez (Real Madrid), 11. Pedro Rodriguez (Chelsea), 20. Aritz Aduriz (Athletic Bilbao), 22. Nolito (Celta Vigo).

Form Guide

Spain’s performance at the World Cup was well below their lofty expectations, and their qualifying campaign started poorly with a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Slovakia in their second match. Vincente del Bosque’s side recovered with a 4-0 win over Luxembourg, and they did not look back, winning their last eight games to qualify with a game to spare.

Strengths

Spain only conceded 3 goals in qualifying, and with the experience of Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique down back they will be incredibly difficult to score against. The midfield is exceptional, and with Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Koke, Sergio Busquets and David Silva the strikers will be sure to get excellent supply. The Spanish know how to win, and despite the disappointment of the 2014 World Cup they are still one of the best sides around. They are the reigning champions, and it would not be a surprise if they triumph again.

Weaknesses

Spain have been looking for a star striker for a long time, and while they thought that they had found their man in Diego Costa he has not turned out as planned. As such, they enter the finals without a star front man, and while there is plenty of promise in Alvaro Morata players like Nolito and Aritz Aduriz are past their peaks and are not likely to provide an abundance of goals at the tournament. The Spanish do not have a great deal of depth in their squad, and this could prove harmful in the case of an injury to one of their stars.

Star Player: David Silva

Silva arrived at Manchester City from Valencia in 2010, and he has developed into one of the most skilled players in the world. He is a traditional playmaker with brilliant technical skills and he will be sure to create plenty of chances for the strikers and plenty of issues for opposition defences with his work on the ball.

Key Player: Iker Casillas

Casillas has played over 150 times for Spain, and he has won everything there is to win in Spanish and European football. He is now at Porto after exiting Real Madrid, but he is still a quality player and the Spanish will rely on him to perform. If he plays like he did in the last World Cup then there will be serious issues, but it seems unlikely that he will play that poorly again.

Verdict

The Spanish are very strong in defence and they have one of the best midfield groups going around, but they are still looking for a good target up front. There is also a lack of depth in the squad but with an experienced and frugal defence and a high-quality midfield there is no limit to how far the Spanish can progress into this tournament.

Czech Republic

Head Coach: Pavel Vrba
Captain: Petr Cech
Previous Appearances: 5 (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Runners-up (1996)
Qualified: 1st Group A
UEFA Euro 2012: Quarter-finals

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Petr Cech (Arsenal), 16. Tomas Vaclik (Basel), 23. Tomas Koubek (Slovan Liberec).
Defenders:
2. Pavel Kaderabek (Hoffenheim), 3. Michal Kadlec (Fenerbahce), 4. Theodor Gebre Selassie (Werder Bremen), 5. Roman Hubnik (Viktoria Plzen), 6. Tomas Sivok (Bursaspor), 8. David Limbersky (Viktoria Plzen), 17. Marek Suchy (Basel).
Midfielders:
9. Borek Dockal (Sparta Praha), 10. Tomas Rosicky (Arsenal), 11. Daniel Pudil (Sheffield Wednesday), 13. Jaroslav Plasil (Bordeaux), 14. Daniel Kolar (Viktoria Plzen), 15. David Pavelka (Kasimpasa), 18. Josef Sural (Sparta Praha), 19. Ladislav Krejci (Sparta Praha), 20. Jiri Skalak (Brighton), 22. Vladimir Darida (Hertha Berlin).
Forwards:
7. Tomas Necid (Bursaspor), 12. Milan Skoda (Slavia Praha), 21. David Lafata (Sparta Praha).

Form Guide

The Czech Republic began their campaign by defeating the Netherlands, and they cruised to wins from their first four games. The side slowed down afterwards, but they still managed to qualify in first place, holding out Iceland and taking top spot with another victory against the Netherlands, this time in Amsterdam.

Strengths

The Czechs have an excellent record at the Euros, both as Czechoslovakia and as the Czech Republic. Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky and Jaroslav Plasil are all very experienced, and Michal Kadlec and Tomas Sivok marshal a very solid defence. The defence is well-rounded, with Kadlec and Sivok joined by the likes of David Limbersky, Theodor Gebre Selassie, Daniel Pudil, Marek Suchy and Pavel Kaderabek, and there is plenty of depth in the middle of the park. Overall the Czechs are a very well-rounded side and are good enough to push for the latter stages of the tournament.

