Mexico’s fight not enough against clinical Brazilians

Fernandinho picked out Neymar in acres of space. It was a rare treat for Neymar, who had seemingly been hacked, stamped on and brutalised every time he received the ball. With Mexico’s defence caught out, Brazil’s talismanic winger surged forward, revelling in the chance to show his markers a clean pair of heels. Unlike Mexico’s attackers, whose play was riddled with unnecessary touches in the final third, Neymar just ran straight at the Mexican goal, making no beelines and clearly outstripping the futile attempts to pursue him. Eventually, he found himself one-on-one with Guillermo Ochoa, and with a brilliant chance to score his second goal and seal Brazil’s place in the quarter-finals. Ochoa, not for the first time, denied Brazil with an excellent save, getting his foot to Neymar’s shot to keep it from finding the back of the net. Not for the first time, his defence let him down. Roberto Firmino, introduced from the bench a few minutes earlier, won the race to the ball, and scored with a straightforward tap in. Brazil were through, and Mexico’s World Cup campaign was over.

Brazil looked distinctly off colour in the opening exchanges as Mexico started confidently. The Mexicans never really threatened Alisson in the Brazilian goal, with many of their attempts being blocked and most of their attacks lacking a clinical touch in the final third, but the warning signs were there. More worryingly for Brazil, their attacks looked disjointed and unthreatening, and they didn’t lay a glove on the Mexican defence for much of the first half hour. At one point, Brazil won a throw-in, and Fagner managed to throw it to none of his teammates. Mexico went up the field dangerously, but Hirving Lozano couldn’t complete a cross in the final third. That one piece of play was an almost perfect representation of Brazil’s fragility and Mexico’s poor conversion of opportunities.

Then Neymar made something happen. He danced past Edson Álvarez and Hugo Ayala, and forced Guillermo Ochoa into a save with a shot from a ridiculously tight angle. He never had a realistic chance of scoring, but the ball began to ping around the Mexican defence, causing chaos at every turn. When Philippe Coutinho blasted a shot over the bar Mexico could breathe after a minute or two of goalmouth action, but the warning was clear. Mexico hadn’t forced Alisson into a difficult save despite all of their dangerous-looking attacks, while one run from Neymar had nearly broken their defence open.

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Roberto Firmino scores Brazil’s second goal from point-blank range. Firmino’s goal snuffed out any hopes Mexico had of causing an upset and progressing to the quarter-finals.

There were more signs of Brazil’s danger in the minutes that followed. Neymar found space on the left, and only an excellent slide tackle from Álvarez kept him from breaking through. More bedlam in the box ensued when Gabriel Jesus ran into space and fired a left-footed shot at Ochoa, who parried it away. Even that wasn’t enough, as Brazil got another shot away and it had to be cleared off the line. Neymar won a free-kick, and Álvarez found himself in the book, when the young right-back kicked at the ball and instead upended the Brazilian superstar rather emphatically. Neymar’s free-kick whizzed past the bar. Brazil had found their mojo, and it wasn’t looking too good for Mexico when the half time whistle blew.

Brazil kept pushing after the break, and they were soon ahead. They started well as Coutinho ran straight through the Mexican defence and Ochoa needed all of his reflexes to bat the ball away. They scored a few minutes later. Neymar started it, darting in from the left and playing a brilliant back-heel for Willian as the Brazilian wingers crossed over. Willian took a fraction of a second to weigh up his options before taking a heavy touch and bursting past the Mexican defence to find space in the box. His dangerous ball across goal beat Ochoa’s dive, and no Mexican defender was there to clear the ball away. Instead, Jesus and Neymar were sliding in, hoping to capitalise. Jesus just missed it, but Neymar connected and steered the ball into the back of the net.

Mexico kept playing with verve and ambition, but they couldn’t break down the Brazilian defence. Alisson finally needed to make a save when Vela unleashed a dangerous looking shot on the break, and he casually tipped the ball over the bar. His manner suggested he could have saved the shot with his eyes closed. Mostly, however, they took one touch too many, or missed passes, or did both. In the end, Brazil’s centre-backs had a busy but not too difficult time getting in the way of Mexico’s attempts on goal, and the Mexicans didn’t really look like scoring. It was a different story at the other end, where Ochoa was still making all of the tough saves. He needed to act quickly to deny Paulinho and Willian after good attacking moves, and Brazil’s attacks seemed to become more and more threatening as Mexico pushed harder and space began to open up.

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Neymar reacts after receiving a stamp on the foot from Miguel Layún. Layún wasn’t punished for the incident, but it showed the heated nature of the contest.

In the middle of it all, there were the fouls. Neymar, and to a lesser extent his teammates, were treated very physically by the Mexican defenders, culminating in a touchline incident which left Neymar writhing on the ground in seeming agony and Miguel Layún fiercely protesting his innocence. More fouls were committed as the game drew on, most of them emanating from overly rough Mexican defence, but Brazil kept their heads and kept marching on. The second goal, starting with some good play in the middle and displaying the clinical touch Mexico lacked, was a fitting way to end a slightly nervous but ultimately comfortable win. They’re in the quarter-finals, and they are sure to be a tough opponent.

