Costa Rica snatch late draw from unconvincing Swiss

Switzerland just needed a draw to progress to the last 16, and they could probably make it through even if they lost to a winless, goalless Costa Rican side. In two games, Óscar Ramírez’s team hadn’t looked like challenging either Serbia or Brazil, while the Swiss had commendably drawn the highly-rated Brazilians and beaten the Serbs in dramatic circumstances. With their consistent-looking team, it didn’t seem like the Swiss would face too many issues. Then they went onto the pitch. They avoided defeat in the end, but their draw against the Costa Ricans was far from the convincing springboard into the knockout stages they were hoping for.

The warning signs were there early. Switzerland came out of the blocks very sluggishly, and they nearly paid a heavy price. Some lazy turnovers allowed Costa Rica to move forward effectively, and they were soon posing a significant threat. In the opening stages, Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer was required to make three diving saves in the space of a minute, starting with a turnover in midfield. Joel Campbell, into the team for his first start of the tournament and already looking better than Marco Ureña, picked off the poor pass and fired towards the bottom corner. Sommer was still recovering from the first effort when Celso Borges headed the ball towards the same corner, and the Swiss keeper only just managed to deflect it into the post and out. Switzerland cleared, but Cristian Gamboa found some space and forced Sommer into a save that was more straightforward but still slightly tough. It seemed like the Swiss had weathered the storm until they turned the ball over again a few minutes later, allowing Daniel Colindres to fire a shot past Sommer, into the bar and out.

The Swiss soon settled into the game, and Costa Rica’s threat diminished as the Swiss midfielders stopped unnecessarily turning the ball over. There were few chances for either side, as neither team really looked capable of breaking down the other’s defensive structure. Then, just after the half hour, the Swiss did. Stephan Lichtsteiner put in the cross, and Breel Embolo rose above the rest to put the ball back into the path of Blerim Džemaili. Džemaili was in plenty of space, and he really couldn’t miss from close range, directly in front. Keylor Navas had been drawn towards the post by Lichtsteiner’s delivery from the right, and he was unable to intervene as the ball was drilled into the back of the net. The Swiss had started slowly, but they had found their way into the game and it seemed like they would be alright as they went into half time ahead.

Embed from Getty Images

Costa Rica celebrate after Kendall Waston’s goal early in the second half. The goal put Colombia level, and placed Switzerland under a bit of pressure.

Costa Rica started the second half well, with Campbell missing an opportunity to capitalise on Borges’ dangerous cross into the centre. They kept putting pressure on the Swiss, however, and when Kendall Waston received a golden opportunity a few minutes later he didn’t make any mistake. The centre-back outworked Manuel Akanji to get his head on Campbell’s corner, and Sommer had no chance as he diverted the ball into the back of the net with force. Waston was pumped, the teams were back on level terms and things were beginning to get interesting. It wasn’t exactly what Switzerland wanted.

The Costa Ricans didn’t really press for a winner after achieving parity, and the game settled into something of a lull with few chances for either side and the Swiss continuing to make little headway against the well-set Costa Ricans. There was a brief flurry of action as Swiss substitute Josip Drmić very nearly scored, heading a ball straight into the bar, and Campbell followed it up by beating a few defenders and creating a chance out of nowhere. After that frantic minute, play settled down once more, returning to its familiar rhythm. Then the Swiss scored again.

Drmić scored the goal, latching onto a good cross from Denis Zakaria. The defensive midfielder pushed upfield and delivered the ball from the right, where it seemed to have rolled straight past Embolo into relative safety. If the Costa Ricans thought this, however, Drmić soon disabused them of the idea that the chance had gone. The striker ran onto the loose ball in the box, and without bothering to take a touch he drilled it straight into the bottom corner, leaving Navas with no chance and making Costa Rica’s hopes of getting a result look pretty slim.

Embed from Getty Images

Yann Sommer dives in an attempt to save Bryan Ruiz’s late penalty. The penalty didn’t go in initially, hitting the frame of the goal, but it then bounced off Sommer’s back and into the goals.

Then there was chaos. Costa Rica went forward almost immediately after the goal, and Bryan Ruiz was cut down inside the box by Michael Lang and Ricardo Rodríguez. A penalty was awarded to Costa Rica, although not before Waston had been booked after campaigning for the penalty. Then it turned out that Ruiz was offside, and no penalty was given after all. Not at all discouraged by the close shave, Switzerland then gave away another spot kick. This time Campbell was the recipient, slipping past Zakaria and getting knocked down by a clumsy challenge from the Swiss midfield enforcer. Ruiz was the man charged with taking the penalty, and it didn’t quite go to plan. Costa Rica scored in the end, but it came through one the unluckiest own goals conceded in this tournament. Ruiz slammed his penalty into the bar, and it bounced out. Unfortunately for the Swiss, there was no reprieve, as the ball ricocheted straight into the back of the diving Sommer and went into the back of the net anyway.

