Late surge leaves Boro heartbroken

It only took one lapse in concentration. After nearly 90 minutes of solid defence, warding off attack after attack and keeping out complex passing moves, the equaliser came from one of the simplest attacks of the night. Desperation had begun to set in for Manchester United, as Middlesbrough threatened to end a year of upsets with a surprise of their own. Eric Bailly heaved the ball forward, managing to hit Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the edge of the box. He flicked on a header, and Anthony Martial rammed it home to level the scores.

Seconds later, they had taken the lead. After Gaston Ramirez was denied a penalty at the other end, Juan Mata set up Paul Pogba, finding space to cross and hitting the Frenchman with pinpoint accuracy. The header went in to the top corner, leaving Victor Valdes with no chance. It was devastating for Boro, as the game was turned on its head in a dramatic couple of minutes.

United had been the better side. From the start, they had gained a hold over possession and they were creating opportunities. Pogba hit the post with a bicycle kick, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan was everywhere as he created chances for himself and others. It was, however, a shocking decision which gave Boro a massive let-off. Martial was the spark, first hitting the post from long range before collecting the ball and weaving his way into the box. He crossed it, and Ibrahimovic only had to extend his leg to get the ball into the back of the net.

Then the controversy began. Valdes went down, and referee Lee Mason determined that Ibrahimovic had fouled him as the two collided following the goal. United were in disbelief, but the decision stood. Boro survived. As the second half began, the chances started to come a little more readily. Ibrahimovic was denied at close range by Valdes. Pogba tried another bicycle kick, with much less success. Mkhitaryan was through, but offside. Then, after being denied on so many occasions, it was United who went behind. Calum Chambers put in a good cross for Alvaro Negredo, whose header into the path of Grant Leadbitter was perfect. The ball was struck first-time, and it left David de Gea with no chance. United’s recurring nightmare seemed to be happening again.

The emotional rollercoaster of a game was not yet over. There was controversy, as Marcus Rashford was denied what appeared to be a clear penalty after he tangled with Bernardo Espinosa. There was some excellent goalkeeping, and a brilliant cameo off the bench from Rashford. In the end, however, it was Manchester United who dominated, and Manchester United who were deserved winners thanks to their late surge.

Despite this, Boro did create some chances thanks to the explosive pace of Adama Traore, who was at his dynamic best. A bad decision from Traore proved costly a couple of minutes in, as a goal scoring opportunity on the break was missed. They could have scored again a little while later when Traore first beat Daley Blind to the ball before running around him and managing to slip past Chris Smalling in an exceptional display of speed. The cross left George Friend with an open goal, but the controlling touch proved costly.

In the end, Boro were fighting an uphill battle from the start, and nothing could change that for them. They came close, but ultimately they left disappointed, and desperately short on points heading into the new year. United, on the other hand, enter the new year with confidence after a string of victories, and they will be desperate to continue in their current vein of form and try to make an impact on the top four.

Manchester – Old Trafford
Manchester United 2 (Martial 85, Pogba 86)
Middlesbrough 1 (Leadbitter 67)
Referee: Lee Mason
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Valencia, Bailly, Smalling (Rashford 72), Blind (Rojo 64); Fellaini (Mata 64), Herrera; Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Martial; Ibrahimovic.
Middlesbrough (4-1-4-1): Valdes – Chambers, Espinosa, Gibson, Friend; Leadbitter (Clayton 78); Traore (Fabio 82), Forshaw, de Roon, Downing (Ramirez 63); Negredo.

Top 5
1. Anthony Martial (Manchester United)
Martial was in top form throughout, wreaking havoc on the left wing and proving a nightmare for Calum Chambers. He was able to work his way into dangerous positions with his excellent skill on the ball, and he scored the equaliser with a very nice finish.
2. Victor Valdes (Middlesbrough)
Valdes kept Boro in the game with some incredible saves, and until United’s last burst it looked as if he was going to win it for them. His positioning was very good throughout, and his clean hands did not allow United to capitalise on his mistakes.
3. Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United)
Mkhitaryan was in top form, picking out teammates in good positions and cutting inside to provide a big threat from the right wing. He was unlucky not to score on a few occasions, and he will look to continue his good form into the new year.
4. Adama Traore (Middlesbrough)
Traore was Boro’s main attacking weapon, displaying incredible speed and, at times, finesse. He was too fast for anyone on the pitch, and he left Blind for dead on a few occasions. He was unlucky not to create a goal for his side, but he will take confidence from his performance.
5. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba scored the winner with an excellent header, and it was his ability to get into dangerous positions which caused serious problems for Boro. He ran the show from attacking midfield, and something always happened when he had the ball at his feet.

