Palace fight hard, but Ibrahimovic steals late win

Yohan Cabaye had gone to ground as he tried to make the challenge. Paul Pogba was too strong, pushing his opponent away as if he was made of paper. With space to work with, the Frenchman put a ball through for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the mercurial Swedish forward who was making a good run into the box. It looked as if it was out of his reach, and the angle was too tight. He finished anyway, slotting the ball past Wayne Hennessey with surgical precision and all but sealing a win for Manchester United.

Crystal Palace had done quite well up to that point, but they would not recover. As soon as Ibrahimovic put his winner into the back of the net, no amount of desperate long balls could save them from an inevitable defeat. From the start, Palace were on the back foot. It took them well over a minute just to touch the ball, and it took a lot longer for them to start building up moves and retaining the ball.

Despite this, United were short on quality chances, and Palace continued to keep their head above water comfortably. As the first half drew to a close, opportunities began to come. Pogba’s chip over the top found Wayne Rooney, who nearly converted. Pogba himself had a chance when Michael Carrick provided him with an open volley, but it was saved by Hennessey, desperately keeping his side in the game.

Frustration…: Paul Pogba shows his annoyance at a decision.

When United finally struck, less than a minute out from half-time, it was controversial. Juan Mata’s free kick found Ibrahimovic, whose attempt to find Pogba in the six-yard box involved a suspicious use of the arm. Luckily for United, it was not called and the ball rebounded off Joel Ward in finding Pogba, playing him onside. The finish was as easy as could be, and United were ahead after 45 minutes of dominance.

Palace needed to step up their game in the second half. They did. Immediately they looked dangerous, with half-time substitute Joe Ledley finding space and using the ball well. After an early second half flurry, however, the game looked to have settled back into a familiar rhythm, with Palace again struggling to find the ball. Instead, James McArthur gave them momentum with a long shot which was brilliantly tipped away, and minutes later he finished off the equaliser.

Joel Ward provided the spark, playing a series of passes to get himself to the edge of the box before cutting it in for Damien Delaney, the veteran Irish centre back who provided an unexpected touch of class with his first-time flick on for McArthur, who couldn’t miss. It seemed to be another case of United’s recurring nightmare, a nightmare only made more excruciating by the events which followed.

… and joy: Manchester United players celebrate after their win.

McArthur’s goal was the catalyst for an incredible period of play which contained multiple refereeing errors and plenty of drama. A penalty was not awarded and a goal was disallowed as United looked to break the newly-created deadlock, and frustrations began to boil over. First, Ledley punched a corner from Rooney away from danger, sparking an indignant response from United when nothing was called. Then Mata was incorrectly ruled to be offside when he tapped in Marcos Rojo’s header. There were bookings, arguments and the game seemed to be taking a life of its own.

It looked to be over for United before Ibrahimovic bagged the winner, as if all their hard work had been for nothing. Instead, they defied their recent history of mishaps and near-misses, and came away with a win that they thoroughly deserved. For Crystal Palace, hard work wasn’t enough, and leaves them with some stern questions to answer as they languish in the bottom half of the table.

London – Selhurst Park
Crystal Palace 1 (McArthur 66)
Manchester United 2 (Pogba 45+2, Ibrahimovic 88)
Referee: Craig Pawson
Crystal Palace (4-2-3-1): Hennessey – Ward, Dann, Delaney, Kelly; McArthur (Campbell 87), Flamini (Ledley 46); Lee Chung-yong (Fryers 80), Cabaye, Zaha; C Benteke.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Bailly (Darmian 52), Jones, Rojo, Blind; Carrick, Herrera; Mata (Lingard 71), Pogba, Rooney (Rashford  80); Ibrahimovic.

Top 5
1. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba was on his game from the start, and while his goal was controversial it was thoroughly deserved. He provided excellent supply for his teammates up front, and it was his pass that set up Ibrahimovic for the winning goal as the game drew to a close.
2. Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace)
Hennessey was the main reason Palace were able to stay in the game, making a string of excellent saves and barely making a mistake all day. His stop to deny Rooney late in the first half was brilliant, and he continued to perform right up to the final whistle.
3. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United)
Ibrahimovic was in solid form from start to finish, providing plenty of chances and making his way into dangerous positions. His finish at the end was pure class, and he performed effectively as a centre back when Palace mounted a desperate final assault.
4. James McArthur (Crystal Palace)
McArthur was in excellent form, cutting inside from the right and finding himself in dangerous positions as Palace pushed forward. He created some excellent chances and made a good run to finish for the equaliser, and his defensive work was always solid.
5. Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
Rooney had a solid all-round game, working into space and creating opportunities with clever positioning. His set piece delivery was excellent throughout, and created plenty of chances in the air. He was taken off late in the game, but he can hold his head high after a strong effort.

