Germany breathe a sigh of relief as Kroos classic leaves Sweden heartbroken

Toni Kroos stood over the free-kick. Germany’s crunch clash with Sweden was coming to an end, with the teams level and the Germans desperately searching for a winner. After nearly 95 minutes of action, the Germans were fighting to keep their World Cup destiny in their own hands, and the pressure of a nation’s high expectations sat on Kroos’ shoulders. The Germans didn’t expect to be in for a group stage fight when they came to Russia. Then their defence was decimated by Mexico’s lethal counter-attacks, and they sunk to a 1-0 loss. Now, with the score at 1-1 against the Swedes, and with just 10 men on the field, Germany were relying on Kroos. The recriminations if he couldn’t create something would be massive.

Kroos was on a tight angle which made shooting difficult. He shot anyway. He rolled the ball to Marco Reus, who trapped it and left it alone. In the Swedish wall, Jimmy Durmaz and Sebastian Larsson, free to run at the ball, attempted to charge Kroos down. They didn’t worry him. Having ever-so-slightly improved the angle, he stepped back up to the ball and took his shot. Robin Olsen didn’t stand a chance as the ball curved and, as if floating, bypassed his desperate dive. It was, thanks to its importance, timing and, above all, difficulty, a goal that will stick in the memory long after this tournament is done. Germany won, and Kroos’ classic strike may well have saved their tournament.

Germany got off to a fast start, shooting out of the blocks as if possessed and placing their opponents under immense pressure. The chances came thick and fast. Sweden clumsily dealt with Joshua Kimmich’s cross and required a desperate goal line block from Larsson to repel Julian Draxler’s shot from a dangerous position. Soon after, the ball was set up for Jonas Hector to volley, but Andreas Granqvist did well to interpose his body between ball and goal. The chances kept coming. Draxler slipped a half-cross-half-shot just past the post. Victor Lindelöf just managed to bundle the ball out when Reus slipped past Ludwig Augustinsson and centred the ball for Timo Werner. Less than 10 minutes had elapsed.

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Toni Kroos celebrates after scoring Germany’s late winner. A German win wasn’t looking likely until Kroos found the back of the net with a well-hit shot into the top corner.

Signs of their vulnerabilities against Mexico did remain, and Sweden managed to exploit them once or twice. Just under 15 minutes had gone when Antonio Rüdiger made a mistake in possession and Marcus Berg surged towards the German goal. He was only denied by a questionable challenge from Jérôme Boateng and a typically excellent save from an onrushing Manuel Neuer. Sweden continued to protest Boateng’s non-punishment for a good five minutes, but no change in decision was forthcoming. After Germany’s early surge pushed Sweden to the brink, the heat had gone out of the game, and the Swedish defence was looking much more assured. Then Sweden scored.

As was the case against Mexico, Germany conceded from a turnover. The normally solid Kroos made an uncharacteristic mistake in possession, allowing Sweden to flood forward in transition. The ball found Viktor Claesson, whose lofted pass towards the centre found Ola Toivonen. Toivonen held off Antonio Rüdiger as he controlled the ball, and with the big centre-back lunging desperately to stop him the Swedish striker lifted the ball over Neuer towards the back of the net. Time seemed to stand still as Toivonen’s shot, aided by a slight deflection from Rüdiger, looped towards the goal line. As it finally buried itself in the back of the net, it cued delirium for Sweden and devastation for Germany. Suddenly, Germany were on the brink of the unthinkable: a group stage exit.

Olsen denied the Germans shortly afterwards with two brilliant stops in rapid succession. İlkay Gündoğan started it, forcing the Swedish keeper into a diving parry, and when he only managed a slight – and slightly inadvertent – deflection on Thomas Müller’s follow-up effort it looked as if the Germans had scored. Mercifully for Sweden, and agonisingly for Germany, the ball rolled just wide of the goalpost while a now helpless Olsen watched on. Sweden continued to make occasional forays forward, with Claesson denied by a last-ditch challenge from Hector and Berg forcing Neuer to pull out a stunning save with a brilliant header, but they couldn’t add to their lead. They didn’t really have to. When the half time whistle blew, Toivonen’s goal was still the difference between the sides.

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Jérôme Boateng is shown the red card by referee Szymon Marciniak. The decision left Germany with only 10 men, but it didn’t stop them from winning the match.

Germany needed to respond after half time, and they did. Finally, after a catastrophic defeat against Mexico and a potentially scandalous first half against Sweden, the Germans found the back of the net. Finally, they responded with their backs against the wall. It came from Werner, who slipped through on the left and pulled the ball back looking for one of his attackers. He had options. It went past Müller, rolling on through and taking a slight deflection off Lindelöf. It went behind Mario Gómez, taking a slight deflection off the half time substitute on the way. It went to Reus, and he didn’t miss. He bundled the ball past Olsen, and Germany breathed a slight sigh of relief. It wasn’t pretty, and it came straight off his knee, but Germany didn’t care.

There was still the small matter of winning the game, and the second half passed without too much goalmouth action. The Germans were on top in terms of possession and territory, but time seemed to fly as they pressed the Swedish defence without creating too many chances. Sweden still had some opportunities, and Neuer only just recovered from losing his balance in time to stop John Guidetti from getting on the end of a very dangerous ball. Then Boateng, already booked for a poor challenge on Emil Forsberg, took out Berg’s legs. Szymon Marciniak had no choice but to send him off, and Germany’s task got a lot harder. They kept pushing, but it looked like they were going to be denied.

They started to find better chances as the game entered its final moments. Kroos put in a beautiful cross, and Gómez met it with a perfectly-timed header. It seemed destined for the back of the net before Olsen reacted. He leapt to tap it over the bar, keeping the Germans at bay. Julian Brandt came off the bench and had a chance when he found space to shoot outside the box. His shot was driven with tremendous force. It had Olsen completely beaten. It also rammed into the bottom of the post, leaving the Swedish goal threatened but unharmed. Then, with seconds left, Kroos scored. It didn’t erase the stress of the first two games. It didn’t completely undo the harm that Germany have done their World Cup chances. But it put their fate back in their hands, and that’s all that matters.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Germany 1 (Reus 48, Kroos 90+5)
Sweden 1 (Toivonen 32)
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (Pol)
Germany (4-2-3-1): Neuer – Kimmich, Boateng, Rüdiger, Hector (Brandt 87); Rudy (Gündoğan 31), Kroos; Müller, Draxler (Gómez 46), Reus; Werner.
Sent-off: Boateng 82
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Lustig, Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson (Durmaz 74), Larsson, Ekdal, Forsberg; Berg (Kiese Thelin 90), Toivonen (Guidetti 78).

