Champions League: Group-by-Group Analysis

League

London – Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United all look likely to reach the last 16 of the Champions League, but Tottenham have been dealt a harsh hand with favorites Real Madrid. The Guardian Sport examines the draw with a group-by-group analysis of who will likely qualify to the next round and who will leave the tournament early:

Group A
Benfica, Basel, Manchester United, CSKA Moscow

José Mourinho will be pleased with the draw, no doubt. United have bought wisely in the summer – Romelu Lukaku has added goals and will be joined by Zlatan Ibrahimovic if they get through the group – and Nemanja Matic looks an inspired piece of business to strengthen the midfield. Benfica are still the best Portuguese team in the competition despite selling Ederson, Victor Lindelof and Nélson Semedo this summer. Bruno Varela is a very good replacement for Ederson and they have kept Pizzi and Álex Grimaldo. CSKA, meanwhile, have had a relatively poor start but have improved in the past few weeks. Igor Akinfeev has finally kept a clean sheet in the Champions League after 11 years of failing to do so and in the new manager, Viktor Goncharenko, they have a more attack-minded man in charge compared to Leonid Slutsky. Basel, who have just been hit by the retirement of club legend Matias Delgado could well finish bottom. Ricky van Wolfswinkel now leads their line.

Prediction 1 Manchester United 2 Benfica 3 CSKA Moscow 4 Basel

Star player Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United)

Group B
Bayern Munich, Anderlecht, Paris St-Germain, Celtic

All eyes will be on the French club this season as they have finally, after years of trying, made the kind of signing that should see them elevated to the level of Real Madrid and Barcelona. The impact of Neymar’s arrival on PSG cannot be overestimated and it is easy to forget now that they came within minutes of eliminating Barça last season, even without the brilliant Brazilian in their team. In Bayern they have a superb group opponent but are the German champions stronger than last season? Arguably not with Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso having retired. Corentin Tolisso has arrived from Lyon for £36.4m and James Rodríguez joined on loan from Real Madrid, but he has struggled to recapture his 2014 World Cup form. Celtic can probably snatch third place from Anderlecht – and possibly trouble Bayern and/or PSG at home – but this, sadly, looks like quite an uneven group.

Prediction 1 Bayern Munich 2 Paris Saint-Germain 3 Celtic 4 Anderlecht

Star player Neymar (PSG)

Group C
Chelsea, Roma, Atlético Madrid, Qarabag

Atlético Madrid are the team to beat considering their Champions League record of two finals in the past four years. They are working under a transfer ban and have had to loan out their only summer signing, Vitolo, who arrived from Sevilla for £31.8m. At least Antoine Griezmann decided to stay. Chelsea looked out of sorts against Burnley and then back to their defensive best in their 2-1 win against Tottenham, however Antonio Conte had two attempts at the Champions League at Juventus but was eliminated in the quarter-finals in 2012-13 and at the group stage the following year. Roma have had a summer of wholesale changes under their new sporting director, Monchi. Mohamed Salah, Antonio Rüdiger (to Chelsea) and Francesco Totti will be hard to replace but they have brought in 10 players. Qarabag became the first team from Azerbaijan to qualify for the group stage. The manager, Gurban Gurbanov, has been there since 2008 and prefers to play three up front with the South African Dino Ndlovu as the focal point.

Prediction 1 Atlético Madrid 2 Chelsea 3 Roma 4 Qarabag

Star player Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid)

Group D
Juventus, Olympiakos, Barcelona, Sporting Lisbon

A horribly competitive group with Juventus favorites having eliminated Barcelona in the quarter-finals last season. Both teams, however, have lost important players with Leonardo Bonucci joining Milan in a shock move and Neymar jumping the Barça ship for Paris Saint‑Germain. Juve looked defensively shaky in the Italian Super Cup defeat against Lazio but they still have a superb squad and have added Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for a whopping £35.7m. There is unhappiness among Barça fans after a summer during which they failed to secure Marco Verratti and signed the former Spurs midfielder Paulinho instead. They are still pursuing Philippe Coutinho and have signed Ousmane Dembélé, though. Olympiakos should finish third and are enjoying a renaissance under their new manager, Besnik Hasi. The Greek club have spent almost £20m on players this summer; Sporting, third in Portugal last season, will struggle to compete against the other three teams and Jorge Jesus’s side could still sell the midfield linchpin William Carvalho.

Prediction 1 Juventus 2 Barcelona 3 Olympiakos 4 Sporting

Star player Lionel Messi (Barcelona)

Group E
Spartak Moscow, Liverpool, Sevilla, Maribor

An even group with Liverpool slight favorites ahead of Sevilla, who are on their third manager in three years. Sevilla, who beat Liverpool in the 2016 Europa League final, now have Eduardo Berizzo in charge and while they have sold Vitolo to Atlético they have signed Éver Banega, Jesús Navas and Nolito. Jürgen Klopp has assembled a squad with an enormous amount of speed up front but they are still suspect at the back. Spartak were outstanding last season as they won their first title since 2001 but are 11th in the league and Massimo Carrera (Antonio Conte’s former assistant) may get the sack. The Dutch winger Quincy Promes, though, is a huge threat. Maribor have won one of 12 Champions League group games in their history and the former Leeds manager Darko Milanic has a huge task to improve on that record, especially as they have lost their best player, the attacking midfielder Dare Vrsic, after failing to agree a new contract.

