2018 FIFA World Cup Semi-Final Preview – Croatia vs England

Croatia vs England

Form Guide

Croatia
Group Stage
Croatia 2 (Etebo 32 og, Modrić 71 pen), Nigeria 0
Argentina 0, Croatia 3 (Rebić 53, Modrić 80, Rakitić 90+1)
Iceland 1 (Sigurðsson 76 pen), Croatia 2 (Badelj 53, Perišić 90)
Round of 16
Croatia 1 (Mandžukić 4), Denmark 1 (M Jørgensen 1) (a.e.t, Croatia won 3-2 on penalties)
Quarter-Finals
Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31, Mário Fernandes 115), Croatia 2 (Kramarić 39, Vida 101) (a.e.t, Croatia won 4-3 on penalties)

England
Group Stage
Tunisia 1 (Sassi 35 pen), England 2 (Kane 11, 90+1)
England 6 (Stones 8, 40, Kane 22 pen, 45+1 pen, 62, Lingard 36), Panama 1 (Baloy 78)
England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51)
Round of 16
Colombia 1 (Mina 90+3), England 1 (Kane 57 pen) (a.e.t, England won 4-3 on penalties)
Quarter-Finals
Sweden 0, England 2 (Maguire 30, Alli 59)

Game Plan

Croatia have kept the same system in all of their games, and although they have some injury concerns Zlatko Dalić is unlikely to change his 4-2-3-1 formation. With the team unlikely to change too much ahead of Croatia’s biggest game for 20 years, Dalić can focus on getting the best out of his players, who haven’t quite found their rhythm in two long and tiring penalty shootout victories. They have fought very hard, and there were positive signs in their win over Russia. Luka Modrić looked good in a deep midfield role, and Croatia’s front four of Ivan Perišić, Mario Mandžukić, Ante Rebić and Andrej Kramarić is very dangerous. Dalić’s biggest concern going in will be injuries to his defence, and Croatia may look to dominate possession to keep England out of the game. They have the talent, and if their high-level European players stand up they will have a very good chance of victory.

Like their opponents, the English haven’t made any changes to their system throughout the tournament. Gareth Southgate’s side is full of confidence, and their approach is based on pace and physicality. Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard are England’s key threats in open play, and both will look to slip in behind the Croatian defence. Then there’s England’s second, and more potent, threat: set pieces. Kieran Trippier has been brilliant, and his delivery (as well as Ashley Young’s) has been dangerous all tournament. Harry Maguire, John Stones and Harry Kane are rarely beaten in the air, and most of England’s goals at this tournament have come from corners, free-kicks or penalties derived from corners or free-kicks. Kane has profited from the penalty situation, and although England’s captain leads all scorers at this tournament he is yet to find his best form. If he can do that, England will be tough to beat. With a solid three-man defence of Kyle Walker, Stones and Maguire and a talented midfield of Lingard, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli, the English are a well-rounded side who can do some damage.

Key Questions

1. Who will feature in the Croatian defence?
Croatia’s gutsy quarter-final victory over Russia could have come at a heavy cost. Šime Vrsaljko is unlikely to take his place in the team, and goalkeeper Danijel Subašić is also doubtful after playing through a hamstring injury and saving a penalty in the shootout. With Dejan Lovren coming in under an injury cloud, there’s a chance that Croatia could go into the match with three significant defensive changes. Against a dangerous English attack with the all-round quality of Kane and the pace of Sterling and Lingard, this defensive upheaval could cost Croatia their place in the competition.
2. Can England go all the way?
The obvious answer to this question is yes. In the final four, and with a good chance of eliminating the Croatians, the English have the ability to win this tournament. Despite their success, however, it remains unclear how well they’ve played. Much of the support for the theory that England can win it all comes from the fact that they ended up in the softer side of the draw, avoiding powerhouses like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, France and Belgium. The flip side of this, however, is that the English are yet to prove themselves against top-level opposition. They did play Belgium in the group stage, but it’s worth noting that neither side was at full strength (and England’s reserves lost in a very dull match). In the knockouts, they played a Colombian side who made themselves too angry to play with any fluency and a Swedish team that, while disciplined, didn’t provide too much of a test. Croatia are different. They’re spirited, and very dangerous, and this game will give a good indication of whether England have the quality to beat the French should they go through.
3. Will fatigue be a factor?
Croatia and England couldn’t have had more different quarter-final wins. While England swept Sweden aside with contemptuous ease, Croatia battled hard and eventually eliminated Russia in a 120-minute slugfest and penalty shootout. Croatia come into this match off two shootout wins, and aside from the injury toll of their win over Russia they are not likely to be as mentally fresh as their opponents. It’s worth noting that England did go through a shootout of their own against Colombia, but it’s likely that they will have recovered from that difficult game and their preparation for this match will have been helped by their comfortable quarter-final victory. If Croatia can’t recover physically or mentally victory will be very difficult to achieve.

