England break the curse in fiery affair

Jordan Henderson looked confident as he walked towards the penalty spot. He even juggled the ball as he was preparing to take England’s third kick of their decisive penalty shootout against Colombia. The shootout was evenly poised. Colombian captain Radamel Falcao had gone first, and made no mistake. His opposite number, English striker Harry Kane, scored his penalty with similar confidence. Juan Cuadrado, Marcus Rashford and Luis Muriel took the next three shots, and all of them scored. The pressure on each kick, especially each English one, was increasing. Henderson’s penalty was good, hit with power and precision to the right. Unfortunately for Henderson, Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina was ready. He made a brilliant save, and England seemed done. They had worked determinedly to break their penalty shootout jinx at major tournaments. They had prepared themselves mentally and physically for the dreaded tiebreaker that has so often proved England’s undoing. Now, it seemed that, despite their best efforts, they had lost on penalties again. Turin 1990, London 1996, Saint-Étienne 1998, Lisbon 2004, Gelsenkirchen 2006 and Kiev 2012, England’s previous penalty shootout defeats, were about to be joined by Moscow 2018.

It started brightly enough for England. They had most of the early play, and created some good chances. Kane came especially close to scoring when he got on the end of a dangerous Kieran Trippier cross, but he couldn’t quite put the tough header away and it landed on the roof of the net. Colombia began to settle, but their sole attacking threat was a couple of long shots from Juan Fernando Quintero. England had a few more chances, but they never really looked like scoring as the first half drew to a close. The first half did, however, set the tone for what was to come with a few heated incidents.

The first flashpoint involved Trippier and Falcao. The English right-back pushed into the Colombian striker from behind, the Colombian striker went down, and Colombia received a free-kick. Then the pair exchanged words as Trippier seemed to accuse Falcao of exaggerating the contact. It didn’t seem too unfair an accusation considering the incident, but Falcao shot to his feet immediately, determined to address this slight on his honour. A couple of minutes later, Harry Maguire and Cuadrado looked like they were about to come to blows. Had other players been in the vicinity, blows may well have ensued. There was an undercurrent of tension bubbling up, and it looked like things might just go crazy.

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Raheem Sterling (front) is fouled by Yerry Mina as they battle each other for the ball. There was plenty of physical play during the game, and it resulted in a contest that was often heated.

Then they did. A larger fracas broke out when Kane was brought down on the edge of the area, although none of it actually stemmed from the original foul. Instead, the trouble originated from the wall. Colombia arranged their wall effectively, before England decided to get involved in an attempt to disrupt Colombia’s defence of Trippier’s shot on goal. Amidst the chaos, Wílmar Barrios softly headbutted Henderson in the chest. Henderson went to ground, England remonstrated, the video assistant referee intervened, and eventually Barrios was fairly lucky to escape with a yellow card. All the jostling was a waste of time in the end, as Trippier didn’t even put his free-kick on target.

Mateus Uribe had the next penalty after Henderson’s miss. Colombia now held the upper hand, and all Uribe needed to do to consolidate that advantage was put his penalty past Jordan Pickford. For Pickford, it was do or die. He needed to save the kick, or England would almost certainly be consigned to another penalty shootout defeat. Uribe went high, aiming for the top corner. It was impossible to save. It was also off target, hitting the underside of the bar and bouncing out. England were suddenly back in it. Trippier slammed his penalty home. Scores were level.

There was another minor incident as the increasingly spiteful half drew to a close, as Raheem Sterling seemingly sent Yerry Mina crashing to the turf in an off-the-ball coming together. It turned out that Sterling had done nothing of the sort, and Mina had just taken a massive dive before angrily remonstrating with his supposed assailant. The Henderson-Barrios incident hadn’t yet cooled temperatures, and American referee Mark Geiger was desperately fighting to keep the game under control.

Then, shortly after half time, Colombia won a penalty and sparked the biggest incident of the match. It wasn’t surprising. As the English prepared to take a corner, four English attackers – and Colombian Carlos Sánchez – stood in an orderly line awaiting the delivery. Sánchez wasn’t really meant to be there, and England didn’t really seem to want him around, but he wasn’t willing to let Kane out of his sight. Or, more importantly, he wasn’t willing to let Kane out of his grasp. Referee Geiger gave the customary talk on holding in the box, but Sánchez clearly paid little attention. The ball was eventually put into the area, Sánchez attempted to block Kane from running at the ball, and eventually Kane went crashing to the turf as Sánchez seemingly attempted to mount him. Sánchez’s actions wouldn’t have been out of place at a rodeo, and Geiger didn’t hesitate in pointing to the spot. England were happy with the call. Colombia were incensed.

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Harry Kane celebrates after putting England ahead with a well-taken penalty. The lead lasted until the 93rd minute of the match.

They remonstrated very vocally with Geiger, forcing a delay in the game as they made their feelings clear. Sánchez and Falcao led the protests, but there were consistently four or five Colombians surrounding Geiger and demanding that the egregious injustice they had just suffered be rectified. Eventually, the kick was taken, and scored quite easily by Kane. England had the lead, and Colombia didn’t seem ready to get it back just yet. They were just angry about how the game had panned out, and the result was chaos.

Falcao clashed with John Stones immediately after the goal. Then he accused Maguire (not unfairly) of sharp practice as the big centre-back went to ground in the box, and found himself booked for his slightly over-zealous and threatening protests. Geiger soon decided that when in doubt, brandishing the yellow card was the best option. Carlos Bacca came on and clattered into the back of Stones, receiving a yellow card as a result. Stones wasn’t best pleased, and he rejected Bacca’s apologetic handshake. Bacca just looked slightly sad. Jesse Lingard clipped Carlos Sánchez’s heels rather unnecessarily. He too received a complementary caution. It was beginning to seem like it would take a miracle for both sides to finish the game with their full complement of players.

Bacca was entrusted with taking the crucial fifth penalty for Colombia. The shootout had reached the point where the slightest slip, or one moment of brilliance from either keeper, would almost certainly decide the game. All Bacca had to do was score. He couldn’t. Pickford flung himself the right way, and almost flung himself too far. The ball was above him, but he raised his left arm, batted the ball away and left England on the verge of the unthinkable: a win in the knockout stage on penalties. Could it really happen? Eric Dier stepped up to take the kick that could seal it.

