Belgium’s golden generation come through to knock Brazil out

This was Belgium’s last chance. With their golden generation hitting their peak, a World Cup quarter-finals appearance wasn’t going to be good enough for a talented group of stars. To fulfil their immense potential as a team, they simply needed to win. Unfortunately, they were up against Brazil. A draw in their last group stage game would have taken them on a softer path, one which didn’t include the Brazilians (or the French, the team that would play the winner of the highly-anticipated clash). Instead, they won the last group stage match, and here they were. It’s hard to know how many people gave them a chance against Brazil. Belgium were good, but Brazil…were Brazil. They win things, and this team looked capable of winning things. Then Belgium delivered an inspired 90 minute performance which ended Brazil’s tournament and, once again, threw the race for the 2018 World Cup wide open.

The game started very openly. There was chaos in the Belgian penalty area when Neymar’s corner was flicked on by Miranda for Thiago Silva, who hit the post from very close range. Belgium survived and counter-attacked, with Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard combining dangerously against the stretched Brazilian defence. Paulinho had a pair of chances minutes later, firstly running onto the ball as it bounced around in Belgium’s box and then miscuing another flicked on Brazilian corner. Less than 10 minutes had been played, and every single second had been played at breakneck pace. Someone was going to score. It was inevitable.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was Belgium who took the lead. De Bruyne was in sparkling touch, and his incisive ball found Marouane Fellaini on the edge of the box. His shot was deflected out for a corner, which was swung in to the near post. Brazil didn’t defend Hazard’s corner particularly well, and Vincent Kompany was able to get his head on the ball to flick it on for a teammate. It never reached one of his teammates. Instead, it bounced off Fernandinho’s arm as the Brazilian midfielder attempted to block it, and it rebounded into the back of the net. Brazil were behind.

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Kevin de Bruyne scores Belgium’s second goal from just outside the box. De Bruyne was back to his best, and his first half performance gave Belgium an ultimately unassailable lead.

Now in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position, Brazil kept pushing. They drove the Belgian defence back, but Gabriel Jesus couldn’t quite force the ball in from inside the six-yard box. Belgium’s desperate defence cleared – just. Philippe Coutinho had a chance to unleash his lethal right foot when he found space outside the box, but he drilled his shot straight at Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Meanwhile, Belgium continued to pose an attacking threat of their own. Hazard somehow worked his way out of a congested area to burst into space, and Thomas Meunier’s subsequent cross nearly connected with Lukaku in the centre. De Bruyne did connect with Lukaku in the box when he found space on the break, but the big striker wasn’t quite able to get his shot off. Brazil kept pushing, and Marcelo forced Courtois into a save. Then Belgium went forward, Hazard and de Bruyne combined, and Brazil once again scrambled to clear. It was fast, end-to-end action, and both sides looked capable of breaking each other down at any given moment.

One team looked certain to score before the half was up. It was Belgium, not Brazil. Ever since they took the lead, they had threatened to turn one of their counter-attacks into a potent opportunity. When a cleared Brazilian corner found Lukaku, their break delivered. Lukaku simultaneously held off those behind him and took on those in front as he made a barnstorming run to the middle of the field, and he managed to squirt out a pass to the influential de Bruyne just before his momentum finally dissipated. The unmanned de Bruyne took a shot and didn’t miss, leaving Alisson with no chance as he drilled his unstoppable strike into the bottom corner. It was bad enough being behind. Now it was panic stations.

Naturally, Brazil kept pushing harder. Courtois was forced into a pair of tough saves in a matter of seconds, first keeping Marcelo’s deflected cross out with his outstretched hand and then flinging himself to his left to punch Coutinho’s well-placed shot away. Then, in keeping with the rhythm of the game, Belgium countered, and Hazard, Lukaku and de Bruyne threatened again. Shortly afterwards, Alisson tipped de Bruyne’s free-kick over the bar, and was tested again from the resultant corner when Kompany’s back-heeled flick was on target. Neymar hadn’t been too much of a factor, and the Brazilian star was thwarted thrice as the half came to a close. Firstly, he was set upon by Belgium’s afroed central midfield duo of Fellaini and Axel Witsel, and then he was stopped by club teammate Meunier. At the end of the half, he slipped in behind – and he was stopped by the offside flag.

The second half picked up where the first had left off. Kompany dispossessed Neymar and kick-started a counter-attack which saw de Bruyne play Lukaku through. Miranda, Brazil’s captain of the week, managed to stop him. Marcelo played in a few dangerous crosses, but they couldn’t find a target in the middle. Neymar went down in the box and appealed for a penalty, which wasn’t awarded. Paulinho nearly broke through minutes later, but Courtois saved his shot and Brazil couldn’t get onto his follow-up ball across goal. Another penalty appeal came when Kompany brought Gabriel Jesus down. The video assistant referee deliberated for what seemed like an age before deciding no error had been made. Play on. Then, after a protracted period of desperate defending, Belgium broke, and very nearly scored. De Bruyne (again) teed up Hazard (again), and the Belgian captain’s shot fizzed across the face of goal.

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Belgium’s players celebrate after the historic victory. They were pushed right to the end, but they held on well to progress to the semi-finals.

It soon seemed like Brazil’s attacks were beginning to falter. They still had chances, like when Courtois turned a cross into Paulinho’s leg, but Brazil weren’t coming quite as hard or as dangerously. Then Renato Augusto scored. He hadn’t been on the pitch for a long time, coming on as Tite’s last throw of the dice. Then things opened up for him with Coutinho’s perfect chip into the box, and he headed it into the bottom corner where Courtois couldn’t reach it. Brazil had hope, and they had Belgium on the back foot.

For the last 15 minutes, Brazil were a reinvigorated team. Neymar teed up Roberto Firmino in the centre, but the ball was blasted over the bar. Coutinho found Augusto on the edge of the box, and Augusto’s shot just missed. Neymar found Coutinho, for what should have been a simple chance for the star midfielder. He couldn’t have hit a worse shot if he tried, with the ball flying sideways instead of at the target. In the dying moments, Neymar had a shot after combining well with Douglas Costa. It looked perfect. It was dipping, bending and arcing dangerously towards the top corner. It was set to loop perfectly under the bar. It was set to become Neymar’s heroic moment. Then a black glove appeared and tapped the ball out for a corner. Courtois was too good for it.

As the final whistle sounded, it confirmed a win that had looked likely for some time. That didn’t mute the Belgian celebrations, however. De Bruyne was masterful, Hazard was dangerous, Courtois nearly unbeatable and the defence rock-solid. The contrast with Brazil was striking. Neymar occasionally threatened, but was nowhere near his best. Philippe Coutinho was similarly off his game. Fernandinho, in the side for regular defensive midfielder Casemiro, had a catastrophic 90 minutes, and right-back Fagner was tormented by Hazard. Brazil weren’t good enough, and Belgium most certainly were. In the end, the golden generation took their last chance. After the biggest win in their footballing history, they are a huge chance of lifting the World Cup.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
Brazil 1 (Renato Augusto 76)
Belgium 2 (Fernandinho 13 og, de Bruyne 31)
Referee: Milorad Mažić
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Paulinho (Renato Augusto 73), Fernandinho; Willian (Roberto Firmino 46), Philippe Coutinho, Neymar; Gabriel Jesus (Douglas Costa 58).
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Fellaini, Witsel, Chadli (Vermaelen 83); de Bruyne, Lukaku (Tielemans 87), E Hazard.

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Thibaut Courtois dives full length to stop Philippe Coutinho’s long range effort. The save was one of many remarkable stops made by Courtois in his brilliant performance.