Palace fight hard, but Ibrahimovic steals late win

Yohan Cabaye had gone to ground as he tried to make the challenge. Paul Pogba was too strong, pushing his opponent away as if he was made of paper. With space to work with, the Frenchman put a ball through for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the mercurial Swedish forward who was making a good run into the box. It looked as if it was out of his reach, and the angle was too tight. He finished anyway, slotting the ball past Wayne Hennessey with surgical precision and all but sealing a win for Manchester United.

Crystal Palace had done quite well up to that point, but they would not recover. As soon as Ibrahimovic put his winner into the back of the net, no amount of desperate long balls could save them from an inevitable defeat. From the start, Palace were on the back foot. It took them well over a minute just to touch the ball, and it took a lot longer for them to start building up moves and retaining the ball.

Despite this, United were short on quality chances, and Palace continued to keep their head above water comfortably. As the first half drew to a close, opportunities began to come. Pogba’s chip over the top found Wayne Rooney, who nearly converted. Pogba himself had a chance when Michael Carrick provided him with an open volley, but it was saved by Hennessey, desperately keeping his side in the game.

Frustration…: Paul Pogba shows his annoyance at a decision.

When United finally struck, less than a minute out from half-time, it was controversial. Juan Mata’s free kick found Ibrahimovic, whose attempt to find Pogba in the six-yard box involved a suspicious use of the arm. Luckily for United, it was not called and the ball rebounded off Joel Ward in finding Pogba, playing him onside. The finish was as easy as could be, and United were ahead after 45 minutes of dominance.

Palace needed to step up their game in the second half. They did. Immediately they looked dangerous, with half-time substitute Joe Ledley finding space and using the ball well. After an early second half flurry, however, the game looked to have settled back into a familiar rhythm, with Palace again struggling to find the ball. Instead, James McArthur gave them momentum with a long shot which was brilliantly tipped away, and minutes later he finished off the equaliser.

Joel Ward provided the spark, playing a series of passes to get himself to the edge of the box before cutting it in for Damien Delaney, the veteran Irish centre back who provided an unexpected touch of class with his first-time flick on for McArthur, who couldn’t miss. It seemed to be another case of United’s recurring nightmare, a nightmare only made more excruciating by the events which followed.

… and joy: Manchester United players celebrate after their win.

McArthur’s goal was the catalyst for an incredible period of play which contained multiple refereeing errors and plenty of drama. A penalty was not awarded and a goal was disallowed as United looked to break the newly-created deadlock, and frustrations began to boil over. First, Ledley punched a corner from Rooney away from danger, sparking an indignant response from United when nothing was called. Then Mata was incorrectly ruled to be offside when he tapped in Marcos Rojo’s header. There were bookings, arguments and the game seemed to be taking a life of its own.

It looked to be over for United before Ibrahimovic bagged the winner, as if all their hard work had been for nothing. Instead, they defied their recent history of mishaps and near-misses, and came away with a win that they thoroughly deserved. For Crystal Palace, hard work wasn’t enough, and leaves them with some stern questions to answer as they languish in the bottom half of the table.

London – Selhurst Park
Crystal Palace 1 (McArthur 66)
Manchester United 2 (Pogba 45+2, Ibrahimovic 88)
Referee: Craig Pawson
Crystal Palace (4-2-3-1): Hennessey – Ward, Dann, Delaney, Kelly; McArthur (Campbell 87), Flamini (Ledley 46); Lee Chung-yong (Fryers 80), Cabaye, Zaha; C Benteke.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Bailly (Darmian 52), Jones, Rojo, Blind; Carrick, Herrera; Mata (Lingard 71), Pogba, Rooney (Rashford  80); Ibrahimovic.

