Shaqiri leads Switzerland to come-from-behind win

Branislav Ivanović played a long into the box, where Manuel Akanji headed it away safely to Granit Xhaka. Early in the match, Serbia’s crosses had presented Switzerland with plenty of trouble, and a headed goal had left them behind in the fifth minute. The centre-backs had improved, however, and Serbia hadn’t really threatened with a cross since half time. Switzerland had been chasing the game since going behind early, and though they had controlled the second half they still found themselves level with the Serbs, with less than a minute of normal time remaining. A draw seemed the likely result.

Serbia couldn’t have started the game any better. Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer was forced into action early, making a reflex save to deny Aleksandar Mitrović as the big striker rose to meet Luka Milivojević’s cross. Less than a minute later, the Swiss weren’t so lucky. It was Dušan Tadić who put the cross in, beating Ricardo Rodríguez with a nice touch and swinging it in on his left foot. Once again, Mitrović was there. Once again, he got his head to it, beating Fabian Schär to the ball. This time, he looped it past Sommer and left the Swiss goalkeeper with no chance. For the second match in a row, Switzerland found themselves behind early, and needed to chase the game.

On the edge of his own penalty area, Xhaka was faced with a sea of red. Serbia were perfectly organised, and the Swiss seemed to be trapped inside their own half. Xhaka had space, but he had very few options. After holding the ball for a few seconds, Serbia came at the central midfielder, and he could hold onto the ball no longer. Finding back-up striker Mario Gavranović in space, he picked him out with a straightforward pass.

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Vladimir Stojković (in yellow) makes a diving save to deny Blerim Džemaili (centre) from close range. Džemaili had a couple of great chances to equalise, but couldn’t find the back of the net.

Switzerland had started to control possession after going behind, but their lack of composure in attack cost them. Blerim Džemaili had two great chances, once missing the target when Rodríguez found him in the penalty area and then forcing Vladimir Stojković into an excellent save when he latched on to Steven Zuber’s clever pass into the box. At the other end, Mitrović’s confidence was through the roof, and he was winning aerial duels in the box and creating plenty of issues for the Swiss. At one point, the big striker even unleashed a bicycle kick from the edge of the box. Unsurprisingly, it missed. Alongside Mitrović, Tadić was creating issues with his brilliant control and excellent delivery. As the half drew to the close, he nearly teed up Duško Tošić and Nemanja Matić with one perfectly taken corner, and he thundered a volley over the bar. The Swiss were under pressure as the sides went into the break, and they needed to do something different.

Gavranović had the ball, and he faced a solid four-man Serbian defence. Switzerland’s attack had passed the midfield, but Gavranović still found himself fairly deep in his own half with little chance of breaking through. Serbia had done a good job restricting his options, and the half time replacement for the ineffective Haris Seferović could only run at the defence, unsure of what to do. Then, spotting something, he threaded a neat ball in behind the Serbian defenders.

The leveller came just after half time, and out of nowhere. It started with a counter-attack, as the Swiss looked to rebound from a Serbian corner and found themselves facing a slightly stretched defence. The ball made its way to Xherdan Shaqiri, who wheeled around on his left and attempted a shot which was solidly blocked by Aleksandar Kolarov. The ball trailed into space outside the area, seemingly harmless. Then Xhaka ran onto the loose ball. He didn’t worry about taking a touch, or setting himself. He just ran at the ball, aimed, and, without breaking stride, sent an unstoppable strike into the back of the net from a long way out. Stojković was caught flat-footed, and didn’t move as the ball rocketed past him. Minutes later, Shaqiri hit the top of the post with an incredible bending effort, regaining the ball after being tackled by Kolarov and nearly beating Stojković with a remarkable first time strike. Switzerland were starting to make things happen.

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Xherdan Shaqiri (back) scores the winning goal past a diving Vladimir Stojković (right) and a sliding Duško Tošić. Shaqiri was Switzerland’s best player, and thoroughly deserved his late goal.

Shaqiri was there to get on the end of it. All day, the diminutive star had been testing the Serbian defence, and now he found himself in on goal, with no defenders to beat. Tošić was the culprit, allowing the dangerous winger to slip in behind him and run onto the ball unimpeded. The ball had only just crossed the halfway line when Shaqiri got the ball at his feet, but the Serbian defence was already out of the equation and all Tošić could do was chase and hope for the best. As Shaqiri closed in on his target, the centre-back could have fouled him, got himself sent off and possibly prevented the goal. Instead, he chose to keep chasing, and Shaqiri kept running.

The game had soon become a more free-flowing affair. Mitrović thought he should have received a penalty when he tangled with two opponents in the box, but Felix Brych ignored his appeals and rubbed salt into the wound by paying a foul against him. It was Serbia’s best chance of the second half, as Switzerland began to pepper Stojković’s goal. For a fleeting moment, Switzerland thought Gavranović was one-on-one with the Serbian keeper after a nice pass from Shaqiri. The shot missed, and, seconds later, the offside flag was raised. Ivanović’s attempt to deny Zuber nearly ended in disaster, as the experienced right-back stabbed it past Stojković and only narrowly avoiding putting it into his own net. Soon after, Breel Embolo headed Rodríguez’s cross down for Gavranović, whose effort was poor and easily saved by Stojković. The Swiss had more chances, but Serbia continued to hold firm.

Tošić waited until the last moment to attempt his tackle, choosing to hold his challenge until Stojković rushed at Shaqiri. The diminutive Swiss dynamo would have won a penalty had he been fouled. Instead, sandwiched by two defenders, he just threaded it between them. Tošić lay on the ground after his last-gasp challenge. Stojković was on the deck after attempting in vain to make a save. Shaqiri was still on his feet as the ball rolled into the back of the net, and he wheeled away in celebration. He received a yellow card for removing his shirt during the celebration, but he didn’t care. Switzerland had won.

Kaliningrad – Kaliningrad Stadium
Serbia 1 (Mitrović 5)
Switzerland 2 (Xhaka 52, Shaqiri 90)
Referee: Felix Brych (Ger)
Serbia (4-2-3-1): Stojković – Ivanović, Milenković, Tošić, Kolarov; Matić, Milivojević (Radonjić 81); Tadić, Milinković-Savić, Kostić (Ljajić 64); Mitrović.
Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lichtsteiner, Schär, Akanji, Rodríguez; Behrami, Xhaka; Shaqiri, Džemaili (Embolo 73), Zuber (Drmić 90+4); Seferović (Gavranović 46).

Top 5
1. Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
Shaqiri’s dominant second half display got Switzerland over the line, and his late winner was a fair reward for a brilliant individual performance. He was quick and skilled, and he seemed to be able to find space in almost any situation. He was always a threat, especially when wheeling around to shoot with his lethal left boot.
2. Aleksandar Mitrović (Serbia)
Mitrović managed to find the back of the net in the first five minutes, and it helped his confidence for the rest of the game. He was constantly challenging the Swiss defenders in the air, and he was unlucky not to grab another goal with his excellent aerial presence and good positioning.
3. Dušan Tadić (Serbia)
Tadić was in very good touch in the first half, collecting the ball on the right wing and using his excellent skills to put Switzerland under the pump. His cross allowed Mitrović to head in Serbia’s only goal, and his delivery from both set pieces and open play created plenty of chances.
4. Granit Xhaka (Switzerland)
Xhaka turned the game in Switzerland’s favour with one brilliant first-time shot, showing both his incredible skills and his ability to change the game in the space of seconds. He had a hand in the second goal as well, and his composure in possession helped Switzerland to build their attacks.
5. Yann Sommer (Switzerland)
Sommer started the game with a tremendous reflex save, and although he conceded moments later he kept that good form up for the rest of the match. His judgement and composure when dealing with dangerous balls into the box was impeccable, as was his distribution from the back.

Underwhelming Brazilians held by dogged Switzerland

Neymar surged into the box, looking as threatening as ever as he challenged the determined Swiss defence. Brazil’s star had started the game slightly quietly, with Switzerland closing him down aggressively every time he got the ball. Now, with options aplenty available to him, he decided to pass the ball out wide, where Marcelo was waiting after one of his customary attacking runs from left-back. Marcelo’s cross left a little to be desired, and Steven Zuber easily headed it away. Unfortunately for Zuber and Switzerland, it was Philippe Coutinho who controlled the ball outside the box, took a shot, and watched as it rebounded off the post and went in. It was a stunning goal, leaving Yann Sommer with no chance as it swerved devilishly into the back of the net. After 20 minutes, the goal gave Brazil the lead, and it seemed like the first goal of many to come.

Brazil had controlled the early part of the match. Switzerland started the game solidly, but they were merely keeping their more skilful opponents at bay and posed little attacking threat to a much improved Brazilian defence. Meanwhile, Brazil’s lethal front four of Neymar, Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus and Willian probed the Swiss defence, working on finding a way through. As solid as Switzerland looked, it was only a matter of time. When Coutinho and Neymar combined delightfully to give Paulinho a shot from just a couple of metres away, Switzerland were very lucky not to concede. Soon Brazil were in full flight, combining brilliantly and giving their opponents plenty of trouble. When they took the lead, they didn’t seem ready to stop. They looked like pushing on and announcing their intentions with an emphatic victory.

