Tempers flare as City go down

Sergio Aguero was streaming down the left wing, and quickly running out of space. Over 95 minutes into the game between Manchester City and Chelsea, the hosts didn’t stand a chance, and when Aguero lost the ball to David Luiz his frustration boiled over. He kicked out, leaving his opponent on the ground and sparking confrontations on the left sideline. Aguero was sent off for the foul, and shortly afterwards referee Anthony Taylor gave Fernandinho his marching orders after the Brazilian grabbed the throat of Fabregas. It rounded out the most disappointing night of City’s season, and left them asking where it all went wrong and, more importantly, how it can be fixed.

The game had started with few chances either way, but it was incredibly physical as the two sides went at it with everything they had. City, looking to win to jump ahead of ladder-leaders Chelsea, seemed to have more of the ball, but nothing was really happening as Chelsea defended well. It was Eden Hazard who had the first clear cut chance of the game, with Chelsea’s Belgian playmaker unleashing an excellent strike from the edge of the box which just missed Claudio Bravo’s goal.

After the pace and physicality of the opening stanza the game began to open up, and when City were denied the chance to take the lead by the linesman’s flag it sparked a furious wave of action at both ends. It was a perfect free kick from Kevin de Bruyne on a night where nothing quite went right for him, and while Fernandinho headed it home he was one of many players in an offside position. Then Hazard went to work. He capitalised on an error of judgement from Nicolas Otamendi, who missed a long ball, and took a touch to run past Bravo and leave him out of position. He cut it back for a teammate in the centre of the box, but Aleksandar Kolarov was the only man there.

Embed from Getty Images

Classy: Willian (left) scores Chelsea’s second goal on the break.

Then came the big controversy of the match, as Luiz and Aguero collided as the latter looked to capitalise on a poor pass from Cesar Azpilicueta. No foul was called, drawing the ire of the fans, who believed that the Brazilian should have been expelled for a deliberate block on his opponent. City continued to push, and soon Chelsea were well and truly on the back foot. A delightful ball over the top from David Silva was controlled by Leroy Sane and found Aguero, whose shot was blocked. Aguero missed another chance when he failed to convert de Bruyne’s pinpoint cross. Then City went ahead.

It was a beautiful finish, with one minor hitch. The scorer was on the other team. Jesus Navas played in a dangerous cross, and Gary Cahill, Chelsea’s captain, leapt up to clear the danger. Instead, he was wrong-footed, and his right-footed attempt at a clearance only led to the ball being volleyed into the back of the net. He couldn’t have replicated it if he tried, Courtois couldn’t stop it, and City had the lead to cap off a solid first half.

The second half began, and City’s dominance continued, pegging Chelsea back and keeping the pressure firmly on the shoulders of their opponents. They had a great chance shortly after the resumption when Marcos Alonso’s otherwise innocuous back-pass went horribly awry when both goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and Cahill left the ball for each other. Aguero swooped, running in between the two, taking the ball and turning his attention to the now open goal in front of him. Cahill got back, and saved the day by sliding to make the block. The dominance continued. Silva, by now the architect of all of City’s play, found Navas, who crossed into the box. The ball was past all defenders, and within a few yards of the goal, when de Bruyne conspired to hit the bar, getting under it and failing to convert from point blank range.

Embed from Getty Images

Frustration: Players from both sides remonstrate after Aguero’s foul.

It seemed like déjà vu for City when the equaliser came, just minutes after de Bruyne’s incredible miss. Diego Costa had been quiet in the first half, but he had immersed himself in the second half and proceeded to control Cesc Fabregas’ long ball into the box, turning Otamendi in the process. All of a sudden, he was one-on-one with Bravo, and he didn’t miss. City’s worst nightmare had been realised, and Chelsea were back level.

It didn’t end there. City were pushing hard to get back in front, and in doing so they left themselves open as Chelsea’s defence held firm. It started with Ilkay Gundogan, who beat a number of opponents before looking for someone in the middle. Alonso was the only player there, and after a couple of passes Costa had space to work with in a dangerous position. He laid it off for Willian, who had given Chelsea the spark they needed off the bench, and the Brazilian cruised through before putting it past Bravo with ease.

City needed to score, and quickly, with time running out, but they could not find the clarity of attack they needed. The third goal was just window-dressing, with Alonso’s long ball finding Eden Hazard over the top and allowing the Belgian to score easily. It was over. The expulsions further soured the loss for City, leaving more negatives from a forgettable day.

Manchester – Etihad Stadium
Manchester City 1 (Cahill 45 og)
Chelsea 3 (Costa 60, Willian 70, Hazard 90)
Referee: Anthony Taylor

Manchester City (3-4-3): Bravo – Otamendi, Stones (Iheanacho 78), Kolarov; Navas, Fernandinho, Gundogan (Toure 76), Sane (Clichy 69); de Bruyne, Aguero, Silva.
Sent-off: Aguero 90+7, Fernandinho 90+8.
Chelsea (3-4-3): Courtois – Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso; Pedro (Willian 50), Costa (Chalobah 85), Hazard (Batshuayi 90+4).

