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.

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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.

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… 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.

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Substitutes fire as England get key victory

Daniel Sturridge picked up the ball outside the penalty area from Danny Rose. It was injury time, and the score was tied at 1-1. He stood still for a moment, collecting himself and looking for options. Eventually he moved. He played the ball to Jamie Vardy, England’s sole scorer and Leicester’s hero as they triumphed in the Premier League. Vardy did not have much time to react but he flicked it on to Dele Alli. Alli was closed off and dispossessed by a spirited Welsh defence, but Sturridge had run through and was able to collect the ball in a brilliant position. He took a touch, leaving the Welsh defender who came to him floundering, and with a calm finish into the bottom corner he delivered England a come-from-behind victory that sets them up well for the rest of their campaign.

This clash, between England and Wales, was one of the most highly anticipated of the group stage, and there was plenty of feeling between the two sides. Wales went in with plenty of confidence after a first-up victory over Slovakia, but England were able to push them back early. Raheem Sterling should have scored when he found himself with a golden opportunity, a cross from Adam Lallana landing perfectly at his feet. He could not hit the target, showing the poor form and lack of confidence which riddled his Premier League performances with Manchester City. England had other quality chances, and Gary Cahill missed a wonderful opportunity when his marker lost his footing in the box. His header went straight at Hennessey, and it was easily scooped up by the Welsh keeper. England could have had a penalty a few minutes later, but Ben Davies’ handball went unnoticed by the officials. England dominated possession, but while they had some good chances they looked ineffective against the Welsh defence. In the end it was Wales who hit the front, just when it seemed that the sides would go into the interval locked at 0-0.

The goal came from nothing, with a fairly clumsy challenge from Wayne Rooney setting up a free kick from considerable distance for Gareth Bale. In the end, it was not the actions of Bale which were responsible for the goal but those of Joe Hart, whose attempt at a save pushed an easily stopped free kick into the bottom corner. Bale stepped back and put his foot through it, and somehow the English keeper could not push it away from his own goal. The ball trailed into the back of the net off Hart’s hands, and while the goal was down to a keeper error it did not matter for the Welsh. It was the first time Wales had scored against England for 32 years, and they were bound to celebrate.

Roy Hodgson was quick to make changes to his misfiring team at the break, and he removed Sterling and Harry Kane. They were replaced by Vardy and Sturridge, and while Wales continued to hold firm the pair showed initial promise. After about ten minutes, however, the game opened up, and Vardy had scored shortly afterwards. Sturridge’s cross from the left wing found a mass of bodies at the top of the six-yard box, and the ball spilled out to Vardy. It would have been harder for him to miss the goals, and while Wales appealed for offside replays showed that the last touch came off the head of Williams, not an English player. England continued to push, and without the one-goal deficit looming over their heads they played with less pressure. Rooney nearly set up a goal after his free kick bounced around the Welsh penalty area like a pinball, but eventually Eric Dier’s shot was blocked. Sturridge mishit a volley, and Hodgson banked on the youngest player in the tournament, Marcus Rashford, to deliver England a goal. Rooney took a brilliant touch to evade Aaron Ramsey, but was immediately swamped by three Welsh defenders and had his shot blocked.

Wales were fighting hard, and while England still dominated possession they were not finding many genuine scoring chances. Alli threatened to create a goal when he made a beautiful run through the Welsh defence, but his shot was blocked. Cahill’s header went over the bar, and the game looked destined for a draw until Sturridge scored to win them the game. Bale had the last attempt of the match when he was open for a header inside the box, but he missed and England’s triumph was confirmed.

Lens – Stade Bollaert Delelis
England 2 (Vardy 56, Sturridge 90+2)
Wales 1 (Bale 42)
Referee: Felix Brych (Ger)

England (4-3-3): Hart – Walker, Cahill, Smalling, Rose; Alli, Dier, Rooney; Lallana (Rashford 73), Kane (Vardy 46), Sterling (Sturridge 46).
Wales (5-3-2): Hennessey – Gunter, Chester, A Williams, Davies, Taylor; Ledley (Edwards 67), Ramsey, Allen; Robson-Kanu (J Williams 71), Bale.