Weaknesses

The Czechs have a good base, but they lack potency up front. Tomas Necid, David Lafata and Milan Skoda are all options, but they contributed just four goals in qualifying between them. Instead the scoring burden will fall upon the midfield, and this could prove harmful if players like Borek Dockal and Vaclav Pilar do not perform. In the middle Rosicky, who is a particularly important factor in the side’s success, has not played one minute of league football this season, and this lack of preparation could be a serious problem.

Star Player: Petr Cech

Cech is a record breaker at both club and international level, and he will lead the Czechs at the finals. His performances at Chelsea were nothing short of remarkable, and he is probably the best goalkeeper the club has ever had. Not much ever gets past him, and the Czech defence will be much harder to break down with him between the posts.

Key Player: Borek Dockal

Dockal scored four goals in qualifying, and with the absence of a real presence up front he will be required to find his scoring form again. In a team where goals could be a struggle Dockal could well be a game-changer, and he will be required to fire if the Czechs are going to get anywhere at the final tournament.

Verdict

The Czechs have a well-rounded and experienced side, and after making the quarter-finals in 2012 they have the ability to go just as far this time around. Cech can be relied upon to perform, and with a solid defence in front of him the Czechs are going to be hard to break down. Their issues up front could prove costly, and they have been drawn into a tough group, but they can definitely do it.

Turkey

Head Coach: Fatih Terim
Captain: Arda Turan
Previous Appearances: 3 (1996, 2000, 2008)
Best Finish: Semi-finals (2008)
Qualified: 3rd Group A (qualified as best third-placed team)
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Volkan Babacan (Istanbul Basaksehir), 12. Onur Kivrak (Trabzonspor), 23. Harun Tekin (Bursaspor).
Defenders:
2. Semih Kaya (Galatasaray), 3. Hakan Balta (Galatasaray), 4. Ahmet Calik (Genclerbirgili), 7. Gokhan Gonul (Fenerbahce), 13. Ismail Koybasi (Besiktas), 15. Mehmet Topal (Fenerbahce), 18. Caner Erkin (Fenerbahce), 22. Sener Ozbayrakli (Fenerbahce).
Midfielders:
5. Nuri Sahin (Borussia Dortmund), 6. Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen), 8. Selcuk Inan (Galatasaray), 10. Arda Turan (Barcelona), 11. Olcay Sahan (Besiktas), 14. Oguzhan Ozyakup (Besiktas), 16. Ozan Tufan (Fenerbahce), 19. Yunus Malli (Mainz), 20. Volkan Sen (Fenerbahce).
Forwards:
9. Cenk Tosun (Besiktas), 17. Burak Yilmaz (Beijing Guoan), 21. Emre Mor (Nordsjaelland).

Form Guide

The Turkish started their qualification process horribly, with defeats to Iceland and the Czech Republic followed by a 1-1 draw against Latvia. The struggle continued but home-and-away wins against Kazakhstan kept them in contention and they beat the Dutch and the Czechs before sealing a spot as the best ranked third-placed team with a 1-0 victory over Iceland in Konya.

Strengths

The Turkish team have some excellent players in the middle of the park, and Arda Turan, Selcuk Inan, Nuri Sahin and Hakan Calhanoglu are all top class players stationed at Europe’s top clubs. The side are coming in to the tournament in excellent form having pulled off three excellent victories to round out their campaign, and Inan’s incredible work from set pieces has the ability to create plenty of chances for the Turks when they get into the front third. There is plenty of experience in defence and the combination of Mehmet Topal, Gokhan Gonul and Caner Erkin will provide solidity.

Weaknesses

Volkan Demirel has ruled himself out of international selection, and his absence leaves a hole in the number one jersey. Volkan Babacan appears likely to fill the position at the final tournament, but he is not nearly as experienced as Demirel and could struggle. Topal, Gonul and Erkin are all strong defenders, but the fourth spot in the defence is still up for grabs and could be a problem. There are options, but none are able to fully fill this void. There is a clear gulf in class between the best players in the side and the worst, and this lack of depth could be an issue.

Star Player: Arda Turan

Turan has vast experience at the highest level, and he was made captain of Galatasaray when he was just 21. He became the most expensive Turkish player ever when he transferred to Atletico Madrid, and his prowess in attacking midfield will be a massive threat for opposition defences. He has experienced plenty of success in his career, and he has the potential to have a massive tournament.