A rare moment of footballing action saw Lingard attempt to find Kane in the centre after slipping into the box with a nice run. It was blocked, and the resultant corner saw Maguire head the ball onto the roof of the net. Then Kyle Walker gave Colombia their best chance of the game. The English centre-back was dispossessed in a very dangerous area and England’s defence was outnumbered. Cuadrado missed the target. Suddenly, with the game on the line, Colombia seemed to decide that fighting the English wasn’t really the answer, and seemingly realised that Cuadrado’s missed chance, and Quintero’s pair of long shots, was the sum total of their attacking efforts. They needed to do better, and they lifted.

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Carlos Bacca (right) is distraught after having his penalty saved by Jordan Pickford. Pickford’s stop allowed England to win the match on penalties.

Out of nowhere, Pickford was required to make a stunning save to deal with Uribe’s ridiculously ambitious attempt from a very long way out. He managed to tip the ball away for a corner, one of Colombia’s first of the night. The clock had passed 90 minutes, and the match was into added time. The corner was Colombia’s last throw of the dice. It was swung in, and Mina rose to meet it. Mina had scored from corners in Colombia’s previous two matches, and now he found space against Maguire in the box. He headed it into the ground, hard, and it bounced towards goal. Trippier was too short to get his head to the bouncing ball and keep it from crossing the goal line. Pickford was too far away to make a last-ditch save. The game was going to extra time, and penalties were on the agenda.

There were a few chances in extra time, but neither side was able to break the deadlock. The game was to be decided on penalty kicks. This English side had been hailed as the new generation of stars who could make their own history. Now, that reputation was at a crossroads. England could overcome the scars of the past, and continue to forge ahead into the quarter-finals and, quite possibly, beyond. Alternatively, they could lose. It was hard to know what a loss would do. Would it prove that this English side, for all the hype surrounding the fresh and exciting squad, couldn’t overcome the historical burdens carried into every tournament? Would it suggest that England’s supposed renaissance under Gareth Southgate was just a false dawn, driven by the media excitement accompanying their success? It wasn’t clear.

Thankfully for England, those questions didn’t need to be asked. Dier was calm as he slotted his penalty into the bottom corner, and England celebrated madly as they made their way into the quarter-finals. It was fitting that Southgate, on the losing side in the shootouts of 96 and 98, was the man in charge of the team as they finally overcame their demons. Maybe England are a newly resurgent force, although the jury could still be out. After all, their next game is against Sweden, and they have a horrible record against the Swedes. It seems the perfect opportunity to create some new history.

Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Colombia 1 (Mina 90+3)
England 1 (Kane 57 pen) (a.e.t, England won 4-3 on penalties)
Referee: Mark Geiger (USA)
Colombia (4-3-2-1): Ospina – Arias (Zapata 116), Mina, D Sánchez, Mojica; Barrios, C Sánchez (Uribe 79), Lerma (Bacca 61); Cuadrado, Quintero (Muriel 88); Falcao.
England (3-5-2):
Pickford – Walker (Rashford 113), Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Alli (Dier 81), Henderson, Lingard, Young (Rose 102); Sterling (Vardy 88), Kane.

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England’s players pile on top of Jordan Pickford after their penalty shootout victory. After losing six of their seven previous penalty shootouts at major tournaments, including three World Cup shootouts, the victory was a huge weight off England’s shoulders.

Top 5
1. Kieran Trippier (England)
Trippier has been brilliant all tournament, and he delivered another excellent performance to send England through to the last eight. He worked hard going forward and tracking back, and his crosses from the right wing were very dangerous. His set piece delivery was on song once again, and it caused plenty of problems.
2. Harry Kane (England)
Kane scored England’s only goal, and his sixth of the tournament, from the penalty spot, and his impact stretched beyond that one moment. He made plenty of dangerous runs, and fought through a number of fouls as he desperately attempted to drive England forward. He appears to be England’s greatest hope of an even deeper run into the tournament.
3. Johan Mojica (Colombia)
Mojica was the only Colombian who consistently threatened the English as he used his pace and crossing ability to good effect. He had little support on the left and was often forced to go it alone, but he always worked hard and he very nearly breached the English defence on a few occasions.
4. Jesse Lingard (England)
Lingard was his usual energetic self, making penetrating runs in midfield and establishing himself as England’s main second half threat with his work on the counter-attack. He came close to scoring or assisting an English goal on a few occasions, and put Colombia under the pump.
5. Juan Cuadrado (Colombia)
Cuadrado worked hard to get into some decent attacking positions, and he made some decent forays forward. He collected the assist for Colombia’s late equaliser, and he looked more likely than most of his teammates to make something happen.

Kane’s fortunate hat-trick headlines crushing English victory

Ricardo Ávila delivered the free-kick into the box from a fairly dangerous position. The set piece wasn’t particularly well defended by the English, and 37-year-old Panamanian substitute Felipe Baloy, on World Cup debut, found space in the box. He slid in, the ball caught his outstretched boot, and Jordan Pickford’s dive couldn’t keep it out of the bottom corner. In their second World Cup game, Panama finally had their first World Cup goal, and the Panamanian fans in Nizhny Novgorod were jubilant. An outside observer may have seen the rapturous celebrations and assumed Panama were level, even ahead. If only those six English goals (five in the first half) were taken out of the equation. Panama had some chances, and Baloy’s historic goal ensured their fans left the ground in fairly good spirits, but they were never going to match it with a classy English team. After going into half time 5-0 down following a steady procession of English goals, the Panamanians were lucky it didn’t get any worse.

The first goal came from a poorly-defended corner. There was a delay in taking the kick as referee Gehad Grisha delivered the customary lecture on not holding in the box, and then had to deliver said lecture again when Harry Maguire and Gabriel Gómez both tumbled to the ground. Finally, Kieran Trippier swung the corner in, despite Maguire and Gómez continuing to jostle aggressively with each other. They attracted the attention, but it was John Stones who scored the goal. Stones was seemingly unmarked, having benefitted from some unbelievably loose defence from Michael Murillo, and he had no problems heading the ball into the bottom corner.

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Raheem Sterling (left) is thwarted by Jaime Penedo as he looks to get in behind the Panamanian defence. Sterling made plenty of good runs and got into dangerous positions, but he couldn’t get himself a goal.

The second goal wasn’t too long in coming. Jesse Lingard made a good run in behind the Panamanian defence, and was picked out on the edge of the box. Then he was brutally hacked down by both of Panama’s centre-backs, with Fidel Escobar getting in first before Román Torres added his weight to the very heavy – and very illegal – challenge. Harry Kane stepped up to take the penalty, and the English captain drilled a perfect spot kick past Jaime Penedo.