Top 5
1. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba was on his game from the start, and while his goal was controversial it was thoroughly deserved. He provided excellent supply for his teammates up front, and it was his pass that set up Ibrahimovic for the winning goal as the game drew to a close.
2. Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace)
Hennessey was the main reason Palace were able to stay in the game, making a string of excellent saves and barely making a mistake all day. His stop to deny Rooney late in the first half was brilliant, and he continued to perform right up to the final whistle.
3. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United)
Ibrahimovic was in solid form from start to finish, providing plenty of chances and making his way into dangerous positions. His finish at the end was pure class, and he performed effectively as a centre back when Palace mounted a desperate final assault.
4. James McArthur (Crystal Palace)
McArthur was in excellent form, cutting inside from the right and finding himself in dangerous positions as Palace pushed forward. He created some excellent chances and made a good run to finish for the equaliser, and his defensive work was always solid.
5. Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
Rooney had a solid all-round game, working into space and creating opportunities with clever positioning. His set piece delivery was excellent throughout, and created plenty of chances in the air. He was taken off late in the game, but he can hold his head high after a strong effort.

United thwarted once again

It seemed to hang in the air for an eternity. It was just before stoppage time in the second half of the match between Manchester United and Arsenal, a match which United had dominated in front of their home fans. Now, however, all that good work was to be undone in a single moment, a moment which came from nowhere to shock United to the core. It was done in slow motion, one which all who were watching could see, but do absolutely nothing to stop. It was the ultimate shock to the system for United fans everywhere.

Before that, United had been defying expectations and giving Arsenal all sorts of problems. United manager Jose Mourinho came into the game with an under-performing team languishing well outside the top four, while Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were playing some of their best football in a long time. One might have expected that Arsenal, full of attacking flair and class, would have taken the game to their opponents, but United did not allow them any space to move in the early stages and soon had a firm foothold in the match.

The Gunners eventually worked into the match, and Alexis Sanchez should have done better when presented with a header on the edge of the six-yard box, but United were still on top as they started to close in. It all began with controversy, when Antonio Valencia went down in the box after an attempt by Nacho Monreal to impede him. Referee Andre Marriner emphatically signalled play-on, leaving Mourinho furious on the touchline and the home fans incredulous.

Frustration: Jose Mourinho protests after Manchester United were denied a penalty.

The incident brought the best out of United, and they set about getting their noses in front before the break. It was Juan Mata who came agonisingly close, getting on the end of a good ball from Paul Pogba, beating Shkodran Mustafi and forcing a fingertip save from goalkeeper Petr Cech. Cech was called into action again minutes later, when some skilful build-up by Pogba, Ander Herrera and Anthony Martial gave the latter a chance in a strong position. Cech was there, and the ball was tipped over the bar.

United continued to dominate, but they did not look like finding the back of the net despite trying very hard to do so. Then it came. It was Pogba who started it, finding Herrera as he made his way to the by-line to whip in a cross. The cross came to Mata at the top of the box, catching Arsenal out as they moved towards their own goal, and Cech did not stand a chance as the ball was drilled into the bottom corner, well out of his reach.

Heartbreak: Olivier Giroud (left) scores Arsenal’s only goal as everyone else watches on.

It was desperation time for Arsenal as the game continued, but the Gunners could not even get themselves a shot, let alone a goal. United, while sitting back a little further, still looked more dangerous, while Arsenal’s playmakers just looked lost. They were moving forward, but they seemed to have no bite when it came down to it.

Then they levelled. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had the ball, with Marcus Rashford looking to ensure he got no further. He failed, as Oxlade-Chamberlain used his pace to get past and find space for a cross, which looped devilishly towards the back post, as Olivier Giroud closed in. Phil Jones fell over in a desperate attempt to get the ball, and the big Frenchman had no-one to compete with as he rose above all others to ram it home. It was all done.

In the aftermath, refereeing decisions will be examined and re-examined, as with moments where it could have been so different. In the end, however, it is another missed opportunity for United, who can hardly afford any more slip-ups if this campaign is to carry any success, both at home and abroad.

Manchester – Old Trafford
Manchester United 1 (Mata 68)
Arsenal 1 (Giroud 89)
Referee: Andre Marriner

Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Darmian (Blind 64); Carrick, Herrera; Mata (Schneiderlin 85), Pogba, Martial (Rooney 63); Rashford.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech – Jenkinson (Oxlade-Chamberlain 84), Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Elneny (Giroud 73), Coquelin (Xhaka 80); Walcott, Ozil, Ramsey; Sanchez.

