The fallout from the Sam Allardyce Scandal

Sam Allardyce has been sacked from his position as England manager after a Telegraph sting, in which he told undercover reporters how to get around the rules prohibiting third party ownership, slated the FA and joked about his predecessor Roy Hodgson’s speech impediment.

It’s sad to see such a fall from grace. The England job was Allardyce’s dream job and even though he got the role by being the least worst candidate for the job, it is still a great shame that his spell has ended so abruptly in this way.

 

Greed

The greed element of the fallout has come from where Allardyce agreed to a £400,000 a year deal with the ‘businessmen’ to represent them as an ambassador and as a keynote speaker, sparking cries of ‘he earns £3m a year! Why does he need more?’

However, greed is not the issue here. Football managers and players agree to deals like this all of the time and there was nothing wrong with this ‘deal’.

The Telegraph made this their headline wrongdoing from the investigation, saying ‘England manager for sale’. But ultimately, this allegation bores no fruit. There was nothing wrong with the deal.

FourFourTwo hit the nail on the head with this article, saying: “the idea of the England manager being paid by someone else seems to strike at the very heart of something ancient within the national game and its observers”.

Many people in Britain  have the perception that once you have enough money, you should not attempt to earn any more. Sorry to burst the rather naive bubble of those people, but that is not how the world works.

Greed clearly was not Allardyce’s issue. He is one of the most humble and grounded people in football and, in the case of the ‘deal’, he did nothing wrong. However, that is only one of the charges levied against him.

The ‘Poisonous Press’ were out to get Allardyce:

ctyinrswgaau0sb

There is a great deal of debate in the world of journalism over the use of subterfuge. The IPSO Editor’s Code says that “the press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices”. However, there is an exception to this- stories that are in the public interest.

In this case, the story that the manager of the English national football team was advising about subverting the laws of the game IS in the public interest. They also had a lead that managers within the game were using underhand tactics. This all means that the Telegraph were fully justified in their use of subterfuge.

The role of the press is to hold the powerful to account and to ensure that corrupt individuals are exposed. Allardyce was exposed, yet much of the talk on social media is that the Telegraph were at fault for using underhand tactics to trap Allardyce. That is complete and utter rubbish. No-one forced Allardyce to meet with the ‘investors’, and no-one forced Allardyce to disclose the information that he did.

The Telegraph were doing their job, and anyone who believes otherwise is living in a naive fantasy world where everyone is squeaky clean.

If Allardyce knew about loopholes and ways around the FA’s regulations, then he should have disclosed that to the FA. Instead, he went around disclosing it to ‘foreign investors’. It is a major breach of conduct by Allardyce and he deserves to have the book thrown at him for it.

Allardyce claims that “entrapment has won”. Sorry Sam, but your naivety and deceit has led to you scoring a monumental own goal.

So, should he have been sacked?

 

 

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

It’s a difficult one this, but ultimately the FA’s hands were tied; they had to let Allardyce go. After crying foul of FIFA at every turn during their corruption scandal, it would have been hypocritical for the FA to keep Allardyce on.

It is a PR disaster for the FA and Allardyce has brought them into disrepute. The line that killed Allardyce’s chances of staying on as manager was ““They’re all about making money aren’t they?” in regards to the FA.
The FA could no longer trust Allardyce to be the public ambassador of the FA, which is effectively the role of the England manager, after he undermined them in regards to the advice on circumventing the third party ownership regulations. Allardyce broke the trust of the FA and that is unrecoverable.

Ultimately, the FA had no other choice but to sack Allardyce.

Champions League Group Stage Preview

The foundations of the road to Cardiff has been set. The group stages of the 2016/17 Champions League Group Stage has been drawn and 32 of Europe’s elite club sides will embark on the journey to reach the final in Cardiff on June 3rd next year.

Four English teams will enter the Champions League group stage: Arsenal, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and, for the first time, Leicester City, and Celtic have also scraped their way into the fray as well.

So, will any of these teams reach Cardiff? The journey starts with the group stages.

 


Group A: Paris St. Germain, ARSENAL FC, FC Basel, Ludogorets Razgrad:

Arsenal will be happy with their draw, but they know that another slow start in the groups cannot happen again. Last season, the Gunners lost their first two games to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos, leaving them to have to play catch up later in the group stages.

FC Basel have caused English teams trouble in the past. In the last 5 seasons, they have beaten Chelsea, Spurs and United, and they will be keen to take Arsenal’s scalp too. Arsenal new boy Granit Xhaka will face not only his old club, but also his brother Taulant. The pair met at Euro 2016 when Granit’s Switzerland met Taulant’s Albania in the group stages, and now the brothers will do battle once more.

Bulgarian side Ludogorets can also sting unsuspecting teams. In their only other appearance in the competition proper, they beat Basel at home and snatched a draw at home to Liverpool. Real Madrid also struggled in Sofia. Ludogorets went ahead early before a Ronaldo penalty and a 77th minute Benzema winner defeated Ludogorets. At Anfield, Liverpool needed a 93rd minute Steven Gerrard to beat the Bulgarians.

PSG are the headline side in this group, but now Zlatan-less, there is nothing to fear for Arsenal. With all due respect to Edison Cavani, he is nowhere near as good as Ibrahimovic and their new summer signings, Jese, Hatem Ben Arfa, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Thomas Meunier are decent, but they won’t propel PSG forward. This PSG side still doesn’t look like a side that can challenge at the business end of the competition.

In all honesty, Arsenal do not look like they can compete in the business end of the competition either. Arsenal will be happy with this draw, but it’s hard to see them progress further than the quarter-finals.

 

Group C: FC Barcelona, MANCHESTER CITY, Borussia Mönchengladbach, CELTIC.

So Pep Guardiola is set to take on Barcelona, the team he turned into world beaters, with the new side where he wants to replicate his achievements.

You must have feared the worst for City  when they were drawn with Barcelona, but the addition of ‘Gladbach and Celtic to the group makes progression a realistic prospect.

City’s clash with Barcelona looks a tantalising prospect. It will provide Guardiola with a barometer with where his side are compared to the world’s best. With City’s defence being a big priority for Guardiola, facing Messi, Suarez and Neymar will show whether he has been making the right moves. What a test that will be for the young John Stones! City head to the Nou Camp on the 19th October before the return fixture on November 1st in Manchester. After suffering last 16 exits to Barcelona in 2014 and 2015, this will be a real test of whether Guardiola has taken them forward.

Realistically, City are competing for 2nd in the group with Borussia Mönchengladbach.  Over the last few years, Gladbach have been transformed from Bundesliga relegation fodder to European challengers. This is the 2nd time in a row that Gladbach have qualified for the Champions League, and last season they were in the same group with City, Juventus and Sevilla. City did the double over Gladbach, but 2 draws against Juventus and a victory over Sevilla were all good results. They may have finished bottom of the group last season, but they are more than capable of pushing for qualification into the knockout stages. Eden Hazard’s younger brother, Thorgan, is a key player to look out for , as is German international Christoph Kramer, who arrived permanently from Leverkusen this summer after a successful two-year loan spell at ‘Gladbach between 2013 and 2015.

