Palace fight hard, but Ibrahimovic steals late win

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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City hold on to clinch thrilling derby win

The simultaneous arrival of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola in Manchester was always going to create great contests, and the two arch-rivals served up an incredible game in their first derby match at the helm of their new sides. Derby matches between Manchester City and Manchester United had dropped off in quality in recent times, but Guardiola and Mourinho were bound to change things. They did, and in doing so they turned the most hyped game of the season into a thriller, filled with skill, goals and plenty of tension.

For the first half-hour, however, it looked to be no contest at all. City played like a shiny new sports car, purring into gear with slick passing moves which cut swathes through the United defence. Kevin de Bruyne was the architect, the Belgian giving it off when he saw fit and making wonderful runs in behind. Meanwhile, United looked more like a battered old SUV. They were sluggish, and they were closed down whenever they looked to enter City’s half. It was only a matter of time before City opened the scoring.

They did it just before the fifteen-minute mark, with Aleksandar Kolarov the architect. The Serb seemed trapped in his defensive corner, surrounded by two United players and under some pressure. There was only one option available, and he hoofed it downfield with all the strength he could muster. Kelechi Iheanacho was there, and he flicked the header on towards Daley Blind, who stayed unmoving. It was a costly error. The Dutchman left the door open, and de Bruyne glided through it with his usual ease. He took a couple of touches to control it, and he had no issues stroking the ball past David de Gea into the back of the net. City had the lead, and they didn’t look done by any stretch.

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Frustration: Wayne Rooney (in red) wrestles for the ball with Pep Guardiola.

United didn’t seem to have a shot. They were down a goal, but recovery did not look likely. Guardiola did not push his men back, and City continued to use the pockets of space available to them. When United attacked, it was abysmal. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was lethargic on the right wing, losing the ball almost every time he got it and providing no service for Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. Wayne Rooney was getting flustered, wrestling with Guardiola and committing plenty of fouls. Meanwhile, on the left wing, Jesse Lingard was a disaster. His selection was unexpected, and once in the team it was as if he was not on the pitch at all.

The second goal came shortly after the first, with de Bruyne again setting things in motion. He found the ball in the box and turned his opponent before going for the shot. He drilled it into the post, but it fell for Iheanacho, who would have found it harder to miss the follow-up attempt. The ball rebounded to the Nigerian on the edge of the six-yard box, and he did not miss. Iheanacho stopped for a moment, before coming to the realisation that it actually was that easy. City led 2-0.

United were floundering, before they were handed an incredible lifeline which they grabbed with both hands. The goal came from nowhere, and it marked the turning point in this incredible match. David Silva conceded a free kick after sliding in on Antonio Valencia, and it seemed as if Rooney’s hopeful hack into the penalty area would be easily saved. It wasn’t. Claudio Bravo, who had been assured and steady in goal for forty minutes, crashed into John Stones as he looked to catch it, dropping the ball and giving Ibrahimovic a chance. He scored in a way only Ibrahimovic can, letting it bounce before smashing it past the defenders on the line with a powerful side-kick. It was the lifeline that United desperately needed.

Suddenly they were a new side, attacking with vigour and creating plenty of chances. Rooney picked off a poor back pass from Stones, and City were lucky that Bravo was able to hold on to Ibrahimovic’s header. A minute later, Bravo was at it again, this time haring off in pursuit of a ball which he was not quite able to get. He was caught out in a big way, especially when Lingard made his only real contribution of the match to beat Sagna and feed Ibrahimovic on the edge of the box. Stones was there, and he blocked it on the line, but the warning was clear. United were back in the contest, and City needed to lift their game.

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Desperation: Eric Bailly (left) and David de Gea look to deny Nicolas Otamendi.

Mkhitaryan and Lingard were removed at the break, and United came back out with a renewed vigour. Ibrahimovic was in dangerous positions whenever they went forward, and City’s defence was no match for the dribbling skills of Marcus Rashford. The teenager held them in a trance as he moved with the ball, and he looked more dangerous in transition than any of his teammates. Bravo nearly coughed it up again minutes later, when he held onto the ball for too long and managed to present Rooney with a golden opportunity. He slid in to stop the United captain, limiting the damage, but it was another big mistake on a forgettable debut.