Top 5
1. Juan Mata (Manchester United)
Mata was in top form, working his way into pockets of space and causing massive problems for Arsenal with his awareness and skill. He scored United’s only goal after finding space in the box, and generally put in a very strong performance.
2. Ander Herrera (Manchester United)
Herrera was a solid midfield presence throughout, but it was his ability to get forward which caused big problems for Arsenal. His pace and skill allowed him to combine well with Pogba and others, and he provided the assist for Mata’s goal with a tricky ball to the top of the box.
3. Petr Cech (Arsenal)
Cech was in top form in Arsenal’s goal, making a number of key saves and getting into good positions to continually thwart United. His save to deny Mata late in the first half was particularly solid, and he was the main reason that Arsenal were able to escape with a draw away from home.
4. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba was in excellent form playing in attacking midfield, using his incredible skill on the ball to set up his teammates and unlock Arsenal’s defence. His control was impeccable, and he was unlucky not to find the back of the net when he ventured into the box.
5. Antonio Valencia (Manchester United)
Valencia allowed United to function with the fluency they had, pushing forward from right back to give Mata freedom to roam wherever he saw fit. Valencia was one of the best in his own right as well, using his pace to open up holes in the defence when he pushed up field.

United hit back with crushing victory

Manchester United needed to win. The Red Devils were under intense media scrutiny, and all eyes were turned towards Old Trafford as they came up against reigning champions Leicester City. Losses to Manchester City and Feyenoord were followed up by a spiritless defeat at Watford, and the critics were lining up. They simply needed to respond.

The game started fairly evenly, with both sides jostling for possession and looking to find a way through. There was the odd chance here and there, but neither side realistically looked like breaking the deadlock. After a while, nerves looked to be showing for United, who could well have conceded after some defensive errors. Leicester looked to be slightly ahead, but it was not to last.

It was Daley Blind who provided the spark. United won a corner, and the Dutchman looped the ball into the box. It was, in a word, perfect. The out-swinging corner hit Chris Smalling on the edge of the six-yard box, and the header flew towards the bottom corner, in a place where Ron-Robert Zieler couldn’t reach it.

Near miss: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (centre) misses the target with a volley.

After the goal, United took the game by the scruff of the neck in an emphatic manner. The chances came in quick and fast. Marcus Rashford was played through after Jesse Lingard’s pressure opened Leicester up on the break, but the shot was well wide. A minute later, Rashford had another chance as Paul Pogba’s header allowed him to try an overhead kick. He missed. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, normally so clinical in front of goal, made a rare mistake with a volley after Pogba’s beautiful chip over the top.

Pogba was pulling the strings all over the park, moving into more advanced positions and letting his skills do the talking. He had been under more pressure than anyone after a string of poor efforts following his world record move, and he needed to change something. On this day, everything went right. He barely made a mistake as he sprayed the ball around the park, and his deft chips over the defence opened Leicester up time and again.

Pogba was again at the heart of the second goal, which came less than ten minutes before the break and triggered an incredible surge which rendered the second half unnecessary. Juan Mata was the catalyst, finding Pogba on the edge of the box with surgical precision. Pogba then made one of the passes on the game, chipping the man in front of him off a step and finding Jesse Lingard, who brought the ball to ground under some pressure. Mata kept running through, and his first time finish was unstoppable as it flew past Zieler into the back of the net.

Goal: Paul Pogba (second from right) heads in Manchester United’s fourth goal.

United weren’t finished yet. This time, they caught Leicester out with a corner, leaving Rashford with one of the easiest chances he will ever get. Blind seemed to be in no hurry to play in the corner, and Leicester bought it hook, line and sinker. Mata caught his two markers napping as he received it on the near post, and he played it past Zieler to find Rashford directly in front inside the six-yard box. If he had missed, it would have been a miracle.

United continued to attack, and soon they had won another corner. Blind’s delivery was, once again, perfect, and this time he picked out Pogba as the Frenchman made his way into the box. Pogba was minded by Christian Fuchs, and the diminutive left back didn’t have a shot against the size and strength of the most expensive player in the world. Pogba drove the header into the bottom corner, leaving United with an unassailable advantage.

