Dominant Mbappé sends Argentina packing

When Argentina’s round of 16 clash with France was confirmed a few days ago, there was plenty of excitement. Neither side had quite hit their peak in the group stage, but the idea of two international powerhouses going toe-to-toe was an enticing one. The match delivered, in every way. There were goals. Seven of them, to be exact, with a couple of classic strikes thrown into the mix. There was tension and late drama, and, sealing the deal, there was an individual performance from a number 10 which broke the game open and delivered a stunning victory. Unfortunately for Argentina, it wasn’t their number 10 who did the damage.

Lionel Messi, Argentina’s number 10 wearing star player, captain and talismanic goal scorer, was the man Argentina needed to step up if they were to beat the French. They were relying on him to take the game by the scruff of the neck and deliver an Argentinian victory. Much like a young and talented Messi, Kylian Mbappé went into the game with a reputation as a precocious talent. Blessed with pace, skill and an eye for goal, the 19-year-old was playing his first knockout game in his first World Cup, and he stole the show. In two stunning blitzes, Mbappé created three of France’s four goals, and announced himself as the real deal (if there was any doubt before) with a devastating performance.

Mbappé started the game strongly, with an blitz that threatened to knock Argentina out before they had a chance to get into the game. It was his pace that did the trick. Whenever he got the ball, he didn’t bother controlling it. He just knocked the ball forward and ran, making the Argentinian defenders look pedestrian as he hit top speed. Early on, he won a free-kick just outside the box with a dangerous run, and France nearly scored as Antoine Griezmann struck his shot straight into the bar. It was a sign of things to come.

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Ángel Di María celebrates after equalising with an incredible long shot. The 30-yard effort took France by surprise, and heralded Argentina’s best period of the match.

The goal followed soon after, as Mbappé picked off a lazy pass in his own half and took off. Argentina couldn’t catch him. He left their defenders for dead as he burst through the middle of the field at tremendous speed, running at them like a one man battering ram. Marcos Rojo, whose late goal allowed Argentina to qualify for the round of 16, barred his way. Mbappé just smashed the ball out in front of him, relying on his momentum and stunning pace to win the ball back in the box. He never got that far as Rojo brutally halted his progress, sending him crashing to the turf and giving France a penalty. Griezmann made no mistake from the spot. A few minutes later, Mbappé was at it again, latching on to a quickly-taken free-kick from Paul Pogba and winning another foul, this time just outside the box. He seemed unstoppable.

Then, just before half time, Argentina equalised out of nowhere. They had worked their way back into the game after Mbappé’s early surge, but the French hadn’t looked troubled by any of their attacks and they were holding them off calmly. They didn’t look like scoring when Ángel Di María, not Messi, turned the game on its head with one moment of pure brilliance. He received the ball 30 yards out from goal, in a bit of space. He decided to have a shot from the improbable position, presumably deciding to try his luck with no defenders there to close him down. Then, with his left boot, he unleashed a curling strike into the top corner. Hugo Lloris dived desperately, but the French keeper had no chance against Di María’s perfectly-placed shot. Suddenly, Argentina found themselves right back in the contest. Minutes after half time, they were ahead.

The second goal was fortuitous. Messi started it, attempting an off-balance shot from the edge of the area after Pogba deflected it straight to him. It wouldn’t have caused any problems for Lloris had Gabriel Mercado not been standing in its path. The Argentinian right-back, through a stroke of good luck, intercepted Messi’s shot and diverted it into the bottom corner, sparking rapturous celebrations. The French keeper never stood a chance. Suddenly, France found themselves needing to chase the game, and were left wondering where it all went wrong.

They equalised soon after in stunning circumstances. It was coming. Griezmann nearly scored after a horrendous miscommunication between half-time entrant Federico Fazio and Argentinian goalkeeper Franco Armani, and France were beginning to exert some pressure on their opponents. They scored a couple of minutes after Griezmann’s near miss, with a strike which rivalled Di María’s earlier effort. It started with Lucas Hernández’s cross, which was cleared to apparent safety by Nicolás Tagliafico. Argentina didn’t reckon with Benjamin Pavard. The curly-haired French right-back had pushed forward, and upon reaching the ball on the edge of the area he attempted a first-time shot, and nailed it. With the side of his foot he drove the ball into the top corner, leaving Armani with no chance and putting France back on level terms. The enthralling contest was hanging in the balance, waiting for someone to seize the momentum.

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Kylian Mbappé (right) celebrates with Lucas Hernández after scoring France’s fourth goal. The goal all but sealed France’s win and their passage to the quarter-finals.