Top 5
1. Diego Costa (Chelsea)
Costa stepped up when the game was on the line in the second half, and he provided a constant threat as City looked to regain their former position. His goal displayed excellent skill and strength, and his pass to find Willian for Chelsea’s second was well spotted and executed.
2. David Silva (Manchester City)
Silva was excellent throughout, although his influence waned as the game progressed and City grew increasingly desperate. In the first half, his supply was top class, and his lofted balls over the top of Chelsea’s defence were perfectly delivered and provided a huge threat.
3. Willian (Chelsea)
Willian turned the game on its head upon entering shortly after half time, with the Brazilian scoring one goal and providing the energy which Pedro had lacked in both attack and defence. He played well, and his combination with Costa and Hazard was incredibly dangerous.
4. Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
Hazard was not at his marauding best, but he was still very good, unleashing flashes of brilliance and sealing the deal for Chelsea seconds before injury time. His nonchalant displays of skill were incredible, and his ability to work into dangerous positions and beat opponents made him hard to stop.
5. Jesus Navas (Manchester City)
Navas was in top form on the right wing, playing in plenty of dangerous crosses and working into space in attack. His cross was accidentally knocked into the back of the net by Cahill to give City their only goal, and he was unlucky not to provide any more with his accurate delivery.

Advertisements

De Roon stuns City at the death

Sometimes there are goals which live long in the memory. They may be terrific long-range strikes, incredible feats of athleticism, or wonderful dribbles and finishes. Middlesbrough’s only goal against Manchester City was none of these things, but its memory will last just as long, irrespective of how their season finishes. For City fans, it could prove to be the stuff of nightmares, the image of Boro’s players crowding around the advertising hoardings in a state of absolute euphoria.

The game itself was a mismatch from the start. City, who had players worth more money on their own than their opponent’s whole team, started as they always do: in control. Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan ran the show, and Boro barely got a touch as they packed numbers into their defensive half. Alvaro Negredo, a former City player himself, was completely isolated in attack, with little to no support or chance of receiving the ball.

Soon the chances began to come for City, as they started to unlock Boro’s defence. Gundogan was denied by a brilliant tackle from Adam Forshaw. Sergio Aguero played de Bruyne in on goal, but his attempt was just wide. Aguero himself received a nonchalant backheel from Silva before unleashing a powerful shot at the bottom corner. It was saved, and the rebound found an offside Silva. Silva had a chance when a dangerous cross from Jesus Navas was brought down by Aguero. Victor Valdes ran off his line to deny Navas, who created a gash in the keeper’s thigh in the process. The list goes on.

Embed from Getty Images

Collision course: Victor Valdes (left) comes off his line to deny Jesus Navas.

Finally, it came. It was de Bruyne who set it up with a ball which was impossible to defend, granting Aguero his 150th goal for City on a silver platter. The ball was whipped in from the edge of the box to the Argentine, splitting Calum Chambers and Antonio Barragan perfectly and finding its target on the edge of the six-yard box. Aguero finished easily, leaving Valdes with no chance as he found the bottom corner.

The half ended shortly afterwards with Navas, whose dangerous shot from the right wing hit the post. It proved to be a perfect symbol of City’s performance in the match itself: so close, but never quite able to put the game to bed. Either way, at that point it was clear that something had to change, or Boro would be blown away completely in the second half.

From the start of the second period, Aitor Karanka’s side slowly began to find a way into the contest. It was Negredo who started it, intercepting an errant pass from Fernandinho and looking for a way up field. With no support, he shot from halfway, forcing an excellent stop from Claudio Bravo and with it a corner. Shortly afterwards, Adama Traore and Forshaw combined to put the latter in one-on-one, but Bravo was too good and the save was duly made.

Eventually City began to suck the life out of the game, playing with less urgency and ensuring that they weren’t caught out by their opponents. It looked as if the game was done, and they should have doubled their lead when de Bruyne’s cross again found Aguero on the edge of the six-yard box. In hindsight, a wonderful thing to have in these situations, it was more costly a miss than it seemed at the time.

Boro were still finding chances at the other end, but they were becoming few and far between as Pep Guardiola’s men effectively slowed the game down. Aguero had another brilliant chance when Navas found him inside the box, acres of space in all directions. Inexplicably, he missed, squandering yet another opportunity to go two up. Shortly afterwards, he was booked, kicking out after a frustration foul on the edge of the box. His emotions were beginning to show, and he was soon replaced.

Embed from Getty Images

Euphoria: Middlesbrough players celebrate Marten de Roon’s late equaliser.

As the visitors tried harder for the equaliser there was more space available, and as the clock ticked over into stoppage time de Bruyne nearly capitalised on a defensive error. Valdes came off his line to cover a ball that George Friend had already covered, and the resulting collision spilled the ball to de Bruyne, who had an open goal to aim at. From well outside the area, he couldn’t hit the target. Mere seconds later came the equaliser.

It started with Traore, who ran in a strange arc around the defence, working towards the centre and looking for an opening. He found Friend on the left wing, and the left back fired it in to the area one last time. It proved to be all they needed. The cross hung near the back post as Marten de Roon met it at pace, sending a powerful header past a flailing Bravo to snatch a draw against all odds.

This draw does not go close to saving Boro from the drop, and it is entirely possible that they could find themselves relegated at the close of the season. Yet de Roon’s goal, and the manner in which it was scored, will last long in the memory for Middlesbrough fans. For City, de Roon’s header could well come to signify one of those moments that can come to define a failed title charge, moments in which it could have been so different, where it could have been won but it wasn’t. Only time will tell.

Manchester – Etihad Stadium
Manchester City 1 (Aguero 43)
Middlesbrough 1 (de Roon 90+1)
Referee: Kevin Friend
Manchester City (4-1-4-1): Bravo – Zabaleta, Stones, Kolarov, Clichy; Fernandinho; Navas (Garcia 87), de Bruyne, Gundogan (Nolito 75), Silva; Aguero (Iheanacho 90).
Middlesbrough (4-2-3-1): Valdes – Barragan, Chambers, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Forshaw; Traore (Stuani 90+3), de Roon, Downing (Fischer 78); Negredo.

