Devastating Musa brings Iceland crashing back to earth

Gylfi Sigurðsson looked calm as he stepped up to the penalty spot. The pressure was on, and as he stepped up to take the kick, awarded after Tyronne Ebuehi’s late challenge on Alfreð Finnbogason, Sigurðsson was carrying the expectations of a nation on his shoulders. Iceland had gone into their clash with Nigeria brimming with confidence after they held Argentina on World Cup debut, and against a Nigerian side coming off a poor first-up display they seemed to be in with a good chance of notching a historic win. It hadn’t turned out that way. Ahmed Musa had run riot and collected two goals, and Sigurðsson’s penalty was shaping as their only hope of getting some kind of result. He blasted it over the bar, ending Iceland’s chances of a remarkable comeback and breaking the hearts of a nation in the process. The penalty had given Iceland hope of a miracle. The miss emphatically extinguished it.

The first half was an interesting one, with Nigeria dominating possession but failing to even take a shot, and Iceland sitting back but managing to create all of the half’s dangerous opportunities. It was Sigurðsson, Iceland’s main midfield creator, who took the early initiative. He forced Francis Uzoho into a tough save with a well-placed free-kick, and followed up a few minutes later by working his way into space and testing the young goalkeeper once again. Nigeria settled after Iceland’s fast start, but they couldn’t create any opportunities against Iceland’s typically staunch defence. The penalty-saving hero against Argentina, Hannes Þór Halldórsson, had absolutely nothing to do, and Iceland looked to be in a decent position.

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Icelandic fans perform their trademark Viking Thunderclap in the stands of the Volgograd Arena. It was a disappointing result for Iceland, but the famous celebration was as loud as ever.

They started to find more chances as the half drew to a close. Birkir Már Sævarsson played a dangerous ball into the box, but Leon Balogun’s slight touch kept Birkir Bjarnason and Jón Daði Böðvarsson from getting on the end of it. Finnbogason got close when he connected with Sigurðsson’s free kick directly in front of goal, but he didn’t get a solid enough touch on the ball to bundle it into the back of the net. Iceland continued to threaten in first half injury time, but they couldn’t provide any further challenge to Uzoho’s goal. When the half time whistle blew, Iceland were on top. When the teams came back out after the interval, things began to turn.

Nigeria came out firing after half time, and Iceland got caught out by a lightning Nigerian counter-attack less than four minutes after the resumption. Left-back Hörður Björgvin Magnússon was caught out by Victor Moses, who spread quickly into space and had time to cross it into the centre. The ball found Ahmed Musa, whose first touch was brilliant. Expecting the ball to keep travelling towards the back post, Ragnar Sigurðsson was wrong-footed when Musa tapped it the other way, giving the dynamic striker the space he needed to slam it into the back of the net. Suddenly, Iceland were behind, and Sigurðsson lay on the ground after taking a blow to the head in Musa’s follow-through. The centre-back returned with a fluorescent pink bandage strapped around the afflicted area. Unlike Sigurðsson, Iceland’s best football never resurfaced.

Things didn’t look good for Iceland in the minutes after the goal. Nigeria continued to knock the ball around with confidence, aware that Iceland weren’t putting them under pressure when they had the ball and equally aware that they held all the cards. Moses was beginning to make Iceland’s defenders nervous with his pace and skill on the right, and Iceland weren’t creating the chances they did in the first half. Their play was flat, and they needed a spark that didn’t seem to be coming. Then Musa scored the second, and seemingly killed off their chances.

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Ahmed Musa (right) competes for the ball against Hörður Björgvin Magnússon. Musa’s brilliant second half dismantled Iceland’s defence and allowed Nigeria to take a comfortable win.

It had been coming. Seconds before he doubled the Super Eagles’ advantage, the rapid striker rammed a thunderous shot into the bar, and although Iceland survived it was clear that they were under the pump. When Iceland’s players were committed to the attack, Musa struck. The ball was bombed out of defence, and Musa left Kari Árnason in the dust as he pursued it in behind. When Halldórsson came to meet him, Musa eluded the desperate clutches of the keeper with his incredible speed, and found himself faced with an open goal. Sverrir Ingi Ingason, on after Ragnar Sigurðsson was finally substituted, stood on the goal line but couldn’t do a thing as Musa’s composed finish found the top corner.

Iceland tried to reduce the deficit, but there just seemed to be something missing. Passes just didn’t quite hit the target, and their moves didn’t quite come off. The award of the penalty had momentarily put some wind back in their sails, but as their star missed the team seemed to deflate, limping over the finish line against a confident Nigerian team who never looked like giving up their lead. In recent times, Iceland have made a name for themselves with their incredible discipline and ability to recover from seemingly any setback. Now, coming off the heights of their incredible World Cup debut with the weight of expectations on their shoulders, they just couldn’t match it when Nigeria put everything together. For once, they suffered a blow from which they couldn’t recover.

Volgograd – Volgograd Arena
Nigeria 2 (Musa 49, 75)
Iceland 0
Referee: Matthew Conger (NZ)
Nigeria (3-5-2): Uzoho – Omeruo, Troost-Ekong, Balogun; Moses, Etebo (Iwobi 90), Mikel, Ndidi, Idowu (Ebuehi 46); Musa, Iheanacho (Ighalo 85).
Iceland (4-4-2): Halldórsson – Sævarsson, Árnason, R Sigurðsson (Ingason 65), Magnússon; Gíslason, Gunnarson (A Skúlason 87), G Sigurðsson, Bjarnason; Böðvarsson (Sigurðarson 71), Finnbogason.

Top 5
1. Ahmed Musa (Nigeria)
When he had room to run, Musa’s pace was terrifying, and when it was coupled with excellent touch and good finishing the striker became a lethal attacking force for the Super Eagles. He finished with two thoroughly deserved goals, and he will come into their key match with Argentina full of confidence.
2. Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Moses started the second half with pace and purpose, creating Nigeria’s first goal with an excellent cross and keeping Iceland on the back foot with his ability to make an impact cutting in from the right wing. He has been in great form at this tournament, and will be looking to keep it up.
3. Wilfred Ndidi (Nigeria)
Ndidi was heavily involved in defensive midfield, working well with John Obi Mikel and Oghenekaro Etebo to shield the back four and make life very difficult for Iceland’s attackers. He even managed to make something of a contribution to the attack, forcing Halldórsson into a tough save with a dangerous shot from distance.
4. Gylfi Sigurðsson (Iceland)
Penalty miss aside, Sigurðsson had a strong game. He looked like the only Icelandic player capable of creating his own opportunities, and he gave Uzoho a stern test on a few occasions. He will be disappointed with his late penalty miss, and it’s unfortunate that one error will define an otherwise strong performance.
5. Oghenekaro Etebo (Nigeria)
Etebo knows how to run, and he did plenty of hard work transitioning between defence – where he did the bulk of his good work – and attack. His energy was impressive throughout, and it’s no coincidence that he was the only other Nigerian player in the box for both of Musa’s goals.