Top 5
1. Marco Reus (Germany)
Reus scored the crucial equalising goal, and created plenty of chances with his movement in attacking midfield. His ability to make things happen in and around the penalty area more than justified his selection over Mesut Özil, and he seems to be in excellent form.
2. Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Granqvist led the Swedish defence, and he was in top form as they held firm until the last minute. He was always determined to stop his opponents, and he pulled off some excellent pieces of defensive play throughout. He has been in excellent form, and he will be the key to Sweden’s chances as they aim to beat the odds and make the second round.
3. Toni Kroos (Germany)
Kroos was largely responsible for Sweden’s goal, but he built into the match as it went on and he played a crucial role in the win with his brilliant late goal. He was usually solid in possession, and his class began to assert itself as the game came to a close. His winner was incredible.
4. Timo Werner (Germany)
A half time switch to the left-wing paid dividends for Werner, who began to attack the Swedish defence from wide areas and put dangerous balls into the box. He assisted Reus for the equaliser, and his combination with Hector provided Germany’s most potent second half threat.
5. Robin Olsen (Sweden)
Olsen made some brilliant saves to deny the Germans, and his work improved as the game went on. His double save to deny Gündoğan and Müller and his reflex stop to deny Gómez’s brilliant header kept the Swedish in the game.

Mexican blitz brings Germans undone

“Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”

These famous words were spoken by Gary Lineker, and they still ring true to this day. Now expertly coached by Joachim Löw and full of champion players, the Germans entered the World Cup among the favourites. Sure, there were slight questions about their form heading in to their tournament opener against Mexico, but if the first game of the tournament isn’t dedicated to blowing away a few cobwebs then what’s the point of it? They’re Germany, after all.

The signs of German fragility were there from the start, but, surely, they’d be right. The Mexicans started the game with a fast attack that gave Hirving Lozano space to take a shot, and although Jérôme Boateng threw himself in front of Lozano’s effort the danger was apparent. The sides had played less than a minute. From the resultant corner, Marvin Plattenhardt let the ball hit him and roll into a very dangerous area. Manuel Neuer, in his first competitive game since September, threw himself on top of the ball, but the nerves were there. The ball was turned over in their defensive half, and Mexico were looking increasingly dangerous on the break. They were playing well, but the Germans were just working into it. Nothing to see here. They’re Germany, after all.

The Germans were still a threat in attack. Timo Werner’s early shot trailed across the face of goal, and Carlos Salcedo was nearly forced into turning the ball into his own net. Right-back Joshua Kimmich was a constant threat on the right flank. He may have been caught out a few times by the scintillating combination of Carlos Vela, Javier Hernández and the dangerous Lozano, but Germany were still holding up. Would Germany’s defence crack? Surely not before Mexico’s. They’re Germany, after all.

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Hirving Lozano celebrates after scoring the only goal of the game. Lozano showed all of his class and power in finishing the chance after a well-executed breakaway.

Then Germany’s defence cracked. Mats Hummels was out of position, and Hernández had time and space to find Lozano on the left side of the area. One touch beat Mesut Özil, who had worked desperately to get back and help out, and another set him up for the shot. As for the finish, it was lashed into the bottom corner, barely managing to elude Neuer’s desperate dive. But surely it wasn’t time to panic just yet. An early goal was just the motivation Germany needed to start playing their best football. It’d turn around. They’re Germany, after all.

The goal seemed to be the incentive to greater heights the Germans needed. They began to play with renewed vigour, putting the Mexicans on the back foot and forcing Guillermo Ochoa to make an incredible save to tap Toni Kroos’ near-perfect free-kick into the bar. Mexico held their lead for the rest of the first half, but it couldn’t last against Kroos, Müller, Werner, Draxler, Özil and Kimmich. They’re Germany, after all.

The Germans began to dominate proceedings as the second half commenced. Mexico weren’t counter-attacking or pressing like they had been in the first half, and they were sitting ducks against a constant wave of German attack after German attack. There was no one chance that could be pinpointed. Instead, every moment seemed to contain a chance for the Germans to grab the equaliser. Mexico were holding out well, but the Germans would soon get the leveller. They’re Germany, after all.

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Joshua Kimmich runs with the ball during the match. Kimmich provided Germany with an attacking threat from right-back, but Mexico also managed to exploit his aggressive positioning.

Löw tried to turn things around. He gutted his midfield, then his defence, to reinforce his attack. Against Germany’s back two of Boateng and Hummels, Miguel Layún threatened with a couple of raids on the break. At the other end, the chances were piling up. Kimmich’s overhead kick was just wide. Ochoa made save after save. Mario Gómez had a brilliant headed chance, but somehow lifted it over the bar. After a pinball style sequence within the German penalty area, Julian Brandt unleashed a murderous looking strike on the edge of the box, but it cleaved the air just wide of the left goalpost. An equaliser just had to come. They are Germany, right?

And yet, Germany or not, Mexico continued to keep them at bay. Thomas Müller and Hummels gave away unnecessary yellow cards in frustration. Neuer was moved forward in the desperate final moments, and still the Mexicans refused to budge. The final whistle followed shortly afterwards, signalling the end of the match and confirming Mexico’s monumental triumph against the odds. Mexican fans rejoiced in a brilliant victory that will shape the rest of this competition, and the players rushed onto the field to celebrate a confidence-boosting win. For once, the aura of invincibility that has cloaked Germany’s recent performances was shattered. For once, the Germans didn’t win.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Germany 0
Mexico 1 (Lozano 35)
Referee: Alireza Faghani (Irn)
Germany (4-2-3-1): Neuer – Kimmich, Boateng, Hummels, Plattenhardt (Gómez 79); Khedira (Reus 60), Kroos; Müller, Özil, Draxler; Werner (Brandt 86).
Mexico (4-2-3-1): Ochoa – Salcedo, Ayala, Moreno, Gallardo; Herrera, Guardado (Márquez 73); Layún, Vela (Álvarez 58), Lozano (Jiménez 66); Hernández.

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Javier Hernández (right) and Carlos Vela chase after the ball during Mexico’s upset win. Hernández and Vela played a key role in breaking down Germany’s defence.

Top 5
1. Javier Hernández (Mexico)
Hernández was in excellent form throughout, providing the assist for Mexico’s goal and keeping up his dangerous runs on the break for the entirety of the match. The open spaces provided to him by Germany’s attacking full-backs allowed him to wreak havoc, and his combination with Vela, Lozano and Layún formed a mobile attack that repeatedly picked the German defence apart.
2. Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
Mexico’s dynamic attack gave them the lead, but without Ochoa there to deny the Germans it wouldn’t have counted for much. His save to deny Kroos’ brilliant free-kick was top class, and was one of many excellent stops he made on the day. He showed all of his experience in denying the reigning champions, and will take plenty of confidence from his efforts.
3. Toni Kroos (Germany)
Kroos allowed the Germans to control the game with his work in the middle of the park, dictating all of their attacks and often directing traffic to players in dangerous positions. He had Germany’s best chance of the match with his almost flawless free-kick, and his ability to pick out incisive passes made him one of the most dangerous players on the pitch.
4. Hirving Lozano (Mexico)
Lozano scored the only goal of the match, and he exploited the void left by Kimmich’s high positioning to devastating effect. He showed a brilliant first touch and an incredible control over the ball when it fell at his feet, and his finish to pick up the Mexican goal was classy and powerful at the same time. If he keeps this form up he will be a force at this tournament.
5. Carlos Vela (Mexico)
Vela may have been subbed off just before the hour but he was still able to leave an indelible mark on the game. His pace through the middle was a key factor in Mexico’s early counter-attacking success, and he picked out some brilliant passes playing in behind Hernández. His pace and skill created massive problems for the German defence.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group F