It wasn’t Messi who stepped up. It was Mbappé. Shortly after Pavard’s leveller, he put France ahead with an excellent goal. Hernández started it once again, finding Blaise Matuidi in the box. Matuidi’s shot was blocked, and the ball found Mbappé in the congested situation. He was good enough to make something happen. The young star somehow burst into space with one touch, and with Argentina’s defence scrambling to keep up he rammed home his advantage. Armani got a hand on it, but he couldn’t stop the close-range effort. Then, before Argentina could process what had happened, he struck again.

The goal started from the back, with N’Golo Kanté playing a nice pass to Griezmann, whose delightful touch found a running Matuidi, whose pass found Olivier Giroud in a dangerous position. Within seconds, they had picked their way through Argentina’s press (if such a press existed), and they found themselves on the edge of the box with Argentina’s defence in disarray. Mbappé was storming through on the right, and once Giroud played him through he was never going to be caught. He slammed the ball past Armani for the second time in minutes, and sparked rapturous celebrations. It didn’t look like Argentina would be able to respond.

Argentina pushed, but the French defence held firm. Messi created something out of nothing deep into injury time, allowing Sergio Agüero to score with a nice header, but it was too little, too late. When Nicolás Otamendi sparked a mass brawl in the dying moments, it was clear that Argentina’s tournament was over. After an underwhelming showing in Russia, the international careers of some of Argentina’s key players may be over too. For France, a powerful display under pressure has reinforced their credentials as potential World Cup winners. If Mbappé keeps his form up, he could take them to the title himself.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
France 4 (Griezmann 13 pen, Pavard 57, Mbappé 64, 68)
Argentina 2 (Di María 41, Mercado 48, Agüero 90+3)
Referee: Alireza Faghani (Irn)
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Kanté, Pogba; Mbappé (Thauvin 89), Griezmann (Fekir 83), Matuidi (Tolisso 75); Giroud.
Argentina (4-3-3): Armani – Mercado, Otamendi, Rojo (Fazio 46), Tagliafico; Pérez (Agüero 66), Mascherano, Banega; Pavón (Meza 75), Messi, Di María.

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Kylian Mbappé celebrates after scoring his second goal. Mbappé took Argentina apart with a dominant performance, and he looks in ominous form heading into the last eight.

Top 5
1. Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé won France the game, plain and simple. In the first 20 minutes, he drove a wedge through the Argentinian defence and put them on the back foot with his devastating forward runs, and he backed it up with two second-half goals. With the game on the line, it was Mbappé who delivered with a dominant performance, and it’s scary what he can do at the rest of his World Cup.
2. Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann was in excellent form, slipping into dangerous pockets of space, finding himself a goal with a coolly taken penalty and creating plenty of opportunities. His ability to put Argentina under pressure with the ball at his feet contributed to France’s very dangerous attacking play.
3. Ángel Di María (Argentina)
Di María dragged Argentina back into the game with one moment of supreme quality, and he continued to shine for the rest of the match. His 30-yard strike was one of the goals of the tournament, and he stood up in a big way when his team needed him.
4. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Messi may have played his last World Cup game, and he was not to blame for Argentina’s defeat. He picked out some brilliant passes, including a perfect cross for Agüero with Argentina desperately pushing for a goal against a packed defence. He looked dangerous, and if this was his last World Cup match he went out with a strong performance.
5. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba played some beautiful passes and made some very strong runs through the middle, and he was an imposing presence for the French. He used his physical strength to control the midfield, and his solid pairing with Kanté functioned well once again. He looks to have found some form, and could be very dangerous.

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Argentina prevail under fire to leave Nigeria heartbroken

Argentina came into their final group match under immense pressure. Two terrible performances had left them teetering on the brink of elimination heading into their match with Nigeria, and everyone involved was under the pump. Lionel Messi had been poor, and, such is Argentina’s reliance upon his brilliance, Argentina had been poor as well. Coach Jorge Sampaoli hadn’t managed to overcome his team’s reliance on its star player, and a group stage exit would have almost certainly spelt the end of his tenure with the Argentinian national side. Now, if anyone was going to reverse the slide, it was Messi. He dragged them into the World Cup almost single-handedly. Now, it was his responsibility to single-handedly drag them out of the group stage. No-one else was going to do it.

The first half started promisingly for Messi, and, by extension, for his team. He found himself on the ball a couple of times, once collecting it in space and drawing a foul from John Obi Mikel as he weaved through the midfield and once finding space in the box but having his cross blocked. For their part, Nigeria looked solid enough. On a couple of occasions Argentina were nearly the architects of their own downfall, with Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa both picking off passes intended for Argentinian defenders. Neither chance came to anything for the Super Eagles. Then, nearly 15 minutes in, Argentina took the lead via a familiar source.