Celtic know that they are extremely lucky to be here. They embarrassingly lost to Gibraltan part-timers the Lincoln Red Imps in the first leg of their 2nd qualifying round tie and in the third qualifying round, they needed a 92nd minute Moussa Dembele penalty to scrape past FC Astana of Kazakhstan. Scottish football has taken a nose dive over the last decade and Celtic are certainly feeling the brunt of that when they come onto a European level. After being drawn into such a tough group, it’s hard to see Celtic getting anything, but they are more than capable of causing a big upset on European nights at Celtic Park, just ask Barcelona, who suffered defeat there in 2012.

City should progress from this group. It won’t be a walk in the park, but with Guardiola at the helm and the squad that he has at his disposal, it wouldn’t look good if City ended up crashing out before the quarter-finals. As for Celtic, they will be happy if they can claim a scalp, but it will be a surprise if they don’t finish bottom of the group.

 

Group E: CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen, TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR, AS Monaco:

It is hard to determine whether Spurs fans will be happy about this draw. The way the draw worked out, it was 50/50 whether they drew Real Madrid and Dortmund or CSKA and Leverkusen. It would have been great to watch Gareth Bale face his old club and Spurs would have been keen to avenge their Europa League demolition by Dortmund, who beat the Lilywhites 5-1 on aggregate in the Europa League last 16  but that would have been such a tough group to progress from.

On the other hand, Spurs should get through the group they have got pretty easily. They slaughtered Monaco in the Europa League last season and CSKA and Leverkusen aren’t teams to be feared. Leverkusen overachieved in the Bundesliga last season and CSKA have nothing that makes them fear. United reject Zoran Tosic, Alan Dzagoev who has failed to live up to his promise of 2010-12 and Igor Akinfeev, great keeper but past it, are the only names of any notability in CSKA’s side, though a trip to Moscow will be a tough assignment for Spurs. At least they avoid having to trek there in winter, with Spurs’ trip to Moscow being on September 27th.

It is time for Champions League nights to come to Wembley. Sure, Spurs fans would have liked to have seen at least one glamour tie, but those can come later as surely Spurs will progress from this group. Tottenham fans will be disappointed if they don’t finish top of this group.

 

Group G: LEICESTER CITY, FC Porto, Club Brugge, FC Copenhagen.

The fairy-tale looks as though it could continue for Leicester after they were handed a very favourable draw.

It has been a remarkable 12 months for Leicester, and the good time look set to continue as the East Midlands club makes its debut in the Champions League. They will face Porto, Brugge and Copenhagen as they look to progress into the knockout stages.

Porto will be the toughest test. The Champions League winners of 12 years ago have a team crammed full of talent that should be pushing for moves to the bigger European Leagues. Vincent Aboubakar been linked with a move to Everton this summer, but their star man is unquestionably Yacine Brahimi, who has also been linked with a host of Premier League clubs, including Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton this summer. A fee of somewhere between £25m and £35m will be required to prize Porto’s star player away from them. If Porto can keep hold of them, then Porto could be a surprise force in this competition.

The other two sides in Leicester’s group are relatively weak. For Copenhagen, Andreas Cornelius is the player that will be most familiar to British fans. He has done decently since returning to the club following his dismal spell at Cardiff City, whilst left-back Ludwig Augustinsson is a young player who will make a step up to a bigger club at some point soon. Meanwhile, Club Brugge will be reliant on Jelle Vossen, formerly of MiddlesborMiddlesbrough and, for a very short period, Burnley. He scored 16 times in 39 games in his debut season at Brugge last term, and the Belgian champions will be expecting more of the same from him.

However, Leicester will be expected to get through this group. It is the softest group of the entire draw and something would have to go badly wrong not to get through it. After the group stages, who knows what will happen to Leicester!

 

Overall, the English sides can be happy with their Champions League draws. They should all get through their groups reasonably comfortably. If they achieve that, it would be the first time since 2013/14 that all four English sides progressed into the knockout rounds. As for Celtic, it was going to be tough for them regardless of who they drew, but the draw could hardly have given them a tougher draw than the one they have got. At least there are a few glamour ties for them to get big European nights at Celtic Park going again.

Will an English side win the competition? Probably not. Leicester are here for the ride but there’s no chance that they’ll go all the way, Arsenal lack the quality to mount a genuine challenge, as do Tottenham who’s squad cannot rival the squads of the European elite. Manchester City are probably England’s best hope, but it will probably take more than a season for Guardiola to work his magic and turn Manchester City from European pretenders into European contenders.

 

 

Joe Hart- The Personification of English Arrogance

Outside of England, football fans claim that one of the many reasons why England fail on the international stage is that England’s elite footballers are arrogant, mollycoddled and they get too much reward without deserving it. If any English footballer proves this theory down to a tee, it’s Joe Hart.

 

After a shockingly poor Euro 2016, where he claimed that he had nothing to do for the entirety of the group stage, despite ballsing-up Gareth Bale’s tame 35-yard free-kick, handing Wales the lead. Arguably, he also could have done better with Russia’s goal too. Sure enough, after his arrogant remarks, karma struck as another gaffe followed; Kolbeinn Sigþórsson scuffed shot crawled underneath Hart to send England crashing out of the tournament.

The blame for England’s dismal Euro 2016 campaign cannot be pointed solely at one person, but Hart has to take a significant share of the responsibility. He failed to do his job between the sticks for the Three Lions, and England paid the price for that. Now, under a new manager, he faces an almighty battle to keep the number 1 jersey with England, with Fraser Forster and Jack Butland breathing down his neck.

The English media characterise Hart as a safe pair of hands; one of the best ‘keepers in the world. But his Euro 2016 gaffes are amongst many he had made throughout his career.

One of Manuel Neuer’s best attributes is the ability to come out of his area to sweep away danger, but whenever Hart does this, there seems to be a clanger. Errors have come when he has tried to do this against AmaZulu (a South African side) in a pre-season friendly in 2013, Blackburn in 2010, Aston Villa in 2013 (to lose them the match 3-2), Chelsea in 2013 (again, to lose City the match)  and as incredible a Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s overhead kick for Sweden was in 2012, Hart has to take the blame for failing to deal with the long-range ball which he headed straight to Ibrahimovic.

There are yet more gaffes. There was the time where he flapped at a Cardiff corner to hand the Bluebirds their first ever Premier League victory in 2013, he made two gaffes against Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, again in 2013, and in an England shirt, he let tame efforts by France and Switzerland into the net.

There are several Hart gaffes that I have not even listed here! There are so many of them!

Most recently, Hart gifted Chupa Akpom a goal in City’s pre-season defeat to Arsenal. Arguably, that sealed Hart’s fate as he was consigned to the bench for the start of City’s competitive fixtures.

Perhaps if Hart focused more on his football than washing his hair, then maybe he wouldn’t have made so many clangers!

After working with Manuel Neuer at Bayern, Guardiola knows the importance of having a safe pair of hands in goal. But as Hart has shown this summer and throughout his career, he is always prone to a clanger. Guardiola is right to shun Hart; he needs better if City are going to finally win the Champions League.

Hart is not as good as fans make out that he is. Pep Guardiola has seen that, and it is time for Hart to fight for his place on the training ground. By looking at moves away, he portrays himself as a self-righteous player who believes that he should be undisputedly number one. If he thinks this, then he has a big shock coming his way.