Three goals in the space of five minutes had left Leicester without any hope, and all illusions that Claudio Ranieri would try for a result (if it was even possible to get one) were shattered when he removed Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy at half time. Leicester were shell-shocked, but United saw no reason to push the matter any further, and they played without any real intensity. They didn’t need to.

Leicester pulled one back on the hour, with Demarai Gray netting his first career Premier League goal with a strike of incredible quality. The young winger took on Jesse Lingard outside the area before drilling it into the top corner from range. David de Gea had no chance as the ball bent away from him, but it didn’t matter. It was the best goal of the game, but it was to have no bearing on the result.

United were content to take the air out of the game, and Leicester just wanted it to end. They had suffered enough embarrassment for one day. The win was emphatic, and it signalled a return to form for United after a fortnight of disappointments. Whether it will last only time will tell, but no-one would have beaten United on this day. They were purring, and could simply do no wrong. They needed to win. They did.

Manchester – Old Trafford
Manchester United 4 (Smalling 22, Mata 37, Rashford 40, Pogba 42)
Leicester City 1 (Gray 60)
Referee: Mike Dean

Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Blind; Herrera, Pogba; Lingard (Carrick 78), Mata (Young 87), Rashford (Rooney 83); Ibrahimovic.
Leicester City (4-4-2): Zieler – Simpson, Morgan, Huth, Fuchs; Mahrez (King 46), Amartey, Drinkwater, Albrighton (Schlupp 62); Vardy (Gray 46), Slimani.

Top 5
1. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba was in control from the start, pushing up into dangerous positions and creating chances aplenty with his wonderful skill. His increased licence to roam worked wonders, and he barely made a mistake as he sprayed the ball around in attack. He was the commander for United, and he made life incredibly difficult for Leicester.
2. Ander Herrera (Manchester United)
Herrera was the yin to Pogba’s yang, collecting the ball deep in midfield and feeding it to his partner in central midfield. He was excellent throughout, and his ability to win the ball back created numerous chances for his teammates. He formed a brilliant combination with Pogba, and will look to keep that up in weeks to come.
3. Juan Mata (Manchester United)
Mata was everywhere in attack, moving from left to right as he saw fit. He worked his way into plenty of dangerous positions, and scored an excellent goal after combining well with Pogba and Lingard. He had plenty of energy as he moved around the pitch, and will take plenty of confidence from his performance.
4. Daley Blind (Manchester United)
Blind was excellent throughout, setting up three goals with his devastatingly accurate corner kicks. He pulled the strings from left back, hitting long passes down the line and finding Pogba in the middle when he needed to, and he can take confidence from an excellent performance.
5. Demarai Gray (Leicester City)
Gray was a shining light in an otherwise forgettable afternoon for Leicester, and he scored their only goal with an excellent strike from range. He came on at half-time and gave a spark that was lacking in the opening period, and he caused problems for United with his pace and liveliness.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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 B

PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)

Manager: Phillip Cocu
Captain: Luuk de Jong
Ground: Philips Stadion, Eindhoven
Qualified: Eredivisie, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1987-88)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

After a disappointing 2013-14 season, PSV bounced back in 2014-15, winning the league by a comfortable margin of 17 points over Ajax. They dominated the league, with one draw and 4 losses the only blips on a near perfect campaign. They have had some fairly large losses over the summer, most prominent that of Memphis Depay to Manchester United, but they should do well.

Strengths

PSV blitzed the league last season, and after they took first place (two rounds into the season) they did not let it go, comfortably taking first place. The side fired in attack as well, Depay and Luuk de Jong scoring 42 times between them. Depay is now gone, but players like Maxime Lestienne, Luciano Narsingh and Florian Jozefzoon have the potential to replace him. PSV have a lot of depth down back, with Jetro Willems, Jeffrey Bruma, Joshua Brenet, Santiago Arias, Simon Poulsen, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin and Hector Moreno all competing for spots. Andres Guardado, Davy Propper, Stijn Schaars and Adam Maher are strong players through the middle, and Jeroen Zoet is solid in goal.

Weaknesses

PSV have lost big players over the off-season in Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum, who contributed 36 goals to the side last season. That they will have to face Manchester United and with it their former star Depay adds insult to injury. The side still lacks a lot of experience, with most of the players fairly young. Luuk de Jong, the captain, is still only 25, and he will also shoulder much of the responsibility for replacing the goals scored by Memphis. Their will also be added pressure on the other young forwards, with Narsingh (24), and Lestienne (23) needing to find the back of the net. PSV will be in for a tough challenge, and it will be interesting to see how they fare.

