WC 2018: Morocco 0 v 1 Portugal – Group B

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The atmosphere inside the Luzhniki Stadium was electric for this tasty match up in the second round of games in Group B. Desperately unlucky to fall to a late defeat (thanks to an own goal) against Iran in their first game, Morocco made a couple of changes to force the issue against the European Champions, Portugal. Khalid Boutaïb and Nordin Amrabat were preferred in the forward line, and they looked lively straight from the off – Amrabat delivering a teasing cross from the right that was collected by Ziyech, his ball back into the box met by Boutaib, whose good effort just crept over the bar from 10 yards. Then, bang! The Atlas Lions fall asleep for a Portugal corner and Joao Moutinho expertly curls the ball right into the mixer. Cristiano Ronaldo is free, about six yards out, to bury the diving header and give A Seleção das Quinas an early lead. Opportunistic, smart play from the Portuguese to get their noses in front. Morocco were not to let their heads go down, however, and continued to press high up the pitch with purpose and quality. A great deal of endeavour failed to amount too much in terms of true chances for the Moroccans, and Portugal should have doubled their advantage after a lovely dink over the back four from Ronaldo sent Goncalo Guedes away in the Moroccan penalty area. His volley was well saved by Munir Mohamedi and immediately the Atlas Lions charged back up the field and a won a corner of their own. A delightful ball in was glanced goalwards by Younes Belhanda, whose effort whizzed narrowly wide of the far post. For all their hard-work and impressive build up play the Moroccans found themselves trailing at half time to Ronaldo’s early header.

After the break it was more of the same – the Portuguese not taking too many chances but aiming to hit their attacking talisman, Ronaldo whenever opportunity arose. The Moroccans came out fighting: the excellent young Ajax star Ziyach sending over a pinpoint in-swinging free kick, to which Belhanda rises and forces a tremendous save out of Rui Patricio. Portugal retreated deeper and deeper, frantically attempting to defend the intense pressure from the Atlas Lions. It was fantastic to watch the individual battles all over the pitch. A dangerous free kick from Ziyach once more was met by Juventus defender Benatia just six yards out, the ball ricocheting off his shoulder rather than his head and bouncing agonisingly wide. Hands down the man of the match, Ziyach picked up the ball on the right, skilfully cutting inside and darting past two Portugal defenders before unleashing a terrific drive that Pepe throws himself in front of, the ball deflecting over Rui Patricio’s bar. Desperate stuff from the Portuguese. Somehow they survive until the final whistle and Morocco hearts are broken. It is hard to justify the results based upon their two terrific performances, however they are heading home from Group B. Portugal were more than fortunate and after a thrilling game against Spain, they will need to improve significantly to progress any further than the Second Round based on this showing. It’s Cristiano Ronaldo who holds their fortunes in the palm of his hand.

Man of the Match: Hakim Ziyech (MOR)

Best: Hakim Ziyech, Younès Belhanda, Nordin Amrabat (MOR), Rui Patrício, Pepe, William Carvalho (POR)