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2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group D

Group D

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Argentina (5), Iceland (22), Croatia (20), Nigeria (48)
Fixtures:
Argentina vs Iceland, Otkritie Arena, Moscow
Croatia vs Nigeria, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
Argentina vs Croatia, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
Nigeria vs Iceland, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
Nigeria vs Argentina, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
Iceland vs Croatia, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don

Argentina

Head Coach: Jorge Sampaoli
Captain: Lionel Messi
Previous Appearances: 16 (1930, 1934, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1978, 1986)
Qualified: CONMEBOL, 3rd
Qualification Top Scorer: Lionel Messi (7)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Nahuel Guzmán (UANL), 12. Franco Armani (River Plate), 23. Willy Caballero (Chelsea).
Defenders: 2. Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), 3. Nicolás Tagliafico (Ajax), 4. Christian Ansaldi (Torino), 6. Federico Fazio (Roma), 8. Marcos Acuña (Sporting), 14. Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune), 16. Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), 17. Nicolás Otamendi (Manchester City).
Midfielders: 5. Lucas Biglia (Milan), 7. Éver Banega (Sevilla), 11. Ángel Di María (Paris Saint-Germain), 13. Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), 15. Manuel Lanzini (West Ham United), 18. Eduardo Salvio (Benfica), 20. Giovani Lo Celso (Paris Saint-Germain), 22. Cristian Pavón (Boca Juniors).
Forwards: 9. Gonzalo Higuaín (Juventus), 10. Lionel Messi (Barcelona), 19. Sergio Agüero (Manchester City), 21. Paulo Dybala (Juventus).

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Lionel Messi celebrates after sealing Argentina’s World Cup berth with a hat-trick against Ecuador. Messi is Argentina’s star, and plays a big role in all their success.

Argentina just did enough to make it through a hotly-contested South American qualifying group, with a final day Lionel Messi hat-trick eventually sealing a spot in Russia for Jorge Sampaoli’s team. Now they’re here, they will be a formidable opponent. The brilliant Messi leads what could be the most potent attack in the tournament, with Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero and Juventus stars Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala all excellent goal-scorers in their own right. Ángel Di María is a skilful presence in midfield, and he will receive support from quality playmakers like Giovani Lo Celso, Cristian Pavón and Manuel Lanzini. Lucas Biglia and Éver Banega are solid players in central midfield, and the combination of a quality midfield and dynamic attack should be a fruitful one in Russia. Defensively, Nicolás Otamendi is coming off an excellent season in the Premier League, and he should combine well with Federico Fazio, Gabriel Mercado, Marcos Rojo and the experienced Javier Mascherano. The Argentinians have plenty of quality, and they will be a very tough team to beat.

There are, however, a few issues that Jorge Sampaoli will need to fix. The team has been overly reliant on Messi, and their qualifying campaign was riddled with inconsistency. Aside from Messi, no Argentinian scored more than two goals in qualifying, with neither Dybala nor Agüero scoring any goals at all. This lack of quality support for the captain was reflected in Argentina’s poor returns, with their haul of 19 goals in 18 games the equal second-worst in qualifying (tied with Paraguay and last-placed Venezuela). Considering the abundance of attacking options at Sampaoli’s disposal, this marks a concerning trend that will need to be turned around. The defence may be a more pressing concern, with Argentina still lacking quality full-backs and displaying a concerning tendency for defensive breakdowns. These issues will be exacerbated by an injury to first-choice goalkeeper Sergio Romero, and they could derail Argentina’s campaign if not fixed.

Star Player: Lionel Messi

Messi is the undisputed star of Argentina’s side, and he is at the centre of almost all of their success. He has scored more goals for the national team than any other player, and his scoring output for La Albiceleste has remarkably increased in the last few years. He has pace and incredible technical ability, and he is almost certain to perform well on the big stage.

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Nicolás Otamendi controls the ball during a pre-tournament friendly against Haiti. Otamendi has become Argentina’s best defender, and will need to perform if they are to make a deep run in Russia.

Key Player: Nicolás Otamendi

Argentina have had defensive issues for some time, and Otamendi will play a key role in ensuring these problems do not plague their tournament. Since his non-selection for the last World Cup the experienced central defender has improved and was a key part of the Manchester City side that won the Premier League this season. If he can maintain that form, Argentina will be able to thrive.

One to watch: Cristian Pavón

Pavón is one of just three members of Sampaoli’s squad under the age of 25, and the 22-year-old has the potential to make an impact in Russia. He has good skills and plenty of pace, and his ability to play on either wing should allow him to be a handy option off the bench. He is still relatively unknown outside of Argentina, and this World Cup could be a chance to announce himself on the world stage.

Verdict

Argentina are not perfect, but if their attack is on song it is good enough to paper over the rest of the cracks. They aren’t guaranteed to progress from a competitive group, but with Messi on their side they should be alright.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Caballero; Mercado, Fazio, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Biglia, Lo Celso; Dybala, Messi, Di María; Agüero.

Iceland

Head Coach: Heimir Hallgrimsson
Captain: Aron Gunnarsson
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group I
Qualification Top Scorer: Gylfi Sigurðsson

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Hannes þór Halldórsson (Randers), 12. Frederik Schram (Roskilde), 13. Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson (Nordsjælland).
Defenders: 2. Birkir Már Sævarsson (Valur), 3. Samúel Friðjónsson (Vålerenga), 5. Sverrir Ingi Ingason (Rostov), 6. Ragnar Sigurðsson (Rostov), 14. Kári Árnason (Aberdeen), 15. Hólmar Örn Eyjólfsson (Levski Sofia), 18. Hörður Björgvin Magnússon (Bristol City), 23. Ari Freyr Skúlason (Lokeren).
Midfielders: 4. Albert Guðmundsson (PSV Eindhoven), 7. Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson (Burnley), 8. Birkir Bjarnason (Aston Villa), 10. Gylfi Sigurðsson (Everton), 16. Ólafur Ingi Skúlason (Kardemir Karabükspor), 17. Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff City), 19. Rúrik Gíslason (Sandhausen), 20. Emil Hallfreðsson (Udinese), 21. Arnór Ingvi Traustason (Malmö).
Forwards: 9. Björn Bergmann Sigurðarson (Rostov), 11. Alfreð Finnbogason (Augsburg), 22. Jón Daði Böðvarsson (Reading).

