Tunisia blown away by red-hot Belgium

Any team playing Belgium later in this World Cup should be afraid. They have scored eight goals in their first two games, and their dominant 5-2 rout of Tunisia sent a massive warning to their competition. Up front, Romelu Lukaku used his pace, power and extraordinary touch to score his second brace in two games. Next to him, Eden Hazard was at his best, slipping past Tunisian defenders, wreaking havoc with his runs in behind and adding two goals of his own. Michy Batshuayi, coming on as Lukaku’s deputy, could have easily scored a hat-trick with the brilliant chances he had. Tunisia fought hard, and created some nice attacking moves of their own, but they were no match for a Belgian team who could seemingly unlock their opponents’ defence at will. Perhaps the scariest part about Belgium’s performance is the fact that there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

There were warning signs early. A long ball into Belgium’s attacking third was too heavy, and certain to safely travel to Farouk Ben Mustapha. Then Lukaku got involved, easily outrunning centre-back Yassine Meriah and seriously challenging the Tunisian keeper with a blistering turn of speed. It wasn’t really a chance, but it showed exactly what the big striker can do. A few minutes later, Eden Hazard was the victim of a clumsy challenge from Syam Ben Youssef on the edge of the box. Referee Jair Marrufo pointed to the spot, the video assistant referee couldn’t find anything to overturn the decision and Hazard stepped up to calmly convert the penalty. On the sideline, Belgian coach Roberto Martínez didn’t even react.

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Eden Hazard celebrates after scoring the opening goal. There was some doubt as to whether Hazard was fouled inside the area or not, but the referee’s decision was upheld and the penalty stood.

Soon, things got worse for the Eagles of Carthage. Ali Maâloul’s heavy touch was intercepted by Dries Mertens, and his pass to Lukaku sliced through the exposed Tunisian defence. It was still far from an easy finish for the big striker, who received the ball just inside the area, took a touch and hit a shot through Ben Youssef’s legs and past Ben Mustapha’s desperate lunge. It wasn’t a particularly easy finish, but Lukaku made it look like child’s play. More worryingly for the Tunisians, just over 15 minutes had elapsed when Lukaku made it 2-0. It didn’t bode well.

Then, a couple of minutes after the second goal, came the highlight of Tunisia’s match. Wahbi Khazri curled a free-kick into the box, and Belgium’s slightly shaky defence allowed right-back Dylan Bronn the space to get his head to the ball. The header was perfect, unstoppably bouncing past Thibaut Courtois and slipping just inside the post. The goal put Tunisia back in the contest, and there were signs that they were starting to settle into the game. A few incautious errors gave Belgium some opportunities, but Khazri and Ferjani Sassi were also able to present a threat going forward and the Tunisians put some nice moves together. Defenders Bronn and Ben Youssef went down injured, but Tunisia continued to fight and seemed to be hanging in the contest. Then Belgium scored on the stroke of half time.

Seconds before the goal, Lukaku had threatened to score another. Hazard found Kevin de Bruyne in space as Belgium broke quickly, and Tunisia only survived when de Bruyne’s ball for Lukaku was slightly too heavy. The next time a chance came, Tunisia didn’t get off so lightly. Maâloul had been the main culprit for the turnovers which had riddled Tunisia’s play, and when he tried to keep the ball in he offended again. This time Thomas Meunier was the beneficiary, and after playing a one-two with de Bruyne the right wing-back slipped a little pass in behind for Lukaku to run onto. Ben Mustapha was chipped with remarkable ease, and Belgium had their third. It didn’t take much longer to grab the fourth.

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Michy Batshuayi celebrates after scoring a late goal. Batshuayi came on as a second half substitute, and had a number of clear-cut opportunities.

Tunisia started the second half well, producing some good attacking moves. Then their defence was unlocked by one pass. Toby Alderweireld picked the ball up deep in his own half, and with few options available to him he went long. He also hit Hazard behind the defence, onside and straight on the chest. It took the Belgian captain three touches to put it into the back of the net. He controlled the ball with his chest, then flicked it past Ben Mustapha to present himself with a chance in front of an open goal. He couldn’t miss. Belgium began to switch off a little after Hazard’s second, and Tunisia began to put their defence under a bit of pressure. It never quite looked like coming to anything.

Batshuayi came on and proceeded to have a number of brilliant chances to score. He slipped in behind the Tunisian defence and chipped Ben Mustapha, only for Meriah to sweep in and clear it off the line. He had another chance when Ben Mustapha fumbled Yannick Carrasco’s shot, but somehow smashed it into the bar from very close range. When he volleyed de Bruyne’s perfect cross straight at the Tunisian keeper, forcing Ben Mustapha into a reflex save, it looked like the substitute striker would be denied a goal. He wasn’t. In the dying moments, Youri Tielemans put in a beautiful cross, and Batshuayi timed his slide perfectly to send the ball into the bottom corner. It was another difficult opportunity converted with little fuss, and it provided an excellent finishing touch to an excellent win. Tunisia had some late joy when Khazri got on the end of Hamdi Nagguez’s pull-back to the edge of the six-yard box, but it was one of few wins for the day and merely served as a footnote to a one-sided game.

Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Belgium 5 (E Hazard 6 pen, 51, Lukaku 16, 45+3, Batshuayi 90)
Tunisia 2 (Bronn 18, Khazri 90+3)
Referee: Jair Marrufo (USA)
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Boyata, Vertonghen; Meunier, de Bruyne, Witsel, Carrasco; Mertens (Tielemans 86), Lukaku (Fellaini 59), E Hazard (Batshuayi 68).
Tunisia (4-3-3): Ben Mustapha – Bronn (Nagguez 24), S Ben Youssef (Benalouane 41), Meriah, Maâloul; Khaoui, Skhiri, Sassi (Sliti 59); F Ben Youssef, Khazri, Badri.

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Romelu Lukaku (centre) competes for the ball with Syam Ben Youssef (left). Lukaku managed to score two goals, making him the equal top scorer for the tournament with four from two games.

Top 5
1. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Lukaku was substituted reasonably early in the second half, but by then the match was all but over thanks to his influence. He showed incredible pace and found dangerous pockets of space, and his finishing was exceptional. He scored goals with both feet, and made difficult finishes look extraordinarily straightforward.
2. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Hazard kicked off the scoring by winning a penalty and coolly converting it, and he continued to pose a threat until his substitution in the second half. He added another goal, benefitting from an incredible ball but also completing the chance with remarkably good touch, and created plenty of chances with his brilliant skills.
3. Wahbi Khazri (Tunisia)
Khazri’s goal was a deserved reward for his performance, even if it came when his team were four goals behind in second half stoppage time. He created plenty of opportunities for the Eagles of Carthage, and his perfectly delivered free-kick allowed them to score their first goal. He can hold his head high.
4. Michy Batshuayi (Belgium)
A combination of bad luck and poor finishing denied Batshuayi a number of goals, but he kept putting himself in dangerous positions and eventually bagged a late goal. He was able to exploit the space in behind Tunisia’s defence after coming off the bench, and if Martínez wants to rest Lukaku then Batshuayi would be a dangerous replacement.
5. Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
Meunier performed his wing-back role to perfection, making several key contributions at both ends of the pitch. He was dangerous cutting in from the sideline, and he provided the assist for Lukaku’s second goal with a very neat pass. His defensive work was excellent, and he looks like a solid addition to Belgium’s side.

Belgium score three without breaking a sweat

At least they survived the first half. As Belgium opened their World Cup campaign by cruising to victory against a Panamanian side who were completely outmatched by their star-studded opponents, that was the one thing Los Canaleros could cling to, the one positive souvenir of a tough day. For Belgium, it was business as usual despite a slightly-too-casual opening, with Dries Mertens netting a stunning volley and Romelu Lukaku picking up a brace as they dominated the second half and never seemed to get out of first gear.

Panama had been waiting for this day since October last year, and their first half of World Cup football was a success, even if, predictably, it was Belgium who had the first real chances. Jaime Penedo was called into action early on, saving a hard-hit shot from Yannick Carrasco and needing quick reflexes just seconds later to deny a dangerous attempt from Mertens. Shortly afterwards, Eden Hazard intercepted Román Torres’ slightly shallow backpass before it reached Penedo and drilled a shot into the side netting, and it appeared like Panama were about to be suffocated by the weight of Belgium’s opportunities. They weren’t.

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Eden Hazard (left) runs away from Gabriel Gómez during the match. Hazard’s control with the ball at his feet caused plenty of issues for the Panamanian defence.

Belgium had chances, of course, like when Kevin de Bruyne’s cross was nearly turned into the Panamanian net by Torres and when Hazard ran straight through the defence and forced Penedo into another fine save. But those chances were too often punctuated by lengthy periods of inaction, where Les Diables Rouges controlled the ball but couldn’t find the urgency to break down their determined opponents. They were approaching the game with all the energy of a Sunday stroll in the park, seemingly waiting for something to happen rather than pushing for it. Hazard threatened, but never really did anything meaningful, and de Bruyne wasn’t getting into good enough positions to take advantage of his incredible vision. Up front, Lukaku was completely anonymous. By half time, the scores were still level, and Panama still hadn’t been seriously tested by an underwhelming Belgian team.

