France hold firm to keep Belgium at bay

In the dying moments of Belgium’s highly-anticipated semi-final clash with France, French midfield enforcer Paul Pogba stood in the corner. The French were seeking to rule out a Belgian comeback, and Pogba was straddling the ball with a number of Belgians attempting to shove him out of the way so they could force the ball upfield. They never got the chance. Eventually, Pogba committed a foul. A few seconds later, the final whistle blew. France were in the World Cup final. In the end, it was a rather anticlimactic finish, with Belgium never really testing France after going behind. A well-taken corner and a simple header was the foundation on which a simple win was built.

France went on the front foot from the first blast of Andrés Cunha’s whistle, with Kylian Mbappé attempting an enterprising run down the right wing just seconds after kick-off. It was Belgium, however, who seized the early initiative. The Belgians took control of possession and territory, with France happy to sit back and absorb the pressure. Eventually, chances began to arrive. Eden Hazard had a couple of dangerous shots, one of which was just deflected over the bar by Raphaël Varane’s header. A Belgian corner fell for Toby Alderweireld, who tested Hugo Lloris by wheeling around onto his left foot and sending a one-time shot fizzing towards goal, but the French keeper’s diving save prevented him from finding the back of the net. Belgium were starting to ramp up the pressure and France needed to respond.

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Samuel Umtiti celebrates after scoring France’s first goal from a well-delivered corner. Belgium weren’t able to recover the deficit as France held on for a 1-0 win.

They did. The French started to find their touch on the break as the match went on, and Olivier Giroud had a series of particularly dangerous chances. Giroud’s frustration, borne from not scoring in the tournament despite his key role as France’s central striker, only increased as chances were missed and the scores stayed level. As the half drew to a close, French right-back Benjamin Pavard combined with Mbappé and forced Thibaut Courtois into a tough save, but it was France’s hulking frontman who had the lion’s share of the chances. It was still scoreless at half-time, but it seemed inevitable that someone would find the back of the net in the second half. It was the French who broke through.

A few minutes after half time, France won a corner, which allowed Antoine Griezmann to whip the ball into the box. He drove his corner close to goal, where two teammates were waiting. Pogba didn’t get a touch on it. Samuel Umtiti did. The French centre-back managed to beat Marouane Fellaini in the air, and his glancing, close-range header was impossible for Courtois to stop. Shortly after Umtiti’s header, the French threatened again, finding space thanks to Mbappé and manufacturing a series of opportunities. Mbappé’s ball for Blaise Matuidi allowed Matuidi to shoot from the edge of the box, and when Belgium failed to adequately clear the blocked shot France threatened again. Mbappé’s backheel for Giroud gave the big striker some space, but his luck was out and his shot was desperately blocked.

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Hugo Lloris (left) flies to punch the ball away from Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini was Belgium’s main target for their crosses, but France did well to ensure that he, and striker Romelu Lukaku, weren’t able to impact the match.

A couple of crosses into the box provided Belgium’s best chances for redemption. Kevin de Bruyne managed to hit his volley goalward from just inside the box, but his side-footed shot was poorly hit and Lloris gathered it comfortably. Lloris wasn’t quite so comfortable a few minutes later as he dived in an attempt to stop Fellaini’s header, but the header missed and the deficit remained. Crosses had soon become Belgium’s primary mode of attack, with Dries Mertens, de Bruyne, Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld all whipping the ball into the box but not finding enough targets in the middle to really trouble the French defence. Most of the time, Paul Pogba, Umtiti or Varane managed to head them away.

When a couple of de Bruyne’s crosses caused a bit of chaos in the French box, it looked like the game was building to an exciting climax. It wasn’t. Belgium’s chances began to dry up, their frustrations mounted and France killed the game easily despite six minutes of additional time being allocated. They barely even had to defend, as space began to open up for them on the break and they began to target the Belgian defence with their dangerous counter-attacks. In the last few minutes, Courtois was forced into a couple of diving saves to keep France from doubling their lead. At the other end of the pitch, Lloris was a virtual spectator as Belgium’s golden generation couldn’t put it together. They came from 2-0 down against Japan, and they upset Brazil, but they couldn’t get past the final hurdle as France battle on. They weren’t spectacular, but 1-0 was enough. Didier Deschamps’ men know how to win, and now they’re in the final.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
France 1 (Umtiti 51)
Belgium 0
Referee: Andrés Cunha (Uru)
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi (Tolisso 86); Giroud (N’Zonzi 85).
Belgium (3-5-2): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Chadli (Batshuayi 90+1), Dembélé (Mertens 60), Witsel, Fellaini (Carrasco 80), de Bruyne; Lukaku, E Hazard.

