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.

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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.

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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.

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… 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

UEFA Euro 2016 Final Preview – Portugal vs France

Portugal vs France, Stade de France, Saint-Denis


Road to the final

Portugal

Portugal 1 (Nani 31), Iceland 1 (B Bjarnason 50)
Portugal 0, Austria 0
Hungary 3 (Gera 19, Dzsudzsak 47, 55), Portugal 3 (Nani 42, Ronaldo 50, 62)
Croatia 0, Portugal 1 (Quaresma 117)
Poland 1 (Lewandowski 2), Portugal 1 (Renato Sanches 33) (a.e.t, Portugal won 5-3 on penalties)
Portugal 2 (Ronaldo 50, Nani 53), Wales 0

France

France 2 (Giroud 57, Payet 89), Romania 1 (Stancu 65 pen)
France 2 (Griezmann 90, Payet 90+6), Albania 0
Switzerland 0, France 0
France 2 (Griezmann 58, 61), Republic of Ireland 1 (Brady 2 pen)
France 5 (Giroud 12, 59, Pogba 20, Payet 43, Griezmann 45), Iceland 2 (Sigthorsson 56, B Bjarnason 84)
Germany 0, France 2 (Griezmann 45+2 pen, 72)

Top Scorers

Portugal

3 – Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo.
1 – Ricardo Quaresma, Renato Sanches.

France

6 – Antoine Griezmann.
3 – Olivier Giroud, Dimitri Payet.
1 – Paul Pogba.

Team News

Portugal

Pepe missed the game against Wales with a thigh injury, and while he is still in doubt he is likely to start in the final. William Carvalho is also set to return after he was suspended for the semi-final, with Danilo most likely to make way in the centre of midfield.
Likely team (4-1-3-2): Rui Patricio – Cedric, Pepe, Jose Fonte, Raphael Guerreiro; William Carvalho; Joao Mario, Renato Sanches, Adrien Silva; Nani, Ronaldo.

France

The French have been in strong form throughout the knockout stages, and Didier Deschamps is unlikely to make any changes to the team that beat Germany 2-0. They have no injuries or suspensions to deal with, and they will be hard to beat.
Likely team (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Sagna, Koscielny, Umtiti, Evra; Pogba, Matuidi; Sissoko, Griezmann, Payet; Giroud.

Key Duels

William Carvalho vs Antoine Griezmann

Griezmann is almost certain to claim the golden boot after scoring a brace against Germany in the semi-finals, and the Atletico Madrid star will look to be at his best again in the final. He has been incredibly effective playing in between attack and midfield, where he has been able to find plenty of space and has been able to attack at great pace. Griezmann has become the life of the French attack, and if Portugal are to win Carvalho will need to reduce his impact by restricting the space that he has to work with.

Renato Sanches vs Paul Pogba

The game could well hinge on this match-up. Sanches has been a revelation at this tournament, and in the final he will come up against Pogba, who is one of the best players in the world. Sanches is strong and pacy, and he has developed into one of Portugal’s biggest individual threats. Pogba will look to deny him the ball and will look to force him into defensive positions where he cannot make an impact on the break. For his part, Sanches will need to put plenty of pressure on Pogba, and he will try to find plenty of the ball.

Pepe/Jose Fonte vs Olivier Giroud

Giroud has been in excellent form throughout the tournament, and he can beat most players in the air. The Portuguese centre backs will be left with the difficult task of containing the Arsenal frontman, who has provided plenty of chances for Griezmann and Dimitri Payet with his ability to play the ball past the defence into open space. Both Pepe and Fonte will need to match him in the air, and they will look to keep him out of the game by removing him from the contest.

Joao Mario vs Patrice Evra/Bacary Sagna

Portugal tend to run most of their play through Mario, who roams around behind Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo and attempts to set up chances. He is not the most effective crosser, but he has been given plenty of space throughout the tournament and he consistently finds the ball in dangerous positions. Sagna and Evra will need to be at their best to ensure that Mario does not have a big impact on the match, and they will attempt to do this by closing off the space he has at his disposal. If the French can shut down Mario life will be very difficult for the Portuguese, who use him in almost all of their attacks.