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Brazil 2 (Neymar 51, Roberto Firmino 88)
Mexico 0
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Ita)
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Filipe Luís; Paulinho (Fernandinho 80), Casemiro; Willian (Marquinhos 90+1), Philippe Coutinho (Roberto Firmino 86), Neymar; Gabriel Jesus.
Mexico (4-3-3): Ochoa – Álvarez (J dos Santos 55), Ayala, Salcedo, Gallardo; Herrera, Márquez (Layún 46), Guardado; Lozano, Hernández (Jiménez 60), Vela.

Top 5
1. Willian (Brazil)
Willian was patchy in the group stages, but he found his best form against Mexico with a dynamic performance on the right wing. He created Neymar’s first goal, and plenty of good things came when he ran at the Mexican defence with purpose and composure. Above all, he looked confident, something that bodes well for the road ahead.
2. Neymar (Brazil)
Neymar knows how to make things happen. He won countless free-kicks thanks to Mexico’s overly physical treatment of him, but he continued to get up and he was rewarded with a goal and an assist. When he had space to run with the ball he put the Mexicans under pressure.
3. Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
Ochoa completed a brilliant tournament with another stunning performance in the Mexican goal, parrying a number of dangerous looking shots to safety and repelling attack after attack with his reflexes and excellent positioning. It’s hard to know what more he could have done.
4. Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
Coutinho’s excellent form continued with another strong effort in attacking midfield, and his combinations with almost all of his teammates had good results. He worked into little pockets of space perfectly, and he found plenty of room to take on his dangerous shots from outside the box. He looks like the creative force Brazil need to go a long way.
5. Andrés Guardado (Mexico)
With Rafael Márquez drafted into the starting line-up Guardado was freed to push further up the field early on, and he challenged the Brazilians with some good runs and some dangerous crosses. In the second half, with Márquez removed, he played well in a more defensive role, showing his versatility and his determination to give his all.

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Brazil cruise past outclassed Serbians

On a day where Germany’s World Cup title defence came to an end in shocking circumstances, and in a World Cup where other major footballing powers have struggled, you could have forgiven Brazil for being a little nervous heading into their final group game against Serbia. They were widely expected to win, but they entered the field in the full knowledge that a loss would almost certainly eliminate them and cause a national crisis in Brazil. It’s fair to say they were under a fair bit of pressure. They delivered, putting in a commanding performance and never really giving the Serbians a chance.

The game started fairly slowly, with few chances for either side in the opening minutes as Brazil occasionally threatened but couldn’t quite finish off their most dangerous attacks. Serbia settled in well, aided by star Brazilian left-back Marcelo’s bizarre ailment and his substitution in the first 10 minutes of the match. Brazil seemed to be in control of the game, but they didn’t really look like breaking through against a well-set Serbian defence. Then, just after the first half hour, they went ahead.

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Paulinho (right) scores Brazil’s first goal past Serbian goalkeeper Vladimir Stojković. Paulinho’s dangerous forward runs from midfield broke the game open for Brazil by splitting the Serbian defence.

The goal came out of nowhere, and was completely unsurprising at the same time. It was inevitable that there would be a goal, and that the goal would probably come from Brazil, but Brazil’s play in the preceding minutes didn’t really suggest that the breakthrough was imminent. The goal itself was spectacular. Paulinho made an incisive, defence-splitting run from the centre of midfield, and Philippe Coutinho’s lofted through ball picked him out perfectly. Vladimir Stojković rushed forward, but he couldn’t beat Paulinho to the ball and he didn’t stand a chance as it was lifted over his head with one touch. The Serbian defence began an on-the-spot inquiry into what had gone wrong, but it didn’t change the fact that they were in deep trouble.

Brazil had some more chances to double their lead before and after the break, with Neymar sending a shot fizzing just wide of the target and having another attempt denied by Stojković, but they didn’t add to their lead. Then, around the hour mark, Serbia began to hit some form. Aleksandar Mitrović had started the game quietly, but for a few minutes he came to life and nearly scored. Mitrović had his best chance when Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson knocked a cross straight to the big striker. Somehow, he headed it straight into an otherwise helpless Thiago Silva, and the ball bounced mercifully back to a very grateful Alisson. The ball began to go into dangerous positions, and Mitrović had another chance to score when Fagner found himself horribly outmatched by the towering Serbian frontman. Once again, his header wasn’t good enough, and this time the shot flew straight at Alisson. Then, just as Serbia seemed primed to push for a leveller, Brazil pulled further ahead.

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Thiago Silva (left) heads home Brazil’s second goal from Neymar’s well-delivered corner. Silva’s goal killed off any hope Serbia had of snatching an improbable victory.

Neymar started it, swinging a flat corner into the front post. Miranda and Thiago Silva, Brazil’s centre backs, were waiting amongst a mass of bodies. Miranda and Mitrović collided and both fell to the turf, leaving everyone in disarray and allowing Silva to take advantage of the confusion. Nikola Milenković was there, but he couldn’t stop Silva’s header from burying itself in the top corner. If Serbia had harboured hopes of reaching the knockout stages, Silva’s goal ended them in an emphatic manner.

Brazil kept pushing for a third in the closing moments, with Neymar putting a shot over the bar and Stojković making a number of strong saves to keep the Serbians from getting blown out. It didn’t get any worse, but that was scant consolation as they exited the tournament to a Brazilian team who were not spectacular, but more than good enough on the day. They never really looked like losing, and their consistency is sure to make them a dangerous opponent going forward.

Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Serbia 0
Brazil 2 (Paulinho 36, Thiago Silva 68)
Referee: Alireza Faghani (Irn)
Serbia (4-2-3-1): Stojković – Rukavina, Milenković, Veljković, Kolarov; Matić, Milinković-Savić; Tadić, Ljajić (Živković 75), Kostić (Radonjić 82); Mitrović.
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo (Filipe Luís 10); Paulinho (Fernandinho 66), Casemiro; Willian, Philippe Coutinho (Renato Augusto 80), Neymar; Gabriel Jesus.

Top 5
1. Neymar (Brazil)
Neymar has grown into the tournament with every game, and he put in a strong performance to seal Brazil’s passage to the knockout stages. He was unlucky not to score his second goal of the tournament as he found himself denied on a number of occasions, but he picked up an assist and had a big impact.
2. Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
Coutinho picked up an assist with a perfectly weighted pass for Paulinho, and he continued to create chances with his ability to find space and use the ball well. He has been in stunning form, and another quality performance means he will be a real worry for anyone facing the Brazilians.
3. Vladimir Stojković (Serbia)
Some of Stojković’s saves were excellent, especially a one-on-one stop to deny Neymar. He kept Brazil’s lead to just two with his smart positioning and excellent reading of the play, and was the only thing keeping them in the game by the end of it.
4. Paulinho (Brazil)
Paulinho made some great forward runs from midfield, and he got himself a goal by splitting the defence and pushing forward well. His run to break through the solid Serbian defence was excellent, and he broke the game open with his hard work and ability to time his attacking runs to perfection.
5. Filipe Luís (Brazil)
For many teams, losing a full-back of Marcelo’s quality in the first 10 minutes would trigger panic. For Brazil, it just triggered the release of Atlético Madrid left-back Luís – one of the world’s best – into the fray. Luís slotted in seamlessly, and his quality will give Marcelo the chance to recover fully. His excellent performance shows just how deep this Brazilian team is.

Brazil’s dominance pays off in last-gasp victory

Neymar wept. As Björn Kuipers blew the final whistle, Brazil’s star player sank to his knees in the middle of the pitch and let his emotions show after a 98 minute rollercoaster ride. Neymar had shown flashes of ridiculous skill and flashes of petulance, drawn a penalty and then had it revoked, and, at the end of it all, scored Brazil’s second goal with the last kick of the game. His performance was ambiguous: there were so many highs and lows that it wasn’t necessarily clear whether he was dominating or disappointing. The same could be said of his team, who controlled every aspect of the match but came very close to being left frustrated. It was a tough day for the Brazilians, but was it a good one? It’s complicated.

Brazil started the game with overwhelming control over possession and territory, but they couldn’t find the spark to break down a very well organised Costa Rican defence. Instead, it was Costa Rica who had the best chance of the first 15 minutes, against the run of play. It came from Cristian Gamboa, who ran past Marcelo and found space to pull the ball into the centre. The cut-back found an open Celso Borges as he pushed forward from midfield, but the shot was wide and didn’t test Alisson in the Brazilian goal. Neymar excited the fans when he flicked the ball over Gamboa and charged forward into space, but he found himself faced with a wall of Costa Rican defenders and he was eventually fouled from behind by Johan Venegas. He took the resultant free-kick, but put it too close to Costa Rica’s goal and Keylor Navas claimed it easily.

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Philippe Coutinho takes a shot from outside the box. Coutinho was one of Brazil’s best players, but his long shots didn’t quite have the desired effect against brilliant Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas.

Then, after a slow start, things started to open up. It started with a disallowed goal. Brazil found a bit of space on the break, and Marcelo found space to put a mishit shot into the box. It found Gabriel Jesus, but the young striker’s thunderous close-range shot into the top corner didn’t count due to his clearly offside position. It was a better move from Brazil, and it kick-started five minutes of breathtaking play. Neymar began to make lethal runs over the back, and his combination with Marcelo and Philippe Coutinho created space for both men to target the Costa Rican goal from range. Unfortunately for Brazil, their opponents held firm. At one point, Paulinho found his way into space on the break, but he didn’t get the delivery right and allowed Costa Rica time to get back.

The second half didn’t begin well for Costa Rica. An early mistake by Bryan Oviedo, whose back pass caught Navas by surprise, resulted in a turnover on the edge of the box and a chance for Neymar from the resulting cross. In the first half, such an opportunity tended to be followed by something of a lull. This time, Brazil didn’t let up, and with their next attack Fagner found Jesus in the middle. Jesus hit the bar, but Paulinho ensured Brazil weren’t done yet. He won the ball from the rebound and teed up Coutinho, who was only denied by Gamboa’s sharp block. Paulinho was soon pushing higher up the pitch, and he started creating more opportunities. He found Neymar in the middle, but Navas superbly tapped the shot over the bar. Soon after, he teed up Coutinho on the break, but the shot was hit straight at Navas and the goalkeeper gathered it comfortably. As the heat started to go out of the game once again, Costa Rica continued to hold on to the deadlock. Neymar had a brilliant opportunity when he found himself in acres of space on the edge of the box, with the ball at his feet. He missed, and it just didn’t seem like Brazil’s day.

