Step On To Greatness: Euro Final Preview

Match Facts

Final: Italy vs Spain

Sunday, 01 July 2012

2045 (local time); 1445(EST); 0015(IST)

Stadion NSK Olimpiyskiy, Kiev

There are quite a few self-help books which preach how one can achieve success in life or attain greatness. Most of them have a particular tenet in them – Belief in your own ability. Euro 2012 has thrown two teams in the final, who have had to pass through the extreme test of not just overpowering the opposition, but also those that concern your inner demons. Sometimes those demons are situational – like what Spain are enduring. Once hailed as the ultimate footballing spectacle – the tiki taka brand of passing is now derided by most of the footballing fraternity as a defensive and boring tactics. It doesn’t inspire the joie-de-vivre of 2008 or 2010. The fact that Spain has not conceded a goal in a knockout round of games, stretching back to 2008 Euros is what is often forgotten, highlighting the million passes that they have played in those games. But really, is it so dramatic a shift on Spain’s part? They have probably the best set of passers in any European midfield banded together, who can protect the ball as well as do damage to the opposition. It’s a different thing, and protecting the ball has been more important to Spain in 2012 Euros than doing damage to the opposition. A stat which illustrates that is that in Euro 2008, Spain completed 33 passes per shot; in 2010 World Cup, it went up to 44 and in Euro 2012 they have completed 58 passes for each shot. That Spain have not started Pedro and Jesus Navas, shows they have abandoned their wing play. And then couple that with the situation of not starting a forward and you get a team that is clinging to its strength to the extreme that they are only concerned about the result and not about the manner in which it is obtained. There are many amongst us, who swear by the quality of the game and not the result. If we call them Purists, then Spain definitely needs an exorcism or two. It’s been a strange journey, where a style of play, so much applauded and appreciated for its invigorating nature, has become an object of negativity – tiki taka being represented as tikitakanechio because it has embraced a functionality to itself that was once purely creative.

Italy score through Di Natale in the group opener…
…but Fabregas equalises via a Silva assist

It’s been exactly an opposite ride for Italy under Cesare Prandelli. A man who was entrusted with the job of pulling the Azzurri out from the ashes of Marcello Lippi’s egoistic bonfire of 2010 world cup campaign, Prandelli has already done the unthinkable. His Italy has carved an identity which is unique in the Azzurri history. Here comes a team that has become likable, exciting, attacking, and creative and the neutral’s favourite. This is a far cry from all the great Italy teams of yore (and there are quite many of them). Gone are the adjectives – boring, defensive, cynical and most importantly the C word (you can now find it attached to Spain). The great Italian teams were defined by one word – functional. They just knew how to win, even if it came via less than spectacular means. Prandelli, has changed that. His Italy side are arguably the most attacking unit in the Euros, having created more chances and more shots on target than any other team.  The defense is still strong (though Spain has conceded 2 less goals), the midfield is creative and the attack line actually playes 2 strikers, without lumping-it-forward-to-the-big-man style that most teams playing 2 forwards (like England) did. Prandelli has a vision and this Italy has shown it is capable of winning, while still sticking to that vision. The nature of difficulties that this team has faced are not minor: top striker breaking his leg and not coming to the euro; top striker with a heart disease that almost finished his career; top defender ruled out at last moment due to a attention-seeking dawn raid by the police; country prime minister calling for the team to withdraw from Euro 2012 only days before it was to start and many more. Let’s just say, that no Italian fan would have been disappointed if Italy had exited at its first hurdle. The team was not thought to be ready. The players were not thought to be fit. The group was thought to be really tricky. And yet three weeks down the line, there is only one team that has never fallen behind in any match and that team is not the reigning world and European champions. It has been a story of far greater magnitude than the tournament itself. Win or lose the final, Prandelli and Italy has already assured they are winners in their own rights. Whether this relaxes them to a victory or makes them complacent and leads to a defeat is the point to see.

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The battle that would define the Europe Crown

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Both teams are on the cusp of greatness. One team can cement its name as the finest of all time by winning three major championships that no European team has ever done. It may only be a statistical greatness but one that history would always cite. The other team can redefine the entire nature of how the whole world sees them – by doing what no other Italian team has done – win while entertaining. It is a battle for immortality. And the team that trusts its strength more will prevail in the end.

Form Guide

Spain and Italy are rightly the only teams which are undefeated in the tournament (though England too, technically, can claim a pie off that moniker). Both teams have been extremely successful in their defense – conceding 1 and 3 goals respectively. Attack wise too, Spain have scored more goals Italy, have played more passes than Italy. Deservedly, they will start as favourites for the match. What the Italians can look back though is that, the only time Spain looked shaky and actually fell behind, was when they played the Italians in the group opener. Italy largely bossed Spain in that match and can claim the moral victory. A similar performance is not beyond them, especially with many of the misfiring elements – Cassano and Balotelli getting into form. The central defense is stronger by the return of Andrea Barzagli, whose absence, had in effect forced Prandelli to start Daniele de Rossi as a central defender in that match. De Rossi, Marchisio and Montolivo have been outstanding in the semi final victory and can match anything the much vaunted Spanish midfield can throw.

Does the Postman Ring Twice?

Teams & Formations

Both teams have tried novel tactical arrangements – Spain’s 4-6-0, which incidentally was popularised by Luciano Spalletti at Roma and hence quite well known among the Italian players and Prandelli and Italy’s 3-5-2 which is unique as not a single top level international team plays with 3 central defenders. It was a reactionary measure to Italy’s 3-0 thrashing by Russia in a pre-tournament friendly. Prandelli though started with 3-5-2 and then shifted to his better known 4-1-2-1-2 as the matches went on. But that first match between Italy & Spain hangs heavy on both managers. Spain were far more dangerous once Navas and Torres had come on in the second half. Should del Bosque start with them in the final? If anything, a 4-1-2-1-2 isolates the Italian sidebacks even more and Navas (and Pedro?) can haunt them even more. But it makes Spain weak in the centre of the field and Italy can hurt them there. Moreover which of the 6 midfielders (from the 4-6-0) does Del Bosque drop, if he is to play Navas (and/or Pedro) and Torres. Can Spain afford to put their faith in Torres? Can Prandelli double guess Del Bosque and start 3-5-2 anticipating another striker-less formation? Or should he trust his own team’s strength and play the 4-1-2-1-2. There are many questions and all of it makes it all the more fascinating tactical duel between two managers who have been known to be affable and polite gentlemen.

Will he start tonight?

Italy (4-1-2-1-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Ignazio Abate, Leonardo Bonucci, , Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini; Andrea Pirlo;  Claudio Marchisio, Daniele De Rossi; Riccardo Montolivo; Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano

Manager: Cesare Prandelli

Spain (4-6-0): Iker Casillas; Alvaro Arbeloa, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba; Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Andrés Iniesta

Manager: Vincent Del Bosque

Referee: Pedro Proenca (Portugal)

Quotes

“It’s the greatest joy that we could have given to our people. It’s a joy that they also transmit to us because some pictures and images don’t leave you unmoved, of course, and they make you feel very proud inside.”

Gianluigi Buffon, Italy Goalkeeper and Captain.

“There are a lot of parallels between Italy and Spain: we were in the same group, in either the quarter-finals or semi-finals we went through on penalties, and Pirlo and [Sergio] Ramos scored Panenka-style penalties. You have to like both teams. We both deserve to be finalists.”

Vincent Del Bosque, Spanish Manager

Clash of Titans- Azzuri vs Die Mannschaft

Match Facts

Semi Final 2: Germany vs Italy

Thursday, 28 June 2012

21:45 (local time); 14:45(EST); 00:15(IST)

National Stadium, Warsaw

In the second semi finals of Euro 2012 two of the traditional superpowers of the game will clash in a mouth-watering encounter. The two teams last played in Euro 1988 group stages when the match finished in a 1-1 draw.

Germany will go into the match confident being the only team to have won all their matches in the tournament. Although Germany is up against history never having beaten Italy in seven previous competitive matches, Spain overcame a similar record against France in the quarter-finals and they will be looking to do the same. This German team has a mixture of experience and youth and have options in all positions and will give their best.

Italy has looked solid in this tournament. They were very good against Spain in arguably the best match in the tour5nament so far with respect to quality of the football played. The Italians have been surprisingly attacking instead of their defensive style. The only time they went into their defensive shell was during the second half against Croatia. They were very impressive against England in the quarter-finals creating a lot of chances but not converting. The Azzuri will be up for this encounter as they inevitably are in crunch matches in the knock-out phases of major tournaments.

The smile of the wizard

Form Guide

Germany was impressive in their match against Greece playing attacking football trying to score at every opportunity. They conceded two goals, the second through a very debatable penalty. They controlled 70% of possession and showed their full attacking prowess after the Greek equaliser. The three new starters Klose, Schurrle and Reus impressed with their play. Gomez, Podolski and Muller will be fresh and rested and hungry to play in this game.

Italy looked very good against England in all areas of the game except finishing their chances. The Azzuri had a massive 35 shots on goal in 120 minutes and could not score. They outplayed their opponents with a fantastic performance by Andrea Pirlo who has been arguably the player of the tournament till now. The defence is typically solid and the fullbacks both joined up with the offensive line quite well. Italians had two days of rest less than the Germans which maybe a factor late in the game with a good change of the game going beyond 90 minutes.

Germany: WWWWW

Italy: LDDWW(p)

Teams & Formations

Germany will go with their usual 4-2-3-1 formation which their manager Joachim Loew likes. The team has no suspensions to worry about. There have been questions on the condition of the ankle ligaments of Bastien Schweinsteiger but he should start. The German wide mid-fielders will look to press the Italian full-backs when they have possession preventing them from joining up in attack which will make the Italian mid-field very narrow. Podolski should come back in place of Schurrle who was a bit too predictable against Greece cutting inside from the left and shooting. Reus will probably retain his place ahead of Muller as he brought a lot of energy to the German mid-field. Sammy Khedira has been making very good runs from the deep in this tournament very similar to what Schweinsteiger usually does. The latter’s ankle ligaments maybe are the reason for his not producing such runs. Mesut Ozil was very impressive against Greece with his movement and passing and he created two goals in the process. The big choice Loew has to make is Gomez or Klose who to start? He may opt for Gomez as he will be rested and raring to go.