Group F

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Germany (1), Mexico (15), Sweden (24), South Korea (57)
Fixtures:
Germany vs Mexico, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Sweden vs South Korea, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
South Korea vs Mexico, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
Germany vs Sweden, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
South Korea vs Germany, Kazan Arena, Kazan
Mexico vs Sweden, Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg

Germany

Head Coach: Joachim Löw
Captain: Manuel Neuer
Previous Appearances: 18 (1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018)
Best Finish: Champions (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group C
Qualification Top Scorer: Thomas Müller, Sandro Wagner (5)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich), 12. Kevin Trapp (Paris Saint-Germain), 22. Marc-André ter Stegen (Barcelona).
Defenders: 2. Marvin Plattenhardt (Hertha Berlin), 3. Jonas Hector (Köln), 4. Matthias Ginter (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 5. Mats Hummels (Bayern Munich), 15. Niklas Süle (Bayern Munich), 16. Antonio Rüdiger (Chelsea), 17. Jérôme Boateng (Bayern Munich), 18. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich).
Midfielders: 6. Sami Khedira (Juventus), 7. Julian Draxler (Paris Saint-Germain), 8. Toni Kroos (Real Madrid), 10. Mesut Özil (Arsenal), 11. Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund), 14. Leon Goretzka (Schalke), 19. Sebastian Rudy (Bayern Munich), 20. Julian Brandt (Bayer Leverkusen), 21. İlkay Gündoğan (Manchester City).
Forwards: 9. Timo Werner (Leipzig), 13. Thomas Müller (Bayern Munich), 23. Mario Gómez (Stuttgart).

The reigning champions never looked likely to be challenged in qualifying, but the ease with which they blew their opposition away (they averaged over four goals a game and finished with a perfect record) should send out a clear warning to opponents in Russia. The key strength of Joachim Löw’s team is consistency: you know what you’re going to get and that it’s probably going to be a win. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has returned from injury in time to take his place in the side, with Barcelona’s star keeper Marc-André ter Stegen very unlucky to miss out. Neuer is protected by a formidable defence spearheaded by two brilliant centre-backs in Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels. Joshua Kimmich and Jonas Hector are arguably the best full-back pairing at this tournament, and a midfield of Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil is full of talent. With Julian Draxler, Marco Reus, Thomas Müller and Timo Werner providing a strong attack, the Germans may just have the side to go back-to-back.

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Toni Kroos runs with the ball during a World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic. Kroos is one of Germany’s most skilled playmakers in the centre of the park, and he will look to provide plenty of chances in Russia.

Neuer’s injury worries, however, are one of a few niggling concerns surrounding the squad. When he is fully fit, the Bayern Munich keeper is undoubtedly the best in the world, but a fractured foot limited him to just three Bundesliga games this season and he will come into the World Cup short on match practice. Germany’s attacking stocks have improved since the last World Cup, but they could still have issues up front. The non-selection of in-form Manchester City winger Leroy Sané shows the depth Löw has at his disposal, but the young star would have provided an x-factor that the Germans may be lacking in Russia. Not helping their issues is the omission and subsequent retirement of Sandro Wagner, who was Germany’s equal top scorer in qualifying and could have provided them with a quality outlet for their attacking play. The Germans are almost certain to feature in the latter stages of this tournament, and these issues may prove more problematic when facing the best.

Star Player: Toni Kroos

Kroos was in brilliant form as Germany won the trophy in 2014, and he will be looking to stand up again this time around. His delivery from set pieces is exceptional, and he provides plenty of opportunities in open play from the centre of the park. His combination with Khedira is very effective, and is likely to deliver excellent results in Russia.

Key Player: Manuel Neuer

Neuer’s spectacular goalkeeping has allowed Germany to thrive for years, and his lack of game time this season has led to understandable concern about his ability to return to top form. By all accounts he seems to be back at full fitness, but he remains the most significant question mark surrounding Löw’s team. If he hits top form, he is almost impossible to beat.

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Manuel Neuer saves a penalty during a shoot-out against Italy at Euro 2016. Neuer is known for his brilliant goalkeeping, but injury issues have interrupted his build-up to the tournament and have led to doubts about how he will perform.

One to watch: Joshua Kimmich

When legendary right-back Philipp Lahm retired after the 2014 World Cup, he seemed almost irreplaceable. Then Germany plucked Kimmich, a seemingly ready-made replacement, out of nowhere. He is versatile, with the ability to play in midfield as well as defence, and he can push forward to create chances from the right flank while performing his defensive duties. He is a very good player, and could have a huge impact.

Verdict

Germany are a consistent unit who know how to win, and they’ve been doing it non-stop for years. They look likely to feature in the latter stages of this tournament, and their seasoned core of high-quality players could win it all.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Kimmich, Hummels, Boateng, Hector; Khedira, Kroos; Müller, Özil, Reus; Werner.

Mexico

Head Coach: Juan Carlos Osorio
Captain: Andrés Guardado
Previous Appearances: 15 (1930, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1978, 1986, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1970, 1986)
Qualified: CONCACAF, 1st
Qualification Top Scorer: Hirving Lozano (4)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. José de Jesús Corona (Cruz Azul), 12. Alfredo Talavera (Toluca), 13. Guillermo Ochoa (Standard Liège).
Defenders: 2. Hugo Ayala (UANL), 3. Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt), 4. Rafael Márquez (Atlas), 5. Diego Reyes (Porto), 7. Miguel Layún (Sevilla), 15. Héctor Moreno (Real Sociedad), 21. Edson Álvarez (América).
Midfielders: 6. Jonathan dos Santos (Los Angeles Galaxy), 8. Marco Fabián (Eintracht Frankfurt), 16. Héctor Herrera (Porto), 18. Andrés Guardado (Real Betis), 20. Javier Aquino (UANL), 23. Jesús Gallardo (UNAM).
Forwards: 9. Raúl Jiménez (Benfica), 10. Giovani dos Santos (Los Angeles Galaxy), 11. Carlos Vela (Los Angeles FC), 14. Javier Hernández (West Ham United), 17. Jesús Manuel Corona (Porto), 19. Oribe Peralta (América), 22. Hirving Lozano (PSV Eindhoven).