Tactics

Portugal

The Portuguese will look to control possession and deny France the opportunity to involve Griezmann, Payet and Giroud. They tend to attack slowly while using plenty of width, and they are likely to put in plenty of crosses against the French. Nani and Ronaldo will be given plenty of freedom, and they could cause plenty of issues for the French defence.
Read my pre-tournament assessment of Portugal here

France

The French like to stay in control, and they will be content to play the ball around the midfield and keep it away from the Portuguese. They will look to do this to gain more space for Griezmann and Payet, who attack quickly and skilfully. Giroud will look to provide plenty of opportunities with his ability to hold up play, and the French will be comfortable to play on the counter-attack.
Read what I wrote about France pre-tournament here

Prediction

This game will be a good one, and in the end the team that can control the midfield will probably lift the trophy. The French pairing of Pogba and Blaise Matuidi are more experienced and stronger, and they should be able to play the game on their terms. Payet, Griezmann and Giroud form an incredibly dangerous combination, and they could well prove the difference between the sides. France 2-0.

Fairytale ends as France pile on the goals

Iceland’s dream run through Euro 2016 has ended at the hands of France, with the hosts scoring four goals in the first half to book a semi-final against Germany. The French were in control early, tapping the ball around, and they took the lead in the twelfth minute after a wonderful ball from Blaise Matuidi found Olivier Giroud over the top. The central midfielder played it from inside his own half, and it penetrated the Icelandic defence to put Giroud one-on-one with Hannes Halldorsson. Giroud’s shot passed through Halldorsson’s legs as it rolled easily into the back of the net, with the Icelandic keeper left powerless. It was a goal that had come out of the blue, and it put Iceland on the back foot. France went back to their calm, controlled tempo, and soon they doubled their lead with Paul Pogba’s first international goal since 2014. Dimitri Payet’s corner was perfectly placed, and the Juventus star beat Jon Dadi Bodvarsson in the air to send a thunderous header into the back of the net. France led 2-0, and the game was all but over.

Bodvarsson had a stunning chance to pull a goal back for Iceland after one of Aron Gunnarsson’s trademark long throws, but he was unable to direct Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s flick-on header into the back of the net. The game died down again, and France regained control. Then, with three minutes left in the half, they sealed the deal. It started with Payet. The ball was distributed wide to Bacary Sagna, whose cross was headed down for Antoine Griezmann by Giroud. Griezmann passed it back to Payet, who made his way onto his left foot and drilled it into the bottom corner. It was a great goal, worthy of the set-up work which led to it. Then came the fourth. Pogba’s ball from deep in midfield was flicked on effortlessly by Giroud, allowing Griezmann to get in behind the Icelandic defence. Halldorsson came out, and the Atletico Madrid star responded by chipping him. The ball hung in the air a long time, but Ragnar Sigurdsson was never going to get there and France could celebrate.

The fourth goal was the final nail in the coffin for Iceland, who had fought hard but had been undone by some excellent pieces of play. The French were content to keep the ball as the second half kicked off, and they passed around the back with ease. Payet and Pogba had chances, but France had taken the pace out of the game and didn’t look like losing the ball. Iceland began to find their footing as the half progressed, and after a number of set pieces they were able to score. Gylfi Sigurdsson provided the spark with a brilliant ball into the box, and Sigthorsson was there to volley it past Hugo Lloris into the back of the net. The joy would not last. Giroud scored again when Payet’s long-range free kick was expertly placed in behind the Icelandic defence. The Arsenal striker was too strong for Sverrir Ingi Ingason in the air, and he headed it past Halldorsson to find an open goal. Iceland kept pushing hard, and Lloris made an incredible save to deny Ingason’s close range header, but there was no real action. The energy of the game had left, and it was not coming back.

Iceland scored again with a few minutes to go through Birkir Bjarnason, whose header was too good for Lloris as it found the back of the net. It was scant consolation for Iceland in a massive defeat, but they will hold their heads high after a remarkable campaign. As for France, they go on to face Germany in what is sure to be a thrilling contest.