Germany(4-2-3-1): Manuel Neuer; Jerome Boateng; Mats Hummels; Philipp Lahm; Sammy Khedira; Bastien Schweinsteiger; Marco Reus ; Mesul Ozil; Lukas Podolski; Mario Gomez

Manager: Joachim Loew

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The Italian Mastermind

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Italy (4-1-3-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Ignazio Abate; Andrea Barzagli; Leonardo Bonucci; Federico Balzaretti; Andrea Pirlo; Claudio Marchisio; Thiago Motta; Daniele De Rossi; Mario Balotelli; Antonio Cassano

Manager: Cesare Prandelli

Referee: Stephane Lannoy (France)

Italy has played good football in this tournament. They are surprisingly the team with most attempts on goal with 87. The manager Cesare Prandelli started the first two matches of the tournament with a 3-5-2 formation. After two identical 1-1 score-lines he went back to his favoured 4-1-3-2 formation. Andrea Pirlo is the lynchpin of this team and he has been sensational. Maggio is suspended for this game but it does not affect the starting eleven too much. Thiago Motta who was injured for the last match may play in place of Montolivo to contain the attacking threat of the German mid-field. Daniele de Rossi has been affected by sciatica but should start. The Italian forwards have not scored enough and that is the reason they have won only one match in regular time in the tournament. Balotelli is an enigma who gets into great position and then gets cold feet. Cassano has been very impressive working hard and creating a lot of chances. The Italians will have to score goals otherwise their dream for a second Euro title will be over.

Quotes

“We did well against Greece but Italy are a different proposition,” –Joachim Loew German Manager

“We are quite a bit short because we only have very few days of recovery time. We need to put out a side that’s athletically fit, because we will have to fight against Germany. If we play well, though, we have a chance. There is no such thing as an invincible side. Spain and Germany are truly very good, but we just need to stick to our task, and we must be meticulously prepared.” –Cesare Prandelli Italian Manager

Survival of the Fittest

Match Facts

Group D: Sweden vs England

Friday, 15 June 2012

20:45 (local time); 14:45(EST); 00:15(IST)

Olympic Stadium, Kyiv

England will take on Sweden in a crucial group D encounter with both teams chasing their first win in the tournament.

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic getting prepared forthe England Game

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England was the happier team after their game against France. They set out their stall to frustrate France and take a point from that game, and that is exactly what they did. But Sweden will be different. They will need three points from this game to avoid a must-win scenario against the hosts Ukraine in their final group game in the sweltering heat of Donetsk. England might play a more enterprising game against Sweden as the latter’s defense is not one of their strengths. The grapevine suggests that Andy Carroll might just start alongside Danny Welback up-front with Ashley Young going back to the wings and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the bench.  Though Roy Hodgson has concerns about Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker’s fatigue, he is unlikely to rest them. He is reverting to the ‘English’ 4-4-2 to get three points from this game. Hodgson is known for the organisation of his teams but this time he will have to get out of his comfort zone to get those three points; and with Carroll up-front he is gambling a bit.

Sweden was the favourite for their game against Ukraine but at the end of the game the hosts were deserving winners. The Swedish defense failed to handle Andriy Shevchenko and suffered a bitter defeat. A defeat against England will send them packing back home. The Talisman of this team is Zlatan Ibrahimovic but he needs support from his team-mates. Johan Elmander is expected to replace Markus Rosenberg and partner Zlatan up-front. Eric Hamren’s choice of Rasmus Elm in the centre of the park surprised a few. The experienced Anders Svensson might just replace Elm and partner Kim Kallstrom in the middle of the park.

Form Guide:

England: DWWDD

Sweden: WWWLL

Will he make a start today ?

Probable Teams:

England: (4-4-2)

        Joe Hart(GK);

Glenn Johnson; John Terry; Joleon Lescott; Ashley Cole;

James Milner; Steven Gerrard; Scott Parker; Ashely Young;

Andy Carroll; Danny Welback;

Manager: Roy Hodgson

Sweden: (4-2-3-1)

        Andreas Issacson(GK)

Mikael Lustig; Olaf Melberg; Andreas Granqvist; Martin Olsson;

                       Anders Svensson; Kim Kallstrom;

Sebastien Larsson;    Zlatan Ibrahimovic;     Ola Toivonen;

                Johan Elmander;

Manager: Erik Hamrén

Quotes:

“There won’t be wholesale changes, that’s for certain because we don’t have any injury problems and the players who did well against France are all hoping to get picked to play again.”- Roy Hodgson

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“We didn’t show the courage we were supposed to. Only five or six players did. We all need all the players doing that.”- Eric Hamren

Nine or Ten ?

Match Facts

Group B: Denmark vs. Portugal

Wednesday June 13, 2012

7 pm Local Time,

Arena Lviv, Lviv, Ukraine

Two adjacent FIFA ranking teams, Denmark (ranked 9) and Portugal (ranked 10) will be clashing against each other today at Lviv, Ukraine. Both teams will be playing their second game in the “Group of Death”. Denmark will be starting high on confidence, since they are already at the top of the group after defeating the mighty Netherlands in their last game. On the other hand, Portugal, having lost their first game against Germany by a late Mario Gomez goal, will have to win this game at any cost to ensure a finite probability of progression to the quarterfinals. The last time these two teams met was during the Euro qualifying Group H games, when Denmark defeated Portugal by a margin of 2-1 at Copenhagen. The last four encounters between these two teams resulted in two wins for Denmark and one for Portugal – thus, Denmark are clearly not starting as underdogs.

Denmark will be playing almost the same team that emerged winners against the 2010 World Cup Finalists. The only change might be Michael Silberbauer, who successfully marked Cristiano Ronaldo in the match at Copenhagen. At the front, the Danes will be looking towards Krohn-Dehli, the goal scorer from the Dutch game as well as Niklas Bendtner for converting chances. They will take every opportunity to build a solid counter-attack and score. Portugal, on the other hand, will be relying on Cristiano Ronaldo heavily for registering their first win at the European Championship. Nani, who had scored 3 international goals against Denmark will also be a key factor for the Portugese. Hugo Almeida has recovered and will probably replace Helder Postiga, after the latter failed to make even a single impact against Germany.

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Time to lead from the front

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Form Guide

Denmark is in peak form after winning the last two international encounters against Australia and Netherlands.

Last 5 games: WLLWW

Portugal is having a nightmare time with just one win over the last 5 games. Consecutive losses to Turkey and Germany will surely decline their spirits. Moreover, as in the previous 3 games, Portugal hasn’t scored in their last game.

Last 5 games: DWDDLL

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Team Formation

Denmark (4-2-3-1): Stephan Andersen Michael Silberbauer, Daniel Agger, Simon Kjaer, Lars Jacobsen, Niki Zimling, William Kvist, Michael Krohn-Delhi, Christian Eriksen, Dennis Rommedahl, Nicklas Bendtner

Manager: Morten Olsen

Portugal (4-3-3): Rui Patricio; Fabio Coentrao, Bruno Alves, Pepe, Joao Pereira; Miguel Veloso, Joao Moutinho, Raul Meireles; Cristiano Ronaldo, Hugo Almeida, Nani

Manager: Paulo Bento

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Quotes

“We have closed down Cristiano Ronaldo before and we firmly believe we can do it again” – Simon Kjaer

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“Losing is a word we can’t even let enter our minds” — Miguel Veloso

Traditional Rivals renew Euro Rivalry

Match Facts

Group D: France vs England

Monday, 11 June 2012

1800 (local time); 1200(EST); 21.30(IST)

Donbass Arena, Donetsk

What can Le Proffeseur Bring to France

Zinedine Zidane will always come to one’s mind whenever you think of an France vs England encounter and that too in an Euro clash. Eight years back, England were so close to a win in that pulsating encounter in Estadio da Luz but only to be denied by an injury time Zizou magic. However, lot have happened after that encounter in between 8 years. Le Blues have experienced the crest of success in in becoming Runners –up in WC 2006 as well as ignominious episode of the WC 2010. England on the other hand has continued to be perennial under achievers in International scenes. Coming to the Euro 2012, both sides have contrasting preparations.  France FA made whole sale changes to their National team after their debacle in the WC 2010. Laurent Blanc was installed as the Manager. Slowly but steadily, Blanc have been able to mould the team in his philosophy which that insists on playing attacking football with a balance at the back. He has brought a discipline in the team that was severely missing under previous manager.  Compared to that, the preparations of England team have been nothing sort of messy. After successful ly securing qualification for the Euro, Fabio Capello was preparing to erase the memories of an disappointing campaign WC 2010 with a strong performance in the Euro 2012. Then the John Terry saga happened when the National Captain was charged for racially abusing his fellow opponent. Although Capello stood by his Captain, the FA had to act to against Terry and stripped him of captaincy. This led to a collision between capello and the FA and eventually Capello resigned. After months of speculation, FA made the bizarre selection of Roy Hodgson as the manager barely 2 months before the Euro. Whether this is a correct or wrong selection, time will only tell but for any manager, it is next to impossible to get the best performance out of his team in such a short time. Things have become complex for Roy as he has lost 3 key players due to injury that includes Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and the ever reliable Gary Cahill, add to that  the suspension of Wayne Rooney who must have been a vital part of Roy’s plan. However all these things have given rise to a never –seen –before situation, the English press haven’t  been that vocal about the chances of the team in the tournament .A low expectation can be conducive to English team’s performance in the tournament.

Form Guide

France qualified for the Euro 2012 as group champions seeing off a stiff competition from Bosnia. In the build up to the Euro, they have played quite balanced football albeit against lesser opponents like Estonia. The players are also coming off good individual domestic seasons which will give them an added advantage.

England also emerged as Group champions in their qualification campaign which was quite an easier group. However their performances in the friendlies, leading to Euro, have been quite below par. Under new captian Steven Gerrard, the team seems to be finding their way forward.

Teams & Formations

Blanc after a lot of experimentations in the last two years seems to have found the right balance. Upfront, Benzema is raring to prove his worth for the National team. He will be backed by the attacking trio of Nasri , Ribery and Malouda with the excellent Cabaye and Diarra marshalling the midfield. However loss Eric Abidal can be important as the defence will be a concern for the Le Blues.

France : LLoris; Adil Rami, Patrice Evra, Mathieu Debuchy, Phillip Mexes; Cabaye,Alou Diarra; Nasri, Malouda, Ribery ; Benzema

Roy Hodgson will set out his team based on solid defensive organization that will try to hit opponents on counter. A lot will depend on how John Terry will lead the defensive line and Steven Gerrard will operate the midfield. Given their respective club forms, Danny Welbeck will start as the only striker over Andy Carrol and Jermaine Defoe. It is to be seen whether Alex Oxlade Chamberlain can prove to be a sensation for the Three Lions.

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The Joker Inside

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England : Hart; Glen Johnson, Jolean Lescott, John Terry, Ashley Cole; Scott Parker, Steven Gerrard; Alex Oxlade Chanberlain, Ashley Young, James Milner; Danny Welbeck

Quotes

Don’t worry! The English will show up ready for us. They always want to win and even more so against the French.