Key Players

Luka Modrić has been central to Croatia’s hopes since his international debut in 2006, and he is still at the centre of their success 12 years on. He dictates the tempo of the game, he rarely makes a mistake and he is capable of playing a killer ball which can unlock a defence in a second. Complemented by the brilliance of Ivan Rakitić and the work of his dangerous attack, Modrić is the man England need to stop if they are going to progress to their first World Cup decider since 1966. The midfield is shaping as a key battleground, and if Modrić can take control in the centre then Croatia will go a long way to winning this match.

Raheem Sterling has all the weapons. He’s quick, he has good skills and he can threaten in wide areas and in the centre. He should be the kind of player who can breach any defence. Somehow, he can’t. Despite his best efforts, he hasn’t been able to add to his meagre tally of two international goals at this tournament, and he will be desperate to change that against Croatia. He has found himself in so many brilliant positions that his place is not under threat, and a goal in the semi-final could make all the questions about his performance for England go away.

Teams

Croatia’s front six is likely stay the same, with Kramarić excelling in the quarter-final after replacing Marcelo Brozović and the rest of the attack performing well. The defence, however, is a different question. Vrsaljko seems unlikely to start, and Domagoj Vida is likely to shift to the right of defence with Vedran Ćorluka set to take his place. Lovren should start, although should he fail to make it Duje Ćaleta-Car would come in to partner Ćorluka in central defence. The other question surrounds Subašić, who is in more serious doubt than Lovren. If the goalkeeper doesn’t start then Lovre Kalinić would be the most likely replacement, although Subašić’s form means that Dalić will be very unlikely to make a change unless the injury is very serious.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vida, Lovren, Ćorluka, Strinić; Modrić, Rakitić; Rebić, Kramarić, Perišić; Mandžukić.

Unlike their opponents, England have few selection worries. It would be surprising if Southgate was to tweak his side given his players’ performance against Sweden and the efficiency of his 3-5-2 formation throughout the tournament.
Possible Team (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Lingard, Henderson, Alli, Young; Kane, Sterling.

Prediction

This game could be a very even contest, and the possibility of extra time and penalties is a very real one. Both sides have quality, and although Croatia are probably the more talented side they may struggle due to the settled nature of England’s team and the fatigue of two long and arduous knockout games. The deeper the game goes the better England’s chances will be due to their greater physical and mental freshness, but Croatia’s resolve to reach this point shouldn’t be underestimated and they are a very good chance of winning. England 2-1 (a.e.t).

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England outclass Sweden to sail into the semis

Before this tournament, the British press was strangely subdued. For 50 years, they had proclaimed England champions-in-waiting at every major tournament. For some reason, this young and inexperienced team didn’t receive such lofty pre-tournament support. Now, for the first time since 1990, and for only the second time since lifting the trophy in 1966, the Three Lions are in the semi-finals of the World Cup. They did it without breaking a sweat, comfortably outclassing Sweden and announcing themselves as a genuine contender as they cruised into the tournament’s final four.

Perhaps the greatest sign of England’s progress came from the inherent Englishness of the opponents they were playing. Sweden’s footballing development has been influenced heavily by England, and their mostly lifeless and uninspired performance was the kind of effort plenty of talented English sides had served up in the past. Their system was introduced by the English, the kind of simple tactical plan England had gone for in years gone by. Now, England’s young stars dismantled their opponents’ disciplined but ultimately toothless structure with their exciting new brand of play.