Top 5
1. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
It took an immense effort, a perfect cross and an even more perfect header to eventually beat Courtois, and even Renato Augusto’s perfectly-placed effort wasn’t too far away from the Belgian goalkeeper’s desperate clutches. When Belgium needed him to stand up, he delivered, and he was the match-winner with his heroic goalkeeping.
2. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
Before this game, de Bruyne hadn’t been at his best. He was playing in a deeper midfield role, and he wasn’t getting on the ball in dangerous areas. Then he was moved into a more advanced position. From the start, de Bruyne was pulling the strings, floating into space and seemingly making something happen with every touch. His impact waned after half time, but his first half was enough.
3. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
When Hazard and de Bruyne combined, Brazil were put under immense pressure. Hazard was free to roam, and he made Fagner look completely out of his depth with some exceptional displays of skill. His balance, poise and ability caught the Brazilians out, and his counter-attacking runs were invaluable in the dying minutes for the time they chewed up.
4. Douglas Costa (Brazil)
Costa came off the bench, and he looked more likely to have an impact than many of his teammates. He made incisive runs cutting in from the right wing, he played some dangerous crosses and he connected well with the rest of the Brazilian attack. It wasn’t his best tournament, but a lively performance was a good way to finish it.
5. Vincent Kompany (Belgium)
Kompany wasn’t able to start in the group stage due to injury, but Belgium took the risk of picking their former captain despite his troubles. In their biggest ever win, he justified that selection. His defensive work was outstanding, and he was a huge factor in Belgium’s ability to keep the Brazilians out. To cap it off, it was his header that was deflected in for the crucial opening goal.

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Tunisia blown away by red-hot Belgium

Any team playing Belgium later in this World Cup should be afraid. They have scored eight goals in their first two games, and their dominant 5-2 rout of Tunisia sent a massive warning to their competition. Up front, Romelu Lukaku used his pace, power and extraordinary touch to score his second brace in two games. Next to him, Eden Hazard was at his best, slipping past Tunisian defenders, wreaking havoc with his runs in behind and adding two goals of his own. Michy Batshuayi, coming on as Lukaku’s deputy, could have easily scored a hat-trick with the brilliant chances he had. Tunisia fought hard, and created some nice attacking moves of their own, but they were no match for a Belgian team who could seemingly unlock their opponents’ defence at will. Perhaps the scariest part about Belgium’s performance is the fact that there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

There were warning signs early. A long ball into Belgium’s attacking third was too heavy, and certain to safely travel to Farouk Ben Mustapha. Then Lukaku got involved, easily outrunning centre-back Yassine Meriah and seriously challenging the Tunisian keeper with a blistering turn of speed. It wasn’t really a chance, but it showed exactly what the big striker can do. A few minutes later, Eden Hazard was the victim of a clumsy challenge from Syam Ben Youssef on the edge of the box. Referee Jair Marrufo pointed to the spot, the video assistant referee couldn’t find anything to overturn the decision and Hazard stepped up to calmly convert the penalty. On the sideline, Belgian coach Roberto Martínez didn’t even react.

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Eden Hazard celebrates after scoring the opening goal. There was some doubt as to whether Hazard was fouled inside the area or not, but the referee’s decision was upheld and the penalty stood.

Soon, things got worse for the Eagles of Carthage. Ali Maâloul’s heavy touch was intercepted by Dries Mertens, and his pass to Lukaku sliced through the exposed Tunisian defence. It was still far from an easy finish for the big striker, who received the ball just inside the area, took a touch and hit a shot through Ben Youssef’s legs and past Ben Mustapha’s desperate lunge. It wasn’t a particularly easy finish, but Lukaku made it look like child’s play. More worryingly for the Tunisians, just over 15 minutes had elapsed when Lukaku made it 2-0. It didn’t bode well.

Then, a couple of minutes after the second goal, came the highlight of Tunisia’s match. Wahbi Khazri curled a free-kick into the box, and Belgium’s slightly shaky defence allowed right-back Dylan Bronn the space to get his head to the ball. The header was perfect, unstoppably bouncing past Thibaut Courtois and slipping just inside the post. The goal put Tunisia back in the contest, and there were signs that they were starting to settle into the game. A few incautious errors gave Belgium some opportunities, but Khazri and Ferjani Sassi were also able to present a threat going forward and the Tunisians put some nice moves together. Defenders Bronn and Ben Youssef went down injured, but Tunisia continued to fight and seemed to be hanging in the contest. Then Belgium scored on the stroke of half time.

Seconds before the goal, Lukaku had threatened to score another. Hazard found Kevin de Bruyne in space as Belgium broke quickly, and Tunisia only survived when de Bruyne’s ball for Lukaku was slightly too heavy. The next time a chance came, Tunisia didn’t get off so lightly. Maâloul had been the main culprit for the turnovers which had riddled Tunisia’s play, and when he tried to keep the ball in he offended again. This time Thomas Meunier was the beneficiary, and after playing a one-two with de Bruyne the right wing-back slipped a little pass in behind for Lukaku to run onto. Ben Mustapha was chipped with remarkable ease, and Belgium had their third. It didn’t take much longer to grab the fourth.

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Michy Batshuayi celebrates after scoring a late goal. Batshuayi came on as a second half substitute, and had a number of clear-cut opportunities.

Tunisia started the second half well, producing some good attacking moves. Then their defence was unlocked by one pass. Toby Alderweireld picked the ball up deep in his own half, and with few options available to him he went long. He also hit Hazard behind the defence, onside and straight on the chest. It took the Belgian captain three touches to put it into the back of the net. He controlled the ball with his chest, then flicked it past Ben Mustapha to present himself with a chance in front of an open goal. He couldn’t miss. Belgium began to switch off a little after Hazard’s second, and Tunisia began to put their defence under a bit of pressure. It never quite looked like coming to anything.

Batshuayi came on and proceeded to have a number of brilliant chances to score. He slipped in behind the Tunisian defence and chipped Ben Mustapha, only for Meriah to sweep in and clear it off the line. He had another chance when Ben Mustapha fumbled Yannick Carrasco’s shot, but somehow smashed it into the bar from very close range. When he volleyed de Bruyne’s perfect cross straight at the Tunisian keeper, forcing Ben Mustapha into a reflex save, it looked like the substitute striker would be denied a goal. He wasn’t. In the dying moments, Youri Tielemans put in a beautiful cross, and Batshuayi timed his slide perfectly to send the ball into the bottom corner. It was another difficult opportunity converted with little fuss, and it provided an excellent finishing touch to an excellent win. Tunisia had some late joy when Khazri got on the end of Hamdi Nagguez’s pull-back to the edge of the six-yard box, but it was one of few wins for the day and merely served as a footnote to a one-sided game.

Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Belgium 5 (E Hazard 6 pen, 51, Lukaku 16, 45+3, Batshuayi 90)
Tunisia 2 (Bronn 18, Khazri 90+3)
Referee: Jair Marrufo (USA)
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Boyata, Vertonghen; Meunier, de Bruyne, Witsel, Carrasco; Mertens (Tielemans 86), Lukaku (Fellaini 59), E Hazard (Batshuayi 68).
Tunisia (4-3-3): Ben Mustapha – Bronn (Nagguez 24), S Ben Youssef (Benalouane 41), Meriah, Maâloul; Khaoui, Skhiri, Sassi (Sliti 59); F Ben Youssef, Khazri, Badri.

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Romelu Lukaku (centre) competes for the ball with Syam Ben Youssef (left). Lukaku managed to score two goals, making him the equal top scorer for the tournament with four from two games.