Top 5
1. Wayne Rooney (England)
Rooney was in control throughout the game, controlling the tempo of England’s attack and distributing the ball from midfield as he saw fit. His corners and free kicks proved a constant threat for the Welsh defence, and he delivered a performance that showed just how good he can be. He had some great chances, and was England’s best player.
2. Dele Alli (England)
Alli played a very strong game in the centre of the park, and he was able to find plenty of space in attack throughout. He was always able to find the ball, and he showed moments of his extraordinary skill with the ball at his feet. He drifted effectively between attack and midfield, and his work in the final third caused plenty of problems for Wales.
3. Ashley Williams (Wales)
Williams made a couple of mistakes during the game, including setting up Jamie Vardy for England’s first goal, but he was solid down back and used his vast international experience to marshal a Welsh defence which was able to stand up to the English pressure for most of the game. Williams fought for every ball, and as captain he set a great example for the rest of his team.
4. Jamie Vardy (England)
Vardy entered the game at half-time, and he had an immediate impact. He injected plenty of pace into the English attack, and he scored roughly 10 minutes after coming on. His pace and positioning in attack turned the game in England’s favour, and he was able to take his chances well. He was one of England’s best, and it would not be a surprise to see him start against Slovakia.
5. Daniel Sturridge (England)
Sturridge scored the winner in injury time, and he was lively throughout the second half. His cross was the catalyst for Vardy’s goal, and he was able to handle the pressure late on when he found himself one-on-one with Hennessey. He had plenty of opportunities, and while some were not as well taken as they could have been he played very well and had a big impact.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group B

PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)

Manager: Phillip Cocu
Captain: Luuk de Jong
Ground: Philips Stadion, Eindhoven
Qualified: Eredivisie, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1987-88)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

After a disappointing 2013-14 season, PSV bounced back in 2014-15, winning the league by a comfortable margin of 17 points over Ajax. They dominated the league, with one draw and 4 losses the only blips on a near perfect campaign. They have had some fairly large losses over the summer, most prominent that of Memphis Depay to Manchester United, but they should do well.

Strengths

PSV blitzed the league last season, and after they took first place (two rounds into the season) they did not let it go, comfortably taking first place. The side fired in attack as well, Depay and Luuk de Jong scoring 42 times between them. Depay is now gone, but players like Maxime Lestienne, Luciano Narsingh and Florian Jozefzoon have the potential to replace him. PSV have a lot of depth down back, with Jetro Willems, Jeffrey Bruma, Joshua Brenet, Santiago Arias, Simon Poulsen, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin and Hector Moreno all competing for spots. Andres Guardado, Davy Propper, Stijn Schaars and Adam Maher are strong players through the middle, and Jeroen Zoet is solid in goal.

Weaknesses

PSV have lost big players over the off-season in Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum, who contributed 36 goals to the side last season. That they will have to face Manchester United and with it their former star Depay adds insult to injury. The side still lacks a lot of experience, with most of the players fairly young. Luuk de Jong, the captain, is still only 25, and he will also shoulder much of the responsibility for replacing the goals scored by Memphis. Their will also be added pressure on the other young forwards, with Narsingh (24), and Lestienne (23) needing to find the back of the net. PSV will be in for a tough challenge, and it will be interesting to see how they fare.

Star Player: Luuk de Jong

The captain, first-choice striker and one of the most experienced players on the team (at just 25), de Jong is very important for PSV. He has scored 4 times in 5 games this season in all competitions, and Phillip Cocu is relying on him to continue. He has had experience playing in England and Germany, and this will help him during the tournament.

Key Player: Andres Guardado

Guardado is a very experienced player, and he brings that to a young team. He has experience playing in Spain and Germany, which will be helpful. At age 28, he is one of the oldest members of the side, and he will need to use that experience to take control of the midfield. As such, he is a key member of the side, and if PSV are going to do well he needs to play well.