So, will Hart stay and fight for his place? Guardiola didn’t exactly cool speculation in his press conference ahead of City’s game against Stoke. He said: “I don’t want players to stay if they don’t want. If they want to stay, stay and we will fight together.”

Whatever happens, Hart’s reputation has been damaged over the last few months, and he faces the biggest season in his career to rebuild it.

 

Premier League Preview & Predictions 2016/17

Last season, I predicted Chelsea to win the league and Leicester to be relegated. So, let’s see how badly wrong I get it this time around!

 

Predicted Premier League Table:

  1. Manchester City
  2. Manchester United
  3. Tottenham Hotspur
  4. Arsenal
  5. Chelsea
  6. Liverpool
  7. Southampton
  8. West Ham United
  9. Everton
  10. Leicester
  11. Stoke City
  12. Crystal Palace
  13. Watford
  14. West Bromwich Albion
  15. Bournemouth
  16. Swansea City
  17. Middlesborough
  18. Sunderland
  19. Burnley
  20. Hull City

 

1st: Manchester City- Pep to reign in England?

The last 12 months for Pep Guardiola have seen widespread critics spring up. His failure to win the Champions League with Bayern Munich in his 3 year spell has seen many brand his time in Bavaria a failure. But Guardiola is a natural born winner. He knows how to deliver trophies, and that is exactly what City need. Almost every footballer on the planet would jump at the chance to play under Guardiola, to be taught by football’s master tactician.

Almost every footballer on the planet would jump at the chance to play under Guardiola, to be taught by football’s master tactician. Ilkay Gundogan will be a key addition to City’s midfield, which has a huge amount of depth, though the German international will miss the start of the season with a dislocated kneecap. Leroy Sane, a £37m arrival from Schalke, and Nolito, also join the competition for places in City’s midfield. Kevin de Bruyne will almost certainly keep his place in the side, meaning Gundogan, Nolito and Sane are competing with David Silva and Raheem Sterling for starting 11 places. As for Guardiola’s famed ‘pivot’ position, Yaya Toure is, somewhat surprisingly, still at the club. He will be competing with Fernandinho and Fernando for that key role in the engine room for Guardiola’s strategy.

City’s hopes rely heavily on Sergio Aguero remaining fit. According to Transfermarkt, the Argentine missed 12 games through injury last season. City cannot afford for that to happen again this time around.

Guardiola’s biggest concern will be at the back. City’s defence were torn apart by Arsenal in their final pre-season game. Vincent Kompany is constantly injured, Equalim Mangala simply isn’t good enough for City and Nicolas Otamendi did not live up to expectations last season. John Stones has arrived from Everton in a £47.5m deal. Stones has drawn comparisons to the great Franz Beckenbauer in the past and he looks like the perfect Guardiola defender. Can he solve the defensive issues City have?

City should win the title. They have the league’s best midfield and the league’s best striker. And, for the first time since their takeover, the best manager in world football.

2nd: Mourinho to turn United’s fortunes?

After the disastrous spells of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, United finally have the manager many believe they should have appointed after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Mourinho has been quick to ring the changed at Old Trafford. Eric Bailly has arrived from Villarreal. He was given the man of the match award in the Community Shield on Sunday and he looks like a solid addition to United’s backline. Chris Smalling will likely partner Bailly at the back for United. It will be important for them to build a defensive partnership quickly, much like the Ferdinand/Vidic relationship of the Ferguson era. Under Mourinho, United are always going to be sound defensively.

Up top, one of football’s superstars has arrived. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, at the age of 34, is finally a Premier League player! 38 goals in 31 Ligue 1 games last season for PSG is a record Mourinho will be praying Ibrahimovic can replicate his goalscoring in the Premier League. United’s lack of goals is a key reason why they will not play in the Champions League this season. 49 goals from 38 games is not good enough; only Stoke scored fewer goals out of the teams in the top half.

In midfield, Manchester United look set to break the world transfer record to resign Paul Pogba from Juventus and Henrikh Mkhitaryan has also arrived from Dortmund. With  Wayne Rooney set to spend the season in midfield, a return to form for the United and England captain would be crucial.

Mourinho has made the right moves in the transfer market, but the damage from Louis van Gaal’s reign was significant. Mourinho will be aiming for the title in his first season at the helm of United, but 2nd and a return to the Champions League would have to go down as an achievement.

3rd: Tottenham Hotspur- Their great chance gone?

Spurs will still be kicking themselves over their failure to bring the Premier League title to White Hart Lane. At the start of last season, there was an air of pessimism going around the Lane, but after a brilliant season, they collapsed during their run in. The title was there for the taking, but they even failed to finish above Arsenal in the end.

Mauricio Pochettino makes his Spurs team work harder than any other team in the league, and the fatigue told towards the end of the season. But Spurs’ side are a young one, and they will have learnt from last season. But this season’s competition will be much tougher with the arrival of superstars in Manchester and the almost certain return of Chelsea to the top table.

Victor Wanayama will slot straight into Spurs’ midfield alongside Moussa Dembele. The Kenyan will add some much-needed bite and power into the Spurs’ engine room. Vincent Janssen has also arrived from AZ Alkmaar. The Dutch international was the top scorer in the Eredivisie last season, netting 27 times in 34 league games last term. He will provide back-up to Harry Kane, who played in every Premier League game for Spurs last term.

Speaking of Harry Kane, that axis of Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen will be crucial for Spurs. Alli was the breakout star of last season  and Kane was the winner of the Golden Boot last season, but both had a poor Euro 2016 campaign. They will both be determined to recover from that campaign alongside Christian Eriksen, who, after Denmark’s failure to qualify for Euro 2016, has had a nice break.

It will be Spurs’ last season at White Hart Lane before the stadium undergoes a rebuild. Will Spurs make history this season and capture their first league title in 55 years? Probably not, but they shouldn’t be counted out.

4th: Arsenal- Dull consistency from Arsenal:

Arsenal were extremely fortunate to finish 2nd last season after their North London rival’s collapse. The competition has moved forward, but Arsenal have stayed pretty much still.

Arsenal’s defence is not good enough to challenge for the title and nor is their strikeforce, yet Arsene Wenger has failed to strengthen so far in those areas.

Olivier Giroud is a competent striker, but he is not world-class, and that showed by his languid displays in the Euros. Arsenal will not win the title whilst Giroud is their main striker.

At the back, the ageing Per Mertesacker is out for the first half of the season with a serious knee injury suffered in Arsenal’s pre-season friendly against RC Lens, and there are definitely questions over Gabriel’s ability. As for Laurent Koscielny, it’s a case of he’ll do. A new centre-back is a must if Arsenal are going to have any chance of challenging for silverware.

Their midfield looks a strong one. The arrival of Granit Xhaka should solve their long lasting holding-midfielder problem. After a breakout season in 2013/14, Francis Coquelin has stagnated and a change needed to be made. He will join Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and, most importantly of all, Alexis Sanchez, in a strong looking 5-man midfield. Alex Iwobi, Joel Campbell and the supposedly fit-again Jack Wilshere will be pushing for places, but this season surely has to mark the end of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. They, like Coquelin, have stagnated and are no longer worthy of placed in Arsenal’s side.

