Croatia

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.

 

Cameroon 1-4 Brazil: Brilliant Brazil bound for second round

Neymar

Hosts Brazil cemented their spot as group winners with a comfortable 1-4 win over pointless Cameroon. A brace from Neymar along with one each from Fred and Fernandinho set up a round 2 meeting with Chile.

Neymar gave Brazil the lead in Brasilia when he side footed Luiz Gustavo’s cross first time past Charles Intandje who had no chance

The face of the tournament doubled his tally with 35 minutes played when he dribbled past some Cameroon defenders and finished past Intandje with style again, sending him the wrong way with an accurate finish.

Fred sealed the win with a close range header from David Luiz’s cross five minutes into the second half to kill off Cameroon’s hopes of a shock.

Cameroon had infact leveled the scores nine minutes after going behind with Joel Matip tapping home his first goal for the Indomitable Lions, turning home Allan Nyom’s squared pass.

Neymar had chances to get a third for Brazil, no closer when his volley was palmed out and away by former Liverpool Goalkeeper Intandje with 20 minutes played.

He never did get his illusive hat-trick though and was replaced by Willian in the closing stages as a precaution for the latter stages of the competition.

A neat passing move provided the fourth and final goal for Brazil.  After they capitalized on a poor free-kick from Cameroon, Oscar fed Fernandinho who gave it to Fred, to Oscar, and then back to Fernandinho around the edge of the box and the Manchester City play-maker tucked it in first time for 1-4.

Elsewhere in Group A, Mexico defeated Croatia 1-3 with goals from Rafael Marquez, Andres Guardado and Javier Hernandez which sets up a last 16 tie with Group B winners The Netherlands.

Change needed for England? Again?

Following what looks to be England’s latest failing at a major tournament, there are yet again calls for major overhaul.

After the 2010 World Cup in South Africa where England crashed out in the last 16 with a 4-1 hammering by rivals Germany, the Three Lions were encouraged to base their style on the tiki-taka of Spain who went on to win the coveted trophy.

St George’s Park was built with this philosophy grained into it and the effects have been predicted to come to fruition for the Qatar World Cup in 2022.

The problem now however is that tiki-taka looks tiki-toast after Spain themselves were dumped out the group stages this summer by The Netherlands and Chile.

To Roy Hodgson’s credit, England did play the positive attacking football in their opener against Italy and were arguably the better side but Uruguay was a different story as static, nervous England seemed to be back as the pressure looked to have got to them.

England need to create their own identity, possibly starting with a new Captain.

Steven Gerrard has come into particular light as the 34-year-old has probably waved goodbye to the World Cup due to his age and it did not end on a high, his header setting up Liverpool teammate Luis Suarez’s winner to all but send England home.

Liverpool’s iconic hero has been a loyal servant to his country with some fantastic highs including scoring the equalizer in England’s famous 1-5 win over Germany in 2001, scoring a brilliant goal against Trinidad and Tobago at World Cup 2006 and of course his crucial World Cup qualifying goals against the likes of Croatia for 2010 and Poland for 2014.

Along with this though, he has had his lows including a dodgy back-pass at Euro 2004 against France which led to Thierry Henry being fouled for Zinedine Zidane’s winning penalty as well as the Uruguay gaffe.

If Gerrard is replaced, either by choice through International retirement, or by force as Hodgson continues to build for the future, who could replace him?

Joe Hart: The England goalkeeper would be a popular choice among fans as he is one of few England players who has a safe spot in Hodgson’s starting eleven.

Two time Premiership winner with Manchester City, Hart, has established himself as England’s number one after Robert Green’s high profile error against the United States at the last World Cup and then number two David James has since retired.

Hart is a known leader on the pitch, often seen barking instructions from his penalty box and is refreshingly honest in interviews, something that adheres to England supporters as he is one of very few players who embodies himself among fans as “one of them”.

It is a myth that England players do not care about their national side as much as the fans but Hart is a rare example of someone who truly proves this. Perfect Captain material.

Wearing his Hart on his shoulder: England's number one.

Wearing his Hart on his sleeve: England’s number one.

Gary Cahill: John Terry’s partner in the heart of Chelsea’s defense is starting to emerge from the former England Captain’s shadow.

Since joining Stamford Bridge from Bolton in 2012, Cahill has blossomed working with Terry and has picked up plenty more England caps to boot as he ‘s built up a solid partnership with Everton’s Phil Jagielka.

Along with this, Cahill has similar personality traits to his colleague such as on-pitch leadership and an equally similar playing style. The 28-year-old is often seen putting his body on the line for his team much like Terry (“Superman” dive vs Slovenia esque) in true English lion-heart style, something the Three Lions have missed since Terry’s acrimonious departure from the national fold.

Another positive of Cahill’s, he also does not come with the baggage of John Terry with his personal life stories of affairs and racist allegations.

New kid on the block: Cahill dives in-front of a shot.

New kid on the block: Cahill dives in-front of a shot.

Wayne Rooney: Expected to be the bookies and media favourite to replace Gerrard. The England poster boy is undoubtedly the star man.

94 caps and 40 goals would be an impressive return by anyone’s standard but the main criticism of “Wazza” is that he does not turn up on the big stage.

