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.

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.

Underwhelming Brazilians held by dogged Switzerland

Neymar surged into the box, looking as threatening as ever as he challenged the determined Swiss defence. Brazil’s star had started the game slightly quietly, with Switzerland closing him down aggressively every time he got the ball. Now, with options aplenty available to him, he decided to pass the ball out wide, where Marcelo was waiting after one of his customary attacking runs from left-back. Marcelo’s cross left a little to be desired, and Steven Zuber easily headed it away. Unfortunately for Zuber and Switzerland, it was Philippe Coutinho who controlled the ball outside the box, took a shot, and watched as it rebounded off the post and went in. It was a stunning goal, leaving Yann Sommer with no chance as it swerved devilishly into the back of the net. After 20 minutes, the goal gave Brazil the lead, and it seemed like the first goal of many to come.

Brazil had controlled the early part of the match. Switzerland started the game solidly, but they were merely keeping their more skilful opponents at bay and posed little attacking threat to a much improved Brazilian defence. Meanwhile, Brazil’s lethal front four of Neymar, Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus and Willian probed the Swiss defence, working on finding a way through. As solid as Switzerland looked, it was only a matter of time. When Coutinho and Neymar combined delightfully to give Paulinho a shot from just a couple of metres away, Switzerland were very lucky not to concede. Soon Brazil were in full flight, combining brilliantly and giving their opponents plenty of trouble. When they took the lead, they didn’t seem ready to stop. They looked like pushing on and announcing their intentions with an emphatic victory.

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Neymar (left) attempts to get past Valon Behrami. Behrami and Neymar had a key battle throughout the night, and the experienced Swiss midfielder generally came out on top.

Then, just like that, Brazil stopped pushing. Tite formed his team up into a solid defensive structure, and happily allowed the Swiss to control the ball and get themselves back in the game. For the rest of the half, there were no slick passing moves, just a well-organised defensive wall which was prepared to hold the lead. For their part, Switzerland had little chance of breaking through. They too were happy to settle, and their ball movement was too slow to seriously challenge a disciplined back four. With no real outlet for their control of possession and territory, the Swiss never threatened, but Brazil’s cautious approach meant they never looked like going further behind either. Brazil seemed comfortable enough.

Then disaster struck. Less than five minutes after half time, Brazil’s previously organised defence faltered. Xherdan Shaqiri’s corner was swung into the six-yard box, where Zuber was apparently unmarked and in a perfect position to head home from point blank range. The Swiss were back level, and Brazil’s strategy of sitting deep and continuing to repel their opponents’ rather feeble attacks had failed. Now they had to get themselves back on the front foot, but regaining the lead was easier said than done.

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Xherdan Shaqiri looks to move forward with the ball. Shaqiri provided the assist for Switzerland’s goal, and was always dangerous on the break.

Fernandinho took a couple of very ambitious long shots, one of which flew deep into the stands behind the Brazilian goal. Coutinho got space to take another shot in a difficult position, but it was blocked and his follow-up shot was emphatically denied as well. Another chance went begging when Coutinho attempted a shot from fairly close range, and it swerved dramatically – in the wrong direction. Jesus went down in the box, but referee César Ramos was unmoved by Brazil’s appeals for a penalty. In the meantime, the Swiss defence was rock solid, and the dangerous Shaqiri was beginning to find some space on the break.

The chances kept on coming. Roberto Firmino arrived off the bench and challenged Sommer with two very good headers. The Swiss keeper was up to the task. Neymar could have bundled in a cross, but he could only volley it straight at Sommer, who saved it comfortably. As time expired, Brazil could have scored from a Neymar free-kick, a Willian corner and Miranda’s well-hit volley which rolled just wide of the post. The Swiss played their roles to perfection, and when the final whistle blew they thoroughly deserved to take their share of the points. In the dying moments, a massive red balloon managed to find it’s way into Brazil’s penalty area, with Brazilian keeper Alisson popping it with an emphatic stamp. It was an indictment on Brazil that Alisson’s efficient removal of the balloon was one of the most clinical things any Brazilian did all day.