 

The game opened up as City lifted their level to match their rivals. It was pulsating, end-to-end football, as both sides looked to hit each other on the break. United had a goal disallowed after another brilliant run from Rashford, who held Bacary Sagna on a string before drilling it past him into the back of the net. It was to count for nothing, however, as the ball clipped an offside Ibrahimovic on the way through, the minute deflection costing United their leveller. City kept the pressure on, and after de Gea was forced to make some excellent saves to deny Fernandinho and Nicolas Otamendi they had another brilliant chance when Leroy Sane fed de Bruyne on the break. The Belgian hit the post and the ball rolled across the face, coming tantalisingly close to the goal that would have sealed it.

Soon that counter-attack was not happening, and the game was just City letting United heave long balls into the box. Rooney slung in ball after ball, but it was to no avail. City were solid in defence, and they would not be denied an exceptional victory. It was a great battle, and hopefully it sets the tone for derbies to come. If it does, then we have a lot to look forward to as Mourinho and Guardiola continue to leave their mark on the Premier League.

Manchester – Old Trafford
Manchester United 1 (Ibrahimovic 42)
Manchester City 2 (de Bruyne 15, Iheanacho 36)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Valencia, Bailly, Blind, Shaw (Martial 81); Fellaini, Pogba; Mkhitaryan (Herrera 46), Rooney, Lingard (Rashford 46); Ibrahimovic.
Manchester City (4-1-4-1): Bravo – Sagna, Stones, Otamendi, Kolarov; Fernandinho; Sterling (Sane 60), de Bruyne (Zabaleta 90), Silva, Nolito; Iheanacho (Fernando 53).

Top 5
1. Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)
Much of Manchester City’s early dominance can be traced back to de Bruyne, who took advantage of the space he was presented with to create plenty of chances for himself and his teammates. He scored the first goal and set up the second, and he was unlucky to be denied by the woodwork on a number of occasions. His set piece delivery was as good as ever, rounding off an exceptional game.
2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United)
Ibrahimovic was United’s only scorer, and he found himself in plenty of dangerous positions. He created plenty of problems for City’s defence with his height, positioning and ability to find space in the box, and he was unlucky not to score more. He was ever-present in attack for United, and can hold his head high after a strong performance.
3. Fernandinho (Manchester City)
Fernandinho was a solid presence in midfield and defence for City, dropping back in the closing stages and denying United with his ability to win the ball in dangerous spots. He was good in the air throughout, and had some great chances at the other end when he was able to push forward.
4. Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
Rashford came on to replace the struggling Lingard at the break, and he was a game-changer for United. He was a dangerous presence on the left wing, and he was in complete control as he made dangerous runs into the box. He had a goal disallowed in unfortunate circumstances, and was one of United’s best.
5. Leroy Sane (Manchester City)
Sane came on at a time when City were coming under increasing pressure, and his introduction had an immediate impact. He used all of his pace as he looked to get away on the break, and he created plenty of problems for anyone who tried to mark him. He alleviated some of the strain on the City defence, and will take confidence from his efforts.

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview – Group E

Group E

Team (world ranking in brackets): Belgium (2), Italy (12), Republic of Ireland (33), Sweden (35)
Fixtures:
Republic of Ireland vs Sweden, Stade de France, Saint-Denis
Belgium vs Italy, Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon
Italy vs Sweden, Stadium Municipal, Toulouse
Belgium vs Republic of Ireland, Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux
Italy vs Republic of Ireland, Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Lille
Sweden vs Belgium, Allianz Riviera, Nice

Belgium

Head Coach: Marc Wilmots
Captain: Eden Hazard
Previous Appearances: 4 (1972, 1980, 1984, 2000)
Best Finish: Runners-up (1980)
Qualified: 1st Group B
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), 12. Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), 13. Jean-Francois Gillet (Mechelen).
Defenders:
2. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur), 3. Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), 5. Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur), 15. Jason Denayer (Galatasaray), 16. Thomas Meunier (Club Brugge), 18. Christian Kabasele (Genk), 21. Jordan Lukaku (Oostende), 23. Laurent Ciman (Montreal Impact).
Midfielders:
4. Radja Nainggolan (Roma), 6. Axel Witsel (Zenit), 7. Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City), 8. Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), 10. Eden Hazard (Chelsea), 11. Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), 19. Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur).
Forwards:
9. Romelu Lukaku (Everton), 14. Dries Mertens (Napoli), 17. Divock Origi (Liverpool), 20. Christian Benteke (Liverpool), 22. Michy Batshuayi (Marseille).