Iceland were the fairytale story of Euro 2016, and they will be looking to make a similar run in their first appearance at the World Cup. The tiny North Atlantic island (with a population of just 350 thousand) progressed from a tough qualifying group to become the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup finals, and they shouldn’t be underestimated. Their dream run at the Euros, including a stunning second round knockout of England, was built around excellent discipline and a very strong defensive structure. Ragnar Sigurðsson and Kári Árnason are solid centre-backs, and goalkeeper Hannes þór Halldórsson played the tournament of his life at the Euros and is an experienced player. Aside from providing an unlikely attacking threat with his monstrous throw-ins, captain Aron Gunnarsson is a solid presence in midfield, and wingers Birkir Bjarnason and Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson are dangerous in attack. With Gylfi Sigurðsson providing some class in midfield and Alfreð Finnbogason providing a dangerous scoring option, Iceland are a well-oiled unit who may just have what it takes to get through.

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Captain Aron Gunnarsson (centre) leads Iceland players in celebration after their Euro 2016 win over England. Iceland made it to the quarter-finals of the Euros with their dogged defence, and they have excellent team spirit.

The World Cup, however, is a tougher ask than the Euros. They have been battling injury issues in the lead-up to the tournament, with main striker Kolbeinn Sigþórsson missing with a knee injury and key players Gunnarsson, Finnbogason and Gylfi Sigurðsson all battling various complaints. Their eventual elimination from the Euros, coming in the form of an emphatic 5-2 defeat to hosts France, shows that they will struggle against stronger opponents in spite of their discipline, and their natural style of conceding possession and sitting back could leave them vulnerable. Iceland’s depth is not great, and while they have some quality players they are generally less skilled than their group stage opponents, something which could become an issue in big moments. They can be trusted to fight hard, and Heimir Hallgrimsson’s structure is very sound, but their lack of quality across the park is likely to prove their undoing in the end.

Star Player: Gylfi Sigurðsson

Sigurðsson is Iceland’s only truly world-class player, attracting a club-record fee when he moved from Swansea City to Everton at the start of the season. He is a hard-working midfielder who fits Iceland’s system well, and his ability to pop up with goals and assists in big moments will be invaluable in Russia. He is a quality player, and Iceland desperately need him to be fit and firing.

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Gylfi Sigurðsson (front), Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson (centre) and Birkir Bjarnason celebrate Guðmundsson’s qualifying goal against Kosovo. Sigurðsson is the team’s star, but wingers Bjarnason and Guðmundsson will also play a key role.

Key Player: Aron Gunnarsson

Gunnarsson is the other half of Iceland’s central midfield pairing, and while he is not as skilled as Sigurðsson he will be just as important. Gunnarsson has plenty of experience, and his physical play in the middle forms a key part of the Icelandic game plan. His long throw-ins, which tripped up the English during the Euros, allow Iceland extra attacking opportunities, something which could come in handy in tough games.

One to watch: Albert Guðmundsson

Guðmundsson comes from impressive footballing pedigree. He is a fourth generation Icelandic international, and his great-grandfather was Iceland’s first professional footballer. Now, the 20-year-old can forge his own reputation, and the PSV youth product has the talent to make an impact on the world stage. He is likely to be used off the bench, but he can find the back of the net and will be a good option for Hallgrimsson.

Verdict

The odds are stacked against Iceland making it through to the second round, but the same could have been said before the Euros. They are a disciplined group and shouldn’t be written off.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Halldórsson; Sævarsson, R Sigurðsson, Árnason, Magnússon; J Guðmundsson, Gunnarsson, G Sigurðsson, Bjarnason; Finnbogason, Boðvarsson.

Croatia

Head Coach: Zlatko Dalić
Captain: Luka Modrić
Previous Appearances: 4 (1998, 2002, 2006, 2014)
Best Finish: Third Place (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 2nd Group I (beat Greece in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Mario Mandžukić (5)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Dominik Livaković (Dinamo Zagreb), 12. Lovre Kalinić (Gent), 23. Danijel Subašić (Monaco).
Defenders: 2. Šime Vrsaljko (Atlético Madrid), 3. Ivan Strinić (Sampdoria), 5. Vedran Ćorluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), 6. Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), 13. Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), 15. Duje Ćaleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg), 21. Domagoj Vida (Beşiktaş), 22. Josip Pivarić (Dynamo Kyiv).
Midfielders: 4. Ivan Perišić (Internazionale), 7. Ivan Rakitić (Barcelona), 8. Mateo Kovačić (Real Madrid), 10. Luka Modrić (Real Madrid), 11. Marcelo Brozović (Internazionale), 14. Filip Bradarić (Rijeka), 19. Milan Badelj (Fiorentina).
Forwards: 9. Andrej Kramarić (Hoffenheim), 16. Nikola Kalinić (Milan), 17. Mario Mandžukić (Juventus), 18. Ante Rebić (Eintracht Frankfurt), 20. Marko Pjaca (Schalke).

Croatia didn’t take a particularly smooth road to Russia, with Group D opponents Iceland edging them out and forcing them into a play-off to Greece. To their credit, they went on to blow their opponents away in Zagreb, a 4-1 win in the first leg all but sealing their passage. The Croats have players from the biggest clubs in Europe all over the park, especially through the middle. Real Madrid star Luka Modrić is a genius with the ball at his feet, and the diminutive playmaker will be complemented well by Ivan Rakitić, Mateo Kovačić, Milan Badelj and Marcelo Brozović. Ivan Perišić is always a dangerous player on the wing, and Juventus youngster Marko Pjaca has the pace and skill to make an impact. Mario Mandžukić leads the line with support from Nikola Kalinić and Andrej Kramarić, meaning there should be no shortage of goals. They only conceded four goals in qualifying, and with experienced centre-back Dejan Lovren and goalkeeper Danijel Subašić leading the defence they should be a hard team to break down.

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Ivan Perišić chases the ball during a qualifying match against Ukraine. Perišić is a dangerous winger who knows how to find the back of the net, and he adds an extra edge to Croatia’s attack.