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Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his first goal of the tournament to give Argentina the lead. Messi had been under immense pressure going into the match, and he delivered by finding the back of the net.

The goal came from a beautiful pass, lifted effortlessly over the Nigerian defence by Éver Banega. It landed straight on Messi’s chest, and the captain didn’t really need to do too much to find the back of the net. It was just a couple of touches to control the cross-field pass, and a finish on a slightly tight angle (with Kenneth Omeruo closing in on him and Francis Uzoho attempting to rush at him to make a save). With his weaker foot. After making a tough finish look like child’s play, Messi ran away in celebration, and all of Argentina breathed a sigh of relief. With Argentina relying on Messi and the little maestro delivering, life was back to normal.

There were signs of Messi’s resurgence as the first half continued. From a standing start, he threaded the ball through the Nigerian defence, just eluding Oghenekaro Etebo’s desperate lunge and leaving Gonzalo Higuaín one-on-one with Uzoho. Uzoho just got there first, and received a kick in the face for his troubles. A few minutes later, Messi had a tailor-made opportunity to bag the second when Ángel Di María burst into space and was fouled by Leon Balogun on the edge of the box. Messi’s free-kick was barely saved by Uzoho, whose fingertips diverted the ball into the post and out. Argentina looked fluent, they had a one-goal lead, and all seemed to be well.

Then they started the second half, and Argentina began to fall apart. It started with a long throw-in. Musa heaved the ball into the box, and picked out three Argentinian defenders. Somehow, the three uncontested players conspired to knock the ball out for a corner, without an opponent in sight. It got worse when Etebo swung the corner into the box, and Javier Mascherano brought Balogun down. Cüneyt Çakır promptly pointed to the spot and booked the offending player, and Nigeria suddenly had a chance to get back into the contest. There was a significant delay before the penalty could be taken, as players jostled for position on the edge of the box and began to butt heads with each other. Victor Moses waited, a slight smile on his face, as the chaos was sorted out, looking completely at ease with his duties as penalty taker. When he finally got his cue, he made no error, bounding up to the ball and stroking it nonchalantly past debutant goalkeeper Franco Armani. There have been plenty of penalties taken at this tournament, but few have been converted with such ease.

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Victor Moses athletically celebrates after scoring the equaliser from the penalty spot. Moses’ penalty was very coolly taken, and put the pressure back on Argentina.

Argentina’s old issues resurfaced as they looked to get the goal they needed to win and progress. Messi was suddenly dropping deep into midfield to collect the ball, leaving him unable to worry the Nigerian defence. At one point, Messi, Banega and Di María attempted a crafty corner routine. It proved too clever by half as Di María’s pass split the Nigerian defence, only to find that no-one had run into position to receive it. We may never know who the intended recipient was. Mascherano, meanwhile, had blood clearly running down his face. Somehow, nobody seemed to notice. Nigeria had collected a few chances, with Musa and Odion Ighalo looking dangerous when given space. Marcos Rojo headed the ball into his arm, and was lucky that a VAR review concluded that no penalty should be awarded. It was a close-run thing.

Then Argentina scored. It was Rojo, so nearly responsible for giving Nigeria their second penalty of the match a few minutes earlier, who scored it. Gabriel Mercado pushed forward from defence to put in a cross from the right, hoping someone could get on the end of it. Rojo, one of his partners in defence, had pressed forward himself, and he was in a perfect spot to volley the ball into the bottom corner. Argentina had controlled the ball, but Rojo’s excellent goal still seemed to come out of nowhere, and it all but sealed their victory and their passage. It sparked elation from the Argentinians, with the entire substitute bench seeming to jump on top of Rojo in celebration. For Nigeria, with their World Cup dream snatched from them in the cruellest possible circumstances, it will be a tough road to recovery from a demoralising defeat.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Nigeria 1 (Moses 51 pen)
Argentina 2 (Messi 14, Rojo 86)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (Tur)
Nigeria (3-5-2): Uzoho – Balogun, Troost-Ekong, Omeruo (Iwobi 90); Moses, Etebo, Mikel, Ndidi, Idowu; Musa (Nwankwo 90+2), Iheanacho (Ighalo 46).
Argentina (4-4-2): Armani – Mercado, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico (Agüero 80); Pérez (Pavón 61), Mascherano, Banega, Di María (Meza 72); Messi, Higuaín.