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview – Group B

Group B

Teams (world ranking in brackets): England (11), Russia (29), Wales (26), Slovakia (24)
Fixtures:
Wales vs Slovakia, Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux
England vs Russia, Stade Velodrome, Marseille
Russia vs Slovakia, Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Lille
England vs Wales, Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens
Slovakia vs England, Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Etienne
Russia vs Wales, Stadium Municipal, Toulouse

England

Head Coach: Roy Hodgson
Captain: Wayne Rooney
Previous Appearances: 8 (1968, 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2012)
Best Finish: Third Place (1968)
Qualified: 1st Group E
UEFA Euro 2012: Quarter-finals

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Joe Hart (Manchester City), 13. Fraser Forster (Southampton), 23. Tom Heaton (Burnley).
Defenders:
2. Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur), 3. Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur), 5. Gary Cahill (Chelsea), 6. Chris Smalling (Manchester United), 12. Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool), 16. John Stones (Everton), 21. Ryan Bertrand (Southampton).
Midfielders:
4. James Milner (Liverpool), 7. Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), 8. Adam Lallana (Liverpool), 14. Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), 17. Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur), 18. Jack Wilshere (Arsenal), 19. Ross Barkley (Everton), 20. Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur).
Forwards:
9. Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), 10. Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), 11. Jamie Vardy (Leicester City), 15. Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), 22. Marcus Rashford (Manchester United).

Form Guide

The English came out strongly after a disappointing World Cup campaign, and they were the only team to win all of their games in qualifying. They scored 31 goals in qualification, more than any other team, and only Romania conceded less goals throughout the campaign. The English have plenty of exciting new faces in their line-up and they are in exceptional form.

Strengths

The English have plenty of fresh faces in their side, and they have the potential to go a long way. Harry Kane is a star up front, and his combination with Jamie Vardy will be a source of great excitement for English fans. Joe Hart is solid in goal, and with Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill down back not much will get through. Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Jordan Henderson are just some of the exciting prospects that Roy Hodgson can call upon, and the English will be one of the sides to beat at the final tournament.

Weaknesses

The side is generally very young, and many of the players who have come into the side will not necessarily be used to the scrutiny they will receive from the English media. Hodgson’s side are carrying high expectations into the tournament after an excellent qualifying campaign, and the pressure that will be placed on them could prove too much. There is a general lack of experience in the middle that could be costly, especially with key player Jack Wilshere returning from a long-term injury which sidelined him for all but a few games of last season.

Star Player: Harry Kane

It is very tempting to write this section about Wayne Rooney, but Kane’s record in the Premier League over the last couple of seasons is incredible and he has developed into England’s premier scoring option. Only Sergio Aguero has scored more Premier League goals over the last two seasons, and he has the potential to set this tournament alight.

Key Player: Joe Hart

Hart is one of only three players in the squad with more than 50 international caps to his name, and he comes into this tournament firmly set as England’s first-choice keeper. He is one of the best goalkeepers in the world, but if he is unable to play at his best then England could struggle in a group filled with dangerous attackers.

Verdict

The English are strong, and with fresh faces in Kane, Vardy and Alli they have the potential to go a very long way in this tournament. They had a flawless qualifying campaign, and as such expectations will be incredibly high, but if they can overcome the pressure then they have the team to do very well. If they are able to fire they should be around in the latter stages of the finals.

Russia

Head Coach: Leonid Slutskiy
Captain: Roman Shirokov
Previous Appearances: 4 (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Semi-finals (2008)
Qualified: 2nd Group G
UEFA Euro 2012: Group Stage

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moskva), 12. Yuri Lodygin (Zenit), 16. Guilherme (Lokomotiv Moskva).
Defenders: 2. Roman Shishkin (Lokomotiv Moskva), 3. Igor Smolnikov (Zenit), 4. Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moskva), 5. Roman Neustaedter (Schalke), 6. Aleksei Berezutski (CSKA Moskva), 14. Vasili Berezutski (CSKA Moskva), 21. Georgi Schennikov (CSKA Moskva).
Midfielders: 7. Igor Denisov (Zenit), 8. Denis Glushakov (Spartak Moskva), 11. Pavel Mamaev (Krasnodar), 13. Aleksandr Golovin (CSKA Moskva), 15. Roman Shirokov (Zenit), 17. Oleg Shatov (Zenit), 18. Oleg Ivanov (Terek Grozny), 19. Aleksandr Samedov (Lokomotiv Moskva), 20. Dmitri Torbinski (Krasnodar), 23. Dmitri Kombarov (Spartak Moskva).
Forwards: 9. Aleksandr Kokorin (Zenit), 10. Fedor Smolov (Krasnodar), 22. Artem Dzyuba (Zenit).