Top 5
1. Jesus Navas (Manchester City)
Navas was excellent throughout, making incisive runs on the right wing and causing plenty of problems for the Middlesbrough defence with his pinpoint crosses. He had a massive impact on the match, and had the chances he created been converted City would have won easily.
2. David Silva (Manchester City)
Silva was as brilliant as ever, working his way into little pockets of space and creating big problems for his opponents. He had to be denied on a couple of key occasions, once by the flag and once by Valdes, and he barely made a mistake in his distribution. A class act.
3. Fernandinho (Manchester City)
Fernandinho was in control in central midfield, reinforcing City’s strong positions in attack and ensuring that Boro were unable to break in numbers. His game was not flawless, but he played very well and was as solid as ever for the whole ninety minutes.
4. Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)
De Bruyne was not quite at his rampaging best as he looked to take care of business, but he was still able to show flashes of brilliance which were very nearly enough to win City the game on their own. His ball to set up the goal was pure perfection, and he backed it up with plenty of other chances which could have been converted.
5. Adam Forshaw (Middlesbrough)
Forshaw was ever-present in both attack and defence, making key challenges at one end and attempting to string passes together at the other. He very nearly scored when he found himself in on goal early in the second half, and he will be very happy with his efforts.

Stekelenburg the hero as Everton clinch draw

Maarten Stekelenburg has been to the final of the World Cup in an impressive career spanning 14 years, but he won’t have played many games better than this. Playing against a dominant Manchester City side, the Dutch keeper saved two penalties and made a string of top-drawer saves as Everton held on for a 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium, defying all the odds in the process.

It didn’t take long to work out who was the superior team. Leroy Sane, playing with pace and skill, wreaked havoc for Bryan Oviedo, breezing past him as if he wasn’t there. Kevin de Bruyne sprayed the ball around in attack, and David Silva was everywhere, collecting the ball on the edge of the box and distributing it as he saw fit. Everton held on, but they had no presence in attack.

Things only got worse for them as the game went on. Their attack looked less dangerous by the minute, and as the half started to draw to a close it seemed as if something had to give. Gerard Deulofeu was offside almost every time he found the ball, and Yannick Bolasie’s delivery rarely hit the mark. Romelu Lukaku, in such good form throughout Everton’s rise up the table, was non-existent due to City’s dominance, and it seemed only a matter of time before the goal came.

Then came the first penalty. Silva made a dangerous run into the area, and as he looked to get in behind Seamus Coleman and Phil Jagielka he was tripped. Jagielka was the culprit, mindlessly stretching out his leg into Silva’s path, and a lead for the hosts seemed to be the only possible outcome. Enter Stekelenburg, who dived well to bat away de Bruyne’s effort, keeping the game scoreless against all odds. They were still afloat, but they seemed to be on borrowed time as the break came and went.

The second half immediately took up a similar rhythm to the first, with City dominating possession and still looking to penetrate Everton’s solid defensive front. Deulofeu forced a solid save from Claudio Bravo to win Everton their first corner of the game, but the hosts were still on top and did not look like being threatened. Then, less than twenty minutes into the second half, it was Everton who broke the deadlock.

Embed from Getty Images

Foul: Sergio Aguero (second from left) is brought down in the box by Phil Jagielka.

It started with Bolasie, who had drifted deeper into midfield as the game had worn on. He flicked an otherwise innocuous pass from Idrissa Gueye past his man, leaving Lukaku with half the field to himself, Gael Clichy the only man in his way. The Frenchman tried to corral him onto a tighter angle, but Lukaku was simply too quick. He created the opening, and drove a cool left-footed finish past Bravo into the back of the net.

If Manchester City had been going hard before, the goal forced them to turn it up a gear. They kept fighting and trying to get through, before another brain explosion from Jagielka looked to have handed them a leveller on a silver platter. If the first penalty was mindless, the second was even worse. Sergio Aguero looked to turn the Everton captain, and he was taken down by a wild hack as he looked to progress.

This time, it was Aguero who stepped up to the spot, as he had done so often before. This time, it seemed as if he could not miss. And yet, there was still a niggling doubt, the thought that maybe, just maybe, Stekelenburg could do it again. He could. Aguero’s penalty was a carbon copy of de Bruyne’s and the Dutchman was in a perfect position to make the save. Yet again, Manchester City had been denied. It just didn’t look like their day.

Then things happened very quickly, and within minutes the two combatants were back on level terms. Silva and Aguero played their way through the defence, and Stekelenburg was only just able to bat the ball away for a corner. Then, mere seconds after entering the game, Nolito was on the end of Silva’s perfect cross from the left wing. The ball was headed home into the bottom corner, the one which Stekelenburg couldn’t get.

Embed from Getty Images

Job well done: Maarten Stekelenburg applauds the fans after a man-of-the-match performance.

The mission wasn’t over for City, but their intensity had left them. Stekelenburg made yet another fine save to deny de Bruyne from long range, but amidst the injury breaks and bookings for time-wasting the moment had passed. City were the better side on the day, but they simply couldn’t break through no matter how hard they tried. City were the better side on the day, but Stekelenburg was always there to deny them. It was just one of those days.