Then they won a penalty. Douglas Costa drove a wedge through the Costa Rican defence, and found Gabriel Jesus in a good position. He found Neymar, who drew contact from Giancarlo González as he looked to work his way into a shooting position. It was minimal, but the Brazilian star fell backwards theatrically, and Kuipers pointed to the spot. There was relief for Brazil, until the video assistant referee got involved. Upon review, Neymar’s attempt to win a penalty from little contact was exposed, the protests of Costa Rica’s indignant players were upheld and the game remained scoreless. It seemed to be too much for Brazil to take.

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Neymar (front) and Philippe Coutinho celebrate after Neymar’s late goal. It was an up-and-down game for Neymar, but the goal allowed him to finish on a high.

After the overruled penalty things began to get frustrating. Neymar was booked, not for exaggerating González’s contact but for slamming the ball to the ground in frustration when Johnny Acosta lay on the ground taking an injury break. Then, for good measure, Coutinho was booked a few seconds later. Acosta was booked for his delay in taking a throw, and then both he and Óscar Duarte spent lengthy periods on the ground – at the same time. When Navas collided with Roberto Firmino in the box and spent a long time getting up, the Brazilians weren’t hiding their indignation. As the clock passed 90 minutes with scores still level, it seemed like Costa Rica would, against all odds, deny the Brazilians.

Then the goal came. This time there was no heartbreak for the Brazilians, and no VAR concerns. There was just a simple ball into the box, a good header and a thunderous finish. Marcelo provided the ball, crossing it in high towards Firmino. He launched himself at the ball, won it down and found Jesus, who was waiting in the middle and was more than capable of tapping the ball into the space to his left. It would have been in keeping with Brazil’s luck on the day if no player had been there to capitalise on the dangerous touch. Now, after over 90 minutes, the ball finally broke for them. Coutinho was there, storming into the box, and he slammed it home through Navas’ legs to give Brazil the lead. On the sidelines, coach Tite was so excited that he charged onto the pitch, lost his balance and crashed to the turf. He didn’t care. With Costa Rica’s resistance finally broken, Neymar managed to bag a goal with a 97th minute tap-in, a happy end to a stressful day at the office. Brazil won, and maybe that’s all that matters.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Brazil 2 (Philippe Coutinho 90+1, Neymar 90+7)
Costa Rica 0
Referee: Björn Kuipers (Ned)
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Casemiro, Paulinho (Roberto Firmino 68); Willian (Douglas Costa 46), Philippe Coutinho, Neymar; Gabriel Jesus (Fernandinho 90+3).
Costa Rica (5-4-1): Navas – Gamboa (Calvo 75), Acosta, González, Duarte, Oviedo; Venegas, Borges, Guzmán (Tejeda 83), Ruiz; Ureña (Bolaños 54).

Top 5
1. Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
Coutinho was everywhere for the Brazilians, mostly operating alongside Neymar on the left but also drifting all over the pitch to good effect. He scored the breakthrough goal with a perfectly timed run into the box, and he was always on hand to play a dangerous pass or unleash a shot from distance.
2. Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
Navas managed to keep a dominant Brazil at bay for over 90 minutes, yet managed to never really look challenged by some high-class attacking players. Somehow, he always seemed to be in the perfect position, and his efforts very nearly allowed Costa Rica to pull off a huge upset.
3. Neymar (Brazil)
Neymar’s game was far from flawless, but at the end of an up-and-down game he came out on top. He was involved in almost everything, and he made things happen every time he got the ball. Some of his moments of skill, like a ridiculous rainbow flick over Yeltsin Tejeda in the dying moments, had to be seen to be believed.
4. Gabriel Jesus (Brazil)
Jesus was very active all game, and created plenty of chances with his hard work getting into dangerous spots. He provided the assist for the opening goal and the last pass before Neymar’s near penalty, and he made a lot of handy little contributions to Brazil’s attacking moves.
5. Paulinho (Brazil)
Paulinho started the game in the centre of midfield, but he gradually pushed forward and began to create some brilliant chances. His combination with Coutinho was excellent, and he was among the most influential players on the pitch in the few minutes before a slightly premature substitution.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group E

Group E

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Brazil (2), Switzerland (6), Costa Rica (23), Serbia (34)
Fixtures:
Costa Rica vs Serbia, Cosmos Arena, Samara
Brazil vs Switzerland, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
Brazil vs Costa Rica, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
Serbia vs Switzerland, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
Serbia vs Brazil, Otkritie Arena, Moscow
Switzerland vs Costa Rica, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod

Brazil

Head Coach: Tite
Captain: Neymar
Previous Appearances: 20 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
Qualified: CONMEBOL, 1st
Qualification Top Scorer: Gabriel Jesus (7)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Alisson (Roma), 16. Cássio (Corinthians), 23. Ederson (Manchester City).
Defenders: 2. Thiago Silva (Paris Saint-Germain), 3. Miranda (Internazionale), 4. Pedro Geromel (Grêmio), 6. Filipe Luís (Atlético Madrid), 12. Marcelo (Real Madrid), 13. Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain), 14. Danilo (Manchester City), 22. Fagner (Corinthians).
Midfielders: 5. Casemiro (Real Madrid), 8. Renato Augusto (Beijing Sinobo Guoan), 11. Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona), 15. Paulinho (Barcelona), 17. Fernandinho (Manchester City), 18. Fred (Shakhtar Donetsk), 19. Willian (Chelsea).
Forwards: 7. Douglas Costa (Juventus), 9. Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), 10. Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), 20. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), 21. Taison (Shakhtar Donetsk).