Top 5
1. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba played a big role in the latter stages, when Belgium were attempting their aerial bombardment of the French goal. He made sure he was in the box for every cross, and he was always able to head the ball clear and keep his side’s lead safe. Combined with his usual brilliance in midfield, it made for a good performance.
2. Raphaël Varane (France)
His defensive partner may have scored the goal, but Varane was the man underpinning France’s solidity. He and Umtiti complemented each other well, and Varane did some good defensive work at key moments in the game to keep Belgium at bay. He defended Romelu Lukaku brilliantly, and made it look easy at the same time.
3. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Umtiti seemed to find one of the few sure-fire ways of beating Courtois: slam it in from close range. Short of that, beating the Belgian keeper seems nearly impossible. France didn’t test him too much, but he was always in position to make the saves he needed to and he threw in some very high-quality stops to keep the deficit at one goal.
4. Hugo Lloris (France)
Like Courtois, Lloris didn’t have too much work to do despite Belgium’s control of the ball, but the French captain did it well and made sure that, on the rare occasion his defence was breached, he was around to make the save. His form, like that of his side, has been steadily improving and his strong performance will give him confidence for the final.
5. Toby Alderweireld (Belgium)
Alderweireld was one of Belgium’s main ball carriers thanks to France’s solid defensive structure, and the centre-back managed to do more than most of his teammates. He provided their best chance of the game with a very tough but well-hit first-time shot and he was reliable when called upon to defend.

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Spurs salvage a point from defensive wreck

Spurs were out of the contest. For the first hour, anyway. Playing against Liverpool, who were coming off a spectacular flop against newly-promoted Burnley, things were not looking good. They were 1-0 down, not creating any chances, and being exposed time and time again in defence. An injury to Kyle Walker threw Mauricio Pochettino’s pre-match plans out the window, and in the centre of the park Victor Wanyama and Dele Alli were unable to keep the ball out of their opponent’s hands. Tottenham’s attack received no delivery, and the defence was more than a little shaky.

Eric Dier had started the match playing in central midfield, but he was moved into right back after Walker went off. Throughout the ninety minutes it was like watching Jekyll and Hyde; sometimes he was composed, most of the time he gave the ball away in very bad positions. Jan Vertonghen was not much better. He looked frazzled when he came under pressure from Senegalese winger Sadio Mane, who nearly took Spurs apart on a number of occasions with his pace in behind. Toby Alderweireld was a rock at the heart of the defence, and Michel Vorm was ensuring not many goals were scored, but those two couldn’t do everything.

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Under pressure: Eric Dier (left) is challenged by James Milner.

Liverpool, on the other hand, looked completely rejuvenated. Coming off a loss in which they had over 80 percent of possession, they had learned from their mistakes. Mane had come in for Daniel Sturridge, a player who wants to be at the heart of absolutely everything and had expressed annoyance at playing on the right wing. Mane tore Tottenham to shreds on a number of occasions, sliding in behind Danny Rose and beating Vertonghen for pace. He received good support from Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, both of whom had been out of action against Burnley, and he generally boosted everything about Liverpool’s attack. Against Burnley they had played with all the pace of a funeral procession. Now, they played with purpose, taking advantage of the extra space available and looking for more opportunities through quick ball movement.

Liverpool had a plethora of great chances in the first half as they were able to exploit the extra space in Tottenham’s defence. No longer suffocated by Burnley’s rigid defensive structure they found their niche against a side who looked to attack them back, and they had nearly opened the scoring within five minutes. Vorm made an excellent save to deny Coutinho from close range after Firmino had played him through, with a well-placed foot trapping the ball on the line and allowing the Dutch keeper to gratefully reel it in.

Mane looked most dangerous on the break, when Tottenham players lost the ball after some errant passing. Vorm was up to the test, even as Mane broke the defensive line on multiple occasions. Vorm risked being booked or even sent off more than once by coming off his line to clear the ball, but he was able to keep it level. Finally, just minutes before the break, Liverpool broke the deadlock. They scored from the spot, with a very soft penalty being awarded to Firmino after a minute clip on the heels from Erik Lamela. The contact was there, but ultimately the Brazilian fell after tripping over his own feet. Either way, the penalty stood, and James Milner was there to stroke it home.

If Pochettino was hoping that his side would recover after the break, he was very much mistaken. After a brief settling in period, the game resumed its familiar rhythm, but with a slightly different beat. Liverpool had reached their zenith, and it was in this short period just after half time that they came closest to sealing a win. Things happened very quickly for Jurgen Klopp’s men. Joel Matip brushed the bar after getting his head to Milner’s corner, and shortly afterwards Vorm had to make an excellent save to deny Nathaniel Clyne, who had marauded into the box from right back. Then came the disallowed goal.

Georginio Wijnaldum, who had been much improved due to increased time on the ball, intercepted yet another poor pass from Dier and started off down the left wing. He had plenty of support, but he kept running to the edge of the area before feeding Adam Lallana with an excellent through ball. Lallana played Mane on the near post, and the ball was promptly blasted into the back of the net. It appeared to be the death knell for Spurs, the sign that Liverpool had finally sealed the victory. But the linesman’s flag said otherwise. It was a very tight call, with Lallana in an offside position by the barest of margins, and it gave Tottenham the lifeline that they needed. Perversely, the disallowed goal acted as a turning point in the match, as Spurs sputtered into gear, albeit belatedly.

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Finish: Danny Rose (in white) levels the score.