Manchester – Etihad Stadium
Manchester City 1 (Nolito 72)
Everton 1 (Lukaku 64)
Referee: Michael Oliver

Manchester City (3-4-2-1): Bravo – Stones, Otamendi, Clichy; Sane (Nolito 71), Fernandinho, Gundogan (Kompany 90), Sterling; de Bruyne, Silva; Iheanacho (Aguero 56).
Everton (4-3-3): Stekelenburg – Coleman, Jagielka, Williams, Oviedo; Gueye, Barry, Cleverley (Funes Mori 90+1); Bolasie (Mirallas 84), Lukaku, Deulofeu (McCarthy 57).

Top 5
1. Maarten Stekelenburg (Everton)
Stekelenburg was in incredible form, saving penalties from both de Bruyne and Aguero and knocking City back on countless occasions. He didn’t make any mistakes in his execution, and he was the only reason Everton were able to come away with a point in a tough fixture. A brilliant effort.
2. David Silva (Manchester City)
Silva was a dangerous presence throughout, roaming freely inside and outside the box and using his skill and experience to good effect. He was unlucky not to score on a couple of occasions when he found himself in dangerous positions, and his delivery was always accurate and effective.
3. Ashley Williams (Everton)
Williams didn’t make a mistake all day in central defence, cutting off cross after cross and making tackles when he needed to. He was not beaten, and his coolness and experience at the back was key as Everton looked to hold firm. He played well, and will take confidence from his efforts.
4. Leroy Sane (Manchester City)
Sane burst out of the blocks quickly, beating his man with incredible ease and proving a real threat for Everton’s defence. His work rate and ability to track back on defence was incredible, and the skill and poise he showed on the ball bodes very well for his future at the club.
5. Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)
After a two-week absence de Bruyne was slightly rusty, but he was still able to find the ball in very dangerous positions and play some effective passes in behind. His first-half penalty was saved, but he was a key reason for City’s dominance and he made life very difficult for Everton.

City hold on to clinch thrilling derby win

The simultaneous arrival of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola in Manchester was always going to create great contests, and the two arch-rivals served up an incredible game in their first derby match at the helm of their new sides. Derby matches between Manchester City and Manchester United had dropped off in quality in recent times, but Guardiola and Mourinho were bound to change things. They did, and in doing so they turned the most hyped game of the season into a thriller, filled with skill, goals and plenty of tension.

For the first half-hour, however, it looked to be no contest at all. City played like a shiny new sports car, purring into gear with slick passing moves which cut swathes through the United defence. Kevin de Bruyne was the architect, the Belgian giving it off when he saw fit and making wonderful runs in behind. Meanwhile, United looked more like a battered old SUV. They were sluggish, and they were closed down whenever they looked to enter City’s half. It was only a matter of time before City opened the scoring.

They did it just before the fifteen-minute mark, with Aleksandar Kolarov the architect. The Serb seemed trapped in his defensive corner, surrounded by two United players and under some pressure. There was only one option available, and he hoofed it downfield with all the strength he could muster. Kelechi Iheanacho was there, and he flicked the header on towards Daley Blind, who stayed unmoving. It was a costly error. The Dutchman left the door open, and de Bruyne glided through it with his usual ease. He took a couple of touches to control it, and he had no issues stroking the ball past David de Gea into the back of the net. City had the lead, and they didn’t look done by any stretch.

Embed from Getty Images

Frustration: Wayne Rooney (in red) wrestles for the ball with Pep Guardiola.

United didn’t seem to have a shot. They were down a goal, but recovery did not look likely. Guardiola did not push his men back, and City continued to use the pockets of space available to them. When United attacked, it was abysmal. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was lethargic on the right wing, losing the ball almost every time he got it and providing no service for Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. Wayne Rooney was getting flustered, wrestling with Guardiola and committing plenty of fouls. Meanwhile, on the left wing, Jesse Lingard was a disaster. His selection was unexpected, and once in the team it was as if he was not on the pitch at all.

The second goal came shortly after the first, with de Bruyne again setting things in motion. He found the ball in the box and turned his opponent before going for the shot. He drilled it into the post, but it fell for Iheanacho, who would have found it harder to miss the follow-up attempt. The ball rebounded to the Nigerian on the edge of the six-yard box, and he did not miss. Iheanacho stopped for a moment, before coming to the realisation that it actually was that easy. City led 2-0.

United were floundering, before they were handed an incredible lifeline which they grabbed with both hands. The goal came from nowhere, and it marked the turning point in this incredible match. David Silva conceded a free kick after sliding in on Antonio Valencia, and it seemed as if Rooney’s hopeful hack into the penalty area would be easily saved. It wasn’t. Claudio Bravo, who had been assured and steady in goal for forty minutes, crashed into John Stones as he looked to catch it, dropping the ball and giving Ibrahimovic a chance. He scored in a way only Ibrahimovic can, letting it bounce before smashing it past the defenders on the line with a powerful side-kick. It was the lifeline that United desperately needed.

Suddenly they were a new side, attacking with vigour and creating plenty of chances. Rooney picked off a poor back pass from Stones, and City were lucky that Bravo was able to hold on to Ibrahimovic’s header. A minute later, Bravo was at it again, this time haring off in pursuit of a ball which he was not quite able to get. He was caught out in a big way, especially when Lingard made his only real contribution of the match to beat Sagna and feed Ibrahimovic on the edge of the box. Stones was there, and he blocked it on the line, but the warning was clear. United were back in the contest, and City needed to lift their game.

Embed from Getty Images

Desperation: Eric Bailly (left) and David de Gea look to deny Nicolas Otamendi.