Tite replaced Dunga as Brazil’s coach with the side at a pretty low ebb. They had just been bundled out of the Copa América in the group stage, and were sitting sixth in South American qualifying, at risk of missing out on the World Cup for the first time in their history. Then they won their next nine qualifiers to finish on top of CONMEBOL qualifying by 10 points and become the first team to seal their place in Russia. Their qualifying blitz was based around solid depth all over the park. Neymar has returned from a foot injury in time for the World Cup, and his presence leaves Tite with a very tough choice between world-class strikers Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus. Philippe Coutinho, Douglas Costa and Willian are all versatile creative options, while a midfield of Casemiro, Fernandinho, Paulinho, Renato Augusto and Fred is as good as any at this tournament. Marcelo is a brilliant left-back who is devastating in attack, and the presence of three quality centre-backs (Thiago Silva, Miranda and Marquinhos) and two great young goalkeepers (Alisson and Ederson) leaves Tite spoilt for choice all over the park.

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Marcelo attempts to control the ball during a qualifier against Ecuador. Marcelo’s attacking play from left-back creates plenty of goals, but it can also leave him out of position and vulnerable.

There is very little to criticise about this Brazilian team, but there are some issues. They are no longer as reliant on Neymar as they have been in the past, but he is still their best player and his injury concerns mean he is coming into the tournament with very little football under his belt. First-choice right-back Dani Alves will miss the World Cup with injury, and his potential replacement, Fagner, is also coming in under a cloud. Structurally, Marcelo’s propensity for dangerously foraying into opposition territory can leave him out of position, and a lack of pace from veterans Miranda and Silva in central defence could leave Brazil’s left-flank vulnerable, especially on the counter-attack. These vulnerabilities won’t be too much of an issue in the group stage, where they shouldn’t face too much opposition, but they could rear their head in the knockouts with potentially damaging consequences.

Star Player: Neymar

Neymar is the most expensive player in the world, with his 198 million pound transfer to Paris Saint-Germain the largest ever by some distance. Before his injury, Brazil’s captain did not disappoint, finishing the season as the third highest scorer in Ligue 1 despite only playing 20 of the 38 games. He is a brilliant player, and if he comes back fit and firing his impact off the left wing could be devastating.

Key Player: Casemiro

Casemiro isn’t the kind of player who takes much of the spotlight. In a star-studded Brazilian team his influence is easy to miss, but his performances in Russia may go a long way to deciding Brazil’s fate. e HHe is a holding midfielder who is solid in possession, and Tite will be relying on him to cover holes created by the attacking play of the full-backs. He flies under the radar, but Casemiro has a massive role to play.

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Philippe Coutinho (left), Neymar (centre) and Gabriel Jesus celebrate a goal during qualifying against Argentina. The trio are likely to start as Tite’s front three in Russia, and all of them are very skilful players.

One to watch: Gabriel Jesus

21-year-old Jesus is the youngest member of the Brazilian squad by some distance, but he is a key part of it nonetheless. He was their leading scorer in qualifying and he is a versatile attacker who regularly found the back of the net in Manchester City’s Premier League-winning campaign. He should get the first chance to start in Russia, and he is good enough to make the most of it.

Verdict

Brazil come to Russia in excellent form, and their dependence on Neymar has lessened since Tite took over. The experienced coach has built a well-rounded team that can take it up to anyone, and the Brazilians could well go all the way.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Alisson; Danilo, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Paulinho, Casemiro, Fernandinho; Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus, Neymar.

Switzerland

Head Coach: Vladimir Petković
Captain: Stephan Lichtsteiner
Previous Appearances: 10 (1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1994, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1934, 1938, 1954)
Qualified: UEFA, 2nd Group B (beat Northern Ireland in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Haris Seferović (4)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Yann Sommer (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 12. Yvon Mvogo (Leipzig), 21. Roman Bürki (Borussia Dortmund).
Defenders: 2. Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus), 3. François Moubandje (Toulouse), 4. Nico Elvedi (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 5. Manuel Akanji (Borussia Dortmund), 6. Michael Lang (Basel), 13. Ricardo Rodríguez (Milan), 20. Johan Djourou (Antalyaspor), 22. Fabian Schär (Deportivo La Coruña).
Midfielders: 8. Remo Freuler (Atalanta), 10. Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), 11. Valon Behrami (Udinese), 14. Steven Zuber (Hoffenheim), 15. Blerim Džemaili (Bologna), 16. Gelson Fernandes (Eintracht Frankfurt), 17. Denis Zakaria (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 23. Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City).
Forwards:
7. Breel Embolo (Schalke), 9. Haris Seferović (Benfica), 18. Mario Gavranović (Dinamo Zagreb), 19. Josip Drmić (Bayer Leverkusen).

Switzerland’s progress to the World Cup was far from straightforward, despite only losing once along the way. The timing of that one loss (the last game of the first round of qualifying) consigned the Swiss to the play-offs, where they narrowly and controversially held off Northern Ireland to make their fourth finals in a row. The Swiss did perform pretty well in qualifying, and there are strong players all over the park. Full-backs Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodríguez combine defensive solidity with a dangerous attacking edge, with Rodríguez’s ability to create from set pieces and hit the scoresheet himself making him one of the best left-backs in the world. Ahead of them, Xherdan Shaqiri is a brilliant attacker with a penchant for the spectacular, and he will be assisted by Steven Zuber. Granit Xhaka leads a solid midfield alongside Blerim Džemaili, Valon Behrami, Remo Freuler and Gelson Fernandes. Down back, promising centre-backs Manuel Akanji and Nico Elvedi will support Fabian Schär in shielding experienced goalkeeper Yann Sommer, making the Swiss tough to break down.