France coach Laurent Blanc

 

We’ve all got to turn up and we’ve all got to perform well at the right time. There’s no point one or two turning up or you’ll go home early.

England Captain Steven Gerrard

Hometown boys look for a bright start against Scandinavian Giants

Match Facts

Group D: Ukraine vs. Sweden

Monday, 11 June 2012

21:45 (local time); 14:45(EST); 00:15(IST)

Olympic Stadium, Kyiv

The Key man Anatoliy Tymoshchuk

                 

The second host team Ukraine take the field against Sweden in the last of the first round matches in the group phase. The Olympic Stadium in Kyiv has undergone a major reconstruction and rebuilding including a new pitch which was unveiled in October 2011.

The hosts have not won this tournament since 1984 and Ukraine will try to reverse this trend. They are the lowest ranked team in the group. The next two matches are against arguably the better two teams France and England make this match the key to the fortunes of Ukraine.

Sweden is always a major fixture in all major tournament finals without being counted amongst the favourites. The team is made up of a solid group of players with some very famous stars and some workhorses who plied their trade in the different leagues of Europe. Looking into England’s problems they should be favourites to progress from this group after France. However this match against the hosts will be crucial to their chances.

Form Guide

Ukraine is the only debutant team in this edition of the tournament. Although, the 1988 Soviet team had a very strong Ukrainian contingent this is their first official Euro. Being hosts Ukraine did not have to qualify for the tournament and they lost their last two friendlies against Austria and Turkey both of whom have not qualified for this tournament. The manager Oleg Blokhin recently revealed that the poor form was due a chronic bout of food-poisoning which affected the whole team.

Sweden made has been a regular in this tournament since 1992 when lost in the semi-finals. In the last edition they were eliminated in the group stage by the champions Spain and Russia. Sweden qualified automatically as the best second place qualifier behind Netherlands. They scored the third most number of goals amongst the 16 qualifiers with 31 behind Netherlands and Germany. The Swedes have been impressive in the warm-up friendly matches and are still unbeaten in 2012.

Ukraine: WWWLL

Sweden: WWWWW

Teams & Formations

Ukraine team is centred around their captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk of Bayern Munich. He is the vital cog which makes the Ukrainian team function. Other key members in attack and defence will be Andriy Voronin of Dynamo Moscow and Oleg Husyev of Dynamo Kyiv. Oleg Blokhin will probably start with two forwards in a 4-1-3-2 formation looking for a win. Andriy Shevchenko the legendary striker should be seen as a second half substitute.

Ukraine (4-1-3-2) : Andriy Pyatov; Oleg Husyev;  Yevhen Khacheridi; Taras Mykhalik; Yevhen Selin; Anatoliy Timoschchuk; Serhiy Nazarenko; Yevhen Konoplyanka; Andriy Yarmolenko; Marko Devic; Andriy Voronin

Manager: Aleg Blokhin

Sweden will look to their star Zlatan Ibrahamovic for inspirational play in the opposition penalty box. Ibrahimovic will play in the hole below the main striker giving him the flexibility of creating chances and scoring himself.  Johan Elmander the first choice striker who has just returned to training after a foot fracture will probably not be in the starting line-up. Erik Hamrén will start with a 4-2-3-1 formation which will look to take control of the midfield.

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Zlatan Ibrahamovic - leadng from the front

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Sweden (4-2-3-1) Andreas Isaksson; Mikael Lustig; Olaf  Mellberg; Andreas Granqvist;  Martin Olsson; Rasmus Elm; Kim Kallstrom; Sebastian Larsson; Zlatan Ibrahimovic; Ola Toivonen; Markus Rosenberg

Manager: Erik Hamrén

Quotes

“Sweden as a team work very well, they’ve been together for a long time and they’re a machine that runs very smoothly”

Oleg Blokhin- Ukraine Manager

“I don’t have any problems sleeping but I dream a lot, and when I do, I dream about winning”

Erik Hamrén-Sweden Manager

Hitting the Irish Bar or Not

Match Facts

Group C:  Republic of Ireland vs Croatia

Sunday, 10 June 2012

20:45 (local time); 14:45(EST); 00:15(IST)

Municipal Stadium, Poznań

Though Group C is not marked as the Group of Death, it is surely going to be a tricky affair. A gritty Republic of Ireland team is going to face one of the dark horses of the Euro 2012, Croatia, whereas the other two teams are definite European heavyweights. This is first time since Republic of Ireland qualified for Euro since 1988 and also they are into a major tournament after 10 long years. This is a grand opportunity for Irish fighters to show the world their character after their heart breaking episode against France in 2010 WC qualifier play-off. Ireland is not known for their goal-scoring flurry, rather the fighting spirit and determination are the two factors they are relying on. After Italian mastermind Giovanni Trapattoni took over the charge since 2008, Irish team looks very much organized and as a result they are back in top flight.

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The Irish Duo

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Croatia on the other hand, are currently ranked 8th per the FIFA ranking and expected to thrill the tournament with their exciting gameplay. Their Euro qualifying campaign wasn’t smooth enough though. Finishing the group after Greece, Croatia won the play-offs against Turkey to confirm their booking for Euro. They have experienced lots of ups and downs under their long-standing manager Slaven Bilić’s era and are expected to overcome all the odds to present a tight show on the grand stage.

Form Guide

Ireland had a pretty good qualifying campaign with their limited resources. They are facing the Croats after a 14 game unbeaten streak and they don’t want to spoil it either. Historically they were never beaten in the opening games of any major competition. After Trapattoni took over, Irish were beaten only 8 times out of 46 games. In the qualifiers, their only defeat came against the mighty Russians.

Croatia surprisingly had a tough run in qualifiers. Despite being the top seeded team they finished behind Greece with an astonishing defeat against Georgia. Their performances in pre-Euro friendlies were not impressive enough. They lost to Sweden, drew with Norway and managed to win only against weaker Estonia. Still, the amount of firepower they have stored easily can turn up the table. Turkey had faced the wrath of a rejuvenated Croatia team when they were demolished 0-3 at Istanbul – just an example what they are capable of.

Republic of Ireland: DWDDW

Croatia: DWLDW

Teams and Formations

The Irish probably is going back to their tested and proven 4-4-2 formation after their lacklustre draw against much weaker Hungary team. Trapattoni tried a midfield packed 4-5-1 which didn’t look like working. So Robbie Keane at the upfront will be going to pair with Shane Long to provide a two-pronged attack where Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady will provide much needed width. Croatia will heavily rely upon returning Bayer Leverkusen defender Vedran Ćorluka to stop this well-formed attack. Irish supporters will be very much delighted to see their veteran defender John O’Shea back in starting line-up and their most capped (122) player of all time, Shay Given, declared fit to guard the net.  Ireland will be eying on their most successful goal scorer of all time Robbie Keane (53) who had scored 7 goals in the qualifiers. Croatia also needs to be very cautious during dead-ball situations as the Irish are proven to be very good in that. In the midfield, Croatia will show a sheer dominance as they have the string master named certain Luka Modrić. This ambidextrous swift medio can turn the heat for the Croats combining with captain Darijo Srna – who has a fantastic right foot to deliver lethal crosses. Croatia needs to be cautious on their left as attack minded Perisic is not very prone to fall back which can give extra spaces to ever intelligent Duff.  Factually, Croatia is pretty deadly in the air and scored 9 goals from header in the qualifiers. As they are missing their main striker Olich due to injury, Nikica Jelavić, who scored 9 goals in 12 matches for Everton already – likely to be given a chance over Eduardo, while Wolfsburg forward Mario Mandžukić start as withdrawn forward. Bilić also can pick very talented Niko Kranjčar. Richard Dunne will be the key man on the heart of Irish defense to stop this sharp attack led by Modric. Dunne needs to replicate his famous performance against Russia in Moscow in September 2011 where he single-handedly stopped a Russian team which totally dominated midfield and created wave after wave of attacks.

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Modric: The spearhead

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Republic of Ireland (4-4-2): Given, O’Shea, Dunne, St Ledger, Ward, Duff, Whelan, Andrews, McGeady, Long, Keane

Manager: Giovanni Trapattoni

Croatia (4-4-1-1): Corluka, Schildenfeld, Simunic, Strinic, Srna, Modric, Rakitic, Pranjic, Mandzukic, Jelavic  (Niko Kranjčar)

Manager: Slaven Bilić

Referee: Björn Kuipers (Netherlands)

Quotes:

“They have someone like Luka Modric, who I know very, very well. I’ve been speaking to him over the last couple of days, having a bit of banter with him.”

Robbie Keane, Forward, Republic of Ireland

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“On Sunday we will fight for every ball and for every inch of the pitch. I don’t see how Ireland can trouble us. Their football is very simple and not difficult to analyse.”

Slaven Bilić, Manager, Croatia

Battle for the East European Glory

Match Facts

Group A: Russia vs. Czech Republic

Friday, 08 June 2012

2045 (local time); 1445(EST); 0015(IST)

Municipal Stadium Wroclaw, Poland

Shutting Down his Critics

On the Focus

Russia begins their Euro 2012 campaign in red hot form after having crashed the Azzuris 3-0 in their final friendly game. They have a settled squad and many of their star players have come up with some classy performances for their country in the past. Russia will also benefit from the fact that almost half of their first XI will most likely be from Zenit St. Petersburg. Russia is quite fortunate to feature in the easiest group in the tournament, that too as the favourites. They would like to start the campaign on a winning note.

Standing in front of Russia are the gritty Czechs. These two teams have had great history in football – as USSR and Czechoslovakia respectively – but their recent past is not so glorious one. Czech Republic dominated the youth stage in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s but none of them are around now. They have a relatively unknown team which features a bunch of young lads from Viktoria Plzen. This unknown factor could well work in their advantage Czechs are facing the strongest team in the group up front and hence a draw will suit them quite well.

The two teams have met only once in the group stages of Euro 96 in England where the spectators were thrilled to witness an entertaining 3-3 draw. With relatively better defensive organizations on display, that score line will be pretty hard to match.

Form Guide

Russia did exceedingly well last time round in Euro 2008 to reach the Semis for the first time since the former USSR era. They have been impressive in their qualifying too where they lost only once in 20 matches and conceded only four goals during the campaign. The Russians have done well in the friendly matches and they would like to keep up their good showing in the main tournament also.

Russia Form Guide: WDDWD

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Petr Cech: Testing Time Again

Czech Republic had a very good team (former Czechoslovakia) in the late ‘70s but that too was not enough to win the trophy. This time they had to wait till play-off matches to get through and naturally expectations are not that high. Their friendly results have also been dismal where they have failed to impress their supporters.