If the game wasn’t already over after Kane’s penalty, it was after Lingard scored the third goal. The energetic midfielder received the ball on the edge of the box, played a one-two with Raheem Sterling to get himself in position and fired an unstoppable shot into the top corner. It looked ridiculously simple. It most definitely wasn’t. Penedo’s full-length dive was in vain against Lingard’s casual brilliance, and there were still 10 minutes left in the half. Time enough for two more goals, then.

The fourth came from a carefully designed set piece. England won a free-kick in an awkward position, where neither a shot nor a cross was particularly simple. Instead, Trippier went for a short pass to Jordan Henderson, who crossed the ball across the goal face to where Kane was waiting. He headed back towards the middle, and Panama’s defence was so poor that both Sterling and Stones were wide open in front of goal. Sterling missed, with Penedo making a good reflex save, but Stones gleefully headed the rebound into the roof of the net. England’s plan worked like clockwork, and Panama’s defence couldn’t lay a hand on them.

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Harry Kane scores his second goal, and England’s fifth, with a successful penalty. The penalty was one of two Panama gave away with clumsy pieces of defending.

Another set piece, leading to another penalty, gave them the fifth as the steady procession of goals continued. It’s not clear who gave away the penalty from Trippier’s corner, with Aníbal Godoy tackling Kane to the ground particularly vigorously and others receiving similar treatment. Kane happily accepted his second goal from the spot, with Penedo beaten once again. The half time whistle gave Panama some respite, but the scoreline was already beyond ugly.

England only scored one in the second half, with Kane bagging his hat-trick in a comical fashion and looking almost apologetic as the ball went into the back of the net. Ruben Loftus-Cheek did the hard work, taking on an ambitious shot directed at the bottom corner of the Panamanian goal. Then it took a big deflection. Kane was in mid-stride and not looking at the ball as it rolled into the back of his heels, and Penedo could only watch helplessly as the ball looped into the back of the net. There was a suggestion that Kane was offside, but the goal stood and England’s captain was substituted immediately after his last touch led to a goal he didn’t intend to score. You couldn’t make it up. In the end, Baloy’s goal gave Panama something to celebrate, but there was no hiding their inadequacy when compared with their opponents. For England, expectations have been muted up to this point. That could be about to change.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
England 6 (Stones 8, 40, Kane 22 pen, 45+1 pen, 62, Lingard 36)
Panama 1 (Baloy 78)
Referee: Gehad Grisha (Egy)
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier (Rose 70), Loftus-Cheek, Henderson, Lingard (Delph 63), Young; Sterling, Kane (Vardy 63).
Panama (4-5-1): Penedo – Murillo, R Torres, Escobar, Davis; Bárcenas (Arroyo 69), Cooper, Gómez (Baloy 69), Godoy (Ávila 64), Rodríguez; Pérez.

Top 5
1. Jesse Lingard (England)
Lingard backed up his performance in England’s tournament opener with another energetic display. He found a goal for himself with an excellent strike into the top corner, and he provided the spark for Kane’s first goal with a great run in behind. He continued to make dangerous runs until his eventual substitution and he seems to have found a rich vein of form.
2. John Stones (England)
Stones had very little defensive work to do, but it was his work at attacking set pieces that set him apart. He was left completely unmanned at a corner and a free-kick, and Panama played a heavy price for their weak defence as Stones found two goals and worked his way into good positions.
3. Harry Kane (England)
A hat-trick is a hat-trick, but his three goals against Panama will rate as three of the most fortunate of his career. His two penalties were both well-hit, however, and although he was lucky to complete his hat-trick with a goal he didn’t even mean to score his three goals were a testament to his ability to get into good attacking spots.
4. Raheem Sterling (England)
Sterling will be unhappy that he missed a brilliant chance to break his international goal drought, but he did put in a good performance filled with plenty of dangerous runs and a couple of involvements in goals. He was putting in a big effort for 90 minutes, and he was unlucky not to find the back of the net.
5. Kieran Trippier (England)
Trippier’s set piece delivery may have been dangerous against Tunisia, but against a Panamanian team with poor defensive organisation his corners and free-kicks were even more damaging. His set pieces contributed, directly or indirectly, to three of England’s goals, and he did his few defensive duties diligently.

Heroic Harry Kane breaks Tunisian hearts

This game had the potential to mark the beginning of a new era for the English national team. After years of constant disappointment, culminating in an embarrassing elimination from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, this latest iteration of the Three Lions was coming in to the World Cup with little hype and plenty of talent. Nine of the players in their starting line-up to face Tunisia were making their World Cup debuts, and there was a feeling that this side, spearheaded by the remarkable Harry Kane, could usher in an exciting new time for English football. Then, on the pitch, Gareth Southgate’s youngsters dominated, but conceded a fortunate goal to their opponents and were only saved from the ignominy of a first-up draw by Kane’s heroic 91st minute winner. Have they changed? It’s not yet clear.

England began the game in ominous form, blowing Tunisia away in the early stages with their electrifying attacking play as the chances came thick and fast. Jordan Henderson’s long ball in behind found Dele Alli, whose dangerous cut back nearly found Raheem Sterling in a great position. Tunisia intercepted, but Alli picked the pocket of left-back Ali Maâloul in the penalty area and Jesse Lingard’s shot was only just blocked by Mouez Hassen. Hassen was called into action at the next corner, leaping desperately to deny Harry Maguire’s header, and shortly afterwards he was caught out when Lingard broke through the defence and found Sterling in front of an open goal. Somehow, the talented youngster missed. Meanwhile, Hassen lay on the ground, having injured his shoulder trying in vain to stop Lingard. Less than five minutes had elapsed.

Unsurprisingly, the goal soon followed, and it came from another poor piece of marking at a corner. Ashley Young swung it in, and this time it was John Stones who rose above the rest and headed towards the top corner, forcing Hassen into another incredible save. Unfortunately for him, the ball landed right onto the boot of Kane, who had absolutely no trouble finishing a straightforward chance from inside the six-yard box. For those looking for a new era, it was a very promising start. As England’s new captain wheeled away in celebration, it was hard to escape the feeling that Kane’s easy finish was the first of many goals to come.