But, there are simply too many issues in Arsenal’s side to be competitive. They will do the minimum and qualify for the Champions League in what will probably be the final season of the Arsene Wenger era.

5th: Chelsea- Conte to fall short?

Last season was a shocking one for Chelsea. They were widely predicted to retain the title, but they languished in the bottom half before Jose Mourinho’s sacking. Mourinho had seemingly lost the support of the dressing room and he simply had to go.

Gus Hiddink came in as interim manager and he delivered a 10th place finish. But now, Antonio Conte has arrived at Stamford Bridge after guiding an unfancied Italian side to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, where they lost to the Germans on penalties.

Diego Costa looked as if he simply could not be bothered last season, as did Eden Hazard. For Costa, it looks like the end of the road after the arrival of Michy Batshuayi. For Hazard, he showed glimmers of his true ability for Belgium at Euro 2016, particularly in the last-16 clash against Hungary. Conte simply must force the true Hazard to come to the fore.

Another player who simply did not pull his weight last season was Cesc Fabregas. The arrival of N’Golo Kante from champions Leicester will almost certainly see the Spaniard ditched to the bench, and his red card for a dangerous lunge in Chelsea’s pre-season clash against Liverpool won’t have helped endear him to Antonio Conte. Kante has come to Stamford Bridge with a glowing reference from Claudio Ranieri, the Leicester boss saying of his former player “he played as two players last season”. Nemanja Matic also had a poor season, but the support he will get from Kante should allow him to recapture the form of his early Chelsea days.

The Italians love defending, and in defence, Conte has a key decision to make; should Kurt Zouma start? If he decides so, who will partner him, John Terry or Gary Cahill?  It would be a big decision to drop Terry, but it might be for the good of the side.

It’s going to be very close between Arsenal and Chelsea for the final Champions League spot, and for me, it’s almost too close to call. It could come down to the wire!

6th: Liverpool- Klopp’s first season, but are Liverpool good enough?

This will be Jurgen Klopp’s first full season since arriving at the Kop, and after demolishing Barcelona 4-0 at Wembley in their final pre-season game, expectations will be high.

Klopp has no excuses now that he has had a full pre-season and a summer transfer window. The Liverpool squad is now firmly his own, built towards his own high-intensity philosophy.

Joel Matip stands out as a great signing. A free transfer from Schalke, he will provide steel to Liverpool’s backline. Ragar Klavan also looks like a good capture after a great pre-season. It will be nice to see Liverpool move away from the erratic, and often thuggish, Martin Skrtel. A concern will be Alberto Moreno, who is a defensively vulnerable left-back. He’s clearly a liability for Liverpool.

Meanwhile, a £34m move for Sadio Mane from Southampton looks borderline insane. It’s a massive overpayment, but it will all be worth it if he produces the goods, though he went on a 16 game goal drought last season. With the price-tag Liverpool have paid for him, he cannot afford a similar drought.

Roberto Firmino also has the pressure of a price tag weighing him down. He cost Liverpool around £30m last summer, but he did not get anywhere close to justifying that with mediocre performances. He needs to have a better season this time around. Hopefully his displays this season will be better than his haircut!

They look like a stronger team than this time last year, but with the competition getting better too, they probably won’t have enough in the tank to challenge for Champions League football.

7th: Southampton- Recruited well, but will Puel deliver?

Southampton’s success has seen their manager poached yet again, and now it’s time for Claude Puel to keep the good times coming at St Mary’s.

I’ve already gushed over Southampton’s signing of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, but I also think the signing of Nathan Redmond is an astute one. He has looked very good in pre-season and he’ll be a great replacement for Sadio Mane. The club did brilliantly to get £34m for the Senegalese, and they have reinvested it wisely.

Graziano Pelle has also departed for the riches of the Chinese Super League, but he won’t be a great loss. Charlie Austin is a natural goalscorer, and he will surely more than make up for Pelle’s departure.

With this seemingly being another period of transition, 7th would be an overachievement, but the Saints are definitely capable of it. A Europa League campaign will make things tougher, but if Southampton can deliver consistency, then they are capable of finishing as ‘the best of the rest’.

8th: West Ham United- Welcome the new look Hammers:

Last season gave the Bolelyn Ground the send off that it deserved, but now the Olympic Stadium era has begun! 54,000 season tickets have been sold, and expectations will be high.

Dimitri Payet looks set to remain in East London, even after being one of the key driving forces in carrying France into the final of Euro 2016 this summer. Had it not been for the rise of Leicester, Payet would have won the player of the year awards at the end of last season.

Slaven Bilic is one of the best managers in the league, virtually any club in the league would love to have him as a part of their set up. Having Bilic at the helm and having one of the most enviable squads should spell success for the Hammers’ maiden season at the Olympic Stadium. A cup run to christen the new stadium maybe?

9th: Everton- Koeman coup not enough to return Everton to Europe:

Ronald Koeman’s move to Everton looks like a sidewards move. The Toffees are a club with great potential, but it won’t be realised this term. John Stones has gone, and they may find it hard to resist bids for Romelu Lukaku later in the window.

Wales captain Ashley Williams has already arrived to replace the departed Stones, and on the face of it, it looks like a great deal for Everton. Having sold Stones for £47.5m, they have replaced him for just £12m. In Williams, Everton have gained one of the most experienced and reliable centre-backs in the Premier League. A solid defender is hard to come by, and that is exactly what Williams is. He was phenomenal for Wales at Euro 2016 this summer, and Ronald Koeman will be hoping for more of the same from him.

The Coleman, Jagielka, Williams, Baines backline looks imposing. Koeman’s Southampton’s side was one of the best defensive sides in the league whilst the full-backs threatened up the pitch. We can expect more of the same from him.

Under Roberto Martinez, Ross Barkley’s development stagnated. This is a vital season for the young England international. He needs to impress Sam Allardyce ahead of a new international campaign. Koeman’s system should suit Barkley more than Martinez’s, so this is a great opportunity for Barkley to shine.

Goodison Park was a fortress under David Moyes and in Roberto Martinez’s first season at the club, but it has lost its aura over the last two seasons. Everton won just 5 of their 19 Premier League games in front of their own fans last term, that must change if Everton are to climb the table.

10th: Leicester- The Champions to crash back to Earth:

Last season was incredible. Many, including myself, predicted Leicester to be relegated after the underwhelming appointment of Claudio Ranieri. But Leicester and Ranieri proved everyone wrong, winning the league in argubly the biggest shock in the history of club football. It was a fairytale, and with Leicester amongst Europe’s elite this season in the Champions League, the good times will continue to roll in the East Midlands.

However, whilst Ranieri has managed to keep most of the title winning squad, with N’Golo Kante being the only notable departure, the squad has not been improved. Nampalys Mendy  is a very similar player to Kante, and Ahmed Musa’s pace up front  will terrify defenders. But these signings are not enough to keep Leicester at the top.

Leicester were poor in the Community Shield defeat to Manchester United. They tore the top teams apart last season, but they seemingly returned to the small club mentality in that game, sitting back and allowing United to dominate. It will be a shame if that is repeated in the Premier League or Champions League.