Czech Republic Form Guide: LWDWW

Teams & Formations

Dick Advocat would hope for the same this time from the likes of Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko who did not have a great season at club level. To support them Russia has a very strong unit comprising of shot stopper Igor Akinfeyev and midfielder Roman Shirokov – both one of the bests in Europe at this moment.

Russia (4-3-3): Igor Akinfeev; Yuri Zhirkov, Aleksei Berezutskiy, Sergei Ignashevich, Aleksandr Anyukov; Igor Denisov, Konstantin Zyryanov, Roman Shirokov; Andrei Arshavin, Aleksandr Kerzahkov, Alan Dzagoev.

Manager: Dick Advocaat

Czech Republic will rely heavily on Petr Cech, fresh from his Champions Cup final heroics. Tomas Rosicky’s timely return from calf strain would be major boost for the team which lacks in quality big time.

Czech Republic (4-2-3-1): Petr Cech; David Limbersky, Michel Kadlec, Tomas Sivok, Theodor Gebre Selassie; Tomas Hubschman, Jaroslav Plasil; Jan Rezek, Tomas Rosicky, Vaclav Pilar; Milan Baros.

Manager: Michal Bilek

Match Referee: Howard Webb (Englad)

Assistant Referee: Michael Mullarkey (Englad) and Peter Kirkup (Englad)

Quotes

“We have a good team, we have the quality, and it is very important that the players start believing in that.” Russia Manager Dick Advocaat

“Maybe we have our toughest opponent in the first match, the favourite in our group, Russia, who won their last friendly against Italy 3-0. That creates huge respect, but I believe in my team, and believe we will succeed in this match.” Czech Republic Manager Michal Bilek

Final Prediction

The Russians look too strong for the Czechs and a comfortable 2-0 win seems likely.

Chance to Pole up A Greek Tragedy

Match Facts

Group A: Poland vs. Greece

Friday, 08 June 2012

1800 (local time); 1200(EST); 2130(IST)

National Stadium, Warsaw

How K Papadopoulos counters Lewandowski's threat will determine the outcome

The Euro 2012 finally gets underway at the swanky new National Stadium which is the largest footballing arena in Poland. Built for the Euros, the National Stadium has a unique retractable PVC roof which unfolds from a nest on a needle suspended above the centre of the pitch. But while all talk should be focussed on the match at hand, controversies over anticipated racial abuse and law and order situation. However with the football finally starting, one can hope that the controversies will take a back seat.

The hosts have not won the tournament in almost three decades and for Poland to attempt anything contrary to this trend, have to drum up a win in the opener tomorrow. Arguably in the weakest group, Poland can ill afford to slip up against the 2004 champions, when they have a resurgent Russia and a rebuilding Czech Republic.

The Greeks, never anyone’s favourite team, are probably a very grey horse for the tournament. They never inspire confidence, yet they went through the qualifying tournament unbeaten and only conceded 5 goals in the process. As has been their wont, they have built their team on a solid defence. On form, they shouldn’t have any problem in progressing from the group but countering a passionate host in the first tie should be crucial to any such ambition.

Form Guide

Poland has not had a good time at all in the European championships. In fact they have only ever qualified for one European championship – the last one and didn’t get out of the group stages. As hosts, they didn’t need to qualify and hence only played friendlies and their form wasn’t impressive enough, though they did beat lowly Andorra 4-0 last week.

The Greeks only ever qualified for 3 European championships, but can proudly proclaim to have won the trophy in 2004. Their qualification record was perfect but they have not really been dominant in the friendlies.

Poland: DWWW

Greece: LDDW

Teams & Formations

The hosts bank on Robert Lewandowski, who was the third highest scorer in the just concluded Bundesliga without scoring via any penalty kicks. Lukasz Piszczek is probably one of the top right backs in Europe and has been courted by clubs like Milan and Real Madrid. Coach Franciszek Smuda lines up his team in 4-2-3-1 formation and creativity of Ludovic Obraniak and his linkup play with Lewandowski should be crucial for the Polish chances.

Poland (4-2-3-1): Wojciech Szczesny; Lukasz Piszczek, Marcin Wasilewski, Damien Perquis, Sebastian Boenisch; Rafal Murawski, Eugen Polanski; Jakub Blaszczykowski, Ludovic Obraniak, Maciej Rybus; Robert Lewandowski

Manager: Franciszek Smuda

Portuguese born Fernando Santos was elected by the Greek Football League as the best coach of the decade. He favours a 4-3-3 formation which tucks into a 4-5-1 without the ball. Celtic hitman Giorgios Samaras has the same role as Angelos Charisteas from the 2004 squad. Schalke man Kyriakos Papadopoulos and former Milan flop, Sokratis Papasthapoulos form the central defensive pairing and how they cope with Lewandowski will probably decide the match.

Greece(4-3-3): Konstantinos Chalkias; Vasilios Torosidis, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, José Holebas; Georgios Karagounis, Konstantinos Katsouranis, Ioannis Maniatis; Dimitrios Salpingidis; Theofanis Gekas, Georgios Samaras

Manager: Fernand Santos

Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (Spain)

Quotes

“The first step is always the most important step, and the first step is the Greece match.”

Poland captain Jacob ‘Kuba’ Blaszczykowski

“We don’t have anything to fear against Poland. I believe we can repeat our effort of 2004 when we spoiled the opener for the home team.”

Giorgos Tzavellas, Greek defender.

UEFA Champions League Final Preview

The biggest club team honour has reached its finale. Get the showdown of the Final encounter with Debojyoti Chakraborty

 

FC Bayern Munchen (GER) vs. Chelsea FC (ENG)

Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)

May 19, 2012

14:45 ET

19:45 GMT

00:15 IST (May 20, 2012)

 

After two contrasting semi-final ties, we have the two finalists for UEFA Champions League 2012. Bayern Munich, playing at home, will take on the surprise opponent in Chelsea. Not a line-up many had expected, rather another El Clasico was being anticipated as soon as the road to final was clear following the quarter-final draw. Purists may argue that the best team in Europe, or possibly the best team ever, has not featured in this year’s final. But one must remember that the finalists have come thus far by knocking out the so-called best teams. Chelsea have shown us what a strong, determined and organized defence can achieve even against the fearsome display of attacking football. The two matches of Chelsea against Barcelona, especially the away leg once their inspirational captain John Terry was sent off for an off-the-ball incident through a straight red card, showcased an amazing strength of character. It established the fact that defensive tactics can also be engrossing, a team can fight against all odds as well as the statistics if they can keep their shape. It also proved that there is no point having the lion’s share of possession with more shots on target, during a match, if you fail to do the single most critical thing – score a Goal. Chelsea’s interim manager Roberto Di Matteo had admitted that his side would require a bit of luck to upset Barcelona and there is no denying the fact that Chelsea have been fortunate. The Catalans  hit the post four times over the two-legged tie besides missing lots of clear cut chances to add to the penalty miss by Lionel Messi. But Chelsea took the opportunities when presented. Playing with 10 men away from home, in front of a buoyant Camp Nou crowd, they took the lead through an audacious Ramires chip – no mean feat that. They might have been criticised for sitting back and hoping for the best, but their tactics have worked and they are in the Final of the Champions League – who cares how!

Stand up and be counted

Homecoming

 Bayern Munich on the other hand continued their fine showing in the competition. They have picked up at the right time and have been lethal as the tournament reached its knock-out stages. One has to think deeply amidst the hue and cry surrounding the goal-scoring duel between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo that how can a player possibly score 40+ goals in domestic league? Surely the league is not sound in defence; Bayern surely caught Real Madrid off guard there. The German team showed no mercy for any defensive lapses Real presented them with and kept a tight back line – something the Spaniards are not used to back home. Besides, the Bavarians were proactive and took the game to the opponent even when 0-2 down at the Bernabéu. The German determination prevailed and they got one goal back which took the game to the penalty shoot-out. It is irony of fate that in one semi-final the better team over the two legs had to wait till the lottery of spot kicks to go through whereas in the other, the clear cut underdogs won easily – at least as per the score books (3-2 on aggregate).

Pressure will be on Bayern Munich as they enter their home turf at Fußball Arena München, to lift the biggest club team honour. The last time this had happened was way back in 1957 when Bayern’s semi-final opponents won the European Cup at the Bernabéu. Bayern’s midfield is in superb shape and it is vindicated by the fact that even a bad day in office (Franck Ribery at the Bernabéu) did not deter their chances too much.

 

Bayern will like to play a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation which would change to 4-3-3 while not in possession of the ball. They have a makeshift centre-back pairing where Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is expected to start in the absence of suspended Holger Badstuber and injured Daniel van Buyten. This coupled with the suspension of David Alaba and Luiz Gustavo would make Toni Kroos to sit deeper as a safety valve in front of the back four. The lynchpin in the midfield will be the stalwart Bastian Schweinsteiger – he will be responsible for dictating the tempo of the game and supplying the ball forward. Thomas Muller will be the most advanced among the midfield trio and would like to pressurize the Chelsea defenders as much as possible. The lone striker upfront, Mario Gomez is in superb form flanked by two deadly wingers in Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. The latter, in particular, has been lethal this season and the opposition wing-back will be in a dilemma to launch forward in presence of the Dutch assassin.

Chelsea will again enter the final on May 19 as underdogs – this might just suit them as there will hardly be any pressure to deal with. Following a season which has seen their domestic campaign fall apart, reaching the finals of the Champions League in itself is a massive achievement, that too under the  supervision of a caretaker boss (Avram Grant, anyone!).

 

With Captain John Terry, Ivanovic, Raul Meireles and Ramires missing through suspension, it won’t be surprising if Chelsea adopt a very defensive 4-5-1 approach once again. Garry Cahill is also a major doubt following his hamstring tear against Barcelona at the second leg of Champions League semi-final. If he fails to make it, Paulo Ferreira – with only one and a half Champions League games under his belt this season – might partner David Luiz, who is himself expected to be fit and available for the Bayern match. To shield the makeshift centre-halves, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel would be deployed as the holding midfielders who will complement each other in a double pivot role. Frank Lampard would like to link up with the front men whenever possible. But owing to injuries and age not being on their side, the midfield duo of Frank Lampard and Michael Essien are not the same players they used to be. It is likely to be a misfit against the superb Bayern midfield even in the absence of suspended Luiz Gustavo. On the wide right, Juan Mata would like to exploit any possible weakness in the German armour in the absence of Gustavo (left-sided midfielder), Alaba (left-back) and Badstuber (left centre-back). The opposite flank would be a toss-up between Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda. Up front, the work-horse Didier Drogba would be fighting for everything with Fernando Torres being used as an impact player. It will be very interesting to see how Chelsea can keep a clean sheet. And if they happen to concede – which if they do, won’t raise many eyebrows as they are fitted against a well-oiled German horse – will they be more adventurous and push more bodies forward? If this happens, spectators will be in for a very open game of football.