Mkhitaryan and Lingard were removed at the break, and United came back out with a renewed vigour. Ibrahimovic was in dangerous positions whenever they went forward, and City’s defence was no match for the dribbling skills of Marcus Rashford. The teenager held them in a trance as he moved with the ball, and he looked more dangerous in transition than any of his teammates. Bravo nearly coughed it up again minutes later, when he held onto the ball for too long and managed to present Rooney with a golden opportunity. He slid in to stop the United captain, limiting the damage, but it was another big mistake on a forgettable debut.

 

The game opened up as City lifted their level to match their rivals. It was pulsating, end-to-end football, as both sides looked to hit each other on the break. United had a goal disallowed after another brilliant run from Rashford, who held Bacary Sagna on a string before drilling it past him into the back of the net. It was to count for nothing, however, as the ball clipped an offside Ibrahimovic on the way through, the minute deflection costing United their leveller. City kept the pressure on, and after de Gea was forced to make some excellent saves to deny Fernandinho and Nicolas Otamendi they had another brilliant chance when Leroy Sane fed de Bruyne on the break. The Belgian hit the post and the ball rolled across the face, coming tantalisingly close to the goal that would have sealed it.

Soon that counter-attack was not happening, and the game was just City letting United heave long balls into the box. Rooney slung in ball after ball, but it was to no avail. City were solid in defence, and they would not be denied an exceptional victory. It was a great battle, and hopefully it sets the tone for derbies to come. If it does, then we have a lot to look forward to as Mourinho and Guardiola continue to leave their mark on the Premier League.

Manchester – Old Trafford
Manchester United 1 (Ibrahimovic 42)
Manchester City 2 (de Bruyne 15, Iheanacho 36)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Valencia, Bailly, Blind, Shaw (Martial 81); Fellaini, Pogba; Mkhitaryan (Herrera 46), Rooney, Lingard (Rashford 46); Ibrahimovic.
Manchester City (4-1-4-1): Bravo – Sagna, Stones, Otamendi, Kolarov; Fernandinho; Sterling (Sane 60), de Bruyne (Zabaleta 90), Silva, Nolito; Iheanacho (Fernando 53).

Top 5
1. Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)
Much of Manchester City’s early dominance can be traced back to de Bruyne, who took advantage of the space he was presented with to create plenty of chances for himself and his teammates. He scored the first goal and set up the second, and he was unlucky to be denied by the woodwork on a number of occasions. His set piece delivery was as good as ever, rounding off an exceptional game.
2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United)
Ibrahimovic was United’s only scorer, and he found himself in plenty of dangerous positions. He created plenty of problems for City’s defence with his height, positioning and ability to find space in the box, and he was unlucky not to score more. He was ever-present in attack for United, and can hold his head high after a strong performance.
3. Fernandinho (Manchester City)
Fernandinho was a solid presence in midfield and defence for City, dropping back in the closing stages and denying United with his ability to win the ball in dangerous spots. He was good in the air throughout, and had some great chances at the other end when he was able to push forward.
4. Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
Rashford came on to replace the struggling Lingard at the break, and he was a game-changer for United. He was a dangerous presence on the left wing, and he was in complete control as he made dangerous runs into the box. He had a goal disallowed in unfortunate circumstances, and was one of United’s best.
5. Leroy Sane (Manchester City)
Sane came on at a time when City were coming under increasing pressure, and his introduction had an immediate impact. He used all of his pace as he looked to get away on the break, and he created plenty of problems for anyone who tried to mark him. He alleviated some of the strain on the City defence, and will take confidence from his efforts.

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.

Embed from Getty Images

 

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.

Embed from Getty Images

 

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.

Embed from Getty Images

 

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.

Embed from Getty Images

 

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.

Embed from Getty Images

 

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.

Embed from Getty Images

 

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.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group D

Juventus FC (Italy)

Manager: Massimiliano Allegri
Captain: Gianluigi Buffon
Ground: Juventus Stadium, Turin
Qualified: Serie A, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1984-85, 1995-96)
2014-15 Champions League: Runners-up

Form Guide

Juventus won their fourth consecutive Serie A last season by a margin of 17 points over their nearest rival. They also made the Champions League final in new manager Massimiliano Allegri’s first season in charge, but lost to Barcelona. They have lost Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Carlos Tevez over the off-season, although Paul Pogba has stayed at the club after he rejected a big money contract from Chelsea.

Strengths

New signings Hernanes and Sami Khedira will give Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio support in the middle of the park, and they have signed three new strikers to try and replace Tevez. Mario Mandzukic is a strong player, and Paulo Dybala and Simone Zaza could be very good players in the future. Juan Cuadrado has been loaned in from Chelsea, and he can play on either flank. The defence is the one area where Juve have not lost anyone, and Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli are very strong players, and Patrice Evra, Alex Sandro and Stephan Lichtsteiner should ensure that there is no shortage of quality fullbacks. In goal, Gianluigi Buffon is still going strong after 20 years keeping at the top level for Parma and Juventus.

Weaknesses

While they have found replacements for their losses there is no guarantee that the replacements will be able to match the level of Pirlo, Vidal and Tevez. Juventus will not draw any confidence from their start to the season, with a disappointing loss to Udinese followed up by a loss to championship rivals Roma. Buffon, Chiellini, Marchisio, Bonucci, Barzagli and Evra are getting older, and while there are young players coming up in attack, the same players are not coming through in the defence. Allegri does not have a great track record as a manager, and whether the successes of last season were due to him or his great players is unclear.

