Portugal outclass directionless Wales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview – Group B

Group B

Teams (world ranking in brackets): England (11), Russia (29), Wales (26), Slovakia (24)
Fixtures:
Wales vs Slovakia, Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux
England vs Russia, Stade Velodrome, Marseille
Russia vs Slovakia, Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Lille
England vs Wales, Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens
Slovakia vs England, Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Etienne
Russia vs Wales, Stadium Municipal, Toulouse

England

Head Coach: Roy Hodgson
Captain: Wayne Rooney
Previous Appearances: 8 (1968, 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2012)
Best Finish: Third Place (1968)
Qualified: 1st Group E
UEFA Euro 2012: Quarter-finals

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Joe Hart (Manchester City), 13. Fraser Forster (Southampton), 23. Tom Heaton (Burnley).
Defenders:
2. Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur), 3. Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur), 5. Gary Cahill (Chelsea), 6. Chris Smalling (Manchester United), 12. Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool), 16. John Stones (Everton), 21. Ryan Bertrand (Southampton).
Midfielders:
4. James Milner (Liverpool), 7. Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), 8. Adam Lallana (Liverpool), 14. Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), 17. Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur), 18. Jack Wilshere (Arsenal), 19. Ross Barkley (Everton), 20. Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur).
Forwards:
9. Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), 10. Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), 11. Jamie Vardy (Leicester City), 15. Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), 22. Marcus Rashford (Manchester United).

Form Guide

The English came out strongly after a disappointing World Cup campaign, and they were the only team to win all of their games in qualifying. They scored 31 goals in qualification, more than any other team, and only Romania conceded less goals throughout the campaign. The English have plenty of exciting new faces in their line-up and they are in exceptional form.

Strengths

The English have plenty of fresh faces in their side, and they have the potential to go a long way. Harry Kane is a star up front, and his combination with Jamie Vardy will be a source of great excitement for English fans. Joe Hart is solid in goal, and with Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill down back not much will get through. Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Jordan Henderson are just some of the exciting prospects that Roy Hodgson can call upon, and the English will be one of the sides to beat at the final tournament.

Weaknesses

The side is generally very young, and many of the players who have come into the side will not necessarily be used to the scrutiny they will receive from the English media. Hodgson’s side are carrying high expectations into the tournament after an excellent qualifying campaign, and the pressure that will be placed on them could prove too much. There is a general lack of experience in the middle that could be costly, especially with key player Jack Wilshere returning from a long-term injury which sidelined him for all but a few games of last season.

Star Player: Harry Kane

It is very tempting to write this section about Wayne Rooney, but Kane’s record in the Premier League over the last couple of seasons is incredible and he has developed into England’s premier scoring option. Only Sergio Aguero has scored more Premier League goals over the last two seasons, and he has the potential to set this tournament alight.

Key Player: Joe Hart

Hart is one of only three players in the squad with more than 50 international caps to his name, and he comes into this tournament firmly set as England’s first-choice keeper. He is one of the best goalkeepers in the world, but if he is unable to play at his best then England could struggle in a group filled with dangerous attackers.

Verdict

The English are strong, and with fresh faces in Kane, Vardy and Alli they have the potential to go a very long way in this tournament. They had a flawless qualifying campaign, and as such expectations will be incredibly high, but if they can overcome the pressure then they have the team to do very well. If they are able to fire they should be around in the latter stages of the finals.

Russia

Head Coach: Leonid Slutskiy
Captain: Roman Shirokov
Previous Appearances: 4 (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Semi-finals (2008)
Qualified: 2nd Group G
UEFA Euro 2012: Group Stage

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moskva), 12. Yuri Lodygin (Zenit), 16. Guilherme (Lokomotiv Moskva).
Defenders: 2. Roman Shishkin (Lokomotiv Moskva), 3. Igor Smolnikov (Zenit), 4. Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moskva), 5. Roman Neustaedter (Schalke), 6. Aleksei Berezutski (CSKA Moskva), 14. Vasili Berezutski (CSKA Moskva), 21. Georgi Schennikov (CSKA Moskva).
Midfielders: 7. Igor Denisov (Zenit), 8. Denis Glushakov (Spartak Moskva), 11. Pavel Mamaev (Krasnodar), 13. Aleksandr Golovin (CSKA Moskva), 15. Roman Shirokov (Zenit), 17. Oleg Shatov (Zenit), 18. Oleg Ivanov (Terek Grozny), 19. Aleksandr Samedov (Lokomotiv Moskva), 20. Dmitri Torbinski (Krasnodar), 23. Dmitri Kombarov (Spartak Moskva).
Forwards: 9. Aleksandr Kokorin (Zenit), 10. Fedor Smolov (Krasnodar), 22. Artem Dzyuba (Zenit).