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English coach Gareth Southgate celebrates following his side’s dramatic victory. Southgate seemed fairly concerned during the second half, and he let his relief show when Kane gave England a late lead.

The next few minutes did little to contradict that theory. Hassen’s injury led to his removal shortly after Kane’s opener, and Farouk Ben Mustapha, the third-choice goalkeeper in the squad (Hassen was already playing over the unavailable Aymen Mathlouthi) was called into action. He was needed shortly afterwards to save Henderson’s volley, and as England continued to create chances Lingard missed a volley from close range and Maguire forced Ben Mustapha into another save after a strong header. England were creating all the chances, and were repelling anything Tunisia threw at them.

Then, disaster struck. Being England, a side with a chequered relationship with penalties, of course the goal came from a spot kick. Kyle Walker was the culprit, unnecessarily flinging out an arm as he defended Dylan Bronn’s cross and catching Fakhreddine Ben Youssef flush in the face. When Ben Youssef went down like a ton of bricks, Wilmar Roldán was quick to point to the spot. Taking the kick, Ferjani Sassi made no mistake, with Jordan Pickford getting a fingertip to the ball but not doing enough to prevent it from finding the back of the net.

England had more chances as they looked to retake the lead. A Kieran Trippier free-kick was headed down by Maguire, and when Alli beat Ben Mustapha to the follow-up effort it created a nervous moment for Syam Ben Youssef. The centre-back just cleared Alli’s header off the line, and both Sterling and Stones failed to connect properly as they sought to take advantage of Tunisia’s defensive disarray. Meanwhile, Kane was tackled by Sassi in the box, but Roldán missed the incident completely. Lingard had two more chances as the half drew to a close, with Bronn deflecting his excellent volley over the bar and a dangerous run allowing him to tap the ball over Ben Mustapha only for it to roll harmlessly into the post. On another day, England could have gone into half time ahead by three or four goals. Instead, they were tied.

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Harry Kane (back) heads home England’s late winner. Kane scored two crucial goals, with his second breaking a deadlock that had existed for over half the game.

The second half started fairly slowly, with England largely dictating terms but not finding any real chances against the Tunisian defence. It didn’t matter too much, as the inaction only stretched for the first 10 minutes of the half while the English settled back in. Then it stretched on. The hour mark passed. Then 65 minutes. Suddenly, 75 minutes had elapsed and England hadn’t seriously threatened the Tunisian goal for around half an hour. Maguire and Walker were seemingly no longer playing as centre-backs, instead parking themselves in Tunisia’s half. Marcus Rashford was introduced in a desperate attempt to make something – anything – happen. All that they managed to create was a couple of free-kicks in potentially dangerous spots, both of which missed the target.

England were still dominating in the final few minutes, but Tunisia held firm. Maâloul frustrated Trippier by standing in front of the ball as the wing-back looked to move the ball on quickly. Wahbi Khazri left the game with five minutes to go, stopping just short of taking a lap of honour as he walked off the field while exchanging pleasantries from Roldán and detouring to accept the congratulations of his teammates. Ruben Loftus-Cheek came off the bench and made some things happen, but it looked like the match would end in despair despite all of England’s hard work. It felt like such a shame.

Then, just as it seemed like England would need to settle for a draw, the winner came. It was Kane, of course. Trippier’s ball into the box found Maguire and Syam Ben Youssef, and Maguire rose above the determined centre-back to head it towards the back post. Then, after 45 minutes of almost flawless defending, the Eagles of Carthage left England’s captain all alone, and in a perfect position just inside the six-yard box. He was never going to miss, and England could breathe a massive sigh of relief as they finally saw off a determined Tunisian challenge. It was a close run thing, but the new-look Three Lions came out with the win, and will only grow in confidence from here. Is it the start of a new era? We shall see.

Volgograd – Volgograd Arena
Tunisia 1 (Sassi 35 pen)
England 2 (Kane 11, 90+1)
Referee: Wilmar Roldán (Col)
Tunisia (4-3-3): Hassen (Ben Mustapha 15) – Bronn, S Ben Youssef, Meriah, Maâloul; Sassi, Skhiri, Badri; F Ben Youssef, Khazri (Khalifa 85), Sliti (Ben Amor 73).
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Alli (Loftus-Cheek 80), Henderson, Lingard (Dier 90+3), Young; Sterling (Rashford 68), Kane.

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Jesse Lingard has an early shot at the Tunisian goal. Lingard was lively from the start, and was very unlucky not to find the back of the net.

Top 5
1. Jesse Lingard (England)
Lingard was full of energy, bursting through the Tunisian defensive line on a number of occasions and creating plenty of chances. He was unlucky not to find the back of the net during a dynamic first half performance, and his movement in transition created plenty of space for his teammates to work into.
2. Harry Kane (England)
Kane managed two poachers’ goals, and showed why he is such a dangerous goal-scorer in the process. He worked tirelessly all day, stepped up exactly when his team needed a hero, and positioned himself perfectly to get himself a brace on World Cup debut. If there was any doubt about his credentials before, he has erased it with a brilliant performance.
3. Syam Ben Youssef (Tunisia)
Ben Youssef had plenty of work to do against England’s dynamic attack, but he stayed composed and did very well to stave off some dangerous pieces of forward play. He was the only member of Tunisia’s back four who performed well in the first period, and he looked even more solid in the second half when his teammates started to pick up their efforts.
4. Kieran Trippier (England)
Trippier’s set piece delivery was brilliant, as was his energy and attacking presence down the right flank. He played a key hand in England’s injury time winner, and ensured they kept pushing right up to the final whistle with his desperation to get the ball moving quickly.
5. Jordan Henderson (England)
Henderson created plenty of chances with his dangerous diagonal balls in behind the Tunisian defence. As ever, he positioned himself well in holding midfield and allowed the English to thrive with his solidity. He occasionally threatened in attack, and could be a very handy part of the English side down the track.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group G

Group G

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Belgium (3), Panama (55), Tunisia (21), England (12)
Fixtures:
Belgium vs Panama, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
Tunisia vs England, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
Belgium vs Tunisia, Otkritie Arena, Moscow
England vs Panama, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
England vs Belgium, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
Panama vs Tunisia, Mordovia Arena, Saransk

Belgium

Head Coach: Roberto Martínez
Captain: Eden Hazard
Previous Appearances: 12 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2014)
Best Finish: Fourth Place (1986)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group H
Qualification Top Scorer: Romelu Lukaku (11)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), 12. Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), 13. Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg).
Defenders: 2. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur), 3. Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), 4. Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), 5. Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur), 15. Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain), 20. Dedryck Boyata (Celtic).
Midfielders: 6. Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian), 7. Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City), 8. Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), 11. Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), 16. Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 17. Youri Tielemans (Monaco), 19. Mousa Dembélé (Tottenham Hotspur), 22. Nacer Chadli (West Bromwich Albion), 23. Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht).
Forwards: 9. Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), 10. Eden Hazard (Chelsea), 14. Dries Mertens (Napoli), 18. Anton Januzaj (Real Sociedad), 21. Michy Batshuayi (Borussia Dortmund).

