Italy

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.

 

PREVIEW: Real Madrid vs Barcelona (Saturday 5pm BST)

Real Madrid welcome old foes Barcelona to Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday evening but will have to play the side who have still not conceded a league goal this season, without Gareth Bale.

The world’s most expensive player will miss the crunch match due to the same muscle injury that saw him sit out Madrid’s 0-3 midweek mauling of Liverpool in the Champions League.

Welsh wizard Bale was also an unused substitute in Real’s last league match at Levante in which the visitors cruised to a 0-5 win.

Carlo Ancelotti has confirmed however that Sergio Ramos will be fit for tomorrow’s derby.

Barcelona meanwhile will be without Thomas Vermaelen, Adriano and Sergio Busquets.

Luis Suarez is expected to feature in his first competitive game for Barca with this weekend marking his long awaited end to a four month ban that started in June for biting Giorgio Chiellini in Uruguay’s World Cup clash against Italy.

His new side did the double over Madrid last season, winning 2-1 at the Nou Camp and overcoming them again at Santiago Bernabeu in a ding dong battle that saw the away side return home with a 3-4 win.

It was a game in which Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick, two of which were penalties while his Ballon d’Or rival Ronaldo scored only once.

La Liga’s Catalan giants have kept clean sheets in all of their eight games this campaign, scoring 22 and only dropping points once so far (a 0-0 draw in Malaga).

Madrid haven’t been shy in front of goal though, notching 25 goals in their eight matches with Cristiano Ronaldo providing 14 of them.

However they already find themselves off the pace in the La Liga title race, having lost two games this season to Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad.

They are four points behind league leaders Barcelona but Saturday gives them the perfect opportunity to close the gap to just one.

Italy 0-1 Costa Rica

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The World Cup surprise package Costa Rica produced their second shock win, defeating Italy 0-1 in a result that sent the underdogs through and knocked England out.

Bryan Ruiz provided the goal one minute before half time when he headed home Junior Diaz’s superb cross from the left hand side off the underside of the bar and in.

It was perhaps justice done as just before Costa Rica should have had a penalty when Joel Campbell was bundled over by Giorgio Chiellini.

In what was a game of few clear cut chances, Andrea Pirlo had Italy’s closest effort when his long-range free-kick was beaten away by Keylor Navas.

Despite the attacking introductions of Antonio Cassano, Alessio Cerci and Lorenzo Insigne, Italy could not find the leveler and Costa Rica held on for a historic win that sees them reach round 2 of the World Cup for the first time since 1990. Ironically held in Italy.

Italy now face a do-or-die clash with Uruguay next Tuesday where the winner will join Costa Rica in the last 16.

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?

England 1-2 Italy: Roy’s boys lose opening match

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Italy recorded a somewhat fortunate win over an England side who dominated much of the play but ultimately came up short.

Cesare Prandelli’s side took the lead ten minutes before half time after some poor England positioning when defending a corner. White shirts crowded the box but Claudio Marchisio received the ball outside the area and plenty of time and acres of space to set himself and fire at goal. Joe Hart had no chance.

England were not behind for long however, Wayne Rooney playing in what seems to be his new position for the Three Lions, whipped in a ball on the left hand side that Daniel Sturridge tucked home from close range two minutes later.

The Azzuri regained the lead five minutes into the second half thanks to Mario Balotelli’s close range header from Antonio Candreva’s cross. Candreva darting past Leighton Baines and floating in a delivery that went over Gary Cahill and into the path of Balotelli who couldn’t really miss.

Raheem Sterling looked to have gave England the lead after just four minutes when his drive from distance rippled the net, the side netting though, disappointing many an England fan who thought they were in front.

Jordan Henderson wasn’t far away either, a swerving shot from him was palmed away well by Italy’s stand in goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu.

Italy hit back with first Daniele De Rossi warming Hart’s gloves with a stinging shot that was fumbled and then Balotelli curled a shot over from far out.

A minute later and England came close again, Danny Welbeck on the right squaring the ball across goal but Andrea Barzagli slid in just before Sturridge and Italy re grouped for a corner.

Phil Jagielka saved England just before the break when Balotelli lobbed an out of position Hart but the Everton defender was there to clear it off the line. Just after that Candreva cut inside and rattled the post but England survived.

England also had a penalty claim when Welbeck was sandwiched between two Italy defenders as he attempted to reach a Sterling ball across goal.

Rooney was more of a shooting threat in the second half as he was moved into his favoured central role, first shooting narrowly wide from the edge of the area and soon after cutting inside a defender and firing wide again, should have really scored.

Ross Barkley was introduced for Welbeck with twenty five minutes left and made an immediate impact, bursting down the left, turning inside an Italian defender and having a shot palmed away by Sirigu.

Inside the last twenty minutes Glen Johnson decided to try his luck after receiving the ball from a short corner but his strike whistled wide.