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Neymar (left) attempts to get past Valon Behrami. Behrami and Neymar had a key battle throughout the night, and the experienced Swiss midfielder generally came out on top.

Then, just like that, Brazil stopped pushing. Tite formed his team up into a solid defensive structure, and happily allowed the Swiss to control the ball and get themselves back in the game. For the rest of the half, there were no slick passing moves, just a well-organised defensive wall which was prepared to hold the lead. For their part, Switzerland had little chance of breaking through. They too were happy to settle, and their ball movement was too slow to seriously challenge a disciplined back four. With no real outlet for their control of possession and territory, the Swiss never threatened, but Brazil’s cautious approach meant they never looked like going further behind either. Brazil seemed comfortable enough.

Then disaster struck. Less than five minutes after half time, Brazil’s previously organised defence faltered. Xherdan Shaqiri’s corner was swung into the six-yard box, where Zuber was apparently unmarked and in a perfect position to head home from point blank range. The Swiss were back level, and Brazil’s strategy of sitting deep and continuing to repel their opponents’ rather feeble attacks had failed. Now they had to get themselves back on the front foot, but regaining the lead was easier said than done.

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Xherdan Shaqiri looks to move forward with the ball. Shaqiri provided the assist for Switzerland’s goal, and was always dangerous on the break.

Fernandinho took a couple of very ambitious long shots, one of which flew deep into the stands behind the Brazilian goal. Coutinho got space to take another shot in a difficult position, but it was blocked and his follow-up shot was emphatically denied as well. Another chance went begging when Coutinho attempted a shot from fairly close range, and it swerved dramatically – in the wrong direction. Jesus went down in the box, but referee César Ramos was unmoved by Brazil’s appeals for a penalty. In the meantime, the Swiss defence was rock solid, and the dangerous Shaqiri was beginning to find some space on the break.

The chances kept on coming. Roberto Firmino arrived off the bench and challenged Sommer with two very good headers. The Swiss keeper was up to the task. Neymar could have bundled in a cross, but he could only volley it straight at Sommer, who saved it comfortably. As time expired, Brazil could have scored from a Neymar free-kick, a Willian corner and Miranda’s well-hit volley which rolled just wide of the post. The Swiss played their roles to perfection, and when the final whistle blew they thoroughly deserved to take their share of the points. In the dying moments, a massive red balloon managed to find it’s way into Brazil’s penalty area, with Brazilian keeper Alisson popping it with an emphatic stamp. It was an indictment on Brazil that Alisson’s efficient removal of the balloon was one of the most clinical things any Brazilian did all day.

Rostov-on-Don – Rostov Arena
Brazil 1 (Philippe Coutinho 20)
Switzerland 1 (Zuber 50)
Referee: César Ramos (Mex)
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Danilo, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Casemiro (Fernandinho 60), Paulinho (Renato Augusto 67); Willian, Philippe Coutinho, Neymar; Gabriel Jesus (Roberto Firmino 79).
Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lichtsteiner (Lang 87), Schär, Akanji, Rodríguez; Behrami (Zakaria 71), Xhaka; Shaqiri, Džemaili, Zuber; Seferović (Embolo 80).

Top 5
1. Manuel Akanji (Switzerland)
Akanji was remarkably composed for a 22-year-old in just his eighth international, and he provided plenty of solidity in central defence. He won the ball when he needed to and was more than capable of handling the threats of Brazil’s dynamic and skilled attackers. He was Switzerland’s most solid defender, and he will take massive confidence from his brilliant performance.
2. Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
Coutinho was Brazil’s most dangerous attacking player, operating in between attack and central midfield and working his way into dangerous spaces. His strike to put Brazil into the lead was one of the best goals of the tournament thus far, and the bend he was able to put on the ball was, at times, scarcely believable. If he keeps his form up he will be nearly impossible to contain.
3. Valon Behrami (Switzerland)
Behrami managed to win a place in the starting line-up over young gun Denis Zakaria, and he relied on his experience to ensure that he did not disappoint. He did a particularly good job in containing the influence of Neymar with good closing speed and an excellent physical presence, and made a big difference while he was on the pitch. To cap it off, he also became the first Swiss player to play in four World Cups.
4. Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
Shaqiri worked hard in both attack and defence, and was particularly dangerous in the second half as Brazil pushed determinedly and space opened up for him on the counter. He caused Brazil’s defenders plenty of problems with his skill on the ball and surprising strength for his diminutive stature, and it was his cross that allowed Switzerland to equalise.
5. Marcelo (Brazil)
Marcelo has been known to create a weak point in the Brazilian defensive line with his desire to get forward and join the attack, but against the Swiss he managed to find a perfect balance between defensive diligence and attacking flair. He still contributed to the attack, but he showed a defensive steel that he doesn’t often display and suggested he could be in for a good tournament.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group E

Group E

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Brazil (2), Switzerland (6), Costa Rica (23), Serbia (34)
Costa Rica vs Serbia, Cosmos Arena, Samara
Brazil vs Switzerland, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
Brazil vs Costa Rica, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
Serbia vs Switzerland, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
Serbia vs Brazil, Otkritie Arena, Moscow
Switzerland vs Costa Rica, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod


Head Coach: Tite
Captain: Neymar
Previous Appearances: 20 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
Qualified: CONMEBOL, 1st
Qualification Top Scorer: Gabriel Jesus (7)


Goalkeepers: 1. Alisson (Roma), 16. Cássio (Corinthians), 23. Ederson (Manchester City).
Defenders: 2. Thiago Silva (Paris Saint-Germain), 3. Miranda (Internazionale), 4. Pedro Geromel (Grêmio), 6. Filipe Luís (Atlético Madrid), 12. Marcelo (Real Madrid), 13. Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain), 14. Danilo (Manchester City), 22. Fagner (Corinthians).
Midfielders: 5. Casemiro (Real Madrid), 8. Renato Augusto (Beijing Sinobo Guoan), 11. Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona), 15. Paulinho (Barcelona), 17. Fernandinho (Manchester City), 18. Fred (Shakhtar Donetsk), 19. Willian (Chelsea).
Forwards: 7. Douglas Costa (Juventus), 9. Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), 10. Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), 20. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), 21. Taison (Shakhtar Donetsk).

Tite replaced Dunga as Brazil’s coach with the side at a pretty low ebb. They had just been bundled out of the Copa América in the group stage, and were sitting sixth in South American qualifying, at risk of missing out on the World Cup for the first time in their history. Then they won their next nine qualifiers to finish on top of CONMEBOL qualifying by 10 points and become the first team to seal their place in Russia. Their qualifying blitz was based around solid depth all over the park. Neymar has returned from a foot injury in time for the World Cup, and his presence leaves Tite with a very tough choice between world-class strikers Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus. Philippe Coutinho, Douglas Costa and Willian are all versatile creative options, while a midfield of Casemiro, Fernandinho, Paulinho, Renato Augusto and Fred is as good as any at this tournament. Marcelo is a brilliant left-back who is devastating in attack, and the presence of three quality centre-backs (Thiago Silva, Miranda and Marquinhos) and two great young goalkeepers (Alisson and Ederson) leaves Tite spoilt for choice all over the park.

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Marcelo attempts to control the ball during a qualifier against Ecuador. Marcelo’s attacking play from left-back creates plenty of goals, but it can also leave him out of position and vulnerable.

There is very little to criticise about this Brazilian team, but there are some issues. They are no longer as reliant on Neymar as they have been in the past, but he is still their best player and his injury concerns mean he is coming into the tournament with very little football under his belt. First-choice right-back Dani Alves will miss the World Cup with injury, and his potential replacement, Fagner, is also coming in under a cloud. Structurally, Marcelo’s propensity for dangerously foraying into opposition territory can leave him out of position, and a lack of pace from veterans Miranda and Silva in central defence could leave Brazil’s left-flank vulnerable, especially on the counter-attack. These vulnerabilities won’t be too much of an issue in the group stage, where they shouldn’t face too much opposition, but they could rear their head in the knockouts with potentially damaging consequences.

Star Player: Neymar

Neymar is the most expensive player in the world, with his 198 million pound transfer to Paris Saint-Germain the largest ever by some distance. Before his injury, Brazil’s captain did not disappoint, finishing the season as the third highest scorer in Ligue 1 despite only playing 20 of the 38 games. He is a brilliant player, and if he comes back fit and firing his impact off the left wing could be devastating.

Key Player: Casemiro

Casemiro isn’t the kind of player who takes much of the spotlight. In a star-studded Brazilian team his influence is easy to miss, but his performances in Russia may go a long way to deciding Brazil’s fate. e HHe is a holding midfielder who is solid in possession, and Tite will be relying on him to cover holes created by the attacking play of the full-backs. He flies under the radar, but Casemiro has a massive role to play.

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Philippe Coutinho (left), Neymar (centre) and Gabriel Jesus celebrate a goal during qualifying against Argentina. The trio are likely to start as Tite’s front three in Russia, and all of them are very skilful players.