The game started slowly, with neither side able to offer any real threat and neither defence looking tested. England, unsurprisingly, began to take the ascendency against Sweden’s previously solid defence, but the Swedish knew their roles and didn’t seem to be too troubled. Then England scored, from one of their main sources: the humble corner kick. Ashley Young delivered the corner in question to where a mass of players awaited the ball’s arrival. There seemed to be plenty of defenders there, and Sweden looked to have set up well. Then Harry Maguire’s header shot into the bottom corner, and it was clear that something hadn’t quite worked. English centre-back Maguire, the second heaviest player at the tournament, was marked by diminutive Swedish playmaker Emil Forsberg. Forsberg never stood a chance.

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Harry Maguire (right) scores England’s first goal from Ashley Young’s well-directed corner. The goal came from a defensive breakdown, and it left Sweden chasing the game.

Sweden offered little attacking threat for the rest of the half, and England kept pushing. Raheem Sterling had a series of chances to double the lead in the minutes before the break as he found the ball in behind and began to terrorise the Swedish defence with his pace. A long ball picked him out over the top of the Swedish defence, but Victor Lindelöf was just able to bundle the ball away. Robin Olsen was forced into a good one-on-one save when Sterling slipped through again a couple of minutes later, and Sweden barely survived (he was offside anyway, so the goal wouldn’t have counted). He wasn’t offside when he got in behind again, and this time only a fingertip save from Olsen and a sliding block from Andreas Granqvist stopped him from scoring. It didn’t feel like Sweden would be so lucky if he slipped past them once more, and Sweden’s record in stopping him from slipping through the net wasn’t exactly looking great.

Sweden started the second half more aggressively, and they had their first genuine chance a few minutes after the game restarted. It was a good chance too, as Jordan Pickford was forced into a tough diving save when Marcus Berg rose above Young to head towards the bottom corner. When Forsberg started to get involved, even going so far as to send what was possibly a shot flying fairly close to the bar (it may have been a really bad cross, but it looked vaguely dangerous) the Swedish looked like they had an equaliser in them. That equaliser never came. England began to reassert themselves on the game, controlling possession well and looking increasingly dangerous when they had the chance to deliver a corner. Then, after slowing the game down and steadying the ship after Sweden’s fast second half opening, England got their second and began to professionally kill the game.

Dele Alli scored it, and again it came from a good cross into the box. Jesse Lingard delivered the pass, receiving the ball on the edge of the box and targeting a cluster of teammates on the back post with a delightful looping ball. Alli, having pushed into the box from midfield, rose above the rest as Lingard’s cross hit him perfectly on the forehead. Once he put the header on target, Olsen had no chance of making the save. England were 2-0 up, Sweden had barely threatened, and the Three Lions were almost certainly heading for the dizzy heights of the last four.

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Robin Olsen attempts in vain to save Dele Alli’s close range header. Alli’s goal gave England a 2-0 buffer which Sweden never looked capable of overcoming.

Sweden did threaten when some excellent combination play between Ola Toivonen, Berg and Viktor Claesson provided Claesson with a chance and forced Pickford into another brilliant save, but England survived. They had their third real chance of the game when Pickford made another great save to tip Berg’s very dangerous shot over the bar, but they couldn’t break through. The latter chance even created tension within the English team, as Pickford politely bellowed at his defenders in pursuit of an explanation for the ease with which Berg found space to shoot. Presumably the matter was resolved amicably, as England didn’t look like conceding again.

For the most part, England just sauntered around the pitch doing as they pleased while the Swedish desperately chased them trying to get the ball back. Occasionally they got a corner, and really tested the Swedes. In four previous matches, Sweden’s defence had been extremely solid, especially in the air. Here, every corner seemed likely to pull them apart. Considering this strange effect has happened to all of England’s previous opponents, it may simply be that England are very good at corners. Sweden tried to make use of their height by bombing the ball long at every opportunity, and they even brought on Pontus Jansson, a central defender, solely to control said long balls. It didn’t work, and barely created so much as a half chance.