It was Wanyama and Alli who stepped up. The solid pairing in central midfield started to cope with Liverpool’s pressure, and the attack found more of the ball and more space. Harry Kane started to pick it up in dangerous positions, and Vincent Janssen looked like a big threat. The hosts started to look like their former selves, stringing together great passing moves and creating some excellent chances. Lamela’s free kick had to be tapped over the bar by Simon Mignolet, and another top-drawer save had to be made moments later as Alderweireld got a head to Christian Eriksen’s corner. Spurs were starting to probe again, and suddenly it looked as if they could punish Liverpool for their missed opportunities. They did.

It started with a brilliant ball over the top from Alderweireld, with Milner completely misjudging it as it flew over his head to the feet of Dier. Milner was beaten again with a good touch, and while Lamela could not get a solid connection on the cross the ball fell to Rose at the back post. It was not an easy finish, but the left back made it look easy. He bundled the ball past Mignolet, and Matip, who had gone in behind to protect the line, had no chance as the shot rolled in next to the post. Liverpool looked to get an equaliser straight away, but the moment had already passed: Liverpool’s momentum was gone.

Liverpool had some chances late as the game opened up, and Alderweireld had to make an incredible challenge to deny Lallana in injury time. The Belgian was Tottenham’s last line of defence, and he risked a penalty by sliding in and blocking Lallana’s effort straight of the boot. The game trailed on, with some meaningless substitutions and a yellow card to Matip only delaying the finish as injury time drew to a close. Liverpool were the better side on the day, but they could not capitalise on the opportunities they created, and Tottenham’s porous defence did not prove costly in the end.

London – White Hart Lane
Tottenham Hotspur 1 (Rose 72)
Liverpool 1 (Milner 43 pen)
Referee: Robert Madley

Tottenham Hotspur (4-2-3-1): Vorm – Walker (Janssen 28), Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Dier, Wanyama; Lamela, Alli, Eriksen (Winks 90+3); Kane (Onomah 83).
Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet – Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Lallana (Stewart 90+4), Henderson, Wijnaldum; Mane (Sturridge 88), Firmino, Coutinho (Origi 69).

Top 5
1. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur)
Alderweireld was excellent at the heart of Tottenham’s defence, staying unfazed under heavy pressure and often covering up the defensive mistakes of his teammates. He created the goal with a pinpoint pass over the top of Liverpool’s defence, and he made a brilliant challenge to deny Lallana as the game drew to a close.
2. Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
Mane made all the difference for Liverpool after coming into the side to replace Sturridge. He cut swathes through Spurs with his pace and ability to get in behind, and he was unlucky not to score. He was the most dangerous attacking player on the ground, and he will be a big threat as the season progresses.
3. Joel Matip (Liverpool)
Matip provided a much-needed solidity for Liverpool in central defence, making life very difficult for Spurs and ensuring that not much got through. He was a significant threat at set pieces, and he came very close to scoring after beating his man in the air early in the second half. He played well in his Premier League debut, and he will want the good form to continue.
4. Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur)
Rose was Tottenham’s best attacking player, and while Mane often caught him out when his teammates carelessly lost possession he was fairly solid in defence as well. He created problems for Liverpool with his ability to go forward and put in incisive crosses, and he finished with excellent precision when he was given the opportunity.
5. Michel Vorm (Tottenham Hotspur)
Vorm had less to do in the second half as Liverpool’s influence waned, but he was excellent in goal throughout and did well to only concede once. His decision making was first-rate, and he saved a number of goals by coming off his line and clearing the ball away. He will only start until Hugo Lloris comes back, but he will take comfort from his early season form.

2016-17 Premier League Preview – The Contenders

The Premier League season is fast approaching, and as clubs look around frantically to improve their squads I am going to assess how they are shaping up before the new season. This season promises to provide plenty of excitement, and after Leicester City’s historic title win last season the field is more open than ever. In the days leading up to the start of the season I will be looking at all twenty teams in depth, beginning with those sides who I think are in the hunt for the title. Enjoy.

Arsenal

Manager: Arsene Wenger
Captain: Laurent Koscielny
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Last Season: 2nd
Top Scorer: Olivier Giroud (16)
Most Assists: Mesut Ozil (19)
Prediction: 4th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Wojciech Szczesny, 13. David Ospina, 26. Emiliano Martinez, 33. Petr Cech.
Defenders: 2. Mathieu Debuchy, 3. Kieran Gibbs, 4. Per Mertesacker, 5. Gabriel Paulista, 6. Laurent Koscielny, 16. Rob Holding, 18. Nacho Monreal, 21. Calum Chambers, 24. Hector Bellerin, 25. Carl Jenkinson.
Midfielders: 8. Aaron Ramsey, 10. Jack Wilshere, 11. Mesut Ozil, 15. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, 17. Alex Iwobi, 19. Santi Cazorla, 29. Granit Xhaka, 34. Francis Coquelin, 35. Mohamed Elneny.
Forwards: 7. Alexis Sanchez, 12. Olivier Giroud, 14. Theo Walcott, 22. Yaya Sanogo, 23. Danny Welbeck, 27. Serge Gnabry, 28. Joel Campbell, 32. Chuba Akpom, Takuma Asano.