Unfortunately for Zlatko Dalić and Croatia, the quality on the park doesn’t guarantee success. Their failure to qualify automatically was a disappointment, and Ante Čačić was removed as coach days before a crucial clash with Ukraine after a home draw with Finland jeopardised their campaign. Čačić was unpopular in the dressing room and with the fans, and it’s not clear whether his hurried replacement can avoid a similar fate and get the best out of the players. If he can’t, the results could be disastrous. Their defence could prove a weakness in Russia, and centre-backs Lovren and Domagoj Vida have been prone to defensive lapses in the past. A repeat of such errors in a competitive group could prove incredibly costly for Dalić’s side. For all their attacking quality, they only managed 15 goals in their qualifying group, another sign that all may not be well within the Croatian team. If they reach their potential, they are good enough to go a long way, but its not clear which Croatia will show up.

Star Player: Luka Modrić

Modrić is as influential as any midfielder in the world at the moment, and the diminutive playmaker will be a crucial part of Croatia’s World Cup campaign. He is the kind of player who has it all: he is calm under pressure, rarely makes a mistake in possession and never avoids his defensive duties. His exploits have been an underrated part of Real Madrid’s three consecutive Champions League titles, and Croatia will rely on his brilliance in Russia.

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Luka Modrić celebrates after scoring in Croatia’s play-off clash with Greece. Modrić has won four Champions League titles with Real Madrid, and is the main cog in the Croatian midfield.

Key Player: Dejan Lovren

Lovren has been a key part of Liverpool’s defence for the last four seasons, and it is remarkable that he has only managed 37 caps in a 10-year career with the national team. Although non-selections such as his omission for Euro 2016 were driven by a poor relationship with Čačić, he has not always been the consistent defender Croatia wanted him to be. In Russia, he has a chance to change that, and if he plays well they will be hard to beat.

One to watch: Marko Pjaca

Pjaca has gone from strength to strength since getting a chance with the national team at Euro 2016. A brilliant performance against Spain earned him a move to Juventus, and his ability to beat opponents allows him to create plenty of chances from either wing. In a settled Croatian side he is unlikely to start despite his versatility, but he could be a handful as an impact player off the bench.

Verdict

Croatia have plenty of quality, and stars like Modrić are certain to perform, but has Dalić got what it takes to bring the best out of his squad? We’ll see, but Croatia definitely have what it takes to survive – and potentially thrive – in a tough group.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Subašić; Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić; Rakitić, Badelj; Kramarić, Modrić, Perišić; Mandžukić.

Nigeria

Head Coach: Gernot Rohr
Captain: John Obi Mikel
Previous Appearances: 5 (1994, 1998, 2002, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)
Qualified: CAF, 1st Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Victor Moses (3)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), 16. Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United), 23. Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruña).
Defenders: 2. Brian Idowu (Amkar Perm), 3. Elderson Echiéjilé (Cercle Brugge), 5. William Troost-Ekong (Bursaspor), 6. Leon Balogun (Mainz), 12. Shehu Abdullahi (Bursaspor), 20. Chidozie Awaziem (Nantes), 21. Tyronne Ebuehi (ADO Den Haag), 22. Kenneth Omeruo (Kasımpaşa).
Midfielders: 4. Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City), 8. Oghenekaro Etebo (Las Palmas), 10. John Obi Mikel (Tianjin TEDA), 11. Victor Moses (Chelsea), 15. Joel Obi (Torino), 17. Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), 18. Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), 19. John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva).
Forwards: 7. Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow), 9. Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), 13. Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone), 14. Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City).

When the qualifying draw pitted Nigeria against Algeria, Cameroon and Zambia, it looked like Gernot Rohr’s men were in for a tough fight. Instead, the Nigerians cruised through to book their spot in Russia, with their only “loss” coming when they fielded an ineligible player. They will face a harder task at the World Cup, having drawn Argentina once again (the sides also faced off in 1994, 2002, 2010 and 2014). Rohr has, however, put together a side that can take it up to the world’s best. Odion Ighalo, Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa are all quick and dangerous strikers, and Premier League duo Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses will be dangerous on the wings. John Obi Mikel has plenty of top-level experience, including 11 seasons with Chelsea, and the captain will combine well with Wilfred Ndidi, Oghenekaro Etebo and Ogenyi Onazi. Down back, Leon Balogun is a quality central defender, and he marshals a strong defence which conceded just four times in qualifying against some quality attacking players.

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John Obi Mikel (centre) chases the ball in Nigeria’s clash with Argentina at the 2014 World Cup. Nigeria have been drawn against Argentina in all but one of their World Cups, in 1998.

Nigeria may be a strong side and a very tough opponent in Russia, but they are not without issues, especially on the defensive end. The Super Eagles have major issues in goal, where the international retirement of Vincent Enyeama has left a hole that is still yet to be filled. First-choice Ikechukwu Ezenwa has fallen out of favour with Rohr and 19-year-old Francis Uzoho is likely to take the gloves in Russia. Uzoho is currently playing in Deportivo La Coruña’s second team, and it is not clear how he will perform under pressure at the World Cup, and the uncertainty around the position could come back to bite them during the tournament. Aside from centre-backs Balogun and William Troost-Ekong it is not clear who is in Rohr’s best back four, another issue that will need to be sorted out if the Super Eagles are to fly. If they can fix their problems they will be a formidable opponent, but a tough group means there is no time to warm into the campaign.

Star Player: Alex Iwobi

It’s hard to pinpoint one player as the best on this Nigerian team, but Iwobi’s goals against big opponents suggest he could be the hero at this World Cup. The 22-year-old has been getting regular game time with Arsenal, and in recent times he scored a brace against group stage opponents Argentina and a goal at Wembley against the English. He is a quality player on the wing, and could have a big impact in Russia.

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Alex Iwobi (left) battles for the ball during Nigeria’s friendly with England. Iwobi is a dangerous winger who can pierce defences and will play a big role for the Super Eagles in Russia.

Key Player: Leon Balogun

Balogun, along with Troost-Ekong, has been one of the only constant elements in Rohr’s defence, and Nigeria will need the physically imposing centre-back to stand up if they are to progress in this tournament. He has plenty of experience at the highest level, and the Super Eagles will hope that experience shines through on the big stage.

One to watch: Oghenekaro Etebo

Etebo was named CAF young player of the year in 2015, but the 22-year-old is still yet to fulfil his immense potential. He hasn’t quite pinned down one position as his best yet, but he mixes attacking talent with defensive work ethic and can play anywhere from attacking midfield to right-back. In Russia, he could be the midfielder the Super Eagles are looking for, and he has the chance to announce himself as a future star.

Verdict

Nigeria are a strong side, with plenty of exciting talents and quality players. Questions remain about their defence, however, and they may just get edged out by stronger opponents. They will be interesting to watch.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Uzoho; Idowu, Balogun, Troost-Ekong, Abdullahi; Etebo, Mikel, Ndidi; Moses, Ighalo, Iwobi.