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Ricardo Rodríguez slots home the controversial penalty that sent Switzerland through to Russia. Rodríguez is a solid player in both attack and defence, and will be very important for the Swiss.

The Swiss may struggle to hit the scoresheet, however. Despite the ease with which they beat most sides in qualifying, Vladimir Petković still doesn’t have a reliable frontman at his disposal. Incumbent Haris Seferović has a poor record with the national team, but the potential replacements for the misfiring striker are thin on the ground. The talented Breel Embolo is still only 21 and has not developed as Petković would have hoped, while Josip Drmić has been effective for Switzerland but is coming off a season where he managed just four games in all competitions. Mario Gavranović is also part of the squad, but he doesn’t seem to have done enough to make a spot in the team his own. Seferović was Switzerland’s leading scorer in qualifying, but the fact that full-backs Lichtsteiner and Rodríguez were directly behind him on that list says more about the paucity of quality attacking options. If Switzerland are going to progress past the group stage they will need to find an outlet for their attacking play, and it is not clear who is going to stand up.

Star Player: Xherdan Shaqiri

It is remarkable that, despite his undeniable quality and experience with some of Europe’s biggest clubs, Shaqiri has not managed a move away from now-relegated Stoke City. The Swiss maestro is small in stature, but he can beat opponents with ease and he can find the back of the net from remarkable positions. He has stood up when Switzerland have most needed him in the past, and Petković will be hoping he can do it again.

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Xherdan Shaqiri scores his remarkable bicycle kick goal against Poland at Euro 2016. Shaqiri has scored plenty of remarkable goals in the past, and his skills are invaluable for Switzerland.

Key Player: Haris Seferović

Seferović has scored roughly a goal every five games in his previous appearances for Switzerland, but a lack of depth means that he is likely to start anyway. He has scored big goals for the Swiss in the past, especially when he netted an injury time winner against Ecuador in the last World Cup, but he is going to need to find some consistency if the Swiss are to succeed in this tournament.

One to watch: Manuel Akanji

Akanji will be a key part of Switzerland’s defence in Russia, even though he only debuted last year. The 22-year-old is versatile, strong and can match it with the world’s best, and his form for Swiss champions Basel landed him a move to Borussia Dortmund midway through the season. Having found some game time with the German giants, Akanji could be set for a big tournament in Russia.

Verdict

The Swiss have holes, especially up front, but they also have plenty of experience and some quality players around the ground. Their defence should be pretty strong, and this will give them a boost in Russia.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Sommer; Lichtsteiner, Schär, Akanji, Rodríguez; Freuler, Xhaka; Zuber, Džemaili, Shaqiri; Seferović.

Costa Rica

Head Coach: Óscar Ramírez
Captain: Bryan Ruiz
Previous Appearances: 4 (1990, 2002, 2006, 2014)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (2014)
Qualified: CONCACAF, 2nd
Qualification Top Scorer: Christian Bolaños, Marco Ureña (4)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Keylor Navas (Real Madrid), 18. Patrick Pemberton (Alajuelense), 23. Leonel Moreira (Herediano).
Defenders: 2. Johnny Acosta (Águilas Doradas), 3. Giancarlo González (Bologna), 4. Ian Smith (Norrköping), 6. Óscar Duarte (Espanyol), 8. Bryan Oviedo (Sunderland), 15. Francisco Calvo (Minnesota United), 16. Cristian Gamboa (Celtic), 19. Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps), 22. Rónald Matarrita (New York City).
Midfielders: 5. Celso Borges (Deportivo La Coruña), 7. Christian Bolaños (Deportivo Saprissa), 9. Daniel Colindres (Deportivo Saprissa), 10. Bryan Ruiz (Sporting), 13. Rodney Wallace (New York City), 14. Randall Azofeifa (Herediano), 17. Yeltsin Tejeda (Lausanne), 20. David Guzmán (Portland Timbers).
Forwards: 11. Johan Venegas (Deportivo Saprissa), 12. Joel Campbell (Real Betis), 21. Marco Ureña (Los Angeles FC).

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Bryan Ruiz (left) and Keylor Navas stand for the national anthem before Costa Rica’s qualifying clash with Trinidad and Tobago. Ruiz and Navas have plenty of experience, and both will be a key part of Los Ticos’ campaign.

Costa Rica were the surprise package of the last World Cup, beating Uruguay and Italy to finish atop the tournament’s group of death and ultimately making it to the quarter-finals. Whether they can back it up with another similarly lofty result or not, their stern defence will be tough to break down. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas was their star at the last World Cup, and he has since won three consecutive Champions League titles as Real Madrid’s starting goalkeeper. In front of him, Giancarlo González leads a staunch five-man defence which proved tough to penetrate at the last World Cup, and wing-backs Bryan Oviedo and Cristian Gamboa can provide valuable attacking support. Captain Bryan Ruiz has plenty of experience and can provide a goal threat, while Christian Bolaños and Celso Borges are solid players in midfield. Overall, this Costa Rican team is well set-up and knows their roles, and they will be very hard to break down.