Arsenal had a fairly strong season last time around, but while they did finish second they never really looked like mounting a serious challenge for the title. Not much has changed since, with Arsene Wenger staying fairly quiet in the transfer market. Granit Xhaka has been brought in from Borussia Monchengladbach, and he will be one of the leading candidates to match up with Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil (pictured) at the heart of a very strong midfield. Up front, Wenger is looking to add another striker, but Olivier Giroud’s strong form at Euro 2016 may convince him to stick with the French target man. Petr Cech has a very solid defence in front of him, and Arsenal are not likely to concede too many goals.

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The Gunners have a strong all round team and could lift the trophy come the end of the season, but they have not changed much and they may struggle to keep up. They have consistently finished in the top four over a prolonged period of time, and while they maintain a constant presence in the Champions League they have not really looked like lifting any silverware besides their two recent FA Cup wins. Ultimately, winning the title is not something which they expect to do anymore, and as such the big changes which would be required to match the biggest clubs are not being made. Arsenal will definitely be around the top of the table at the end of the season, but a title win looks highly unlikely.

Star Player: Mesut Ozil

Ozil is at the centre of Arsenal’s team, providing plenty of chances for the strikers with his ability to put good balls in behind the defence. The German star led the Premier League for assists last season, and he was just one short of breaking the Premier League record for most assists in a single campaign. He can also hit the scoreboard himself, and his brilliance in attack will prove crucial as Arsenal look to contend for the title once more.

Key Player: Laurent Koscielny

With Per Mertesacker out for five months it will be up to new captain Koscielny to be the rock at the heart of the defence alongside Gabriel Paulista, who is still relatively inexperienced. He has been in good form, and if that does not continue in the early stages of the season Arsenal could have some major problems down the track.

One to Watch: Hector Bellerin

Bellerin is still only 21, but he has firmly set himself at right back in Arsene Wenger’s team. He has incredible pace and he was the only Arsenal player named in the Premier League team of the season at the end of last campaign. He was left on the bench by Vincente del Bosque at Euro 2016, but he has plenty of potential and should develop further this season.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Cech – Bellerin, Koscielny, Paulista, Monreal; Ramsey, Xhaka; Cazorla, Ozil, Sanchez; Giroud.

Chelsea

Manager: Antonio Conte
Captain: John Terry
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Last Season: 10th
Top Scorer: Diego Costa (12)
Most Assists: Cesc Fabregas (7)
Prediction: 5th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Asmir Begovic, 13. Thibaut Courtois, 27. Jamal Blackman, Bradley Collins.
Defenders: 2. Branislav Ivanovic, 3. Papy Djilobodji, 5. Kurt Zouma, 6. Baba Rahman, 20. Matt Miazga, 24. Gary Cahill, 26. John Terry, 28. Cesar Azpilicueta, 30. Michael Hector, 34. Ola Aina, 37. Jake Clarke-Salter, 39. Fankaty Dabo, 43. Fiyako Tomori, Todd Kane, Kenneth Omeruo, Alex Davey.
Midfielders: 4. Cesc Fabregas, 7. N’Golo Kante, 8. Oscar, 10. Eden Hazard, 11. Pedro, 12. John Obi Mikel, 15. Victor Moses, 16. Kenedy, 17. Juan Cuadrado, 21. Nemanja Matic, 22. Willian, 29. Nathaniel Chalobah, 31. Christian Atsu, 33. Cristian Cuevas, 36. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, 41. Charlie Colkett, Danilo Pantic, Isaiah Brown, Jordan Houghton, Lucas Piazon, Marco van Ginkel, Mario Pasalic, Marko Marin.
Forwards: 14. Bertrand Traore, 18. Loic Remy, 19. Diego Costa, 23. Michy Batshuayi, 42. Tammy Abraham, Dominic Solanke, Patrick Bamford, Islam Feruz.

After the high of a title win in 2014-15 Chelsea crashed back down to earth in a spectacular manner last season. Jose Mourinho was sacked after a shocking run of results in the first half of the season, and Guus Hiddinck was only able to get them as high as ninth place. Antonio Conte has come in to replace Hiddinck as manager, and the former Italian coach has already set about making his mark on the team. Michy Batshuayi has come in from Marseille, and the midfield has been bolstered by the signing of N’Golo Kante from title winners Leicester City. Conte has one of the best tactical brains in world football, and he is likely to use his trademark 3-5-2 formation with his new side. The formation will give Chelsea a massive defensive boost, and it should give Conte plenty of opportunities to use the squad depth he has at his disposal.

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While the arrival of Conte is sure to boost Chelsea’s chances of lifting the title, they will need plenty of improvement across the board. Thibaut Courtois will be looking to show the form he showed at the Euros, and the defence will need to lift in order to protect him. Eden Hazard (pictured) was incredibly disappointing last season, and if Chelsea are to win everything they will need him to regain his best form. Diego Costa is likely to retain his place up front despite an average season, and he will be looking to lift. If these players show some dramatic improvement then Chelsea will be very tough to beat, but there is no guarantee that this lift will occur. Conte is likely to need some time to adjust to his new surroundings, and another title is highly unlikely.