Prediction

Will Iceland be able to repeat their Euro 2016 heroics? Will Argentina’s reliance on Lionel Messi cost them in the end? Can Zlatko Dalić get the best out of an extremely talented Croatian side? What will Nigeria bring to the table? These are just some of the many questions raised by this extremely tight group, where a slip by any one of the four sides could prove costly. On talent, Argentina and Croatia should progress, but both have lingering doubts surrounding their sides that could impact their performance. As for the others, Nigeria beat the Argentinians a few months ago, and Iceland did finish ahead of Croatia in their qualifying group. If Argentina were to miss out it would be surprising, but not entirely unprecedented. With all these unanswered questions, one thing’s for sure: Group D will be fascinating to watch.
1. Croatia, 2. Argentina, 3. Nigeria, 4. Iceland

Swansea win shootout against lacklustre Liverpool

It was the ultimate mismatch. Third-place against the side at the bottom of the table. The best attack in the league against the worst defence. Swansea City had little chance. Instead, they pulled off an upset for the ages, handing Liverpool their first home defeat in almost a year and gaining plenty of confidence in a statement victory.

To say the first half was dull would be something of an understatement: comatose would be a more accurate term. Liverpool dominated possession, but faced with a wall of white shirts they could not come close to penetrating Swansea’s disciplined defence. Neither goalkeeper was really troubled, and Liverpool seemed to have no answer to Swansea’s solid defensive front.

As the second half began, it soon became clear that they had no answer to Fernando Llorente, who took less than ten minutes to turn the match on its head. It began with a corner, conceded by Dejan Lovren after a back-pass gone wrong. Gylfi Sigurdsson whipped it in, where Federico Fernandez headed it towards goal. The ball landed at the feet of Wayne Routledge inside the six-yard-box, and Llorente couldn’t have had it any easier as he blasted it in. Inexplicably, goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was already on the ground, as the rest of his teammates just stood there watching.

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Too easy: Fernando Llorente (second from left) blasts home the opening goal of the match.

Liverpool weren’t making much progress in recouping the deficit when Swansea’s lead doubled. It was Swansea’s two new signings who set it up, with Tom Carroll finding Martin Olsson on the left wing. Carroll kept running through and received a return pass before hitting a first-time cross which looped in and was met with an excellent header from Llorente. Mignolet had no chance. Liverpool didn’t look to have too much hope either.

Enter Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian had looked like Liverpool’s most dangerous player from the outset, and he immediately set to work on getting Liverpool back on level terms, scoring their first goal mere minutes after Swansea’s second. James Milner set it up, sending in an excellent cross from the left wing and finding Firmino, who was one-on-one with Olsson on the back post. It was a battle the Swede was never going to win, and a header Lukasz Fabianski was never going to stop.

Swansea recovered, and eventually they had taken some of the heat out of the game. Emre Can attempted a bicycle kick, fell over and gave away a foul as he tripped Jack Cork. It just looked like one of those days for Liverpool. Then, Firmino found the equaliser. Georginio Wijnaldum capitalised on a rare mistake from Fernandez to find space on the left, and his ball for Firmino was perfect. The Brazilian controlled it with his chest before driving it home with his left boot, sending the Anfield crowd into raptures. It was 2-2.

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Unstoppable: Roberto Firmino (left) scores his first goal past Martin Olsson and Lukasz Fabianski.

Liverpool continued to press on, and another goal in the match looked inevitable. It came, just not for Liverpool. Swansea pushed up the field, with Leroy Fer picking out Llorente at the top of the box. He gave it to Carroll, the new signing, who looked to bulldoze his way past Ragnar Klavan and Lovren. It didn’t work, but the ball spilled wide, and Gylfi Sigurdsson was more than ready to put it away. He stretched for the ball, eventually sliding as he put the ball into the bottom corner and put Swansea ahead once again. They were not going to let it slip this time.

There were moments of chaos as both sides loaded the box. Daniel Sturridge was denied by Fabianski at close range, and Adam Lallana was at the centre of a piece of play which saw bodies flying everywhere. He controlled and attempted to shoot, and eventually the ball bounced into the bar. Fabianski flew through the air to try and stop it, but he could not get there and ended up in the back of his own net as the ball rebounded out. Sturridge collected it and found Lallana, who could not convert a close-range header. It was just one of those days.

In the end, Liverpool were very poor and didn’t deserve to win, and this result leaves them in serious trouble as they look for a drought-breaking title. For Swansea, it was a confidence boosting effort which will hold them in good stead for the rest of the season. They will have a tough relegation battle on their hands, and they may still go down, but this game will go down in history as one of their best wins. No matter what happens this season, they will always have this game.

Liverpool – Anfield
Liverpool 2 (Firmino 55, 69)
Swansea City 3 (Llorente 48, 52, Sigurdsson 74)
Referee: Kevin Friend

Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet – Clyne, Lovren, Klavan, Milner; Can (Origi 70), Henderson, Wijnaldum (Matip 90+4); Lallana, Firmino, Coutinho (Sturridge 57).
Swansea City (4-2-3-1): Fabianski – Naughton, Fernandez, Mawson, Olsson (Rangel 79); Carroll, Cork; Routledge, Fer (Fulton 90+4), Sigurdsson; Llorente (Baston 85).

Top 5
1. Fernando Llorente (Swansea City)
Llorente didn’t get too many chances over the course of the ninety minutes, but when they came he was more than equal to the task, scoring both goals and providing a key presence in the box for the Swans. He showed his ability to find the ball in the box, and he performed his defensive duties well.
2. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool)
Firmino was the only Liverpool player who looked like scoring, and from start to finish he was head and shoulders above his teammates. He scored twice to throw Liverpool a lifeline in the game, and while his team wasn’t good enough to take it he can hold his head high after an excellent effort.
3. Federico Fernandez (Swansea City)
Fernandez was solid as a rock in Swansea’s defence, repelling attack after attack and pairing well with Alfie Mawson to keep Liverpool at bay. He played a key role in creating Swansea’s opening goal, and while he made a small error which allowed Liverpool to equalise he played a very strong game.
4. Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea City)
Sigurdsson was quiet in the first half, but his second half effort was excellent. His set-piece delivery was impeccable as he made the most of limited opportunities, and he scored a winner which was harder to convert than it looked. A class performance.
5. Tom Carroll (Swansea City)
On debut for Swansea after moving from Spurs, Carroll looked in great touch throughout. He assisted the second goal with an excellent cross, and he also played a key role in the winner. He defended well, and he showed that he could play a key role for Swansea as this season draws on.