Top 5
1. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Lukaku was substituted reasonably early in the second half, but by then the match was all but over thanks to his influence. He showed incredible pace and found dangerous pockets of space, and his finishing was exceptional. He scored goals with both feet, and made difficult finishes look extraordinarily straightforward.
2. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Hazard kicked off the scoring by winning a penalty and coolly converting it, and he continued to pose a threat until his substitution in the second half. He added another goal, benefitting from an incredible ball but also completing the chance with remarkably good touch, and created plenty of chances with his brilliant skills.
3. Wahbi Khazri (Tunisia)
Khazri’s goal was a deserved reward for his performance, even if it came when his team were four goals behind in second half stoppage time. He created plenty of opportunities for the Eagles of Carthage, and his perfectly delivered free-kick allowed them to score their first goal. He can hold his head high.
4. Michy Batshuayi (Belgium)
A combination of bad luck and poor finishing denied Batshuayi a number of goals, but he kept putting himself in dangerous positions and eventually bagged a late goal. He was able to exploit the space in behind Tunisia’s defence after coming off the bench, and if Martínez wants to rest Lukaku then Batshuayi would be a dangerous replacement.
5. Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
Meunier performed his wing-back role to perfection, making several key contributions at both ends of the pitch. He was dangerous cutting in from the sideline, and he provided the assist for Lukaku’s second goal with a very neat pass. His defensive work was excellent, and he looks like a solid addition to Belgium’s side.

Belgium score three without breaking a sweat

At least they survived the first half. As Belgium opened their World Cup campaign by cruising to victory against a Panamanian side who were completely outmatched by their star-studded opponents, that was the one thing Los Canaleros could cling to, the one positive souvenir of a tough day. For Belgium, it was business as usual despite a slightly-too-casual opening, with Dries Mertens netting a stunning volley and Romelu Lukaku picking up a brace as they dominated the second half and never seemed to get out of first gear.

Panama had been waiting for this day since October last year, and their first half of World Cup football was a success, even if, predictably, it was Belgium who had the first real chances. Jaime Penedo was called into action early on, saving a hard-hit shot from Yannick Carrasco and needing quick reflexes just seconds later to deny a dangerous attempt from Mertens. Shortly afterwards, Eden Hazard intercepted Román Torres’ slightly shallow backpass before it reached Penedo and drilled a shot into the side netting, and it appeared like Panama were about to be suffocated by the weight of Belgium’s opportunities. They weren’t.

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Eden Hazard (left) runs away from Gabriel Gómez during the match. Hazard’s control with the ball at his feet caused plenty of issues for the Panamanian defence.

Belgium had chances, of course, like when Kevin de Bruyne’s cross was nearly turned into the Panamanian net by Torres and when Hazard ran straight through the defence and forced Penedo into another fine save. But those chances were too often punctuated by lengthy periods of inaction, where Les Diables Rouges controlled the ball but couldn’t find the urgency to break down their determined opponents. They were approaching the game with all the energy of a Sunday stroll in the park, seemingly waiting for something to happen rather than pushing for it. Hazard threatened, but never really did anything meaningful, and de Bruyne wasn’t getting into good enough positions to take advantage of his incredible vision. Up front, Lukaku was completely anonymous. By half time, the scores were still level, and Panama still hadn’t been seriously tested by an underwhelming Belgian team.

Belgium emerged from half time with more purpose, and it took less than two minutes for them to go ahead thanks to Mertens’ wonder goal. Torres could only clear the Belgian winger’s fairly harmless ball into the box as far as Hazard and Fidel Escobar, and after an aerial contest the ball ended up back where it started, falling to Mertens in the box. Casually, he took on the shot first time, looping the volley towards goal on a tight angle and leaving Penedo with no chance as the unstoppable strike floated into the top corner. It was a remarkable finish, and its difficulty was belied by the nonchalance with which Mertens took the quarter-chance.

With the deadlock broken, Belgian deemed that there was no further need for their top effort. Soon the game slipped back into the lull of the first half, with Belgium controlling proceedings but not quite doing enough to seriously threaten the Panamanian goal. Panama had a golden opportunity almost immediately after Mertens’ goal, but Michael Murillo couldn’t finish against Thibaut Courtois. It was telling that the Belgians didn’t seem too concerned by the possibility of Panama scoring, and Jan Vertonghen was only getting worked up over Carrasco’s dereliction of his defensive duties. It was the best opportunity Panama had for the rest of the match. Around 15 minutes later they doubled their advantage.

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Romulu Lukaku celebrates after scoring Belgium’s third goal. Lukaku’s chip over Jaime Penedo was a fitting finish to a dominant Belgian display.

It was the previously quiet Lukaku who was good enough to bag the second after some brilliant build-up play. Hazard started it, once again challenging every defender in sight with one of his pretty but directionless runs, and after engaging three Panamanian defenders he slipped a pass to de Bruyne. What happened next was pure class. Upon receiving the ball, de Bruyne shimmied past Aníbal Godoy, found himself in perfect position and threaded an exquisite cross onto the forehead of the powerful striker with the outstep of his right boot. Like Mertens’ perfect volley, it was a moment of nonchalant brilliance which clearly highlighted the difference between the two sides.

A fast break, a good run from Hazard and an effortless first time chip from Lukaku provided the third goal, but by that point the game was already over. Panama fought up to the final whistle, at times drawing big cheers from their large contingent of supporters when they came close to scoring a historic goal, but they never really stood a chance against Belgium’s second half onslaught. For their part, Belgium only tried as hard as they needed to, and the ease with which they sealed their 3-0 win should sound a warning to any team that will come up against them.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Belgium 3 (Mertens 47, Lukaku 69, 75)
Panama 0
Referee: Janny Sikazwe (Zam)
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Boyata, Vertonghen; Meunier, Witsel (Chadli 90), de Bruyne, Carrasco (Dembélé 74); Mertens (T Hazard 83), Lukaku, E Hazard.
Panama (4-1-4-1): Penedo – Murillo, R Torres, Escobar, Davis; Gómez; Bárcenas (G Torres 63), Cooper, Godoy, J L Rodríguez (Díaz 63); Pérez (Tejada 73).

Top 5
1. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Hazard came into his own in the second half, playing a big hand in both of Belgium’s goals and looking very dangerous with the ball at his feet. He was always attempting to take on the Panamanian defence, and while they managed to stop him most of the time he had a big impact when he did break through.
2. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Lukaku came into his own after a quiet first half, bagging two second half goals and working his way into good positions. He showed an excellent turn of speed in scoring the final goal of the match, and with his freakish athleticism and excellent supporting players it’s scary what he could do if he puts together a full 90-minute effort.
3. Jaime Penedo (Panama)
Penedo had plenty of work to do, especially in the first half, and he made some truly brilliant saves to deny Belgium’s brilliant attackers. He was one of the few Panamanians who didn’t seem slightly out of place against their world-class opposition, and can hold his head high after a strong performance.
4. Dries Mertens (Belgium)
You wouldn’t necessarily know it from how easily he seemed to take the chance, but Mertens’ volley to open the scoring could be an early contender for goal of the tournament. Otherwise, he made plenty of dangerous attacking runs and created plenty of problems for Panama’s defence in a solid effort.
5. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
De Bruyne was another of Belgium’s stars who began the game slowly but finished with an excellent second half display. He worked into more advanced positions as the game progressed, and when he got the ball in and around the penalty area he was capable of providing special balls like the assist for Lukaku’s first goal.

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.

2016-17 Premier League Preview – The Contenders

The Premier League season is fast approaching, and as clubs look around frantically to improve their squads I am going to assess how they are shaping up before the new season. This season promises to provide plenty of excitement, and after Leicester City’s historic title win last season the field is more open than ever. In the days leading up to the start of the season I will be looking at all twenty teams in depth, beginning with those sides who I think are in the hunt for the title. Enjoy.

Arsenal

Manager: Arsene Wenger
Captain: Laurent Koscielny
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Last Season: 2nd
Top Scorer: Olivier Giroud (16)
Most Assists: Mesut Ozil (19)
Prediction: 4th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Wojciech Szczesny, 13. David Ospina, 26. Emiliano Martinez, 33. Petr Cech.
Defenders: 2. Mathieu Debuchy, 3. Kieran Gibbs, 4. Per Mertesacker, 5. Gabriel Paulista, 6. Laurent Koscielny, 16. Rob Holding, 18. Nacho Monreal, 21. Calum Chambers, 24. Hector Bellerin, 25. Carl Jenkinson.
Midfielders: 8. Aaron Ramsey, 10. Jack Wilshere, 11. Mesut Ozil, 15. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, 17. Alex Iwobi, 19. Santi Cazorla, 29. Granit Xhaka, 34. Francis Coquelin, 35. Mohamed Elneny.
Forwards: 7. Alexis Sanchez, 12. Olivier Giroud, 14. Theo Walcott, 22. Yaya Sanogo, 23. Danny Welbeck, 27. Serge Gnabry, 28. Joel Campbell, 32. Chuba Akpom, Takuma Asano.