While their main rivals in North America, the USA, sputtered towards an embarrassing non-qualification, Mexico cruised to Russia on the back of a solid defence that only conceded eight goals in 16 qualifying games. Mexico’s strength will come from the experienced players they have all over the pitch, especially down back. Guillermo Ochoa is a dependable goalkeeper, and there are plenty of quality options in a defence led by Héctor Moreno and Miguel Layún. Héctor Herrera and Andrés Guardado are both excellent midfielders, and they will be well supported by Diego Reyes and Jonathan dos Santos. Up front, dos Santos’ half-brother Giovani has returned from injury and will boost a dangerous attack of Carlos Vela, Javier Hernández, Hirving Lozano and Jesús Manuel Corona. Mexico have progressed from the group stage at the last six World Cups (although they haven’t made it past the round of 16 in any of them) and with an experienced and well-rounded squad they are a good chance of making it through once again.

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Captain Andrés Guardado (left) and Héctor Herrera discuss how to best make use of a free-kick in a friendly against Denmark. Guardado and Herrera are both experienced midfielders who will play a big part in Mexico’s tournament.

Unfortunately for coach Juan Carlos Osorio, Mexico’s lead-up has been severely hampered by injuries to key players. Both of the dos Santos brothers have had concerns in the lead-up, as have captain Guardado, Reyes and Moreno. Moreno’s partner in central defence, Néstor Araujo, isn’t part of the squad, having been ruled out with a knee injury. With so many key parts of the side missing, Mexico may struggle to perform at their best in Russia, something which could hurt their chances of progress from a competitive group. It’s not yet clear who is in their first-choice defence, a problem that is exacerbated by the absence of Araujo, and they are yet to settle on a player who can fill the void at right-back. Many of the fans are not supportive of the work Osorio has done, and questions over the coach’s future could prove an unwanted distraction at the final tournament.

Star Player: Héctor Herrera

As captain of Porto, one of Europe’s biggest clubs, Herrera has experience of playing at the highest level and is a dependable presence in midfield. He is a hard-working box-to-box midfielder, and his ability to contribute in both defence and attack will be invaluable for the Mexicans. He combines excellent skills with hard running, and he is a very important player.

Key Player: Héctor Moreno

Moreno will anchor the Mexican defence, and he will be able to rely on plenty of experience at the top level. He is a strong centre-back who has marshalled Mexico’s defence for some time, and he will be a key part of any success they enjoy in Russia. If he is able to play well, Mexico will be a very hard side to break down and their chances of a good outcome will increase dramatically.

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Hirving Lozano celebrates after scoring against Russia in the 2017 Confederations Cup. Lozano is one of Mexico’s brightest young stars, and he can have a big impact at the World Cup.

One to watch: Hirving Lozano

Lozano made his Mexican debut in 2016, and since then he has become an integral part of the team’s success. He has pace and a dangerous shot cutting in from the left wing, and he will be the man Mexico turn to if they need a goal. He is coming into the World Cup after a brilliant season with Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven where he scored 17 goals and established himself in Europe. A good tournament will further his reputation.

Verdict

Mexico are a solid team who have been performing consistently for some time, and they will be a challenging opponent. They will aim for at least the round of 16, but it remains to see how big an effect their injuries will have.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Ochoa; Salcedo, Ayala, Moreno, Layún; Herrera, Reyes, Guardado; Vela, Hernández, Lozano.

Sweden

Head Coach: Janne Andersson
Captain: Andreas Granqvist
Previous Appearances: 11 (1934, 1938, 1950, 1958, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1990, 1994, 2002, 2006)
Best Finish: Runners-up (1958)
Qualified: UEFA, 2nd Group A (beat Italy in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Marcus Berg (8)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Robin Olsen (Copenhagen), 12. Karl-Johan Johnsson (Guingamp), 23. Kristoffer Nordfeldt (Swansea City).
Defenders: 2. Mikael Lustig (Celtic), 3. Victor Lindelöf (Manchester United), 4. Andreas Granqvist (Krasnodar), 5. Martin Olsson (Swansea City), 6. Ludwig Augustinsson (Werder Bremen), 14. Filip Helander (Bologna), 16. Emil Krafth (Bologna), 18. Pontus Jansson (Leeds United).
Midfielders: 7. Sebastian Larsson (Hull City), 8. Albin Ekdal (Hamburg), 10. Emil Forsberg (Leipzig), 13. Gustav Svensson (Seattle Sounders), 15. Oscar Hiljemark (Genoa), 17. Victor Claesson (Krasnodar), 19. Marcus Rohdén (Crotone), 21. Jimmy Durmaz (Toulouse).
Forwards: 9. Marcus Berg (Al Ain), 11. John Guidetti (Deportivo Alavés), 20. Ola Toivonen (Toulouse), 22. Isaac Kiese Thelin (Waasland-Beveren).

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Marcus Berg scores against Luxembourg during World Cup qualifying. Berg will be Sweden’s main striker in Russia, and they will be hoping he can find the back of the net.

Sweden knocked out two big footballing nations on their way to Russia, first edging out the Netherlands to claim a spot in the play-offs before beating the Italians in two legs to seal their spot in Russia. Their defence was very strong, especially in the play-offs (where they shut out the Italians in both games), and a back four of Mikael Lustig, Victor Lindelöf, Andreas Granqvist and Ludwig Augustinsson provides experience and solidity. Albin Ekdal and Sebastian Larsson are strong performers in midfield, and they will receive support from the classy Emil Forsberg. Forsberg is an excellent provider and should ensure there is good service for Ola Toivonen and Marcus Berg in attack, where the latter’s brilliant form in the UAE bodes well for the campaign ahead. Sweden have a settled side with very few holes, and this consistent performance across the board saw them through a challenging qualifying group. They have the pieces to push for a berth in the knockouts.

As a team, however, the Swedes are not in good form. Up front, Toivonen failed to score in 23 Ligue 1 games this season, while his back-up, John Guidetti, didn’t fare much better in La Liga. Berg did find the back of the net regularly in the UAE, but he may be short on match practice against top-quality opponents. Meanwhile, Forsberg’s form dropped off after a brilliant first season in the Bundesliga, with a meagre total of two goals and two assists very poor for a player of his quality. Down back, Lindelöf’s big-money move to Manchester United didn’t go as planned, while first-choice goalkeeper Robin Olsen missed most of the back-end of the season with a fractured collarbone. With key players down on form and fitness coming into the World Cup, a potential lack of support for Forsberg and some questions about the depth of the squad, Sweden have some big issues. They fought hard to get here, and it will be a tough fight if they want to progress from the group stage.

Star Player: Emil Forsberg

It’s fair to say Forsberg is coming into the World Cup after a season to forget. He had issues with injury and form, and capped it all off with a suspension that ruled him out of the last three games. He is, however, a very talented playmaker, and if he can find his form of 2016-17 (where he managed a remarkable 22 assists in the Bundesliga) he will have a big impact for the Swedes. He is more than capable of making a mark.

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Emil Forsberg (right) competes for the ball during Sweden’s crucial second-leg match against Italy. Forsberg is coming off a disappointing season, but he is still capable of having a big tournament.

Key Player: Victor Lindelöf

Lindelöf made a big money move to Manchester United in the off-season, but the centre-back never really found form in his new colours. He only managed 13 starts, and he could come into Russia underdone as a result. Despite this, he is still an important part of Sweden’s team, and the solid central defender will need to put his poor season behind him and perform well if they are to progress.