Prediction 1 Liverpool 2 Sevilla 3 Spartak Moscow 4 Maribor

Star player Sadio Mané (Liverpool)

Group F
Shakhtar Donetsk, Napoli, Manchester City, Feyenoord

There can be no excuses for Pep Guardiola this season. He has spent more than £220m this summer with an astonishing £128.5m on full-backs. They should qualify comfortably but already, this season, Everton have exposed weaknesses at the back. Napoli are one of the most exciting sides in Europe, Maurizio Sarri’s side crushing Nice 4-0 on aggregate in the play‑offs. Goals can come from everywhere with Dries Mertens, José Callejón, Lorenzo Insigne, Arkadiusz Milik and Marek Hamsik all in the squad. Shakhtar won the Ukrainian league by 13 points last season but they have lost their best Brazilians, such as Alex Teixeira and Douglas Costa, in recent seasons. Playing in Kharkiv rather than Lviv should help the atmosphere. Feyenoord won the Dutch title for the first time in 18 years last season under Gio van Bronckhorst but they are now without arguably their three most influential players in Dirk Kuyt (retired), Terence Kongolo (Monaco) and Rick Karsdorp (Roma).

Prediction 1 Manchester City 2 Napoli 3 Shakhtar Donetsk 4 Feyenoord

Star player Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli)

Group G
Monaco, Besiktas, Porto, Leipzig

One of the more even groups with, frankly, all teams capable of going through. Monaco are the favorites despite losing some of their key players, with Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy and Tiémoué Bakayoko all joining Premier League clubs. And there has been the saga about Kylian Mbappé’s future. Not helpful. Porto have a new manager, Sérgio Conceição, and have sold the prolific André Silva to Milan but have retained the even more prolific Tiquinho Soares. Rúben Neves, of course, has joined Wolves. RB Leipzig will make their Champions League debut having kept Naby Keïta and Emil Forsberg but they lost their first league game of the season, against Schalke, and looked lackluster. Big-spending Besiktas will hope to do well as part of their president’s plan for a more global profile. They have won the past two league titles and have a competitive team with this summer’s additions of Álvaro Negredo, Pepe, Jeremain Lens and Gary Medel among others.

Prediction 1 Monaco 2 Porto 3 RB Leipzig 4 Besiktas

Star player Youri Tielemans (Monaco)

Group H
Real Madrid, Tottenham, Borussia Dortmund, Apoel Nicosia

The reigning champions look favorites to complete the first hat-trick of European Cup wins since Bayern Munich in 1974-76. All their stars have stayed and are now being pushed to even greater heights by younger players such as Mateo Kovacic, Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos. Dortmund are still a force to be reckoned with but there is no doubt the departure of Ousmane Dembélé has cast a long shadow over the club. Thomas Tuchel has been replaced by Peter Bosz as manager while Pierre‑Emerick Aubameyang is staying and Julian Weigl is fit again. Spurs’ chances probably depend on whether they can perform at Wembley and why shouldn’t they be able to now that they are playing league games there, too? In Harry Kane and Dele Alli they have a pairing that can hurt most defenses. Apoel are likely to finish last in the group, having lost Pieros Sotiriou, their top scorer last season, to FC Copenhagen.

Prediction 1 Real Madrid 2 Borussia Dortmund 3 Tottenham 4 Apoel

Star player Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

*The Guardian Sport

Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka: ‘It’s my Style of Play and Nobody can Make me Change it’

sport

London – Granit Xhaka has said he will not change his playing style despite the criticism he has received for picking up yellow and red cards during his first season in England.

The Arsenal midfielder, who scored one of the goals in the 2-0 win against Manchester United on Sunday, has been booked 10 times and sent off twice so far this season but is adamant he can continue in the same vein and that he just has to be a bit “cleverer”.

“In football you get criticised if you are sent off,” the 24-year-old said. “It’s my style of play and nobody can make me change that. Even if I get another red card, then that [is what] happens. You become cleverer, and since my [last] red card, I think things have improved.”

Arsène Wenger publicly criticised Xhaka, who joined from Borussia Mönchengladbach for £35m in the summer, after the player was sent off for the second time of the season against Burnley in January and advised him “not to tackle”.

Xhaka has stayed on the pitch since then and the Switzerland international does not think he has been targeted by referees during his first campaign in England. “I don’t know if that’s really the case, I don’t think so,” he said before adding that he is still learning about the Premier League.