Arsenal had a fairly strong season last time around, but while they did finish second they never really looked like mounting a serious challenge for the title. Not much has changed since, with Arsene Wenger staying fairly quiet in the transfer market. Granit Xhaka has been brought in from Borussia Monchengladbach, and he will be one of the leading candidates to match up with Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil (pictured) at the heart of a very strong midfield. Up front, Wenger is looking to add another striker, but Olivier Giroud’s strong form at Euro 2016 may convince him to stick with the French target man. Petr Cech has a very solid defence in front of him, and Arsenal are not likely to concede too many goals.

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The Gunners have a strong all round team and could lift the trophy come the end of the season, but they have not changed much and they may struggle to keep up. They have consistently finished in the top four over a prolonged period of time, and while they maintain a constant presence in the Champions League they have not really looked like lifting any silverware besides their two recent FA Cup wins. Ultimately, winning the title is not something which they expect to do anymore, and as such the big changes which would be required to match the biggest clubs are not being made. Arsenal will definitely be around the top of the table at the end of the season, but a title win looks highly unlikely.

Star Player: Mesut Ozil

Ozil is at the centre of Arsenal’s team, providing plenty of chances for the strikers with his ability to put good balls in behind the defence. The German star led the Premier League for assists last season, and he was just one short of breaking the Premier League record for most assists in a single campaign. He can also hit the scoreboard himself, and his brilliance in attack will prove crucial as Arsenal look to contend for the title once more.

Key Player: Laurent Koscielny

With Per Mertesacker out for five months it will be up to new captain Koscielny to be the rock at the heart of the defence alongside Gabriel Paulista, who is still relatively inexperienced. He has been in good form, and if that does not continue in the early stages of the season Arsenal could have some major problems down the track.

One to Watch: Hector Bellerin

Bellerin is still only 21, but he has firmly set himself at right back in Arsene Wenger’s team. He has incredible pace and he was the only Arsenal player named in the Premier League team of the season at the end of last campaign. He was left on the bench by Vincente del Bosque at Euro 2016, but he has plenty of potential and should develop further this season.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Cech – Bellerin, Koscielny, Paulista, Monreal; Ramsey, Xhaka; Cazorla, Ozil, Sanchez; Giroud.

Chelsea

Manager: Antonio Conte
Captain: John Terry
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Last Season: 10th
Top Scorer: Diego Costa (12)
Most Assists: Cesc Fabregas (7)
Prediction: 5th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Asmir Begovic, 13. Thibaut Courtois, 27. Jamal Blackman, Bradley Collins.
Defenders: 2. Branislav Ivanovic, 3. Papy Djilobodji, 5. Kurt Zouma, 6. Baba Rahman, 20. Matt Miazga, 24. Gary Cahill, 26. John Terry, 28. Cesar Azpilicueta, 30. Michael Hector, 34. Ola Aina, 37. Jake Clarke-Salter, 39. Fankaty Dabo, 43. Fiyako Tomori, Todd Kane, Kenneth Omeruo, Alex Davey.
Midfielders: 4. Cesc Fabregas, 7. N’Golo Kante, 8. Oscar, 10. Eden Hazard, 11. Pedro, 12. John Obi Mikel, 15. Victor Moses, 16. Kenedy, 17. Juan Cuadrado, 21. Nemanja Matic, 22. Willian, 29. Nathaniel Chalobah, 31. Christian Atsu, 33. Cristian Cuevas, 36. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, 41. Charlie Colkett, Danilo Pantic, Isaiah Brown, Jordan Houghton, Lucas Piazon, Marco van Ginkel, Mario Pasalic, Marko Marin.
Forwards: 14. Bertrand Traore, 18. Loic Remy, 19. Diego Costa, 23. Michy Batshuayi, 42. Tammy Abraham, Dominic Solanke, Patrick Bamford, Islam Feruz.

After the high of a title win in 2014-15 Chelsea crashed back down to earth in a spectacular manner last season. Jose Mourinho was sacked after a shocking run of results in the first half of the season, and Guus Hiddinck was only able to get them as high as ninth place. Antonio Conte has come in to replace Hiddinck as manager, and the former Italian coach has already set about making his mark on the team. Michy Batshuayi has come in from Marseille, and the midfield has been bolstered by the signing of N’Golo Kante from title winners Leicester City. Conte has one of the best tactical brains in world football, and he is likely to use his trademark 3-5-2 formation with his new side. The formation will give Chelsea a massive defensive boost, and it should give Conte plenty of opportunities to use the squad depth he has at his disposal.

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While the arrival of Conte is sure to boost Chelsea’s chances of lifting the title, they will need plenty of improvement across the board. Thibaut Courtois will be looking to show the form he showed at the Euros, and the defence will need to lift in order to protect him. Eden Hazard (pictured) was incredibly disappointing last season, and if Chelsea are to win everything they will need him to regain his best form. Diego Costa is likely to retain his place up front despite an average season, and he will be looking to lift. If these players show some dramatic improvement then Chelsea will be very tough to beat, but there is no guarantee that this lift will occur. Conte is likely to need some time to adjust to his new surroundings, and another title is highly unlikely.

Star Player: Eden Hazard

Hazard has incredible technical ability, and when he is at his best he is incredible to watch. He can tear a team apart with his ability to dribble past defenders, and he is one of the top players in the Premier League when he is on his game. He struggled last season, and Chelsea fans will be hoping he can regain his touch.

Key Player: Cesc Fabregas

Fabregas was trained in the Barcelona academy, and his ability to distribute the ball from the centre of midfield is exceptional. He creates plenty of chances for the strikers, and while Conte will be looking for him to do this he will also be looking for more defensive solidity. Fabregas is the team’s main link between defence and attack, and Chelsea need him to be in top form.

One to watch: Kurt Zouma

Zouma moved to Chelsea from Saint-Etienne in 2014, and he will be groomed over the course of the season as a replacement for John Terry, who is approaching retirement. He may take Branislav Ivanovic’s place in the heart of defence as Conte looks to revert to a back three, and while he is unlikely to be a regular starter he is sure to get an excellent chance in the first team.

Likely team (3-5-2): Courtois – Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry; Azpilicueta, Fabregas, Kante, Willian, Hazard; Costa, Batshuayi.

Leicester City

Manager: Claudio Ranieri
Captain: Wes Morgan
Ground: King Power Stadium
Last Season: 1st
Top Scorer: Jamie Vardy (24)
Most Assists: Riyad Mahrez (11)
Prediction: 6th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Kasper Schmeichel, 12. Ben Hamer, Ron-Robert Zieler.
Defenders: 2. Richie de Laet, 5. Wes Morgan, 6. Robert Huth, 15. Jeff Schlupp, 17. Danny Simpson, 18. Liam Moore, 27. Marcin Wasilewski, 28. Christian Fuchs, 29. Yohan Benalouane, 30. Ben Chilwell, Luis Hernandez.
Midfielders: 4. Danny Drinkwater, 8. Matty James, 10. Andy King, 11. Marc Albrighton, 13. Daniel Amartey, 22. Demarai Gray, 26. Riyad Mahrez, 33. Gokhan Inler, Hamza Choudhury, Nampalys Mendy.
Forwards: 9. Jamie Vardy, 16. Tom Lawrence, 20. Shinji Okazaki, 23. Leonardo Ulloa, Ahmed Musa.