Form Guide

Belgium got their qualifying campaign off to a flying start with a 6-0 win over Andorra, but consecutive draws against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Wales pulled them back down to earth. They recovered well with a 5-0 win over Cyprus, and a 1-0 defeat in Cardiff proved a minor setback as they qualified with a 4-1 win over the Andorrans.

Strengths

Belgium have had some exceptional talent come through in a very short amount of time, and with the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois coming through the ranks the Belgians have risen to an incredible level. The lack of experience that existed at the World Cup is no longer an issue, and the midfield of Radja Nainggolan, Axel Witsel, Hazard, Marouane Fellaini and de Bruyne is very strong. Up front Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke are proven goalscorers, and with the experience of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld in defence Belgium can go a long way in this tournament.

Weaknesses

The Belgians have a very strong side, but they have many injuries in defence and this is a serious problem. Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts are both missing due to injury, and the loss of Kompany’s leadership down back could cause further problems. Courtois has not been in particularly strong form in the Premier League, and if this rubs off on his performances at the Euros then the Belgians could concede a lot of goals. The attack is strong, but Lukaku was very quiet at the World Cup and this cannot happen again.

Star Player: Eden Hazard

Hazard began his career with Lille, and after showing exceptional promise early on in his career he has developed into one of the world’s best players. He led Chelsea to the Premier League title two seasons ago, and while his form has dropped off recently he is still an incredibly skilled player and could have a huge impact on this tournament.

Key Player: Thomas Vermaelen

Vermaelen has picked up over 50 caps for Belgium, and while he is no longer in Belgium’s first choice back four he will marshal Belgium’s defence in the absence of Kompany and Lombaerts. Vermaelen will replace Kompany as a leader in the heart of the defence, and if he is unable to play well and hold the fort then there will be issues.

Verdict

Belgium have a very strong side, and the potential is definitely there. Hazard and de Bruyne will form an incredible combination in the middle of the park, and while there are some concerns surrounding the defence the Belgians will be formidable opponents. They have picked up valuable experience from the World Cup in 2014, and they could go all the way.

Italy

Head Coach: Antonio Conte
Captain: Gianluigi Buffon
Previous Appearances: 8 (1968, 1980, 1988, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Champions (1968)
Qualified: 1st Group H
UEFA Euro 2012: Runners up

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), 12. Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain), 13. Federico Marchetti (Lazio).
Defenders:
2. Mattia de Sciglio (Milan), 3. Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), 4. Matteo Darmian (Manchester United), 5. Angelo Ogbonna (West Ham United), 15. Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), 19. Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus).
Midfielders:
6. Antonio Candreva (Lazio), 8. Alessandro Florenzi (Roma), 10. Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain), 14. Stefano Sturaro (Juventus), 16. Daniele de Rossi (Roma), 18. Marco Parolo (Lazio), 21. Federico Bernardeschi (Fiorentina), 23. Emanuele Giaccherini (Bologna).
Forwards:
7. Simone Zaza (Juventus), 9. Graziano Pelle (Southampton), 11. Ciro Immobile (Torino), 17. Eder (Internazionale), 20. Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), 22. Stephan El Shaarawy (Roma).

Form Guide

Italy made it through qualifying without losing a game, and they sealed their spot at the Euros with a 3-1 victory over Azerbaijan in Baku. The Italians started well, and while they fell off in the middle they recovered with wins in their last four games to finish first. They were not dominant, but they were solid and are in good form.

Strengths

As is often the case with Italian sides the defence is very solid, and with Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli at the heart of the defence not much will get through. Gianluigi Buffon provides invaluable experience in goal, and his leadership will be important in a side which has undergone plenty of change in recent times. The Italians have added plenty of quality up front since their group stage exit at the World Cup, and fresh faces Eder, Simone Zaza, Lorenzo Insigne, Graziano Pelle and Ciro Immobile are quality options who could break out at the finals.

Weaknesses

The Italians were not dominant in qualifying by any means, and while the attack has been overturned it is inexperienced and did not really fire during the qualification process. The core of the side is very experienced but they have been around for a long time and are past their respective peaks, and the general lack of players at the pinnacle of their careers could hurt. The midfield is missing two key players in Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio, and their absences could have a massive impact on Italy’s performance.

Star Player: Giorgio Chiellini

Chiellini has been at the helm of the Italian and Juventus defences for a long time, and he is a very solid player in the back half. He has plenty of versatility, and while he is unlikely to be needed at left back he has the potential to adapt midway through the game if needed. He has played 66 games in Europe, and his experience against the best in the world will be vital for Italy.