Rostov-on-Don – Rostov Arena
Brazil 1 (Philippe Coutinho 20)
Switzerland 1 (Zuber 50)
Referee: César Ramos (Mex)
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Danilo, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Casemiro (Fernandinho 60), Paulinho (Renato Augusto 67); Willian, Philippe Coutinho, Neymar; Gabriel Jesus (Roberto Firmino 79).
Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lichtsteiner (Lang 87), Schär, Akanji, Rodríguez; Behrami (Zakaria 71), Xhaka; Shaqiri, Džemaili, Zuber; Seferović (Embolo 80).

Top 5
1. Manuel Akanji (Switzerland)
Akanji was remarkably composed for a 22-year-old in just his eighth international, and he provided plenty of solidity in central defence. He won the ball when he needed to and was more than capable of handling the threats of Brazil’s dynamic and skilled attackers. He was Switzerland’s most solid defender, and he will take massive confidence from his brilliant performance.
2. Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
Coutinho was Brazil’s most dangerous attacking player, operating in between attack and central midfield and working his way into dangerous spaces. His strike to put Brazil into the lead was one of the best goals of the tournament thus far, and the bend he was able to put on the ball was, at times, scarcely believable. If he keeps his form up he will be nearly impossible to contain.
3. Valon Behrami (Switzerland)
Behrami managed to win a place in the starting line-up over young gun Denis Zakaria, and he relied on his experience to ensure that he did not disappoint. He did a particularly good job in containing the influence of Neymar with good closing speed and an excellent physical presence, and made a big difference while he was on the pitch. To cap it off, he also became the first Swiss player to play in four World Cups.
4. Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
Shaqiri worked hard in both attack and defence, and was particularly dangerous in the second half as Brazil pushed determinedly and space opened up for him on the counter. He caused Brazil’s defenders plenty of problems with his skill on the ball and surprising strength for his diminutive stature, and it was his cross that allowed Switzerland to equalise.
5. Marcelo (Brazil)
Marcelo has been known to create a weak point in the Brazilian defensive line with his desire to get forward and join the attack, but against the Swiss he managed to find a perfect balance between defensive diligence and attacking flair. He still contributed to the attack, but he showed a defensive steel that he doesn’t often display and suggested he could be in for a good tournament.

Liverpool rally for comeback win

The ball trailed across the Liverpool penalty area, leaving Modou Barrow with a simple job to do: clear it. For eighty minutes of the match momentum had swung both ways, but for now Swansea City and Liverpool were level, and a draw was looking like a fair outcome.

Swansea had a point to prove in front of their home fans, and they burst out of the blocks with energy and skill. Borja Baston, making his first start in the Premier League, found space for a header from the edge of the six-yard box, but his effort went wide. The Swans were turning up the heat from the outset, and Liverpool were struggling to cope.

The goal came within ten minutes, Leroy Fer capitalising on some poor defence to tap the ball into the back of the net. Gylfi Sigurdsson whipped in a corner, and after Baston headed it down Mike van der Hoorn was there to flick it on. The flick-on was destined for the back of the net, but Fer made sure of it with a very simple finish.

The clearance was straightforward, but Barrow still bungled it. The ball went straight up, flying into the Swansea sky and dropping back down again. Angel Rangel was quick to spot the danger, and he managed to work his way into a good position as he jostled with Roberto Firmino. He was in control, and looked as if he could handle the situation.

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Last-ditch: Jordi Amat (in white) makes a strong challenge to deny Sadio Mane.

Liverpool tried to get themselves back into the game, but they could not find their rhythm. Nothing was going quite right for them, and an injury to an in-form Adam Lallana only set them back further. Farce ensued as the substitute was not yet ready, and Daniel Sturridge was finally introduced minutes after Lallana had left the pitch. It just seemed as if nothing was going right for Liverpool.