To call Leicester City’s historic title win last season a miracle would be an understatement. Under the guidance of experienced Italian manager Claudio Ranieri the Foxes exceeded all expectations, starting the season at the top of the ladder and holding on despite the odds. They have kept many of their stars from last season with the exception of N’Golo Kante’s departure to Chelsea, and while they may still lose Riyad Mahrez (pictured) they should line up much the same come the start of the season. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth are very solid down back, and new recruit Luis Hernandez should provide excellent cover in the case of injury. Danny Drinkwater is solid in midfield, and Mahrez is likely to provide plenty of goals and assists as he did last season. Jamie Vardy has a great eye for goal, and he will be ably complemented up front by Shinji Okazaki and Ahmed Musa.

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Leicester have been fairly active in the transfer market over the break, but they have not really improved their side and could struggle to keep up with the bigger clubs. They may be Premier League champions, but Leicester are still a comparatively small club, and their chances of lifting the trophy again are incredibly slim. They are a good side and should stay in the hunt, but if Mahrez departs it would cause huge problems. Ranieri is an exceptionally smart coach and could take his team to another title, but it is highly unlikely to happen.

Star Player: Riyad Mahrez

Mahrez, like so many of his teammates, came out of nowhere last season to set the Premier League alight. He scored 17 goals and assisted 11, showing great skill as he led his team to the title. Now one of the most sought-after players in Europe, the Algerian winger is sure to be tightly marked as Leicester look to go back-to-back.

Key Player: Wes Morgan

Morgan has plenty of experience, having played over 350 times for Nottingham Forest and having won over 180 caps for Leicester. He is the captain and it will be his job to marshal the defence, ensuring that not much gets through. He was at the top of his game last season, and he will need to return to his best if Leicester are going to get anywhere this time around.

One to watch: Nampalys Mendy

Mendy may not be well-known in England, but he is a top quality midfielder and he is an ideal replacement for the departed Kante. He has drawn comparisons with Chelsea legend Claude Makelele, and he came very close to joining Manchester United before swapping Monaco for Nice. He is still young, but he has plenty of experience and should slot effortlessly into Leicester’s midfield.

Likely team (4-4-2): Schmeichel – Simpson, Huth, Morgan, Fuchs; Mahrez, Drinkwater, Mendy, Musa; Vardy, Okazaki.

Manchester City

Manager: Pep Guardiola
Captain: Vincent Kompany
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Last Season: 4th
Top Scorer: Sergio Aguero (24)
Most Assists: David Silva (11)
Prediction: 2nd

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Joe Hart, 13. Willy Caballero, 45. Ian Lawlor, 54. Angus Gunn.
Defenders: 3. Bacary Sagna, 4. Vincent Kompany, 5. Pablo Zabaleta, 11. Aleksandar Kolarov, 20. Eliaquim Mangala, 22. Gael Clichy, 28. Jason Denayer, 30. Nicolas Otamendi, 50. Pablo Maffeo, 53. Tosin Adarabioyo, 69. Angelino.
Midfielders: 6. Fernando, 7. Raheem Sterling, 8. Samir Nasri, 15. Jesus Navas, 16. Ilkay Gundogan, 17. Kevin de Bruyne, 18. Fabian Delph, 21. David Silva, 25. Fernandinho, 35. Oleksandr Zinchenko, 36. Bruno Zuculini, 42. Yaya Toure, 59. Bersant Celina, 62. Brandon Barker, 75. Aleix Garcia.
Forwards: 9. Nolito, 10. Sergio Aguero, 14. Wilfried Bony, 72. Kelechi Iheanacho.

Manchester City were disappointing last season, barely scraping past Manchester United on goal difference to sneak into the Champions League. Manuel Pellegrini is gone, and former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola has been drafted in to replace him. He has inherited an excellent squad who are more than capable of taking home the trophy, and new additions Nolito and Ilkay Gundogan should slot effortlessly into the first team. Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva will provide plenty of chances for Sergio Aguero (pictured) up front, and Yaya Toure will combine with Fernandinho and Gundogan to provide solidity in midfield. Aguero is a proven scorer at both club and international level, and he will cause plenty of problems for opposition defences.

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Manchester City have the attacking power to penetrate any defence in the league, but there are still some defensive problems. Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta are very strong players, but Guardiola is still in need of another centre back. Nicolas Otamendi is not young, and the idea of using Fernandinho as a defender may not work. Similar issues exist at left back, where neither Aleksandar Kolarov nor Gael Clichy are sustainable long term options. Joe Hart is an experienced keeper, but he is nowhere near the best in the Premier League and lets in a number of unnecessary goals. Manchester City are the best attacking side in the Premier League and will be in the hunt, but their defensive issues may prove costly.

Star Player: Sergio Aguero

Aguero is a goal machine, having scored 102 Premier League goals in 150 games since joining Manchester City in 2011. He has plenty of place and an incredible eye for goal, and he provides plenty of problems for defenders. If Manchester City are to win the title they will need him to perform, as it is his ability to score which keeps them in the hunt every season.

Key Player: Yaya Toure

Toure has developed into one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, and his ability to anchor the midfield while providing the occasional goal will be key as Manchester City look to push for the title. He has plenty of experience at the highest level, and Guardiola will be hoping he can step up to take Manchester City to the next level.

One to watch: Kelechi Iheanacho

Iheanacho’s first season in the Premier League was a massive success, with the 19 year-old Nigerian playing 26 league games and scoring 8 goals. He still only has one season of professional football under his belt, and he will only continue to improve as he looks to take on a greater role under Guardiola. He is an exciting prospect and he will be great to watch.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Hart – Zabaleta, Fernandinho, Kompany, Kolarov; Toure, Gundogan; Silva, de Bruyne, Nolito; Aguero.

Manchester United

Manager: Jose Mourinho
Captain: Wayne Rooney
Ground: Old Trafford
Last Season: 5th
Top Scorer: Anthony Martial (11)
Most Assists: Wayne Rooney (6)
Prediction: 1st

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. David de Gea, 20. Sergio Romero, 32. Sam Johnstone.
Defenders: 3. Eric Bailly, 4. Phil Jones, 5. Marcos Rojo, 12. Chris Smalling, 23. Luke Shaw, 33. Paddy McNair, 36. Matteo Darmian, 38. Axel Tuanzebe, 43. Cameron Borthwick-Johnson, Tyler Blackett.
Midfielders: 8. Juan Mata, 14. Jesse Lingard, 15. Adnan Januzaj, 16. Michael Carrick, 17. Daley Blind, 18. Ashley Young, 21. Ander Herrera, 22. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, 24. Timothy Fosu-Mensah, 25. Antonio Valencia, 27. Marouane Fellaini, 28. Morgan Schneiderlin, 31. Bastian Schweinsteiger, 44. Andreas Pereira.
Forwards: 7. Memphis Depay, 9. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 10. Wayne Rooney, 11. Anthony Martial, 19. Marcus Rashford, 48. Will Keane, James Wilson.

Manchester United were disappointing last season, finishing fifth in the league and exiting the Champions League in the group stage. Victory in the FA Cup was not enough to save Louis van Gaal, and Jose Mourinho has come in to replace the Dutchman. He has added Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (pictured) over the off-season, and French midfielder Paul Pogba looks set to join the club for a world record fee. Mourinho is sure to add some much-needed solidity to the defence, and with the potency of Ibrahimovic and Anthony Martial in attack there will not be any shortage of goals. Mkhitaryan will provide plenty of chances for the strikers, and Mourinho has many good options in the centre of the park.

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Manchester United have some excellent players all over the park, but they do not have any obvious starters in defence. Chris Smalling has not been in the best of form recently, and Phil Jones is not necessarily the right option either. This uncertainty in defence is a serious problem, and it could leave David de Gea with plenty of work to do. Wayne Rooney is listed as captain, but with the new arrivals he is no longer good enough to command a place in the starting line-up. He has been playing in attacking midfield, but Mkhitaryan is a better player who will have a greater impact. This leaves Mourinho with a serious selection dilemma, one of many he could face over the course of the season. Even still, Manchester United have the quality to win the title, and if Mourinho gets it right they could be unstoppable.