One to watch: Ludwig Augustinsson

Augustinsson was a regular part of Sweden’s team in qualifying, and the left-back is coming off a strong season in Germany. He can provide an attacking threat and complement Forsberg effectively, and the way he slotted into higher level competition at Werder Bremen suggests he won’t be overawed by the occasion of the World Cup. He will feature prominently in Russia.

Verdict

The Swedish are fairly reliable, but they may lack the quality to compete with the best. With so many of their best players coming off poor seasons, the Swedes may struggle to make it through.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Olsen; Lustig, Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Ekdal, Larsson, Forsberg; Toivonen, Berg.

South Korea

Head Coach: Shin Tae-young
Captain: Ki Sung-yueng
Previous Appearances: 9 (1954, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Fourth Place (2002)
Qualified: AFC, 2nd Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Son Heung-min (7)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Kim Seung-gyu (Vissel Kobe), 21. Kim Jin-hyeon (Cerezo Osaka), 23. Cho Hyun-woo (Daegu FC).
Defenders: 2. Lee Yong (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), 3. Jung Seung-hyun (Sagan Tosu), 4. Oh Ban-suk (Jeju United), 5. Yun Young-sun (Seongnam FC), 6. Park Joo-ho (Ulsan Hyundai), 12. Kim Min-woo (Sangju Sangmu), 14. Hong Chul (Sangju Sangmu), 19. Kim Young-gwon (Guangzhou Evergrande), 20. Jang Hyun-soo (FC Tokyo), 22. Go Yo-han (FC Seoul).
Midfielders: 8. Ju Se-jong (Asan Mugunghwa), 10. Lee Seung-woo (Hellas Verona), 13. Koo Ja-cheol (Augsburg), 15. Jung Woo-young (Vissel Kobe), 16. Ki Sung-yueng (Swansea City), 17. Lee Jae-sung (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), 18. Moon Seon-min (Incheon United).
Forwards: 7. Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspur), 9. Kim Shin-wook (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), 11. Hwang Hee-chan (Red Bull Salzburg).

South Korea didn’t face too much of a challenge in qualifying for their ninth consecutive World Cup, even if they only sealed their passage with a scoreless draw on the final day of qualifying. They aren’t carrying too much expectation into the World Cup, but they could be a tough opponent. Son Heung-min has been in excellent form with Tottenham Hotspur, and the dangerous attacker will be a constant goal threat. Hwang Hee-chan has been in strong form and will help him out, while Lee Jae-sung and Lee Seung-woo are quality wide players who can create plenty of chances. In midfield, Ki Sung-yueng, Jung Woo-young and Koo Ja-cheol provide experience and versatility. The Taeguk Warriors are backed up by a defence that let in just 10 goals in 18 qualifiers, and this should hold them in good stead as they look to progress from a competitive but not impossible group.

Embed from Getty Images

Son Heung-min shoots during a qualifier against Iran. Son is South Korea’s best player, and they will need him at his best if they want to make it through to the round of 16.

If they want to get past the group stage, however, Shin Tae-young’s side will need to fix some major issues. Shin has been tinkering with the formation since the end of the qualifying campaign, but he hasn’t found the right combinations and the results have been poor. Son may be asked to shoulder too much of the scoring burden (Hwang is talented, but hasn’t yet developed into a regular goal-scorer for club or country). The South Koreans have had injury issues which have harmed their build-up, and the losses of attacking midfielders Kwon Chang-hoon and Lee Chung-yong, as well as key defensive midfielder Kwon Kyung-won, are all big blows for the Taeguk Warriors. The squad is fairly inexperienced, with over half the squad entering the tournament with less than 20 caps to their name. This could lead to more experienced players being forced to pick up the pieces, putting extra pressure on stars Son and Ki. Most of all, the Taeguk Warriors don’t have the top players to match up with the best, something which could harm them in Russia.

Star Player: Son Heung-min

Son is a two-time Asian footballer of the year, and his exploits in the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur have made him South Korea’s biggest hope going into the World Cup. Son is naturally a winger, but he is likely to play as the main striker in Russia and also has the ability to drop back into midfield to create chances. He is one of the most dangerous players in world football, and should not be underestimated.

Key Player: Ki Sung-yueng

Ki has been a key part of both South Korea’s midfield for a number of years, and the Taeguk Warriors will be relying on his hard work through the middle. He has the ability to provide opportunities in attack and effectively shield the defence, and the experience he has gained over six seasons in the Premier League and two previous World Cups will be invaluable for the Koreans.

Embed from Getty Images

Lee Seung-woo attempts to beat a defender during a friendly against Honduras. Lee was an unexpected selection for the World Cup, but he is very talented and could be a star for years to come.

One to watch: Lee Seung-woo

For much of his early career, Lee was known as the “Korean Messi”. Such comparisons were inevitable: he had prodigious skills, an ability to find the back of the net, and he played for Barcelona. Oh, and he was in his mid-teens. Lee has been known as a future star ever since he signed for the Spanish giants at just 12, but his selection for the World Cup was a shock despite his domination of youth football. Now he’s here, he could be very influential.

Verdict

The Taeguk Warriors may struggle, especially with injuries to some key players, but they do have plenty of talent. Son is a very good forward, and Hwang, Lee Seung-woo and Lee Jae-sung could provide a handy boost. They could be interesting to watch.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Kim Seung-gyu; Lee Yong, Jang Hyun-soo, Yun Young-sun, Park Joo-ho; Lee Seung-woo, Ki Sung-yueng, Jung Woo-young, Lee Jae-sung; Hwang Hee-chan, Son Heung-min.

Prediction

Aside from the Germans, who are almost guaranteed to progress, this will be a very competitive group. Mexico and Sweden would naturally be expected to battle it out for second place, but their issues (Mexico with fitness, Sweden with form) could open the door for a South Korean team that could be a surprise package in Russia. The South Koreans’ inability to settle on a formation is likely to hold them back, but a win over Sweden in their first game is definitely a possibility and would set them well on the path to progression. In a tight race, the Mexicans’ quality and experience may just set them apart, but they are not going to have it easy against any of their group stage opponents.
1. Germany, 2. Mexico, 3. Sweden, 4. South Korea

Germany send clear message with demolition of Slovakia

It was over before it had begun. Germany, the reigning world champions, came into their round of 16 match with Slovakia under plenty of scrutiny. They left triumphant, having delivered a performance which would have been good enough to beat any team in the world. They sent a clear message to the rest of the competition with the 3-0 victory, a game which they dominated throughout. Germany started on top, and they were not really challenged by Slovakia in the opening minutes. Then the chances started to come. Toni Kroos put a dangerous free kick into the box, and Sami Khedira’s header had to be tipped over the bar by Matus Kozacik. The first goal followed, as the corner was only headed away as far as Jerome Boateng, who volleyed from range into the bottom corner. Kozacik didn’t have a chance after the ball deflected off Milan Skriniar, and Germany had the early lead.