Star Player: Eden Hazard

Hazard has incredible technical ability, and when he is at his best he is incredible to watch. He can tear a team apart with his ability to dribble past defenders, and he is one of the top players in the Premier League when he is on his game. He struggled last season, and Chelsea fans will be hoping he can regain his touch.

Key Player: Cesc Fabregas

Fabregas was trained in the Barcelona academy, and his ability to distribute the ball from the centre of midfield is exceptional. He creates plenty of chances for the strikers, and while Conte will be looking for him to do this he will also be looking for more defensive solidity. Fabregas is the team’s main link between defence and attack, and Chelsea need him to be in top form.

One to watch: Kurt Zouma

Zouma moved to Chelsea from Saint-Etienne in 2014, and he will be groomed over the course of the season as a replacement for John Terry, who is approaching retirement. He may take Branislav Ivanovic’s place in the heart of defence as Conte looks to revert to a back three, and while he is unlikely to be a regular starter he is sure to get an excellent chance in the first team.

Likely team (3-5-2): Courtois – Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry; Azpilicueta, Fabregas, Kante, Willian, Hazard; Costa, Batshuayi.

Leicester City

Manager: Claudio Ranieri
Captain: Wes Morgan
Ground: King Power Stadium
Last Season: 1st
Top Scorer: Jamie Vardy (24)
Most Assists: Riyad Mahrez (11)
Prediction: 6th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Kasper Schmeichel, 12. Ben Hamer, Ron-Robert Zieler.
Defenders: 2. Richie de Laet, 5. Wes Morgan, 6. Robert Huth, 15. Jeff Schlupp, 17. Danny Simpson, 18. Liam Moore, 27. Marcin Wasilewski, 28. Christian Fuchs, 29. Yohan Benalouane, 30. Ben Chilwell, Luis Hernandez.
Midfielders: 4. Danny Drinkwater, 8. Matty James, 10. Andy King, 11. Marc Albrighton, 13. Daniel Amartey, 22. Demarai Gray, 26. Riyad Mahrez, 33. Gokhan Inler, Hamza Choudhury, Nampalys Mendy.
Forwards: 9. Jamie Vardy, 16. Tom Lawrence, 20. Shinji Okazaki, 23. Leonardo Ulloa, Ahmed Musa.

To call Leicester City’s historic title win last season a miracle would be an understatement. Under the guidance of experienced Italian manager Claudio Ranieri the Foxes exceeded all expectations, starting the season at the top of the ladder and holding on despite the odds. They have kept many of their stars from last season with the exception of N’Golo Kante’s departure to Chelsea, and while they may still lose Riyad Mahrez (pictured) they should line up much the same come the start of the season. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth are very solid down back, and new recruit Luis Hernandez should provide excellent cover in the case of injury. Danny Drinkwater is solid in midfield, and Mahrez is likely to provide plenty of goals and assists as he did last season. Jamie Vardy has a great eye for goal, and he will be ably complemented up front by Shinji Okazaki and Ahmed Musa.

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Leicester have been fairly active in the transfer market over the break, but they have not really improved their side and could struggle to keep up with the bigger clubs. They may be Premier League champions, but Leicester are still a comparatively small club, and their chances of lifting the trophy again are incredibly slim. They are a good side and should stay in the hunt, but if Mahrez departs it would cause huge problems. Ranieri is an exceptionally smart coach and could take his team to another title, but it is highly unlikely to happen.

Star Player: Riyad Mahrez

Mahrez, like so many of his teammates, came out of nowhere last season to set the Premier League alight. He scored 17 goals and assisted 11, showing great skill as he led his team to the title. Now one of the most sought-after players in Europe, the Algerian winger is sure to be tightly marked as Leicester look to go back-to-back.

Key Player: Wes Morgan

Morgan has plenty of experience, having played over 350 times for Nottingham Forest and having won over 180 caps for Leicester. He is the captain and it will be his job to marshal the defence, ensuring that not much gets through. He was at the top of his game last season, and he will need to return to his best if Leicester are going to get anywhere this time around.

One to watch: Nampalys Mendy

Mendy may not be well-known in England, but he is a top quality midfielder and he is an ideal replacement for the departed Kante. He has drawn comparisons with Chelsea legend Claude Makelele, and he came very close to joining Manchester United before swapping Monaco for Nice. He is still young, but he has plenty of experience and should slot effortlessly into Leicester’s midfield.

Likely team (4-4-2): Schmeichel – Simpson, Huth, Morgan, Fuchs; Mahrez, Drinkwater, Mendy, Musa; Vardy, Okazaki.