Belgium coasted through a simple qualifying group effortlessly, barely breaking a sweat as they progressed with nine wins and a draw. Belgium’s current side, made up of their “golden generation”, is the strongest they’ve ever fielded, with plenty of quality players in every position. Thibaut Courtois is a star goalkeeper, and Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen form a very solid defence. Midfield enforcers Axel Witsel, Mousa Dembélé, Marouane Fellaini and Leander Dendoncker will support a devastating attack that scored 43 goals in qualifying. Romelu Lukaku leads the line, and the powerful striker will receive service from three of Europe’s best in Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens. De Bruyne is arguably the best playmaker in world football, and in conjunction with the silky skills of Hazard and Mertens he could wreak havoc at the World Cup. With Thomas Meunier and Yannick Carrasco providing some quality width and plenty of depth in the squad, Belgium could be a legitimate contender. If they put it all together, they will be formidable.

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Romelu Lukaku (centre) fights for the ball during a qualifier against Greece. Lukaku was Belgium’s top-scorer in qualifying, and he will shoulder most of the scoring burden in Russia.

Despite their undisputed quality, the Belgians haven’t quite put it together in their most recent major tournaments, with quarter-final exits at the World Cup and the Euros a pair of disappointing results for such a talented team. New coach Roberto Martínez brings plenty of tactical nous, but questions remain about whether the players can stand up when required. Defence could be a problem for Belgium, especially with an injury to Kompany which jeopardises the former captain’s participation. The lack of a genuine left-back is also a concern, and although Martínez’s switch to a three-man defence counters that it also means Carrasco, a natural attacker, will have to play a fairly big defensive role. The non-selection of high-octane, high-impact midfielder Radja Nainggolan caused plenty of outrage in Belgium, even if only 23 people showed up to protest it (out of 9000 expected to attend). The distractions caused by this, and the impact of the loss of Nainggolan, could prove costly.

Star Player: Kevin de Bruyne

De Bruyne has always been a classy playmaker, but his work with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City has taken his game to another level. Now sitting deeper in midfield, his incredible vision and his ability to pick out an incisive pass led to a tally of 16 Premier League assists, with many more chances created. If he can work well with Hazard, Mertens and Lukaku it will cause massive headaches for opposing defences.

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Kevin de Bruyne runs with the ball during Belgium’s Euro 2016 quarter-final against Wales. De Bruyne is a classy playmaker, and he has become one of the world’s best midfielders.

Key Player: Jan Vertonghen

In the last few years, Vertonghen and Alderweireld have formed a brilliant defensive partnership with Tottenham Hotspur, and the Belgians will be hoping this carries on in Russia. Vertonghen is versatile and a solid defender, and with Alderweireld missing a large chunk of the season with injuries he stepped up in a big way to lead the Spurs defence. Belgium will be looking for similar defensive steel on the vulnerable left side of defence.

One to watch: Leander Dendoncker

Dendoncker is one of the newest members of the Belgian squad, and the talented youngster could come in handy at the World Cup. He can play in both midfield and defence, and his height and strength will serve him well wherever he is required to slot in. His form with Anderlecht has been excellent, and he could make an impact if given a chance.

Verdict

The Belgians are talented and have plenty of depth, and if they reach their potential they could be good enough to win it all. They won’t face too much early competition, and they will be a formidable opponent.
Likely Team (3-4-2-1): Courtois; Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Witsel, de Bruyne, Carrasco; Hazard, Mertens; Lukaku.

Panama

Head Coach: Hernán Dário Gómez
Captain: Felipe Baloy
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: CONCACAF, 3rd
Qualification Top Scorer: Gabriel Torres (3)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Jaime Penedo (Dinamo Bucureşti), 12. José Calderón (Chorrillo), 22. Álex Rodríguez (San Francisco).
Defenders: 2. Michael Amir Murillo (New York Red Bulls), 3. Harold Cummings (San Jose Earthquakes), 4. Fidel Escobar (New York Red Bulls), 5. Román Torres (Seattle Sounders), 13. Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo), 15. Erick Davis (Dunajská Streda), 17. Luis Ovalle (Olimpia), 23. Felipe Baloy (Municipal).
Midfielders: 6. Gabriel Gómez (Atlético Bucaramanga), 8. Édgar Bárcenas (Tapachula), 11. Armando Cooper (Universidad de Chile), 14. Valentin Pimentel (Plaza Amador), 19. Ricardo Ávila (Gent), 20. Aníbal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), 21. José Luis Rodríguez (Gent).
Forwards: 7. Blas Pérez (Municipal), 9. Gabriel Torres (Huachipato), 10. Ismael Díaz (Deportivo Fabril), 16. Abdiel Arroyo (Alajuelense), 18. Luis Tejada (Sport Boys).

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Panama’s players and fans celebrate their World Cup qualification, which came on the back of Román Torres’ late winner. Panama had never made it to the tournament before their momentous win over Costa Rica.

Panama qualified for their first ever World Cup on the back of a bit of luck, some good results and a healthy dose of controversy. The equaliser scored by Blas Pérez in their crucial match against Honduras didn’t actually cross the line, but in the absence of video technology the “phantom goal” was allowed to stand before Román Torres stepped up to hand Panama the win. Now they’ve made it, Panama will be looking to show they’re not just making up the numbers, and they have some experienced heads within their team. Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo brings plenty of experience from a 15-year international career, while Román Torres and Felipe Baloy lead an experienced defence. In the middle, Gabriel Gómez and Aníbal Godoy form a strong partnership, with Gómez especially skilled at controlling the tempo of the game. Up front, the experience of Pérez, Gabriel Torres and Luis Tejada and the flair of Abdiel Arroyo, Ismael Díaz and José Luis Rodríguez Los Canaleros could present a challenge for opposing defences.