Star Player: Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Mkhitaryan has been brought in from Borussia Dortmund, where he developed into one of the best playmakers in the world. He led the Bundesliga for assists last season, and he is able to find the back of the net as well. He has brilliant technical ability and he will open up plenty of space for the strikers with his pace and his effective passing.

Key Player: David de Gea

Manchester United were minutes away from losing de Gea at the start of last season, but a failure to hand in paperwork proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Red Devils. The Spanish keeper has since developed into one of the best in the Premier League, and if Manchester United are to overcome their defensive weaknesses he will need to be at his best.

One to watch: Marcus Rashford

Manchester United have many great prospects coming through, but none are as exciting as Rashford. He scored after just three minutes on his international debut, and made two substitute appearances for the English at Euro 2016. He is still only 18, and he is sure to make plenty of progress over the course of the season.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Darmian, Smalling, Bailly, Rojo; Herrera, Blind; Mata, Mkhitaryan, Martial; Ibrahimovic.

Tottenham Hotspur

Manager: Mauricio Pocchettino
Captain: Hugo Lloris
Ground: White Hart Lane
Last Season: 3rd
Top Scorer: Harry Kane (25)
Most Assists: Christian Eriksen (13)
Prediction: 3rd

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Hugo Lloris, 13. Michel Vorm.
Defenders: 2. Kyle Walker, 3. Danny Rose, 4. Toby Alderweireld, 5. Jan Vertonghen, 16. Kieran Trippier, 21. Federico Fazio, 27. Kevin Wimmer, 32. DeAndre Yedlin, 33. Ben Davies.
Midfielders: 6. Nabil Bentaleb, 8. Ryan Mason, 11. Erik Lamela, 12. Victor Wanyama, 15. Eric Dier, 19. Mousa Dembele, 20. Dele Alli, 22. Nacer Chadli, 23. Christian Eriksen, 24. Alex Pritchard, 25. Josh Onomah, 28. Tom Carroll, 29. Harry Winks.
Forwards: 7. Son Heung-min, 9. Vincent Janssen, 10. Harry Kane, 14. Clinton N’Jie.

Tottenham exceeded all expectations last season, challenging for the title and only finishing third after a bad run of results late in the season. They unearthed new stars in Dele Alli and Eric Dier, and they have developed Harry Kane (pictured) into one of the most dangerous strikers in the Premier League. Vincent Janssen has been added to the squad from AZ Alkmaar after he netted 27 times in the Eredivisie, and the Dutch youngster is sure to provide plenty of excitement for Spurs fans. Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela and Alli are sure to create plenty of opportunities for the strikers, and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris is backed up by an excellent defence. Fullbacks Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were rare bright spots in England’s campaign at Euro 2016, and Belgian centre backs Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are sure to provide plenty of solidity.

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Tottenham have an excellent squad, but they are still very young and inexperienced. Alli, Kane and Dier have only burst onto the scene in recent times, and before Janssen’s explosion in the second half of last season he was virtually unknown. Vertonghen suffered an injury at the Euros, and he is in doubt for the early parts of the season. Dier is likely to move into defence to replace him, but he has been playing as a midfielder for some time now, and he may struggle to adjust. Spurs have a lot of players in their starting line-up who are not yet proven at the highest level, and some of their young stars could crash back down to earth over the course of this campaign.

Star Player: Harry Kane

Kane has become a scoring machine, scoring 49 goals in the last two Premier League seasons and breaking down defences with power and pace. He was disappointing at the Euros, but he is an incredibly consistent scorer and he is likely to return to form very quickly. He is a strong presence up front for Spurs, and he will require plenty of attention from opposition defences.

Key Player: Toby Alderweireld

Alderweireld is a key presence in the Tottenham defence, and he has formed an incredible combination with fellow Belgian international Vertonghen. He is very experienced at the highest level, and he is capable of filling any defensive holes that may appear. He was a constant presence last season, and he will need to ensure that not much gets through.

One to watch: Vincent Janssen

Janssen burst onto the scene over the second half of last season, becoming the first player in 52 years to score 20 Eredivisie goals after the winter break. He is still only 22, and while he may take some time to adjust to the improvement in opposition he has developed well and has the potential to be a massive success.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Dier, Alli; Lamela, Eriksen, Chadli; Kane.

Hazard a cut above as Belgium crush Hungary

Eden Hazard has always been a brilliant talent, and in the round of 16 against Hungary he showed just how good he can be with a sublime individual performance. The stand-in Belgian captain finished the game with a goal and an assist, but his performance went beyond the raw figures. He was too good for Hungary, weaving through the defence with ease and distributing the ball wherever he wanted to. He made solid, incisive runs through the Hungarian defence. He moved quickly on the counter-attack without compromising on control. It was the performance of a maestro, a player in complete control over himself and his opponents.

At first it was Kevin de Bruyne doing the work for Belgium. It was de Bruyne who was running the show in the centre of the field, and it was de Bruyne who was getting the best chances. It was de Bruyne’s free kick which set up Toby Alderweireld for Belgium’s first goal, a curling ball which perfectly exploited a weak spot in the Hungarian defence. Gabor Kiraly had been good, but he had no chance when Alderweireld placed his header in the top corner.

After the goal the game opened up for the Belgians, and Hazard was able to transition the ball between defence and attack. He never looked like being tackled, keeping the ball very close to his feet and suggesting that a foul was the best way to dispossess him. Hungary were looking for an equaliser, but Belgium looked more threatening on the break and were the team who looked most likely to score.

If Hazard hadn’t fully imposed himself on the first period of the match, the second half was where he showed his class. He showed early warning signs, breezing past Adam Lang as if the Hungarian right back was not present before unleashing a shot at the top corner. Kiraly was able to make the save. Hungary pushed, and Adam Szalai started to get some great chances. But then Hazard would get the ball and run it to the other side of the field, relieving the pressure. Akos Elek clipped him as he tried to get away; Hungary’s half time substitute was promptly shown a yellow card. Hazard continued to show his skill, weaving past defenders to get the ball to Axel Witsel, who found Radja Nainggolan in a good position. The central midfielder missed.

Roland Juhasz had a pair of great chances for Hungary from set pieces, but he could not convert. They were pushing hard for the equaliser, but the threat of Hazard got bigger and bigger every time he broke away. He was in control when he had the ball, able to use any option or make any pass he wanted with a simple touch. He was at the top of his game. Then he exploded, sealing the game for Belgium and blowing Hungary out of the way.

It started with the assist. A corner from de Bruyne was headed away, and the clearance found Hazard inside the box. He had countless options available to him at this point, with multiple players open and spreading into good positions. He set the play up himself. He took a heavy touch into the box before chasing it up, beating the Hungarian defence for pace and reclaiming the ball in a great position. He played the ball across goal for Michy Batshuayi, who had just entered the game for Romelu Lukaku. The ball passed Kiraly, and Batshuayi was able to tap the ball home to double Belgium’s lead. Then came the goal. Belgium were on the break again moments after Batshuayi’s goal, and Yannick Carrasco decided to use Hazard as he streamed through the middle of the field. He collected the ball and beat Lang, before weaving through two more defenders and driving the ball into the bottom right-hand corner. Kiraly did not stand a chance, and Hazard’s two minutes of brilliance meant that Hungary didn’t either.

Then the show was over. Hazard was replaced, with Marouane Fellaini coming on to see out the last ten minutes. The game was already done, however, and Carrasco’s injury-time goal was window-dressing, not important to the actual outcome. There were questions about the team heading into this game, but not anymore. Belgium put in a performance that showed why they are number two in the world, and Hazard showed that he is still one of the world’s best players.