One to watch: Gabriel Jesus

21-year-old Jesus is the youngest member of the Brazilian squad by some distance, but he is a key part of it nonetheless. He was their leading scorer in qualifying and he is a versatile attacker who regularly found the back of the net in Manchester City’s Premier League-winning campaign. He should get the first chance to start in Russia, and he is good enough to make the most of it.


Brazil come to Russia in excellent form, and their dependence on Neymar has lessened since Tite took over. The experienced coach has built a well-rounded team that can take it up to anyone, and the Brazilians could well go all the way.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Alisson; Danilo, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Paulinho, Casemiro, Fernandinho; Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus, Neymar.


Head Coach: Vladimir Petković
Captain: Stephan Lichtsteiner
Previous Appearances: 10 (1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1994, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1934, 1938, 1954)
Qualified: UEFA, 2nd Group B (beat Northern Ireland in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Haris Seferović (4)


Goalkeepers: 1. Yann Sommer (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 12. Yvon Mvogo (Leipzig), 21. Roman Bürki (Borussia Dortmund).
Defenders: 2. Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus), 3. François Moubandje (Toulouse), 4. Nico Elvedi (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 5. Manuel Akanji (Borussia Dortmund), 6. Michael Lang (Basel), 13. Ricardo Rodríguez (Milan), 20. Johan Djourou (Antalyaspor), 22. Fabian Schär (Deportivo La Coruña).
Midfielders: 8. Remo Freuler (Atalanta), 10. Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), 11. Valon Behrami (Udinese), 14. Steven Zuber (Hoffenheim), 15. Blerim Džemaili (Bologna), 16. Gelson Fernandes (Eintracht Frankfurt), 17. Denis Zakaria (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 23. Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City).
7. Breel Embolo (Schalke), 9. Haris Seferović (Benfica), 18. Mario Gavranović (Dinamo Zagreb), 19. Josip Drmić (Bayer Leverkusen).

Switzerland’s progress to the World Cup was far from straightforward, despite only losing once along the way. The timing of that one loss (the last game of the first round of qualifying) consigned the Swiss to the play-offs, where they narrowly and controversially held off Northern Ireland to make their fourth finals in a row. The Swiss did perform pretty well in qualifying, and there are strong players all over the park. Full-backs Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodríguez combine defensive solidity with a dangerous attacking edge, with Rodríguez’s ability to create from set pieces and hit the scoresheet himself making him one of the best left-backs in the world. Ahead of them, Xherdan Shaqiri is a brilliant attacker with a penchant for the spectacular, and he will be assisted by Steven Zuber. Granit Xhaka leads a solid midfield alongside Blerim Džemaili, Valon Behrami, Remo Freuler and Gelson Fernandes. Down back, promising centre-backs Manuel Akanji and Nico Elvedi will support Fabian Schär in shielding experienced goalkeeper Yann Sommer, making the Swiss tough to break down.

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Ricardo Rodríguez slots home the controversial penalty that sent Switzerland through to Russia. Rodríguez is a solid player in both attack and defence, and will be very important for the Swiss.

The Swiss may struggle to hit the scoresheet, however. Despite the ease with which they beat most sides in qualifying, Vladimir Petković still doesn’t have a reliable frontman at his disposal. Incumbent Haris Seferović has a poor record with the national team, but the potential replacements for the misfiring striker are thin on the ground. The talented Breel Embolo is still only 21 and has not developed as Petković would have hoped, while Josip Drmić has been effective for Switzerland but is coming off a season where he managed just four games in all competitions. Mario Gavranović is also part of the squad, but he doesn’t seem to have done enough to make a spot in the team his own. Seferović was Switzerland’s leading scorer in qualifying, but the fact that full-backs Lichtsteiner and Rodríguez were directly behind him on that list says more about the paucity of quality attacking options. If Switzerland are going to progress past the group stage they will need to find an outlet for their attacking play, and it is not clear who is going to stand up.

Star Player: Xherdan Shaqiri

It is remarkable that, despite his undeniable quality and experience with some of Europe’s biggest clubs, Shaqiri has not managed a move away from now-relegated Stoke City. The Swiss maestro is small in stature, but he can beat opponents with ease and he can find the back of the net from remarkable positions. He has stood up when Switzerland have most needed him in the past, and Petković will be hoping he can do it again.

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Xherdan Shaqiri scores his remarkable bicycle kick goal against Poland at Euro 2016. Shaqiri has scored plenty of remarkable goals in the past, and his skills are invaluable for Switzerland.

Key Player: Haris Seferović

Seferović has scored roughly a goal every five games in his previous appearances for Switzerland, but a lack of depth means that he is likely to start anyway. He has scored big goals for the Swiss in the past, especially when he netted an injury time winner against Ecuador in the last World Cup, but he is going to need to find some consistency if the Swiss are to succeed in this tournament.

One to watch: Manuel Akanji

Akanji will be a key part of Switzerland’s defence in Russia, even though he only debuted last year. The 22-year-old is versatile, strong and can match it with the world’s best, and his form for Swiss champions Basel landed him a move to Borussia Dortmund midway through the season. Having found some game time with the German giants, Akanji could be set for a big tournament in Russia.


The Swiss have holes, especially up front, but they also have plenty of experience and some quality players around the ground. Their defence should be pretty strong, and this will give them a boost in Russia.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Sommer; Lichtsteiner, Schär, Akanji, Rodríguez; Freuler, Xhaka; Zuber, Džemaili, Shaqiri; Seferović.

Costa Rica

Head Coach: Óscar Ramírez
Captain: Bryan Ruiz
Previous Appearances: 4 (1990, 2002, 2006, 2014)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (2014)
Qualified: CONCACAF, 2nd
Qualification Top Scorer: Christian Bolaños, Marco Ureña (4)


Goalkeepers: 1. Keylor Navas (Real Madrid), 18. Patrick Pemberton (Alajuelense), 23. Leonel Moreira (Herediano).
Defenders: 2. Johnny Acosta (Águilas Doradas), 3. Giancarlo González (Bologna), 4. Ian Smith (Norrköping), 6. Óscar Duarte (Espanyol), 8. Bryan Oviedo (Sunderland), 15. Francisco Calvo (Minnesota United), 16. Cristian Gamboa (Celtic), 19. Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps), 22. Rónald Matarrita (New York City).
Midfielders: 5. Celso Borges (Deportivo La Coruña), 7. Christian Bolaños (Deportivo Saprissa), 9. Daniel Colindres (Deportivo Saprissa), 10. Bryan Ruiz (Sporting), 13. Rodney Wallace (New York City), 14. Randall Azofeifa (Herediano), 17. Yeltsin Tejeda (Lausanne), 20. David Guzmán (Portland Timbers).
Forwards: 11. Johan Venegas (Deportivo Saprissa), 12. Joel Campbell (Real Betis), 21. Marco Ureña (Los Angeles FC).

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Bryan Ruiz (left) and Keylor Navas stand for the national anthem before Costa Rica’s qualifying clash with Trinidad and Tobago. Ruiz and Navas have plenty of experience, and both will be a key part of Los Ticos’ campaign.

Costa Rica were the surprise package of the last World Cup, beating Uruguay and Italy to finish atop the tournament’s group of death and ultimately making it to the quarter-finals. Whether they can back it up with another similarly lofty result or not, their stern defence will be tough to break down. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas was their star at the last World Cup, and he has since won three consecutive Champions League titles as Real Madrid’s starting goalkeeper. In front of him, Giancarlo González leads a staunch five-man defence which proved tough to penetrate at the last World Cup, and wing-backs Bryan Oviedo and Cristian Gamboa can provide valuable attacking support. Captain Bryan Ruiz has plenty of experience and can provide a goal threat, while Christian Bolaños and Celso Borges are solid players in midfield. Overall, this Costa Rican team is well set-up and knows their roles, and they will be very hard to break down.

Costa Rica may sport a very effective defensive unit, but it’s a different story at the other end of the field. Joel Campbell was in brilliant form at the last World Cup, but the lanky attacker’s career has not progressed much four years (and three different loan spells) on. He, along with other striking option Marco Ureña, has battled injury this season, and neither is the kind of high-class forward Los Ticos are looking for to lead the line. Their scoring troubles are not helped by a style which puts a heavy emphasis on defence, and their remarkable success in 2014 masked the fact that their ugly approach of throwing men behind the ball was effective defensively but not conducive to free-flowing matches. In the end, the quality of their opponents could prove too great a barrier to overcome if they are beaten in midfield, and it’s hard to see them making it past the round of 16.

Star Player: Keylor Navas

Navas went to the last World Cup as a reliable performer and a known quantity in the Costa Rican side. Since then, he has developed into the team’s undisputed star. He is one of the best in the world, and has started – and won – three Champions League finals with Real Madrid. He will come to Russia with plenty of experience under his belt, and can be relied upon to perform on the big stage.

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Celso Borges attempts to gain possession during a qualifier against Honduras. Borges will play an important role in the Costa Rican midfield.