Good luck to Leicester in the Champions League, but last season was a one-off. It will never be repeated again.

11th: Stoke City- Cold Tuesday Nights at the Bet365 Stadium:

Stoke have been the model of consistency under Mark Hughes, finishing 9th in all 3 of his seasons in charge at the Potteries, but with the opposition getting better, that run could be broken.

Joe Allen is the big name arrival, signing from Liverpool for £12m after being one of the best players at Euro 2016. He never got the chances he deserved at Liverpool, and a move to Stoke will do him the world of good. He can now be the engine in midfield, a role he thrived in with Wales this summer and with Swansea when he was at the Liberty.

Hughes has gotten the best out of his side over the last 3 years, but with the money mid-table sides are spending thanks to the new television deal, it will be a tough task to keep Stoke in the top half of the table.

12th: Crystal Palace- Will Palace find consistency?

Crystal Palace’s new year slump was alarming. They went from 5th on New Year’s Day to finishing in 15th. They failed to win a league game until April and they were dragged into a relegation fight.

Palace’s slump cost manager Alan Pardew his shot at the England job. It cannot be allowed to happen again. To accomplish that, Steve Mandanda has come in, looking a bargain at £1.5m, and Andros Townsend has also arrived at Selhurst Park.

Palace under Pardew have been wildly inconsistent. If they are to crack into the top half, they have to find some rhythm.

13th: Watford-New Season, New Manager for the Hornets:

Yet again under the ownership of the Pozzo family, Watford start the season with a new manager at the helm. Quince Sanchez Flores was harshly dismissed, though they, like Palace, suffered a New Year slump, going from 7th to 13th.

Walter Mazzarri is the new man in charge at Vicarage Road, and he has a decent squad to choose from.

Odin Ighalo has signed a new 5-year deal after Watford spurned interest from China for his signature. His fellow strike partner Troy Deeney has also signed a new 5-year deal. Between then, they scored 28 goals in the Premier League last season and their partnership is one of the most fearsome outside of the ‘Big 6’.

Watford may lack a bit of quality in midfield though. That will prevent them climbing up the table, but they will have enough to survive.

14th: West Bromwich Albion- Dull football, but typical Pulis:

Last season, West Brom survived comfortably, but it was not exactly engaging to watch. It’s classic Pulis, but Baggies fans will want to see a transition from ‘Pulisism’.

Salomon Rondon’s return of 9 goals last season was disappointing considering  that the club spent a club record £12m on him last summer. He showed glimpses of quality, but he lacked consistency. Saido Berahino clearly wants to leave West Brom, so Ronon will be even more important this time around. A 15-goal return will be an expectation placed on his shoulders.

Expect to see a few youngsters in West Brom’s squad. Jonathan Leko impressed when he broke into the team late in the season and Welsh striker Tyler Roberts will also be pushing for involvement.

It won’t be pretty for West Brom, but under Pulis, they definitely won’t go down!

15th: Bournemouth- Eddie Howe’s reputation to continue to soar.

Arguably the best young manager in the game, Eddie Howe has worked miracles with Bournemouth, taking them from League 1 to Premier League survival. He is destined for the top with many tipping him to succeed Arsene Wenger at Arsenal when he eventually leaves.

Callum Wilson was sublime before injury wrecked his season. If Wilson can remain fit, Bournemouth could be set for a good season.

Howe has made some astute additions to his side. Jordan Ibe has looked dazzling in pre-season, and he has a score to prove after never getting the chance to have a solid run in Liverpool’s side.

Bournemouth are good enough to push on now. I’ve predicted a 15th place finish for them, but with a bit of luck, they can go a fair bit higher than that.

16th: Swansea City- The Swans looking to survive, not thrive:

New owners, new (permanent) manager and a need for a new leader. It’s going to be a tough season this time around. The period of Swansea being the darlings of the Premier League is well and truely over.

Ashley Williams is a massive loss. He is one of the biggest leaders in the Premier League, and now that he’s gone, it’s hard to see who is going to replace him. Andre Ayew is also gone.

Fernando Llorente is a great signing for Swansea up top. The striker position was a major weakness for the Swans last season, with Bafetimbi Gomis, Alberto Paloschi and Eder failing to fire. Llorente is a natural goalscorer, exactly what they needed.

This is a season of transition for Swansea. If they can survive this season, then they could return to the top half of the table next season, but it’s hard to see them do any better than survival this season.

17th: Middlesborough- A welcome return:

It has been 7 long seasons since ‘Boro were last in the Premier League, but their finally back!

Jordan Rhodes will finally get his chance in the top flight after spending his career bullying defenders in the Football League. 92 goals in 189 Championship appearances for Ipswich, Huddersfield, Blackburn and ‘Boro is a tremendous record for what is a very tough division. Will he be able to replicate that kind of form in the Premier League?

Karanka stuck with a rigid 4-2-3-1 system, so it will be interesting to see whether he will change things with Alvaro Negredo’s arrival. The Manchester City flop arrives at the Riverside with a point to prove after a lacklustre season. He found the net 23 times in 48 appearances in all competitions for City, but only 9 0f them came in the Premier League.

A tough run-in (Arsenal, Bournemouth, Man City, Chelsea, Southampton and Liverpool) could be troublesome, but Boro have what it takes to stay up. Aitor Karanka is a great manager and he will find a way to keep Boro afloat.

18th- Sunderland: The Black Cats’ lives to run out?

Sunderland have flirted with danger for what seems to be an eternity, but this season will be the season their luck runs out. Sam Allardyce, an expert at keeping poor teams in the Premier League, has departed Wearside for the England job, and David Moyes has come into replace him.

But Moyes still seems to be bitter about his dismissal by Manchester United. He seems more interested in settling a score with them rather than his new side. Instead of batting off questions from the media about his time at United, he seemed more than happy to take a dig at them, claiming that he was unfairly treated at Manchester United at his Sunderland unveiling. It smacked of bitterness, and after his subsequent failure with Real Sociedad in Spain, he should consider himself lucky to be back in work.

The arrival of United’s Adnan Januzaj and Paddy McNair is interesting. The emergence of Adnan Januzaj under Moyes was one of the few positives of his spell at United, but the Belgian winger has stagnated since then. The question is after being in the United bubble, are they geared for a relegation fight? I sense not.

Some of the deadweight has been shipped out (Wes Brown, Steven Fletcher and Danny Graham), but there is still a lack of quality at the club. Jermain Defoe will always find the net, but one man is not enough to survive. Sunderland are going down. It’s about time that they are put out of their misery.

19th- Burnley: Straight back down for the Clarets:

Sean Dyche has done a great job at Burnley, but they lack Premier League class. A lack of signings to a squad that were not tipped for promotion last season in the Championship will see Burnley struggle.

20th- Hull City: What the heck is going on??

Steve Bruce has gone with a matter of weeks to go until the start of the season, fans are protesting about the ownership situation and their squad is threadbare. Hull are a club in crisis despite their promotion. At this rate, they could struggle to even surpass Derby’s record low of 11 points.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pierre Emile Højbjerg- The Signing of the Summer?

Forget Ibrahimovic, forget Gundogan. For me, Southampton’s signing of 20-year-old Pierre-Emile Højbjerg has been the signing of the summer so far.