Form Guide

The Russians played well in qualifying, and despite two narrow losses to Austria they still managed to hold off a strong Swedish side to qualify automatically. They conceded just five goals throughout the campaign, and with eight goals from Artem Dzyuba their attack was very potent, netting a total of 21 goals throughout their campaign.

Strengths

The defence is full of experience, and the solidity provided by Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski mean that the Russians will be very hard to score against. Igor Akinfeev has plenty of experience in goal, and the midfield will be extremely strong. Roman Shirokov is an excellent player, and with Igor Denisov and Denis Glushakov patrolling the centre the Russians will certainly provide plenty of opportunities for Dzyuba and Aleksandr Kokorin up front. The Russians have a strong side, and they have the potential to go very far in this tournament.

Weaknesses

Dzyuba was prolific in qualifying, but half of his goals came in one match against Liechtenstein, and he cannot necessarily be relied upon again at the final tournament. More worryingly, only one of those goals came against a team who have actually qualified for this tournament, netting seven times against Moldova and Liechtenstein. There is a general lack of depth throughout the squad, and an injury to either Vasili Berezutski or Ignashevich could be a huge problem, as the replacements are not necessarily there.

Star Player: Roman Shirokov

Shirokov is the captain of the side and is the rock in the centre of midfield. He is very solid defensively, having been deployed as a centre back early on in his international career, and he has the ability to chip in with the occasional goal as well. He is a quality player, and his absence at the World Cup in 2014 was a huge blow to Russia’s chances.

Key Player: Aleksandr Kokorin

Kokorin is only 25, but he already has 11 international goals to his name with one in the World Cup. While Dzyuba was their top scorer in qualifying, Kokorin scored some very important goals, and he has stood up in these pressure situations before. These big game goals will likely be crucial to Russian success, and if he cannot find the net Russia will struggle.

Verdict

The Russians are a very strong side, and with a solid defence and consistent midfield they will certainly be a force to be reckoned with at the final tournament. They have the potency up front to succeed, and while there is a question as to Dzyuba’s ability against the top sides but they still have the ability to go a long way in this tournament.

Wales

Head Coach: Chris Coleman
Captain: Ashley Williams
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: 2nd Group B
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace), 12. Owain Williams (Inverness), 21. Danny Ward (Liverpool).
Defenders:
2. Chris Gunter (Reading), 3. Neil Taylor (Swansea City), 4. Ben Davies (Tottenham Hotspur), 5. James Chester (West Bromwich Albion), 6. Ashley Williams (Swansea City), 15. Ashley Richards (Fulham), 19. James Collins (West Ham United).
Midfielders:
7. Joe Allen (Liverpool), 8. Andy King (Leicester City), 10. Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), 14. David Edwards (Wolverhampton Wanderers), 16. Joe Ledley (Crystal Palace), 20. Jonathan Williams (Crystal Palace), 22. David Vaughan (Nottingham Forest).
Forwards:
9. Hal Robson-Kanu (Reading), 11. Gareth Bale (Real Madrid), 13. George Williams (Fulham), 17. David Cotterill (Birmingham City), 18. Sam Vokes (Burnley), 23. Simon Church (Milton Keynes Dons).

Form Guide

The Welsh did not blow their opposition away in qualifying, but they were solid and Gareth Bale ensured that plenty of goals were scored. They toppled Belgium 1-0, and they sealed qualification with a couple of games to spare with a 0-0 draw against Israel in Cardiff. The Welsh have undergone some excellent improvement over the last few years, and they are well-placed to make an impact.

Strengths

Bale and Aaron Ramsey are both world-class players with plenty of experience. They both have an ability to find the scoreboard as well, and Bale’s seven goals in qualifying were crucial to the success of the team. Ashley Williams is a quality defender and on-field leader, and he marshals a defence which conceded just four times throughout the qualifying campaign. Ramsey, Joe Allen and Joe Ledley are all excellent players, and they are solid in the centre of midfield. Many of the players in the squad have Premier League experience, and the pressure should not be too much.

Weaknesses

The Welsh were frugal in defence during qualifying, but they were unable to hurt teams going the other way. In 10 games they only bagged 11 goals, and with Bale and Ramsey combining for 9 of those not many players contributed. Sam Vokes, Simon Church and Hal Robson-Kanu are all options, but these players are not very experienced at the highest level and may struggle at the final tournament. The result of this is a dependence on Bale which could well prove problematic if the Real Madrid star fails to fire.