Key Player: Celso Borges

Borges is a quality central midfielder, and his ability to win control of the ball and push up into attack will be crucial for Costa Rica as they look to qualify for the knockout stages. The 30-year-old has won 100 caps for his country, and he will be using all of his experience at the highest level to shield the defence and hopefully provide the springboard into attack Los Ticos need.

One to watch: Bryan Oviedo

Oviedo is 28, and after five seasons with Everton he is hardly a newcomer to this Costa Rican team. After injury deprived the first-choice left-back of the chance to play in 2014, however, he is one of only a few players in the squad who hasn’t played at a World Cup. He could add something extra to the team with his ability to push forward from defence, and it will be interesting to see what he brings in Russia.


Costa Rica will come into this tournament with an almost identical team to the one that made the quarter-finals in 2014, but the same result seems unlikely. They will be tough to break down, but a lack of goals could get them in the end.
Likely Team (5-4-1): Navas; Gamboa, Waston, González, Acosta, Oviedo; Bolaños, Borges, Guzmán, Ruiz; Ureña.


Head Coach: Mladen Krstajić
Captain: Aleksandar Kolarov
Previous Appearances: 3 (1998, 2006, 2010)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group D
Qualification Top Scorer: Aleksandar Mitrović (6)


Goalkeepers: 1. Vladimir Stojković (Partizan), 12. Predrag Rajković (Maccabi Tel Aviv), 23. Marko Dmitrović (Eibar).
Defenders: 2. Antonio Rukavina (Villarreal), 3. Duško Tošić (Beşiktaş), 5. Uroš Spajić (Anderlecht),
6. Branislav Ivanović (Zenit), 11. Aleksandar Kolarov (Roma), 13. Miloš Veljković (Werder Bremen), 14. Milan Rodić (Red Star Belgrade), 15. Nikola Milenković (Fiorentina).
Midfielders: 4. Luka Milivojević (Crystal Palace), 7. Andrija Živković (Benfica), 10. Dušan Tadić (Southampton), 16. Marko Grujić (Cardiff City), 17. Filip Kostić (Hamburg), 18. Nemanja Radonjić (Red Star Belgrade), 20. Sergej Milinković-Savić (Lazio), 21. Nemanja Matić (Manchester United), 22. Adem Ljajić (Torino).
Forwards: 8. Aleksandar Prijović (PAOK), 9. Aleksandar Mitrović (Fulham), 19. Luka Jović (Eintracht Frankfurt).

Serbia passed through a tough qualifying group with flying colours, beating out Ireland, Wales and Austria to progress automatically, and they have a young squad that should provide a stern test for opponents. Key midfielders Nemanja Matić and Luka Milivojević are both established in the Premier League, and a creative core of Dušan Tadić, Filip Kostić and the talented Sergej Milinković-Savić should provide plenty of challenges for opposing defences. Aleksandar Mitrović has been in red-hot form for Fulham in the last few months, and he is more than capable of finding the back of the net in Russia. Their defence is experienced, with Branislav Ivanović, Aleksandar Kolarov and Antonio Rukavina all boasting years of experience at some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Serbia’s mix of youthful exuberance (five of their squad played in Serbia’s triumph at the 2015 under-20 World Cup) and an experienced core should serve them well as they look to make it through a competitive group.

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Nemanja Matić (centre) attempts to slip past two Georgian opponents during qualifying. Matić is one of Serbia’s stars, and he adds both class and steel to their midfield.

The side is not without issues, however. Coach Mladen Krstajić is still relatively new to the job, having stepped in to fill the breach following Slavoljub Muslin’s sacking. Muslin had enjoyed plenty of success with the national team and his sacking, in no small part due to his inability to accommodate the talents of Milinković-Savić, is not the first bizarre decision to come out of Serbia’s governing body, and could harm the team. On the pitch, an injury to Matija Nastasić has deprived the Eagles of one of their best defenders, and the defensive players who are likely to start in Russia are past their primes and could be exploited by quicker attacks. Throw in a first-choice goalkeeper, Vladimir Stojković, who has been plying his trade in lower-level European football over the last few seasons, and the Serbians may have defensive difficulties which could undermine their campaign. They are undoubtedly a talented side, but the off-field upheaval could have a big impact.

Star Player: Nemanja Matić

Matić is a key part of any side he plays in, and his performances for Chelsea and Manchester United over the last few seasons have forged his reputation as one of the Premier League’s best holding midfielders. He is an excellent tackler, and he allows his teammates to thrive with his defensive solidity and ability to control the ball. He can fit almost any formation well, and he is a player Serbia can rely on.

Key Player: Branislav Ivanović

Serbia’s desire to move on from the 34-year-old Ivanović was shown by Krstajić’s decision to strip him of the captaincy in March, but he will still play a key role in Russia. He spent nearly 10 seasons as a key member of Chelsea’s team, and in the absence of Nastasić the Serbians will rely on him to hold the defence together. If he struggles, there could be wider ramifications.

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Sergej Milinković-Savić (left) holds off an opponent during a friendly with South Korea. Milinković-Savić only received his debut after Slavoljub Muslin was sacked, with Milinković-Savić’s lack of opportunities a key factor in the decision.

One to watch: Sergej Milinković-Savić

Milinković-Savić has barely any international career to speak of, but the 23-year-old’s non-use in the national team still sparked the sacking of Muslin. He is undoubtedly a talent, and his performances for Lazio have been exceptional. At 1.91 metres tall he is big for an attacking midfielder, and he uses this size and his excellent vision to good effect. Krstajić is unlikely to make the mistake of not playing him in Russia, and he could have a big impact.


Muslin brought the best out of Serbia in taking them to Russia, and his sacking may prove to be a mistake. They are a talented squad, but it remains to be seen whether they will be able to hit their best.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Stojković; Rukavina, Ivanović, Tošić, Kolarov; Matić, Milivojević; Tadić, Milinković-Savić, Kostić; Mitrović.


With no real contender who comes close to matching their depth of talent, the Brazilians should cruise through to the round of 16, and should be present in the latter stages of the tournament. As for the rest of the group, all three sides are founded on solid defensive structures, and there should be some interesting games between them. Costa Rica don’t seem to have what it takes, and although they can’t be ruled out it looks as if the game between Switzerland and Serbia could be decisive. The Swiss have plenty of experience, and that experience should come to the fore in Russia. If they can find a quality goal-scorer, they may have a team that can make a surprise run to the quarter-finals and beyond.
1. Brazil, 2. Switzerland, 3. Serbia, 4. Costa Rica

2016-17 Premier League Preview – The middle of the pack

Crystal Palace

Manager: Alan Pardew
Captain: Scott Dann
Ground: Selhurst Park
Last Season: 15th
Top Scorer: Yannick Bolasie, Yohan Cabaye, Scott Dann, Connor Wickham (5)
Most Assists: Yannick Bolasie, Damien Delaney, Jason Puncheon, Connor Wickham (3)
Prediction: 16th


Goalkeepers: 1. Julian Speroni, 13. Wayne Hennessey, Steve Mandanda.
2. Joel Ward, 6. Scott Dann, 19. Zeki Fryers, 23. Pape Souare, 27. Damien Delaney, 34. Martin Kelly, James Tomkins.
7. Yohan Cabaye, 10. Yannick Bolasie, 11. Wilfried Zaha, 14. Lee Chung-yong, 15. Mile Jedinak, 18. James McArthur, 20. Jonny Williams, 22. Jordon Mutch, 26. Bakary Sako, 28. Joe Ledley, 38. Hiram Boateng, 42. Jason Puncheon, Andros Townsend.
9. Fraizer Campbell, 21. Connor Wickham, 32. Kwesi Appiah.

Crystal Palace were solid last season, making it to the final of the FA Cup and comfortably staying out of the relegation zone. Yohan Cabaye (pictured), Mile Jedinak, Joe Ledley and James McArthur provide a solid base in the centre of the park, and new signing Andros Townsend will provide plenty of width. The English international will compete with Yannick Bolasie, Wilfried Zaha and Jason Puncheon for a spot on the wings, and they will be looking to provide excellent delivery for Connor Wickham up front. The defence is solid, and new recruit James Tomkins will face stiff competition as he aims to start ahead of Damien Delaney at centre back. Scott Dann was in top form last season, and the new captain will look to keep this up as he anchors the defence. Steve Mandanda has been brought in from Marseille, and the French number two will replace Wayne Hennessey in goal.

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Crystal Palace are a solid side defensively, but there are some problems in attack. They were only able to score 39 goals last season, with centre back Dann finishing the season as one of the team’s top scorers. He was able to score as many goals as Wickham, who was Pardew’s main option in attack throughout the campaign. The losses of Marouane Chamakh, Emmanuel Adebayor and Dwight Gayle have left Palace devoid of the few attacking options they had at the end of last season, and unless they can find a new striker before the transfer window closes they will find it incredibly difficult to penetrate opposition defences. Cabaye, a defensive midfielder, has been functioning as the team’s main playmaker since his arrival from Paris Saint-Germain. The French international failed in this role during his first season at the club, and Palace will need him to deliver if they are to get anywhere this season.