 


Højbjerg is seen as one of the future stars of world football. He is a slick box-to-box midfielder who learnt his trade under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich.

He found his first team opportunities limited at Bayern, though. Phillip Lahm, one of the world’s best deep playmakers, kept Højbjerg out of the side. The presence of Thiago and Vidal also prevented him taking up a more advanced role. Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger were also ahead of him in the pecking order whilst they were at the club.

Considering Guardiola saw so much potential in Højbjerg, it’s staggering that he did not give the Dane more game time. Guardiola personally mentored the Dane after taking charge at the Bavarian club after seeing the traits of Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets in him.

Seeing his path to the first team blocked, Højbjerg has had two loan spells over the last two seasons. The first with Augsburg in the latter half of the 2014/15 season where he was a key component of the club’s midfield. With Højbjerg in the side, they stunned the Bundesliga by finishing 5th, qualifying for the Europa League.

He spent last season on loan with Schalke, though this got spell was less successful. He failed to gain a regular place in the starting 11, making just 13 league starts. With his development as a player stalling and his path to Bayern’s first team still blocked, Højbjerg decided it was time to leave Bayern.

Bayern’s loss is undoubtedly Southampton’s gain. The Saints picked up the Denmark international for just £12m, an absolute bargain for such a talented young player.

So far in Southampton’s pre-season games, Højbjerg has impressed with his calmness in possession, shining particularly in Southampton’s 2-1 victory over FC Twente last week.

Højbjerg can be seen as a direct replacement for Victor Wanayama, who left the south coast for Tottenham earlier this summer. The Dane with an eye for a pass and keen to maraud forward if the chance presents itself, he is a perfect fit for the way Southampton play.

“It’s the way I like to think, the way I like to play and it fits me really well.”

-Højbjerg on Southampton’s playing style

Højbjerg is a superstar in the making. If he can get the regular game time that he craves and show the talent that he clearly has, then Højbjerg could be a very shrewd acquisition. In this era of heavily inflated transfer fees, £12m for a player with Højbjerg’s potential and class is a bargain.

The FA Make The Same Old Mistakes

Sam Allardyce represents the last stand of old school English football management. He is a hard line disciplinarian who focuses solely on grinding out results. He’s the kind of manager the FA thrives on, and appointing him means the FA have made the same old mistake.

The England football team’s abject failure showed that the old guard’s time was up and the coaching staff needed fresh impetus to drive the team forward. But Allardyce would just be a continuation on the Hodgson reign. It is hard to see what Allardyce brings to the England set-up that is new and forward thinking.

Yes, Allardyce is a very passionate and patriotic Englishman, but that simply isn’t enough to succeed in international football management.

Ultimately, Allardyce’s record at top level success is dreadful. As a manager, his biggest honour, assuming you don’t count West Ham’s victory in the Championship Play-Offs (considering West Ham should have cruised to the title with the resources at their disposal, that has to go down as a failure), is winning the Third Division title (League One nowadays) with Notts County in 1998. Is that a C.V that deserves to be rewarded with one of world football’s biggest jobs? I think not.

What Allardyce specialises in is avoiding relegation with his sides, which is all well and good, but England are not a side that needs a manager to help them scrape by, they need a manager who can help guide them to major titles, and Allardyce is not that man.

Football management in 2016 is about masterful tacticians. The Guardiolas, the Ancelottis, the Mourinhos, the Pochettinos. There is a reason why none of the top teams are managed by the typical old school English manager.

The lack of managerial talent in English football is telling when you consider that Allardyce’s closest challenger for the England job was Steve Bruce, who was managing in the Championship last season.

The English FA make the same old mistakes. They have not moved on from England’s best recent spell of the 1990s. They seem to believe that what worked then will work now, but it won’t.

Germany won the World Cup because they put a new philosophy in place following their failure at Euro 2000, Spain dominated international football between 2008-2012 because they took what worked in their club game, which with Guardiola at Barcelona’s helm made it the world’s best club football scene, and applied it to the national team. This was a chance for the FA to change the way the national team plays, but they have gone with the same old authoritarian manager, and that will only bring more mediocrity to the English side.

The FA are like puppies running at a glass door over and over again, trying to figure out why they can’t get through. The answer is painfully obvious, but like the puppies in that example, they can’t figure out what is going wrong, so they keep trying to do the same thing over and over again in the hope it will work. But, of course, it will never work.

Here in Wales, the enthusiasm and belief in the national side is at unprecedented levels. Fans are optimistic about the future after the incredible achievements of Euro 2016. If any English fan is optimistic about the future of their national team, then they are quite frankly delusional.

Paul Pogba- The £100m man?

Paul Pogba has been linked with a world record move back to Manchester United, but after a less than impressive performance in the Euro 2016 final, many have branded the Frenchman overrated and a waste of money.


In a scathing column for the Mirror, Robbie Fowler branded Pogba as a ‘massively overrated player’ who is ‘skilful but selfish’ and French World Cup winner Emmanuel Petit did not hold back in his criticism of Pogba either, stating that ‘we are making him out to be a big star, but he is not a big star to me’.

Such criticism seems harsh though when you consider that Didier Deschamps used Pogba in a different role to the one he is used to at Juventus.

At Juventus, when Arturo Vidal left for Bayern Munich, Pogba was pushed into a more advanced role after the club had missed out on signings of Julian Draxler and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and ever since then he has thrived.

But Deschamps had many options to play the traditional ‘number 10’ role. Pogba, Payet and Griezmann were all capable of playing there with aplomb. Deschamps opted to play Griezmann in that role for the final, and with Kante not recalled to the side, Pogba was dumped back into a holding role.

Pogba is at his best when he is allowed to play directly at the opposition, but it looked like the shackles were firmly on for Pogba in the final. His main contribution to the game was sidewards passing; as soon as he touched the ball, he looked to play it sideways. Any footballer on the planet can do that, and it was saddening to see such a talented player reduced to such a role.

Pogba Passing Final Euro2016

Compare Pogba’s display to Toni Kroos, arguably the finest deep midfielder at the Euros. When he gets the ball in a deep position, he looks to advance his team onwards.

Attachment-1 (1)

Pogba is not the passing maestro that Kroos is, but that is the role that Deschamps gave him. Pogba is at his best when he is allowed to drive at opponents and create space for himself, like the role Gareth Bale was allowed to play for Wales in this tournament. He does it time and time again for Juventus, but Deschamps’ tactics prevented him from doing that.

So is he worth £100m? That figure is definitely over-inflated, but in the crazy economy that football has found itself in, it could be justified. Pogba at his best is a deadly weapon and he is still only 23. He has a decade of top-class football ahead of him. If Pogba can be a key figure in driving Manchester United back to the top table of European football, then £100m is surely worth it.

If Jose Mourinho is willing to give him the free role that Juventus offer him, then Pogba will shine at Old Trafford. An advanced midfielder is exactly what United need. They’ve already signed Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but Pogba is clearly a cut above. Mkhitaryan will probably be deployed out wide by Mourinho in a 4-2-3-1 system, and Pogba can slip straight into the number 10 role. There is no-one better on the market, and nowadays, you’ve got to pay a massive premium for the best players.