Top 5
1. Ángel Di María (Argentina)
Di María came into the side after being dropped for the catastrophic loss to Croatia, and he challenged the Nigerian defence early with some brilliant runs down the left wing. He showed all of his skills, and he put in a very solid performance in a crucial Argentinian victory.
2. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Finally, after a pair of underwhelming performances, Messi delivered. He scored the goal Argentina were crying out for, and he was at the centre of almost all of their good work. With the good service he was given throughout, he looked much more dangerous and was able to test the defence with his runs in behind.
3. Oghenekaro Etebo (Nigeria)
Etebo’s seemingly boundless energy was on full display as he contributed in both attack and defence. He even had a strong stint as the designated set piece specialist for the Super Eagles, providing the delivery which led to Nigeria’s penalty and nearly scoring himself with a well-struck free-kick.
4. Éver Banega (Argentina)
Banega added some much needed class in the centre of Argentina’s midfield, and he allowed Messi to push further forward than he had in previous games with his vision and ability to put the ball into dangerous positions. His assist for the first goal was incredible, and his skills were on full display.
5. Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Moses capped off a stunning tournament with another excellent performance, making some key challenges as one of Nigeria’s wing-backs and finishing with a goal after taking a nerveless penalty. He fought hard right to the end, and despite the disappointment of elimination he should take pride in his efforts.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group D

Group D

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

Argentina

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

Squad

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

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

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

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

Star Player: Lionel Messi

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

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

Key Player: Nicolás Otamendi

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

One to watch: Cristian Pavón

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

Verdict

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

Iceland

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

Squad

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

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

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

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

Star Player: Gylfi Sigurðsson

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

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

Key Player: Aron Gunnarsson

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

One to watch: Albert Guðmundsson

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

Verdict

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

Croatia

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

Squad

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

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

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

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

Star Player: Luka Modrić

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

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

Key Player: Dejan Lovren

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

One to watch: Marko Pjaca

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

Verdict

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

Nigeria

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

Squad

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

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

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

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

Star Player: Alex Iwobi

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

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

Key Player: Leon Balogun

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

One to watch: Oghenekaro Etebo

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

Verdict

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

Prediction

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

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group E

Teams: FC Barcelona, Bayer 04 Leverkusen, AS Roma, FC BATE Borisov

FC Barcelona (Spain)

Head Coach: Luis Enrique
Captain: Andres Iniesta
Ground: Camp Nou, Barcelona
Qualified: La Liga, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1991-92, 2005-06, 2008-09, 2010-11, 2014-15)
2014-15 Champions League: Champions

Form Guide

Barcelona won La Liga last season by just 2 points over bitter rivals Real Madrid. The Catalans lost only four times for the season, and they conceded just 21 times. In the Champions League they came out on top, a 3-1 win over Juventus in Berlin enough to grant them a treble of league, cup and Champions League. The side was helped by a star-studded forward line of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, who combined for 81 goals between them.

Strengths

Barcelona have one of the best all-round teams in the world. Messi is the headline act, and he has been crowned world player of the year on multiple occasions. Neymar is also a star, and while Suarez may be a hated player for some of his actions on the pitch he is also very good. The three of them formed a lethal combination last season, and it was made especially hard for defences who had no idea what to do. Ivan Rakitic slotted in well to the midfield of Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets last season, and Barca will hope that they can combine well this time around. The defence is very strong, with Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano a great combination in the centre. On the flanks, Jordi Alba and Dani Alves have a habit of pushing forward and wreaking havoc.

Weaknesses

The goalkeeping situation is not ideal, and while Marc-Andre ter Stegen was successful in the Champions League the defence was so strong he didn’t generally get much to deal with. Claudio Bravo is probably the stronger of the two keepers, although he may not be chosen in the side. The forward line is currently not functioning as it should be, and while they have won both games the victories were not particularly convincing. When Alba and Alves push forward it can create a space for wingers to tuck in behind, and this could be a very dangerous fault against players like Gervinho and Hakan Calhanoglu, who they will come up against in the group stage.

Star Player: Lionel Messi

Messi is arguably the best player in the world, and with 4 Ballon D’Or awards to his name Barcelona will be especially pleased that he cost them nothing in transfer fees. He is able to score frequently, netting 43 league goals last year. He is also the best in the forward line at creating chances, and they will hope that he can contribute in the assists column and on the scoresheet.

Key Player: Javier Mascherano

A veteran player with vast experience, Mascherano originally played in defensive midfield but has been converted into a centre back at Barca. He will need to bring his experience to the defence, and if he and Pique can combine well then Barcelona will be tough to beat. They will need him to cover for the counter-attack, something which made Barca look quite vulnerable last season.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (Germany)

Manager: Roger Schmidt
Captain: Lars Bender
Ground: BayArena, Leverkusen
Qualified: Bundesliga, 4th (defeated SS Lazio in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (2001-02)
2014-15 Champions League: Round of 16

Form Guide

Leverkusen were only able to finish fourth in last season’s Bundesliga, although they were quite comfortably ahead of Augsburg in fifth. This meant a trip to the play-offs, where they faced Lazio. Keita scored in the first leg to give Lazio a one-goal advantage coming in to Leverkusen, but Lazio were blown away by Roger Schmidt’s side, goals to Hakan Calhanoglu, Admir Mehmedi and Karim Bellarabi enough to send them through.