Star Player: Yohan Cabaye

Cabaye has racked up nearly 50 international caps for the French national team, and he has gathered plenty of experience in both France and England. He was reunited with Pardew when he moved to Palace from French giants PSG at the start of last season, and he is still good enough to take on the best players in the world. He will be a constant presence in midfield throughout the campaign, and Palace will be hoping he can deliver.

Key Player: Scott Dann

Dann moved to Crystal Palace from Blackburn Rovers midway through the 2013-14 season, and he has slotted effortlessly into the centre of defence at the club. He is a good leader, and he has replaced Jedinak as captain after showing great form last season. He is the best player Palace have in defence, and if he fails to step up they will struggle to keep their opponents out.

One to watch: Wilfried Zaha

Zaha made his debut for England in 2012, and he has been on the scene for such a long time that it is hard to believe that he is still only 23. He was unsuccessful during a brief spell at Manchester United, but he still has plenty of potential and could take Crystal Palace to greater heights as he continues to develop. He has been a regular over the last couple of seasons, and he will play a big role again.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Mandanda – Ward, Dann, Tomkins, Souare; McArthur, Jedinak; Zaha, Cabaye, Bolasie; Wickham.

Stoke City

Manager: Mark Hughes
Captain: Ryan Shawcross
Ground: Bet365 Stadium
Last Season: 9th
Top Scorer: Marko Arnautovic (11)
Most Assists: Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri (6)
Prediction: 9th


Goalkeepers: 1. Jack Butland, 24. Shay Given, 29. Jakob Haugaard, 35. Daniel Bachmann.
2. Phil Bardsley, 3. Erik Pieters, 5. Marc Muniesa, 8. Glen Johnson, 12. Marc Wilson, 17. Ryan Shawcross, 20. Geoff Cameron, 23. Dionatan Teixeira, 26. Philipp Wollscheid.
4. Joe Allen, 6. Glenn Whelan, 7. Stephen Ireland, 14. Ibrahim Afellay, 16. Charlie Adam, 21. Giannelli Imbula, 22. Xherdan Shaqiri, 34. Ollie Shenton, Ramadhan Sobhi.
10. Marko Arnautovic, 11. Joselu, 18. Mame Biram Diouf, 19. Jonathan Walters, 25. Peter Crouch, 27. Bojan.

Stoke City have been consistent performers in the Premier League for a long time, and they have not looked like being relegated since their return to the top flight in 2008. Mark Hughes has guided the club to three consecutive ninth-place finishes since taking over in 2013, and this consistency looks set to continue. Joe Allen has joined the club from Liverpool after showing impressive form at Euro 2016, and he will form an effective combination with Giannelli Imbula and Glenn Whelan in the centre of midfield. Ryan Shawcross is one of the most consistent defenders in the Premier League, and he will combine with Philipp Wollscheid to ensure that not much gets through. Jack Butland is still very young and will continue to develop over the course of the season, and the English international will provide an excellent safety net for the back four. Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri (pictured) are both incredibly talented players, and they should cause plenty of problems for opposition defences.

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Stoke have been in need of a quality target up front for years, but no amount of money has done the trick since their return to the Premier League. Arnautovic was the main scoring option last season, and while he netted 11 times from the left wing Hughes was only able to get a total of 21 goals out of Bojan, Mame Biram Diouf, Jonathan Walters and Joselu. Stoke were barely able to manage more than a goal a game last season, and if they are looking to improve they will need to find a player who can get them the goals they need. There is not a lot of time left before the season kicks off, and if they cannot find a new target up front they will struggle. The defence was fairly leaky last season, and while some of this was due to an injury to Shawcross they will need to ensure that their defensive woes do not become a recurring problem. There are some things which could go wrong for Stoke as they look to finish in the top half of the table for a fourth consecutive season, but they are a fairly well-rounded side and are unlikely to drop off significantly.

Star Player: Xherdan Shaqiri

Shaqiri has played for Basel, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, and the Swiss winger became a record signing for the Potters when he was signed from the Italian giants in 2015. He is not tall, but he makes up for it with pace, skill and an ability to put the ball into dangerous positions. He has the ability to take down another team on his own, and he could be a massive influence this season.

Key Player: Marko Arnautovic

Arnautovic led Stoke for both goals and assists last season, and the Austrian international has the ability to cause plenty of problems for opposition defences over the course of this campaign. He has plenty of skill and will look to present himself as a target for Shaqiri, who will function as the team’s main playmaker. He is Stoke’s best scoring option, and he will need to maintain his output.

One to watch: Ramadhan Sobhi

Sobhi is exceptionally talented, and the young Egyptian playmaker will be looking to make an impact for his new club after moving to the Premier League from Al Ahly. He made his Egyptian debut at just 17, and his signing could prove to be a massive coup for Stoke City in years to come. He is unlikely to feature too heavily this season, but it will be interesting to see if he can make the most of his chances.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Butland – Johnson, Shawcross, Wollscheid, Pieters; Allen, Imbula; Shaqiri, Afellay, Arnautovic; Bojan.

Swansea City

Manager: Francesco Guidolin
Captain: Ashley Williams
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Last Season: 12th
Top Scorer: Andre Ayew (12)
Most Assists: Kyle Naughton, Gylfi Sigurdsson (3)
Prediction: 12th


Goalkeepers: 1. Lukasz Fabianski, 13. Kristoffer Nordfeldt, 19. Mark Birighitti, 25. Gerhard Tremmel.
2. Jordi Amat, 3. Neil Taylor, 5. Mike van der Hoorn, 6. Ashley Williams, 14. Franck Tabanou, 22. Angel Rangel, 26. Kyle Naughton, 33. Federico Fernandez, 35. Steven Kingsley.
4. Ki Sung-yueng, 7. Leon Britton, 8. Leroy Fer, 10. Andre Ayew, 12. Nathan Dyer, 15. Wayne Routledge, 20. Jefferson Montero, 23. Gylfi Sigurdsson, 24. Jack Cork, 30. Josh Sheehan, 53. Adam King, 56. Jay Fulton.
9. Fernando Llorente, 11. Marvin Emnes, 17. Modou Barrow, 62. Oliver McBurnie.

Swansea started last season poorly, and they were facing a relegation battle before Francesco Guidolin, a relative unknown outside of Italy, stepped in. The experienced Italian guided the Swans to safety over the second half of the season, recording wins over Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool on the way to a twelfth-placed finish. Andre Ayew and Gylfi Sigurdsson (pictured) scored 23 goals between them last season, and they will be complemented by new signing Fernando Llorente. Jack Cork is a solid presence in midfield, and he will be ably supported by Leroy Fer, Ki Sung-yueng and Leon Britton. New signing Mike van der Hoorn will bolster the defence, where he will play alongside captain Ashley Williams, and Lukasz Fabianski will be very hard to beat in goal.

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Swansea are very solid down back, but there are some issues in attack which need to be fixed. Bafetimbi Gomis has been loaned out to Marseille, and with Eder making a permanent move to Lille the Swans have been left with just four genuine strikers on their books. Llorente has been brought in to fix the problem, but he did not play regularly in stints at Juventus and Sevilla and is short on match practice. He reached his peak years ago during his time at Athletic Bilbao, and he is likely to be taking on a very heavy burden with little support. Neither Modou Barrow nor Marvin Emnes were regular options last season, and the lack of bench depth will make Llorente’s job very tough. Swansea struggled last season before Guidolin came to the club, and there is no way of knowing that this will not happen again. They have a solid base, but they could be very inconsistent.

Star Player: Gylfi Sigurdsson

Sigurdsson was a key member of the Icelandic side that made the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, and he has developed into one of the Premier League’s best attacking midfielders. HHehnbHe is a skilled playmaker, and he managed to score 11 times over the course of last season in a more attacking role. He is an excellent player, and he can have a big impact this season with his skill and his eye for goal.

Key Player: Ashley Williams

Williams has plenty of experience at both club and international level, and he has been in charge of Swansea’s defence for a long time. He led Wales to the semi-finals of the Euros, and he will be a key member of Swansea’s team as they look to improve on last season. If he is unable to perform it will be very difficult for the Swans, who need their defence to hold firm if they are to succeed.

One to watch: Mike van der Hoorn

Swansea may have uncovered a hidden gem in van der Hoorn, an imposing central defender who is still developing and has the potential to become one of the world’s best. He is not particularly well-known outside of the Netherlands, but he is strong in the air and should be able to immediately compete for a place in the first-team.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Fabianski – Rangel, van der Hoorn, Williams, Taylor; Cork, Ki; Routledge, Sigurdsson, Ayew; Llorente.


Manager: Walter Mazzarri
Captain: Troy Deeney
Ground: Vicarage Road
Last Season: 13th
Top Scorer: Odion Ighalo (15)
Most Assists: Troy Deeney (7)
Prediction: 15th


Goalkeepers: 1. Heurelho Gomes, 13. Rene Gilmartin, 34. Giedrius Arlauskis, Costel Pantilimon.
2. Allan Nyom, 3. Miguel Britos, 5. Sebastian Prodl, 14. Juan Carlos Paredes, 15. Craig Cathcart, 18. Juan Camilo Zuniga, 25. Jose Holebas, 26. Brice Dja Djedje, 27. Christian Kabasele, 31. Tommie Hoban, Essaid Belkalem.
4. Mario Suarez, 7. Nordin Amrabat, 8. Valon Behrami, 16. Abdoulaye Doucoure, 17. Adlene Guedioura, 21. Ikechi Anya, 23. Ben Watson, 28. Sean Murray, 29. Etienne Capoue.
9. Troy Deeney, 10. Isaac Success, 19. Jerome Sinclair, 24. Odion Ighalo, Matej Vydra.