Key Player: Graziano Pelle

Pelle was called up to the national team at a fairly late age in 2014, and since that time he has not missed a beat, netting four times in 11 games. He was Antonio Conte’s main option in qualifying and his goals will be crucial in a team not known for putting the ball into the back of the net. If he cannot step up to match the rise in opposition Italy will struggle.

Verdict

The Italians are strong and experienced, but while there is plenty of new blood up front not much turnover has occurred from the unsuccessful World Cup campaigns in 2010 and 2014. Conte has had exceptional success as a manager, and he is sure to make an impact at his first major tournament as a manager. The side is solid and could go a long way.

Republic of Ireland

Head Coach: Martin O’Neill
Captain: John O’Shea
Previous Appearances: 2 (1988, 2012)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1988, 2012)
Qualified: 3rd Group D (defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina in play-offs)
UEFA Euro 2012: Group Stage

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Kieren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday), 16. Shay Given (Stoke City), 23. Darren Randolph (West Ham United).
Defenders:
2. Seamus Coleman (Everton), 3. Ciaran Clark (Aston Villa), 4. John O’Shea (Sunderland), 5. Richard Keogh (Derby County), 12. Shane Duffy (Blackburn Rovers), 15. Cyrus Christie (Derby County), 17. Stephen Ward (Burnley).
Midfielders:
6. Glenn Whelan (Stoke City), 7. Aiden McGeady (Sheffield Wednesday), 8. James McCarthy (Everton), 11. James McClean (West Bromwich Albion), 13. Jeff Hendrick (Derby County), 18. David Meyler (Hull City), 19. Robbie Brady (Norwich City), 20. Wes Hoolahan (Norwich City), 22. Stephen Quinn (Reading).
Forwards:
9. Shane Long (Southampton), 10. Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), 14. Jonathan Walters (Stoke City), 21. Daryl Murphy (Ipswich Town).

Form Guide

The Irish started their campaign fairly well, pumping seven goals past Gibraltar and snatching a 1-1 draw against reigning world champions Germany. Despite this start they fell off and needed a 1-0 win over the Germans in Dublin to make their way through to the play-offs, where they met Bosnia and Herzegovina. After a 1-1 draw in Zenica they won 2-0 in the return leg to progress to the finals.

Strengths

The Irish have a frugal defence, conceding only eight times in twelve qualifying games. Only once did they concede more than once in a game, and with the experience of John O’Shea at the heart of the defence they should be in good stead. Martin O’Neill is spoilt for choice up front, with Walters, Shane Long and Robbie Keane all quality options. In the middle, Aiden McGeady and Glenn Whelan have plenty of experience, and with plenty of quality options all over the park the Irish are a strong side.

Weaknesses

Ireland lack world-class players, and the majority of their squad is confined to the lower levels of English football. The side is generally old, and many of the players who will be relied upon are past their prime and will not perform as well as they have before. There is plenty of depth throughout the squad, but there is no set starting combination and this inconsistency could prove to be an issue, especially if results do not go their way. Ireland did not perform last time they went to the Euros, and the group they have this time around is just as tough.

Star Player: Aiden McGeady

McGeady is one of the most experienced players in the Irish team, and he has plenty of big game experience with Ireland, Celtic, Spartak Moscow and Everton. He has played 55 games in European competitions, and his skill and poise on the wing has the potential to cause plenty of issues for opposing fullbacks.

Key Player: John O’Shea

If the Irish are going to do well then they simply need O’Shea, who has 110 caps worth of experience, to step up. In a defence that is by no means settled O’Shea, who has experience playing in the Premier League with Manchester United and Sunderland, will be invaluable. He has played 256 games for Manchester United and has plenty of experience against the world’s best.

Verdict

The Irish defence, led by O’Shea, will be tough to penetrate, and there is plenty of experience throughout the squad. Long, Keane and Walters are all good options, but the lack of continuity that could exist within the squad is an issue. The Irish are facing some excellent opposition, and even if Martin O’Neill brings out the best in his team they may still fail.