Manchester City

Manager: Pep Guardiola
Captain: Vincent Kompany
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Last Season: 4th
Top Scorer: Sergio Aguero (24)
Most Assists: David Silva (11)
Prediction: 2nd

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Joe Hart, 13. Willy Caballero, 45. Ian Lawlor, 54. Angus Gunn.
Defenders: 3. Bacary Sagna, 4. Vincent Kompany, 5. Pablo Zabaleta, 11. Aleksandar Kolarov, 20. Eliaquim Mangala, 22. Gael Clichy, 28. Jason Denayer, 30. Nicolas Otamendi, 50. Pablo Maffeo, 53. Tosin Adarabioyo, 69. Angelino.
Midfielders: 6. Fernando, 7. Raheem Sterling, 8. Samir Nasri, 15. Jesus Navas, 16. Ilkay Gundogan, 17. Kevin de Bruyne, 18. Fabian Delph, 21. David Silva, 25. Fernandinho, 35. Oleksandr Zinchenko, 36. Bruno Zuculini, 42. Yaya Toure, 59. Bersant Celina, 62. Brandon Barker, 75. Aleix Garcia.
Forwards: 9. Nolito, 10. Sergio Aguero, 14. Wilfried Bony, 72. Kelechi Iheanacho.

Manchester City were disappointing last season, barely scraping past Manchester United on goal difference to sneak into the Champions League. Manuel Pellegrini is gone, and former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola has been drafted in to replace him. He has inherited an excellent squad who are more than capable of taking home the trophy, and new additions Nolito and Ilkay Gundogan should slot effortlessly into the first team. Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva will provide plenty of chances for Sergio Aguero (pictured) up front, and Yaya Toure will combine with Fernandinho and Gundogan to provide solidity in midfield. Aguero is a proven scorer at both club and international level, and he will cause plenty of problems for opposition defences.

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Manchester City have the attacking power to penetrate any defence in the league, but there are still some defensive problems. Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta are very strong players, but Guardiola is still in need of another centre back. Nicolas Otamendi is not young, and the idea of using Fernandinho as a defender may not work. Similar issues exist at left back, where neither Aleksandar Kolarov nor Gael Clichy are sustainable long term options. Joe Hart is an experienced keeper, but he is nowhere near the best in the Premier League and lets in a number of unnecessary goals. Manchester City are the best attacking side in the Premier League and will be in the hunt, but their defensive issues may prove costly.

Star Player: Sergio Aguero

Aguero is a goal machine, having scored 102 Premier League goals in 150 games since joining Manchester City in 2011. He has plenty of place and an incredible eye for goal, and he provides plenty of problems for defenders. If Manchester City are to win the title they will need him to perform, as it is his ability to score which keeps them in the hunt every season.

Key Player: Yaya Toure

Toure has developed into one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, and his ability to anchor the midfield while providing the occasional goal will be key as Manchester City look to push for the title. He has plenty of experience at the highest level, and Guardiola will be hoping he can step up to take Manchester City to the next level.

One to watch: Kelechi Iheanacho

Iheanacho’s first season in the Premier League was a massive success, with the 19 year-old Nigerian playing 26 league games and scoring 8 goals. He still only has one season of professional football under his belt, and he will only continue to improve as he looks to take on a greater role under Guardiola. He is an exciting prospect and he will be great to watch.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Hart – Zabaleta, Fernandinho, Kompany, Kolarov; Toure, Gundogan; Silva, de Bruyne, Nolito; Aguero.

Manchester United

Manager: Jose Mourinho
Captain: Wayne Rooney
Ground: Old Trafford
Last Season: 5th
Top Scorer: Anthony Martial (11)
Most Assists: Wayne Rooney (6)
Prediction: 1st

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. David de Gea, 20. Sergio Romero, 32. Sam Johnstone.
Defenders: 3. Eric Bailly, 4. Phil Jones, 5. Marcos Rojo, 12. Chris Smalling, 23. Luke Shaw, 33. Paddy McNair, 36. Matteo Darmian, 38. Axel Tuanzebe, 43. Cameron Borthwick-Johnson, Tyler Blackett.
Midfielders: 8. Juan Mata, 14. Jesse Lingard, 15. Adnan Januzaj, 16. Michael Carrick, 17. Daley Blind, 18. Ashley Young, 21. Ander Herrera, 22. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, 24. Timothy Fosu-Mensah, 25. Antonio Valencia, 27. Marouane Fellaini, 28. Morgan Schneiderlin, 31. Bastian Schweinsteiger, 44. Andreas Pereira.
Forwards: 7. Memphis Depay, 9. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 10. Wayne Rooney, 11. Anthony Martial, 19. Marcus Rashford, 48. Will Keane, James Wilson.

Manchester United were disappointing last season, finishing fifth in the league and exiting the Champions League in the group stage. Victory in the FA Cup was not enough to save Louis van Gaal, and Jose Mourinho has come in to replace the Dutchman. He has added Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (pictured) over the off-season, and French midfielder Paul Pogba looks set to join the club for a world record fee. Mourinho is sure to add some much-needed solidity to the defence, and with the potency of Ibrahimovic and Anthony Martial in attack there will not be any shortage of goals. Mkhitaryan will provide plenty of chances for the strikers, and Mourinho has many good options in the centre of the park.