So, to those who say Pogba is overrated, be ready for one hell of a shock. Deployed correctly, Pogba is a demon that no-one would want to face.

It’s a shame that Deschamps failed to use Pogba correctly. Maybe there would have been a party on the Champs Elysees had he used Pogba the way he should have.

 

Euro 2016 Final Preview

The eyes of Europe will be on the Stade de France in the Parisien suburb of Saint-Denis tonight as host nation France face Portugal to be crowned champions of Europe.

It has been an epic month of football in France. Fans have been brought together by the European festival of football and Euro 2016 will no doubt go down as a success. Alas, it all has to come to an end tonight, and everyone watching around the world will be hoping for a tremendous final.

Road to the Final:

France will end the tournament where they started, the Stade de France. They beat Romania 2-1 a month ago thanks to a late wonder goal from Dimitri Payet. The French left it late again against Albania. Antoine Griezmann headed France ahead in the 90th minute and Payet found the net for the 2nd time in two games with the last kick of the game. A 0-0 draw to neighbours Switzerland secured a comfortable passage through to the knockout stages for the hosts, topping Group A.

If France’s progression through the group stages was comfortable, Portugal’s was anything but. Drawn in arguably the softest group of the tournament, they drew all of their games. Iceland managed a draw against the Portuguese thanks to a frustrating night for Cristiano Ronaldo, Austria drew 0-0 to Portugal and Hungary vs Portugal produced one of the best games of the tournament, ending in a 3-3 draw. Despite failing to win a game, Portugal scraped through to the last 16 as one of the best 3rd place sides.

That gave the Portuguese a trip to Lens to face Croatia. Once again, they failed to secure a victory in the 90 minutes, but they avoided penalties thanks to a Ricardo Quaresma strike in the 117th minute. It was a gutting moment for Croatia, who were the better side in the game.

France were also handed a scare at the hands of the Republic of Ireland. Paul Pogba brought down Shane Long in the area within the first minute to allow Robbie Brady to put the Irish ahead from the spot, but a Griezmann double-salvo in the 2nd half was swiftly followed by a red card for Shane Duffy to turn the game on its head. Ireland rarely threatened after that, handing the French a last 8 berth.

France would have been expecting to face England in the quarter-finals, but Iceland’s stunning win against the English meant they travelled to the Stade de France. France knew after England’s failings that they could not be complacent and sure enough, France tore Iceland apart, winning 5-2 in the end.

Whilst France were dominant, Portugal were lacklustre in their quarter-final clash, though the performance of 18-year-old Renato Sanches was a major positive for Portugal. He scored his first goal for Portugal to cancel out Robert Lewandowski’s early opener. Sanches’ shot from the edge of the area deflected off Poland’s Krychowiak into the bottom corner of the net. The 2nd half produced nothing and the game always looked destined for penalties, and sure enough spot kicks were required. Portugal scored all of their spot kicks whilst Blaszczykowski missed for Poland. Portugal were through, and they hadn’t even won a game in 90 minutes yet!

Two of Real Madrid’s galacticos came head to head in the semi-finals as Ronaldo’s Portugal came head to head with Wales, spearheaded by Gareth Bale. The first half was a cagey affair with neither side creating clear cut chances, but 5 minutes of slackness by the Wales defence cost them deerly. Roando towered above James Chester to head Portugal into the lead and Nani turned Ronaldo’s scuffed shot past Hennessey to give Portugal an unassailable lead. Wales struggled to test Rui Patricio in the Portuguese goal and overall, Portugal deserved to progress to the final. Has Portugal found their form at the right time?

The World Champions, Germany, were waiting in the semi-finals for France, and despite the Germans domination, the French were handed a controversial penalty against Bastian Schweinsteiger for handball in the box. Griezmann tucked it away to hand France the lead at half-time against the run of play. Germany continued to apply pressure, but a rare clanger from Manuel Neuer gave Griezmann a tap-in to all but secure France’s passage to the final as well as the golden boot for Griezmann.

So here we are then, France will fancy their chances at the Stade de France, but Portugal could pull off an almighty shock in the French’s own back yard.

Team News:

N’Golo Kante looks set to reclaim his place in the side after being left out against Germany. The Leicester City powerhouse was suspended for the quarter-final and after France’s brilliant performance in that game, he was left out against the Germans. But after France faced huge pressure by the Germans, Kante looks set for a recall in order to settle the French back-line. Kinsley Coman could also start in place of Moussa Sissoko.

William Carvalho will almost certainly return to the Portuguese starting 11. The Sporting Lisbon midfielder missed the Wales game through suspension. Pepe also missed that game. He should start after overcoming a niggle in his thigh.

Key Battle- Renato Sanches vs Paul Pogba:

18-year-old Renato Sanches has had a breakout campaign for Portugal. His performances have been beyond his years so much so that there were claims that he was in fact 23 or 24! It’s easy to see why Bayern Munich have already secured his signature for £28m. He was the man of the match against Croatia and he scored a crucial goal against Poland in the quarter-finals. He will become the youngest ever player to play in the final of the European Championships, and that is bound to be one of many achievements in what will surely be a great career.

Paul Pogba could be set for a big-money move himself, but the poster boy of the tournament has not exactly impressed so far. He was poor in the group stages and questions were being asked of him. Sloppily bringing down Shane Long in the box early against Ireland didn’t exactly help, but his class showed during the Iceland and Germany matches, controlling the midfield against Iceland with ease and setting up Griezmann’s second goal against the Germans.

These two youngsters are already stars, but they will both be hoping to claim their first international honour tonight at the Stade de France.

Also look out for- Luis Nani:

Ronaldo has struggled at times this tournament, but Nani has made up for it, firing in 3 goals. His performances in this tournament have already earned him a move to Valencia and he will be keen to show why Louis van Gaal was wrong to get rid of him. By lighting up the final, he could fill the Dutchman with feelings of regret.

 

Prediction: France 2-1 Portugal

Euro 2016 Quarter Final Preview [2/2]

Portugal and Wales have already made their way through to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, and now Germany face off against Italy and Iceland take on France in a bid to join them.

 

Germany vs Italy- 2nd July:

Italy seem to be Germany’s bogey team when it comes to major tournaments. Italy has never suffered defeat to the Germans, but the world champions will have to get past their old foe in Bordeaux in order to progress, though they have never lost a quarter-final in the European Championships and they are yet to concede in this tournament.

Both sides have eased to this stage. Both topped their respective groups with ease and both cruised through their last 16 fixtures- Germany demolishing Slovakia 3-0 and Italy making the once dominant Spanish side look like amateurs in a 2-0 victory.

Chelsea-bound Italian boss Antonio Conte has selection dilemmas though. Thiago Motta is suspended, Daniele De Rossi is a doubt with a knock to the hip and Antonio Candreva is a doubt after missing Italy’s last two games through injury.  Germany has a fully fit side to choose from and no suspensions to contend with.

After being written off before the tournament, Italy has looked like one of the best teams in this tournament, only losing to the Republic of Ireland after fielding a severely weakened team in their last group stage game, top spot in group E already assured. After finishing as runners-up four years ago, the Azzurri will be determined to go one better this time around.