Costa Rica may sport a very effective defensive unit, but it’s a different story at the other end of the field. Joel Campbell was in brilliant form at the last World Cup, but the lanky attacker’s career has not progressed much four years (and three different loan spells) on. He, along with other striking option Marco Ureña, has battled injury this season, and neither is the kind of high-class forward Los Ticos are looking for to lead the line. Their scoring troubles are not helped by a style which puts a heavy emphasis on defence, and their remarkable success in 2014 masked the fact that their ugly approach of throwing men behind the ball was effective defensively but not conducive to free-flowing matches. In the end, the quality of their opponents could prove too great a barrier to overcome if they are beaten in midfield, and it’s hard to see them making it past the round of 16.

Star Player: Keylor Navas

Navas went to the last World Cup as a reliable performer and a known quantity in the Costa Rican side. Since then, he has developed into the team’s undisputed star. He is one of the best in the world, and has started – and won – three Champions League finals with Real Madrid. He will come to Russia with plenty of experience under his belt, and can be relied upon to perform on the big stage.

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Celso Borges attempts to gain possession during a qualifier against Honduras. Borges will play an important role in the Costa Rican midfield.

Key Player: Celso Borges

Borges is a quality central midfielder, and his ability to win control of the ball and push up into attack will be crucial for Costa Rica as they look to qualify for the knockout stages. The 30-year-old has won 100 caps for his country, and he will be using all of his experience at the highest level to shield the defence and hopefully provide the springboard into attack Los Ticos need.

One to watch: Bryan Oviedo

Oviedo is 28, and after five seasons with Everton he is hardly a newcomer to this Costa Rican team. After injury deprived the first-choice left-back of the chance to play in 2014, however, he is one of only a few players in the squad who hasn’t played at a World Cup. He could add something extra to the team with his ability to push forward from defence, and it will be interesting to see what he brings in Russia.

Verdict

Costa Rica will come into this tournament with an almost identical team to the one that made the quarter-finals in 2014, but the same result seems unlikely. They will be tough to break down, but a lack of goals could get them in the end.
Likely Team (5-4-1): Navas; Gamboa, Waston, González, Acosta, Oviedo; Bolaños, Borges, Guzmán, Ruiz; Ureña.

Serbia

Head Coach: Mladen Krstajić
Captain: Aleksandar Kolarov
Previous Appearances: 3 (1998, 2006, 2010)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group D
Qualification Top Scorer: Aleksandar Mitrović (6)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Vladimir Stojković (Partizan), 12. Predrag Rajković (Maccabi Tel Aviv), 23. Marko Dmitrović (Eibar).
Defenders: 2. Antonio Rukavina (Villarreal), 3. Duško Tošić (Beşiktaş), 5. Uroš Spajić (Anderlecht),
6. Branislav Ivanović (Zenit), 11. Aleksandar Kolarov (Roma), 13. Miloš Veljković (Werder Bremen), 14. Milan Rodić (Red Star Belgrade), 15. Nikola Milenković (Fiorentina).
Midfielders: 4. Luka Milivojević (Crystal Palace), 7. Andrija Živković (Benfica), 10. Dušan Tadić (Southampton), 16. Marko Grujić (Cardiff City), 17. Filip Kostić (Hamburg), 18. Nemanja Radonjić (Red Star Belgrade), 20. Sergej Milinković-Savić (Lazio), 21. Nemanja Matić (Manchester United), 22. Adem Ljajić (Torino).
Forwards: 8. Aleksandar Prijović (PAOK), 9. Aleksandar Mitrović (Fulham), 19. Luka Jović (Eintracht Frankfurt).

Serbia passed through a tough qualifying group with flying colours, beating out Ireland, Wales and Austria to progress automatically, and they have a young squad that should provide a stern test for opponents. Key midfielders Nemanja Matić and Luka Milivojević are both established in the Premier League, and a creative core of Dušan Tadić, Filip Kostić and the talented Sergej Milinković-Savić should provide plenty of challenges for opposing defences. Aleksandar Mitrović has been in red-hot form for Fulham in the last few months, and he is more than capable of finding the back of the net in Russia. Their defence is experienced, with Branislav Ivanović, Aleksandar Kolarov and Antonio Rukavina all boasting years of experience at some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Serbia’s mix of youthful exuberance (five of their squad played in Serbia’s triumph at the 2015 under-20 World Cup) and an experienced core should serve them well as they look to make it through a competitive group.

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Nemanja Matić (centre) attempts to slip past two Georgian opponents during qualifying. Matić is one of Serbia’s stars, and he adds both class and steel to their midfield.

The side is not without issues, however. Coach Mladen Krstajić is still relatively new to the job, having stepped in to fill the breach following Slavoljub Muslin’s sacking. Muslin had enjoyed plenty of success with the national team and his sacking, in no small part due to his inability to accommodate the talents of Milinković-Savić, is not the first bizarre decision to come out of Serbia’s governing body, and could harm the team. On the pitch, an injury to Matija Nastasić has deprived the Eagles of one of their best defenders, and the defensive players who are likely to start in Russia are past their primes and could be exploited by quicker attacks. Throw in a first-choice goalkeeper, Vladimir Stojković, who has been plying his trade in lower-level European football over the last few seasons, and the Serbians may have defensive difficulties which could undermine their campaign. They are undoubtedly a talented side, but the off-field upheaval could have a big impact.