Both Chelsea and Bayern have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons throughout the season. Chelsea is still not sure if they would qualify for the next season’s finals. There is a controversy over dominance of senior players in the dressing room which has allegedly led to the premature sacking of former manager André Villas Boas. In a strange turn of events, the club which was heavily criticized for trying to buy a trophy is drawing unparalleled sympathy – for their underdog sticker as well as suspension ragged squad – at this stage of the campaign.

 

The Boss

Listen to me

Bayern Munich, on the other hand, have had to deal with egos of superstars for quite a while now.  Der Kaiser has often criticized the current bunch for their failure at the bigger stages. In a way he was asserting the glorious achievements of his own playing days. The chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is not far behind in blowing his (full) trumpet and that is not helping the team any bit but bogging them down with enormous pressure. Things have gone worse for them after surrendering the Bundesliga for two consecutive years due to some indifferent form. Their players are also nothing close to being innocent – Franck Ribery was recently involved in a brawl with Arjen Robben over a free-kick during the half-time of a match – which does not augment good team spirit.

Bayern Munich

Status

Chelsea

Status

Holger Badstuber (DF)

Suspended

David Luiz (DF)

Injured

Daniel van Buyten (DF)

Injured

Branislav Ivanovic (DF)

Suspended

Breno (DF)

Injured

John Terry (DF)

Suspended

Luiz Gustavo (MF)

Suspended

Ramires (MF)

Suspended

David Alaba (DF / MF)

Suspended

Raul Meireles

Suspended

Absentee Table

 As both the teams are hampered due to injuries and suspensions – mostly in the defence or defensive midfield position – goals are to be expected in the final showdown. With a compact and well organized midfield, supported by greater threat going forward, I would like to put my bet on Bayern to win the trophy at their backyard.

Europa League Final Preview

The second tier club honour in Europe is coming to Spain. Get the showdown of the all Spaniard Final encounter with Debojyoti Chakraborty

 

Athletic Club (ESP) vs. Club Atlético de Madrid (ESP)

Arena Națională, Bucharest

May 9, 2012

14: 45 EST

19:45 GMT

00:15 IST (May 10, 2012)

 

This year the Europa League has been dominated by the reigning European and World Champions, Spain. The finalists, Athletic Club and Club Atlético de Madrid, have dominated the competition this time round – along with another semi-finalist from Spain, Valencia – and it is no surprise that we are set for an all Spanish Cup Final this year. It will be a good time for the less fancied Spanish duo when their more illustrious compatriots failed in the Champions League during the same week. They came through two contrasting semi-final ties. The giant killing Athletic Club, which accounted for Manchester United earlier, had to dig deep to see off a stern Sporting Lisbon side en route to their second ever European Cup finals. On the other hand, 2010 Europa League winners, Club Atlético de Madrid cruised past Valencia for a ticket to the final on May 9, 2012 in Bucharest. Last time an all Spanish final took place was in 2007, at the finals of Europa League (then known as the UEFA Cup), when Sevilla edged past Espanyol on penalty shoot-out after a 2-2 deadlock. It will be a huge occasion for the Marcelo Bielsa managed Bilbao side. Over and above their nail-biting semi-final tie which saw them through by virtue of a last gasp winner, it will be an emotional moment for the club which last made a European final appearance way back in 1977 only to be beaten by Juventus. Elsewhere, Club Atlético de Madrid had taken a huge step towards the final by virtue of a 4-2 first leg win. They merely finished the formalities by winning the return leg also by a solitary goal. They would like to repeat the performance of two years back when they won the competition. The two teams have been locking horns even before the inception of Spanish championships (in 1929) as they met in the Copa del Rey finals in 1921 where the Madrid side was beaten 1-4. This season though, they have won one apiece in La Liga.  They are difficult to separate in the league standings also as they lie side by side in sixth and eighth positions with only two points separating them. One of the most striking features of the Basque club, Athletic Club or Athletic Bilbao, is that all of its players are either born or received their training in the Basque Country and its provinces, a culture it has upheld since its inception. Marcelo Bielsa has really done wonders since taking charge in the last year. Apart from reaching the finals of Europa League and fighting for a European spot in the league, Bilbao has set up a Copa del Rey final clash with Barcelona on May 25. Bielsa likes to start with a pressing 4-2-3-1 formation which is changed to 4-3-3 at times. Gorka Iraizoz starts in the goal with Fernando Amorebieta and World Cup winning midfielder Javi Martinez as centre-half pairing. The full-back positions are occupied by Andoni Iraola and Jon Aurtenetxe. The holding midfielder role is given to Ander Iturraspe who has formed a potent partnership with the tireless and versatile Oscar de Marcos, playing in a slightly advanced position and given the freedom to venture forward whenever the opportunity arises. Inspirational striker Fernando Llorente is the focal point of attack. With seven goals in 13 appearances, this competition has been a successful one for him and he would definitely like to finish it on a high. He is flanked by Iker Muniain and Markel Susaeta with playmaker Ander Herrera playing in the hole.

Bilbao pressing throughout

Club Atlético de Madrid is also helmed by an Argentine, Diego Simeone, and he favours a rather uncomplicated 4-5-1 formation. They have a 6’6” teenage Belgian shot-stopper in Thibaut Courtois, on loan from Chelsea, who has really impressed one and all. The defence is marshalled by Diego Godin and Joao Miranda. They have a versatile right-back in Juanfran who can also operate on the right side of midfield. Left-back is occupied by Filipe Luis. Mario Suarez and Gabriel Arenas like to anchor the midfield and complement each other in going forward. The right side of midfield has been made his own by Adrian Lopez through his marauding runs and goal-scoring knack. He is matched in the opposite flank by Arda Turan. Diego Ribas is the most advanced of this compact midfield and he supports the lone striker – the man with the golden touch, Radamel Falcao, a perfect #9. Besides netting twenty-three goals in the La Ligain 31 appearances in his debut season, Falcao has scored an amazing ten times in 14 appearances in this continental cup competition. One of his trademark weapons has been his incredible spot jump to add power in the air despite not being that tall. He is no stranger to this stage though, as he smashed a record 17 goals last time en route to winning the trophy for Porto.

Compact midfield of Atletico Madrid

With two dangerous strikers upfront from each side and to continue with the high scoring La Liga pattern, the final is expected to be a high-scoring affair. But stakes are high and it won’t be wrong to predict the coaches to be slightly worried about venturing forward at will. Nevertheless, this should be a good spectacle with a slightly better defence giving the Madrid side an edge.

UEFA Champions League and Europa Cup Semi-Final Preview

The biggest club team honour is reaching its finale while the second-tier club competition in Europe is gathering momentum too. Get the showdown of the semi-final encounters with Debojyoti Chakraborty

The quarter-final stage of the Champions League 2011-12 got over without much brouhaha. A Milan faithful may not agree, but Barcelona was a clear favourite for this tie. Real Madrid surged past APOEL FC leaving them looking rather distraught. Their opponents, Bayern Munich also eased their way through to the last four after seeing Marseille off. Chelsea had to endure the toughest of the ties as they shook off a strong fightback from a 10-man Benfica. Teams to feature in the semi-finals have been really consistent throughout the tournament as is evident from the fact that they have topped their respective groups. Spain continued its dominance here as well while Real and Barcelona established themselves as the two top club teams. Italy have lost out on one Champions League spot to Germany from next season and they should not feel hard done by as none of the Serie A teams could make it to the last four whereas German Champions Bayern Munich look to challenge the Spanish Armada. The biggest surprise in the lineup is Chelsea, who have managed to come so far this season. So after a roller coaster ride, it is that time of the season when finally men are separated from the boys. Now let us prepare for the last two-legged encounter of the season.

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FC Bayern Munchen (GER) vs Real Madrid FC (ESP)

April 17, 2012

Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)

Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid (ESP)

April 25, 2012

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Winner – 4, Runners-up – 4

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Winner – 9, Runners-up – 3

Quarter-Final

Quarter-Final

Olympique de Marseille (2-0, 2-0)

Apoel FC (3-0, 5-2)

Round of 16

Round of 16

FC Basel 1893 (0-1, 7-0)

PFC CSKA Moskva (1-1, 4-1)

Group Stage | Group A Winner

Group Stage | Group D Winner

Villarreal CF (A) 2-0

SSC Napoli (H) 3-2

GNK Dinamo Zagreb (A) 1-0

Olympique Lyonnais (A) 2-0

Manchester City (H) 2-0

Villarreal CF (H) 3-1

AFC Ajax (H) 3-0

GNZK Dinamo Zagreb (H) 6-2

SSC Napoli (A) 1-1

Manchester City (A) 0-2

Olympique Lyonnais (H) 4-0

AFC Ajax (A) 3-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

There is no bigger incentive for Bayern to win this tie than to feature in their home turf for the final on May 19. They face a mighty Real Madrid, a record nine-time conquerors of the continent. While many are preparing for another El Clasico in the final, it is the German Superpowers who seem to have a realistic chance of preventing that from happening. They had to come through the rigours of play-offs but they have looked sharper and clinical as the tournament approaches its crescendo. The Bavarians then topped the Group of Death before annihilating FC Basel 7-0 at home in the Round of 16 following a shock defeat in the first leg. A typical professional German display saw them ease past Marseille thereafter. Now they find themselves in a proper Big Match, and anyone can win it. Mario Gomez vs Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery vs Kaka, Philipp Lahm vs Sergio Ramos, Manuel Neuer vs Iker Casillas – it is perfect show time. These two superpowers of Europe have locked horns quite a few times resulting in almost even honours. Real has been in superb form from their group stages where they secured a perfect win record – only the fifth club in the history of the tournament to do so. A creditable draw in the freezing Moscow turf set them up nicely for the Round of 16. Los Blancos followed it up with bidding adieu to APOEL FC from little Cyprus – story of the season so far. Cristiano Ronaldo may be leading his counterpart in La Liga in terms of goal scoring but he is still some way behind in Europe. It will be a good stage for him to set the records straight as the competition nears its business end. Real has a star-studded side which is performing like a well-oiled machine – they have top two assist providers in Kaka and Karim Benzema, 3 out of the top 5 scorers are from Bernabéu (Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and José Callejón). Coupled with a compact defence which has conceded the least number of goals so far, this is a mouth-watering tie.