Mesut Ozil should have doubled the lead minutes later when Martin Skrtel’s shove on Mario Gomez resulted in a penalty, but Matus Kozacik was able to save the spot kick and keep the score at 1-0. The Germans kept coming, and it never really looked like they would be denied for long. The Germans were getting into good positions and finding chance after chance, but it may not have been enough had Manuel Neuer not been there. Juraj Kucka’s header was destined for the top corner, but the German captain dived well to keep it out.

Then the inevitable happened, and the Germans doubled their lead. Germany tapped the ball along the left sideline before Julian Draxler slipped in behind Slovakia’s defence. He ran along the by-line and cut the ball back in for Mario Gomez, who only needed one touch to put the ball past Kozacik into the top corner. Slovakia came out after half-time looking better, but Germany were comfortable and never really looked like conceding. The contest was dead, and Draxler put the final nail in the coffin when he netted the third with a volley. Kroos put in an excellent corner, and Mats Hummels’ header found Draxler in the six-yard box. The volley was unstoppable, and after the goal the life was completely out of the game. Neither team really looked like scoring, and the German fans sung with joy as their side cruised to an easy victory.

Lille – Stade Pierre-Mauroy
Germany 3 (Boateng 8, Gomez 43, Draxler 63)
Slovakia 0
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (Pol)

Germany (4-2-3-1): Neuer – Kimmich, Hummels, Boateng (Howedes 72), Hector; Kroos, Khedira (Schweinsteiger 76); Muller, Ozil, Draxler (Podolski 72); Gomez.
Slovakia (4-3-3): Kozacik – Pekarik, Skrtel, Durica, Gyomber (Salata 84); Hrosovsky, Skriniar, Hamsik; Kucka, Duris (Sestak 64), Weiss (Gregus 46).

Top 5
1. Julian Draxler (Germany)
Draxler was in top form in his return to the starting line-up, and he was heavily involved from the beginning. He was very active early as Germany asserted their authority, and he provided a great assist for Gomez with a brilliant run down the left wing. He capped off a classy game by scoring Germany’s third goal, and by the time he was substituted for Lukas Podolski the match was over.
2. Toni Kroos (Germany)
Kroos was particularly influential from set pieces, but he also provided a calming influence in the middle of the park and created plenty of opportunities in open play. His corners were the spark for two of Germany’s goals, and he was at the top of his game as he led the Germans to a big win. He was unlucky not to score in injury time when he had a great chance, and he was in top form.
3. Matus Kozacik (Slovakia)
Kozacik may have conceded three goals, but he did very well to ensure that that figure was not much higher. He made a brilliant stop early on to deny Khedira, and he did very well to save Mesut Ozil’s penalty just after the first German goal. His job was much easier in the second half when Germany took their foot off the gas, but he showed his class again when he denied Kroos in the dying moments.
4. Mats Hummels (Germany)
Hummels played a solid game at the heart of the German defence, and he was able to make a difference going the other way as well. His distribution was excellent as ever, and he provided the assist for the third goal with a good header from Kroos’ corner. He was in good touch, and never looked like being beaten by the Slovakian attack.
5. Joshua Kimmich (Germany)
Kimmich played a good game from right back, and his work helping out the attack caused plenty of problems for Slovakia. He found the ball with ease, and his crosses into the box were generally difficult to deal with. He was booked shortly after half-time for a blatant handball, but he put in another strong performance to ensure his selection for the quarter finals.

World champions matched in scoreless draw

Germany and Poland have played out the first goalless draw of Euro 2016 at the Stade de France, as neither side could break the deadlock despite some golden opportunities. Arkadiusz Milik came closest to scoring just after half time when he missed the target with an open, close-range header, while Germany dominated possession and territory and had plenty of chances. The first half was lifeless, and while Mario Gotze could have scored with a header and Toni Kroos had a brilliant chance inside the area neither side really looked like hitting the scoresheet. The game was devoid of energy, and while Poland were sitting back in defence the Germans never looked like penetrating their solid formation.

Even still, Poland needed to show some more flair in the second half, and Milik had the best chance of the game less than a minute after play resumed. Kamil Grosicki made a good run down the right wing, and his cross travelled across the German goalmouth into a dangerous position. Manuel Neuer was out of the equation, and Milik only needed to get his head to a good cross to put the chance away. He could only manage a glancing blow, and Germany received a massive let-off. The missed opportunity breathed new life into the game, and shortly afterwards Gotze had a chance when he found the ball inside the box. He was closed down well by Michal Pazdan, and Lukasz Fabianski could make an easy save. Milik had another shot after Robert Lewandowski played a close range free kick in his direction. He missed the target with his attempt, but he may have caught Neuer out of position had he found the bottom corner. Lewandowski went one-on-one seconds later, but Jerome Boateng was able to slide in late and block the shot.

Poland were pushing hard, but the game was still on fairly equal terms. Grosicki found Milik in the box, but the Ajax forward could not connect properly with the ball, missing yet another brilliant chance. Germany pushed back, and Mesut Ozil made better use of his opportunities when presented with a similar chance at the other end. His shot was dangerous, and Fabianski did well to tip it over the bar. The Germans took back the initiative, but excellent attacking positions were not enough for them. Andre Schurrle, Kroos, Thomas Muller and Benedikt Howedes all missed good chances, and Germany were unable to make the most of dominance in possession. Grosicki’s free kick came incredibly close as it travelled just over the bar, and no player would come closer for the rest of the match.

Saint-Denis – Stade de France
Germany 0
Poland 0
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Ned)

Germany (4-2-3-1): Neuer – Howedes, Boateng, Hummels, Hector; Kroos, Khedira; Muller, Ozil, Draxler (Gomez 72); Gotze (Schurrle 66).
Poland (4-4-2): Fabianski – Piszczek, Glik, Pazdan, Jedrzejczyk; Blaszczykowski (Kapustka 80), Krychowiak, Maczynski (Jodlowiec 76), Grosicki (Peszko 87); Milik, Lewandowski.

Top 5
1. Mats Hummels (Germany)
Hummels was the sole change made to the German side as he made his return from injury, and he showed very positive signs. His work curbing the influence of Robert Lewandowski was excellent throughout, and he was able to cut off a lot of Poland’s attacks before they were able to reach the final third. He was at the top of his game and he looks to be in good touch.
2. Kamil Grosicki (Poland)
Grosicki created the best chance of the game with his cross to Milik just after half time, and he continued to cause problems before he was replaced with three minutes to go. He was able to play from both the left and the right, and aside from setting up some great opportunities he nearly scored late with a free kick. He could have easily been a match winner, and his class shone through.
3. Michal Pazdan (Poland)
Pazdan was excellent at the back for the Polish, and his work cutting off German attacks was crucial. He made several key stops on the edge of the box, and he played a big role in ensuring that Mario Gotze did not score when presented with a wonderful opportunity. He was strong defensively, and will take plenty of confidence from his performance.
4. Mesut Ozil (Germany)
Ozil struggled to get himself into the match early, but as others on the field began to tire he became a massive problem for Poland. He created plenty of chances for the German forwards, and came agonisingly close to scoring himself when his shot from the top of the area was well-saved by Lukasz Fabianski. He looked like a big threat, and was the biggest problem for the Polish defence.
5. Toni Kroos (Germany)
Kroos was in control in the centre of midfield, and his ability to win and maintain possession of the ball was one of the main reasons for Germany’s dominance of possession throughout. He had some very good chances, and was unlucky to miss the goals after being played through by Muller. He had a strong game, and showed excellent form.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group A

The world’s premier club football competition is back, the draw is set, and on September 15 it will kick off with teams from all around Europe. Over the next couple of weeks I will be looking at all the teams and groups in depth. Enjoy.