Sommer’s very unfortunate own goal was a dissatisfying end to a dissatisfying Swiss performance, which saw Costa Rica come away from their World Cup campaign with a deserved draw and raised a number of doubts about Switzerland’s hopes in this tournament. Against an in-form Sweden, and with Lichtsteiner and Fabian Schär collecting suspensions for accumulated yellow cards that will leave the defence two men short, there will be plenty of concerns for the Swiss going forward. Can they sort out the issues that Costa Rica so effectively highlighted? It’s hard to say.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Switzerland 1 (Džemaili 31, Drmić 88)
Costa Rica 1 (Waston 56, Sommer 90+3 og)
Referee: Clément Turpin (Fra)
Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lichtsteiner, Schär, Akanji, Rodríguez; Behrami (Zakaria 60), Xhaka; Shaqiri (Lang 81), Džemaili, Embolo; Gavranović (Drmić 69).
Costa Rica (5-4-1): Navas – Gamboa (Smith 90+3), Acosta, González, Waston, Oviedo; Ruiz, Borges, Guzmán (Azofeifa 90+1), Colindres (Wallace 81); Campbell.

Top 5
1. Yann Sommer (Switzerland)
A lesser goalkeeper than Sommer may have easily conceded four or five against the very dangerous Costa Rican attack, and the Swiss number one showed his quality with some top-drawer saves. He was very unlucky to concede a late own goal in extraordinary circumstances, but it shouldn’t detract from his excellent effort.
2. Joel Campbell (Costa Rica)
Campbell added pace to the Costa Rican attack, showing how sorely they have missed having a quick, strong striker like him to lead the line in their first two games of this World Cup. He caused the Swiss defence plenty of problems, and was a key reason for Costa Rica’s success.
3. Daniel Colindres (Costa Rica)
Colindres was dangerous on the left wing, cutting inside to create problems and working well with Campbell to create opportunities for Costa Rica in the final third. He was another player left out of the first two games who came in and had a huge impact.
4. Josip Drmić (Switzerland)
Drmić looked dangerous after coming on late in the piece, and had a couple of great chances culminating in a well-finished goal. With Mario Gavranović failing to convince after replacing Haris Seferović in the starting line-up, the door could be open for Drmić to win a start in the knockouts thanks to his efforts.
5. Breel Embolo (Switzerland)
Embolo came into the team with Steven Zuber unavailable, and he showed plenty on the left wing with his pace and strength. He assisted the opening goal with some good aerial work in the box, and he is another one who could use his performance as a springboard into the starting line-up for the rest of the tournament.

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

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)
Fixtures:
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

France

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

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur), 16. Steve Mandanda (Marseille), 23. Benoit Costil (Rennes).
Defenders:
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).
Midfielders:
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).
Forwards:
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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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.

Verdict

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.

Romania

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

Squad

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).
Forwards:
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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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.

Verdict

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.

Albania

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

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Etrit Berisha (Lazio), 12. Orges Shehi (Skenderbeu), 23. Alban Hoxha (Partizani).
Defenders:
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).
Midfielders:
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).
Forwards:
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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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.

Verdict

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.

Switzerland

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

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Yann Sommer (Borussia Monchengladbach), 12. Marwin Hitz (Augsburg), 21. Roman Burki (Borussia Dortmund).
Defenders:
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).
Midfielders:
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).
Forwards:
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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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.

Verdict

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.

Prediction

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.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group D

Juventus FC (Italy)

Manager: Massimiliano Allegri
Captain: Gianluigi Buffon
Ground: Juventus Stadium, Turin
Qualified: Serie A, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1984-85, 1995-96)
2014-15 Champions League: Runners-up

Form Guide

Juventus won their fourth consecutive Serie A last season by a margin of 17 points over their nearest rival. They also made the Champions League final in new manager Massimiliano Allegri’s first season in charge, but lost to Barcelona. They have lost Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Carlos Tevez over the off-season, although Paul Pogba has stayed at the club after he rejected a big money contract from Chelsea.

Strengths

New signings Hernanes and Sami Khedira will give Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio support in the middle of the park, and they have signed three new strikers to try and replace Tevez. Mario Mandzukic is a strong player, and Paulo Dybala and Simone Zaza could be very good players in the future. Juan Cuadrado has been loaned in from Chelsea, and he can play on either flank. The defence is the one area where Juve have not lost anyone, and Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli are very strong players, and Patrice Evra, Alex Sandro and Stephan Lichtsteiner should ensure that there is no shortage of quality fullbacks. In goal, Gianluigi Buffon is still going strong after 20 years keeping at the top level for Parma and Juventus.