2016-17 Premier League Preview – The middle of the pack

Crystal Palace

Manager: Alan Pardew
Captain: Scott Dann
Ground: Selhurst Park
Last Season: 15th
Top Scorer: Yannick Bolasie, Yohan Cabaye, Scott Dann, Connor Wickham (5)
Most Assists: Yannick Bolasie, Damien Delaney, Jason Puncheon, Connor Wickham (3)
Prediction: 16th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Julian Speroni, 13. Wayne Hennessey, Steve Mandanda.
Defenders:
2. Joel Ward, 6. Scott Dann, 19. Zeki Fryers, 23. Pape Souare, 27. Damien Delaney, 34. Martin Kelly, James Tomkins.
Midfielders:
7. Yohan Cabaye, 10. Yannick Bolasie, 11. Wilfried Zaha, 14. Lee Chung-yong, 15. Mile Jedinak, 18. James McArthur, 20. Jonny Williams, 22. Jordon Mutch, 26. Bakary Sako, 28. Joe Ledley, 38. Hiram Boateng, 42. Jason Puncheon, Andros Townsend.
Forwards:
9. Fraizer Campbell, 21. Connor Wickham, 32. Kwesi Appiah.

Crystal Palace were solid last season, making it to the final of the FA Cup and comfortably staying out of the relegation zone. Yohan Cabaye (pictured), Mile Jedinak, Joe Ledley and James McArthur provide a solid base in the centre of the park, and new signing Andros Townsend will provide plenty of width. The English international will compete with Yannick Bolasie, Wilfried Zaha and Jason Puncheon for a spot on the wings, and they will be looking to provide excellent delivery for Connor Wickham up front. The defence is solid, and new recruit James Tomkins will face stiff competition as he aims to start ahead of Damien Delaney at centre back. Scott Dann was in top form last season, and the new captain will look to keep this up as he anchors the defence. Steve Mandanda has been brought in from Marseille, and the French number two will replace Wayne Hennessey in goal.

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Crystal Palace are a solid side defensively, but there are some problems in attack. They were only able to score 39 goals last season, with centre back Dann finishing the season as one of the team’s top scorers. He was able to score as many goals as Wickham, who was Pardew’s main option in attack throughout the campaign. The losses of Marouane Chamakh, Emmanuel Adebayor and Dwight Gayle have left Palace devoid of the few attacking options they had at the end of last season, and unless they can find a new striker before the transfer window closes they will find it incredibly difficult to penetrate opposition defences. Cabaye, a defensive midfielder, has been functioning as the team’s main playmaker since his arrival from Paris Saint-Germain. The French international failed in this role during his first season at the club, and Palace will need him to deliver if they are to get anywhere this season.

Star Player: Yohan Cabaye

Cabaye has racked up nearly 50 international caps for the French national team, and he has gathered plenty of experience in both France and England. He was reunited with Pardew when he moved to Palace from French giants PSG at the start of last season, and he is still good enough to take on the best players in the world. He will be a constant presence in midfield throughout the campaign, and Palace will be hoping he can deliver.

Key Player: Scott Dann

Dann moved to Crystal Palace from Blackburn Rovers midway through the 2013-14 season, and he has slotted effortlessly into the centre of defence at the club. He is a good leader, and he has replaced Jedinak as captain after showing great form last season. He is the best player Palace have in defence, and if he fails to step up they will struggle to keep their opponents out.

One to watch: Wilfried Zaha

Zaha made his debut for England in 2012, and he has been on the scene for such a long time that it is hard to believe that he is still only 23. He was unsuccessful during a brief spell at Manchester United, but he still has plenty of potential and could take Crystal Palace to greater heights as he continues to develop. He has been a regular over the last couple of seasons, and he will play a big role again.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Mandanda – Ward, Dann, Tomkins, Souare; McArthur, Jedinak; Zaha, Cabaye, Bolasie; Wickham.

Stoke City

Manager: Mark Hughes
Captain: Ryan Shawcross
Ground: Bet365 Stadium
Last Season: 9th
Top Scorer: Marko Arnautovic (11)
Most Assists: Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri (6)
Prediction: 9th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Jack Butland, 24. Shay Given, 29. Jakob Haugaard, 35. Daniel Bachmann.
Defenders:
2. Phil Bardsley, 3. Erik Pieters, 5. Marc Muniesa, 8. Glen Johnson, 12. Marc Wilson, 17. Ryan Shawcross, 20. Geoff Cameron, 23. Dionatan Teixeira, 26. Philipp Wollscheid.
Midfielders:
4. Joe Allen, 6. Glenn Whelan, 7. Stephen Ireland, 14. Ibrahim Afellay, 16. Charlie Adam, 21. Giannelli Imbula, 22. Xherdan Shaqiri, 34. Ollie Shenton, Ramadhan Sobhi.
Forwards:
10. Marko Arnautovic, 11. Joselu, 18. Mame Biram Diouf, 19. Jonathan Walters, 25. Peter Crouch, 27. Bojan.

Stoke City have been consistent performers in the Premier League for a long time, and they have not looked like being relegated since their return to the top flight in 2008. Mark Hughes has guided the club to three consecutive ninth-place finishes since taking over in 2013, and this consistency looks set to continue. Joe Allen has joined the club from Liverpool after showing impressive form at Euro 2016, and he will form an effective combination with Giannelli Imbula and Glenn Whelan in the centre of midfield. Ryan Shawcross is one of the most consistent defenders in the Premier League, and he will combine with Philipp Wollscheid to ensure that not much gets through. Jack Butland is still very young and will continue to develop over the course of the season, and the English international will provide an excellent safety net for the back four. Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri (pictured) are both incredibly talented players, and they should cause plenty of problems for opposition defences.

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Stoke have been in need of a quality target up front for years, but no amount of money has done the trick since their return to the Premier League. Arnautovic was the main scoring option last season, and while he netted 11 times from the left wing Hughes was only able to get a total of 21 goals out of Bojan, Mame Biram Diouf, Jonathan Walters and Joselu. Stoke were barely able to manage more than a goal a game last season, and if they are looking to improve they will need to find a player who can get them the goals they need. There is not a lot of time left before the season kicks off, and if they cannot find a new target up front they will struggle. The defence was fairly leaky last season, and while some of this was due to an injury to Shawcross they will need to ensure that their defensive woes do not become a recurring problem. There are some things which could go wrong for Stoke as they look to finish in the top half of the table for a fourth consecutive season, but they are a fairly well-rounded side and are unlikely to drop off significantly.