Key Player: Selcuk Inan

Inan has plenty of experience at the highest level, and in over 200 games for Galatasaray he has established himself as an excellent player and as an on-field leader. He has vast experience in the Turkish side, and if they are to go anywhere they will need him to fire and create plenty of chances. His work from set pieces is exceptionally dangerous and could prove key to Turkey’s success.

Verdict

Turkey’s top players are exceptional, but there is not much beneath them. This could prove particularly costly in the event of an injury, and the issues raised by Demirel’s departure from the squad still exist. The Turkish are, however, a strong squad, and they could have a big impact on the final tournament.

Croatia

Head Coach: Ante Cacic
Captain: Darijo Srna
Previous Appearances: 4 (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1996, 2008)
Qualified: 2nd Group H
UEFA Euro 2012: Group Stage

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Ivan Vargic (Rijeka), 12. Lovre Kalinic (Hajduk Split), 23. Danijel Subasic (Monaco).
Defenders:
2. Sime Vrsaljko (Sassuolo), 3. Ivan Strinic (Napoli), 5. Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moskva), 6. Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), 11. Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), 13. Gordon Schildenfeld (Dinamo Zagreb), 21. Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kyiv).
Midfielders:
4. Ivan Perisic (Internazionale), 7. Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), 8. Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), 10. Luka Modric (Real Madrid), 14. Marcelo Brozovic (Internazionale), 15. Marko Rog (Dinamo Zagreb), 18. Ante Coric (Dinamo Zagreb), 19. Milan Badelj (Fiorentina).
Forwards:
9. Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), 16. Nikola Kalinic (Fiorentina), 17. Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), 20. Marko Pjaca (Dinamo Zagreb), 22. Duje Cop (Malaga).

Form Guide

Croatia began their qualifying campaign with confidence, defeating Malta, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan before putting five goals past Norway, but after a one-point deduction for racist fan behaviour they slowed down, drawing Azerbaijan and losing 2-0 to the Norwegians in Oslo. In the end it took the help of Italy to progress, the Italians defeating Norway in the last game to put Croatia through.

Strengths

In Mario Mandzukic, Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic the Croatians have some excellent players with experience at the highest level. The attack is strong, and in addition to Mandzukic there are many other options. With Modric, Kovacic, Perisic and Rakitic in the midfield they have the class and the experience to match their opponents, and players like Darijo Srna and Vedran Corluka form a solid defence which only let in five goals during qualifying, and the Croatians have a well-rounded side with plenty of experience.

Weaknesses

The Croatians have had a very set team for some time, and while this continuity is good it leaves a large hole in the event of injury to a key player. This lack of depth could prove particularly costly at the final tournament, where the pressure is higher and the stars could fail to shine. Croatia experienced a large downturn in performances during qualifying, and their efforts away from home can only be a worry, as they will not play in Croatia at the finals. There is also the unpredictable element of the fans, whose racist behaviour has caused issues in the past and could lead to costly sanctions.

Star Player: Luka Modric

Modric has played for Real Madrid since 2012, and he has plenty of experience at the highest level. He has played countless times in the Champions League, and his work creating opportunities for the strikers from the centre of midfield will be effective and very difficult to defend. He is a top quality player, and he can provide a massive boost to the Croatian team.

Key Player: Vedran Corluka

With the omission of Dejan Lovren from the squad it will be up to Corluka to fill the void left by the first-choice centre back. Corluka has plenty of experience at the highest level, and if Croatia are to get anywhere he will need to be a leader down back and perform at the heart of defence. If he fails life will be very difficult for the Croatians.

Verdict

Croatia have a well-rounded and experienced side, but a lack of depth could be an issue. While this is the case the core group of players is exceptionally strong, and they should be able to perform better than they did at the World Cup in Brazil. They will always have to contend with the potential wildcard of the fans, but the side themselves are strong enough.

Prediction

The Spanish are comfortably the strongest team in this group, and they should progress with ease. This leaves an interesting battle for second, with Turkey, Croatia and the Czech Republic all very evenly matched sides. In the end, the Czechs could struggle due to their deficient attack, and Croatia should go through with their experience and their very strong midfield.
1. Spain, 2. Croatia, 3. Turkey, 4. Czech Republic.