For all that, Panama will still struggle to make it through against opponents who are much more skilled and have more experience of high-level competition. Barely any of Panama’s squad members play their club football in Europe, with most playing in the lower-level leagues of Central America. The World Cup will be a massive jump in terms of the quality of their opponents, and their first match against Belgium could be a reality check for Hernán Dário Gómez’s side. Panama will come to the World Cup with one of the older sides at the tournament, and many of their key players are well into their thirties and past their prime. Meanwhile, their younger players are coming in with little to no experience of top-level competition, and they may find it tough to adjust to the pressure of the World Cup. The loss of Alberto Quintero to injury is also a blow, as the experienced attacking midfielder is one of their most important players going forward. With no World Cup experience, Panama’s players are facing a baptism of fire, and it’s not clear who will stand up.

Star Player: Román Torres

Torres is a centre-back, but he will forever be known as a hero of Panamanian football for his exploits in attack. It was the experienced defender who scored the late winner that sent Los Canaleros through to Russia, sending all of Panama into raucous celebrations. At the World Cup he will provide his side with solid defence and strong leadership, as well as a handy goal threat at set pieces.

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Gabriel Gómez attempts to control the ball during a 2017 Copa América match with Argentina. Gómez is a quality midfielder who controls the tempo of the game and is a key part of Panama’s team.

Key Player: Gabriel Gómez

Gómez is the conductor of Panama’s team, controlling the game from central midfield and setting up their attacking play while shielding the defence. He works hard, and with over 140 caps at international level he knows how to read the game and set the tone for his side. Gómez’s ability to manage the game from the centre of the park could determine Panama’s success in Russia.

One to watch: José Luis Rodríguez

Rodríguez comes into this World Cup with almost no experience at either club or international level. He has been playing with Belgian side Gent’s second team, and the opponents he will face in Russia are a massive step up from anything he has faced before. He is Panama’s wildcard pick, and if given the opportunity he could make a name for himself.

Verdict

In terms of quality, Panama are nowhere near their competition. They have no players playing in top European leagues, and they are thoroughly outmatched by their opposition in Russia. There’s always room for a fairytale, but such a fairytale seems particularly unlikely for Los Canaleros.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Penedo; Machado, Baloy, R Torres, Ovalle; Cooper, Gómez, Godoy, Bárcenas; Pérez, G Torres.

Tunisia

Head Coach: Nabil Maâloul
Captain: Aymen Mathlouthi
Previous Appearances: 4 (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
Qualified: CAF, 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Youssef Msakni (3)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Farouk Ben-Mustapha (Al-Shabab), 16. Aymen Mathlouthi (Al-Batin), 22. Mouez Hassen (Châteauroux).
Defenders: 2. Syam Ben Youssef (Kasımpaşa), 3. Yohan Benalouane (Leicester City), 4. Yassine Meriah (CS Sfaxien), 5. Oussama Haddadi (Dijon), 6. Rami Bedoui (Étoile du Sahel), 11. Dylan Bronn (Gent), 12. Ali Maâloul (Al Ahly), 21. Hamdi Nagguez (Zamalek).
Midfielders: 7. Saîf-Eddine Khaoui (Troyes), 13. Ferjani Sassi (Al-Nassr), 14. Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (Al-Ahli), 17. Ellyes Skhiri (Montpellier), 20. Ghailene Chaalali (Espérance).
Forwards: 8. Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (Al-Ettifaq), 9. Anice Badri (Espérance), 10. Wahbi Khazri (Rennes), 15. Ahmed Khalil (Club Africain), 18. Bassem Srarfi (Nice), 19. Saber Khalifa (Club Africain), 23. Naïm Sliti (Dijon).

Tunisia were the beneficiaries of a fairly soft qualifying group, but it still took until the final day for Nabil Maâloul’s side to seal their spot. Drawn into a difficult group with two tough opponents, Tunisia won’t be favourites to progress, but they have some quality players and could pose a challenge. Wahbi Khazri, Anice Badri, Naïm Sliti and Fakhreddine Ben Youssef form an attack that will be a threat, and Nice young gun Bassem Srarfi could have a big impact coming off the bench. Ghailene Chaalali, Ellyes Skhiri and Ferjani Sassi are all good creators in the middle, and the recovery of defensive midfielder Mohamed Amine Ben Amor is a welcome boost. Down back, Yassine Meriah and Syam Ben Youssef are a strong central defensive pairing, and full-backs Dylan Bronn and Ali Maâloul are both capable players in defence and attack (left-back Maâloul was once the top scorer in the Tunisian league). The Eagles of Carthage are a solid side, and cannot be underestimated.

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Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (left) battles with an opponent during an Africa Cup of Nations clash with Algeria. Ben Amor has recovered from injury in time to play a key midfield role for the Eagles of Carthage.

Unfortunately for them, a combination of an unpleasant draw and injuries to key players means their tournament may not last long. Chaalali, Ben Amor and Khazri have all recovered in time for the World Cup, but they may come in underdone. Even worse, qualification top scorer Youssef Msakni and striker Taha Yassine Khenissi will miss the tournament with their injuries, creating more pressure for Khazri and the rest of the attack. The team’s lack of quality could also come back to bite them. Many of their players have been playing in lower-tier French leagues or other lower-quality competitions, and apart from Khazri very few regularly play against the best in the world. The squad contains 15 players with under 20 international caps, and only captain Aymen Mathlouthi has over 50. This lack of experience at international level, partially borne from the fact that some players have only joined the team since their qualification, could be costly against strong opponents like Belgium and England. If Tunisia want to beat the odds and go through, they will need to fix these problems quickly.

Star Player: Wahbi Khazri

Khazri is Tunisia’s main playmaker, and his skill with the ball at his feet ensures he will be a valuable part of their attack. He is a threat in open play and from set pieces, and he has played himself into form over the course of a strong season with Ligue 1 side Rennes. He comes into the tournament under an injury cloud, but if he hits his best form the Eagles of Carthage will be a dangerous side.

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Wahbi Khazri moves forward with the ball during an Africa Cup of Nations match with Senegal. Khazri is the star of Tunisia’s team, and could have an impact in Russia with his skills.

Key Player: Ghailene Chaalali

Chaalali has only been capped six times for Tunisia, but the 24-year-old has already established himself as a key cog in Nabil Maâloul’s midfield with his ability to create chances and defend solidly. The World Cup is his chance to shine on the big stage, and Tunisia will be relying on him to contribute well in both defence and attack. If he plays well, things will be a lot easier for the Tunisians.