Watford comfortably avoided relegation in their return to the top-flight, with Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney (pictured) causing plenty of problems for opposition defences. Quique Flores has since made way, and new manager Walter Mazzarri has wasted no time in leaving his mark on the team. Brice Dja Djedje has come in from Marseille, and Christian Kabasele has been added to the defence after showing brilliant form at Genk. Kabasele will play alongside Craig Cathcart and Miguel Britos in the centre of defence, while wing backs Dja Djedje and Juan Camilo Zuniga will look to provide width and create a connection between defence and attack. Heurelho Gomes is an experienced presence in goal, and the Brazilian international will look to perform as well as he did last season. The midfield of Ben Watson, Etienne Capoue, Mario Suarez and Valon Behrami is very solid, and Deeney and Ighalo will provide plenty of bite in attack. Watford have a very well-rounded side, and they should be consistent throughout.

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Watford are fairly solid in all areas, but they are too reliant on Deeney and Ighalo for goals and this could prove costly. The two provided 28 goals between them over the course of last season, and while they were prolific their teammates were only able to contribute 12 between them. No other player scored more than two goals, and this over-reliance on the strikers could prove costly as the season progresses. Capoue, Suarez and Behrami, while experienced, are all defensive midfielders, and Mazzarri lacks a real connection between defence and attack. This could be particularly costly as Ighalo and Deeney are the key to Watford’s chances this season, and if they are not involved in the game then the team will have huge problems. The defence is not as strong as it could be, and the inexperience of Kabasele and Dja Djedje could prove costly. There is a quality gap between Watford and the big clubs that will be difficult to breach, and if the strikers don’t fire they could find themselves in a relegation battle.

Star Player: Troy Deeney

Deeney has been one of Watford’s most consistent performers since he joined the club in 2010, and he netted 13 goals on their return to the Premier League. He showed last season that he is capable of mixing with the best in the world, and there is no reason why he cannot continue to form a dominant strike partnership with Ighalo this time around.

Key Player: Valon Behrami

With the departure of Almen Abdi to Sheffield Wednesday the Swiss international will be more influential than ever, with Behrami set to act as the side’s main playmaker in addition to his defensive duties. Watford are in need of a link between defence and attack, and if Behrami cannot deliver in this role then Mazzari will have some big problems to deal with.

One to watch: Christian Kabasele

Kabasele came from nowhere to take a place in Belgium’s squad at Euro 2016, and the centre back should slot easily into Watford’s defence. He is not a well-known quantity, but he showed great form at Genk and has the physical qualities to succeed in the Premier League. He can be a dangerous presence at set pieces, and it will be interesting to see how he performs.

Likely team (3-5-2): Gomes – Kabasele, Cathcart, Britos; Dja Djedje, Suarez, Behrami, Capoue, Zuniga; Deeney, Ighalo.

West Bromwich Albion

Manager: Tony Pulis
Captain: Darren Fletcher
Ground: The Hawthorns
Last Season: 14th
Top Scorer: Salomon Rondon (9)
Most Assists: Chris Brunt, Darren Fletcher, Craig Gardner, James Morrison (3)
Prediction: 13th


Goalkeepers: 1. Ben Foster, 13. Boaz Myhill, 38. Jack Rose.
3. Jonas Olsson, 4. James Chester, 6. Jonny Evans, 15. Sebastian Pocognoli, 16. Cristian Gamboa, 23. Gareth McAuley, 25. Craig Dawson.
5. Claudio Yacob, 7. James Morrison, 8. Craig Gardner, 10. Matt Phillips, 11. Chris Brunt, 14. James McClean, 19. Callum McManaman, 24. Darren Fletcher, 47. Sam Field.
9. Salomon Rondon, 17. Rickie Lambert, 18. Saido Berahino, 45. Jonathan Leko.

West Bromich Albion have been a constant presence in the Premier League for a long time, and they were solid last season under the guidance of experienced Welsh manager Tony Pulis. The Baggies have an excellent defence, with James Chester, Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley battling it out to start in the heart of the back four. Manchester United youth product Jonny Evans is a top-quality player at left back, and Craig Dawson will be a constant presence on the right. English international Ben Foster has plenty of experience in goal, and he will ensure that not much gets through. Darren Fletcher and Claudio Yacob are solid in the centre of midfield, and new signing Matt Phillips has the potential to do plenty of damage on a wing. Saido Berahino is one of the most promising players in English football, and he will form a dangerous partnership with Salomon Rondon (pictured).

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Pulis has plenty of experience at the highest level, but ever since he guided Stoke City to promotion in 2008 his sides have been unable to put the ball in the back of the net. Only Aston Villa, who went through four different managers and finished with just three wins, scored fewer goals than the Baggies last season. Rondon was excellent, scoring nine times, but Berahino could not back up the great form he showed early on in his career. Rickie Lambert was nowhere near his best, and it is likely that the 34-year-old will be unable to return to the form he showed a few seasons ago. There is no-one creating chances in the middle of the park, and while the Baggies will be defensively solid they lack a link between midfield and attack. Pulis will take them to safety, but they are unlikely to get close to the top half of the table.

Star Player: Salomon Rondon

Rondon is a top-quality player in attack, and he has the potential to cause plenty of problems for opposition defences. He has plenty of experience of European competitions, and the Venezuelan international immediately made his mark in his first season in England. He netted nine goals despite a poor supply chain, and if he can combine well with Berahino the Baggies will be hard to beat.

Key Player: Darren Fletcher

Fletcher spent 13 seasons at Manchester United, making over 200 league appearances and featuring over 60 times in Europe. He has also made 73 appearances for Scotland, and his vast experience at both club and international level will serve West Brom well over the course of the season. He will be a constant presence in the centre of the park, and he will look to serve as a calming influence.

One to watch: Jonathan Leko

Leko made his Premier League debut last season at the age of 16, racking up five league appearances and starting in three games. He is quick, skilful, and terrorised opposition defences late in the season when given the opportunity. He is a dangerous presence up front, and he is good enough to push for a place in the starting line-up this season. He is still only 17, and is a very exciting prospect.

Likely team (4-3-3): Foster – Dawson, McAuley, Olsson, Evans; Gardner, Yacob, Fletcher; Phillips, Rondon, Berahino.

Poland hold nerve in shootout after Shaqiri stunner

A masterful performance from Xherdan Shaqiri was not enough for Switzerland as they dropped out of Euro 2016 after losing to Poland on penalties in Saint-Etienne. The Polish looked headed for a certain victory, but Shaqiri scored the best goal of the tournament so far to grab a late equaliser. Extra time was inevitable, and after 30 added minutes the game was decided by penalties. Granit Xhaka’s horrendous miss proved costly as Poland held their nerve to win 5-4 on penalties, with Grzegorz Krychowiak netting the winner.

The game started poorly for the Swiss, and Arkadiusz Milik should have scored in the first minute when Johan Djourou’s weak back pass was nearly intercepted by Robert Lewandowski. Yann Sommer slid in to clear the ball, but he found Milik who missed with no goalkeeper to beat. Milik had another chance with a header moments later, but his attempt was saved by Sommer. After a nervy start the Swiss managed to find their way into the game thanks to Shaqiri, who had been given positional freedom and was roaming around wherever he thought he could create the most trouble for Poland. The game was an arm wrestle, with both teams playing well and neither side looking like breaking the deadlock despite the openness of the game. Great chances went begging for the Polish, with Krychowiak, Kamil Grosicki and Milik all missing the target after finding themselves in quality scoring positions. Fabian Schar had a chance with a header for the Swiss, but it was aimed straight at Lukasz Fabianski and was comfortably gathered.

Then came the goal. It came on the break after Fabianski had to make an excellent save to deny Blerim Dzemaili, whose shot took a deflection from Michal Pazdan on the way through. The resultant corner saw Djourou get an opportunity with a header from the back post, but Fabianski was able to take it. Then Poland broke. Fabianski threw the ball a long way to find Grosicki, who did not have many markers to deal with but did not have support either. Grosicki had played a great game, and Valon Behrami was paralysed as the Polish winger ran towards him. Grosicki drove him into the box, and then kicked it at his feet. The ball bounced off Behrami, and Grosicki drew two more defenders when he collected it again. Milik was lined up against Ricardo Rodriguez, and he let Grosicki’s cross fly over the back to Jakub Blaszczykowski, who had no marker. Sommer was in position, but the ball went through his legs and into the back of the net.