The ball landed in front of Rangel, and his control evaporated as soon as it did. It bounced towards the goals, leaving Rangel desperate to get the ball out of defence as soon as possible. Firmino was still lurking, and the Brazilian managed to get in front of his man, through on goal.

Liverpool gained more possession as the first half drew to a close, but most of their passes and shots were cut out, and they generally looked clunky. Sadio Mane looked like a massive threat when he cut in behind, but he was a rare example in an otherwise disappointing showing. As the first half drew to a close Sturridge received a booking for diving after throwing himself to the ground in the box. Swansea were conceding possession, but Liverpool looked like a toothless tiger.

At half-time, however, something clicked. Liverpool played with more purpose, and suddenly it did not look as if the Swans could weather the storm. Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner were pushing forward to good effect, and the Reds just looked more dangerous as they unlocked holes in Swansea’s defence.

Firmino was through on goal, having turned Rangel with incredible ease. Fabianski was waiting to deal with the situation, but Rangel had to try something. He made a last-ditch attempt to win the ball back, clumsily bringing down the Brazilian in the process and leaving referee Michael Oliver with no choice. He pointed to the spot.

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Under pressure: Swansea manager Francesco Guidolin watches on.

Liverpool equalised less than ten minutes after the break. Philippe Coutinho drilled his free kick into the wall, but Jordan Henderson was there and he lifted the rebound over the top. Swansea had pushed up in unison to deal with the poor free kick, and Roberto Firmino found himself open without moving a muscle. Fabianski dived to save the header, but it evaded his clutches.

Liverpool were back on level footing, and it didn’t look as if they would be denied for much longer. Coutinho was only inches wide from the edge of the area. Kyle Naughton denied Mane from a dangerous position. Corner after corner came in, and Swansea needed a response. They worked hard, and it looked as if the Swans had taken back some of the initiative. Then Barrow bungled his clearance.

Milner was calm as he readied himself for the penalty, and there was no sign of nerves at the top of his run-up. He cruised smoothly towards the ball before driving it up the middle of the goal, well out of the reach of a diving Fabianski. The comeback was all but complete.

After the goal Liverpool attacked with renewed vigour, using the pace of Mane, Sturridge and the newly-introduced Divock Origi to open up holes in the Swansea defence. Coutinho forced an excellent reflex save from Fabianski after Origi’s cross missed Sturridge, and Jack Cork nearly scored an own goal after he slid in to block Emre Can’s dangerous ball across goal. Fabianski was there, and they survived. Swansea needed to score, but they seemed to have no chance.

Swansea had a last roll of the dice with a minute to play, when Rangel opened up a large hole in the Liverpool defence. His cross found van der Hoorn, who inexplicably missed a tap-in from point-blank range. It was a bad miss, and it ended a disappointing afternoon for the Swans. They needed to hold on, but it was not to be.

Swansea – Liberty Stadium
Swansea City 1 (Fer 8)
Liverpool 2 (Firmino 54, Milner 84 pen)
Referee: Michael Oliver

Swansea City (4-2-3-1): Fabianski – Rangel, van der Hoorn, Amat, Naughton; Britton (Ki 63), Cork; Routledge (Barrow 62), Fer (Fulton 72), Sigurdsson; Baston.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Karius – Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Lallana (Sturridge 23), Henderson, Wijnaldum (Can 85); Mane, Firmino (Origi 85), Coutinho.