Saint-Denis – Stade de France
France 5 (Giroud 12, 59, Pogba 20, Payet 43, Griezmann 45)
Iceland 2 (Sigthorsson 56, B Bjarnason 84)
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Ned)

France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Sagna, Umtiti, Koscielny (Mangala 72), Evra; Pogba, Matuidi; Sissoko, Griezmann, Payet (Coman 80); Giroud (Gignac 60).
Iceland (4-4-2): Halldorsson – Saevarsson, Arnason (Ingason 46), R Sigurdsson, Skulason; Gudmundsson, Gunnarsson, G Sigurdsson, B Bjarnason; Sigthorsson (Gudjohnsen 83), Bodvarsson (Finnbogason 46).

Top 5
1. Dimitri Payet (France)
Payet finished with a goal and two assists, and he was everywhere for the French. His ball use was good and he showed excellent skill as he caused huge trouble for the Icelandic defence. He played very well, and will hope that the incredible form he has showed throughout this tournament can translate to the game against Germany.
2. Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann was full of energy throughout, and he was excellent when given space to move. He became the top scorer of the tournament with his classy chip over Halldorsson, and he looked to be at the top of his game.
3. Olivier Giroud (France)
Giroud scored twice and was a strong presence up front for the French. He provided a great assist for Griezmann with a perfectly timed flick in behind, and he will look to continue his strong form against the Germans. He was strong in the air, and he caused massive problems for Iceland.
4. Aron Gunnarsson (Iceland)
Gunnarsson was Iceland’s best in a losing cause, and he can hold his head high after a strong performance. He was solid in midfield and caused plenty of issues with his long throws into the box. He was able to stay in control throughout, and provided a cool head for Iceland as their system fell apart.
5. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba was a calming influence in the centre of the park, and he was able to use the ball effectively throughout the game. He showed his incredible physical ability with France’s second goal, and he put in a strong performance. He seems to be finding his form at the right time, and he could put in his best effort yet against Germany.

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview – Group A

In one week the second biggest football tournament in the world will come to France, and with 24 teams included in this year’s tournament it has more teams than ever. The finals will be great to watch and provide a great spectacle, and in the lead-up to this year’s event I will be previewing one group every day with in-depth analysis and everything you need to know about the participants, with full squads included. Enjoy.

Group A

Teams (world ranking in brackets): France (17), Romania (22), Albania (42), Switzerland (15)
Fixtures:
France vs Romania, Stade de France, Saint-Denis
Albania vs Switzerland, Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens
Romania vs Switzerland, Parc des Princes, Paris
France vs Albania, Stade Velodrome, Marseille
Switzerland vs France, Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Lille
Romania vs Albania, Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon

France

Head Coach: Didier Deschamps
Captain: Hugo Lloris
Previous Appearances: 8 (1960, 1984, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Champions (1984, 2000)
Qualified: Hosts
UEFA Euro 2012: Quarter-finals

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur), 16. Steve Mandanda (Marseille), 23. Benoit Costil (Rennes).
Defenders:
2. Christophe Jallet (Lyon), 3. Patrice Evra (Juventus), 4. Adil Rami (Sevilla), 13. Eliaquim Mangala (Manchester City), 17. Lucas Digne (Roma), 19. Bacary Sagna (Manchester City), 21. Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), 22. Samuel Umtiti (Lyon).
Midfielders:
5. N’Golo Kante (Leicester City), 6. Yohan Cabaye (Crystal Palace), 8. Dimitri Payet (West Ham United), 12. Morgan Schneiderlin (Manchester United), 14. Blaise Matuidi (Paris Saint-Germain), 15. Paul Pogba (Juventus), 18. Moussa Sissoko (Newcastle United), 20. Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich).
Forwards:
7. Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), 9. Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), 10. Andre-Pierre Gignac (Tigres), 11. Anthony Martial (Manchester United).

Form Guide

The French are hosting the tournament, and as such their last competitive fixture was at the World Cup in 2014, where they lost to Germany after a strong run through to the last eight. They played multiple friendlies during the qualification process, but they have not had much competitive preparation for their home tournament.