Manchester United FC (England)

Manager: Louis van Gaal
Captain: Wayne Rooney
Ground: Old Trafford, Manchester
Qualified: Premier League, 4th (defeated Club Brugge KV in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1967-68, 1998-99, 2007-08)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

It has been a tumultuous couple of years for Manchester United. After the retirement of Alex Ferguson as manager David Moyes could not control the club, who plummeted from 1st to 7th in a season. He was sacked after 10 months in the job, and United hired Louis van Gaal. His reign started badly as well, but he recovered to take out fourth. A comfortable 7-1 aggregate win over Club Brugge was enough to send them through.

Strengths

Manchester United have spent big money on compiling a very strong team. Sergio Romero and David de Gea will compete for the top goalkeeping slot, although the fact that the latter has not played for the side this season suggests Romero will stay in goal. The back four is Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Luke Shaw, and van Gaal has Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo there as well. They have only conceded twice this season, and big signings Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial will bolster an attack containing Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, while the midfield contains the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini.

Weaknesses

While the side has been good defensively, their attack, while good on paper, has been found wanting. Depay gave glimpses of his best in the first leg against Club Brugge, scoring twice and setting up Fellaini, but he is still goalless in the league. Overall, van Gaal’s men have scored just 3 goals, with one of them an own goal by Kyle Walker. The Red Devils will hope that the latest signing, Martial, can change things and start scoring, but he is only 19, and too much pressure cannot possibly be a good thing. The other teams in this group have solid defences, and so if Manchester United cannot find some penetration soon they could miss out on the knockout rounds.

Star Player: Wayne Rooney

Rooney has played 344 league matches since joining Manchester United in 2004 aged 18. Back then he was worth 25.6 million pounds, and he has justified that sum since joining. He has been one of England’s best players, and has had incredible success with United, winning 5 Premier League titles alongside the Champions League, the League Cup (twice) and the Club World Cup.

Key Player: Bastian Schweinsteiger

Schweinsteiger was signed for big money from Bayern Munich over the summer, and he will be hoping to add a second Champions League trophy to his cabinet. He will play a key role as the most experienced player in the centre of midfield, and will need to provide solidity, while United will hope that he can be a helpful source of goals.

PFC CSKA Moscow (Russia)

Manager: Leonid Slutsky
Captain: Igor Akinfeev
Ground: Arena Khimki, Moscow
Qualified: Russian Premier League, 2nd (defeated AC Sparta Praha and Sporting CP in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Quarter-Finals (2009-10)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage

Form Guide

CSKA were edged out by 7 points in the league last season, although they in turn snuck over FC Krasnodar on goal difference. As a result the side had to go through qualifying, where they pulled off a brilliant comeback in Prague to progress to the play-offs and a date with Sporting. Bryan Ruiz and Islam Slimani gave the Portuguese the advantage, but Seydou Doumbia scored twice in Moscow to send CSKA through. They will hope for a better effort in the Champions League this time round after crashing out in last season’s group stage.

Strengths

The CSKA defence is one of the strongest in Europe, with Sergei Ignashevich, Vasili Berezutski, Georgi Schennikov and Mario Fernandes providing support for captain Igor Akinfeev in goal. Finnish attacking midfielder Roman Eremenko scored plenty of goals last year, but with Seydou Doumbia returning on loan from AS Roma most of the goals should come from the Ivorian and pacy Nigerian winger Ahmed Musa. That pair contributed 6 out of the 9 goals the Muscovites scored in qualifying, and if Alan Dzagoev, Zoran Tosic, Pontus Wernbloom and Bibras Natkho can chip in then CSKA stand a great chance of making it through a tough group and into the knockout stages.