Form Guide

The Russians played well in qualifying, and despite two narrow losses to Austria they still managed to hold off a strong Swedish side to qualify automatically. They conceded just five goals throughout the campaign, and with eight goals from Artem Dzyuba their attack was very potent, netting a total of 21 goals throughout their campaign.

Strengths

The defence is full of experience, and the solidity provided by Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski mean that the Russians will be very hard to score against. Igor Akinfeev has plenty of experience in goal, and the midfield will be extremely strong. Roman Shirokov is an excellent player, and with Igor Denisov and Denis Glushakov patrolling the centre the Russians will certainly provide plenty of opportunities for Dzyuba and Aleksandr Kokorin up front. The Russians have a strong side, and they have the potential to go very far in this tournament.

Weaknesses

Dzyuba was prolific in qualifying, but half of his goals came in one match against Liechtenstein, and he cannot necessarily be relied upon again at the final tournament. More worryingly, only one of those goals came against a team who have actually qualified for this tournament, netting seven times against Moldova and Liechtenstein. There is a general lack of depth throughout the squad, and an injury to either Vasili Berezutski or Ignashevich could be a huge problem, as the replacements are not necessarily there.

Star Player: Roman Shirokov

Shirokov is the captain of the side and is the rock in the centre of midfield. He is very solid defensively, having been deployed as a centre back early on in his international career, and he has the ability to chip in with the occasional goal as well. He is a quality player, and his absence at the World Cup in 2014 was a huge blow to Russia’s chances.

Key Player: Aleksandr Kokorin

Kokorin is only 25, but he already has 11 international goals to his name with one in the World Cup. While Dzyuba was their top scorer in qualifying, Kokorin scored some very important goals, and he has stood up in these pressure situations before. These big game goals will likely be crucial to Russian success, and if he cannot find the net Russia will struggle.

Verdict

The Russians are a very strong side, and with a solid defence and consistent midfield they will certainly be a force to be reckoned with at the final tournament. They have the potency up front to succeed, and while there is a question as to Dzyuba’s ability against the top sides but they still have the ability to go a long way in this tournament.

Wales

Head Coach: Chris Coleman
Captain: Ashley Williams
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: 2nd Group B
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace), 12. Owain Williams (Inverness), 21. Danny Ward (Liverpool).
Defenders:
2. Chris Gunter (Reading), 3. Neil Taylor (Swansea City), 4. Ben Davies (Tottenham Hotspur), 5. James Chester (West Bromwich Albion), 6. Ashley Williams (Swansea City), 15. Ashley Richards (Fulham), 19. James Collins (West Ham United).
Midfielders:
7. Joe Allen (Liverpool), 8. Andy King (Leicester City), 10. Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), 14. David Edwards (Wolverhampton Wanderers), 16. Joe Ledley (Crystal Palace), 20. Jonathan Williams (Crystal Palace), 22. David Vaughan (Nottingham Forest).
Forwards:
9. Hal Robson-Kanu (Reading), 11. Gareth Bale (Real Madrid), 13. George Williams (Fulham), 17. David Cotterill (Birmingham City), 18. Sam Vokes (Burnley), 23. Simon Church (Milton Keynes Dons).

Form Guide

The Welsh did not blow their opposition away in qualifying, but they were solid and Gareth Bale ensured that plenty of goals were scored. They toppled Belgium 1-0, and they sealed qualification with a couple of games to spare with a 0-0 draw against Israel in Cardiff. The Welsh have undergone some excellent improvement over the last few years, and they are well-placed to make an impact.

Strengths

Bale and Aaron Ramsey are both world-class players with plenty of experience. They both have an ability to find the scoreboard as well, and Bale’s seven goals in qualifying were crucial to the success of the team. Ashley Williams is a quality defender and on-field leader, and he marshals a defence which conceded just four times throughout the qualifying campaign. Ramsey, Joe Allen and Joe Ledley are all excellent players, and they are solid in the centre of midfield. Many of the players in the squad have Premier League experience, and the pressure should not be too much.

Weaknesses

The Welsh were frugal in defence during qualifying, but they were unable to hurt teams going the other way. In 10 games they only bagged 11 goals, and with Bale and Ramsey combining for 9 of those not many players contributed. Sam Vokes, Simon Church and Hal Robson-Kanu are all options, but these players are not very experienced at the highest level and may struggle at the final tournament. The result of this is a dependence on Bale which could well prove problematic if the Real Madrid star fails to fire.