Top 5
1. Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
Mane was Liverpool’s most dangerous player, using his pace to find pockets of space in the Swansea defence and showing great awareness to work his way into threatening positions. He was unlucky not to score on a number of occasions after he had close-range chances blocked, and he was largely responsible for Liverpool’s ability to turn the game around.
2. Leroy Fer (Swansea City)
Fer worked very hard throughout, and he applied plenty of pressure to the Liverpool defence with his ability to force mistakes and use the ball well. He scored Swansea’s only goal with a simple tap-in, and was solid when called back to defend.
3. Jordi Amat (Swansea City)
Amat was dominant in the first half, and while his influence waned as the game progressed he was a key part of Swansea’s defensive solidity. He made a number of excellent sliding challenges to deny Liverpool, and he made a number of key blocks to keep them at bay as they looked to break through.
4. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool)
Firmino stepped up in the big moments, scoring Liverpool’s first goal with a calm finish and winning the penalty which led to the second. He was not great in the first half, but when he was needed he delivered, and he was a key reason for Liverpool’s win.
5. Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool)
Coutinho stepped up in the second half, dropping slightly deeper to fill the void left by Lallana’s injury and spraying the ball around into dangerous positions. His long shots were a constant threat for Swansea to deal with, and he was in command in the middle of the park.

2016-17 Premier League Preview – The Europa League Challengers

As the Premier League gets closer, I am continuing my look at the teams in the English top flight by assessing the teams who will be looking for spots in European competitions come the end of the season. Enjoy.

Everton

Manager: Ronald Koeman
Captain: Phil Jagielka
Ground: Goodison Park
Last Season: 11th
Top Scorer: Romelu Lukaku (18)
Most Assists: Ross Barkley, Gerard Deulofeu (8)
Prediction: 11th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Joel Robles, 22. Maarten Stekelenburg.
Defenders: 3. Leighton Baines, 5. John Stones, 6. Phil Jagielka, 8. Bryan Oviedo, 23. Seamus Coleman, 25. Ramiro Funes Mori, 26. Matthew Pennington, 27. Tyias Browning, 29. Luke Garbutt, 30. Mason Holgate, 32. Brendan Galloway.
Midfielders: 4. Darron Gibson, 7. Aiden McGeady, 11. Kevin Mirallas, 12. Aaron Lennon, 15. Tom Cleverley, 16. James McCarthy, 18. Gareth Barry, 19. Gerard Deulofeu, 20. Ross Barkley, 21. Muhamed Besic, 31. Kieran Dowell, 34. Tom Davies.
Forwards: 9. Arouna Kone, 10. Romelu Lukaku, 14. Oumar Niasse, 24. Shani Tarashaj, 35. Conor McAleny.

Everton were disappointing last season, with Roberto Martinez making way after a run of bad results left them in the bottom half of the table. Ronald Koeman has moved from Southampton to manage the team, and the former Dutch international has already added Maarten Stekelenburg to replace the departed Tim Howard in goal. The new boss is yet to sign an outfield player, but Everton still have quality all over the park. Romelu Lukaku (pictured) is one of the best strikers in the Premier League, and Ross Barkley will ensure that he gets excellent supply. John Stones and Phil Jaigielka form an excellent combination in the centre of defence, and they are well backed-up by Ramiro Funes Mori. Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines are both fullbacks who provide plenty of attacking support, and they will cause big problems for opposition defences.

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Everton have some excellent players, but they are very dependent on Lukaku for goals. The Belgian striker scored nearly a third of the team’s goals last campaign, with no other player scoring more than eight. Chelsea are very interested in bringing him back to Stamford Bridge, and this could leave Everton with a massive hole and not much time to fill it. Even if he stays the 23 year-old will be under immense pressure to perform, as will 22 year-old playmaker Barkley. Both players are still very young, and the burden of holding up Everton’s attack could prove too much for them. Everton were very disappointing last season, but Koeman has not made any moves to improve the squad. He will need to make some changes fast, or Everton could slip back to the same lows as last season. Overall, the Toffees are a fairly strong side and could challenge for the Europa League under the right guidance, but there are some issues which need to be resolved before this can happen.

Star Player: Romelu Lukaku

Lukaku led the Belgian Pro League for scoring at just 17, and he has only improved since then. He was signed by Everton in 2014 after a successful loan spell yielded 15 goals, and he has become the focal point of their attack. He managed 18 goals last season despite the side’s poor performance, and he could take them very far if he is on his game.