Star Player: Gareth Bale

Bale became the most expensive player ever when he transferred from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for around 100 million pounds. He is the best player Wales have, and his experience of playing in the Champions League with Real will serve him well at the final tournament. He bagged over half of Wales’ goals in qualifying, and he will make life very difficult for opposing defences.

Key Player: Wayne Hennessey

Hennessey has plenty of experience at the highest level, coming from six seasons in the Premier League with Crystal Palace and Wolves. He has been capped 56 times by the Welsh, and his experience in goal will be relied upon at the final tournament. If he fails to perform then it will be exceptionally difficult for the Welsh to win games and progress.

Verdict

Wales have a fairly strong side, and the combination of Bale and Ramsey will be a nightmare for their opponents. While there are some problems in attack Williams will take control of a defence that proved impenetrable during qualifying. The Welsh have the ability to go far in this tournament, but the key will be finding some quality support for Bale, who is currently the only scoring option.

Slovakia

Head Coach: Jan Kozak
Captain: Martin Skrtel
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: 2nd Group C
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Jan Mucha (Slovan Bratislava), 12. Jan Novota (Rapid Wien), 23. Matus Kozacik (Viktoria Plzen).
Defenders:
2. Peter Pekarik (Hertha Berlin), 3. Martin Skrtel (Liverpool), 4. Jan Durica (Lokomotiv Moskva), 5. Norbert Gyomber (Roma), 14. Milan Skriniar (Sampdoria), 15. Tomas Hubocan (Dinamo Moskva), 16. Kornel Salata (Slovan Bratislava), 18. Dusan Svento (Koln).
Midfielders:
6. Jan Gregus (Jablonec), 7. Vladimir Weiss (Al-Gharafa), 8. Ondrej Duda (Legia Warsaw), 9. Stanislav Sestak (Ferencvaros), 10. Miroslav Stoch (Bursaspor), 13. Patrik Hrosovsky (Viktoria Plzen), 17. Marek Hamsik (Napoli), 19. Juraj Kucka (Milan), 20. Robert Mak (PAOK), 22. Viktor Pecovsky (Zilina).
Forwards:
11. Adam Nemec (Willem II), 21. Michal Duris (Viktoria Plzen).

Form Guide

Slovakia began their qualification campaign in brilliant form, beating reigning European champions Spain 2-1 and winning their first six games before limping over the line with losses to Spain and Belarus and a scoreless draw against Ukraine. They managed to take automatic qualification in the last game after two Marek Hamsik goals gave them a 4-2 win in Luxembourg.

Strengths

With Martin Skrtel, Jan Durica, Peter Pekarik and Tomas Hubocan down back Slovakia have a back four with over 250 games worth of international experience. Throw goalkeeper Jan Mucha into the mix and Slovakia have a very solid defensive front. They don’t lack bite at the other end either, with Hamsik, Vladimir Weiss, Stanislav Sestak and Miroslav Stoch ensuring that plenty of chances will be created. Overall, Slovakia have plenty of experience, and their appearance at the World Cup in 2010 can only help.

Weaknesses

While the midfield and defence are solid, there are some issues up front. Hamsik was the top scorer in qualifying, and while Adam Nemec pitched in with three goals a vast majority of the goals were scored by individual midfielders going forward. When the Slovak side reached the round of 16 at the World Cup many of the current crop of players were still there, but these players are no longer in their prime and many have not played at that level since. With the exception of Hamsik and Skrtel almost none of the players are at big clubs, and there is generally a large gap in quality between Slovakia and their rivals.

Star Player: Marek Hamsik

Hamsik has made over 300 appearances for Napoli, and he is now the captain of the club. He is the highest quality player that Slovakia have, and while his versatility makes him particularly appealing he will play in attacking midfield, where he will probably serve as the team’s number one scoring option.

Key Player: Martin Skrtel

Skrtel has been at Liverpool since 2008, and in that time he has established himself as a very solid centre back. He is the captain of the side, and he will be relied upon not only for his defence but also for his leadership. While he cannot be expected to contribute to the scoresheet he is a first-class defender, and if he has a good tournament many other pieces will fall into place.

Verdict

Slovakia have some issues in attack, but they have a solid base and if Hamsik is able to perform goals should not be an issue. The side has plenty of experience, and they will know that if they play like they did in the World Cup they can succeed. While there is plenty of potential the team is relatively inexperienced at this level and they could face a struggle.

Prediction

The English are looking excellent going into the tournament, and they should be able to breeze through the group without much trouble. The other three teams will probably face an interesting battle, and the Welsh should go through thanks to their solidity down back and the boost provided by Gareth Bale. Russia may struggle to score as their attack is the weakest in the group.
1. England, 2. Wales, 3. Slovakia, 4. Russia.