The Manchester United forward, 28, has only scored six goals in major tournaments (four at Euro 2004 where he was just 18, one at Euro 2012 which was a header from two yards against Ukraine, and his leveler against Uruguay) – his first World Cup goal at the third attempt.

Criticism of his attitude would also be a harm to him, frequent contract issues with his club where he seems to be constantly demanding more money does not portray him in a good light.

Many also believe that we have never seen what Rooney is truly capable of, citing that if he had more drive and determination he could have been one of the best players in the world, possibly even ever.

Rooney’s rant into a camera following a 0-0 draw with Algeria at the last World Cup will also live long in the memory of many an England supporter. “Nice to see your home fans boo you, that’s what loyal support is”, is not a sentence that endears you to fans well.

Despite all this though, Rooney is still seen as the man to lead England. Why? Because he is England’s best player and, after all, isn’t that what the Captain should be?

Wayne's World: England's next captain?

Wayne’s World: England’s next captain?

Cameroon 0-4 Croatia: Indomitable Lions exit without a roar

Cameroon exited the World Cup at the group stage for the fifth time in a row following a 0-4 defeat to group A rivals Croatia with goals from Ivica Olic and Ivan Perisic along with a brace from Mario Mandzukic.

A bizarre red card from Alex Song summed up a miserable night for the Africans.

The Barcelona midfielder lashed out in an off the ball challenge with Mario Mandzukic, elbowing the Croatian in the back needlessly just before half time.

The Indomitable Lions were surprisingly domitable as Croatia run Cameroon ragged in the humidity of Manaus.

Croatia were already in front before the sending off thanks to Ivica Olic scoring a tap in following Ivan Perisic’s squared pass on 11 minutes.

Perisic scored himself three minutes into the second half to confirm Cameroon’s casualty when he broke free of the defense before slotting home past former Liverpool Goalkeeper Charles Intandje after a fine solo run.

Want-away Bayern Munich striker Mandzukic made it 0-3 just after the hour when he headed in Danijel Pranjic’s corner.

Super Mario: Mandzukic confirms Cameroon's exit.

Super Mario: Mandzukic confirms Cameroon’s exit.

He added his second with 72 minutes on the clock when Intandje parried Eduardo’s shot straight to Mandzukic who beat the offside trap and had the simple task to tap home the fourth.

If he was more clinical earlier on, Mandzukic could have walked home with the match-ball but somehow fired wide when he looked odds on to score.

Croatia now head into next Monday’s clash with Mexico with confidence where the winner will qualify for the second round with hosts Brazil joining them if they can overcome a despondent Cameroon.

Brazil 0-0 Mexico: Hosts held by mighty Mexico

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Mexico defied the odds to hold hosts Brazil to a 0-0 draw in Fortaleza, an outstanding performance by the Mexican goalkeeper will live long in the memory.

They even looked most likely to score for the majority. Hector Herrera came closest in the first half when his pile driver was tipped over the bar brilliantly by Julio Cesar, the referee failed to award a corner though.

There was an even better save a minute later however when Guillermo Ochoa produced the save of the tournament so far, clawing away a Neymar header when it looked certain to ripple the net. Some Brazilians likening it to Gordan Banks’ iconic save against Pele’s in 1970 on Twitter.

Ochoa was also equal to a David Luiz effort from close range just before half time.

The out of contract Ajaccio stopper superbly kept out a Tiago Silva header five minutes before the end with a reaction save after Neymar’s flighted free-kick, Ochoa could well have attracted the attention of a number of clubs following tonight’s display.

Miguel Herrera’s plucky outfit really took the game to Brazil in the second period, Jose Juan Vazquez and Oribe Peralta both fired over ten minutes after the break.

Andres Guardado curled an effort over from a tight angle in added time before Marco Fabian volleyed low after setting himself up but Cesar got down to punch it clear.

Brazil’s nearest miss came when Neymar curled a free-kick wide on 63 minutes.

Neymar had dyed his hair peroxide blonde before the match and may be thinking of changing it back following a below par performance.

Controversy reared its ugly head for Brazil again like it did in their opener against Croatia. First Silva was perhaps fortunate to avoid a red after taking out a Mexican forward and then Marcelo went down in the box with an embarrassing dive. Unlike Fred in Sao Paulo though, a penalty was not awarded.

 

 

World Cup Preview: Italy

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World Cup 2006 was bliss for Italy, 2010 was a disaster, Euro 2012 was better, what does 2014 have in store?

The Azzuri made changes across the board to their aging 2010 team, including bringing in a new manager in Cesare Prandelli who revitalised the squad bringing in young talent such as Mario Balotelli who shone in Poland and Ukraine, most notably in the 2-1 Semi Final win over Germany where he scored twice.

Italy reached the final of Euro 2012 and despite the 4-0 drubbing by Spain, the tournament was a huge success bearing in mind they entered the tournament on the back of fresh corruption allegations in their domestically.

Prandelli’s outfit were not convincing performers in Poland and Ukraine, drawing to Croatia in the group and only beating England on penalties but they only lost the one game – unfortunately the most crucial – but have regained their reputation of being tough to beat, something that took a hit in 2010.