In the end, England weren’t tested by Sweden, who based their success around organisation and didn’t have the requisite skill or game plan to react to falling behind. As such, England’s cruisy run towards the latter stages of the World Cup continues unhindered, and the claims that the tournament is “coming home” will only intensify in the days to follow. Such statements started as something of a joke, as England weren’t actually expected to get this far. Now, they could well prove to be prophetic. Some will point out that Sweden had just three chances, and it may not be advisable for English fans to get ahead of themselves. After such a comfortable win, however, it seems unlikely that such advice will actually be heeded. Before this tournament began, the British press was strangely subdued. They’re unlikely to be so subdued now.

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Sweden 0
England 2 (Maguire 30, Alli 59)
Referee: Björn Kuipers (Ned)
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Krafth (Jansson 85), Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Larsson, Ekdal, Forsberg (Olsson 65); Berg, Toivonen (Guidetti 65).
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Lingard, Henderson (Dier 84), Alli (Delph 77), Young; Kane, Sterling (Rashford 90+1).

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Jordan Pickford makes a diving save to keep out Marcus Berg’s dangerous header. Pickford wasn’t called into action very often, but he was still required to make some very difficult saves to preserve England’s lead.

Top 5
1. Jordan Pickford (England)
Sweden had three golden opportunities to score in the second half, and just one of them going in could have turned the game on its head. Thankfully for England, Pickford was there to ensure that England’s clean sheet remained intact and that there were no nervous moments. He made three stunning saves, and justified his selection with an excellent performance.
2. Raheem Sterling (England)
Watching Sterling play, it’s hard to see how he has managed just two goals in over 40 English caps. Here, he was too quick for the Swedish defence and he put himself into all the right positions. Somehow, he was still denied. His dynamic runs in behind scattered the previously well-organised Swedish defence, and he was England’s most dangerous attacker by some distance.
3. Harry Maguire (England)
Not for the first time this tournament, Maguire’s attacking exploits outshone his defensive work. The centre-back made good use of his size as he threw himself around in the box, and he managed to find himself a goal and create some chances with his dangerous headers. He is a big part of England’s success at set pieces.
4. Marcus Berg (Sweden)
Berg didn’t give up in his pursuit for a goal, and he was involved in all of Sweden’s dangerous attacking moves. His positioning was good, and he will consider himself unlucky to be leaving the tournament without a goal to his name. Had a lesser goalkeeper than Pickford been present he could have scored a couple.
5. Ashley Young (England)
Young looked dangerous as he moved up and down the left wing, and it was his corner that provided the assist for Maguire’s opener. His influence waned somewhat after that moment, but he continued to threaten and he put in some dangerous crosses. He asked plenty of questions of the Swedish defence.

Kane’s fortunate hat-trick headlines crushing English victory

Ricardo Ávila delivered the free-kick into the box from a fairly dangerous position. The set piece wasn’t particularly well defended by the English, and 37-year-old Panamanian substitute Felipe Baloy, on World Cup debut, found space in the box. He slid in, the ball caught his outstretched boot, and Jordan Pickford’s dive couldn’t keep it out of the bottom corner. In their second World Cup game, Panama finally had their first World Cup goal, and the Panamanian fans in Nizhny Novgorod were jubilant. An outside observer may have seen the rapturous celebrations and assumed Panama were level, even ahead. If only those six English goals (five in the first half) were taken out of the equation. Panama had some chances, and Baloy’s historic goal ensured their fans left the ground in fairly good spirits, but they were never going to match it with a classy English team. After going into half time 5-0 down following a steady procession of English goals, the Panamanians were lucky it didn’t get any worse.