Star Player: Xherdan Shaqiri

Shaqiri has played for Basel, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, and the Swiss winger became a record signing for the Potters when he was signed from the Italian giants in 2015. He is not tall, but he makes up for it with pace, skill and an ability to put the ball into dangerous positions. He has the ability to take down another team on his own, and he could be a massive influence this season.

Key Player: Marko Arnautovic

Arnautovic led Stoke for both goals and assists last season, and the Austrian international has the ability to cause plenty of problems for opposition defences over the course of this campaign. He has plenty of skill and will look to present himself as a target for Shaqiri, who will function as the team’s main playmaker. He is Stoke’s best scoring option, and he will need to maintain his output.

One to watch: Ramadhan Sobhi

Sobhi is exceptionally talented, and the young Egyptian playmaker will be looking to make an impact for his new club after moving to the Premier League from Al Ahly. He made his Egyptian debut at just 17, and his signing could prove to be a massive coup for Stoke City in years to come. He is unlikely to feature too heavily this season, but it will be interesting to see if he can make the most of his chances.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Butland – Johnson, Shawcross, Wollscheid, Pieters; Allen, Imbula; Shaqiri, Afellay, Arnautovic; Bojan.

Swansea City

Manager: Francesco Guidolin
Captain: Ashley Williams
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Last Season: 12th
Top Scorer: Andre Ayew (12)
Most Assists: Kyle Naughton, Gylfi Sigurdsson (3)
Prediction: 12th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Lukasz Fabianski, 13. Kristoffer Nordfeldt, 19. Mark Birighitti, 25. Gerhard Tremmel.
Defenders:
2. Jordi Amat, 3. Neil Taylor, 5. Mike van der Hoorn, 6. Ashley Williams, 14. Franck Tabanou, 22. Angel Rangel, 26. Kyle Naughton, 33. Federico Fernandez, 35. Steven Kingsley.
Midfielders:
4. Ki Sung-yueng, 7. Leon Britton, 8. Leroy Fer, 10. Andre Ayew, 12. Nathan Dyer, 15. Wayne Routledge, 20. Jefferson Montero, 23. Gylfi Sigurdsson, 24. Jack Cork, 30. Josh Sheehan, 53. Adam King, 56. Jay Fulton.
Forwards:
9. Fernando Llorente, 11. Marvin Emnes, 17. Modou Barrow, 62. Oliver McBurnie.

Swansea started last season poorly, and they were facing a relegation battle before Francesco Guidolin, a relative unknown outside of Italy, stepped in. The experienced Italian guided the Swans to safety over the second half of the season, recording wins over Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool on the way to a twelfth-placed finish. Andre Ayew and Gylfi Sigurdsson (pictured) scored 23 goals between them last season, and they will be complemented by new signing Fernando Llorente. Jack Cork is a solid presence in midfield, and he will be ably supported by Leroy Fer, Ki Sung-yueng and Leon Britton. New signing Mike van der Hoorn will bolster the defence, where he will play alongside captain Ashley Williams, and Lukasz Fabianski will be very hard to beat in goal.

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Swansea are very solid down back, but there are some issues in attack which need to be fixed. Bafetimbi Gomis has been loaned out to Marseille, and with Eder making a permanent move to Lille the Swans have been left with just four genuine strikers on their books. Llorente has been brought in to fix the problem, but he did not play regularly in stints at Juventus and Sevilla and is short on match practice. He reached his peak years ago during his time at Athletic Bilbao, and he is likely to be taking on a very heavy burden with little support. Neither Modou Barrow nor Marvin Emnes were regular options last season, and the lack of bench depth will make Llorente’s job very tough. Swansea struggled last season before Guidolin came to the club, and there is no way of knowing that this will not happen again. They have a solid base, but they could be very inconsistent.

Star Player: Gylfi Sigurdsson

Sigurdsson was a key member of the Icelandic side that made the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, and he has developed into one of the Premier League’s best attacking midfielders. HHehnbHe is a skilled playmaker, and he managed to score 11 times over the course of last season in a more attacking role. He is an excellent player, and he can have a big impact this season with his skill and his eye for goal.

Key Player: Ashley Williams

Williams has plenty of experience at both club and international level, and he has been in charge of Swansea’s defence for a long time. He led Wales to the semi-finals of the Euros, and he will be a key member of Swansea’s team as they look to improve on last season. If he is unable to perform it will be very difficult for the Swans, who need their defence to hold firm if they are to succeed.

One to watch: Mike van der Hoorn

Swansea may have uncovered a hidden gem in van der Hoorn, an imposing central defender who is still developing and has the potential to become one of the world’s best. He is not particularly well-known outside of the Netherlands, but he is strong in the air and should be able to immediately compete for a place in the first-team.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Fabianski – Rangel, van der Hoorn, Williams, Taylor; Cork, Ki; Routledge, Sigurdsson, Ayew; Llorente.

Watford

Manager: Walter Mazzarri
Captain: Troy Deeney
Ground: Vicarage Road
Last Season: 13th
Top Scorer: Odion Ighalo (15)
Most Assists: Troy Deeney (7)
Prediction: 15th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Heurelho Gomes, 13. Rene Gilmartin, 34. Giedrius Arlauskis, Costel Pantilimon.
Defenders:
2. Allan Nyom, 3. Miguel Britos, 5. Sebastian Prodl, 14. Juan Carlos Paredes, 15. Craig Cathcart, 18. Juan Camilo Zuniga, 25. Jose Holebas, 26. Brice Dja Djedje, 27. Christian Kabasele, 31. Tommie Hoban, Essaid Belkalem.
Midfielders:
4. Mario Suarez, 7. Nordin Amrabat, 8. Valon Behrami, 16. Abdoulaye Doucoure, 17. Adlene Guedioura, 21. Ikechi Anya, 23. Ben Watson, 28. Sean Murray, 29. Etienne Capoue.
Forwards:
9. Troy Deeney, 10. Isaac Success, 19. Jerome Sinclair, 24. Odion Ighalo, Matej Vydra.

Watford comfortably avoided relegation in their return to the top-flight, with Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney (pictured) causing plenty of problems for opposition defences. Quique Flores has since made way, and new manager Walter Mazzarri has wasted no time in leaving his mark on the team. Brice Dja Djedje has come in from Marseille, and Christian Kabasele has been added to the defence after showing brilliant form at Genk. Kabasele will play alongside Craig Cathcart and Miguel Britos in the centre of defence, while wing backs Dja Djedje and Juan Camilo Zuniga will look to provide width and create a connection between defence and attack. Heurelho Gomes is an experienced presence in goal, and the Brazilian international will look to perform as well as he did last season. The midfield of Ben Watson, Etienne Capoue, Mario Suarez and Valon Behrami is very solid, and Deeney and Ighalo will provide plenty of bite in attack. Watford have a very well-rounded side, and they should be consistent throughout.