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Chelsea FC (ENG) vs FC Barcelona (ESP)

 

April 18, 2012

Stamford Bridge, London (ENG)

Camp Nou, Barcelona (ESP)

April 24, 2012

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Runners-up – 1

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Winner – 4, Runners-up – 3

Quarter-Final

Quarter-Final

SL Benfica (1-0, 2-1)

AC Milan (0-0, 3-1)

Round of 16

Round of 16

Napoli (1-3, 4-1)

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (1-3, 7-1)

Group Stage | Group E Winner

Group Stage | Group H Winner

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (H) 2-0

KRC Genk (A) 1-1

AC Milan (H) 2-2

FC Viktoria Plzen (A) 4-0

Valencia CF (A) 1-1

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (A) 1-2

FC Bate Borisov (A) 5-0

AC Milan (A) 3-2

KRC Genk (H) 5-0

Valencia CF (H) 3-0

FC Viktoria Plzen (H) 2-0

FC Bate Borisov (H) 4-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

Chelsea seem to have over-achieved this season in the Champions League considering their woeful domestic form and unrest in the dressing room. They saw off Valencia in the last match day in a must-win encounter in some style before staging one of the most memorable comebacks in the history of Champions League against Napoli in the Round of 16. Another tough nut waited in the quarter-finals and Chelsea rode their luck a little to knock out a resolute and gritty Benfica side. They would be determined to keep their continental form going as automatic Champions League qualification from the EPL is uncertain and hence winning this year’s Cup would be their only hope. They face the mighty Barcelona in a repeat fixture to 2009 edition. That time, Barcelona advanced on away goals and Chelsea would hope to do it one better this time.   Chelsea seem to be the weakest of the surviving teams – they have hardly been able to hold on to the ball, rarely threatened the goal mouth, scored the least and conceded the most number of goals. Add to that the quality of opposition over the two-legged semi-final tie – possibly the greatest club team ever to have played the game – and Chelsea seem down and out. But matches have never been won on paper and Chelsea would dearly love to prove this once again. Barcelona are through to the semi-finals of this competition fifth time in a row. By doing so, they have equalled the feat set by their archrivals Real Madrid in the late ‘50s – then known as the European Cup. And they would like to match another envious record held by their quarter-final rivals – win consecutive top European Club honours. Records are nothing new to the man named Lionel Messi. He became the youngest man, and fourth overall, to score 50 Champions League goals and also bettered his own Cup record of 12 goals in a season. The little magician has netted only 56 times so far this season and there will be hardly anyone who would bet against him scoring in this tie. People mesmerised by the tiki-taka brand of football often fail to appreciate their tight defence – Barca have not lost at home in Europe since 2009. They have some problem against aerial balls, but they more than make up for it through their defensive organisation. Except for Milan in the group stages, the Catalan side have conceded only 3 goals while scoring a staggering 28 in seven matches. They do keep the ball well – better than any other team in the competition – and make good use of it as they have outscored everyone else. This should be a good test for Barcelona, but not likely to be much more than a good warm-up for the impending final.

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The Europa Cup Previews

Some call it the poor cousin of the Champions League, but the teams vying for the Europa League would strongly object to that. After much blood, sweat and rigour of the horrific schedule, four teams survive to fight it out. The all-conquering Spanish dominance is even more evident here as we have Sporting Clube de Portugal sandwiched between three clubs from Spain. Some may argue that the competition is dampened by the reluctance of top clubs to compete in this demanding tournament and they have preferred to focus on their respective domestic leagues. But this, in no way, can undermine the achievements of the semi-finalists. Let us build up to these matches.

Club Atletico de Madrid vs Valencia CF

In their last meeting in Europe, Atletico Madrid edged past Valencia on the basis of away goals in the quarter-finals of Europa League in 2009-10 and went all the way to lift the trophy. This time they will host Valencia on April 19 with the away match a week later. The club from Madrid has failed to score against their La Liga counterpart in the domestic season and they would surely love to break the shackles this time. Thibaut Courtois, on loan from Chelsea, has been in superb form under the bars for them – taking over from the now Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea – conceding the least number of goals in the competition. Up front, Falcao Garcia, the leading goal scorer in the tournament, has impressed some cash rich clubs in Europe and he would surely like to prove his worth. Not only him – Adrian Lopez, Eduardo Salvio – Atletico have quite a few options going forward and they are clear favourites to clinch it.  They have shown the desire by eliminating Manchester United from the tournament. On the other hand, Valencia are the only team to have come from the Champions League, having been eliminated on the last match day of the group stages in the hands of Chelsea. They boast of a strong defence consisting of Victor Ruiz and Adil Rami. They have a free-flowing approach to the game, reminiscent of any modern top Spanish side. They have netted 4 goals in two consecutive home matches and they would look to hone their goal scoring skills once again against their Spanish compatriots.

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Sporting Clube de Portugal vs Athletic Club

Only non-Spanish team left in the competition, Sporting Club will entertain Athletic Club on April 19 in an Iberian derby. They are enjoying their best season in Europe since 2005. History favours the Portuguese side in this tie as they have beaten – that too after trailing in the first leg – Athletic Club in their only meeting so far, way back in 1985-86 season. But they will have to go past a fantastic Gorka Iraizoz who has made the most number of saves (37) in the competition. Sporting is inspired by the ex-Liverpool left-back Emiliano Insua who is having a tremendous season. Ricky van Wolfswinkel up front also has performed beyond expectation. They are up against an Athletic team, which is the only team to compete with Atletico de Madrid in terms of goal scoring. Diego da Cunha is leading the pack in the midfield as he leads the assists chart with four of them while chipping in a few on his own. They have come back from behind twice against FC Schalke 04 to clinch the tie which shows their hunger for success. In fact, they have had the most number of attempts – 67, close to six per match on an average – in goal amongst the teams surviving in the competition. Markel Susaeta has orchestrated the midfield quite well and he will have a major part to play in this tie as well. But they have leaked quite generously in the back and this is one area where they would like to improve. They will be further handicapped as star defender Javi Martinez has been suspended. This should be a fierce battle as both the teams rank right up there in terms of fouls committed throughout the tournament. Nonetheless, this promises to be an enthralling contest – plenty of goals, some shrewd tactics being employed and a nail-biting finish.

English Premier League 2011-12 – A Preview

Arsenal FC

Nickname: The Gunners
Manager: Arsene Wenger
Stadium: Emirates Stadium
Last season’s league position: 4th
Final Verdict: 5th

Players In

Players Out

Gervinho (Lille, £10.6 million), Francis Coquelin (Lorient), Pedro Botelho (FC Cartagena), Armand Traoré (Juventus), Carl Jenkinson (Charlton, £990k), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Southampton, £12.14 million) Jens Lehmann (End of career), Mark Randall (Chesterfield, free transfer), Gaël Clichy (Man City, £6.82 million), Denílson (São Paulo), Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (Ipswich, £1.1 million), Pedro Botelho (Rayo Vallecano)
Season’s predictions:When Arsene Wenger took over the North London club, fans were clamouring for more attacking football. “One-nil to the Arsenal” was the chant of the day, but the fans wanted more. 15 years on and Arsenal play some of the most attractive football in the Premier League, but, crucially, it doesn’t quite get the job done. Arsenal conceded the highest percentage of goals from set pieces last term, and this will have to be corrected in order for them to get back to challenging for the title once more. The seemingly never-ending transfer saga of club captain Cesc Fabregas, and the results of the dissatisfaction of Samir Nasri will also go a long way to deciding how strong a challenge the Londoners can mount this season. Signing a strong, commanding centre-back like Robert Huth (Stoke City) or Christopher Samba (Blackburn Rovers) that takes no prisoners would help immensely. Look for Arsene to avoid signing one of those types, and for Arsenal to flatter early, but fade away by February-March. Top 4 finish will be a struggle this season.

Aston Villa

Nickname: Villains
Manager: Alex McLeish
Stadium: Villa Park
Last season’s league position: 9th
Final Verdict: 10th

Players In

Players Out

Shay Given (Manchester City, £3.5m), Charles N’zogbia (Wigan Athletic, £9.5m) Stewart Downing(Liverpool, £20), Ashley Young (Manchester United, £16m), Brad Friedel(Tottenham, free), Nigel Reo-Coker(released), John Carew (released),Moustapha Salifou (released), Robert Pires (released), Isaiah Osbourne(released), Harry Forrester (released), Arsenio Halfhuid (released).
Season’s predictions:After a rocky start last season, due to the departure of Martin O’Neill, Villa did well to finish the season in the top half. Having lost two of their key players, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing to Manchester United and Liverpool respectively, the Villains will do well to equal or better their accomplishments last season. New manager Alex McLeish will instill some defensive cohesion so look for Aston Villa to build from the back this season. Having crossed the divide in England’s 2nd city only 2 months ago, McLeish will also have to work hard to win over the fans. His every mistake will be scrutinized intensely. Top half finish will be difficult, look for Villa to finish between 10th and 12th.

Blackburn Rovers

Nickname: Rovers
Manager: Steve Kean
Stadium: Ewood Park
Last season’s league position: 15th
Final Verdict: 15th

Players In

Players Out

David Goodwillie (Dundee United, £2m), Tom Hitchcock (Blackburn Rovers U18), Radosav Petrovic (Partizan, £ 2 million) Phil Jones(Manchester United, £16.5 million),Frank Fielding (Derby, £400k), Jordan Bowen (released), Jason Brown (released), Zurab Khizanishvili(released), Maceo Rigters (released), Michael Potts (released), Benjani Mwarurawi (released), Aaron Doran (Inverness Cal.), Michael Potts (York City, released), Zurab Khizanishvili (Kayserispor, released), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04)
Season’s predictions:Steve Kean will have a lot to live up to in his first full season in charge of Blackburn Rovers. He claims his team has what it takes – backed in no small part by their money-laden Indian owners – to reach the hallowed regions of the Champions League qualification spots in 4 years. He will have to do it without Phil Jones, sold to Manchester United for a hearty 16.5 million pounds. And might have to do it without the services of Christopher Samba as well, who is a target of Arsenal. With misfit Senegalese forward, El Hadji Diouf still AWOL, Kean will have a big decision to make even if the talented frontman returns. Narrowly avoiding relegation only on the last day of last season, Blackburn will be lucky if they can better their accomplishment of 15th next season.