One to watch: Bassem Srarfi

Srarfi is the youngest member of Tunisia’s squad, but he could be one of their most dangerous players. He has been an effective player off the bench for Nice, and the 20-year-old has the pace and skill to be a very potent weapon for the Eagles of Carthage. He is not likely to start, but he will be very exciting coming off the bench late in games.

Verdict

Tunisia have had some unhelpful injuries which could impact their efforts in Russia, and they will struggle to progress from a tough group. They have some skilled players, but it may not be enough.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Mathlouthi; Bronn, Meriah, S Ben Youssef, Maâloul; Sassi, Ben Amor, Chaalali; Badri, Khazri, Sliti.

England

Head Coach: Gareth Southgate
Captain: Harry Kane
Previous Appearances: 14 (1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1966)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group G
Qualification Top Scorer: Harry Kane (5)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Jordan Pickford (Everton), 13. Jack Butland (Stoke City), 23. Nick Pope (Burnley).
Defenders: 2. Kyle Walker (Manchester City), 3. Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur), 5. John Stones (Manchester City), 6. Harry Maguire (Leicester City), 12. Kieran Trippier (Tottenham Hotspur), 15. Gary Cahill (Chelsea), 16. Phil Jones (Manchester United), 17. Fabian Delph (Manchester City), 18. Ashley Young (Manchester United), 22. Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool).
Midfielders: 4. Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur), 7. Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), 8. Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), 20. Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur), 21. Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Crystal Palace).
Forwards: 9. Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), 10. Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), 11. Jamie Vardy (Leicester City), 14. Danny Welbeck (Arsenal), 19. Marcus Rashford (Manchester United).

Despite England’s straightforward qualification, the British press has not begun their traditional singing of the Three Lions’ praises before the World Cup. Maybe they were put off by England’s embarrassing elimination from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, or realised that none of their hubristic predictions, dating back to England’s actual World Cup victory in 1966, had ever come good. Either way, the lack of fanfare could be a blessing in disguise for Gareth Southgate’s team, who do have some quality players. Harry Kane is one of the world’s best strikers, and his combination with excitement machines Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard could be very tough to stop. Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson form an effective shield for the defence with their solid midfield play, and Southgate has an abundance of attacking full-backs who can provide width and quality. A back three of Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire could be very hard to break down, and all three are quality ball players who can contribute to the attack.

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Raheem Sterling takes on the defence during a qualifying match against Lithuania. Sterling has immense talent, but he has never found his best form in an English shirt.

They may look solid, but the English will have some issues to deal with if they want to get past the round of 16 and make real inroads at the tournament. Most significantly, they don’t have a goalkeeper. Jordan Pickford will start, but neither he nor his back-up, Jack Butland, have enjoyed brilliant seasons in the Premier League, and the squad’s three keepers have just 12 international caps between them. This inexperience is an issue throughout the squad, with non-starter Gary Cahill the only player with over 50 caps in the 23. Southgate will also need to deal with Sterling, who has attracted plenty of controversy in the lead-up and has not been able to find his devastating Manchester City form when pulling on an English shirt. There is uncertainty as to who is in England’s best team, something Southgate will need to work out. The Three Lions are still likely to progress from a relatively easy group, but these issues could hurt them in the knockouts.

Star Player: Harry Kane

Kane has developed into one of the most dangerous strikers in the world, and his tally of 105 goals in the last four Premier League seasons is a testament to his consistency. He is tall, strong and has excellent skills, and he is the kind of all-round striker England can rely on in Russia. He was appointed captain based on his brilliant performances for club and country, and if that form is on display he will be a force to be reckoned with.

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Harry Kane celebrates after scoring in qualifying against Slovenia. Kane has been named captain for the World Cup, and he will have a chance to showcase his excellent goal-scoring ability.

Key Player: Jordan Henderson

Henderson is coming off a successful season with Liverpool, where he led the club to the final of the Champions League and played a typically influential role in central midfield. He is surrounded by more talented players, but his hard work and willingness to focus on his defensive duties allows him to hold England’s midfield together. If they are going to succeed, they will need him to play well.

One to watch: Trent Alexander-Arnold

Alexander-Arnold is just 19, but he comes into the World Cup in good form and he could make an impact if given the opportunity. Having received his chance at Liverpool after first-choice right-back Nathaniel Clyne went down injured, Alexander-Arnold showed impressive defensive skills and an ability to contribute to attacks with his excellent crosses. He is a set-piece specialist, and with his skillset he could fit in well as one of Southgate’s wing-backs.

Verdict

The English should progress from a relatively simple group, even though they have been known to bomb out spectacularly in the past. In the knockouts, however, it won’t be so straightforward, and their inexperience could come to the fore.
Likely Team (3-4-1-2): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Henderson, Alli, Rose; Lingard; Sterling, Kane.

Prediction

This group seems open-and-shut, but the English have been prone to disappointment and a failure to progress is not out of the question. Belgium’s golden generation should breeze through, and the English, despite their recent history, are good enough to join them. Against Panama and Tunisia, neither of whom come close to their opponents in terms of quality, the two big sides shouldn’t have too many problems, but their clash should be intriguing and could be important in the wider tournament. Tunisia and Panama can’t necessarily be ruled out of contention, and if either side’s defence holds together they could cause a massive upset, but the unfortunate reality for both is that their most meaningful clash is likely to be a consolation game against each other.
1. Belgium, 2. England, 3. Tunisia, 4. Panama

Kane bags three as Spurs cruise home

The score was 3-0. Harry Kane had two goals already when he found Dele Alli on the edge of the area. Alli, one of the most exciting players unearthed in England for years, received the ball and stopped, leaving the defenders who now crowded around him in limbo. From a standing start he lifted it over all of them, finding Kane with pinpoint accuracy. All Kane had to do was get a boot on it and allow it to trickle in. Ben Foster, in the West Brom goal, half-stuck out a leg to stop it. He had performed admirably, but now he had given up.

It would be hard to find anyone who could blame him. West Brom had started the match against Tottenham Hotspur hopeful of a good result, but in the end they were extremely lucky that they only lost 4-0. From the word go, Spurs played as if there was no opposition, dominating possession and cutting through West Brom’s stacked defence with almost contemptuous ease. Kane nearly scored in the first five minutes, getting on the end of a brilliant cross from Danny Rose and almost directing it into the bottom corner.