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Watford are fairly solid in all areas, but they are too reliant on Deeney and Ighalo for goals and this could prove costly. The two provided 28 goals between them over the course of last season, and while they were prolific their teammates were only able to contribute 12 between them. No other player scored more than two goals, and this over-reliance on the strikers could prove costly as the season progresses. Capoue, Suarez and Behrami, while experienced, are all defensive midfielders, and Mazzarri lacks a real connection between defence and attack. This could be particularly costly as Ighalo and Deeney are the key to Watford’s chances this season, and if they are not involved in the game then the team will have huge problems. The defence is not as strong as it could be, and the inexperience of Kabasele and Dja Djedje could prove costly. There is a quality gap between Watford and the big clubs that will be difficult to breach, and if the strikers don’t fire they could find themselves in a relegation battle.

Star Player: Troy Deeney

Deeney has been one of Watford’s most consistent performers since he joined the club in 2010, and he netted 13 goals on their return to the Premier League. He showed last season that he is capable of mixing with the best in the world, and there is no reason why he cannot continue to form a dominant strike partnership with Ighalo this time around.

Key Player: Valon Behrami

With the departure of Almen Abdi to Sheffield Wednesday the Swiss international will be more influential than ever, with Behrami set to act as the side’s main playmaker in addition to his defensive duties. Watford are in need of a link between defence and attack, and if Behrami cannot deliver in this role then Mazzari will have some big problems to deal with.

One to watch: Christian Kabasele

Kabasele came from nowhere to take a place in Belgium’s squad at Euro 2016, and the centre back should slot easily into Watford’s defence. He is not a well-known quantity, but he showed great form at Genk and has the physical qualities to succeed in the Premier League. He can be a dangerous presence at set pieces, and it will be interesting to see how he performs.

Likely team (3-5-2): Gomes – Kabasele, Cathcart, Britos; Dja Djedje, Suarez, Behrami, Capoue, Zuniga; Deeney, Ighalo.

West Bromwich Albion

Manager: Tony Pulis
Captain: Darren Fletcher
Ground: The Hawthorns
Last Season: 14th
Top Scorer: Salomon Rondon (9)
Most Assists: Chris Brunt, Darren Fletcher, Craig Gardner, James Morrison (3)
Prediction: 13th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Ben Foster, 13. Boaz Myhill, 38. Jack Rose.
Defenders:
3. Jonas Olsson, 4. James Chester, 6. Jonny Evans, 15. Sebastian Pocognoli, 16. Cristian Gamboa, 23. Gareth McAuley, 25. Craig Dawson.
Midfielders:
5. Claudio Yacob, 7. James Morrison, 8. Craig Gardner, 10. Matt Phillips, 11. Chris Brunt, 14. James McClean, 19. Callum McManaman, 24. Darren Fletcher, 47. Sam Field.
Forwards:
9. Salomon Rondon, 17. Rickie Lambert, 18. Saido Berahino, 45. Jonathan Leko.

West Bromich Albion have been a constant presence in the Premier League for a long time, and they were solid last season under the guidance of experienced Welsh manager Tony Pulis. The Baggies have an excellent defence, with James Chester, Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley battling it out to start in the heart of the back four. Manchester United youth product Jonny Evans is a top-quality player at left back, and Craig Dawson will be a constant presence on the right. English international Ben Foster has plenty of experience in goal, and he will ensure that not much gets through. Darren Fletcher and Claudio Yacob are solid in the centre of midfield, and new signing Matt Phillips has the potential to do plenty of damage on a wing. Saido Berahino is one of the most promising players in English football, and he will form a dangerous partnership with Salomon Rondon (pictured).

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Pulis has plenty of experience at the highest level, but ever since he guided Stoke City to promotion in 2008 his sides have been unable to put the ball in the back of the net. Only Aston Villa, who went through four different managers and finished with just three wins, scored fewer goals than the Baggies last season. Rondon was excellent, scoring nine times, but Berahino could not back up the great form he showed early on in his career. Rickie Lambert was nowhere near his best, and it is likely that the 34-year-old will be unable to return to the form he showed a few seasons ago. There is no-one creating chances in the middle of the park, and while the Baggies will be defensively solid they lack a link between midfield and attack. Pulis will take them to safety, but they are unlikely to get close to the top half of the table.

Star Player: Salomon Rondon

Rondon is a top-quality player in attack, and he has the potential to cause plenty of problems for opposition defences. He has plenty of experience of European competitions, and the Venezuelan international immediately made his mark in his first season in England. He netted nine goals despite a poor supply chain, and if he can combine well with Berahino the Baggies will be hard to beat.

Key Player: Darren Fletcher

Fletcher spent 13 seasons at Manchester United, making over 200 league appearances and featuring over 60 times in Europe. He has also made 73 appearances for Scotland, and his vast experience at both club and international level will serve West Brom well over the course of the season. He will be a constant presence in the centre of the park, and he will look to serve as a calming influence.

One to watch: Jonathan Leko

Leko made his Premier League debut last season at the age of 16, racking up five league appearances and starting in three games. He is quick, skilful, and terrorised opposition defences late in the season when given the opportunity. He is a dangerous presence up front, and he is good enough to push for a place in the starting line-up this season. He is still only 17, and is a very exciting prospect.

Likely team (4-3-3): Foster – Dawson, McAuley, Olsson, Evans; Gardner, Yacob, Fletcher; Phillips, Rondon, Berahino.

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview – Group F

Group F

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

Portugal

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

Squad

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

Form Guide

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

Strengths

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

Weaknesses

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

Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo

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

Key Player: Joao Moutinho

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

Verdict

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

Iceland

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

Squad

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

Form Guide

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

Strengths

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

Weaknesses

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

Star Player: Gylfi Sigurdsson

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

Key Player: Aron Gunnarsson

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

Verdict

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

Austria

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

Squad

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

Form Guide

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

Strengths

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

Weaknesses

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

Star Player: David Alaba

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

Key Player: Aleksandar Dragovic

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

Verdict

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

Hungary

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

Squad

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

Form Guide

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

Strengths

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

Weaknesses

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

Star Player: Balazs Dzsudzsak

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

Key Player: Zoltan Gera

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

Verdict

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

Prediction

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