Toulouse – Stadium Municipal
Hungary 0
Belgium 4 (Alderweireld 10, Batshuayi 78, Hazard 80, Carrasco 90+1)
Referee: Milorad Mazic (Srb)

Hungary (4-2-3-1): Kiraly – Lang, Juhasz (Bode 81), Guzmics, Kadar; Nagy, Gera (Elek 46); Lovrencsics, Pinter (Nikolic 75), Dzsudzsak; Szalai.
Belgium (4-3-3): Courtois – Meunier, Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Witsel, de Bruyne, Nainggolan; Mertens (Carrasco 70), R Lukaku (Batshuayi 76), Hazard (Fellaini 81).

Top 5
1. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Hazard was at the top of his game throughout, looking in complete control whenever he had possession and causing massive problems for the Hungarian defence. He beat opponents with ease, and his goal was one of extraordinary quality. His brilliant individual play set up Batshuayi for Belgium’s second, and he was head and shoulders above the rest.
2. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
Hazard may have been the best on the field, but it was de Bruyne who was pulling the strings in the opening minutes of a fine individual performance. He set up Alderweireld for the opening goal, and he distributed the ball effectively and calmly. He looked in control, and his combination with Hazard was a highlight for the Belgians.
3. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Lukaku was a strong presence up front throughout, and he was able to put plenty of teammates into good positions with effective passes. He could have scored a couple of times, and his work playing the ball through the Hungarian defence on the break caused a lot of problems. He made life very difficult for Hungary, and he was able to open the game up for Belgium.
4. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois had a strong game in goal, and the Belgian win would not have been as comfortable without his performance. He made some great saves to deny Hungary, and showed his ruthlessness when he made a brilliant diving save to deny Akos Elek with the score at 3-0. He made some great saves, and will be very pleased with his performance.
5. Radja Nainggolan (Belgium)
Nainggolan was everywhere for Belgium, and he was able to find the ball often and use it well. His effort was exceptional, and he covered plenty of distance in a strong performance. He helped out the attack well by roaming forward, and he was too good for Hungary in the middle, ensuring that Belgium were able to dominate.

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview – Group E

Group E

Team (world ranking in brackets): Belgium (2), Italy (12), Republic of Ireland (33), Sweden (35)
Fixtures:
Republic of Ireland vs Sweden, Stade de France, Saint-Denis
Belgium vs Italy, Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon
Italy vs Sweden, Stadium Municipal, Toulouse
Belgium vs Republic of Ireland, Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux
Italy vs Republic of Ireland, Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Lille
Sweden vs Belgium, Allianz Riviera, Nice

Belgium

Head Coach: Marc Wilmots
Captain: Eden Hazard
Previous Appearances: 4 (1972, 1980, 1984, 2000)
Best Finish: Runners-up (1980)
Qualified: 1st Group B
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), 12. Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), 13. Jean-Francois Gillet (Mechelen).
Defenders:
2. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur), 3. Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), 5. Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur), 15. Jason Denayer (Galatasaray), 16. Thomas Meunier (Club Brugge), 18. Christian Kabasele (Genk), 21. Jordan Lukaku (Oostende), 23. Laurent Ciman (Montreal Impact).
Midfielders:
4. Radja Nainggolan (Roma), 6. Axel Witsel (Zenit), 7. Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City), 8. Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), 10. Eden Hazard (Chelsea), 11. Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), 19. Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur).
Forwards:
9. Romelu Lukaku (Everton), 14. Dries Mertens (Napoli), 17. Divock Origi (Liverpool), 20. Christian Benteke (Liverpool), 22. Michy Batshuayi (Marseille).

Form Guide

Belgium got their qualifying campaign off to a flying start with a 6-0 win over Andorra, but consecutive draws against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Wales pulled them back down to earth. They recovered well with a 5-0 win over Cyprus, and a 1-0 defeat in Cardiff proved a minor setback as they qualified with a 4-1 win over the Andorrans.

Strengths

Belgium have had some exceptional talent come through in a very short amount of time, and with the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois coming through the ranks the Belgians have risen to an incredible level. The lack of experience that existed at the World Cup is no longer an issue, and the midfield of Radja Nainggolan, Axel Witsel, Hazard, Marouane Fellaini and de Bruyne is very strong. Up front Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke are proven goalscorers, and with the experience of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld in defence Belgium can go a long way in this tournament.

Weaknesses

The Belgians have a very strong side, but they have many injuries in defence and this is a serious problem. Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts are both missing due to injury, and the loss of Kompany’s leadership down back could cause further problems. Courtois has not been in particularly strong form in the Premier League, and if this rubs off on his performances at the Euros then the Belgians could concede a lot of goals. The attack is strong, but Lukaku was very quiet at the World Cup and this cannot happen again.

Star Player: Eden Hazard

Hazard began his career with Lille, and after showing exceptional promise early on in his career he has developed into one of the world’s best players. He led Chelsea to the Premier League title two seasons ago, and while his form has dropped off recently he is still an incredibly skilled player and could have a huge impact on this tournament.

Key Player: Thomas Vermaelen

Vermaelen has picked up over 50 caps for Belgium, and while he is no longer in Belgium’s first choice back four he will marshal Belgium’s defence in the absence of Kompany and Lombaerts. Vermaelen will replace Kompany as a leader in the heart of the defence, and if he is unable to play well and hold the fort then there will be issues.

Verdict

Belgium have a very strong side, and the potential is definitely there. Hazard and de Bruyne will form an incredible combination in the middle of the park, and while there are some concerns surrounding the defence the Belgians will be formidable opponents. They have picked up valuable experience from the World Cup in 2014, and they could go all the way.

Italy

Head Coach: Antonio Conte
Captain: Gianluigi Buffon
Previous Appearances: 8 (1968, 1980, 1988, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Champions (1968)
Qualified: 1st Group H
UEFA Euro 2012: Runners up

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), 12. Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain), 13. Federico Marchetti (Lazio).
Defenders:
2. Mattia de Sciglio (Milan), 3. Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), 4. Matteo Darmian (Manchester United), 5. Angelo Ogbonna (West Ham United), 15. Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), 19. Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus).
Midfielders:
6. Antonio Candreva (Lazio), 8. Alessandro Florenzi (Roma), 10. Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain), 14. Stefano Sturaro (Juventus), 16. Daniele de Rossi (Roma), 18. Marco Parolo (Lazio), 21. Federico Bernardeschi (Fiorentina), 23. Emanuele Giaccherini (Bologna).
Forwards:
7. Simone Zaza (Juventus), 9. Graziano Pelle (Southampton), 11. Ciro Immobile (Torino), 17. Eder (Internazionale), 20. Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), 22. Stephan El Shaarawy (Roma).

Form Guide

Italy made it through qualifying without losing a game, and they sealed their spot at the Euros with a 3-1 victory over Azerbaijan in Baku. The Italians started well, and while they fell off in the middle they recovered with wins in their last four games to finish first. They were not dominant, but they were solid and are in good form.

Strengths

As is often the case with Italian sides the defence is very solid, and with Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli at the heart of the defence not much will get through. Gianluigi Buffon provides invaluable experience in goal, and his leadership will be important in a side which has undergone plenty of change in recent times. The Italians have added plenty of quality up front since their group stage exit at the World Cup, and fresh faces Eder, Simone Zaza, Lorenzo Insigne, Graziano Pelle and Ciro Immobile are quality options who could break out at the finals.

Weaknesses

The Italians were not dominant in qualifying by any means, and while the attack has been overturned it is inexperienced and did not really fire during the qualification process. The core of the side is very experienced but they have been around for a long time and are past their respective peaks, and the general lack of players at the pinnacle of their careers could hurt. The midfield is missing two key players in Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio, and their absences could have a massive impact on Italy’s performance.

Star Player: Giorgio Chiellini

Chiellini has been at the helm of the Italian and Juventus defences for a long time, and he is a very solid player in the back half. He has plenty of versatility, and while he is unlikely to be needed at left back he has the potential to adapt midway through the game if needed. He has played 66 games in Europe, and his experience against the best in the world will be vital for Italy.