A few minutes later they were ahead, with Kane finishing after a brilliant pass from Christian Eriksen. He controlled it at close quarters before slotting it into the top corner, past a sliding Jonas Olsson and a diving Foster. Spurs had the lead, and they needed to stay in control.

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Collision: Jonas Olsson (right) attempts to block Kyle Walker’s attempt at a volley.

Things only got worse for West Brom after Spurs opened the scoring. The hosts were brimming with confidence, and they continued to hold the ball and sustain the pressure. Salomon Rondon, West Brom’s sole striker, was so isolated he may as well have celebrated every time he actually touched the ball. Worse still, he probably had the time. Meanwhile, Kane was in everything as Spurs forced a string of corners. Once he was tripped by Olsson as the long-haired Swede looked to hold him back at a corner. Referee Anthony Taylor called nothing. Kane had a chance when Victor Wanyama put a dangerous ball into the box, but Foster managed to deny him.

That the second goal was adjudged to be an own goal should take nothing away from Spurs. It started with Danny Rose, who beat a couple on the break before giving it to Eriksen. Both continued moving forward, and after Kyle Walker put in an excellent pass both Rose and Eriksen touched the ball before Eriksen’s shot was deflected past Foster by McAuley, the Northern Irishman who could not take a trick. Later on in the piece, he was clearly tripped by Walker, and when he complained to the assistant he was booked for dissent. It was that kind of day.

Kane, Alli and Eriksen, however, could do no wrong. Shortly after Spurs doubled their lead came the biggest disappointment of the match, when Alli had a goal disallowed for offside. Eriksen lifted it over the top, and Alli’s touch was sublime as he diverted it past Foster with the side of his boot. Unfortunately, it didn’t count for anything, but it still summed up the first half-hour perfectly.

Kane would have a couple more chances in the first half, but he was still yet to add to his first goal as the sides went to the break, West Brom down 2-0 and completely and utterly beaten. Tony Pulis made some changes at half-time, and they came out much improved, but things changed very little. Even with a bit more possession, their best chance of the game came when Darren Fletcher was presented with an open goal. An open goal from just inside halfway, that is.

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Too easy: Harry Kane (front) scores his third goal as Craig Dawson desperately tries to stop him.

Soon Spurs had worked out the change in shape, and they were back to their old ways. Alli was denied a penalty when he was pushed by Craig Dawson, and suddenly the chances were coming again. One Eriksen corner drew shots from Kane, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, and forced two great saves from Foster. Then Kane turned Olsson after an incredible display of skill from Alli, and Foster was forced into another brilliant stop.

Every time Spurs had the ball they looked as if they would score, such was their assurance in how they went about their business. Kane was fouled by Olsson as he looked to break through, a foul which may have drawn a red card if it had occurred closer to goal. Wanyama forced a great save from Foster, before Kane slotted his second.

Once again, it was Alli who started it, playing a long ball down the right wing which Walker pursued with vigour. McAuley got there first but was hurried off the ball, allowing Walker to put the ball in for Kane. Foster had inexplicably come off his line, and he was nowhere near it. Finally, the result was beyond all doubt.

Kane added his third shortly after, and received a much-deserved ovation as he left the game in the ninetieth minute, replaced by Son Heung-min. For Spurs, they put in a performance worthy of the title contenders that they are, and seem to be finding their feet as the end of the season creeps upon us.

London – White Hart Lane
Tottenham Hotspur 4 (Kane 12, 77, 82, McAuley 26 og)
West Bromwich Albion 0
Referee: Anthony Taylor

Tottenham Hotspur (3-4-2-1): Lloris – Dier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen (Davies 64); Walker, Wanyama, Dembele (Winks 83), Rose; Eriksen, Alli; Kane (Son 90).
West Bromwich Albion (4-2-3-1): Foster – Dawson, McAuley, Olsson, Brunt (McClean 54); Fletcher, Yacob; Chadli (Robson-Kanu 62), Morrison, Phillips (Field 90); Rondon.

Top 5
1. Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur)
Kane was everywhere from start to finish, bagging a hat-trick and allowing Spurs to ram home their early dominance with his excellent finishing. He combined brilliantly with Eriksen and Alli, and he fully deserved the standing ovation he received when leaving the field.
2. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur)
Eriksen was in top form throughout, directing everything and creating huge problems for West Brom with his skill and vision. He was unlucky not to be credited with Tottenham’s second goal, and he will be looking to keep up his excellent form in weeks to come.
3. Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur)
Alli was on top of his game, showing incredible skill and setting up Kane’s third goal with a brilliant lofted pass. He had a beautiful finish disallowed for offside, and his combination with Kane and Eriksen was a key part of Tottenham’s success.
4. Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur)
Walker was excellent as a right wing-back, taking Matt Phillips out of the game and pressing forward to open up the midfield for Spurs. He assisted the third goal with an excellent cross, and his energy in both attack and defence was outstanding.
5. Ben Foster (West Bromwich Albion)
Foster was the main reason West Brom only lost 4-0, making a string of brilliant saves and keeping the lead at 2-0 for most of the match. He conceded a couple of goals at the end, but in a game where the presence of most of his teammates was non-existent he can hold his head high.

2016-17 Premier League Preview – The Contenders

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

Arsenal

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

Squad

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

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

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

Star Player: Mesut Ozil

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

Key Player: Laurent Koscielny

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

One to Watch: Hector Bellerin

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

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

Chelsea

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

Squad

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

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

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

Star Player: Eden Hazard

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

Key Player: Cesc Fabregas

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

One to watch: Kurt Zouma

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

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

Leicester City

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

Squad

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

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

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

Star Player: Riyad Mahrez

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

Key Player: Wes Morgan

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

One to watch: Nampalys Mendy

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

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

Manchester City

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

Squad

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

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

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

Star Player: Sergio Aguero

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

Key Player: Yaya Toure

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

One to watch: Kelechi Iheanacho

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

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

Manchester United

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

Squad

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

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

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

Star Player: Henrikh Mkhitaryan

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

Key Player: David de Gea

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

One to watch: Marcus Rashford

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

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

Tottenham Hotspur

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

Squad

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

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

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

Star Player: Harry Kane

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

Key Player: Toby Alderweireld

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

One to watch: Vincent Janssen

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

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

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.