Star Player: Paul Pogba

Pogba is currently one of the top midfielders in the world, and Chelsea were willing to shell out vast amounts of money to land the young French star. At 188 centimetres he is Juve’s main scoring option from set pieces, and he is a capable tackler and very capable in attack. Juventus will be particularly happy that he came from Manchester United for almost nothing.

Key Player: Gianluigi Buffon

Buffon is the only player to have 150 international caps for Italy, in an international career spanning back to 1997. He has played 425 times for Juve, and has never disappointed. His goalkeeping was good enough for him to be shortlisted, alongside 4 teammates, for the European player of the year award, and if he can keep as well as he did last season then Juve will do well.

Manchester City FC (England)

Manager: Manuel Pellegrini
Captain: Vincent Kompany
Ground: Etihad Stadium, Manchester
Qualified: Premier League, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Round of 16 (2013-14, 2014-15)
2014-15 Champions League: Round of 16

Form Guide

Manchester City were comfortably beaten in the league by Chelsea last season, and were knocked out for a second consecutive year by Barcelona in the Champions League. They have improved significantly under Manuel Pellegrini, and this year they are yet to concede a goal in the Premier League, with the side currently sitting pretty after four consecutive victories. This season they will be looking to build on their round of 16 exits of the last two tournaments.

Strengths

City have spent lots of money assembling one of the best squads in world football. German footballer of the year Kevin de Bruyne has been brought in from Wolfsburg for big money, and he will combine with the likes of Fabian Delph, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, David Silva, Jesus Navas, Fernando and Samir Nasri in midfield. Vincent Kompany marshals the defence, playing alongside Aleksandr Kolarov, Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta, Eliaquim Mangala, Martin Demichelis and Nicolas Otamendi. Joe Hart is in goal, and he has plenty of experience. Sergio Aguero and Wilfried Bony are quite different players, and they can combine well in attack. New acquisition Raheem Sterling is immensely talented, and his pace will prove too much for some teams to handle.

Weaknesses

While the side is very strong some questions still remain. Sterling is still largely unproven, and while his talent is beyond doubt there is some question as to his aptitude, and he has a tendency to get under the skin of the press and cause media scandals. The extra pressure that will be placed upon them to get past the round of 16 could prove too much, and comfortably getting through their group is something that they will try to work on. Last season it took a last-gasp goal against Bayern Munich to progress, and this is something they would like to avoid. Hart may have played a lot for England and Manchester City, but he is certainly not the best keeper going around.

Star Player: Sergio Aguero

In a team packed with stars, Aguero is the standout. He made his debut for Independiente aged just 15, breaking a record set by Diego Maradona in the process. While he found the net frequently with Atletico Madrid, with City he has stepped it up a notch, and he will need to continue to score well to help his side through.

Key Player: Yaya Toure

Now that de Bruyne is likely to take a spot in midfield alongside David Silva, Toure is likely to find himself playing in a more traditional defensive midfield spot. While he will be forced to play a more defensive game how the Ivorian gets forward and creates chances will be integral. If he can keep a fairly regular flow of goals while maintaining defensive duties then City will be very tough to beat.

Sevilla FC (Spain)

Manager: Unai Emery
Captain: Jose Antonio Reyes
Ground: Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, Seville
Qualified: UEFA Europa League, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Quarter-Finals (1957-58)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

Sevilla finished a tense La Liga season in fifth, 1 point behind Valencia and 2 behind Atletico Madrid, but they qualified after winning their second consecutive Europa League title. They defeated Borussia Monchengladbach, Villareal, Zenit and Fiorentina on their way to the final, and in the first Europa League final which guaranteed the winner a Champions League spot they delivered, with two goals to Carlos Bacca enough to seal a 3-2 win against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.

Strengths

Europa League hero Carlos Bacca may have left, but the forward line is still strong. Fernando Llorente, Michael Krohn-Dehli and Ciro Immobile have come in, joining former PSG frontman Kevin Gameiro. Ever Banega, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Steven N’Zonzi add strength in the middle of the park, and Yevhen Konoplyanka should cause plenty of issues in tandem with captain Jose Antonio Reyes. Benoit Tremoulinas, Coke and Adil Rami are strong players in defence. Beto and Sergio Rico are both strong goalkeepers, and their competition for a spot in the team should lead to good performances from both men. Sevilla have played a lot of Champions League quality teams in the Europa League, and the step up should not bother them too much.

Weaknesses

Questions remain about some areas of the side. Coke and Tremoulinas have got the fullback positions pinned down, but it is unclear who is the best player to partner Rami in the centre of defence. Krychowiak was chosen for the first game, but he is a defensive midfielder, not a centre back. Immobile may have been great at Torino two seasons ago, but at Dortmund it is fair to say he was a bit of a flop. As such, whether he is a suitable replacement for Bacca is unclear. The amount of Champions League experience on the team is not very high, and while they have faced some of their potential opponents they have not faced many teams of the calibre of Juventus and Manchester City. Their 3-0 loss to Atletico last time out will not fill them with confidence.

Star Player: Fernando Llorente

Llorente has been hanging on the edge of the Spanish team for years, first while at Athletic Bilbao and then with Juventus. His career with Athletic was very successful, and he played 333 times in all competitions for the side. He has arrived from Italy and is now in the first team at Sevilla, who will be hoping that he can deliver and score plenty of goals.

Key Player: Grzegorz Krychowiak

Krychowiak can play in the centre of defence or in midfield, and he had great success in his first season with Sevilla. He was the only player from the club named in the La Liga team of the season, and he is likely to take up a role in the centre of defence alongside Rami. Sevilla will be counting on him to perform his duties effectively and keep the defence solid.