Key Player: Ross Barkley

Barkley has developed into one of the best playmakers in the Premier League, and he has drawn comparisons with Michel Ballack and Paul Gascoigne due to his pace and technical ability. He is Everton’s main creator, and he will be relied upon to provide plenty of chances for Lukaku. If he fails to fire then it will be very difficult for Everton to score, and they will struggle as a result.

One to watch: Gerard Deulofeu

Deulofeu is a product of the Barcelona academy, and he was sold by the Catalan giants after an unsuccessful loan spell at Sevilla. He is not a prolific scorer, but he is a dangerous presence on the wing and can ease some of the pressure on Barkley with his ability to create chances. He has enormous potential, and he should benefit from increased first-team action this season.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg – Coleman, Stones, Jagielka, Baines; McCarthy, Barry; Lennon, Barkley, Deulofeu; Lukaku.

Liverpool

Manager: Jurgen Klopp
Captain: Jordan Henderson
Ground: Anfield
Last Season: 8th
Top Scorer: Roberto Firmino (10)
Most Assists: James Milner (11)
Prediction: 7th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Loris Karius, 13. Alex Manninger, 22. Simon Mignolet.
Defenders: 2. Nathaniel Clyne, 3. Mamadou Sakho, 6. Dejan Lovren, 12. Joe Gomez, 17. Ragnar Klavan, 18. Alberto Moreno, 26. Tiago Ilori, 32. Joel Matip, 38. Jon Flanagan, 47. Andre Wisdom, 56. Connor Randall.
Midfielders: 5. Georginio Wijnaldum, 7. James Milner, 10. Philippe Coutinho, 14. Jordan Henderson, 16. Marko Grujic, 20. Adam Lallana, 21. Lucas Leiva, 23. Emre Can, 25. Cameron Brannagan, 35. Kevin Stewart, 50. Lazar Markovic, 54. Sheyi Ojo, 68. Pedro Chirivella, Luis Alberto, Allan.
Forwards: 9. Christian Benteke, 11. Roberto Firmino, 15. Daniel Sturridge, 19. Sadio Mane, 27. Divock Origi, 28. Danny Ings, 45. Mario Balotelli, Taiwo Awoniyi.

Liverpool have been very active over the off-season, bringing in Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum to bolster the attack and adding Ragnar Klavan, Joel Matip and Loris Karius in an effort to improve the defence. Jurgen Klopp has no shortage of options all over the park, and he will be aided by the versatility of Mane, Philippe Coutinho (pictured) and Roberto Firmino. Wijnaldum is likely to drop deeper than he did at Newcastle, and the Dutchman will form an excellent combination with Emre Can and Jordan Henderson in the centre of the park. Karius should replace Simon Mignolet in goal after showing excellent form at Mainz, and Matip and Klavan look set to form a solid combination in the heart of the defence. Daniel Sturridge, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and Danny Ings are all quality players who will be pushing for a start in attack, and there is sure to be plenty of competition for spots throughout the season.

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Klopp has been very smart in the transfer market, but the same cannot be said of his predecessors and he has inherited a squad with too many expensive flops. There has been a lack of continuity over past seasons, with the large number of strikers signed from other clubs in the last couple of years often taking time on the pitch away from each other. As it stands, none of them are playing well enough to command a place in the first team, and Klopp may decide to use Coutinho up front instead. There is a general lack of depth on either side of the defence, and while Nathaniel Clyne is a top level right back the same cannot be said of left back Alberto Moreno. Moreno is currently in the first team by virtue of being the only option, and if no other left back is added then Liverpool could experience some serious issues. Liverpool are likely to contend for a spot in European competitions, but they are not good enough to contend for the title.

Star Player: Philippe Coutinho

Coutinho’s career has taken off since joining Liverpool from Internazionale in 2013, and the Brazilian has firmly established himself as one of the Premier League’s most dangerous playmakers. He is skilled and pacey, and he is sure to provide plenty of problems for defenders over the course of the season.