Devastation for Atletico as Real take title

An exhausted Real Madrid have taken their eleventh Champions League title in Milan, defeating bitter rivals Atletico Madrid in a penalty shoot-out at the San Siro. The game was pulsating as Real scored early and Atletico equalised late, and a missed penalty from Juanfran ultimately proved costly as Cristiano Ronaldo coolly slotted his penalty past Jan Oblak to seal the deal. Atletico started the game shakily, and Gareth Bale’s work early on nearly led to a goal when Oblak was forced to act quickly to save a deflection from Karim Benzema at close range. It was not long before Real’s early opportunities led to the first goal, and it came when Bale flicked Toni Kroos’ free kick on towards Oblak, allowing captain Sergio Ramos to tap it in. Real continued to cruise, passing the ball around and generally not allowing Atletico to have a sniff, but Atletico recovered and had the momentum going their way at the end of the first half.

Atletico continued to build on their momentum in the second half, and should have levelled straight after half time when Pepe fouled Fernando Torres in the box. The ensuing penalty, taken by Griezmann, was drilled into the underside of the bar, and Real escaped with their lead intact. Atletico continued to push, and Real manager Zinedine Zidane took the foot off the gas, allowing Atletico to control the tempo and the midfield. Real nearly had a goal on the counter-attack when Benzema found himself one-on-one with Oblak, and it looked as though Atletico had petered out. Real came incredibly close to doubling their lead in the 78th minute when Ronaldo went one-on-one in the six-yard box, and Bale’s shot was blocked on the goal line by a desperate Atletico defence. It was not to be for Real, however, and Atletico levelled through the dangerous Yannick Carrasco, who took advantage of an excellent cross from Juanfran to find the back of the net from close range. Carrasco continued to look dangerous for the remainder of normal time, but Atletico eased off and Real, for all the control of possession, never looked like scoring.

Extra time began with the same sluggish tempo, and neither side really looked like breaking the deadlock as the heat and fatigue began to get to the teams. Real still controlled possession, but Atletico held firm while Bale and Ronaldo seemed to crumble, the former making some very ambitious efforts on goal and generally ending up on the ground as a result. The game was destined for a tie-breaking penalty shoot-out, and it, much like the 120 minutes before it, was an excellent contest. The first seven penalties were scored, and Griezmann managed to redeem himself, but Juanfran could not put his penalty on target, as the ball hit the post and rolled away. Oblak tried hard to save Ronaldo’s final effort, but Ronaldo was unfazed by the pressure and hit it into the back of the net with ease, sealing the Champions League for Real Madrid.

San Siro – Milan
Real Madrid 1 (Ramos 15)
Atletico Madrid 1 (Carrasco 79) (a.e.t, Real Madrid won 5-3 on penalties)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (Eng)

Real Madrid: Navas – Carvajal (Danilo 52), Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Casemiro, Kroos (Isco 72), Modric, Bale, Benzema (Lucas Vazquez 77), Ronaldo.
Atletico Madrid: Oblak – Juanfran, Savic, Godin, Filipe Luis (Lucas Hernandez 109), Saul Niguez, Fernandez (Carrasco 46), Gabi, Koke (Partey 116), Torres, Griezmann.

Top 5
1. Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid)
Carrasco entered the game at half time when Atletico were facing an uphill battle, and his pace through the middle and on the break changed the game and turned it against Real. The goal he scored late was a just reward for his performance, and he put more pressure on the Real defence than any of his teammates.
2. Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid)
The work of Luis was key to Atletico gaining a foothold in the game, and the Brazilian’s work putting long crosses into the box helped put some pressure on Real in a time of dominance. His work supplementing the attack was key, and while he went off injured in extra time he left a big mark on the game.
3. Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)
Bale’s best work was done early on in the game, but he remained a threat throughout despite limited supply. He won two early free kicks in dangerous positions early, and he provided the assist for Ramos’ goal from one of those set pieces. He was exceptionally dangerous and rounded out a solid game by slotting home his penalty in the shoot-out.
4. Gabi (Atletico Madrid)
Gabi played excellently throughout and was Atletico’s rock in the centre of midfield. He ran almost as hard as anyone on the field, and his determination to get the ball and ability to use it was a big issue for Real. He provided the ball that led to Carrasco’s goal, and was never far from the action for the full 120 minutes.
5. Casemiro (Real Madrid)
Casemiro played the whole game and was constantly plugging away for Real. He worked tirelessly in the centre of midfield, and while his forays forward were not always successful he nearly managed to set up a goal when he pinched the ball from Atletico in the centre of the park. His work-rate was excellent and he was a constant for Real for the whole game.

Stay tuned over the next few days for my team-by-team preview of UEFA Euro 2016, starting in France next month.