Belgium emerged from half time with more purpose, and it took less than two minutes for them to go ahead thanks to Mertens’ wonder goal. Torres could only clear the Belgian winger’s fairly harmless ball into the box as far as Hazard and Fidel Escobar, and after an aerial contest the ball ended up back where it started, falling to Mertens in the box. Casually, he took on the shot first time, looping the volley towards goal on a tight angle and leaving Penedo with no chance as the unstoppable strike floated into the top corner. It was a remarkable finish, and its difficulty was belied by the nonchalance with which Mertens took the quarter-chance.

With the deadlock broken, Belgian deemed that there was no further need for their top effort. Soon the game slipped back into the lull of the first half, with Belgium controlling proceedings but not quite doing enough to seriously threaten the Panamanian goal. Panama had a golden opportunity almost immediately after Mertens’ goal, but Michael Murillo couldn’t finish against Thibaut Courtois. It was telling that the Belgians didn’t seem too concerned by the possibility of Panama scoring, and Jan Vertonghen was only getting worked up over Carrasco’s dereliction of his defensive duties. It was the best opportunity Panama had for the rest of the match. Around 15 minutes later they doubled their advantage.

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Romulu Lukaku celebrates after scoring Belgium’s third goal. Lukaku’s chip over Jaime Penedo was a fitting finish to a dominant Belgian display.

It was the previously quiet Lukaku who was good enough to bag the second after some brilliant build-up play. Hazard started it, once again challenging every defender in sight with one of his pretty but directionless runs, and after engaging three Panamanian defenders he slipped a pass to de Bruyne. What happened next was pure class. Upon receiving the ball, de Bruyne shimmied past Aníbal Godoy, found himself in perfect position and threaded an exquisite cross onto the forehead of the powerful striker with the outstep of his right boot. Like Mertens’ perfect volley, it was a moment of nonchalant brilliance which clearly highlighted the difference between the two sides.

A fast break, a good run from Hazard and an effortless first time chip from Lukaku provided the third goal, but by that point the game was already over. Panama fought up to the final whistle, at times drawing big cheers from their large contingent of supporters when they came close to scoring a historic goal, but they never really stood a chance against Belgium’s second half onslaught. For their part, Belgium only tried as hard as they needed to, and the ease with which they sealed their 3-0 win should sound a warning to any team that will come up against them.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Belgium 3 (Mertens 47, Lukaku 69, 75)
Panama 0
Referee: Janny Sikazwe (Zam)
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Boyata, Vertonghen; Meunier, Witsel (Chadli 90), de Bruyne, Carrasco (Dembélé 74); Mertens (T Hazard 83), Lukaku, E Hazard.
Panama (4-1-4-1): Penedo – Murillo, R Torres, Escobar, Davis; Gómez; Bárcenas (G Torres 63), Cooper, Godoy, J L Rodríguez (Díaz 63); Pérez (Tejada 73).

Top 5
1. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Hazard came into his own in the second half, playing a big hand in both of Belgium’s goals and looking very dangerous with the ball at his feet. He was always attempting to take on the Panamanian defence, and while they managed to stop him most of the time he had a big impact when he did break through.
2. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Lukaku came into his own after a quiet first half, bagging two second half goals and working his way into good positions. He showed an excellent turn of speed in scoring the final goal of the match, and with his freakish athleticism and excellent supporting players it’s scary what he could do if he puts together a full 90-minute effort.
3. Jaime Penedo (Panama)
Penedo had plenty of work to do, especially in the first half, and he made some truly brilliant saves to deny Belgium’s brilliant attackers. He was one of the few Panamanians who didn’t seem slightly out of place against their world-class opposition, and can hold his head high after a strong performance.
4. Dries Mertens (Belgium)
You wouldn’t necessarily know it from how easily he seemed to take the chance, but Mertens’ volley to open the scoring could be an early contender for goal of the tournament. Otherwise, he made plenty of dangerous attacking runs and created plenty of problems for Panama’s defence in a solid effort.
5. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
De Bruyne was another of Belgium’s stars who began the game slowly but finished with an excellent second half display. He worked into more advanced positions as the game progressed, and when he got the ball in and around the penalty area he was capable of providing special balls like the assist for Lukaku’s first goal.

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.

Hazard a cut above as Belgium crush Hungary

Eden Hazard has always been a brilliant talent, and in the round of 16 against Hungary he showed just how good he can be with a sublime individual performance. The stand-in Belgian captain finished the game with a goal and an assist, but his performance went beyond the raw figures. He was too good for Hungary, weaving through the defence with ease and distributing the ball wherever he wanted to. He made solid, incisive runs through the Hungarian defence. He moved quickly on the counter-attack without compromising on control. It was the performance of a maestro, a player in complete control over himself and his opponents.

At first it was Kevin de Bruyne doing the work for Belgium. It was de Bruyne who was running the show in the centre of the field, and it was de Bruyne who was getting the best chances. It was de Bruyne’s free kick which set up Toby Alderweireld for Belgium’s first goal, a curling ball which perfectly exploited a weak spot in the Hungarian defence. Gabor Kiraly had been good, but he had no chance when Alderweireld placed his header in the top corner.

