Spain toil hard to edge out determined Iranians

Euphoria. That was what Iran felt when Saeid Ezatolahi bundled a poorly defended free-kick into the bottom corner. Thanks to Spain’s errors, they had erased the one-goal lead their more skilled opponents had toiled so hard for, and they were suddenly in with a chance of shocking the Spanish and snatching a point to reinforce their opening game win over Morocco. Spain, meanwhile, couldn’t believe that after dominating possession and spending over half the game breaking through a determined Iranian defence, they had just lost the lead they had worked so hard for. Then, mere seconds after the euphoria of scoring, came despair. Ezatolahi was offside. The goal didn’t count. Thanks to the new video assistant referee, Spain’s lead was intact and Iran had to fight for another opening. They couldn’t find one.

The game started as expected, for the most part. Iran were named in a conventional 4-2-3-1 formation, but the team that took the field lined up with a six man defence and everyone else aiding the defensive effort. Generously, it could have been called a counter-attacking strategy. Realistically, Carlos Queiroz’s side was just parking the bus. Spain, on the other hand, did exactly what was expected of them. They took the free possession on offer, and kept passing it around in an attempt to break down their opponents. The only part that didn’t go to script was the scoreline. Spain were meant to clinically cut their way through their opponents, finding the back of the net at will. Instead, they found a very determined defensive front who were willing to fight for everything. As a result, the game settled into a pattern that was as repetitive as the mindless droning noise of the vuvuzelas blown by the Iranian fans. Spain would pass the ball around with impunity, but Iran would throw multiple defenders at them if they got too close.

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Morteza Pouraliganji (left) battles to keep the ball under pressure from Diego Costa. Pouraliganji had a great game and mostly kept Costa quiet, but the Spanish striker still found the scoresheet.

There were some chances, of course, but not enough to cause Iran too much stress. David Silva got close on a few occasions, blasting an athletic attempt at a set piece over the bar and watching as one of his free-kicks rebounded off the wall but didn’t deviate from its course. With the half winding down, he managed to find some space in the box, but his dangerous looking shot was blocked by the outstretched leg of Morteza Pouraliganji. At the other end, Iran gave under-fire Spanish keeper David de Gea very little to do, although they did have a great chance when Vahid Amiri was played through and had acres of space on the right wing. Unfortunately for Iran, Amiri seemed too surprised when he found himself onside in the box to actually do anything meaningful, and a tentative cross evaded everyone and went out of bounds.

Spain continued in their attempt to break down the Iranians as the second half started, and they had a couple of encouraging chances shortly after resumption. Gerard Piqué nearly found the back of the net after Isco’s dangerous corner, but there were plenty of Iranian defenders around to ensure it didn’t go in. Sergio Busquets created more problems less than a minute later, forcing Alireza Beiranvand to make an excellent save before Lucas Vázquez, following in at pace, forced the Iranian keeper to bat it away. A rare attacking foray from Iran saw Karim Ansarifard receive the ball from a long throw and drill it into the side netting, and the game was just beginning to open up a little. Not long after Iran’s near miss, Spain took the lead.

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A scrum forms on the Iranian goal line as Diego Costa (right) attempts to force the ball into the back of the net. The bizarre moment was indicative of Iran’s determination to prevent Spain from scoring.

The goal was created by Andrés Iniesta’s brilliance, and a large dose of good luck. Iniesta is almost certainly playing his last World Cup, and he can’t really play out a full game in the Spanish midfield. At the conclusion of this tournament, he will move to Japan to begin the next phase of his career. With Spain struggling to break down a determined Iranian defence, Iniesta made something happen. He picked up the ball in midfield, and started to run at the Iranian defence while firing a pass to Silva. He sprinted to receive Silva’s follow-up ball, and when a defender stood in his way he beat him without breaking a sweat. His second pass found Diego Costa in the box, and the striker spun out of trouble and looked to shoot. He never really got a shot off, with Ramin Rezaeian putting a tackle in before he could get his boot to it, but he scored anyway. Rezaeian’s tackle rebounded into Costa’s knee, and the ricochet shot past Beiranvand into the back of the net. It was a fluke, but that was of little concern to the Spanish.

Apart from Ezatolahi’s disallowed goal, the Iranians never really looked like getting the equaliser, with Spain still controlling possession and having most of the chances. Bizarre scenes ensued when Spain took a cleverly worked out corner and Sergio Ramos’ mishit shot bobbled dangerously towards the goal line, before Rezaeian lay on the goal line to stop Piqué from tapping it in. When Ezatolahi and Costa also got involved and Beiranvand tried to wrestle the ball out, a scrum developed on the Iranian goal line with the ball trapped underneath. Eventually Iran survived, but just holding on wasn’t enough. They needed to chase the game, and Mehdi Taremi had a great chance when Amiri nutmegged Piqué and sent in a brilliant cross to the dynamic forward. The header missed, and Iran’s last real opportunity went begging. Spain were still controlling possession when the final whistle sounded, happy to come away with a hard fought 1-0 win.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
Iran 0
Spain 1 (Diego Costa 54)
Referee: Andrés Cunha (Uru)
Iran (4-2-3-1): Beiranvand – Ramin Rezaeian, Hosseini, Pouraliganji, Hajsafi (Milad Mohammadi 69); Omid Ebrahimi, Ezatolahi; Ansarifard (Jahanbakhsh 74), Mehdi Taremi, Amiri (Ghoddos 86); Azmoun.
Spain (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Carvajal, Piqué, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Busquets, Iniesta (Koke 71); Silva, Isco, Lucas Vázquez (Asensio 80); Diego Costa (Rodrigo 89).

Top 5
1. Saeid Ezatolahi (Iran)
Ezatolahi was named as a defensive midfielder, but he spent the majority of the game playing as a third centre-back while Iran desperately repelled Spain’s attacks. He excelled in the role. He was a strong presence in the air and he denied Spain at crucial moments. He nearly levelled the game, but his goal was disallowed after he unluckily found himself offside.
2. Andrés Iniesta (Spain)
Iniesta didn’t play out the full 90 minutes, and he didn’t find himself on the ball as much as some of his teammates. He was, however, the man who finally drove a wedge through Iran’s disciplined defensive unit, needing to lay just two passes to set up Costa for Spain’s opening goal. He knows how to make things happen.
3. David Silva (Spain)
Silva was in excellent touch, controlling most of Spain’s attacking play and creating chances for himself and others. His set piece delivery was dangerous, as was a combination with Isco that continues to put Spain’s opponents under immense pressure. His good form bodes well for games to come.
4. Morteza Pouraliganji (Iran)
Late in the first half, Silva had an opportunity to put Spain ahead, and his shot looked destined to challenge Beiranvand. The only hitch? Pouraliganji’s outstretched leg. That challenge was just one example of Pouraliganji’s brilliant defensive work, which continued to keep them at bay for most of the match.
5. Isco (Spain)
Once again, Isco was at the heart of all of Spain’s attacking play. His set pieces were both dangerous and devious, and he threatened Iran’s defence as he drifted all over the field and beat opponents with his brilliant dribbling. His combination with Silva was as effective as ever.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.