Star Player: Nemanja Matić

Matić is a key part of any side he plays in, and his performances for Chelsea and Manchester United over the last few seasons have forged his reputation as one of the Premier League’s best holding midfielders. He is an excellent tackler, and he allows his teammates to thrive with his defensive solidity and ability to control the ball. He can fit almost any formation well, and he is a player Serbia can rely on.

Key Player: Branislav Ivanović

Serbia’s desire to move on from the 34-year-old Ivanović was shown by Krstajić’s decision to strip him of the captaincy in March, but he will still play a key role in Russia. He spent nearly 10 seasons as a key member of Chelsea’s team, and in the absence of Nastasić the Serbians will rely on him to hold the defence together. If he struggles, there could be wider ramifications.

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Sergej Milinković-Savić (left) holds off an opponent during a friendly with South Korea. Milinković-Savić only received his debut after Slavoljub Muslin was sacked, with Milinković-Savić’s lack of opportunities a key factor in the decision.

One to watch: Sergej Milinković-Savić

Milinković-Savić has barely any international career to speak of, but the 23-year-old’s non-use in the national team still sparked the sacking of Muslin. He is undoubtedly a talent, and his performances for Lazio have been exceptional. At 1.91 metres tall he is big for an attacking midfielder, and he uses this size and his excellent vision to good effect. Krstajić is unlikely to make the mistake of not playing him in Russia, and he could have a big impact.

Verdict

Muslin brought the best out of Serbia in taking them to Russia, and his sacking may prove to be a mistake. They are a talented squad, but it remains to be seen whether they will be able to hit their best.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Stojković; Rukavina, Ivanović, Tošić, Kolarov; Matić, Milivojević; Tadić, Milinković-Savić, Kostić; Mitrović.

Prediction

With no real contender who comes close to matching their depth of talent, the Brazilians should cruise through to the round of 16, and should be present in the latter stages of the tournament. As for the rest of the group, all three sides are founded on solid defensive structures, and there should be some interesting games between them. Costa Rica don’t seem to have what it takes, and although they can’t be ruled out it looks as if the game between Switzerland and Serbia could be decisive. The Swiss have plenty of experience, and that experience should come to the fore in Russia. If they can find a quality goal-scorer, they may have a team that can make a surprise run to the quarter-finals and beyond.
1. Brazil, 2. Switzerland, 3. Serbia, 4. Costa Rica

Classy Barça too much for Juve

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

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

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

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

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.

Neymar stars as Brazil shine

Brazil have gained the perfect start to their 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign in Sao Paulo, defeating Croatia 3-1 thanks to 2 goals from Neymar, including a 71st minute penalty. The Brazilians started with most of the possession and territory, although it was the Croatians who took the early lead on the counter-attack. Ivica Olic played in a low cross, which Nikica Jelavic was not quite able to make contact with. The slight deflection, however, was enough to put the ball straight into the path of Marcelo, who could not avoid putting the ball past a helpless Julio Cesar into his own net. Brazil continued to press, with Oscar forcing a remarkable diving save from Stipe Pletikosa. Before too long, however, they had equalised, with Neymar’s left foot strike sneaking past Pletikosa into the bottom corner of the net. Brazil kept pushing for an equaliser, and continued to dominate in all of the key areas.

The second half began much as the first, and not much happened for the first few minutes of the period. Brazil had a clear chance denied when Neymar was stopped from breaking through the Croatian defence by a foul from Vedran Corluka. Dani Alves missed the resultant free kick but a few minutes later Brazil had the lead. Brazilian striker Fred was pulled away from Oscar’s ground cross by Dejan Lovren, and despite a slightly over-inflated reaction from the Brazilian, Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura pointed to the spot and booked Lovren. Neymar duly converted, despite Pletikosa getting a hand to it. David Luiz was forced into action just a minute later, deflecting a ground cross from Olic over the bar. The same defender nearly scored 5 minutes after that, with his header just missing the mark. Croatia pushed hard for an equaliser, a goal disallowed after Olic was deemed to have fouled Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar. Luka Modric and Corluka both missed good opportunities, but the game was placed beyond doubt in injury time, a couple of good challenges allowing Oscar to slot the ball past Pletikosa and grant the hosts a perfect start to the tournament.

Sao Paulo – Arena de Sao Paulo
Brazil 3 (Neymar 29, 71 pen, Oscar 90+1)
Croatia 1 (Marcelo 11 og)
Referee: Yuichi Nishimura (Jpn)

Brazil: Julio Cesar – Marcelo, David Luiz, Thiago Silva, Dani Alves, Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho (Hernanes 63), Neymar (Ramires 88), Oscar, Hulk (Bernard 68), Fred.

Croatia: Pletikosa – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Corluka, Srna, Rakitic, Modric, Olic, Kovacic (Brozovic 61), Perisic, Jelavic (Rebic 78).

Key Stats

  • Brazil had 59 percent of possession.
  • Brazil had 14 shots (9 on target), while Croatia had 10 shots (4 on target).
  • Croatia made 21 fouls, while Brazil only made 5.
  • Brazil had 7 corners to Croatia’s 3.