The first half ended rather uneventfully, but the Swiss sprang to life after the break. Shaqiri found space behind Poland’s defence less than a minute after the interval, but his pass back inside couldn’t find a teammate. Shaqiri had an attempt from range, but Fabianski was there. Switzerland were on top, but Poland could still find chances on the counter-attack. Sommer had to make an excellent save to deny Blaszczykowski, and Poland still looked a threat when they spread forward quickly. The Swiss could get the ball into plenty of dangerous positions, but Fabianski and his defence were up to the test. Rodriguez came close when he curled his free kick into the top corner, but Fabianski was able to react quickly to tap the ball away. Djourou had his shot blocked, and Haris Seferovic should have scored when the follow up came to him. He hit the bar.

Then came Shaqiri’s goal. Stephan Lichtsteiner had the ball on the left, and he put in a cross towards Seferovic. The striker flicked it back for Eren Derdiyok, who chested it out towards the edge of the penalty area. Shaqiri ran after it, and put a perfect bicycle kick into the bottom corner. Fabianski didn’t have a chance as the ball hit the post and bounced in. It was an incredible goal, and it was well-deserved after a supreme performance. Even still, the job wasn’t done yet. Switzerland had the momentum, and they kept pushing. They worked hard until the end of normal time, but they couldn’t win it. Shaqiri created some great chances in extra time, but they couldn’t win it. It was down to spot kicks.

Lichtsteiner scored, and so did Lewandowski. Then Granit Xhaka stepped up. The new Arsenal recruit stepped back, and with his left foot he blasted it wide. Fabianski was in the other corner, and would not have had a chance had Xhaka hit the target. He didn’t, and Poland slotted penalty after penalty past Sommer to win it, Krychowiak putting the winner into the top corner.

Saint-Etienne – Stade Geoffroy-Guichard
Switzerland 1 (Shaqiri 82)
Poland 1 (Blaszczykowski 39) (a.e.t., Poland won 5-4 on penalties)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (Eng)

Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lichtsteiner, Schar, Djourou, Rodriguez; Behrami (Fernandes 77), Xhaka; Shaqiri, Dzemaili (Embolo 58), Mehmedi (Derdiyok 70); Seferovic.
Poland (4-4-2): Fabianski – Piszczek, Glik, Pazdan, Jedrzejczyk; Blaszczykowski, Krychowiak, Maczynski (Jodlowiec 101), Grosicki (Peszko 104); Milik, Lewandowski.

Top 5
1. Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
Shaqiri was at the top of his game, playing with plenty of freedom and causing huge issues for the Polish defence. His goal was the best this tournament has seen so far, and it was a fitting reward for what was a masterful performance. He showed all of his skill and class, and he was the main reason Switzerland were able to take the game to penalties.
2. Kamil Grosicki (Poland)
Grosicki was the best player on the field in the first half, and he was able to create plenty of chances for the Polish strikers. He set up Blaszczykowski for Poland’s only goal, and his ability to put in precise crosses from the left wing created big issues for the Swiss centre backs. He didn’t have as much of the ball in the second half, but he had a good game and is in good touch.
3. Ricardo Rodriguez (Switzerland)
Rodriguez was fairly solid at left back, and while it was his man who scored for Poland the goal was as a result of an undermanned defence rather than any mistakes. His work in the second half with the game on the line was brilliant, and he should have scored with a well-placed free kick which would have found the top corner but for a brilliant save.
4. Lukasz Fabianski (Poland)
Fabianski had a great game in goal, making some excellent saves and coming off his line well to claim the ball on multiple occasions. He did concede to an incredible goal from Shaqiri, but he was solid and mostly withstood the Swiss barrage in the second half. He had a good game and he was one of the key reasons for Poland’s success.
5. Michal Pazdan (Poland)
Pazdan was solid as ever at the heart of the Polish defence, and he constantly denied the Swiss as they looked to level in the second half. He was able to intercept plenty of Swiss crosses before they found the target, and his tackling was excellent in spite of a booking picked up in extra time. He played well and should continue to be a rock in the Polish defence for the rest of the tournament.

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview – Group A

In one week the second biggest football tournament in the world will come to France, and with 24 teams included in this year’s tournament it has more teams than ever. The finals will be great to watch and provide a great spectacle, and in the lead-up to this year’s event I will be previewing one group every day with in-depth analysis and everything you need to know about the participants, with full squads included. Enjoy.

Group A

Teams (world ranking in brackets): France (17), Romania (22), Albania (42), Switzerland (15)
France vs Romania, Stade de France, Saint-Denis
Albania vs Switzerland, Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens
Romania vs Switzerland, Parc des Princes, Paris
France vs Albania, Stade Velodrome, Marseille
Switzerland vs France, Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Lille
Romania vs Albania, Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon


Head Coach: Didier Deschamps
Captain: Hugo Lloris
Previous Appearances: 8 (1960, 1984, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Champions (1984, 2000)
Qualified: Hosts
UEFA Euro 2012: Quarter-finals


Goalkeepers: 1. Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur), 16. Steve Mandanda (Marseille), 23. Benoit Costil (Rennes).
2. Christophe Jallet (Lyon), 3. Patrice Evra (Juventus), 4. Adil Rami (Sevilla), 13. Eliaquim Mangala (Manchester City), 17. Lucas Digne (Roma), 19. Bacary Sagna (Manchester City), 21. Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), 22. Samuel Umtiti (Lyon).
5. N’Golo Kante (Leicester City), 6. Yohan Cabaye (Crystal Palace), 8. Dimitri Payet (West Ham United), 12. Morgan Schneiderlin (Manchester United), 14. Blaise Matuidi (Paris Saint-Germain), 15. Paul Pogba (Juventus), 18. Moussa Sissoko (Newcastle United), 20. Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich).
7. Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), 9. Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), 10. Andre-Pierre Gignac (Tigres), 11. Anthony Martial (Manchester United).

Form Guide

The French are hosting the tournament, and as such their last competitive fixture was at the World Cup in 2014, where they lost to Germany after a strong run through to the last eight. They played multiple friendlies during the qualification process, but they have not had much competitive preparation for their home tournament.


France have taken the side that made the quarter-finals in 2014 and spiced it up with some exciting new talent. Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial both have a massive upside, and Paul Pogba has developed into one of the best players in the world. Hugo Lloris is solid and has plenty of experience in goal, and with Laurent Koscielny, Patrice Evra and Eliaquim Mangala at the heart of defence the French should not concede too many. The established midfield core of Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye are joined by Leicester’s N’Golo Kante, who is in brilliant form.


The French have a very strong side and they will be sure to get plenty of home support, but they have not played competitively for a couple of years and this could lead to some issues. Star striker Karim Benzema has not been included in the squad due to an incident involving Mathieu Valbuena, and Olivier Giroud will be left to spearhead the attack. The squad is going to come under intense scrutiny and pressure as the hosts of the tournament, and injuries to Raphael Varane and Jeremy Mathieu will affect the output of the defence.

Star Player: Paul Pogba

Pogba is only 23, but he is already in the top echelon of players in the world and is only going to get better. He has won four Serie A titles with Juventus and was the best young player in the 2014 World Cup, and this tournament is his chance to make a big impact and show just how good he is. His work in midfield will be key, and he is sure to impress in front of his home fans.

Key Player: Olivier Giroud

With Benzema suspended for the tournament the onus will be on Giroud to provide the goals. He is a quality player with four seasons under his belt with Arsenal, and he has more experience at the highest level than anyone else in the French attack. If he can bag plenty of goals while helping the younger members of the team adapt the French will play well.


The French look excellent, and the new blood they have brought in alongside their established stars could have a huge impact. The established core of Lloris, Koscielny, Pogba, Matuidi, Antoine Griezmann and Giroud is brilliant, and they have the potential to win the tournament for the first time since 2000 in front of their home fans.


Head Coach: Anghel Iordanescu
Captain: Vlad Chiriches
Previous Appearances: 4 (1984, 1996, 2000, 2008)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (2000)
Qualified: 2nd Group F
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify


Goalkeepers: 1. Costel Pantilimon (Watford), 12. Ciprian Tatarusanu (Fiorentina), 23. Silviu Lung (Astra Giurgiu).
Defenders: 2. Alexandru Matel (Dinamo Zagreb), 3. Razvan Rat (Rayo Vallecano), 4. Cosmin Moti (Ludogorets Razgrad), 6. Vlad Chiriches (Napoli), 15. Valerica Gaman (Astra Giurgiu), 21. Dragos Grigore (Al-Sailiya), 22. Cristian Sapunaru (Pandurii).
Midfielders: 5. Ovidiu Hoban (Hapoel Be’er Sheva), 7. Alexandru Chipchiu (Steaua Bucuresti), 8. Mihai Pintilli (Steaua Bucuresti), 10. Nicolae Stanciu (Steaua Bucuresti), 11. Gabriel Torje (Osmanlispor), 16. Stefano Filip (Dinamo Bucuresti), 17. Lucian Sanmartean (Al-Ittihad), 18. Andrei Prepelita (Ludogorets Razgrad).
9. Denis Alibec (Astra Giurgiu), 13. Claudiu Keseru (Ludogorets Razgrad), 14. Florin Andone (Cordoba), 19. Bogdan Stancu (Genclerbirgili), 20. Adrian Popa (Steaua Bucuresti).