Key Player: Jordan Henderson

Henderson has progressed quickly, and at 26 he is already coming into his second season as Liverpool captain. He will be a constant presence for the Reds this season, and they will need him to be in top form throughout. He will function as the side’s main link between defence and attack, and he will need to move well through the middle of the park.

One to watch: Loris Karius

Karius was one of the best goalkeepers in the Bundesliga last season, keeping nine clean sheets and saving two penalties. He has been brought in from Mainz to replace Mignolet, and the former Manchester City reject now has a chance to perform on the big stage. He is an excellent player, and has the potential to serve Liverpool well for a long time.

Likely team (4-3-3): Karius – Clyne, Matip, Klavan, Moreno; Can, Henderson, Wijnaldum; Mane, Coutinho, Firmino.

Southampton

Manager: Claude Puel
Captain: Jose Fonte
Ground: St Mary’s Stadium
Last Season: 6th
Top Scorer: Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle (11)
Most Assists: Dusan Tadic (12)
Prediction: 8th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 44. Fraser Forster.
Defenders: 2. Cedric Soares, 3. Maya Yoshida, 5. Florin Gardos, 6. Jose Fonte, 15. Cuco Martina, 17. Virgil van Dijk, 21. Ryan Bertrand, 33. Matt Targett.
Midfielders: 4. Jordy Clasie, 8. Steven Davis, 11. Dusan Tadic, 14. Oriol Romeu, 16. James Ward-Prowse, 18. Harrison Reed, 27. Lloyd Isgrove, Nathan Redmond, Pierre-Emile Hojberg.
Forwards: 7. Shane Long, 9. Jay Rodriguez, 28. Charlie Austin.

Southampton have turned plenty of heads since they won promotion to the Premier League in 2012, and in 2015-16 they recorded their best finish since their return to the top flight. Ronald Koeman has departed for Everton after two successful seasons as manager, and the Saints have recruited Claude Puel from Nice as his replacement. Puel has inherited an excellent side, and new signings Nathan Redmond and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg will provide a massive boost to a midfield containing Steven Davis, James Ward-Prowse, Jordy Clasie and Dusan Tadic (pictured). Fraser Forster is a solid presence in goal, and he will receive excellent support from the defence of Jose Fonte, Cedric Soares, Ryan Bertrand and Virgil van Dijk. Shane Long is an excellent option up front, and Charlie Austin and Jay Rodriguez are likely to see more first team action this season after the departures of Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane.

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Southampton have long relied on the transfer strategy of selling off their best players for a massive profit, and while it has not adversely affected the side in the past the losses of Pelle and Mane will make things very difficult. Redmond can fill Mane’s spot on the right wing, but he will not necessarily be able to provide the same level of performance as the Senegalese star. Long will lead the attack in Pelle’s absence, but it is unclear who will partner him up front. Rodriguez has only played eight times in the last two seasons, and Austin was unable to take his performances with him when he moved to the Saints from QPR. Southampton have lost a key midfield player in Victor Wanyama, and the Kenyan will be difficult to replace. These issues will make life difficult for Southampton, but Puel has had plenty of success before and can take them a long way.

Star Player: Dusan Tadic

Tadic is very fast and incredibly skilful, and the Serbian winger will be relied upon to provide consistent delivery for the strikers. He was not able to find that consistency under Koeman, but his talent is undeniable and he is sure to bounce back under a new manager. He has become one of Southampton’s most important players, and he will need to use all of his skill if they are to succeed.

Key Player: Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg

Wanyama’s departure has left a big void in the Southampton midfield, and new signing Hojbjerg will be expected to fill it. He has plenty of potential, and after successful loan spells with Augsburg and Schalke he has moved to the Premier League from Bayern Munich. He may take some time to adjust to his new surroundings, but he is an excellent player and Southampton will need him to step up.

