Andres Iniesta

Euro 2016 Team of the Group Stage

Goalkeeper: Michael McGovern (Northern Ireland)

International tournaments are a great way for lesser-known players to advertise themselves on the big stage and no-one has made the most of this quite like Michael McGovern.

McGovern is currently a free agent after leaving Scottish Premiership outfit Hamilton when his contract expired and should have no problem finding a new club due to his outing at the Euros.

Northern Ireland’s goalkeeper has made the second highest amount of saves (16) in the three games he has played and half of them (eight) came in the Germany game where impressively the Green and White Army only succumbed to a 1-0 loss, thanks to McGovern.

Right-back: Elseid Hysaj (Albania)

The 24-team Euros has allowed players from unfashionable European nations to shine, it is a shame we will see no more of Albania and their right-back Elseid Hysaj who has been a shining light in an average team.

Albania finished as one of the six third-placed teams but their goal difference of minus two led to them being one of the unfortunate pair, alongside Turkey, who did not do enough to secure a place in the last 16 of the competition.

Hysaj, who plays his club football in Serie A for Napoli, came into his own though, he defended well and was key for Albania going forward too. In the 1-0 loss to Switzerland he played a sensational through ball to Armando Siduku who fired straight at the keeper and similar occurred just over a week later when Ermir Lenjani blasted over the bar from point-blank range when picked out by Hysaj.

Centre back: Leonardo Bonucci (Italy)

Isn’t it great when a team lives up to the stereotype? Italy, the ‘tournament team you should never write off’ that are ‘built on solid defences’, have been, well, the typically efficient side that have been built on a solid defence that punish teams on the counter-attack.

Leonardo Bonucci, who is a serious target for Chelsea – the team Italy boss Antonio Conte will manage at the end of the Euros, has been the true rock and leader of the traditional sturdy Azzurri.

Bonucci even played a part in one of the goals of the championship to this point as well. A sensational directed ball landed at the feet of Emanuele Giaccherini with the most pinpoint precision and the ex-Sunderland winger was left with the simple task of tucking home past Thibaut Courtois.

Centre back: Jerome Boateng (Germany)

It takes a special defender to prevent a near-certain goal from going in but that is exactly what Jerome Boateng did, but that is what Jerome Boateng is.

Germany had taken an early lead in their Group C opener against Ukraine but looked certain to concede when the Bayern Munich deflected a cross towards his own goal but somehow the 27-year-old adjusted his body and cleared the ball away from danger.

Boateng did not put a foot wrong in the 0-0 draw with Poland or the 1-0 win over Northern Ireland either. Germany are one of only two teams to have not conceded a goal yet at Euro 2016.

Left-back: Jordi Alba (Spain)

Jordi Alba truly burst onto the scene with his dazzling displays at the last Euros and if he carries on in this vain, he will be among the nominees for the top player prize again without a doubt.

Alba’s best showing so far included a wonderful assist that lead Spain’s second goal that meant they had got into an unassailable lead against Turkey.

Centre midfielder: Andres Iniesta (Spain)

At Euro 2012, Spain won their third trophy in a row and Andres Iniesta was crowned the Player of the Tournament, four years later, he is at it again.

It took La Roja 87 minutes to break down the Czech Republic but the defensive tactic of the Czechs allowed Iniesta to caress the Stadium Municipal in Toulouse, and it was indeed him that finally unlocked the opposition defence with a floated delivery that Gerard Pique converted to get the Spanish out of jail.

The Turkey game four days later was even easier for Iniesta and it was the Barcelona playmaker the provided perhaps the highlight of the match, a defence-splitting pass that set club and country colleague Jordi Alba on his way to square in a cross for Alvaro Morata to convert.

Centre midfielder: Toni Kroos (Germany)

Toni Kroos was one of, if not the, best German performers two years ago as Die Mannschaft became the world champions and the midfield maestro has not let up this summer.

In Germany’s opening encounter, Kroos made 112 passes, five more than Ukraine’s top three passers combined and set up Shkodran Mustafi’s header from a free-kick in what was a real sight to behold – one of the world’s best having a stroll in the park.

Bayern Munich must rue the day they let him go to Real Madrid for just £20 million.

Centre midfielder: Luka Modric (Croatia)

Kroos has not been the only Real Madrid centre midfielder to shine at these Euros, Luka Modric has made a serious impression as well.

Modric originally made an impact on the Euros when his dipping volley beat Turkish goalkeeper Volkan Babacan all ends up and during that game he also made more passes and had more touches than any other man on the pitch.