Strengths

Leverkusen have a very potent and dangerous attack. Son Heung-Min has departed for Tottenham Hotspur, but he has been replaced by Mexican striker Javier Hernandez. Hernandez is joined by Stefan Kiessling, Bellarabi, Mehmedi and Calhanoglu in an attack that will no doubt be a real danger, even against a defence of Barcelona’s calibre. Lars Bender and Christoph Kramer will form an effective partnership in the engine room, with players like Charles Aranguiz giving support. Wendell and Roberto Hilbert are fullbacks who can be very dangerous getting forward, and Jonathan Tah will combine with Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Omer Toprak to provide solidity in defence. Bernd Leno is one of Germany’s brightest young keepers, and not much will get past him.

Weaknesses

In the first leg against Lazio the defence was repeatedly caught out on the counter-attack by Lazio, and this contributed to them losing the game. This kind of flaw could prove to have serious ramifications for the side, especially against a side like Barcelona or even Roma. The attack is strong, but was not working cohesively in the loss to Lazio, something that has to be fixed. The midfield of Kramer and Bender is solid, but in the case of injury there is a lack of depth in the squad, and this could be a worry. The only hiccup in the league so far was a 3-0 defeat to Bayern Munich, but Barcelona are at least at the same level as the German champions.

Star Player: Stefan Kiessling

Kiessling made his debut for Nuremberg in 2003, aged just 19, and moved to Leverkusen in 2006. He has scored the second most goals in the club’s history, and he has played 287 times for Bayer. His height allows him to get aerial balls, and despite a below-par season last time around he is a consistent scorer when in form, something that will be invaluable for Leverkusen.

Key Player: Christoph Kramer

Kramer is a very exciting young prospect for both Leverkusen and Germany, and he earned his fourth international cap in the World Cup final, a game which he started but was concussed early and took no further part in proceedings. He is undoubtedly a good midfielder, but he is relied on by Leverkusen and he needs to fulfil those lofty expectations if Leverkusen are to succeed.

AS Roma (Italy)

Head Coach: Rudi Garcia
Captain: Francesco Totti
Ground: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Qualified: Serie A, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (1983-84)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage

Form Guide

Roma gained automatic qualification to the Champions League for the second consecutive season, and it came with a little extra sweetness given that they edged out bitter rivals Lazio by a point to take out second place. They would have felt unlucky to miss out on the knockout stages of the Champions League, as Manchester City pulled off a remarkable comeback to edge them out by just 3 points with a last day win in Rome.

Strengths

Roma have a strong attack, particularly down the flanks. Mohamed Salah, Iago Falque and Gervinho are all strong players, and Edin Dzeko adds valuable height to the attack. Francesco Totti is a legend of Rome, and his experience in over 20 years of service for Roma will be invaluable. Radja Nainggolan, Alessandro Florenzi and Daniele de Rossi are solid in the middle, and the latter has plenty of experience playing for Italy and Roma. Miralem Pjanic is a very good playmaker, and if he can provide plenty of chances for the forwards and national teammate Dzeko then Roma will do very well. Antonio Rudiger, Maicon, Lucas Digne and Kostas Manolas are strong in defence and Morgan de Sanctis and Wojciech Szczesny will be in tough competition for the keeper’s spot.

Weaknesses

The side has talent, but the issues surrounding the transfer of Salah could prove a distraction. The affair is quite messy, and it is unclear what kind of consequences it could hold, even though the investigation centres around Chelsea. There are some issues surrounding the defence, and the loss of left-back Ashley Cole is big. Digne is a good young prospect, but he has not had much game time at PSG and his lack of experience could be a worry. The centre-back position is not particularly strong, with a number of competitors looking for a game but no real options stepping up. Defensive midfielder de Rossi was used there against Juventus, and that is a worry. The side is largely made up of loanees who have not played together, and this could create issues.

Star Player: Gervinho

Gervinho is an immensely talented player who can play on either wing, and has significantly bolstered Roma’s attack since his arrival from Arsenal in 2013. He is dangerous in front of goal, but his dribbling is also very good and he is a reliable creator of chances. He has improved his scoring in the past couple of years, and he should be a handful for all defences.