Bolton Wanderers

Nickname: Trotters
Manager: Owen Coyle
Stadium: Reebok Stadium
Last season’s league position: 14th
Final Verdict: 16th

Players In

Players Out

Nigel Reo-Coker (Aston Villa, free transfer), Darren Pratley (Swansea, free transfer), Tyrone Mears (Burnley, £ 1.5 million), Chris Eagles (Burnley, £ 1.5 million) Johan Elmander (Galatasaray, released), Jlloyd Samuel (released), Joey O’Brien (West Ham, released), Ali Al-Habsi (Wigan, £ 3.8 million), Danny Ward (Huddersfield, £ 110k), Matthew Taylor (West Ham, £ 2.2 million), Sam Sheridan (Stockport, released), Tamir Cohen (Maccabi Haifa, released)
Season’s predictions:The wanderers should have done a lot better last season than their 14th position concluded. They were often a very entertaining, yet solid team. Owen Coyle’s style of passing the ball along the turf took some time to get going, considering where Bolton’s tendencies were coming from. The loss of on-loan star Daniel Sturridge will reduce the attacking flair somewhat, and therefore it will be difficult for Bolton to consolidate a good first season under Coyle, and push on for a top half finish.

Chelsea

Nickname: The Blues
Manager: Andre Villas-Boas
Stadium: Stamford Bridge
Last season’s league position: 2nd
Final Verdict: 4th

Players In

Players Out

Thibaut Courtois (£7.8m, Genk), Lucas Piazón (São Paulo Futebol Clube B, £ 6.6 million), Sam Walker (Northampton), Slobodan Rajkovic (Vitesse), Matej Delac (Vitesse), Oriol Romeu (Barcelona B, £ 4.4 million), Romelu Lukaku (RSC Anderlecht, £ 19.36 million) Jack Cork (Southampton, £740k), Michael Mancienne (Hamburg, £2.2m), Jacopo Sala (Hamburg, undisclosed), Gokhan Tore (Hamburg, undisclosed), Sam Hutchinson(released), Carl Magnay (released), Jan Sebek (released), Danny Philliskirk (released), Jeffrey Bruma(Hamburg, two-season loan), Sam Walker (Northampton Town, loan), Fabio Borini (Parma), Nemanja Matic (Benfica Lissab., £ 4.4 million), Thibaut Courtois (Atlético Madrid, loan), Yuri Zhirkov (Anzhi, £ 13.2 million)
Season’s predictions:The end of another season, and the end of another manager’s reign at Roman Abramovich’s favourite boardgame. Andre Vilas-Boas steps in, fresh from leading Porto to the treble of the League, Portuguese Cup and Europa League Titles; much like his former mentor and boss, Jose Mourinho. It would seem like the script is written for Vilas-Boas, as he’s almost mirrored the movements of the ‘Special One’ in moving from success at Porto to uncertainty at Chelsea. On paper, Vilas-Boas fits the bill to herald a similar sort of renaissance to Chelsea as the man who will likely be his greatest challenger in his first season, Sir Alex Ferguson. The question on everyone’s lips is: will he be allowed the time to prove his worth? Should Vilas-Boas find a way to release the pent-up goal scoring frustrations of Fernando Torres, and mastermind a way to have the Spaniard fit into a team and system that didn’t necessarily need his services, Chelsea could well be on their way to success. AVB is likely to have Chelsea battling with Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City for the title this season.

Everton FC

Nickname: The Toffees
Manager: David Moyes
Stadium: Goodison Park
Last season’s league position: 7th
Final Verdict: 7th

Players In

Players Out

Eric Dier (Sporting, loan), Joseph Yobo (Fenerbahce), Ross Barkley (Everton Res.) James Vaughan(Norwich, £2m), Kieran Agard(released), Hope Akpan (released), Luke Dobie (released), Iain Turner(released), Nathan Craig (released),Gerard Kinsella (released), Lee McArdle (released), John Nolan (Stockport County, free)
Season’s predictions:Arsene Wenger is known to be a shrewd economist, but surely David Moyes is the best manager around at doing a lot with nothing. Everton consistently have no money to use in the transfer market, yet they tend to always pack quite a punch. Should the injury bug avoid the Toffees’ dressing room for the most part this season, Everton are more than capable of snatching a European spot come May 2012. Key players like Louis Saha, Marouane Fellaini, Mikel Arteta and Leighton Baines all have to remain fit for the Toffees to remain in contention for European spots. Known to be notoriously slow starters, watch out for Everton getting it right from early and becoming a major threat to those seeking European births from as early as August. Top 7 finish may not seem likely, but surely the worst of their injuries are past them.

Fulham FC

Nickname: The Cottagers
Manager: Martin Jol
Stadium: Craven Cottage
Last season’s league position: 8th
Final Verdict: 11th

Players In

Players Out

Dan Burn (Darlington, undisclosed), David Stockdale (Ipswich), Csaba Somogyi (Rakospalotai EAC, undisclosed),John Arne Riise (Roma, £2.46m), Marcel Gecov (Slovan Liberec, £704k), Pajtim Kasami (Palermo, £3.3m) Zoltan Gera (released), Diomansy Kamara (released), John Pantsil (released), Eddie Johnson (released), Matthew Saunders (released), David Stockdale (Ipswich, loan), Jonathan Greening (Nottm Forest, £ 616k), Kagisho Dikgacoi (Crystal Palace, £590k)
Season’s predictions:Attack! Attack! Attack! Fulham’s new manager, Martin Jol, is well known in the Premier League and tends to prefer attack to defence. Fulham already have a solid core of Hangeland, Dempsey and Danny Murphy. Even if the former Merseyside Red is on the wane of his career, he may still fit enough for one last hurrah. The return of Bobby Zamora to the side will seem like a new signing, and if the big England man can reclaim the form he showed in the 09-10 season, Fulham should be able to find themselves somewhere between 9th and 11th this season.

Liverpool

Nickname: The Reds
Manager: Kenny Dalglish
Stadium: Anfield
Last season’s league position: 6th
Final Verdict: 3rd

Players In

Players Out

Stewart Downing (Aston Villa, £20m), Jordan Henderson (Sunderland, £15.84 million), Charlie Adam (Blackpool, £7.40 million), Alexander Doni (Roma, free transfer) Jason Banton (released), Deale Chamberlain (released), Douglas Cooper (released), Sean Highdale (released), Steven Irwin (released), Nikola Saric (released), Paul Konchesky(Leicester City, £1.5m), Stephen Darby (Rochdale, loan), Péter Gulácsi (Hull, loan), Thomas Ince (Blackpool, £ 57k), Milan Jovanovic (RSC Anderlecht, £ 704k)
Season’s predictions:He huffed, and he puffed, and he blew their house down. Sir Alex Ferguson accomplished his self-assigned goal of ‘knocking Liverpool off their perch’ by claiming a 19th title and sitting atop the list of English League title winners. However, this could prove to be a blessing in disguise for Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool. King Kenny will be into his second season of attempting to break Liverpool’s jinx and carry the Kop to a league title for the first time since 1990. Having sold Fernando Torres to Chelsea in January for a whopping 50 million pounds, and replaced him with Andy Carroll (35 million) and Luis Suarez (22.8 million), Dalglish began constructing a new-look forward line which he hopes will help to bring the glory days back to the Kop. Following on those January moves, Liverpool have already brought in Jordan Henderson (Sunderland), Charlie Adam (Blackpool) and Stewart Downing (Aston Villa) to provide more youth, vision and width respectively. Dalglish will need more time to complete the rebuilding process, but perhaps the removal of the crown of being England’s most successful team will lift a weight off the players’ shoulders and allow them to play with more freedom and less pressure. Look for Liverpool to battle it out with Manchester City and Chelsea for spots behind Manchester United.

Manchester City

Nickname: The Citizens
Manager: Roberto Mancini
Stadium: City of Machester Stadium
Last season’s league position: 3rd
Final Verdict: 2nd

Players In

Players Out

Stefan Savic (Partizan Belgrade, £10.5), Gael Clichy (Arsenal, £7 million), Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid, £39.6 million), Costel Pantilimon (Poli. Timisoara, £5.72 million) Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich, £11.8m), Shay Given (Aston Villa, £3.3 million) Patrick Vieira (end of career), Shaleum Logan (Brentford, released), Scott Kay (Macclesfield, released), Andrew Tutte (Rochdale, released), David Gonzalez (Aberdeen, loan), James Poole (Hartpool, released), Jo (Internacional), Kieran Trippier (Burnley, loan)
Season’s predictions:Manchester City has a lot of expectations to live up to in their first season in the Champions League. Having piped Arsenal for 3rd last season, they avoid the tricky playoff games and step directly into the CL Group Stage Draw. In addition to this 1st bite of the Champions League cherry, City’s fans will be hoping for continued improvement on their league position, and hence a challenge for the title. They certainly have the money to back any of those ambitions. And having already brought in Sergio Aguero for a club record 39.6million pounds, there’s speculation they could still acquire Samir Nasri from Arsenal to bolster an already bulging attacking lineup. Can they avoid a letdown after their first successful season in 34 years? The ongoing Carlos Tevez Saga as well as the turbulent nature of Mario Balotelli is not helping their pre-season preparations. But, do expect them to battle it out with Chelsea and Liverpool for the challenger spots to Manchester United.

Manchester United

Nickname: Red Devils
Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson
Stadium: Old Trafford
Last season’s league position: Champions
Final Verdict: Champions

Players In

Players Out

Ashley Young (Aston Villa, £16m), Phil Jones (Blackburn Rovers, £16.5 million), David De Gea (Atletico Madrid, £17 million) Owen Hargreaves (released), Edwin van der Sar (end of career), Gary Neville (end of career), Paul Scholes (end of career), Gabriel Obertan (Newcastle, £300k), Wes Brown (Sunderland, £1.3m), John O’Shea (Sunderland, £3.9m), Rober Brady (Hull, loan), Richie de Laet (Norwich, loan), Bebe (Besiktas, loan), Ritchie De Laet (Norwich City, loan), Joe Dudgeon (Hull, £ 84k), Corry Evans (Hull, £ 502k), Ryan Tunnicliffe (Peterborough, loan), Scott Wootton (Peterborough, loan), Nicky Ajose (Peterborough, £ 300k)
Season’s predictions:Champions and favourites to retain. Manchester United are coming off a record breaking 19th title winning season, but ironically, rarely looked like champions of old in 2010-2011. Their away from was some of the worst for a league champion in English football history, yet they churned out the results needed to become worthy Champions in the end. Having seen Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes hang up their boots, along with Owen Hargreaves being released, Wes Brown and John O’Shea moving on, Sir Alex has strengthened his squad with the youthful additions of goalkeeper David De Gea and versatile defender Phil Jones, as well as the proven talent of Ashley Young to provide competition for Antonio Valencia and Nani on the wings. Those may be all the signings United fans can hope for this summer, however. That said, United played largely below their standards last season, and the current additions to the squad certainly add enough quality to help the favourites for this year’s title get back to some of their best performances.