Croatia are normally considered ‘dark horses’ , but thanks to the likes of Modric they won Group D ahead of Spain and now, thanks to being on a kinder half of the tournament table, they may well go all the way.

Right forward: Dmitri Payet (France)

Dmitri Payet may have scored the goal of the tournament on the night it all kicked off and it was justified after a really bright evening for the West Ham man.

France were understandably cagey in their first game, but Payet made things happen. Olivier Giroud scored a trademark header as a result of a superb cross from him and then the free-kick master proved he was just as good in normal play as he smacked a bending shot past a despairing Ciprian Tatarusanu as the game entered the 90th minute to give the hosts an opening day win.

Payet then sealed a 2-0 victory against Albania, scoring again in second-half stoppage time. The winger was only used as a substitute in the 0-0 draw with fellow Group A qualifiers Switzerland but hit the bar with a rasping effort just moments after coming on.

Striker: Alvaro Morata (Spain)

It took a long while for the Euros to start seeing plenty of goals, especially from strikers, but after a poor first game against the Czech Republic, Morata remembered where the back of the net was.

Morata, who recently re-joined Real Madrid after they activated his buy-back clause from Juventus, was the first player to score more than once in a match when he netted a brace in Spain’s dominant 3-0 win over Turkey.

Croatia felt the brunt of him too in the final round of group games when he tapped in the opener. Morata is currently the joint-top goalscorer at Euro 2016.

Left forward: Ivan Perisic (Croatia)

Initially, Ivan Perisic got people talking for being a winger who was unorthodoxly sporting the number four for Croatia, but now his football is the sole focus, and with good reason.

After just two games, he has a pair of goals and one assist to his name as Croatia somewhat unexpectedly topped Group C ahead of one of the pre-tournament favourites, Spain.

Perisic exploded onto the tournament with an accurate effort into Petr Cech’s far post after a cheeky step-over in Croatia’s 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic and then he was the star of the show against Spain. Nikola Kalinic’s goal came about as a result of a Perisic cross and then the Inter Milan forward put himself on the back pages with an 87th-minute winner.

 

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CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL PREVIEW: Barcelona

A JUVENTUS defense that has only conceded 24 goals this season will not be easy to break down, but a certain three men that have scored 120 between them will feel confident that at least one can find the back of the net on Saturday.

Lionel Messi (43), Luis Suarez (16) and Neymar (22) have scored 81 of Barcelona’s 110 league goals this season. To put that in some sort of context, the entire Juventus squad scored 70 goals this season, Chelsea scored 73 and Bayern Munich scored 80. Juventus (Italy), Chelsea (England) and Bayern (Germany) all won their respective leagues.

Despite the lethal form of “MSN” in front of goal, Barcelona did not finish as the top scorers in La Liga, as Real Madrid netted 118 times, but a reinvented Barca did concede the least amount in Spain (21), and only Bayern let in less in Europe’s top five leagues (18).

Tiki-Taka is not quite Tiki-Toast at Camp Nou, but, under Luis Enrique, Barcelona are certainly more dynamic.

Ivan Rakitic is one of the most notable men who spearheaded this change, with the Croatian play-maker being that bit more aggressive than the tippy-tappy Xavi and Andres Iniesta, with the former being dropped for Rakitic.

Iniesta, arguably the finest midfielder of his generation, has seen his role in the Barcelona fold somewhat decrease in value under the new style, contributing just one goal and five assists in La Liga and the Champions League combined compared to Rakitic’s eight assists and six goals in the two elite competitions. Rakitic also created 42 chances compared to Iniesta’s 32.

Ivan Rakitic: Modern Barcelona personified (Picture via theguardian.com)

Ivan Rakitic: Modern Barcelona personified (Picture via theguardian.com)

In comparison, the strike force has gone the opposite way to the midfield with the hard working Alexis Sanchez (sold to Arsenal for £35 million), and Pedro (benched) being replaced by the aforementioned Suarez and Neymar who are more intent on scoring, scoring…and scoring a bit more, as opposed to winning the ball back and setting up the micro magician Messi.

The Catalan kings are keen to return to the throne of being Europe’s finest once again having not won the Champions League since 2011 where they defeated Manchester United 3-1 at Wembley Stadium.

They have already snatched back their domestic crown after having briefly lost it to Atletico Madrid for a year and Saturday’s final in Berlin will see either Barca or Juve win the treble with Barcelona also winning this season’s Copa del Rey with a 3-1 win over Athletic Club and Juventus overcame Lazio 2-1 in the Coppa Italia.

If Barcelona are to win their first treble since 2009, the rebranded team are going to have to find a way past a very organised Juventus side, but very few have managed to stop Messi, Suarez and Neymar.