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Manchester United have some excellent players all over the park, but they do not have any obvious starters in defence. Chris Smalling has not been in the best of form recently, and Phil Jones is not necessarily the right option either. This uncertainty in defence is a serious problem, and it could leave David de Gea with plenty of work to do. Wayne Rooney is listed as captain, but with the new arrivals he is no longer good enough to command a place in the starting line-up. He has been playing in attacking midfield, but Mkhitaryan is a better player who will have a greater impact. This leaves Mourinho with a serious selection dilemma, one of many he could face over the course of the season. Even still, Manchester United have the quality to win the title, and if Mourinho gets it right they could be unstoppable.

Star Player: Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Mkhitaryan has been brought in from Borussia Dortmund, where he developed into one of the best playmakers in the world. He led the Bundesliga for assists last season, and he is able to find the back of the net as well. He has brilliant technical ability and he will open up plenty of space for the strikers with his pace and his effective passing.

Key Player: David de Gea

Manchester United were minutes away from losing de Gea at the start of last season, but a failure to hand in paperwork proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Red Devils. The Spanish keeper has since developed into one of the best in the Premier League, and if Manchester United are to overcome their defensive weaknesses he will need to be at his best.

One to watch: Marcus Rashford

Manchester United have many great prospects coming through, but none are as exciting as Rashford. He scored after just three minutes on his international debut, and made two substitute appearances for the English at Euro 2016. He is still only 18, and he is sure to make plenty of progress over the course of the season.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Darmian, Smalling, Bailly, Rojo; Herrera, Blind; Mata, Mkhitaryan, Martial; Ibrahimovic.

Tottenham Hotspur

Manager: Mauricio Pocchettino
Captain: Hugo Lloris
Ground: White Hart Lane
Last Season: 3rd
Top Scorer: Harry Kane (25)
Most Assists: Christian Eriksen (13)
Prediction: 3rd

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Hugo Lloris, 13. Michel Vorm.
Defenders: 2. Kyle Walker, 3. Danny Rose, 4. Toby Alderweireld, 5. Jan Vertonghen, 16. Kieran Trippier, 21. Federico Fazio, 27. Kevin Wimmer, 32. DeAndre Yedlin, 33. Ben Davies.
Midfielders: 6. Nabil Bentaleb, 8. Ryan Mason, 11. Erik Lamela, 12. Victor Wanyama, 15. Eric Dier, 19. Mousa Dembele, 20. Dele Alli, 22. Nacer Chadli, 23. Christian Eriksen, 24. Alex Pritchard, 25. Josh Onomah, 28. Tom Carroll, 29. Harry Winks.
Forwards: 7. Son Heung-min, 9. Vincent Janssen, 10. Harry Kane, 14. Clinton N’Jie.

Tottenham exceeded all expectations last season, challenging for the title and only finishing third after a bad run of results late in the season. They unearthed new stars in Dele Alli and Eric Dier, and they have developed Harry Kane (pictured) into one of the most dangerous strikers in the Premier League. Vincent Janssen has been added to the squad from AZ Alkmaar after he netted 27 times in the Eredivisie, and the Dutch youngster is sure to provide plenty of excitement for Spurs fans. Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela and Alli are sure to create plenty of opportunities for the strikers, and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris is backed up by an excellent defence. Fullbacks Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were rare bright spots in England’s campaign at Euro 2016, and Belgian centre backs Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are sure to provide plenty of solidity.

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Tottenham have an excellent squad, but they are still very young and inexperienced. Alli, Kane and Dier have only burst onto the scene in recent times, and before Janssen’s explosion in the second half of last season he was virtually unknown. Vertonghen suffered an injury at the Euros, and he is in doubt for the early parts of the season. Dier is likely to move into defence to replace him, but he has been playing as a midfielder for some time now, and he may struggle to adjust. Spurs have a lot of players in their starting line-up who are not yet proven at the highest level, and some of their young stars could crash back down to earth over the course of this campaign.

Star Player: Harry Kane

Kane has become a scoring machine, scoring 49 goals in the last two Premier League seasons and breaking down defences with power and pace. He was disappointing at the Euros, but he is an incredibly consistent scorer and he is likely to return to form very quickly. He is a strong presence up front for Spurs, and he will require plenty of attention from opposition defences.

Key Player: Toby Alderweireld

Alderweireld is a key presence in the Tottenham defence, and he has formed an incredible combination with fellow Belgian international Vertonghen. He is very experienced at the highest level, and he is capable of filling any defensive holes that may appear. He was a constant presence last season, and he will need to ensure that not much gets through.

One to watch: Vincent Janssen

Janssen burst onto the scene over the second half of last season, becoming the first player in 52 years to score 20 Eredivisie goals after the winter break. He is still only 22, and while he may take some time to adjust to the improvement in opposition he has developed well and has the potential to be a massive success.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Dier, Alli; Lamela, Eriksen, Chadli; Kane.

Experience wins out as Italy topple Belgium

It only takes one chance to win a game of football, and in the end one beautiful pass was all Italy needed to take out the highly-rated Belgians in Lyon. The second goal, scored in injury time by Graziano Pelle, was icing on the cake, and the game was all but over before Pelle’s well-hit volley passed a desperate Thomas Vermaelen to find the back of the net. Belgium started the game confidently, but they were slow in attack, and their attempts to find a target inside the box were comfortably thwarted by the experienced Italian back three of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini. The best chances for Belgium had come from long shots, and they came closest to scoring when Radja Nainggolan’s effort nearly found its way past Gianluigi Buffon into the bottom corner. Before the goal, the Italians defended Belgium with nonchalance, sweeping away the crosses as they came and looking completely nonplussed when faced with some of the best attacking talent in Europe.