Weaknesses

While they have found replacements for their losses there is no guarantee that the replacements will be able to match the level of Pirlo, Vidal and Tevez. Juventus will not draw any confidence from their start to the season, with a disappointing loss to Udinese followed up by a loss to championship rivals Roma. Buffon, Chiellini, Marchisio, Bonucci, Barzagli and Evra are getting older, and while there are young players coming up in attack, the same players are not coming through in the defence. Allegri does not have a great track record as a manager, and whether the successes of last season were due to him or his great players is unclear.

Star Player: Paul Pogba

Pogba is currently one of the top midfielders in the world, and Chelsea were willing to shell out vast amounts of money to land the young French star. At 188 centimetres he is Juve’s main scoring option from set pieces, and he is a capable tackler and very capable in attack. Juventus will be particularly happy that he came from Manchester United for almost nothing.

Key Player: Gianluigi Buffon

Buffon is the only player to have 150 international caps for Italy, in an international career spanning back to 1997. He has played 425 times for Juve, and has never disappointed. His goalkeeping was good enough for him to be shortlisted, alongside 4 teammates, for the European player of the year award, and if he can keep as well as he did last season then Juve will do well.

Manchester City FC (England)

Manager: Manuel Pellegrini
Captain: Vincent Kompany
Ground: Etihad Stadium, Manchester
Qualified: Premier League, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Round of 16 (2013-14, 2014-15)
2014-15 Champions League: Round of 16

Form Guide

Manchester City were comfortably beaten in the league by Chelsea last season, and were knocked out for a second consecutive year by Barcelona in the Champions League. They have improved significantly under Manuel Pellegrini, and this year they are yet to concede a goal in the Premier League, with the side currently sitting pretty after four consecutive victories. This season they will be looking to build on their round of 16 exits of the last two tournaments.

Strengths

City have spent lots of money assembling one of the best squads in world football. German footballer of the year Kevin de Bruyne has been brought in from Wolfsburg for big money, and he will combine with the likes of Fabian Delph, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, David Silva, Jesus Navas, Fernando and Samir Nasri in midfield. Vincent Kompany marshals the defence, playing alongside Aleksandr Kolarov, Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta, Eliaquim Mangala, Martin Demichelis and Nicolas Otamendi. Joe Hart is in goal, and he has plenty of experience. Sergio Aguero and Wilfried Bony are quite different players, and they can combine well in attack. New acquisition Raheem Sterling is immensely talented, and his pace will prove too much for some teams to handle.

Weaknesses

While the side is very strong some questions still remain. Sterling is still largely unproven, and while his talent is beyond doubt there is some question as to his aptitude, and he has a tendency to get under the skin of the press and cause media scandals. The extra pressure that will be placed upon them to get past the round of 16 could prove too much, and comfortably getting through their group is something that they will try to work on. Last season it took a last-gasp goal against Bayern Munich to progress, and this is something they would like to avoid. Hart may have played a lot for England and Manchester City, but he is certainly not the best keeper going around.

Star Player: Sergio Aguero

In a team packed with stars, Aguero is the standout. He made his debut for Independiente aged just 15, breaking a record set by Diego Maradona in the process. While he found the net frequently with Atletico Madrid, with City he has stepped it up a notch, and he will need to continue to score well to help his side through.

Key Player: Yaya Toure

Now that de Bruyne is likely to take a spot in midfield alongside David Silva, Toure is likely to find himself playing in a more traditional defensive midfield spot. While he will be forced to play a more defensive game how the Ivorian gets forward and creates chances will be integral. If he can keep a fairly regular flow of goals while maintaining defensive duties then City will be very tough to beat.

Sevilla FC (Spain)

Manager: Unai Emery
Captain: Jose Antonio Reyes
Ground: Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, Seville
Qualified: UEFA Europa League, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Quarter-Finals (1957-58)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

Sevilla finished a tense La Liga season in fifth, 1 point behind Valencia and 2 behind Atletico Madrid, but they qualified after winning their second consecutive Europa League title. They defeated Borussia Monchengladbach, Villareal, Zenit and Fiorentina on their way to the final, and in the first Europa League final which guaranteed the winner a Champions League spot they delivered, with two goals to Carlos Bacca enough to seal a 3-2 win against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.