Russia 2018: Group H Preview

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Ok, let me get this out from the off – I love SENEGAL in this group. Aliou Cisse has built a side packed with attacking flair since taking charge in 2015. Led by Liverpool sensation Sadio Mané, Les Lions de la Téranga (The Lions of Teranga) boast a wealth of young attacking talent. Look out for Monaco’s Keita Baldé, Torino’s M’Baye Niang and Rennes wonderkid Ismaïla Sarr, who will all endeavour to run at defences and score. Captain Cheikhou Kouyaté, who has been in good form for West Ham United this season, will anchor the midfield and quite surprisingly the Senegalese are decent at the back. Kalidou Koulibaly and Kara Mbodji are rock solid in the centre of defence, with young Bordeaux full back Youssouf Sabaly a threat down the left. Unbeaten in 10 qualification games, conceding only 3 goal and with Mané set to light up the tournament, I think they top Group H, in what will be a surprise to many. COLOMBIA will have other ideas no doubt. The South American powerhouse stuttered through qualifying and ended up very fortunate to progress after 3 draws and 1 defeat in their last 4 games. Chile’s failure to beat Brazil in their last game was met with a collective sigh of relief in the country. Harshly treated by the referee in their quarter-final defeat to hosts Brazil in 2014, Colombia then disappointed in the Copa América, bowing out to Argentina on penalties after scraping through their group despite failing to beat Peru and Venezuela. José Pékerman is adored by the fans after the performance in Brazil and has been given more time to realise the potential of this talented squad. Once again Radamel Falcao will lead the line for Los Cafeteros (The Coffee Growers), however it is the dynamism of the three players in support that many will be looking forward to watching: James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado and José Izquierdo have all impressed in European football and look to take on the world stage once again. A young back four is marshalled by Spur defender Davinson Sánchez whose first seaon in the Premier League was outstanding. Can they repeat the ventures of four years ago? I think they will grow through the group games and could be the team nobody wants to play in the knockout rounds. I’d stopped being excited about POLAND before the last European Championships, and of course they finally started to put right years of wasted potential. Growing up I loved the Polish team of the 80s, I sat in my bedroom watching VHS tapes of Grzegorz Lato and Zibì Boniek destroy defences at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Piotr Zieliński and Karol Linetty are close as Biało-czerwoni (The White and Reds) have ever coming to emulating those legends. Both earning rave reviews in Serie A with Napoli and Sampdoria respectively, they could be the key to provide service to main man Robert Lewandowski. Now nearing 30, you feel this tournament will be his last chance to achieve success with his country. Already his country’s all-time leading scorer, can the Bayern hitman inspire his nation in Russia? JAPAN dismissed coach Vahid Halilhodžić in April after a 1-1 draw (thanks to a goal with the last kick of the game) and 2-1 defeat to Ukraine in warm up games. Many believed the course of action to be harsh and further eyebrows were raised when they hired as a replacement, Akira Nishino. Out of coaching since 2015, he has no international experience but did win the J-League with Gamba Osaka way back in 2005. Who knows what to expect, however the change by the Japan Football Association was intended to reaffirm a commitment to attacking football. Step up Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki. Led by every manager’s ideal professional, Makoto Hasebe, you feel that the Samurai Blue need to upset Colombia in their opening game to have a chance of progressing to the knockout phases.

Players to watch: Sadio Mané, Keita Baldé, Ismaïla Sarr (SEN), Davinson Sánchez, Mateus Uribe, Juan Fernando Quintero (COL), Robert Lewandowski, Piotr Zieliński,  Karol Linetty (POL), Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda (JPN)

Fun fact: In a strange interview post-sacking, ex-Japan coach Halilhodžić said “Why was I sacked? In Japan, everything is focused on money, and that’s how they perceive football too,” he said. “That is, according to me, the main reason. I will go to Japan in a week to get that cleared up” Money is the root to all the world’s problems, we already knew that right?!

WC 2018: Belgium 3 v 0 Panama – Group G

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The gulf in class between the two European teams in Group G (England and Belgium) and the other two teams (Tunisia and Panama) makes the opening games in the group very important. Would Panama be able to make up in organisation, grit and work-rate that they lack in quality coming up against this Belgian side riddled with proven talent? The opening 20 minutes played out as expected with De Rode Duivels dominating possession and forcing Los Canaleros into some last-ditch defending. Exposing the space down both flanks, the Belgians looked threatening: after a clever dummy from Eden Hazard, the ball landed at the feet of Yannick Carrasco who saw his shot saved by Jaime Penedo; not long later Dries Mertens tried to pick out Romelu Lukaku lurking unmarked at the back post but he was foiled by a brilliant interception from Roman Torres, who poked the ball wide of the upright for a corner. The Belgians failed to make the most of a number of corners as the resolute Panamanian defence held strong. A lack of urgency and desire saw the game peter out to half-time without any clear-cut opportunities for Roberto Martínez’s side to take the lead.

Hernán Darío Gómez would have probably liked to have skipped half-time as it turned out to be his side’s worst nightmare. Within two minutes of the restart, a lapse in concentration at the back allowed time and space for FC Napoli striker Dries Mertens to pounce on a loose ball in the penalty area and loop the ball expertly over the diving Penedo. It turned out to be a significant turning point in the game, signalling the floodgates to open. A sublime outside-of-the-boot Kevin De Bruyne cross from the left was met powerfully by Lukaku with a diving header from six yards out – the ball flying past a helpless Penedo once again just ten minutes after the forst goal. Disappointment and naivety crept into the Panamanian side who needlessly started to force and turnover the ball, drastically exposing their backline on the counter. Eden Hazard wasted no time in driving into the Panama half and pick out the run of Lukaku, who doubled his tally with a lovely dink over Penedo to make it 3-0. The brave Los Canaleros did have their moments – the imperious Michael Murillo darting past Carrasco to collect a long ball in behind the Belgian defence, forcing Courtois to rush off his line and make an important save with his legs. They never stopped having a crack, joint all-time leading scorer Luis Tejada just failing to get on the end of a delightful swinging cross from Armand Cooper from the left.  But in the end, the Belgians didn’t need to get out of second gear and this was a comfortable victory for De Rode Duivels. More difficult challenges lay ahead for them, and critics will no doubt highlight that there are a few questions that remain uneasily unanswered. Panama will be pleased with their application for much of this game. Embracing one another at the end in a circle of prayer, they will learn from this and come out stronger against England in their second game in the group.