Key Player: Edin Dzeko

Dzeko has come into the side on loan from Manchester City, and he gives good height to the forward line, where he will provide a target for the wingers. The Bosnian international has not had the best time at City recently, where he has struggled to really contribute to the scoresheet. Roma will need him to retrieve his best form and be the target they are looking for.

FC BATE Borisov (Belarus)

Manager: Alyaksandr Yermakovich
Captain: Dzmitry Likhtarovich
Ground: Borisov Arena, Barysaw
Qualified: Belarusian Premier League, 1st (defeated Dundalk FC, Videoton FC and FK Partizan in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Group Stage (2008-09, 2011-12, 2012-13, 2014-15)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage

Form Guide

BATE have had a stranglehold over the Belarusian league for some time now, and this year they are already well on their way to a tenth consecutive Belarusian title. They progressed to the group stage through qualifying, where they beat Dundalk and Videoton to go through to a play-off against Serbian champions Partizan. Mikhail Gordeichuk’s goal gave them the advantage, and a 2-1 loss in Belgrade was enough to send them through on away goals.

Strengths

In Alexander Hleb the Belarusian champions have a quality player who has played for Arsenal and Barcelona, and has 69 caps for Belarus. The side is attacking, and Hleb is backed up in attacking midfield by the dangerous duo of Mikhail Gordeichuk and Ihar Stasevich. Vitali Rodionov has a habit of finding the back of the net, and he is a good player to have at centre forward. Down back, Filip Mladenovic, Dzyanis Palyakow, Nemanja Milunovic and Maksim Zhavnerchik are solid, and the midfield of Alyaksandr Valadzko, Ilya Aleksiyevich and Dzmitry Likhtarovich should be strong enough. By now the team has enough experience in Europe to be a contender and make the knockout rounds.

Weaknesses

BATE have had issues in Europe in the past, and last season they were awful. Aside from a win at home against Athletic Bilbao, they lost their other 5 games without scoring, and they conceded at least 5 on three occasions. They lost 6-0 to Porto before 7-0 and 5-0 losses to Shakhtar. They finished off the group stage with a 3-0 loss to Porto and a 2-0 loss to Athletic. Looking to this year, Barcelona, Leverkusen and Roma are better teams than that, and it could be a long campaign if this starts happening again. Hleb may be a star, but he was relegated to the left wing instead of his preferred position, and this may cause even more issues. BATE will be determined to improve, but determination may not be enough.

Star Player: Alexander Hleb

He is not necessarily a big scorer, but Hleb was good enough to get in to the first team at Arsenal, and he has large amounts of experience. He is skilled as well, and during his time in Germany he was known for his skills with the ball. His experience will be important, but even at 34 he has the potential to be a great player for BATE.

Key Player: Syarhey Chernik

Chernik struggled in goal in last season’s Champions League, letting in 22 goals with some bloopers along the way, most notable being when he threw the ball directly to Yacine Brahimi, who ran on to score. Despite this, he only conceded 12 times in the Premier League, showing he is capable, but BATE need him to step up to deal with harder opponents.

Prediction

Barcelona blitzed the Champions League last season, and I see no reason why it should be any different this time around. By the same token it is hard to see BATE do any better, even though they would struggle to do much worse. This leaves it down to Roma and Leverkusen, who are both strong and very evenly matched sides. I think, however, that Leverkusen have a slightly more solid side and should be favourites, but the difference is negligible.
Prediction: 1. Barcelona, 2. Bayer Leverkusen, 3. Roma, 4. BATE Borisov.

Classy Barça too much for Juve

FC Barcelona have taken out the 2014-15 UEFA Champions League in Berlin, stylishly defeating the Italian champions 3-1. An early goal to Ivan Rakitić was cancelled out by Álvaro Morata, but goals to Luis Suárez and Neymar ensured that Barcelona would take out their fifth European title. The match had the perfect start for Barça when Rakitić opened the scoring within 5 minutes. Lionel Messi, Daniel Alves, Neymar and Andrés Iniesta combined in a great passing move to get the Croatian on his own in the area, and Gianluigi Buffon had no chance to save it. Barcelona continued to get most of the territory, although Juventus made some dangerous looking counter attacks. Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci were being pulled away from each other by the width of Neymar and Messi, and Iniesta was a dangerous presence in midfield.