Borussia Monchengladbach (Germany)

Manager: Lucien Favre
Captain: Martin Stranzl
Ground: Stadion im Borussia-Park, Monchengladbach
Qualified: Bundesliga, 3rd
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (1976-77)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

Monchengladbach finished three points behind Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, but were still able to qualify automatically for the Champions League as a result. This season they will be hoping for success after years out of the competition, although they will be part of a tough group. Their European campaign finished last season at the hands of Sevilla in the Europa League round of 32, and they will hope that they can defeat the Spaniards this time around.

Strengths

Borussia Monchengladbach had one of the best defences in the Bundesliga last season, conceding only 26 goals. Yann Sommer has stepped up to become one of the league’s top keepers, and he has had experience in the competition with Basel. The defence of Martin Stranzl, Tony Jantschke, Oscar Wendt and Roel Brouwers is very strong, and Andre Hahn and Granit Xhaka provide solidity in midfield. Thorgan Hazard has a chance to try and step out of his brother Eden’s shadow, and he will be able to combine with Raffael, Patrick Herrmann, Josip Drmic and Lars Stindl to score plenty of goals. Harvard Nordveidt has lots of experience with Norway and he will add a lot to the midfield.

Weaknesses

The loss of Max Kruse to Champions League rivals Wolfsburg is big, and the side will struggle to make up the 11 goals that he scored last season, especially given the attack only managed 53 goals in the Bundesliga. Josip Drmic will have to play a key role in scoring those goals, and this pressure could have negative consequences for his form. Gladbach have not had a good start to the season, losing to Borussia Dortmund, Mainz and Werder Bremen and sitting at the bottom of the table. A lack of experience in the competition could ultimately cost them, and if they cannot handle the step up to the Champions League then they could be out the door very quickly.

Star Player: Yann Sommer

Sommer has become one of the best goalkeepers in Germany, and he is undoubtedly a star for Monchengladbach. Since breaking into the Basel first team he has not missed a beat, and after a great season in the Bundesliga he is ready to tackle the Champions League head on. His experience with Basel will be key, as the Germans have not made it to the Champions League for years.

Key Player: Raffael

Raffael was the leading scorer for Monchengladbach in the league last season, and they will hope that he can increase his output to try and cover for the loss of Kruse. He is a player who can definitely step up for Die Fohlen, and if he can score plenty of goals then this process will be made much easier for Gladbach.

Prediction

This group will be very tough, with four strong teams battling it out, but Manchester City and Juventus have more experience and look to have a slight leg-up over their inexperienced opponents. Borussia Monchengladbach may struggle, especially when trying to fill the void left by star player Kruse, who scored 11 goals and had 7 assists last season.
Prediction: 1. Manchester City, 2. Juventus, 3. Sevilla, 4. Borussia Monchengladbach.

UEFA Champions League Matchday 1 Preview

On Tuesday the UEFA Champions League begins again, with Europe’s best battling it out on one of the world’s greatest stages. This year we see Liverpool’s return and Manchester United’s departure from the elite, as well as the remarkable return of Monaco, who were just two years ago in the second tier of French football. Real Madrid will be on a high after becoming the first European side to win ten continental titles, but can anyone knock them off their perch? It will be very interesting to see. In this preview I will look in depth at the first matchday, providing predictions, key matches, players to watch and also key questions. Enjoy.

Matches: (Predicted winner in bold)

Tuesday September 16

Olympiacos vs Atletico Madrid, Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus (1-2)
Atletico should be too good despite recent losses in the transfer market.
Juventus vs Malmo, Juventus Stadium, Turin (4-0)
Newbies Malmo no match for the experience and class of Juve.
Liverpool vs Ludogorets Razgrad, Anfield, Liverpool (4-0)
Ludogorets will really struggle against the stronger opposition.
Real Madrid vs Basel, Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid (3-0)
On a high after great success it is hard to see Real going down.
Monaco vs Bayer Leverkusen, Stade Louis II, Monaco (1-1)
A close contest that really could go either way.
Benfica vs Zenit St Petersburg, Estadio da Luz, Lisbon (1-3)
Zenit should have too much class for a slightly weakened Benfica.
Galatasaray vs Anderlecht, Turk Telekom Arena, Istanbul (3-0)
Galatasaray should cruise past Anderlecht, especially at home.

Key Game: Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal, Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund
These two sides met in the group stage of last year’s tournament, with the odds split evenly over the two matches, in both cases the away side winning by a goal. With Dortmund losing centre forward Robert Lewandowski to rivals Bayern in the summer their attack has been weakened, and it is still to be seen how new recruit Ciro Immobile will cope with the pressure. On the other side, Arsenal have splashed out a bit in the transfer market, reeling in Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, both of whom will be key to the attack, as well as Mathieu Debuchy and David Ospina in defence. This will be an extraordinarily exciting game, and it should be a very close one in the end.
Verdict: Both sides incredibly strong but home-ground advantage tips it slightly in Dortmund’s favour. Borussia Dortmund 2-1.

Wednesday September 17

Roma vs CSKA Moscow, Stadio Olimpico, Rome (3-1)
Roma return to the European stage and should knock off CSKA at home.