Man of the Match: Romelu Lukaku (BEL)

Best: Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard, Thomas Meunier (BEL), Román Torres, Michael Murillo, Armando Cooper (PAN)

Russia 2018: Group G Preview

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A shock 3-1 defeat to Wales (or Gareth Bale), at the European Championships in France two years ago, spoilt BELGIUM’s breakout party as the much-lauded De Rode Duivels (The Red Devils) failed to live up to pre-tournament hype to make any impact on the world stage. Flash forward to Russia and it’s the same conversations. Electrifying in qualifying (9 wins, 1 draw, 43 goals scored and only 6 conceded in 10 games is some record), boasting a gluttony of mainly Premier League superstars, and holding the hopes of many sweepstakes punters from around the globe, the only question is whether the coach is up to the task. Roberto Martínez was utterly unconvincing at Everton after showing promise as a young coach at Swansea and Wigan. His appointment by the Royal Belgian Football Association raised the eye of many critics due to his complete lack of experience both as a player and manager at international level. He has overseen 14 wins in just 20 games, however mainly against inferior opposition. Disappointing draws against Portugal, Mexico and Russia left a lot to be desired compared to inconsequential drubbings of Costa Rica (4-1), Egypt (3-0) and Saudi Arabia (4-0). Eden Hazard is the focal point of the attack and will look to run the show from a traditional No.10 position. Romelu Lukaku has thrived at international level over the past 18 months and in Dries Mertens they have someone who can create something out of nothing. They should easily progress from the group but the game against ENGLAND should tell us a little more about their potential in this tournament. The Three Lions were equally impressive in qualifying and have only lost twice in 2 year (against Germany and the French). Head Coach Gareth Southgate, infamous for missing the decisive penalty against Germany at Wembley in Euro 96, has come through the England youth teams to provide both stability and an unusual sense of optimism. Embracing the modern 3-4-3 formation, the attack is spearheaded by one of the world’s most inform strikers, Harry Kane. The Tottenham Hotspur striker has 145 goals in the past 4 seasons for club and country and needs to emulate the performance of Gary Lineker at Italia 90 if England are to have any realistic chance of lifting the trophy in Russia. An able cast of young, hungry attacking players will attempt to provide service to the captain: Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford are all under 23 are Southgate looks to build for the future. With a seemingly positive fan base behind them, and a clean slate from the horrific English media, England could surprise the Belgians and top the group. There were 4 million people (the entire population) in PANAMA celebrating when star man and defender Roman Torres, who had been pushed forward in search of a winning goal, outmatched the Costa Rican defence to fire his country to the World Cup for the first time in their history at the expense of the new footballing aristocracy that is the USA. The Los Canaleros (The Canal Men) boast a heavy contingent who play their club football in the MLS alongside captain Roman Torres, who turns out for the popular Seattle Sounders franchise. Michael Murillo of the New York Red Bulls is an exciting prospect who can fly down the right hand side from fullback, whilst former LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo is one of few Panamanians to have carved out a successful career in Europe with Dinamo București. Targets for the tournament are first a goal then a point, any more than that and Hernán Darío Gómez’s side would be in dreamland. Indeed those targets could be well out of reach given the fact that they have only managed one goal in their last five warm up games. Coach Nabil Maâloul returns for his fourth spell with TUNISIA (who make it to the World Cup for the first time since 2006) after a disastrous spell with the Kuwait national team. Maâloul has lost only one of his ten games in charge – impressive wins over Iran and Costa Rica in warm up matches were followed up by a 2-2 draw with Portugal last month in Braga. This is a talented group of players: attacking midfielder Naïm Sliti impressed in Ligue 1 with Dijon FCO this season; Wahbi Khazri has Premier League experience with Sunderland, and striker Ahmed Akaïchi netted 18 goals for Al-Ittihad Club this season. It’s a tall order to ask The Eagles of Carthage to progress from the group, especially after a knee injury to star striker Youssef Msakni ruled him out of the tournament.