Star Player: Gareth Bale

Bale became the most expensive player ever when he transferred from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for around 100 million pounds. He is the best player Wales have, and his experience of playing in the Champions League with Real will serve him well at the final tournament. He bagged over half of Wales’ goals in qualifying, and he will make life very difficult for opposing defences.

Key Player: Wayne Hennessey

Hennessey has plenty of experience at the highest level, coming from six seasons in the Premier League with Crystal Palace and Wolves. He has been capped 56 times by the Welsh, and his experience in goal will be relied upon at the final tournament. If he fails to perform then it will be exceptionally difficult for the Welsh to win games and progress.

Verdict

Wales have a fairly strong side, and the combination of Bale and Ramsey will be a nightmare for their opponents. While there are some problems in attack Williams will take control of a defence that proved impenetrable during qualifying. The Welsh have the ability to go far in this tournament, but the key will be finding some quality support for Bale, who is currently the only scoring option.

Slovakia

Head Coach: Jan Kozak
Captain: Martin Skrtel
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: 2nd Group C
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Jan Mucha (Slovan Bratislava), 12. Jan Novota (Rapid Wien), 23. Matus Kozacik (Viktoria Plzen).
Defenders:
2. Peter Pekarik (Hertha Berlin), 3. Martin Skrtel (Liverpool), 4. Jan Durica (Lokomotiv Moskva), 5. Norbert Gyomber (Roma), 14. Milan Skriniar (Sampdoria), 15. Tomas Hubocan (Dinamo Moskva), 16. Kornel Salata (Slovan Bratislava), 18. Dusan Svento (Koln).
Midfielders:
6. Jan Gregus (Jablonec), 7. Vladimir Weiss (Al-Gharafa), 8. Ondrej Duda (Legia Warsaw), 9. Stanislav Sestak (Ferencvaros), 10. Miroslav Stoch (Bursaspor), 13. Patrik Hrosovsky (Viktoria Plzen), 17. Marek Hamsik (Napoli), 19. Juraj Kucka (Milan), 20. Robert Mak (PAOK), 22. Viktor Pecovsky (Zilina).
Forwards:
11. Adam Nemec (Willem II), 21. Michal Duris (Viktoria Plzen).

Form Guide

Slovakia began their qualification campaign in brilliant form, beating reigning European champions Spain 2-1 and winning their first six games before limping over the line with losses to Spain and Belarus and a scoreless draw against Ukraine. They managed to take automatic qualification in the last game after two Marek Hamsik goals gave them a 4-2 win in Luxembourg.

Strengths

With Martin Skrtel, Jan Durica, Peter Pekarik and Tomas Hubocan down back Slovakia have a back four with over 250 games worth of international experience. Throw goalkeeper Jan Mucha into the mix and Slovakia have a very solid defensive front. They don’t lack bite at the other end either, with Hamsik, Vladimir Weiss, Stanislav Sestak and Miroslav Stoch ensuring that plenty of chances will be created. Overall, Slovakia have plenty of experience, and their appearance at the World Cup in 2010 can only help.

Weaknesses

While the midfield and defence are solid, there are some issues up front. Hamsik was the top scorer in qualifying, and while Adam Nemec pitched in with three goals a vast majority of the goals were scored by individual midfielders going forward. When the Slovak side reached the round of 16 at the World Cup many of the current crop of players were still there, but these players are no longer in their prime and many have not played at that level since. With the exception of Hamsik and Skrtel almost none of the players are at big clubs, and there is generally a large gap in quality between Slovakia and their rivals.

Star Player: Marek Hamsik

Hamsik has made over 300 appearances for Napoli, and he is now the captain of the club. He is the highest quality player that Slovakia have, and while his versatility makes him particularly appealing he will play in attacking midfield, where he will probably serve as the team’s number one scoring option.

Key Player: Martin Skrtel

Skrtel has been at Liverpool since 2008, and in that time he has established himself as a very solid centre back. He is the captain of the side, and he will be relied upon not only for his defence but also for his leadership. While he cannot be expected to contribute to the scoresheet he is a first-class defender, and if he has a good tournament many other pieces will fall into place.

Verdict

Slovakia have some issues in attack, but they have a solid base and if Hamsik is able to perform goals should not be an issue. The side has plenty of experience, and they will know that if they play like they did in the World Cup they can succeed. While there is plenty of potential the team is relatively inexperienced at this level and they could face a struggle.

Prediction

The English are looking excellent going into the tournament, and they should be able to breeze through the group without much trouble. The other three teams will probably face an interesting battle, and the Welsh should go through thanks to their solidity down back and the boost provided by Gareth Bale. Russia may struggle to score as their attack is the weakest in the group.
1. England, 2. Wales, 3. Slovakia, 4. Russia.