The first goal came from a poorly-defended corner. There was a delay in taking the kick as referee Gehad Grisha delivered the customary lecture on not holding in the box, and then had to deliver said lecture again when Harry Maguire and Gabriel Gómez both tumbled to the ground. Finally, Kieran Trippier swung the corner in, despite Maguire and Gómez continuing to jostle aggressively with each other. They attracted the attention, but it was John Stones who scored the goal. Stones was seemingly unmarked, having benefitted from some unbelievably loose defence from Michael Murillo, and he had no problems heading the ball into the bottom corner.

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Raheem Sterling (left) is thwarted by Jaime Penedo as he looks to get in behind the Panamanian defence. Sterling made plenty of good runs and got into dangerous positions, but he couldn’t get himself a goal.

The second goal wasn’t too long in coming. Jesse Lingard made a good run in behind the Panamanian defence, and was picked out on the edge of the box. Then he was brutally hacked down by both of Panama’s centre-backs, with Fidel Escobar getting in first before Román Torres added his weight to the very heavy – and very illegal – challenge. Harry Kane stepped up to take the penalty, and the English captain drilled a perfect spot kick past Jaime Penedo.

If the game wasn’t already over after Kane’s penalty, it was after Lingard scored the third goal. The energetic midfielder received the ball on the edge of the box, played a one-two with Raheem Sterling to get himself in position and fired an unstoppable shot into the top corner. It looked ridiculously simple. It most definitely wasn’t. Penedo’s full-length dive was in vain against Lingard’s casual brilliance, and there were still 10 minutes left in the half. Time enough for two more goals, then.

The fourth came from a carefully designed set piece. England won a free-kick in an awkward position, where neither a shot nor a cross was particularly simple. Instead, Trippier went for a short pass to Jordan Henderson, who crossed the ball across the goal face to where Kane was waiting. He headed back towards the middle, and Panama’s defence was so poor that both Sterling and Stones were wide open in front of goal. Sterling missed, with Penedo making a good reflex save, but Stones gleefully headed the rebound into the roof of the net. England’s plan worked like clockwork, and Panama’s defence couldn’t lay a hand on them.

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Harry Kane scores his second goal, and England’s fifth, with a successful penalty. The penalty was one of two Panama gave away with clumsy pieces of defending.

Another set piece, leading to another penalty, gave them the fifth as the steady procession of goals continued. It’s not clear who gave away the penalty from Trippier’s corner, with Aníbal Godoy tackling Kane to the ground particularly vigorously and others receiving similar treatment. Kane happily accepted his second goal from the spot, with Penedo beaten once again. The half time whistle gave Panama some respite, but the scoreline was already beyond ugly.

England only scored one in the second half, with Kane bagging his hat-trick in a comical fashion and looking almost apologetic as the ball went into the back of the net. Ruben Loftus-Cheek did the hard work, taking on an ambitious shot directed at the bottom corner of the Panamanian goal. Then it took a big deflection. Kane was in mid-stride and not looking at the ball as it rolled into the back of his heels, and Penedo could only watch helplessly as the ball looped into the back of the net. There was a suggestion that Kane was offside, but the goal stood and England’s captain was substituted immediately after his last touch led to a goal he didn’t intend to score. You couldn’t make it up. In the end, Baloy’s goal gave Panama something to celebrate, but there was no hiding their inadequacy when compared with their opponents. For England, expectations have been muted up to this point. That could be about to change.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
England 6 (Stones 8, 40, Kane 22 pen, 45+1 pen, 62, Lingard 36)
Panama 1 (Baloy 78)
Referee: Gehad Grisha (Egy)
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier (Rose 70), Loftus-Cheek, Henderson, Lingard (Delph 63), Young; Sterling, Kane (Vardy 63).
Panama (4-5-1): Penedo – Murillo, R Torres, Escobar, Davis; Bárcenas (Arroyo 69), Cooper, Gómez (Baloy 69), Godoy (Ávila 64), Rodríguez; Pérez.