The turning point came just after the half-hour mark, and it came from nowhere. The Belgians had been slow and ineffective, but the Italians had had less of the ball and had also been wasteful in the final third. Passes were consistently finding the red shirts of Belgium, and Italy did not appear likely to score against a Belgian team who were dominating possession. Then Bonucci set up Emanuele Giaccherini with one of the best passes of the tournament so far. From inside his own half the centre back played the ball just over the head of Toby Alderweireld, who was unable to cut it off. It landed perfectly at Giaccherini’s feet, and with a brilliant first touch the central midfielder slotted the ball past Thibaut Courtois into the bottom corner. The Belgian keeper had no chance after his defence broke down, and the Italians had the lead. Their next job was to protect it.

The goal took the momentum away from the Belgians, and suddenly Italy looked the more dangerous side. Antonio Candreva’s shot from range had to be saved by Courtois, and the resulting corner saw Pelle miss a certain goal with his head. The Belgians survived, and Kevin de Bruyne had a chance when he found the ball inside the area. He had a shot, but it was blocked by Giaccherini. It was a highlight in an otherwise poor display by the classy attacking midfielder, who was in the wrong position from the outset and looked completely lost for the whole game.

The second half started with more energy, and Romelu Lukaku should have scored shortly after the break when Belgium spread quickly on the counter-attack. Lukaku found himself behind the defence after a nice pass from de Bruyne, but he could not convert when one-on-one with Buffon. The Italian captain was in a strong position at the edge of the box, and while Lukaku’s shot went past him it missed the goals by inches. A minute later Courtois had to make a wonderful save to deny Pelle, whose close range header was destined for the bottom corner before the Belgian keeper threw out a hand to stop it. Italy needed to take the sting out of the game, and they gradually did, forcing Belgium to attack patiently and allowing their defence to take control again. They thwarted Belgium every time they tried to counter, and had plenty of players booked as a result. Chiellini just stopped short of tackling Eden Hazard to the ground as the Belgian captain tried to get away. Dries Mertens had plenty of options open for him on the break, but Eder made sure he could not pass it off. Bonucci fouled Divock Origi when the young striker found himself in a strong attacking position. Belgium were forced to try and penetrate the perfectly organised Italian defence, and while chances fell to Origi and Marouane Fellaini in the dying minutes they could not get the ball into the Italian net.

In the end, none of it mattered, as a strong Italian counter-attack was too much for the Belgian defence. Candreva found himself one-on-one, but chose to cross it to Pelle, leaving the Belgian keeper out of position. Vermaelen tried desperately to stop the shot, but, like Belgium on the night, it was never going to happen.

Parc Olympique Lyonnais – Lyon
Belgium 0
Italy 2 (Giaccherini 32, Pelle 90+2)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (Eng)

Belgium (4-2-3-1): Courtois – Ciman (Carrasco 75), Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Nainggolan (Mertens 62), Witsel; de Bruyne, Fellaini, Hazard; Lukaku (Origi 73).
Italy (3-5-2): Buffon – Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Candreva, Parolo, de Rossi (Motta 78), Giaccherini, Darmian (de Sciglio 58); Pelle, Eder (Immobile 75).

Top 5
1. Leonardo Bonucci (Italy)
Bonucci was brilliant throughout, and he was impenetrable in defence. His combination with Barzagli, Chiellini and Buffon was excellent, and when Belgium were sending crosses into the box early he was always there to block them. The pass that led to Italy’s first goal was incredible, and he had a wonderful game despite a booking for a professional foul late in the game.
2. Giorgio Chiellini (Italy)
Chiellini played a similar role to Bonucci in the centre of defence, and he made some key stops to ensure that nothing got through. He showed his experience when he fouled Eden Hazard to stop a Belgian attack, and while he was booked for the incident it did not really tarnish his individual performance. He was very good, and will hope to continue his form for the rest of the tournament.
3. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois was at the top of his game in goal, and he kept Belgium in the game on a number of occasions after the Italians opened the scoring. He had no chance of stopping the two Italian goals, but he saved a number of excellent Italian attempts and made an incredible save to deny Graziano Pelle’s header just after half-time.
4. Graziano Pelle (Italy)
A goal in injury-time was a just reward for Pelle, who was a massive problem for the Belgian defence throughout and managed to find plenty of open space inside the box. He should have scored just after Giaccherini when his header was slightly wide, and it took a special save from Courtois to deny another header from close range. He was in good attacking positions and was very dangerous.
5. Toby Alderweireld (Belgium)
The Belgian defence was not particularly cohesive throughout, but Alderweireld was able to hold everything together for the whole game. He was caught out when Italy scored their first goal, but he had a flawless second half. He was forced to take a bigger role as the game progressed, and he was able to thwart most of Italy’s counter-attacks before they came to anything.