Players to watch: Dries Mertens, Thomas Meunier, Kevin De Bruyne (BEL), Dele Alli, Jordan Pickford, Marcus Rashford (ENG), Roman Torres, Michael Murillo (PAN), Naïm Sliti, Wahbi Khazri (TUN)

Fun fact: Panama forwards Luis Tejada (age 36) and Blas Pérez (age 37) are the country’s all-time joint top goal-scorers with 43. The two journeymen boast 38 clubs between them in their playing careers, including every single South and Central American nation with a professional league. Neither has scored for their country since September 2016.

WC 2018: Germany 0 v 1 Mexico – Group F

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An end-to-end first period set the tone for this entertaining encounter at the Luzhniki Stadium on the banks of the Moskva River in the Russian capital, Moscow. Only a brilliant block from Jérôme Boateng prevented Hirving Lozano giving the Mexicans the lead inside 3 minutes. At the other end, Timo Werner used his blistering pace to outmanoeuvre Héctor Moreno but fired just wide as the match played out at a lightening pace. Mexico looked the more threatening and Manuel Neuer was much the busier of the two keepers, keeping out Héctor Herrera’s long drive before Moreno headed straight at the Bayern stopper from 6 yards out. PSV’s Hirving Lozano continued to cause Joshua Kimmich all kinds of problems down the left-hand side – first cutting inside and laying the ball off for Miguel Layún who blazed his shot over before beating Kimmich on the outside and crossing the ball just out of the reach of Javier Hernández. Mexico piled on the pressure and another incisive counter-attack ended with Chicharito playing in Lozano, who skipped past Mesut Özil (whose defensive effort was atrocious) and clinically fired his low shot past Neuer to put El Tri ahead. It was no more than the Mexicans deserved. An excellent response from the Germans saw some desperate defending in the Mexico box. Moments later Toni Kroos curled a brilliant free-kick around the wall only for Guillermo Ochoa to force the ball onto the bar and away. Frenetic stuff! Mexico could have doubled their lead just before half time as again the Germans were exposed on the counter – Andrés Guardado’s driving run and pass fell at the feet of Carlos Vela who dragged his shot despairingly wide of Neuer’s near post. 17 shots on goal in the first 45 minutes. Showpiece football at its most exciting.

Germany looked more like the side we know they can be after the half time break, moving the ball much quicker, penetrating in-between the lines, and exploting the space out wide. Draxler’s deflected effort wrongfooted Ochoa, who was relieved to see the ball spin dangerous past the outside of the right post. Mexico blew a golden chance to double their lead when Chicharito overhit a square pass to Vela, who would have been one-on-one with Neuer. Marco Reus replaced Sami Khedira to add more attacking prowess, Osorio responding immediately, replacing Vela with the more defensive minded Edson Álvarez. Kimmich’s looping header landed on the roof of the net, much to relief of the buoyant yet nervous Mexican fans. Moments later Werner poked the ball high over the bar from close range as the pressure mounted on Ochoa’s goal. Mexico continued to counter with good measure, however, and the absence of a VAR review of a clumsy challenge by Hummels on Chicharito as he broke into the box was baffling. More heroic Mexican defending, this time from the young substitute Álvarez, thwarted Draxler when he looked certain to equalise.

Entering the final quarter of the game and suddenly it was end-to-end again. Miguel Layún shot over the bar after finding himself one-on-one with Marvin Plattenhardt. The Sevilla midfielder then wasted a glorious opportunity to slip in Jiménez with Mexico holding a 3-on-2 advantage on yet another breakaway. Fantastic play from Jesús Gallardo, who was brilliant down the left hand side all day, released Layún on the right once more but he fired wide across the face of Neuer’s goal. A double substitution from Germany saw both players make an immediate impact: Mario Gómez should have done better with a headed chance from a precise Thomas Müller cross before Julian Brandt connected sweetly with a volley from 25 yards that Ochoa could only watch clip the upright. Loud whistles from the Mexican fans in the stadium as they sensed the most remarkable of victories. Neuer fails to get on the end of a last gasp German corner as Ochoa leaps highest and falls farthest as the referee blows for full-time.