At the start of the second half the momentum started to shift towards the Italians, with Juventus playing more inside their half. Despite this Barça started the half well, with Buffon making an incredible reflex save to keep out Suárez. Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio were starting to get some control back for Juve, however, and Marchisio’s backheel was the catalyst for an equaliser. Marchisio played the backheel past two Barça defenders to right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner, who was able to get inside the penalty area and pass to Carlos Tévez. Tévez made an accurate shot which keeper Marc-André ter Stegen had a hard time saving, and the ball spilled out to Morata, who was easily able to stroke the ball into the back of the net. Paul Pogba was denied a penalty after he and Alves tussled for the ball inside the box, and a few minutes later Suárez had scored after a ruthless counter-attack. The Catalans swarmed in numbers upon the Juventus penalty area, and after Buffon made a great save to Messi’s shot Suárez pounced, easily putting the ball away. The die seemed cast when Neymar appeared to score with a header, but the goal was disallowed as the ball came of the Brazilian’s hand before going into the back of the net. Juventus were desperate for a goal, and they attacked doggedly, but Luis Enrique’s approach left plenty of open space around the ground for his forwards to run in to. A couple of positioning errors at corners by ter Stegen were not capitalised upon by Juve, and Neymar was able to get a goal in the seventh minute of stoppage time when he capitalised on Juve’s last-gasp attack. The goal signalled the end of the match, sealing a league, cup and Champions League treble for Barça and providing a fitting end to Xavi’s career with Barcelona.

Top 5
1. Neymar (Barcelona)
Neymar had a great impact on the game in the first half, where he was a constant threat on the left wing. His pass to Iniesta was a key part of the first goal, as was the part where he drew two defenders out of the box to create extra space. He kept Stephan Lichtsteiner busy throughout, and scored a much deserved goal at the end of the game.
2. Paul Pogba (Juventus)
Pogba deserves credit for the way that he played, both in attack and defence. He was hard-working in defence, and was treated fairly harshly by the refs for his combative style of play. He stuck with this style despite being booked in the first half, and he was a key player in attack, assisting Andrea Pirlo from deep in midfield.
3. Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona)
Iniesta may have been subbed out of the game late, but his impact in the early stages largely contributed to Barcelona’s success. He provided an assist for Ivan Rakitić after a great burst of speed into space and then a clever pass to the unmanned player. He was incredibly dangerous throughout the first half and was a constant struggle for the Italians.
4. Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Messi was very effective on the right wing throughout the first half, and during the second half he was dangerous on the counter. His shot was the spark for Barcelona’s second goal to Luis Suárez, and he was dangerous when he cut in from the wing during the second half. In that play he combined twice with Suárez, but his shot was just over the bar.
5. Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus)
Buffon kept Juventus in the game when Barcelona were pressing in the first half with some great saves. He couldn’t have done much to stop the goals that the Catalans scored, but he made great saves to both Daniel Alves and Luis Suárez, the first of which he made with his weight going in another direction.

Berlin – Olympiastadion
Juventus 1 (Morata 55)
Barcelona 3 (Rakitić 4, Suárez 68, Neymar 90+7)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakir (Tur)
Juventus: Buffon – Lichtsteiner, Barzagli, Bonucci, Evra (Coman 89), Pogba, Pirlo, Marchisio, Vidal (Pereyra 79), Tévez, Morata (Llorente 85).
Barcelona: ter Stegen – Daniel Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Rakitić (Mathieu 90+1), Busquets, Iniesta (Xavi Hernández 78), Messi, Suárez (Pedro Rodríguez 90+6), Neymar.

PSG edge out Barça in thriller

Paris Saint-Germain vs Barcelona  

Paris Saint-Germain have pulled off a 3-2 victory against Barcelona in an exhilarating contest. The Parisians held on for over half an hour to deny the visitors victory. The game started at a fairly quick pace, both sides looking to keep possession while attempting penetrative passing moves. A tenth minute free kick to the home side, however, changed the game dramatically, as David Luiz outdid Javier Mascherano in the air and put the ball past Marc-Andre ter Stegen into the bottom corner. Barça didn’t have to wait long for the equaliser, however, a perfectly constructed passing move allowing Lionel Messi to score past Salvatore Sirigu. The game continued in the same manner, Messi nearly sending through Neymar with an ingenious ball, but a Lucas corner again exposed Barça’s weakness at set pieces. Marco Verratti found space behind Ivan Rakitić and headed the ball past an out of position ter Stegen to again give PSG the lead. Both sides continued with their styles of play, PSG nearly catching Barça out on the counter-attack a few times, but the score was the same when the teams came in for the break.