Key Game: Bayern Munich vs Manchester City, Allianz Arena, Munich
Whenever the champions of England and Germany collide, it is going to be a very big match. While these two sides picked up their titles in dramatically different fashions (Bayern cruised through while City snatched it from Liverpool with 5 straight wins late in the season) they are both brilliant sides. Bayern have lost young star Toni Kroos over the summer, but with players such as Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Xherdan Shaqiri, Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba, Bayern are a serious contender for the title. While Manchester City have under-performed in Europe in past tournaments they should not be underestimated, and now that their players have had some experience of the Champions League they are a good enough side to go a very long way.
Verdict: Manchester City are a good side but Bayern are just too good. Bayern Munich 2-0.

Barcelona vs APOEL, Camp Nou, Barcelona (5-0)
With Neymar and Messi fit again APOEL will be no match for Barca.
Ajax vs Paris Saint-Germain, Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam (0-2)
Ajax are strong but PSG should out-do them.
Chelsea vs Schalke 04, Stamford Bridge, London (1-0)
Schalke will provide a challenge but Chelsea should meet it at home.
Maribor vs Sporting CP, Ljudski vrt, Maribor (1-1)
Interesting match-up, but neither side quite strong enough to win.
Porto vs BATE Borisov, Estadio do Dragao, Porto (2-0)
Porto have a strong enough team to cruise past the Belarusians.
Athletic Bilbao vs Shakhtar Donetsk, San Mames, Bilbao (2-2)
Shakhtar will provide a test but Athletic should match them at home.

Players to watch

Toni Kroos (Real Madrid)
After playing brilliantly during Germany’s World Cup triumph Kroos was picked up by Real. A very good provider of aerial chances from dead ball situations, he has the skills to fit perfectly into the system of Real Madrid and it will be very exciting to see how he performs at his new club.

Diego Costa (Chelsea)
After scoring 8 Champions League goals to help Atletico make the final of the tournament Costa has moved to London. He had a very disappointing World Cup and he will be looking to rectify this against Schalke. If he fires then Chelsea could mount a serious challenge.

James Rodriguez (Real Madrid)
James picked up the golden boot at the World Cup, scoring 6 times in 5 games for Colombia. Such form was enough for Real Madrid to pay €75 million for his signature. They will be hoping for the versatile midfielder to repay them, and he is easily able to provide goals and assists for Carlo Ancelotti’s team.

Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)
In Sterling both Liverpool and England have a player who could easily become a superstar. He has incredible pace and after a brilliant league campaign last season he is fully ready to showcase his talent upon the European stage. Expect excitement, and lots of it.

Ciro Immobile (Borussia Dortmund)
After being offloaded to Torino by Juventus at the start of last season Immobile went on to shine, scoring 22 times. Having been bought by Borussia Dortmund to replace Robert Lewandowski, however, he has the weight of expectation on his shoulders, and it will be interesting to see how he copes.

Neymar (Barcelona)
As the host nation’s talisman in the World Cup, Neymar shone until a bad challenge from Juan Zuniga in the quarter-finals left him with a broken back. Now available after returning from his injury it will be very interesting to see how he fares against a relatively weak APOEL team.

Key Questions

How will Liverpool and Monaco fare on their return to Europe’s elite?
Liverpool have been drawn into a group that they should progress from, as Basel and Ludogorets are not good enough to really worry them. Plenty of players in the side have some experience at this level, and with young stars Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge both explosive players in attack Liverpool should be fine. Monaco, on the other hand, are a different proposition. They have offloaded Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez to Manchester United and Real Madrid respectively, and in a tough group containing Benfica, Zenit and Bayer Leverkusen they may struggle, as this side is not near the team that came second last season in class.

Will this be the season when English sides meet their potential?
It will be interesting to see how the English teams fare in this tournament, with Manchester City and Arsenal facing an early test this week. They face German powerhouses Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, and with Liverpool drawn into a group with reigning champions Real Madrid we should soon find out how these sides compare with the best in Europe. Chelsea have been drawn into a much easier group with Schalke, Sporting and Maribor and they should easily progress. Also, in terms of class and experience, Chelsea are probably the best of the English sides and I would be surprised if they did not at least reach the quarter-finals of this season’s tournament.

How will Atletico Madrid recover from their big losses over summer?
Atletico have lost some of the key members of the team that made the final of last season’s tournament, losing keeper Thibaut Courtois, left-back Filipe Luis and striker Diego Costa to Chelsea, as well as strikers Adrian Lopez (Porto) and David Villa (New York City) and attacking midfielder Diego (Fenerbahce). They have made extensive signings to compensate for this, mainly in attack where Mario Mandzukic, Raul Jimenez, Angel Correa, Alessio Cerci and French winger Antoine Griezmann have been picked up. Miguel Angel Moya and Jan Oblak have been picked up to rectify the goalkeeper situation, but whether these signings can replace Courtois, who is one of the best keepers in the world, and Costa, who contributed 38 goals in all competitions last season, remains to be seen. If anyone can pull them through it is Diego Simeone, whose coaching feats were incredible last season, and they have a reasonable draw, but it would take a very special effort to replicate last season’s all-round success.

Can Real Madrid be beaten?
After a stunning 4-1 victory (after extra time) over Atletico in Lisbon a tenth European crown was claimed for Real Madrid. On a high after completing ‘La Decima’ the champions have signed three stars of the recent World Cup in Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas, Colombian attacking midfielder James Rodriguez and German playmaker Toni Kroos. Combine these players with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Isco, Sami Khedira, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric amongst others and you begin to see why Real are the best team in Europe. There are teams who can beat them, and Barcelona and Bayern Munich immediately spring to mind, but Real are looking like pretty strong favourites at the moment.