A wonderful display from Mexico and a famous result – they have laid a benchmark for themselves for this tournament. Also worth mentioning a nice moment for Rafael Márquez – El Káiser equals the record of five consecutive World Cup appearances and becomes the first player to captain his side in each of them. A tremendous feat.

Man of the Match: Héctor Herrera (MEX)

Best: Héctor Herrera, Hirving Lozano, Jesús Gallardo, Miguel Layún, Carlos Vela, Guillermo Ochoa (MEX), Joshua Kimmich, Jérôme Boateng, Toni Kroos (GER)

Russia 2018: Group F Preview

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Ooh, now here is a group to be excited about. The reigning champions, GERMANY, have been completely dominant under Joachim Löw; their dismantling of Brazil and then defeat of Argentina to lift the trophy at the Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro four years ago was a delight to watch. A disappointing semi-final defeat to hosts France in the Euros, the retirement of Philipp Lahm, concerns over the fitness of iconic goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, and questions over the recent performances of the back four, however, mean there is more attention on this German team than usual. Defeat to Austria and a pedestrian display over an awful Saudi Arabia side in warm ups to the finals did little to win over the would-be doubters. There are the usual faces oozing class – Thomas Müller, Marco Reus, Mesut Özil, Mats Hummels, and the industrious Toni Kroos – alongside a flurry of young guns such as Niklas Süle, Julian Brandt and RB Leipzig’s prolific striker Timo Werner. Werner could start alongside Müller in Löw’s traditional 4-2-3-1 formation. The Germans should be there or thereabouts at the business end of the competition. Personally, I have a sneaky feeling they could find themselves in trouble early and need to dig deep to pull them through. A tricky first game against MEXICO could prove to be a stumbling block. El Tricolor made Juan Carlos Osorio their 12th coach in the last 9 years after the last World Cup in Brazil. Osorio’s side breezed through the CONCACAF qualifying phases, only losing one game (3-2 to Honduras) as Osorio experimented with the side after already securing qualification. The Mexicans are an ageing squad with plenty of tournament experience – legendary captain Andrés Guardado has 145 caps and is still only 31; El Káiser, Rafa Márquez will see his 5th consecutive World Cup; and well-traveled duo Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Vela are now pushing 30. There is a feeling that if this Mexican generation is going to achieve it has to be in Russia. PSV’s Hirving Lozano, nicknamed “Chucky”, is pushing to be included, as is Porto’s Jesús Manuel Corona, who has earned rave reviews in the Portuguese Primeira Liga this season. A win against Die Mannschaft in their opening game is almost essential for this side to believe they can be a force in the finals. SWEDEN have a squad about as well known as coach Janne Andersson is outside of his home country. Andersson guided IFK Norrköping to their first Allsvenskan title in 26 years in 2015, surprising the entire country. It was enough for the Svenska Fotbollförbundet to hand him the national team role and he hasn’t looked back since. Moving on from Zlatan Ibrahimović, the squad has been rebuilt with the principles of structural discipline and good old hard work. You won’t find a back four with a better understanding than Lustig, Lindelöf, Granqvist and Olsson. They are ably protected by Albin Ekdal and Emil Forsberg in midfield, which has allowed ex-Arsenal midfielder Sebastian Larsson to take up a more attacking role. Marcus Berg has fired 25 goals in 21 games for U.A.E club side Al Ain FC this season. He is a terrific finisher who only needs a sniff of goal to get a shot in. Blågult (The Blue-Yellow) could well surprise the big hitters in the group. Shin Tae-yong’s SOUTH KOREA have a mountain to climb to get out of the group. After a dismal display in Brazil, a patchy qualification campaign nearly ended in disaster as they survived a late onslaught from Uzbekistan in Tashkent to just creep through in second place in the group ahead of Syria. The aegeuk Jeonsa, (Taegeuk Warriors) named 11 defenders in their 23 man squad which tells you a lot about their intentions in Russia. Spurs superstar Son Heung-min will be asked to feed off scraps and produce moments of magic to try steal points. Boasting one of the tournaments more intriguing tactical set-ups, former Seongnam FC legend Shin Tae-yong has lined up with a back 7 (3 deep centre backs behind a protective defensive 4 including  Ki Sung-yueng) in recent games. It might not be pretty to watch, but needs must for the South Koreans.