Top 5
1. Jesse Lingard (England)
Lingard backed up his performance in England’s tournament opener with another energetic display. He found a goal for himself with an excellent strike into the top corner, and he provided the spark for Kane’s first goal with a great run in behind. He continued to make dangerous runs until his eventual substitution and he seems to have found a rich vein of form.
2. John Stones (England)
Stones had very little defensive work to do, but it was his work at attacking set pieces that set him apart. He was left completely unmanned at a corner and a free-kick, and Panama played a heavy price for their weak defence as Stones found two goals and worked his way into good positions.
3. Harry Kane (England)
A hat-trick is a hat-trick, but his three goals against Panama will rate as three of the most fortunate of his career. His two penalties were both well-hit, however, and although he was lucky to complete his hat-trick with a goal he didn’t even mean to score his three goals were a testament to his ability to get into good attacking spots.
4. Raheem Sterling (England)
Sterling will be unhappy that he missed a brilliant chance to break his international goal drought, but he did put in a good performance filled with plenty of dangerous runs and a couple of involvements in goals. He was putting in a big effort for 90 minutes, and he was unlucky not to find the back of the net.
5. Kieran Trippier (England)
Trippier’s set piece delivery may have been dangerous against Tunisia, but against a Panamanian team with poor defensive organisation his corners and free-kicks were even more damaging. His set pieces contributed, directly or indirectly, to three of England’s goals, and he did his few defensive duties diligently.

UEFA Champions League Matchday 1 Preview

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

Matches: (Predicted winner in bold)

Tuesday September 16

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

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

Wednesday September 17

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

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

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

Players to watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Questions

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

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

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

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

Italy deny England in thriller

The Italians have beaten England 2-1 in a thrilling match between the heavyweights in Manaus. The match started slowly, with the Italians content to control possession, passing exceptionally. England looked the more threatening side at the start, testing stand-in keeper Salvatore Sirigu from long range early. Raheem Sterling was a major issue for the Italians, constantly threatening the goal with his speed and skills. All the same, the Italians had a lot of control, with Andrea Pirlo effortless in the middle. Italy were able to score first in the 35th minute through Claudio Marchisio. A short corner was taken by Antonio Candreva, and a pass was played in to Pirlo. Pirlo, heavily marked, let the ball pass through his legs to Marchisio, who fired past Joe Hart into the back of the net unmarked from long range. It didn’t take long for the English to level, however, with Wayne Rooney being sent through on the left before whipping in a cross which found Daniel Sturridge at the back post. The English striker tapped the ball in easily to level the score. Italy had some good chances near the end of the half, Mario Balotelli’s chip having to be headed away by Phil Jagielka. Candreva hit the post a minute later, but the sides went into the sheds tied at one-all.

England had a major chance in the 49th minute, but Sturridge was denied by Sirigu. Italy, however, struck on a counter attack, with Pirlo finding Matteo Darmian on the right. Darmian proceeded to find Candreva, who turned Leighton Baines inside out and whipped the ball into the box, where Balotelli hammered it into the back of the net with his head. England proceeded to go on the attack, with Rooney missing some critical chances, including a clear cut chance inside the box. Sirigu made a critical save to deny Ross Barkley, one of many made by the Paris Saint-Germain keeper on the night. England continued to have possession inside their half, but the Italian centre-backs Gabriel Palletta and Andrea Barzagli would not let them through. Glen Johnson’s long range shot was missed. England kept pushing. Sirigu dived brilliantly to stop a Baines free kick. England kept pushing. Both Steven Gerrard and Rooney put the ball over the bar as Italy kept holding on. Eventually the Italians started to counter, and Ciro Immobile proved dangerous. Pirlo hit the bar with a free kick, and Immobile had to be stopped by Gary Cahill after a counter-attack. England were left with no time left, and the Italians had held on to start off their campaign ideally.

Manaus – Arena Amazonia
England 1 (Sturridge 37)
Italy 2 (Marchisio 35, Balotelli 50)
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Ned)

England: Hart – Baines, Jagielka, Cahill, Johnson, Henderson (Wilshere 73), Gerrard, Rooney, Sterling, Welbeck (Barkley 61), Sturridge (Lallana 80).

Italy: Sirigu – Chiellini, Barzagli, Palletta, Darmian, Verratti (Motta 57), de Rossi, Marchisio, Pirlo, Candreva (Parolo 79), Balotelli (Immobile 73).