Star Player: Luuk de Jong

The captain, first-choice striker and one of the most experienced players on the team (at just 25), de Jong is very important for PSV. He has scored 4 times in 5 games this season in all competitions, and Phillip Cocu is relying on him to continue. He has had experience playing in England and Germany, and this will help him during the tournament.

Key Player: Andres Guardado

Guardado is a very experienced player, and he brings that to a young team. He has experience playing in Spain and Germany, which will be helpful. At age 28, he is one of the oldest members of the side, and he will need to use that experience to take control of the midfield. As such, he is a key member of the side, and if PSV are going to do well he needs to play well.

Manchester United FC (England)

Manager: Louis van Gaal
Captain: Wayne Rooney
Ground: Old Trafford, Manchester
Qualified: Premier League, 4th (defeated Club Brugge KV in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1967-68, 1998-99, 2007-08)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

It has been a tumultuous couple of years for Manchester United. After the retirement of Alex Ferguson as manager David Moyes could not control the club, who plummeted from 1st to 7th in a season. He was sacked after 10 months in the job, and United hired Louis van Gaal. His reign started badly as well, but he recovered to take out fourth. A comfortable 7-1 aggregate win over Club Brugge was enough to send them through.

Strengths

Manchester United have spent big money on compiling a very strong team. Sergio Romero and David de Gea will compete for the top goalkeeping slot, although the fact that the latter has not played for the side this season suggests Romero will stay in goal. The back four is Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Luke Shaw, and van Gaal has Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo there as well. They have only conceded twice this season, and big signings Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial will bolster an attack containing Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, while the midfield contains the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini.

Weaknesses

While the side has been good defensively, their attack, while good on paper, has been found wanting. Depay gave glimpses of his best in the first leg against Club Brugge, scoring twice and setting up Fellaini, but he is still goalless in the league. Overall, van Gaal’s men have scored just 3 goals, with one of them an own goal by Kyle Walker. The Red Devils will hope that the latest signing, Martial, can change things and start scoring, but he is only 19, and too much pressure cannot possibly be a good thing. The other teams in this group have solid defences, and so if Manchester United cannot find some penetration soon they could miss out on the knockout rounds.

Star Player: Wayne Rooney

Rooney has played 344 league matches since joining Manchester United in 2004 aged 18. Back then he was worth 25.6 million pounds, and he has justified that sum since joining. He has been one of England’s best players, and has had incredible success with United, winning 5 Premier League titles alongside the Champions League, the League Cup (twice) and the Club World Cup.

Key Player: Bastian Schweinsteiger

Schweinsteiger was signed for big money from Bayern Munich over the summer, and he will be hoping to add a second Champions League trophy to his cabinet. He will play a key role as the most experienced player in the centre of midfield, and will need to provide solidity, while United will hope that he can be a helpful source of goals.

PFC CSKA Moscow (Russia)

Manager: Leonid Slutsky
Captain: Igor Akinfeev
Ground: Arena Khimki, Moscow
Qualified: Russian Premier League, 2nd (defeated AC Sparta Praha and Sporting CP in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Quarter-Finals (2009-10)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage

Form Guide

CSKA were edged out by 7 points in the league last season, although they in turn snuck over FC Krasnodar on goal difference. As a result the side had to go through qualifying, where they pulled off a brilliant comeback in Prague to progress to the play-offs and a date with Sporting. Bryan Ruiz and Islam Slimani gave the Portuguese the advantage, but Seydou Doumbia scored twice in Moscow to send CSKA through. They will hope for a better effort in the Champions League this time round after crashing out in last season’s group stage.

Strengths

The CSKA defence is one of the strongest in Europe, with Sergei Ignashevich, Vasili Berezutski, Georgi Schennikov and Mario Fernandes providing support for captain Igor Akinfeev in goal. Finnish attacking midfielder Roman Eremenko scored plenty of goals last year, but with Seydou Doumbia returning on loan from AS Roma most of the goals should come from the Ivorian and pacy Nigerian winger Ahmed Musa. That pair contributed 6 out of the 9 goals the Muscovites scored in qualifying, and if Alan Dzagoev, Zoran Tosic, Pontus Wernbloom and Bibras Natkho can chip in then CSKA stand a great chance of making it through a tough group and into the knockout stages.