One to watch: James Ward-Prowse

Ward-Prowse is a product of Southampton’s brilliant academy system, and he is sure to feature heavily for the Saints this season. He already has plenty of first team experience with the Saints, and he is likely to provide plenty of opportunities for the forwards with his pace and skill. He is still developing, and has the potential to become one of the best players in the Premier League.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Forster – Cedric, van Dijk, Fonte, Bertrand; Hojbjerg, Clasie; Redmond, Ward-Prowse, Tadic; Long.

West Ham United

Manager: Slaven Bilic
Captain: Mark Noble
Ground: Boleyn Ground
Last Season: 7th
Top Scorer: Andy Carroll, Dimitri Payet (9)
Most Assists: Dimitri Payet (12)
Prediction: 10th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Darren Randolph, 13. Adrian, 34. Raphael Spiegel.
Defenders: 2. Winston Reid, 3. Aaron Cresswell, 19. James Collins, 21. Angelo Ogbonna, 22. Sam Byram, 25. Doneil Henry, 32. Reece Burke, 37. Lewis Page.
Midfielders: 4. Havard Nordtveit, 7. Sofiane Feghouli, 8. Cheikhou Kouyate, 14. Pedro Obiang, 16. Mark Noble, 17. Gokhan Tore, 23. Diego Poyet, 27. Dimitri Payet, 28. Manuel Lanzini, 30. Michail Antonio, 35. Reece Oxford, 39. Josh Cullen, 42. Martin Samuelson.
Forwards: 9. Andy Carroll, 11. Enner Valencia, 15. Diafra Sakho, 24. Ashley Fletcher.

Slaven Bilic’s first season at West Ham United was a massive success, with the Croatian manager taking them within striking distance of the Champions League. They have not been particularly active in the transfer market, but they have not lost many players either and they are in strong form heading into the season. Dimitri Payet (pictured) starred at Euro 2016, and the versatile French international will be looking to continue his incredible form throughout this campaign. He will provide excellent service to the likes of Andy Carroll, Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia, and he will be well backed up by Michail Antonio and Sofiane Feghouli. Angelo Ogbonna and Winston Reid will anchor a solid defence and provide plenty of support for Adrian in goal. Mark Noble and Cheikhou Kouyate are steadying presences in midfield, and the former will be looking to build on the excellent form he showed last season.

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West Ham are a fairly solid side, but there are some problems which they have to deal with. Carroll, Valencia and Sakho are all decent options, but Bilic is still in need of a top-quality striker. Further issues exist down back, where the squad is lacking defensive depth. Central defender James Collins is currently the Hammers’ best option at right back after the end of Carl Jenkinson’s loan spell, and there is no real cover for Reid and Ogbonna should either player suffer an injury. There is a general lack of depth which exists throughout the squad, and West Ham may struggle as a result. They are a strong side and could go a long way this season, but they are not good enough to keep up with the big clubs and are unlikely to perform as well as they did last campaign.

Star Player: Dimitri Payet

Payet was brilliant in the Premier League last season, and the versatile French midfielder backed it up with his performances at Euro 2016. He starred as France made it to the final of their home tournament, and this season he will be looking to cause plenty of problems for defenders with his pace, skill and ability to put the ball into dangerous positions. He is a class act, and can take West Ham to the next level.

Key Player: Angelo Ogbonna

Ogbonna was a strong presence at the back for West Ham last season, and he will be needed more than ever this time around. He will marshal the defence, and he will need to stay on the park given the lack of depth that exists down back. The defence is seriously undermanned, and he will need to step up if the Hammers are to perform as well as they did last campaign.

One to watch: Reece Oxford

Oxford became the second youngest player to start in a Premier League game last season when he took the field in West Ham’s opening match against Arsenal. He is still only 17, and he is sure to get more of a chance this campaign. He has shown glimpses of his ability to perform at the highest level, and he could be the future of English football.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Adrian – Collins, Reid, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Kouyate, Noble; Feghouli, Payet, Antonio; Carroll.