Sweden

Head Coach: Erik Hamren
Captain: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Previous Appearances: 5 (1992, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Semi-finals (1992)
Qualified: 3rd Group G (defeated Denmark in play-offs)
UEFA Euro 2012: Group Stage

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Andreas Isaksson (Kasimpasa), 12. Robin Olsen (Kobenhavn), 23. Patrick Carlgren (AIK).
Defenders: 2. Mikael Lustig (Celtic), 3. Erik Johansson (Kobenhavn), 4. Andreas Granqvist (Krasnodar), 5. Martin Olsson (Norwich City), 13. Pontus Jansson (Torino), 14. Victor Lindelof (Benfica), 17. Ludwig Augustinsson (Kobenhavn).
Midfielders: 6. Emil Forsberg (Leipzig), 7. Sebastian Larsson (Sunderland), 8. Albin Ekdal (Hamburg), 9. Kim Kallstrom (Grasshoppers), 15. Oscar Hiljemark (Palermo), 16. Pontus Wernbloom (CSKA Moskva), 18. Oscar Lewicki (Malmo), 21. Jimmy Durmaz (Olympiakos), 22. Erkan Zengin (Trabzonspor).
Forwards: 10. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Paris Saint-Germain), 11. Markus Berg (Panathinaikos), 19. Emir Kujovic (Norrkoping), 20. John Guidetti (Celta Vigo).

Form Guide

The Swedish faced stiff competition throughout qualifying from Austria and Russia, and losses to each of those sides ruled them out of automatic qualification. They were drawn to face Denmark in the play-offs, and after a 2-1 victory in Solna they confirmed qualification with a 2-2 draw in Copenhagen, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic netting twice to seal the deal.

Strengths

The Swedish have plenty of experience on the big stage, and since their first appearance at the Euros in 1992 they have only missed one tournament. Ibrahimovic, Andreas Isaksson and Kim Kallstrom all have more than 100 international caps, and the midfield is packed with experience, with Kallstrom, Jimmy Durmaz, Albin Ekdal, Sebastian Larsson, Erkan Zengin and Pontus Wernbloom likely to form an effective combination. The Swedish have players positioned throughout Europe’s top leagues, and this big game experience should come through in the finals.

Weaknesses

The Swedish are a fairly strong side, but they are over-dependant on Ibrahimovic for their goals. The midfield has plenty of players who can pop up with the occasional goal, but if Ibrahimovic is shut down the Swedish will struggle to score. There are many different defensive options, but Erik Hamren has not necessarily worked out what his best defensive front looks like, and this lack of a set defensive combination has the potential to cause issues at the final tournament.

Star Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Who else? Ibrahimovic is a legend of Swedish football, and every time he joins a new club he brings success with him. Since 2003 he has only failed to win one league title (with Milan in 2011-12) and since moving to Paris Saint-Germain he has scored 110 goals in just 120 league appearances. He has found the net 51 times in Europe, and if Sweden are going to make a run in this tournament he will have to fire.

Key Player: Kim Kallstrom

Kallstrom has 127 international caps, and his work as a playmaker in midfield will be essential to Sweden’s success. If he is unable to provide plenty of opportunities for Ibrahimovic, Marcus Berg and John Guidetti up front then it will be exceptionally difficult for the Swedish to score, and his set piece ability will also come in handy. He has the experience to stand up under pressure, and the Swedish will be relying on him.

Verdict

The Swedish have a strong side, and experience at the highest level will not be an issue. They have plenty of ability as a team, but that was not necessarily realised in qualifying and they have been drawn into a tough group. Ultimately, if Ibrahimovic fails to fire it will be very difficult for the Swedish to score, and this could have a very serious effect on the team.

Prediction

This group is a strong one, and Belgium should progress comfortably despite the questions surrounding their defence. The battle for second will be intriguing, and in the end the Italians should prevail due to their strength all over the park. The Swedish will provide strong competition, but the Irish are unlikely to challenge with a comparatively weak side.
1. Belgium, 2. Italy, 3. Sweden, 4. Republic of Ireland.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group A

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

Paris Saint-Germain FC (France)

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

Form Guide

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

Strengths

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

Weaknesses

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

Star Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

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

Key Player: Blaise Matuidi

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

Real Madrid CF (Spain)

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

Form Guide

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

Strengths

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

Weaknesses

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

Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo

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

Key Player: Toni Kroos

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

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)

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

Form Guide

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

Strengths

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

Weaknesses

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

Star Player: Alex Teixeira

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

Key Player: Oleksandr Hladkiy

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

Malmo FF (Sweden)

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

Form Guide

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

Strengths

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

Weaknesses

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

Star Player: Markus Rosenberg

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

Key Player: Johan Wiland

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

Prediction

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