Weaknesses

CSKA have played frequently in Europe over the last few seasons, but they have struggled to really make their mark upon the competition. The side has barely changed, and they are taking on a group containing teams from larger leagues with much better competition. The defence is strong, but questions remain about Wernbloom and Natkho, especially given the lack of high level football the latter has had. Both are essentially defensive midfielders, and that could lead to poor links between attack and defence. Doumbia has been successful with CSKA before, and they will be happy to have him back, but his unsuccessful spell at Roma could have sapped some of his previous confidence.

Star Player: Seydou Doumbia

After starting his career in Japan and then with BSC Young Boys in Switzerland, Doumbia has enjoyed great success in Russia with CSKA. He has won two Russian Premier League titles and played 95 matches for 61 goals. Now returning on loan after 6 months playing in Italy with Roma, Doumbia has started well with CSKA and they will be hoping this form continues.

Key Player: Igor Akinfeev

Akinfeev broke into the CSKA starting line-up at just 17, and has played 317 times for the club since then. During that time he has been one of the most consistent goalkeepers in the Russian League, having never conceded more than 30 times in the one season. He has vast Champions League experience, and will be invaluable to CSKA as they look to progress.

VfL Wolfsburg (Germany)

Head Coach: Dieter Hecking
Captain: Diego Benaglio
Ground: Volkswagen Arena, Wolfsburg
Qualified: Bundesliga, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Group Stage (2009-10)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

After years of poor performance in the league Wolfsburg bounced back in 2014-15, finishing second in the Bundesliga. After a rocky start they quickly rose up the table, and were part of a top two with Bayern Munich that did not change for 25 straight games. They managed to edge out Borussia Monchengladbach by three points to qualify for the first time since winning the league in 2008-09 under the guidance of Felix Magath.

Strengths

Wolfsburg have a very strong side, and have made some very good transactions over the off season, picking up Max Kruse from Monchengladbach and Dante from Bayern. Kruse will help Bas Dost and Nicklas Bendtner in attack, as well as Andre Schurrle, purchased last season from Chelsea. Down back, Dante and Naldo should form an excellent partnership in the centre of defence, and Ricardo Rodriguez should add plenty to the team from left back. In goal, Diego Benaglio is the captain of the side and is one of the best keepers in the world. New signing Julian Draxler will bolster the side in behind the strikers, joining Vierinha, Daniel Caligiuri, Schurrle and Maximilian Arnold, and Luiz Gustavo and Josuha Guilavogui patrol the area in front of the defence.

Weaknesses

Wolfsburg may be strong, but the sale of Kevin de Bruyne to Manchester City is going to be very hard to get over. The Belgian starred in the Bundesliga last season and was crowned German footballer of the year for his efforts which included a league-best 21 assists. Draxler is a potential replacement, as is Arnold, but Wolfsburg will struggle to find a player of de Bruyne’s calibre again, although the reported transfer fee of 75 million euros will come in handy. As a result of European inactivity many players in the current squad have not had experience playing in the Champions League, and this could prove to be a handicap.

Star Player: Bas Dost

With 16 league goals last season, Dost was one of the league’s top scorers, and this time around he has already found the net twice in three games. With Max Kruse slotting in behind him he is the main source of goals for Wolfsburg, and his form for the side has given him two caps for the Netherlands. Wolfsburg will be hoping that he can find the net against stronger opponents.

Key Player: Diego Benaglio

The Swiss keeper is the captain of the team and has been capped 224 times for Die Wolfe, having been at the club since 2008. He performed well at the World Cup despite letting in five goals against France, and he will be essential to Wolfsburg’s first tilt at the Champions League since 2009. If he can keep clean sheets and the defence fire then Wolfsburg have a potent enough attack to progress.

Prediction

This group will be very tight, as all four sides look very strong on paper. Manchester United should go through with their star-studded side, and I would expect the main battle to be for second place. Wolfsburg look to have the strongest team of the three, and they should be able to cope without de Bruyne. PSV should take third, as I see no reason why CSKA should do any better than in past years even with a strong side on paper.
Prediction: 1. Manchester United, 2. Wolfsburg, 3. PSV Eindhoven, 4. CSKA Moscow.