Strengths

France have taken the side that made the quarter-finals in 2014 and spiced it up with some exciting new talent. Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial both have a massive upside, and Paul Pogba has developed into one of the best players in the world. Hugo Lloris is solid and has plenty of experience in goal, and with Laurent Koscielny, Patrice Evra and Eliaquim Mangala at the heart of defence the French should not concede too many. The established midfield core of Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye are joined by Leicester’s N’Golo Kante, who is in brilliant form.

Weaknesses

The French have a very strong side and they will be sure to get plenty of home support, but they have not played competitively for a couple of years and this could lead to some issues. Star striker Karim Benzema has not been included in the squad due to an incident involving Mathieu Valbuena, and Olivier Giroud will be left to spearhead the attack. The squad is going to come under intense scrutiny and pressure as the hosts of the tournament, and injuries to Raphael Varane and Jeremy Mathieu will affect the output of the defence.

Star Player: Paul Pogba

Pogba is only 23, but he is already in the top echelon of players in the world and is only going to get better. He has won four Serie A titles with Juventus and was the best young player in the 2014 World Cup, and this tournament is his chance to make a big impact and show just how good he is. His work in midfield will be key, and he is sure to impress in front of his home fans.

Key Player: Olivier Giroud

With Benzema suspended for the tournament the onus will be on Giroud to provide the goals. He is a quality player with four seasons under his belt with Arsenal, and he has more experience at the highest level than anyone else in the French attack. If he can bag plenty of goals while helping the younger members of the team adapt the French will play well.

Verdict

The French look excellent, and the new blood they have brought in alongside their established stars could have a huge impact. The established core of Lloris, Koscielny, Pogba, Matuidi, Antoine Griezmann and Giroud is brilliant, and they have the potential to win the tournament for the first time since 2000 in front of their home fans.

Romania

Head Coach: Anghel Iordanescu
Captain: Vlad Chiriches
Previous Appearances: 4 (1984, 1996, 2000, 2008)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (2000)
Qualified: 2nd Group F
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Costel Pantilimon (Watford), 12. Ciprian Tatarusanu (Fiorentina), 23. Silviu Lung (Astra Giurgiu).
Defenders: 2. Alexandru Matel (Dinamo Zagreb), 3. Razvan Rat (Rayo Vallecano), 4. Cosmin Moti (Ludogorets Razgrad), 6. Vlad Chiriches (Napoli), 15. Valerica Gaman (Astra Giurgiu), 21. Dragos Grigore (Al-Sailiya), 22. Cristian Sapunaru (Pandurii).
Midfielders: 5. Ovidiu Hoban (Hapoel Be’er Sheva), 7. Alexandru Chipchiu (Steaua Bucuresti), 8. Mihai Pintilli (Steaua Bucuresti), 10. Nicolae Stanciu (Steaua Bucuresti), 11. Gabriel Torje (Osmanlispor), 16. Stefano Filip (Dinamo Bucuresti), 17. Lucian Sanmartean (Al-Ittihad), 18. Andrei Prepelita (Ludogorets Razgrad).
Forwards:
9. Denis Alibec (Astra Giurgiu), 13. Claudiu Keseru (Ludogorets Razgrad), 14. Florin Andone (Cordoba), 19. Bogdan Stancu (Genclerbirgili), 20. Adrian Popa (Steaua Bucuresti).

Form Guide

The Romanians were drawn into a fairly easy qualifying group, and after a win against Greece in Piraeus kicked off their campaign they strolled to 13 points from their first five games. After that their results fell off, and four consecutive draws threatened to send them to the play-offs, but a 3-0 victory in Torshavn in the final match sent them through in second over Hungary.

Strengths

The Romanians have a well-rounded team, and the defence of Razvan Rat, Vlad Chiriches, Alexandru Matel and Dragos Grigore will be hard to beat. Ciprian Tatarusanu is a quality player in goal, and Gabriel Torje, Alexandru Chipciu and Mihai Pintilli are just some of the options Anghel Iordanescu has at his disposal in the middle of the park. Up front, Claudiu Keseru has a brilliant record at international level, and Bogdan Stancu has plenty of experience and has the potential to provide plenty of goals at the final tournament.