Key Battle- Jerome Boateng vs Graziano Pelle:

Germany are yet to concede at this tournament, and Bayern Munich defender Boateng has been a key reason why. But this will be Germany’s toughest test of the tournament so far, and Pelle poses a real threat. The Southampton striker looked sharp against Spain, and the German defence knows that Pelle cannot be left alone in the box.

Also look out for- Toni Kroos:

No player has made more passes than Toni Kroos this tournament (417 completed passes). This game could be won and lost in the midfield, and Kroos is one of the most dominating playmakers in world football and his passing range can be deadly if he’s given too much room. Daniele De Rossi, if he plays, will have a battle on his hands to minimise the effect of Kroos. He was the official man of the match in Germany’s opening group match with Ukraine and he has been brilliant in all of Germany’s games so far.

 

France vs Iceland- 3rd July:

Iceland is the smallest country to ever qualify for the European Championships and they have stunned many by beating England in the last 16. Now, it’s the hosts turn to face the Icelanders, and they know that they cannot be complacent. Besides, Iceland are one of only two teams to have scored in all of their games so far (Wales being the other).

History is on France’s side though; they have never lost to Iceland in their 11 previous meetings, winning 8 contests and drawing the other 3. They last met in a friendly before Euro 2012 where Iceland took a surprise 2-0 lead into half time. The French rallied back though to earn a hard fought 3-2 victory.

N’Golo Kante and Adil Rami are both suspended for France after picking up their 2nd yellow card of the tournament. New Barcelona signing Samuel Umtiti looks set to replace Rami at the back. Winger Kingsley Coman is a doubt after being substituted off late on in their game against the Republic of Ireland with a knock.

Iceland has a full squad to pick from. They are likely to name an unchanged side from their game against England.

Key Battle: Gylfi Sigurdsson vs Blaise Matuidi:

With Kante suspended, Matuidi will be expected to play a deeper role for France, with keeping Swansea playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson out of the game his top priority. Much of Iceland attacking play goes through Sigurdsson and if France keep him quiet, that could swing the game in their favour. There are few better deep-lying midfielders than Matuidi, though France would have preferred to have Kante available to keep Sigurdsson in check.

Also look out for- Antoine Griezmann:

Griezmann’s brace against the Republic of Ireland saved the hosts from humiliation. His 5-minute double-salvo turned the game on its head. He is a real handful for defences to handle. Ronaldo suffered a fustrating night against the Icelandic defence, will Griezmann surcumb to the same fate?

 

Euro 2016 Quarter Final Preview [1/2]

24 came to conquer Europe, and now only 8 nations are left standing in the race for the Henri Delaunay Trophy. Over the next 4 nights, 4 more teams must be sent home.

Ronaldo’s Portugal face off against Robert Lewandowski’s Poland tonight, Wales take on Belgium under the Friday night lights of Lille, Germany face off against the Italians on Saturday and Iceland look to add another chapter to their incredible fairy tale as they take on France on Sunday.

This is a preview of the first two games.

Poland vs Portugal- Thursday 30th June:

Two of the pre-tournament dark horses go head to head in Marseille in the first quarter-final, though both sides need to improve if they are to be genuine contenders.

Both sides scraped through their respective last 16 clashes. Poland needed penalties to get past Switzerland and Portugal needed a late extra time strike from Ricardo Quaresma to avoid the same fate.

The Portuguese side were equally unconvincing in the group phase. They have reached this stage despite not winning a single game within 90 minutes in this tournament.

Portugal’s Raphael Guerreiro and Andre Gomes are both doubts for this one. Poland have a full squad to pick from.

In the last meeting of these sides was in a friendly in 2012, it ended in a 0-0 draw in Warsaw.

Key Battle- Cristiano Ronaldo vs Robert Lewandowski:

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Poland’s Robert Lewandowski are two superstars who have failed to fire so far in the tournament, but to progress any further, they need to find their form. Ronaldo had one of the worst games of his career in Portugal’s 0-0 draw against Austria in the groups and Lewandowski, one of Europe’s most deadly goalscorers, has yet to find the net so far.

Whichever superstar finds his form in this game could turn the game in their side’s favour.

Also look out for- Jakub Blaszczykowski:

Lewandowski may have failed to find the net thus far in this tournament, but his former Borussia Dortmund team-mate Blaszczykowski has certainly made up for it. He’s one of the key reasons why Poland have made it this far, finding the net 3 times and he has been involved in all 5 of Poland’s goals in the last 2 European Championships.

Blaszczykowski has been on fire so far during this tournament, and Poland has never lost when Blaszczykowski has scored. If Portugal doesn’t keep an eye on the winger, it could be the end for them.

Wales vs Belgium- Friday 1st July

Just 10 miles from the French-Belgian border, Belgium go to battle with the Welsh, with revenge firmly on the cards.

When these two sides met in qualifying, Wales claimed a historic victory in Cardiff against the Belgians which saw Wales move closer to securing a spot in France and it even propelled Wales into the top 10 of the FIFA World Rankings for the first time ever. The other game resulted in a 0-0 draw in Brussels.

Wales haven’t conceded in their last 3 meetings with Belgium and whilst Belgium were phenomenal in their quarter-final against Hungary, Wales are a much better defensive unit than the Hungarians.

Wales look set to line up with a similar 3-5-2 formation that Italy used against Belgium in their opening group game. The Belgians looked powerless against the Azzurri as they lost 2-0.

Belgium also face a defensive selection crisis. Thomas Vermaelen is suspended after picking up his 2nd yellow card of the tournament. Meanwhile, Jan Vertonghen has picked up an ankle injury and looks set to miss the remainder of the tournament and the start of the Premier League season. Vertonghen has reportedly been diagnosed with ankle ligament damage. Belgium look set to have to field an inexperienced back line featuring Jordan Lukaku, the younger brother of striker Romelu.

Wales look set to have a full squad to pick from after captain Ashley Williams was declared fit. Williams picked up a shoulder injury in the latter stages of Wales’ 1-0 win over Northern Ireland, but a scan showed his shoulder did not suffer any significant damage.

Key Battle- Gareth Bale vs Eden Hazard:

After a poor season, Eden Hazard looked to be back to his best against Hungary. His direct running and silky dribbling ability would terrify any defensive line in world football. He’s already layed on 3 goals for his teammates this tournament, making him the top assist maker in the tournament. Meanwhile, Gareth Bale has not played at his best this tournament, constantly shackled by double and even triple marking. But in every single game, he has produced a moment of magic to give Wales the upper hand. He scored free-kicks against Slovakia and England, lobbed Igor Akinfeev to round off Russia’s humiliation at Wales’ hands and he put in a sensational cross that made Gareth McAuley slide the ball into his own net.

Both are capable of producing moments of magic, but who will cast their spell in this game to propel their nation to a semi-final appearance?

Also look out for- Raja Nainggolan:

Wales were beaten by England because their counter-attacking threat was brilliantly nullified by Eric Dier. Nainggolan can do the same job for Belgium, and after his mistake against Wales in qualifying, where his inexplicable header back towards Thibaut Courtois found the chest of a wide open Gareth Bale who brought the ball down and smashed past Courtois into the net, he will be keen to ensure the same does not happen again.