Strengths

Europa League hero Carlos Bacca may have left, but the forward line is still strong. Fernando Llorente, Michael Krohn-Dehli and Ciro Immobile have come in, joining former PSG frontman Kevin Gameiro. Ever Banega, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Steven N’Zonzi add strength in the middle of the park, and Yevhen Konoplyanka should cause plenty of issues in tandem with captain Jose Antonio Reyes. Benoit Tremoulinas, Coke and Adil Rami are strong players in defence. Beto and Sergio Rico are both strong goalkeepers, and their competition for a spot in the team should lead to good performances from both men. Sevilla have played a lot of Champions League quality teams in the Europa League, and the step up should not bother them too much.

Weaknesses

Questions remain about some areas of the side. Coke and Tremoulinas have got the fullback positions pinned down, but it is unclear who is the best player to partner Rami in the centre of defence. Krychowiak was chosen for the first game, but he is a defensive midfielder, not a centre back. Immobile may have been great at Torino two seasons ago, but at Dortmund it is fair to say he was a bit of a flop. As such, whether he is a suitable replacement for Bacca is unclear. The amount of Champions League experience on the team is not very high, and while they have faced some of their potential opponents they have not faced many teams of the calibre of Juventus and Manchester City. Their 3-0 loss to Atletico last time out will not fill them with confidence.

Star Player: Fernando Llorente

Llorente has been hanging on the edge of the Spanish team for years, first while at Athletic Bilbao and then with Juventus. His career with Athletic was very successful, and he played 333 times in all competitions for the side. He has arrived from Italy and is now in the first team at Sevilla, who will be hoping that he can deliver and score plenty of goals.

Key Player: Grzegorz Krychowiak

Krychowiak can play in the centre of defence or in midfield, and he had great success in his first season with Sevilla. He was the only player from the club named in the La Liga team of the season, and he is likely to take up a role in the centre of defence alongside Rami. Sevilla will be counting on him to perform his duties effectively and keep the defence solid.

Borussia Monchengladbach (Germany)

Manager: Lucien Favre
Captain: Martin Stranzl
Ground: Stadion im Borussia-Park, Monchengladbach
Qualified: Bundesliga, 3rd
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (1976-77)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

Monchengladbach finished three points behind Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, but were still able to qualify automatically for the Champions League as a result. This season they will be hoping for success after years out of the competition, although they will be part of a tough group. Their European campaign finished last season at the hands of Sevilla in the Europa League round of 32, and they will hope that they can defeat the Spaniards this time around.

Strengths

Borussia Monchengladbach had one of the best defences in the Bundesliga last season, conceding only 26 goals. Yann Sommer has stepped up to become one of the league’s top keepers, and he has had experience in the competition with Basel. The defence of Martin Stranzl, Tony Jantschke, Oscar Wendt and Roel Brouwers is very strong, and Andre Hahn and Granit Xhaka provide solidity in midfield. Thorgan Hazard has a chance to try and step out of his brother Eden’s shadow, and he will be able to combine with Raffael, Patrick Herrmann, Josip Drmic and Lars Stindl to score plenty of goals. Harvard Nordveidt has lots of experience with Norway and he will add a lot to the midfield.

Weaknesses

The loss of Max Kruse to Champions League rivals Wolfsburg is big, and the side will struggle to make up the 11 goals that he scored last season, especially given the attack only managed 53 goals in the Bundesliga. Josip Drmic will have to play a key role in scoring those goals, and this pressure could have negative consequences for his form. Gladbach have not had a good start to the season, losing to Borussia Dortmund, Mainz and Werder Bremen and sitting at the bottom of the table. A lack of experience in the competition could ultimately cost them, and if they cannot handle the step up to the Champions League then they could be out the door very quickly.

Star Player: Yann Sommer

Sommer has become one of the best goalkeepers in Germany, and he is undoubtedly a star for Monchengladbach. Since breaking into the Basel first team he has not missed a beat, and after a great season in the Bundesliga he is ready to tackle the Champions League head on. His experience with Basel will be key, as the Germans have not made it to the Champions League for years.

Key Player: Raffael

Raffael was the leading scorer for Monchengladbach in the league last season, and they will hope that he can increase his output to try and cover for the loss of Kruse. He is a player who can definitely step up for Die Fohlen, and if he can score plenty of goals then this process will be made much easier for Gladbach.

Prediction

This group will be very tough, with four strong teams battling it out, but Manchester City and Juventus have more experience and look to have a slight leg-up over their inexperienced opponents. Borussia Monchengladbach may struggle, especially when trying to fill the void left by star player Kruse, who scored 11 goals and had 7 assists last season.
Prediction: 1. Manchester City, 2. Juventus, 3. Sevilla, 4. Borussia Monchengladbach.