Weaknesses

CSKA have played frequently in Europe over the last few seasons, but they have struggled to really make their mark upon the competition. The side has barely changed, and they are taking on a group containing teams from larger leagues with much better competition. The defence is strong, but questions remain about Wernbloom and Natkho, especially given the lack of high level football the latter has had. Both are essentially defensive midfielders, and that could lead to poor links between attack and defence. Doumbia has been successful with CSKA before, and they will be happy to have him back, but his unsuccessful spell at Roma could have sapped some of his previous confidence.

Star Player: Seydou Doumbia

After starting his career in Japan and then with BSC Young Boys in Switzerland, Doumbia has enjoyed great success in Russia with CSKA. He has won two Russian Premier League titles and played 95 matches for 61 goals. Now returning on loan after 6 months playing in Italy with Roma, Doumbia has started well with CSKA and they will be hoping this form continues.

Key Player: Igor Akinfeev

Akinfeev broke into the CSKA starting line-up at just 17, and has played 317 times for the club since then. During that time he has been one of the most consistent goalkeepers in the Russian League, having never conceded more than 30 times in the one season. He has vast Champions League experience, and will be invaluable to CSKA as they look to progress.

VfL Wolfsburg (Germany)

Head Coach: Dieter Hecking
Captain: Diego Benaglio
Ground: Volkswagen Arena, Wolfsburg
Qualified: Bundesliga, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Group Stage (2009-10)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

After years of poor performance in the league Wolfsburg bounced back in 2014-15, finishing second in the Bundesliga. After a rocky start they quickly rose up the table, and were part of a top two with Bayern Munich that did not change for 25 straight games. They managed to edge out Borussia Monchengladbach by three points to qualify for the first time since winning the league in 2008-09 under the guidance of Felix Magath.

Strengths

Wolfsburg have a very strong side, and have made some very good transactions over the off season, picking up Max Kruse from Monchengladbach and Dante from Bayern. Kruse will help Bas Dost and Nicklas Bendtner in attack, as well as Andre Schurrle, purchased last season from Chelsea. Down back, Dante and Naldo should form an excellent partnership in the centre of defence, and Ricardo Rodriguez should add plenty to the team from left back. In goal, Diego Benaglio is the captain of the side and is one of the best keepers in the world. New signing Julian Draxler will bolster the side in behind the strikers, joining Vierinha, Daniel Caligiuri, Schurrle and Maximilian Arnold, and Luiz Gustavo and Josuha Guilavogui patrol the area in front of the defence.

Weaknesses

Wolfsburg may be strong, but the sale of Kevin de Bruyne to Manchester City is going to be very hard to get over. The Belgian starred in the Bundesliga last season and was crowned German footballer of the year for his efforts which included a league-best 21 assists. Draxler is a potential replacement, as is Arnold, but Wolfsburg will struggle to find a player of de Bruyne’s calibre again, although the reported transfer fee of 75 million euros will come in handy. As a result of European inactivity many players in the current squad have not had experience playing in the Champions League, and this could prove to be a handicap.

Star Player: Bas Dost

With 16 league goals last season, Dost was one of the league’s top scorers, and this time around he has already found the net twice in three games. With Max Kruse slotting in behind him he is the main source of goals for Wolfsburg, and his form for the side has given him two caps for the Netherlands. Wolfsburg will be hoping that he can find the net against stronger opponents.

Key Player: Diego Benaglio

The Swiss keeper is the captain of the team and has been capped 224 times for Die Wolfe, having been at the club since 2008. He performed well at the World Cup despite letting in five goals against France, and he will be essential to Wolfsburg’s first tilt at the Champions League since 2009. If he can keep clean sheets and the defence fire then Wolfsburg have a potent enough attack to progress.

Prediction

This group will be very tight, as all four sides look very strong on paper. Manchester United should go through with their star-studded side, and I would expect the main battle to be for second place. Wolfsburg look to have the strongest team of the three, and they should be able to cope without de Bruyne. PSV should take third, as I see no reason why CSKA should do any better than in past years even with a strong side on paper.
Prediction: 1. Manchester United, 2. Wolfsburg, 3. PSV Eindhoven, 4. CSKA Moscow.