Form Guide

The Romanians were drawn into a fairly easy qualifying group, and after a win against Greece in Piraeus kicked off their campaign they strolled to 13 points from their first five games. After that their results fell off, and four consecutive draws threatened to send them to the play-offs, but a 3-0 victory in Torshavn in the final match sent them through in second over Hungary.


The Romanians have a well-rounded team, and the defence of Razvan Rat, Vlad Chiriches, Alexandru Matel and Dragos Grigore will be hard to beat. Ciprian Tatarusanu is a quality player in goal, and Gabriel Torje, Alexandru Chipciu and Mihai Pintilli are just some of the options Anghel Iordanescu has at his disposal in the middle of the park. Up front, Claudiu Keseru has a brilliant record at international level, and Bogdan Stancu has plenty of experience and has the potential to provide plenty of goals at the final tournament.


Romania are very well-rounded and experienced, but the side is very old and a majority of the team have passed their peak without gaining too much international experience. Keseru and Stancu are good options up front, but while the defence let in only two goals the attack was only able to score eleven, and they may be unable to provide at the final tournament. With a serious downturn in results coming before the end of qualifying the side is not in particularly strong form running into the tournament, and the opposition they will face will prove a much bigger test.

Star Player: Ciprian Tatarusanu

Romania had the best defence of any side in qualifying, and Tatarusanu was a key member, displaying excellent form in qualifying and in the Serie A with Fiorentina. He has been in brilliant form since replacing Neto as the number one keeper at Fiorentina, and after a strong season at the highest level he could have a great tournament.

Key Player: Vlad Chiriches

Chiriches is still young and is approaching his prime, and he will lead the team at the final tournament after replacing veteran right back Rat as the captain. Chiriches has played for Tottenham Hotspur and Napoli, and his 35 matches in European competitions could prove key as he aims to marshal the Romanian defence at the final tournament.


The Romanians struggled slightly in the easiest group of them all, and this does not bode well for the final tournament. While this is the case, the defence is very strong and if they can stop sides from scoring like they did in qualifying they will be very tough to beat. They will need a big tournament from their forwards, however, if they are to put any pressure on opponents.


Head Coach: Gianni de Biasi
Captain: Lorik Cana
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: 2nd Group I
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify


Goalkeepers: 1. Etrit Berisha (Lazio), 12. Orges Shehi (Skenderbeu), 23. Alban Hoxha (Partizani).
4. Elseid Hysaj (Napoli), 5. Lorik Cana (Nantes), 6. Frederic Veseli (Lugano), 7. Ansi Agolli (Qarabag), 15. Mergim Mavraj (Koln), 17. Naser Aliji (Basel), 18. Arlind Ajeti (Frosinone).
2. Andi Lila (Giannina), 3. Ermir Lenjani (Nantes), 8. Migjen Basha (Como), 9. Ledjan Memushaj (Pescara), 13. Burim Kukeli (Zurich), 14. Taulant Xhaka (Basel), 20. Ergys Kace (PAOK), 21. Odise Roshi (Rijeka), 22. Armir Abrashi (Freiburg).
10. Armando Sadiku (Vaduz), 11. Shkelzen Gashi (Colorado Rapids), 16. Sokol Cikalleshi (Istanbul Basaksehir), 19. Bekim Balaj (Rijeka).

Form Guide

Albania were drawn into a tough qualifying group with Portugal, Denmark, Serbia and Armenia, but they started their campaign with a shock upset of the Portuguese and did not look back. They passed through a controversial game against Serbia with an awarded 3-0 win, and they proceeded to qualify for their first major tournament as a footballing nation.


With Lorik Cana, Ansi Agolli, Andi Lila, Elseid Hysaj, Mergim Magraj and Arlind Ajeti at the helm the defence is solid, and they conceded just 5 goals in qualifying. Etrit Berisha is a strong goalkeeper, and the experience they have down back should make them hard to penetrate. They have managed to defeat a strong French side who they will meet in the finals, and should come into the tournament full of confidence. Up front, they have plenty of options, and they had many different contributors to the scoresheet throughout qualifying.


While there are many different options up front no player has stepped up as the one main option. Bekim Balaj has scored just one international goal (coming in the win over Portugal) in 13 games, and the records of Armando Sadiku and Sokol Cikalleshi are no better. The midfield is not necessary picking up the slack either, and ultimately there are no players in the squad with more than four goals at international level. While there is a large spread of options, this is more due to a famine rather than a feast. A lack of experience in the middle of the park could also cause issues.

Star Player: Taulant Xhaka

Xhaka has plenty of experience playing in the Champions League with Basel, and he will be a key presence in the centre of midfield for Albania at the final tournament, where he will face his brother Granit and Switzerland. Xhaka is a strong player, and he will bring plenty of stability to the Albanian midfield. He may not score, but he has the potential to make life very difficult for opponents.

Key Player: Lorik Cana

Cana is the captain of the side, and he will bring 90 caps worth of experience to the Albanian defence. He has experience with Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille and Lazio, and he has the big game experience to deal with the pressure surrounding the Euros. His leadership will prove essential to Albanian success at the tournament.


Albania are a strong side defensively, but when push comes to shove they will struggle to score with no real options up front. They have experience in defence, but a lack of big game experience could come through during the finals. While this is the case, Gianni de Biasi has worked wonders with this team, and they have absolutely nothing to lose.


Head Coach: Vladimir Petkovic
Captain: Stephan Lichtsteiner
Previous Appearances: 3 (1996, 2004, 2008)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1996, 2004, 2008)
Qualified: 2nd Group E
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify


Goalkeepers: 1. Yann Sommer (Borussia Monchengladbach), 12. Marwin Hitz (Augsburg), 21. Roman Burki (Borussia Dortmund).
2. Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus), 3. Francois Moubandje (Toulouse), 4. Nico Elvedi (Borussia Monchengladbach), 5. Steve von Bergen (Young Boys), 6. Michael Lang (Basel), 13. Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), 20. Johan Djourou (Hamburg), 22. Fabian Schar (Hoffenheim).
8. Fabian Frei (Mainz), 10. Granit Xhaka (Borussia Monchengladbach), 11. Valon Behrami (Watford), 14. Denis Zakaria (Young Boys), 15. Blerim Dzemaili (Genoa), 16. Gelson Fernandes (Rennes), 23. Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City).
7. Breel Embolo (Basel), 9. Haris Seferovic (Eintracht Frankfurt), 17. Shani Tarashaj (Grasshoppers), 18. Admir Mehmedi (Bayer Leverkusen), 19. Eren Derdiyok (Kasimpasa).

Form Guide

Switzerland’s campaign started horribly, with a 2-0 defeat at the hands of England compounded by a 1-0 loss to Slovenia in Maribor. The Swiss recovered, however, winning their next five matches, and while they lost 2-0 to the English at Wembley they managed to edge out Slovenia to finish second, a 7-0 home victory over San Marino confirming their passage.


With Stephan Lichtsteiner, Ricardo Rodriguez and Johan Djourou down back not much gets through the Swiss defence, and the midfield of Xherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami and Granit Xhaka is very solid as well. Vladimir Petkovic is spoilt to choice when it comes to scoring options, and with the midfielders and defenders often chipping in with valuable goals misfiring strikers will not be an issue. Diego Benaglio has retired, but Yann Sommer is still an excellent player and will provide solidity that the team can build on.


The Swiss lack some class up front, and while their midfielders have the ability to chip in Eren Derdiyok, Haris Seferovic and Admir Mehmedi could well face a struggle to find the back of the net. Breel Embolo has plenty of promise, but he is an unknown quantity and the chances that he will fail to deal with the pressure are just as high as the chances that he will fire. With Josip Drmic, Gokhan Inler and Timm Klose all missing there are some huge outs, and the loss of Benaglio, who was the rock of the side for a long time, is a huge one.

Star Player: Xherdan Shaqiri

Shaqiri is an excellent player and he is a proven goal scoring threat whether he be in attacking midfield or on a wing. He has already won the Champions League, and his record at international level is better than any of his teammates. He is a star, and he will prove to be a massive headache for opposition defences throughout the tournament.

Key Player: Yann Sommer

Switzerland’s success at this tournament could well hinge on how well Sommer plays as he aims to replace Benaglio in goal. Sommer is an excellent player, and he has had plenty of success with both Basel and Borussia Monchengladbach. If he is able to play as well as he can the Swiss will be very difficult to score against, and will be tough to beat.


The Swiss are strong and solid and could go a long way in this tournament. There are concerns about the attack, but there are plenty of players who can make an impact on the scoreboard and this should not be an issue. The defence is very solid, and the Swiss should be very difficult to break down at the finals.


This group will be an intriguing one, with two sides with plenty of experience at major tournaments coming up against two teams who are the exact opposite. The French are incredibly strong on paper, and they should make their way through easily. The other sides in the group are all very solid, but the Swiss should progress with an attack which is considerably stronger.
1. France, 2. Switzerland, 3. Romania, 4. Albania.