England had a few last throws of the dice with free kicks from Steven Gerrard and Baines but there was no David Beckham esque moment vs Greece. Andrea Pirlo almost scored one for Italy though, smacking the bar from distance and Italy held on for the win.

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.

Always look on the bright side of life – Why Swindon fans should not be moaning

After Swindon’s latest loss, this time a 1-4 home trouncing by Wolves, Town fans are not in high spirits. Being eight points behind sixth place Peterborough with Posh having a game in hand doesn’t look encouraging as Swindon’s play off ambitions are fading fast. Here are five reasons why Swindon supporters should still be smiling though.

1) Few thought we’d get a play off spot in pre season anyway

Following then Chairman Jed McCrory’s decision to slash the wage budget from £5 million to £2.5 million, 12 players decided to leave the club. The two departures that left fans most upset were fan favourite Simon Ferry and club captain Alan McCormack who left on frees and then signed on at Portsmouth and Brentford respectively. The mood following these departures was at an all time low, if memory serves correctly, a lot of the doom mongers were thinking relegation was looming. Manager Kevin MacDonald was not the man who captured the imagination of many of the Town faithful either. He resigned pre season but at a terrible time and spirits at the County Ground didn’t look like they’d raise any time soon. A new Manager was forthcoming though.

2) We have an inexperienced Manager, who is doing admirably

Mark “cheap option” Cooper was MacDonald’s assistant when the Scot arrived on February 28th and was appointed full time boss August 20th after one win and two defeats as caretaker in the first three games of the season. Cooper was seen as the cheap option as he was hired from within when people such as Neil Warnock and Paul Tisdale were linked to the job as well as club legends Glen Hoddle and Martin Ling. Even Tim Sherwood’s name, Tottenham reserve Manager at the time, was mentioned due to Swindon’s new link with Spurs, an appointment that would have made sense with a fair few Tottenham reserve team players now plying their trade at Swindon. Sherwood now has the top job at White Hart Lane of course.  

Mark Cooper is not known across the footballing world, having previously managed at Tamworth, Kettering, Darlington and Telford, along with an ill fated spell at Peterborough. Despite this though he is doing a good job, leading Swindon to the brink of a Wembley final, only being denied by former club Peterborough on penalties and challenging for the playoffs with an inexperienced squad, which leads onto my next point.

3) Swindon have a young team

Out of Town’s 16 new faces (14 in the Summer, then Dany N’Guessan in September and Ben Gladwin in November followed by Michael Smith and George Barker in January), only 3 are above the age of 23 (N’Guessan, Ryan Harley and Mohamed El Gabas). El Gabas has since left the club, which means that Swindon Town have a squad average age of 22.8, (23 if you want to round it up), the lowest in the division.*

*All players calculated had played at least 5 times this season at the time of writing.

"Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life"

“Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life”

4) Injuries

Swindon have been dogged by injuries for what seems like all season.  The most notable of these would include number one Goalkeeper Wes Foderingham who has been ruled out with a groin injury since the trip to then league leaders Leyton Orient, which Town lost 2-0 with Tyrell Belford in goal. The Robins were 4 points off a play off spot before that game but as Peterborough won and Swindon lost, the gap was increased to 7 points. Swindon have not won since Foderingham has picked up his injury.

Another key man sat on the treatment table is joint top scorer Nile Ranger. The 22-year-old former Newcastle man is out for the rest of the season after tearing his hamstring in the Valentines Day draw at home to Colchester. Ranger has scored 10 goals this season and shares that tally with Nicky Ajose who was lively in a Red shirt but his loan has now expired and has returned to parent club Peterborough, he has four in six for them.

The club’s player of the season last year Nathan Thompson also looks to be out for the remainder of the season now with an ankle injury, Grant Hall has been nursing a calf injury since mid January, Alex Pritchard has just returned from a medical ligament strain while Ryan Mason, a highly rated youngster, has missed more games than he’s played.

5) Swindon are producing fine talents

One of the club’s many Tottenham youth players at SN1, Alex Pritchard, has blossomed since joining the club on a season long loan following England’s abject display at the Under 20 World Cup which he featured in. The 20 year old winger has been nominated for both young player of the year, and player of the year awards for League 1 which, should he win the player of the year award, would be the second Swindon player in a row to do so after Matt Ritchie won it last season. Ritchie also scooped up the League 2 player of the season award when Town surged to the title win in the 2011/12 season.

AP QRP

Along with this, Massimo Luongo, another addition from Tottenham, a permanent one this time, has recently received his first International call up for Australia as he now tries to book himself a place on the plane for the World Cup no less. Should Luongo make The Socceroos’ 23 man squad he’d be the third player in Swindon’s history to go to a World Cup while being at the club. Alan McLoughlin (Italy 1990 for Ireland) and Jan Aage Fjortoft (USA 1994 for Norway) are the other two. Yaser Kasim has also just been called up to his country’s last squad, and made his debut in a 3-0 win over China as Iraq sealed their place at the 2015 Asia Cup, which will be held in Australia next January.

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