Players to watch: Toni Kroos, Julian Draxler, Joshua Kimmich, (MEX), Hirving Lozano, Jesús Manuel Corona and Érick Gutiérrez (MEX), Victor Lindelöf, Oscar Hiljemark (SWE), Lee Seung-woo, Son Heung-min (KOR)

Fun fact: Mexico’s three goalkeepers (José de Jesús Corona, Alfredo Talavera, and Guillermo Ochoa) have a combined age of 104 (the oldest in the tournament) and a combined cap count of 173 (the most in the tournament).

Russia 2018: Group E Preview

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With the heralded coaching techniques of Tite at their disposal, BRAZIL will be looking to shake off the infamous 7-1 drubbing by Germany in Belo Horizonte four years ago to go one better and reach the final in Russia. An impressive performance in qualifying (including 17 games unbeaten and 12 wins), a favourable group draw, and with their top players coming off in-form seasons at club level, Seleção (The Squad) fans will be upbeat going into the tournament. PSG starlet Neymar has avoided the limelight this season after the move to Paris, which saw him net 19 goals in 20 appearances before fracturing his fifth metatarsal in his right foot and undergoing surgery in February. Two goals in two warm-up games prior to Russia have allayed any injury fears and he will spearhead an attack that will also feature Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho and Manchester City’s impressive youngster Gabriel Jesus. Bucking from historical trend, a real strength to this Brazilian team is it’s back four, which has recently recorded clean sheets against Russia, Germany and Croatia in the lead up to the finals. Inter Milan’s João Miranda and PSG’s Thiago Silva provide both experience and leadership, and are true defenders who are also smart on the ball. Captain Marcelo has been magnificent for Real Madrid this season, and will always provide an attacking threat from left back. The Brazilians are legitimate contenders in Russia. Óscar Ramírez’s COSTA RICA are the next best in this group in my opinion. They lost just twice in qualifying, conceding only 11 goals in 16 games, and only Mexico held a better record. Quarter-finalists in Brazil, that should be the aim again for this underrated but gritty group of players. Bryan Ruiz is tremendous one minute then invisible the next – he needs to be at his best if they are to succeed in the finals. Joel Campbell, Marco Ureña and Christian Bolaños will be busy around the enigmatic Ruiz, who pulls the strings from a deeper position in midfield. Keylor Navas was sensational in Brazil and comes of the back of three successive Champions Leagues with Real Madrid. Nobody says it, but he is the best goalkeeper in the world right now. Defence wins games, Costa Rica are built on that foundation. On paper, SERBIA have all the makings to be the next great European powerhouse. Yet so far they have failed to concoct the correct mixture of individual talent and effective structure. Only a last minute winner from Austria’s Louis Schaub prevented the Serbians from going unbeaten in qualifying. Once part of the Serbia and Montenegro defensive “Famous Four” in Germany 2006, coach Mladen Krstajić graduated from assistant to head coach in 2017. He is very well liked by the players and has mustered a real togetherness in the current squad. Aleksandar Mitrović led the way with 6 goals in qualifying, and along with his 12 goals in 17 games for Fulham this year, he could fire the Serbs into the latter stages of the tournament. Lazio golden boy Sergej Milinković-Savić remains on the fringes of the starting eleven, but look for him to break out if given the opportunity. SWITZERLAND have reached the last 16 of both the last World Cup and European Championships. Cruelly losing out on penalties to Poland in France 2016, Vladimir Petković’s side nearly beat out Portugal to top spot in their qualifying group but lost out to an inferior goal difference. The ex-Lazio boss has won 25 of his 40 games in charge of the Swiss and he has kept faith the majority of the squad he brought together when taking the job 5 years ago. The unpredictable Xherdan Shaqiri is backed up by veterans Stephan Lichtsteiner, Johan Djourou, Valon Behrami and Blerim Džemaili. Granit Xhaka was desperately poor in France two years ago and will look to bounce back after a better club season with Arsenal. Where the goals are coming for is anyones guess, and that has been the issue for a while of this side. Young Schalke forward Breel Embolo could get the nod despite a barren season for his club side. With Brazil first up, it’s hard to see the Swiss progressing from out of this group.

Players to watch: Marcelo, Neymar and Gabriel Jesus (BRA), Marco Ureña, Keylor Navas (CRC), Sergej Milinković-Savić, Adem Ljajić, and Filip Kostić (SER), Ricardo Rodríguez, Denis Zakaria (SWI)

Fun fact: Brazilians will stop work completely to watch their team, and recently banks in Brazil have agreed to close up to three hours prior to kick off so fans can prepare to watch their team. You have to get behind those initiatives!