Weaknesses

Romania are very well-rounded and experienced, but the side is very old and a majority of the team have passed their peak without gaining too much international experience. Keseru and Stancu are good options up front, but while the defence let in only two goals the attack was only able to score eleven, and they may be unable to provide at the final tournament. With a serious downturn in results coming before the end of qualifying the side is not in particularly strong form running into the tournament, and the opposition they will face will prove a much bigger test.

Star Player: Ciprian Tatarusanu

Romania had the best defence of any side in qualifying, and Tatarusanu was a key member, displaying excellent form in qualifying and in the Serie A with Fiorentina. He has been in brilliant form since replacing Neto as the number one keeper at Fiorentina, and after a strong season at the highest level he could have a great tournament.

Key Player: Vlad Chiriches

Chiriches is still young and is approaching his prime, and he will lead the team at the final tournament after replacing veteran right back Rat as the captain. Chiriches has played for Tottenham Hotspur and Napoli, and his 35 matches in European competitions could prove key as he aims to marshal the Romanian defence at the final tournament.

Verdict

The Romanians struggled slightly in the easiest group of them all, and this does not bode well for the final tournament. While this is the case, the defence is very strong and if they can stop sides from scoring like they did in qualifying they will be very tough to beat. They will need a big tournament from their forwards, however, if they are to put any pressure on opponents.

Albania

Head Coach: Gianni de Biasi
Captain: Lorik Cana
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: 2nd Group I
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Etrit Berisha (Lazio), 12. Orges Shehi (Skenderbeu), 23. Alban Hoxha (Partizani).
Defenders:
4. Elseid Hysaj (Napoli), 5. Lorik Cana (Nantes), 6. Frederic Veseli (Lugano), 7. Ansi Agolli (Qarabag), 15. Mergim Mavraj (Koln), 17. Naser Aliji (Basel), 18. Arlind Ajeti (Frosinone).
Midfielders:
2. Andi Lila (Giannina), 3. Ermir Lenjani (Nantes), 8. Migjen Basha (Como), 9. Ledjan Memushaj (Pescara), 13. Burim Kukeli (Zurich), 14. Taulant Xhaka (Basel), 20. Ergys Kace (PAOK), 21. Odise Roshi (Rijeka), 22. Armir Abrashi (Freiburg).
Forwards:
10. Armando Sadiku (Vaduz), 11. Shkelzen Gashi (Colorado Rapids), 16. Sokol Cikalleshi (Istanbul Basaksehir), 19. Bekim Balaj (Rijeka).

Form Guide

Albania were drawn into a tough qualifying group with Portugal, Denmark, Serbia and Armenia, but they started their campaign with a shock upset of the Portuguese and did not look back. They passed through a controversial game against Serbia with an awarded 3-0 win, and they proceeded to qualify for their first major tournament as a footballing nation.

Strengths

With Lorik Cana, Ansi Agolli, Andi Lila, Elseid Hysaj, Mergim Magraj and Arlind Ajeti at the helm the defence is solid, and they conceded just 5 goals in qualifying. Etrit Berisha is a strong goalkeeper, and the experience they have down back should make them hard to penetrate. They have managed to defeat a strong French side who they will meet in the finals, and should come into the tournament full of confidence. Up front, they have plenty of options, and they had many different contributors to the scoresheet throughout qualifying.

Weaknesses

While there are many different options up front no player has stepped up as the one main option. Bekim Balaj has scored just one international goal (coming in the win over Portugal) in 13 games, and the records of Armando Sadiku and Sokol Cikalleshi are no better. The midfield is not necessary picking up the slack either, and ultimately there are no players in the squad with more than four goals at international level. While there is a large spread of options, this is more due to a famine rather than a feast. A lack of experience in the middle of the park could also cause issues.

Star Player: Taulant Xhaka

Xhaka has plenty of experience playing in the Champions League with Basel, and he will be a key presence in the centre of midfield for Albania at the final tournament, where he will face his brother Granit and Switzerland. Xhaka is a strong player, and he will bring plenty of stability to the Albanian midfield. He may not score, but he has the potential to make life very difficult for opponents.

Key Player: Lorik Cana

Cana is the captain of the side, and he will bring 90 caps worth of experience to the Albanian defence. He has experience with Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille and Lazio, and he has the big game experience to deal with the pressure surrounding the Euros. His leadership will prove essential to Albanian success at the tournament.