Key Player: Graziano Pelle

Pelle was called up to the national team at a fairly late age in 2014, and since that time he has not missed a beat, netting four times in 11 games. He was Antonio Conte’s main option in qualifying and his goals will be crucial in a team not known for putting the ball into the back of the net. If he cannot step up to match the rise in opposition Italy will struggle.

Verdict

The Italians are strong and experienced, but while there is plenty of new blood up front not much turnover has occurred from the unsuccessful World Cup campaigns in 2010 and 2014. Conte has had exceptional success as a manager, and he is sure to make an impact at his first major tournament as a manager. The side is solid and could go a long way.

Republic of Ireland

Head Coach: Martin O’Neill
Captain: John O’Shea
Previous Appearances: 2 (1988, 2012)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1988, 2012)
Qualified: 3rd Group D (defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina in play-offs)
UEFA Euro 2012: Group Stage

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Kieren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday), 16. Shay Given (Stoke City), 23. Darren Randolph (West Ham United).
Defenders:
2. Seamus Coleman (Everton), 3. Ciaran Clark (Aston Villa), 4. John O’Shea (Sunderland), 5. Richard Keogh (Derby County), 12. Shane Duffy (Blackburn Rovers), 15. Cyrus Christie (Derby County), 17. Stephen Ward (Burnley).
Midfielders:
6. Glenn Whelan (Stoke City), 7. Aiden McGeady (Sheffield Wednesday), 8. James McCarthy (Everton), 11. James McClean (West Bromwich Albion), 13. Jeff Hendrick (Derby County), 18. David Meyler (Hull City), 19. Robbie Brady (Norwich City), 20. Wes Hoolahan (Norwich City), 22. Stephen Quinn (Reading).
Forwards:
9. Shane Long (Southampton), 10. Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), 14. Jonathan Walters (Stoke City), 21. Daryl Murphy (Ipswich Town).

Form Guide

The Irish started their campaign fairly well, pumping seven goals past Gibraltar and snatching a 1-1 draw against reigning world champions Germany. Despite this start they fell off and needed a 1-0 win over the Germans in Dublin to make their way through to the play-offs, where they met Bosnia and Herzegovina. After a 1-1 draw in Zenica they won 2-0 in the return leg to progress to the finals.

Strengths

The Irish have a frugal defence, conceding only eight times in twelve qualifying games. Only once did they concede more than once in a game, and with the experience of John O’Shea at the heart of the defence they should be in good stead. Martin O’Neill is spoilt for choice up front, with Walters, Shane Long and Robbie Keane all quality options. In the middle, Aiden McGeady and Glenn Whelan have plenty of experience, and with plenty of quality options all over the park the Irish are a strong side.

Weaknesses

Ireland lack world-class players, and the majority of their squad is confined to the lower levels of English football. The side is generally old, and many of the players who will be relied upon are past their prime and will not perform as well as they have before. There is plenty of depth throughout the squad, but there is no set starting combination and this inconsistency could prove to be an issue, especially if results do not go their way. Ireland did not perform last time they went to the Euros, and the group they have this time around is just as tough.

Star Player: Aiden McGeady

McGeady is one of the most experienced players in the Irish team, and he has plenty of big game experience with Ireland, Celtic, Spartak Moscow and Everton. He has played 55 games in European competitions, and his skill and poise on the wing has the potential to cause plenty of issues for opposing fullbacks.

Key Player: John O’Shea

If the Irish are going to do well then they simply need O’Shea, who has 110 caps worth of experience, to step up. In a defence that is by no means settled O’Shea, who has experience playing in the Premier League with Manchester United and Sunderland, will be invaluable. He has played 256 games for Manchester United and has plenty of experience against the world’s best.

Verdict

The Irish defence, led by O’Shea, will be tough to penetrate, and there is plenty of experience throughout the squad. Long, Keane and Walters are all good options, but the lack of continuity that could exist within the squad is an issue. The Irish are facing some excellent opposition, and even if Martin O’Neill brings out the best in his team they may still fail.

Sweden

Head Coach: Erik Hamren
Captain: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Previous Appearances: 5 (1992, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Semi-finals (1992)
Qualified: 3rd Group G (defeated Denmark in play-offs)
UEFA Euro 2012: Group Stage

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Andreas Isaksson (Kasimpasa), 12. Robin Olsen (Kobenhavn), 23. Patrick Carlgren (AIK).
Defenders: 2. Mikael Lustig (Celtic), 3. Erik Johansson (Kobenhavn), 4. Andreas Granqvist (Krasnodar), 5. Martin Olsson (Norwich City), 13. Pontus Jansson (Torino), 14. Victor Lindelof (Benfica), 17. Ludwig Augustinsson (Kobenhavn).
Midfielders: 6. Emil Forsberg (Leipzig), 7. Sebastian Larsson (Sunderland), 8. Albin Ekdal (Hamburg), 9. Kim Kallstrom (Grasshoppers), 15. Oscar Hiljemark (Palermo), 16. Pontus Wernbloom (CSKA Moskva), 18. Oscar Lewicki (Malmo), 21. Jimmy Durmaz (Olympiakos), 22. Erkan Zengin (Trabzonspor).
Forwards: 10. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Paris Saint-Germain), 11. Markus Berg (Panathinaikos), 19. Emir Kujovic (Norrkoping), 20. John Guidetti (Celta Vigo).

Form Guide

The Swedish faced stiff competition throughout qualifying from Austria and Russia, and losses to each of those sides ruled them out of automatic qualification. They were drawn to face Denmark in the play-offs, and after a 2-1 victory in Solna they confirmed qualification with a 2-2 draw in Copenhagen, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic netting twice to seal the deal.

Strengths

The Swedish have plenty of experience on the big stage, and since their first appearance at the Euros in 1992 they have only missed one tournament. Ibrahimovic, Andreas Isaksson and Kim Kallstrom all have more than 100 international caps, and the midfield is packed with experience, with Kallstrom, Jimmy Durmaz, Albin Ekdal, Sebastian Larsson, Erkan Zengin and Pontus Wernbloom likely to form an effective combination. The Swedish have players positioned throughout Europe’s top leagues, and this big game experience should come through in the finals.

Weaknesses

The Swedish are a fairly strong side, but they are over-dependant on Ibrahimovic for their goals. The midfield has plenty of players who can pop up with the occasional goal, but if Ibrahimovic is shut down the Swedish will struggle to score. There are many different defensive options, but Erik Hamren has not necessarily worked out what his best defensive front looks like, and this lack of a set defensive combination has the potential to cause issues at the final tournament.

Star Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Who else? Ibrahimovic is a legend of Swedish football, and every time he joins a new club he brings success with him. Since 2003 he has only failed to win one league title (with Milan in 2011-12) and since moving to Paris Saint-Germain he has scored 110 goals in just 120 league appearances. He has found the net 51 times in Europe, and if Sweden are going to make a run in this tournament he will have to fire.

Key Player: Kim Kallstrom

Kallstrom has 127 international caps, and his work as a playmaker in midfield will be essential to Sweden’s success. If he is unable to provide plenty of opportunities for Ibrahimovic, Marcus Berg and John Guidetti up front then it will be exceptionally difficult for the Swedish to score, and his set piece ability will also come in handy. He has the experience to stand up under pressure, and the Swedish will be relying on him.

Verdict

The Swedish have a strong side, and experience at the highest level will not be an issue. They have plenty of ability as a team, but that was not necessarily realised in qualifying and they have been drawn into a tough group. Ultimately, if Ibrahimovic fails to fire it will be very difficult for the Swedish to score, and this could have a very serious effect on the team.

Prediction

This group is a strong one, and Belgium should progress comfortably despite the questions surrounding their defence. The battle for second will be intriguing, and in the end the Italians should prevail due to their strength all over the park. The Swedish will provide strong competition, but the Irish are unlikely to challenge with a comparatively weak side.
1. Belgium, 2. Italy, 3. Sweden, 4. Republic of Ireland.