Paris Saint-Germain FC (France)

Manager: Laurent Blanc
Captain: Thiago Silva
Ground: Parc des Princes, Paris
Qualified: Ligue 1, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Semi-Finals (1994-95)
2014-15 Champions League: Quarter-Finals

Form Guide

PSG won their third straight league title last season, although they faced stiff competition after a slow start to the season, with Marseille and Lyon both enjoying extended periods at the top of the table. Despite this, they rallied late and took home the title by eight points over Lyon. In the Champions League they made it through to the round of 16 comfortably, and after knocking out Chelsea they were comfortably beaten by eventual champions Barcelona.

Strengths

As with any side blessed with near-unlimited transfer funds, PSG have got a stacked side. Mercurial Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the frontline act, having scored 75 goals in 92 league games since joining in 2012. Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lucas, Angel Di Maria and Javier Pastore provide more than adequate support, and the midfield group of Blaise Matuidi, Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta provides solidity. Kevin Trapp has seemingly upstaged Salvatore Sirigu as first choice goalkeeper, and this must be encouraging given the ability of the latter. Down back, Thiago Silva and David Luiz are both stars, and formed the backbone of the Brazilian side at the World Cup.

Weaknesses

The side may have taken vast amounts of money to compile, but questions remain about the defence. The fullbacks are not particularly strong, especially when compared to the stars in the rest of the team, and questions must be raised about Luiz, who struggled defensively against Barcelona in last season’s quarter-final. Trapp, who is now the first choice goalkeeper, is still inexperienced in European competitions, and the French champions are a massive step up from Eintracht Frankfurt. While they should pass the group stage, they will be under pressure to succeed and pass the quarter-final stage, and this could rub off on the results of the team.

Star Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Ibrahimovic is one of the biggest characters in world football, and his European record is incredible. He has scored 46 times in 116 matches, and he has freakish athleticism and skill, meaning that he has scored some truly incredible goals. He has been very successful for PSG, finding the back of the net an incredible 106 times in just 126 matches for the French side.

Key Player: Blaise Matuidi

Matuidi has been a fixture of PSG’s side since 2011, playing 135 out of a possible 152 league matches. He is a very capable midfielder, and he provides a very important link between attack and defence. He is a strong runner and is able to get forward, but he is also very solid and PSG will be hoping that nothing gets past him.

Real Madrid CF (Spain)

Head Coach: Rafael Benitez
Captain: Sergio Ramos
Ground: Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid
Qualified: La Liga, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1955-56, 1956-57, 1957-58, 1958-59, 1959-60, 1965-66, 1997-98, 1999-2000, 2001-02, 2013-14)
2014-15 Champions League: Semi-Finals

Form Guide

Last season may have been considered a disappointment for Real Madrid, with bitter rivals Barcelona edging them out for the title and an away goals loss to Juventus knocking them out in the semi-finals. They sat in first for much of the season, but after Barcelona wrestled it from their grasp they did not give it back, holding on to clutch the title by 2 points. Carlo Ancelotti paid for his side’s inability to win a title with his job, and Rafael Benitez will hope to succeed.

Strengths

Real Madrid have incredible amounts of money to play around with, and they have built an elite squad. The current squad took 554 million euros to compile, and has three players who cost over 80 million. Just this transfer window alone they have spent 86.9 million euros on new acquisitions such as Danilo, Mateo Kovacic, and Kiko Casilla. On the park they are incredibly strong, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale forming what could be a great forward line. With James Rodriguez, Isco, Kovacic, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in midfield the side has immense quality. Down back, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Danilo, Dani Carvajal and Raphael Varane ensure nothing gets past them.

Weaknesses

While the side has plenty of stars all over the park, they have had some fairly big losses as well. Iker Casillas may have been slightly out of sorts, but he had massive experience, and while Keylor Navas acquitted himself well with Costa Rica in the World Cup he now has much more expectation on his shoulders than before. The losses of Asier Illarramendi and Sami Khedira leave the midfield slightly lacking in depth, and an injury to a couple of their centre midfielders could leave them in a bad position. Despite having 20 shots to 3 in their first league encounter with Sporting Gijon, they were not able to return a goal, a disappointing result given the quality of the opposition.

Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo

The most expensive player ever when he joined from Manchester United in 2009, he has been a revelation at Real. He has scored 225 times in 201 league games, and in 64 Champions League outings for Los Blancos he has netted 64 times, averaging a goal a game. Since joining Real he has scored more goals, and he is now the primary source for Spain’s biggest club.

Key Player: Toni Kroos

Kroos first played for Bayern Munich at the age of 17, and after winning the World Cup with Germany he was signed by Real. His first season saw him play 36 times, and he is likely to be just as much of a fixture this time around. He can play as a central or attacking midfielder, and he has a great free kick which sets up plenty of goals. He will be relied upon to create chances in midfield, and also from free kicks.

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)

Manager: Mircea Lucescu
Captain: Darijo Srna
Ground: Arena Lviv, Lviv
Qualified: Ukrainian Premier League, 2nd (defeated Fenerbahce SK and SK Rapid Wien in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Quarter-Finals (2010-11)
2014-15 Champions League: Round of 16

Form Guide

Shakhtar failed to take home the Ukrainian title for the first time since 2008-09, and consequently had to go through qualifying. Entering in the third qualifying round, they took on and beat Fenerbahce, before a 1-0 victory in Vienna against Rapid was enough to send them into the group stage. Last season the Ukrainians passed a group consisting of Porto, Athletic Bilbao and BATE Borisov, before a 7-0 defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich spelt the end of their campaign.

Strengths

Mircea Lucescu has built an impressive side, with a solid defence consisting of Darijo Srna, Oleksandr Kucher, Ivan Ordets, Yaroslav Rakitskyi and Vyacheslav Shevchuk,while Andriy Pyatov provides great back-up in goal. The side played impressively in qualifying, a 3-0 aggregate win over Fenerbahce the highlight, and will hope to continue that form. Marlos, Alex Teixeira, Bernard and Taison are all strong in attacking midfield, and Fred will combine well with Taras Stepanenko in behind the attack. Oleksandr Hladkiy is up front with support from Facundo Ferreyra, Dentinho and Eduardo.