Verdict

Albania are a strong side defensively, but when push comes to shove they will struggle to score with no real options up front. They have experience in defence, but a lack of big game experience could come through during the finals. While this is the case, Gianni de Biasi has worked wonders with this team, and they have absolutely nothing to lose.

Switzerland

Head Coach: Vladimir Petkovic
Captain: Stephan Lichtsteiner
Previous Appearances: 3 (1996, 2004, 2008)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1996, 2004, 2008)
Qualified: 2nd Group E
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Yann Sommer (Borussia Monchengladbach), 12. Marwin Hitz (Augsburg), 21. Roman Burki (Borussia Dortmund).
Defenders:
2. Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus), 3. Francois Moubandje (Toulouse), 4. Nico Elvedi (Borussia Monchengladbach), 5. Steve von Bergen (Young Boys), 6. Michael Lang (Basel), 13. Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), 20. Johan Djourou (Hamburg), 22. Fabian Schar (Hoffenheim).
Midfielders:
8. Fabian Frei (Mainz), 10. Granit Xhaka (Borussia Monchengladbach), 11. Valon Behrami (Watford), 14. Denis Zakaria (Young Boys), 15. Blerim Dzemaili (Genoa), 16. Gelson Fernandes (Rennes), 23. Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City).
Forwards:
7. Breel Embolo (Basel), 9. Haris Seferovic (Eintracht Frankfurt), 17. Shani Tarashaj (Grasshoppers), 18. Admir Mehmedi (Bayer Leverkusen), 19. Eren Derdiyok (Kasimpasa).

Form Guide

Switzerland’s campaign started horribly, with a 2-0 defeat at the hands of England compounded by a 1-0 loss to Slovenia in Maribor. The Swiss recovered, however, winning their next five matches, and while they lost 2-0 to the English at Wembley they managed to edge out Slovenia to finish second, a 7-0 home victory over San Marino confirming their passage.

Strengths

With Stephan Lichtsteiner, Ricardo Rodriguez and Johan Djourou down back not much gets through the Swiss defence, and the midfield of Xherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami and Granit Xhaka is very solid as well. Vladimir Petkovic is spoilt to choice when it comes to scoring options, and with the midfielders and defenders often chipping in with valuable goals misfiring strikers will not be an issue. Diego Benaglio has retired, but Yann Sommer is still an excellent player and will provide solidity that the team can build on.

Weaknesses

The Swiss lack some class up front, and while their midfielders have the ability to chip in Eren Derdiyok, Haris Seferovic and Admir Mehmedi could well face a struggle to find the back of the net. Breel Embolo has plenty of promise, but he is an unknown quantity and the chances that he will fail to deal with the pressure are just as high as the chances that he will fire. With Josip Drmic, Gokhan Inler and Timm Klose all missing there are some huge outs, and the loss of Benaglio, who was the rock of the side for a long time, is a huge one.

Star Player: Xherdan Shaqiri

Shaqiri is an excellent player and he is a proven goal scoring threat whether he be in attacking midfield or on a wing. He has already won the Champions League, and his record at international level is better than any of his teammates. He is a star, and he will prove to be a massive headache for opposition defences throughout the tournament.

Key Player: Yann Sommer

Switzerland’s success at this tournament could well hinge on how well Sommer plays as he aims to replace Benaglio in goal. Sommer is an excellent player, and he has had plenty of success with both Basel and Borussia Monchengladbach. If he is able to play as well as he can the Swiss will be very difficult to score against, and will be tough to beat.

Verdict

The Swiss are strong and solid and could go a long way in this tournament. There are concerns about the attack, but there are plenty of players who can make an impact on the scoreboard and this should not be an issue. The defence is very solid, and the Swiss should be very difficult to break down at the finals.

Prediction

This group will be an intriguing one, with two sides with plenty of experience at major tournaments coming up against two teams who are the exact opposite. The French are incredibly strong on paper, and they should make their way through easily. The other sides in the group are all very solid, but the Swiss should progress with an attack which is considerably stronger.
1. France, 2. Switzerland, 3. Romania, 4. Albania.