The even contest of the first half continued after the break, and after Blaise Matuidi finished off Gregory van der Wiel’s cross PSG took a 3-1 lead and a clear advantage. The two-goal buffer didn’t last long, however, after Dani Alves’ cross flew over the contest to Neymar, who finished calmly. Barça continued to push, but were consistently knocked back by the Parisian defence, while Javier Pastore initiated a number of dangerous attacks from inside PSG’s defensive half. Manager Luis Enrique started to make changes, with Xavi and young guns Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramírez brought on. Jordi Alba had a perfect opportunity in the 82nd when his attempt from inside the 6-yard box was brilliantly blocked by a sliding Marquinhos. Munir’s long range effort hit the post, and Ramírez only just missed the target from just inside the area. Barça kept pushing, and PSG kept denying them. PSG started to take advantage of Barça’s defensive imbalance on the counter-attack, and Barça were not able to deny them victory on the night.

Paris – Parc des Princes
Paris Saint-Germain FC 3 (David Luiz 10, Verratti 26, Matuidi 54)
FC Barcelona 2 (Messi 12, Neymar 56)
Referee: Rizzoli (Ita)
Paris Saint-Germain: Sirigu – van der Wiel, Marquinhos, David Luiz, Maxwell, Verratti (Cabaye 71), Thiago Motta, Matuidi, Lucas (Bahebeck 90+1), Cavani, Pastore (Chantôme 86).

Barcelona: ter Stegen – Daniel Alves (Ramírez 83), Mascherano, Mathieu, Jordi Alba, Rakitić (Xavi Hernández 69), Busquets, Iniesta, Pedro Rodríguez (El Haddadi 69), Messi, Neymar.

Top 5
1. Javier Pastore (Paris Saint-Germain)
Pastore started the game slowly, but as the match went on his influence grew. In the second half he was one of the most influential players on either side, with his runs, sometimes starting deep in his own half, often fortuitously disrupting the momentum of Barcelona’s attack.
2. David Luiz (Paris Saint-Germain)
Playing in the heart of defence Luiz barely lost an aerial contest all day, and his early goal was influential in shaping the course of the match. As the pressure ramped up he stepped up, winning several key aerial contests and making many key blocks with his head.
3. Lucas (Paris Saint-Germain)
Lucas was the best player on the field from both sides in the first half, his pace far too great for anyone Barça could assign to him. His corners and free-kicks, two of which bore goals, provided the Barcelona defence with many headaches, and while he dropped off in the second half he was still one of the best on ground.
4. Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Messi scored an early goal, and was one of the best players in the first half. He was Barça’s creative fulcrum, and the chipped pass he played over three PSG defenders was one of the best balls played during the match. In the end he provided a lot of trouble for the PSG defence.
5. Blaise Matuidi (Paris Saint-Germain)
Matuidi was one of the hardest working players on the ground, going from attack to defence and playing his role to perfection. His goal in the second half gave PSG a definite edge in the match, but his concise passing and hard-running was what set him apart.

In other matches:
Moscow: A Thomas Muller penalty was the only goal of the match as Bayern Munich defeated CSKA Moscow.
Manchester: Francesco Totti’s strike cancelled out Sergio Aguero’s early penalty as Manchester City drew Roma.
Nicosia: Ajax and APOEL drew 1-1 after Lucas Andersen’s goal was cancelled out by Gustavo Manduca’s penalty.
Lisbon: Nemanja Matic scored the only goal of the game as Chelsea beat Sporting.
Gelsenkirchen: Damjan Bohar’s first-half effort was cancelled out by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar as Maribor drew Schalke.
Lviv: After missing an early penalty and going 2-0 down in the 85th two goals from substitute Jackson Martinez saved Porto from defeat at Shakhtar.
Barysaw: Goals from Dzyanis Polyakow and Alyaksandr Karnitskiy were enough to give BATE Borisov a 2-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao.

Tables

Group E P W D L GF GA GD Pts
FC Bayern München 2 2 0 0 2 0 2 6
AS Roma 2 1 1 0 6 2 4 4
Manchester City FC 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 1
PFC CSKA Moskva 2 0 0 2 1 6 -5 0
                 
Group F P W D L GF GA GD Pts
Paris Saint-Germain FC 2 1 1 0 4 3 1 4
FC Barcelona 2 1 0 1 3 3 0 3
AFC Ajax 2 0 2 0 2 2 0 2
APOEL FC 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 1
                 
Group G P W D L GF GA GD Pts
Chelsea FC 2 1 1 0 2 1 1 4
NK Maribor 2 0 2 0 2 2 0 2
FC Schalke 04 2 0 2 0 2 2 0 2
Sporting Clube de Portugal 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 1
                 
Group H P W D L GF GA GD Pts
FC Porto 2 1 1 0 8 2 6 4
FC BATE Borisov 2 1 0 1 2 7 5 3
FC Shakhtar Donetsk 2 0 2 0 2 2 0 2
Athletic Club 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 1