Newcastle United

Nickname: The Magpies
Manager: Alan Pardew
Stadium: St. James’ Park
Last season’s league position: 12th
Final Verdict: 13th

Players In

Players Out

Yohan Cabaye (Lille, £4.4 million), Demba Ba (West Ham, free), Sylvain Marveaux (Rennes, free), Gabriel Obertan (Manchester United, £3 million) Kevin Nolan (West Ham, £2.9 million), Sol Campbell (released), Shefki Kuqi (released), Patrick McLaughlin (released), Ben Tozer (released)
Season’s predictions:Football is not only a wonderful game played on the pitch any more – it is a business today played in the cool conference rooms. This was proved by the transfer of Andy Carrol – Newcastle’s leading striker and capturing the imagination of a nation rapidly – to Liverpool last season. It remains to be seen how wisely (if, at all) they can spend the money earned from this transfer to strengthen their squad. They seem more inclined to selling players for some weird reasons. Joey Barton, one of the most prolific players in the EPL last season, had done enough to get a national call up but has been showed the door forcibly. Jose Enrirue is also likely joining the Reds on Merseyside. Not much to cheer about so far, except for the ever so loud Toon Army. Prediction – With Kevin Nolan also leaving, life is going to be tough for them. Lower mid-table finish in the range of 12-16 seems more likely.

Norwich City

Nickname: The Canaries
Manager: Paul Lambert
Stadium: Carrow Road
Last season’s league position: Promoted from Championship, 2nd place
Final Verdict: 19th

Players In

Players Out

James Vaughan (Everton, £2m), Steve Morison (Millwall, £2.5m), Elliott Bennett (Brighton, £1.5m), Ritchie De Laet (Manchester United, loan), Anthony Pilkington (Huddersfield, £1m), Bradley Johnson (Leeds, free transfer), Kyle Naughton (Tottenham, loan) Matt Gill (Bristol, released), Jens Berthel Askou (released), Sam Habergham (released), Luke Daley (Plymouth, £ 44k), Owain Tudur Jones (Inverness Cal., released), Luke Daley (Plymouth, £ 44k), Owain Tudur Jones (Inverness Cal., released)
Season’s predictions:Welcome to the top flight after 8 years, but be ready for a dogfight. Norwich has made giant strides by winning back to back promotions to reach this far, but the meteoritic pace may be a bit too much for their own good. Like any Championship club, they work on a shoe tight budget and it remains to be seen how much Paul Lambert can extract from his inexperience side. The chairman says “17th will be absolutely fine” – it will be difficult to go even that far I guess.

Queens Park Rangers

Nickname: The Hoops
Manager: Neil Warnock
Stadium: Loftus Road
Last season’s league position: Promoted from Championship, 1st place
Final Verdict: 14th

Players In

Players Out

JJay Bothroyd (Cardiff, free), Kieron Dyer (West Ham, free), Danny Gabbidon (West Ham, free), D. J. Campbell (Blackpool, £ 1.76 million) Lee Brown (Bristol Rovers, released), Pascal Chimbonda (released), Mikele Leigertwood (Reading, released), Joe Oastler (Torquay, released), Josh Parker (Oldham, released), , Georgias Tofas (Anagennisi Derynia, released)
Season’s predictions:Another Championship club finding it hard to rope in quality players to bolster its squad. Especially after a fall out with one of the main co-owners, the Mittals, it is unknown how much budget Neil Warnock would be given to work with. They have a solid defence, masterminded by Neil Warnock to suit his style of tactical play. Now it will be tested in the grind of EPL week-in week-out. If they can manage to get a striker to score at least 10 goals a season, they can finish in the mid table holding their heads high.

Stoke City

Nickname: The Potters
Manager: Tony Pulis
Stadium: Britannia Stadium
Last season’s league position: 13th
Final Verdict: 12th

Players In

Players Out

Jonathan Woodgate (Tottenham, free transfer), Matthew Upson (West Ham, free transfer) Abdoulaye Faye (West Ham, released), Eidur Gudjohnsen (AEK FC, released), Ibrahima Sonko (released), Carl Dickinson (Watford, £250k)
Season’s predictions:Have a good solid squad but it will be difficult to move up the ladder in this ever improving league. Taking the Potters any further is doubtful and might prove the toughest to date unless Pulis can refresh and revitalise his squad. Prediction: Some boring mid table finish.

Sunderland

Nickname: Black Cats
Manager: Steve Bruce
Stadium: Stadium of Lights
Last season’s league position: 10th
Final Verdict: 6th

Players In

Players Out

Sebastian Larsson (Birmingham, free), Kieren Westwood (Coventry, free), Connor Wickham (Ipswich, £8 million), Craig Gardner (Birmingham, £5.8 million), Ji Dong-won (Chunnam Dragons, £2.1 million), Wes Brown (Manchester United, £1.3 million), John O’Shea (Manchester United, £3.9 million), David Vaughan (Blackpool, free), Ahmed Elmohamady (Enppi, £ 2.2 million) Jordan Henderson (Liverpool, £15.8 million), Steed Malbranque (Saint-Étienne, released), Cristian Riveros (Kayserispor, loan), Bolo Zenden (released), Michael Kay (released), Nathan Luscombe (Hartpool, released), Daniel Madden (released), Robert Weir (released), Nathan Wilson (released), Mvoto Jean-Yves (Oldham, released)
Season’s predictions:Busiest team of the season by far with as many as 9 recruits. Selling Henderson for a whopping $20 million is utilized well by Steve Bruce to rope in a good mix of experienced Premiere League players – the duo from Manchester United was a real bargain. One of the most improved teams over the last 2 seasons. Prediction – A Europa cup spot will be the least the gaffer would be looking for.

Swansea Athletic FC

Nickname: The Swans
Manager: Brendan Rodgers
Stadium: Liberty Stadium
Last season’s league position: Promoted from Championship, Playoffs
Final Verdict: 18th

Players In

Players Out

Danny Graham (Watford, £3.5 million), Jose Moreira (Benfica, £750k), Leroy Lita (Middlesbrough, £1.7 million), Steven Caulker (Spurs, free transfer), Wayne Routledge (Newcastle, £2.86 million) Dorus de Vries (Wolves, released), Cedric van der Gun (released), Albert Serrán (AEK Larnaca, released), Jamie Grimes (released), Kerry Morgan (Neath FC, released), Darren Pratley (Bolton, released), Yves Makaba-Makalamby (released), Gorka Pintado (released)
Season’s predictions:First team from Wales to enter top flight football since the Premiere League was set up. They seem to have enough attacking flair in new signing Championship top goal-scorer Danny Graham, pace of ex-Premier League winger Scott Sinclair, and new signing of Jose Moreira. But their defence, which performed above expectation last time round, holds the key for the survival in top flight. Prediction – Relegation confirmed by March.

Tottenham Hotspur

Nickname: Spurs
Manager: Harry Redknapp
Stadium: White Hart lane
Last season’s league position: 5th
Final Verdict: 9th

Players In

Players Out

Brad Friedel (Aston Villa, free), Souleymane Coulibaly (Siena, undisclosed) Jonathan Woodgate (released), Jamie O’Hara (Wolves, £5m), Bongani Khumalo (Reading, loan)
Season’s predictions:Will be pushed to the limits by a rejuvenated Liverpool, big spending Manchester City and some strong & determined clubs like Everton, West Brom, Sunderland and Newcastle. Seem to be quite unsettled by the Modric saga. It may be better to let the player leave. He has already done the unthinkable by openly criticizing the club president. Otherwise, their season could be hampered as was the 2nd half of Blackpool’s due to Charlie Adam- Liverpool tug of war. Prediction – Will just hang on to a top 10 finish.

West Bromwich Albion

Nickname: Baggies
Manager: Roy Hodgson
Stadium: The Hawthorns
Last season’s league position: 11th
Final Verdict: 8th

Players In

Players Out

Billy Jones (Preston, free transfer), Gareth McAuley (Ipswich, free transfer), Ben Foster (Birmingham, £ 1million), Zoltán Gera (Fulham, released), Márton Fülöp (Ipswich, free transfer), Shane Long (Reading, £ 6 million) Ryan Allsopp (Millwall, £ 88k), Giles Barnes (Doncstar, released), Abdoulaye Meite (Dijon, released), Gianni Zuiverloon (Mallorca, released), Borja Valero (Villarreal, loan deal made permanent), Scott Carson (Bursaspor, £1.9 million), Dean Kiely (End of career)
Season’s predictions:Life at Anfield was like a square block trying to get fit in a circular hole for Roy Hodgson. It never worked out – the discomfort of leaving up to the expectation of a bigger club was evident from the out. So, he joined the Baggies. Back to square one – smaller club, little known names, compact defensive strategy of Hodgson and Baggies saw a revival in their fortune. From languishing in and around the drop zone before his arrival, Hodgson made a strong surge towards the end of the season – accepting defeat in only 2 out of its last 12 games – just to miss out on a top half finish. Prediction – Watch out for them, dark horse for a European spot.

Wigan Athletic

Nickname: The Latics
Manager: Roberto Martínez
Stadium: JJB Stadium
Last season’s league position: 16th
Final Verdict: 20th

Players In

Players Out

David Jones (Wolves, free transfer), Ali Al Habsi, (Bolton, £ 3.78 million) Antonio Amaya (Real Betis, £ 250k), Jason Koumas (released), Steven Caldwell (Birmingham, released), Daniel De Ridder (Grasshoppers, released), Joseph Holt (released), Thomas Lambert (released), Thomas Oakes (released), Abian Serrano Davila (released), Charles N’Zogbia (Aston Villa, £ 9.54 million)
Season’s predictions:Last season they survived by the skin of their teeth but things are looking gloomier day by day. The financial position of the club is in disarray and it means they are forced to sell their best player, Charles N’Zogbia. Prediction – Will get the wooden spoon.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Nickname: Wolves
Manager: Mick McCarthy
Stadium: Molineux Stadium
Last season’s league position: 17th
Final Verdict: 17th

Players In

Players Out

Jamie O’Hara (Tottenham, £ 5 million), Dorus de Vries (Swansea, free transfer), Roger Johnson (Birmingham City, £ 7 million) Jody Craddock (released), Adriano Basso (Hull, released), John Dunleavy (released), Marcus Hahnemann (released), David Jones (Wigan, released), Nathan Rooney (AFC Telford United, released), Steven Mouyokolo (Sochaux, season-long loan), Greg Halford (Portsmouth, £ 880k)
Season’s predictions:Narrowly avoided the drop last year, and will need to invest heavily to avoid relegation. Newly promoted teams will target Wolves for maximum points and truly speaking, they do stand a realistic chance of getting that. Prediction – Mick McCarthy is a shrewd tactician but it might be touch-and-go this time round for him.