Weaknesses

Shakhtar have not lost many players in this transfer window, but the ones they have lost will leave holes. Star striker Luiz Adriano has departed for Milan after playing in Donetsk since 2007, and he will be sorely missed, especially considering his 9 goals in last year’s Champions League. Hladkiy will be responsible for replacing him, and he will be under some pressure. The loss of Douglas Costa to Bayern is also a fairly big one, although they do have replacements in his position. The loss of Fernando to Sampdoria takes away some of the depth that they have in midfield. Despite this, big losses are nothing new for Lucescu and Shakhtar, and they should be able to cope.

Star Player: Alex Teixeira

Teixeira has started the Ukrainian season in stunning form, with 7 goals in his first 6 league outings. After a quiet start at Shakhtar, he is now vice-captain, and was the leading scorer in the Ukrainian Premier League last year, with 17 goals. This kind of form is exactly what Shakhtar are looking for, and if he can keep it up he will be a big threat.

Key Player: Oleksandr Hladkiy

With Luiz Adriano’s departure to Milan it is Hladkiy who will most likely need to fill the void left by his departure. While no goals in 6 games is not a great start, Teixeira has been providing enough, but he will need to improve if Shakhtar are to defy the odds and defeat PSG or Real in a very tough group. Two goals in qualifying is a start, but this form has to continue.

Malmo FF (Sweden)

Head Coach: Age Hareide
Captain: Markus Rosenberg
Ground: Swedbank Stadion, Malmo
Qualified: Allsvenskan, 1st (defeated FC Zalgiris Vilnius, FC Red Bull Salzburg and Celtic FC in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (1978-79)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage

Form Guide

After a fairly unsuccessful run in a tough group in last season’s Champions League, Malmo managed to defend their Swedish title, something that had not been done since 2003. As a result they went back into the qualification system, and they scraped through a seemingly simple tie with Zalgiris of Lithuania by a margin of 1-0. After going down 2-0 to Red Bull Salzburg they claimed a 3-0 victory in the second leg, and a similar thing happened against Celtic, a 2-0 win in Malmo enough to proceed.

Strengths

Malmo have a fairly strong squad headlined by Markus Rosenberg, who has experience playing in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and England. He leads the team, which also contains Johan Wiland in goal and internationals such as Rasmus Bengtsson, Yoshimar Yotun and Kari Arnason in defence. Former Ajax midfielder Tobias Sana is backed up by former Cardiff City players Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Jo Inge Berget, as well as Enoch Kofi Adu, Oscar Lewicki and Vladimir Rodic. Guillermo Molins and Nikola Djurdic provide support for Rosenberg up front, capping off a fairly strong set-up.

Weaknesses

Malmo are a strong side, but a lack of real competition and world-class players means that they will seriously struggle. They have produced great players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but the comparative standard of the Allsvenskan means that they cannot keep players and cannot attract stars either. When compared to the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid they stand no chance, and the group they have been drawn is tougher than the group they had last year, but this lack of expectation could prove helpful as the side has absolutely no pressure upon their shoulders.

Star Player: Markus Rosenberg

Rosenberg has plenty of experience playing against the world’s best, and has been capped 33 times for his native Sweden. His experience paid off for Malmo last season, and he has netted 22 times for the club in 48 Allsvenskan matches. He was also strong in the Champions League too, scoring 7 times in 12 Champions League outings.

Key Player: Johan Wiland

Wiland has lots of experience, having played 206 times for Elfsborg and 142 times for Kobenhavn. With Kobenhavn he also took part in the Champions League, and so has experienced the competition. His experience will be key for Malmo, as will be his goalkeeping, which has seen him regularly called up to the Swedish national team.

Prediction

With PSG and Real Madrid in the same group it is almost certainly going to end one way, as Shakhtar and Malmo simply cannot match it with the hordes of stars being brought in. Real Madrid should just edge out PSG for 1st place, but the match-ups between the two will be sure to entertain. Despite this, Shakhtar and Malmo should not be ruled out, but progress is unlikely.
Prediction: 1. Real Madrid, 2. Paris Saint-Germain, 3. Shakhtar Donetsk, 4. Malmo.

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.

4 goals in 7 as Brazil crash out

Germany have put 7 goals past a lacklustre Brazil to progress through to the final of the World Cup in Belo Horizonte, at one stage scoring 4 times in 7 minutes, all of the goals highlighting Brazil’s struggles with marking. Germany had a goal on the board in the 11th, with Toni Kroos’ corner sailing straight to Thomas Muller, who had slipped away from his man and volleyed past a helpless Julio Cesar. If the stadium was quiet after that goal, it became even more so when Muller left Kroos’ pass alone for Miroslav Klose, who rubbed salt into Brazil’s wounds not only by making the score 2-0 but also by overtaking former Brazilian star Ronaldo as the all-time leading scorer at the World Cup Finals. A minute later Kroos hit a perfect strike one-time to put Germany 3 goals up. The mood in the stadium turned into one of full-on shock a couple of minutes later when Kroos stripped the ball off Fernandinho just outside the box, played a one-two with Sami Khedira and crashed the ball past an already committed Cesar and a helpless Dante to turn the score to 4-0. Khedira and Mesut Ozil combined perfectly to help Germany to a 5-goal advantage, which they held to the break.

Brazil spent most of the second half in damage control, but they seemed to be at least holding up a bit better, although much of this was due to some lucky interceptions by lone defenders which prevented Germany from getting the ball to unmanned players in the forward half. Brazil, however, were getting the better chances, but Manuel Neuer denied them time and again with saves that many other keepers would never be able to complete. Then the Germans struck again. Khedira passed the ball to Philipp Lahm from the right wing, and Andre Schurrle put the subsequent pass into the back of the net from close range. Germany 6, Brazil 0. Schurrle graced the scoreboard again 11 minutes later with a brilliant effort, controlling an uppish ball with his first touch at high speed and putting the ball off the bar and in with his second, all done while sprinting away from David Luiz, whose first outing as Brazilian captain was quickly turning into an unmitigated disaster. Oscar weaved the ball around Jerome Boateng and Neuer to pull one back for Brazil in the 90th, but it was little consolation to Brazil as they prepare for a third-place match that could lead to redemption or humiliation, while Germany enter the final on a high and as strong favourites.

Estadio Minierao – Belo Horizonte
Brazil 1 (Oscar 90)
Germany 7 (Muller 11, Klose 23, Kroos 24, 26, Khedira 29, Schurrle 69, 79)
Referee: Marco Rodriguez (Mex)

Brazil: Julio Cesar – Marcelo, Dante, David Luiz, Maicon, Luiz Gustavo, Fernandinho (Paulinho 46), Bernard, Oscar, Hulk (Ramires 46), Fred (Willian 69).

Germany: Neuer – Howedes, Hummels (Mertesacker 46), Boateng, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Khedira (Draxler 76), Ozil, Kroos, Muller, Klose (Schurrle 58).