After the goal the game opened up for the Belgians, and Hazard was able to transition the ball between defence and attack. He never looked like being tackled, keeping the ball very close to his feet and suggesting that a foul was the best way to dispossess him. Hungary were looking for an equaliser, but Belgium looked more threatening on the break and were the team who looked most likely to score.

If Hazard hadn’t fully imposed himself on the first period of the match, the second half was where he showed his class. He showed early warning signs, breezing past Adam Lang as if the Hungarian right back was not present before unleashing a shot at the top corner. Kiraly was able to make the save. Hungary pushed, and Adam Szalai started to get some great chances. But then Hazard would get the ball and run it to the other side of the field, relieving the pressure. Akos Elek clipped him as he tried to get away; Hungary’s half time substitute was promptly shown a yellow card. Hazard continued to show his skill, weaving past defenders to get the ball to Axel Witsel, who found Radja Nainggolan in a good position. The central midfielder missed.

Roland Juhasz had a pair of great chances for Hungary from set pieces, but he could not convert. They were pushing hard for the equaliser, but the threat of Hazard got bigger and bigger every time he broke away. He was in control when he had the ball, able to use any option or make any pass he wanted with a simple touch. He was at the top of his game. Then he exploded, sealing the game for Belgium and blowing Hungary out of the way.

It started with the assist. A corner from de Bruyne was headed away, and the clearance found Hazard inside the box. He had countless options available to him at this point, with multiple players open and spreading into good positions. He set the play up himself. He took a heavy touch into the box before chasing it up, beating the Hungarian defence for pace and reclaiming the ball in a great position. He played the ball across goal for Michy Batshuayi, who had just entered the game for Romelu Lukaku. The ball passed Kiraly, and Batshuayi was able to tap the ball home to double Belgium’s lead. Then came the goal. Belgium were on the break again moments after Batshuayi’s goal, and Yannick Carrasco decided to use Hazard as he streamed through the middle of the field. He collected the ball and beat Lang, before weaving through two more defenders and driving the ball into the bottom right-hand corner. Kiraly did not stand a chance, and Hazard’s two minutes of brilliance meant that Hungary didn’t either.

Then the show was over. Hazard was replaced, with Marouane Fellaini coming on to see out the last ten minutes. The game was already done, however, and Carrasco’s injury-time goal was window-dressing, not important to the actual outcome. There were questions about the team heading into this game, but not anymore. Belgium put in a performance that showed why they are number two in the world, and Hazard showed that he is still one of the world’s best players.

Toulouse – Stadium Municipal
Hungary 0
Belgium 4 (Alderweireld 10, Batshuayi 78, Hazard 80, Carrasco 90+1)
Referee: Milorad Mazic (Srb)

Hungary (4-2-3-1): Kiraly – Lang, Juhasz (Bode 81), Guzmics, Kadar; Nagy, Gera (Elek 46); Lovrencsics, Pinter (Nikolic 75), Dzsudzsak; Szalai.
Belgium (4-3-3): Courtois – Meunier, Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Witsel, de Bruyne, Nainggolan; Mertens (Carrasco 70), R Lukaku (Batshuayi 76), Hazard (Fellaini 81).

Top 5
1. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Hazard was at the top of his game throughout, looking in complete control whenever he had possession and causing massive problems for the Hungarian defence. He beat opponents with ease, and his goal was one of extraordinary quality. His brilliant individual play set up Batshuayi for Belgium’s second, and he was head and shoulders above the rest.
2. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
Hazard may have been the best on the field, but it was de Bruyne who was pulling the strings in the opening minutes of a fine individual performance. He set up Alderweireld for the opening goal, and he distributed the ball effectively and calmly. He looked in control, and his combination with Hazard was a highlight for the Belgians.
3. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Lukaku was a strong presence up front throughout, and he was able to put plenty of teammates into good positions with effective passes. He could have scored a couple of times, and his work playing the ball through the Hungarian defence on the break caused a lot of problems. He made life very difficult for Hungary, and he was able to open the game up for Belgium.
4. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois had a strong game in goal, and the Belgian win would not have been as comfortable without his performance. He made some great saves to deny Hungary, and showed his ruthlessness when he made a brilliant diving save to deny Akos Elek with the score at 3-0. He made some great saves, and will be very pleased with his performance.
5. Radja Nainggolan (Belgium)
Nainggolan was everywhere for Belgium, and he was able to find the ball often and use it well. His effort was exceptional, and he covered plenty of distance in a strong performance. He helped out the attack well by roaming forward, and he was too good for Hungary in the middle, ensuring that Belgium were able to dominate.