“I’m not really a fan of talking about myself too much, maybe others should judge [how my first season has gone]. It’s a season that has had ups and downs, but that’s normal in your first season. I think that belongs to football.

“It’s not like I played my first football match in England. For me football is pretty much the same everywhere, the ball is round, but maybe tactically things are different than at other clubs I’ve played for.

Arsenal recently switched to a back three and Xhaka believes Wenger will keep faith in the system now that results have improved. “It doesn’t make a difference for me if you play with three at the back or four,” the Swiss said. “I played for a year at Mönchengladbach with three at the back. Of course it’s a different role but so long as things are going well, why change?”

He added: “It was an important win against United. We knew we had to win, we played a good game and deserved it too. This is a phase where we have to win every game, which we know. We have four games left that we need to approach in the same way as today. If we do that, I’m convinced that we can achieve what we want now.

Arsenal travel to Southampton on Wednesday before facing Stoke away on Saturday. They finish their league season with two home games, against Sunderland and Everton, in the final week of the campaign and Xhaka believes that victories in those four games will be enough to overhaul the teams above them and to finish in the top four.

“We always have hope – hope dies last,” he said. “It’s up to us, we need some luck along the way, but if we win the next four games, I’m convinced that we can do it. This is a top club, a great club. We’re having a season where things have been a bit more difficult but I’m convinced that in the coming years we can show another side.”

The Guardian Sport

The Peaceful One: José Mourinho Says He Is More Mature at Manchester United

José Mourinho says ‘Manchester United no longer has the super personalities that were Giggs, Scholes or Roy Keane’.

José Mourinho has said he is a more mature manager than he was at the start of his career and believes he is able to transmit that serenity to his Manchester United players.

Mourinho’s second spell at Chelsea ended acrimoniously when he was dismissed in December 2015 but, after a difficult start at United, his team are undefeated in the Premier League since October and up to fifth in the table. In an exclusive interview with France Football, to be published on Tuesday, the 54-year-old talks about the importance of establishing “peace and love” in the squad.

“Mourinho the man tries to be the opposite of what the manager is,” he said. “He tries to be discreet and calm. To find a way to disconnect. I can go home and not watch a football match, not think about football. I can do that. At the start of my career, I couldn’t. I was switched on 24 hours a day. I had to find a kind of maturity. Today I feel comfortable with my personality as a man.

“I’ve matured, I’m more at peace. A win no longer represents the moon to me, and a defeat no longer means hell. And I think I can transmit that serenity to the people who work with me, my players. I have the same ambitions as before, the same involvement and the same professionalism. But I am more in control of my emotions.”

Mourinho won the league in his second season back at Stamford Bridge but his relationship with the players seemed to suffer after he fell out with the team doctor Eva Carneiro at the beginning of the 2015-16 season. At the time of his dismissal Chelsea were 16th in the league and had lost nine of their previous 16 games.

At United he seems to have a better relationship with his squad. “You have to adapt to a club’s reality, needs and demands,” he said. “That means being intelligent … the priority is to establish relationships of love and peace in a group, to create stability. Manchester United no longer has the super personalities that were Giggs, Scholes or Roy Keane.

“Rooney and Carrick are still here and they are the last remnants of that generation, and then there is a new group of players that has to adapt. That’s why it was important for me to bring in Zlatan [Ibrahimovic]. In this team, and without being English and knowing the culture of the club, he had the personality and profile to be more than just a player.”

Mourinho does admit that England, of all the top leagues, is the toughest to win because there are so many clubs who have the financial power to sign the best players. “In England the clubs are so powerful economically that the market is open to everyone,” he said. “Take the example of Bayern in Germany. Do you know when they start winning the title every year? The previous summer, when they buy Borussia Dortmund’s best player! Götze, then Lewandowski the following year, then Hummels last year.

“Me, I came to a club with a great and prestigious history but that can no longer have things all its own way. No club in England, whether that be Man United, Liverpool or Manchester City, can dominate forever. Power is divided. Everything is harder: buying, winning, building.”

United have won the EFL Cup, reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and are in the last eight of the Europa League. Mourinho has complained about the fixture congestion that resulted in United playing on Monday (Chelsea), Thursday (Rostov) and Sunday at noon (Middlesbrough) before the international break.

Mourinho believes he has created a strong enough bond with the players for them to overcome these difficulties. He also says he has learned how to treat contrasting groups of players differently to get the best out of them, saying the Internazionale squad with which he won the 2010 Champions League responded well to his abrasive methods and “would follow him everywhere” whereas other players react better to a different approach.

“From a psychological point of view, the stronger the empathy in a group, the more substantial the bond is between players and the more you are ready. Mind games, which consist of moving someone psychologically via the media, is a way of creating a state of mind, but it is most effective when you have a team full of personalities and that is ready to absorb this type of discourse.

“At Inter, I was like a fish in water in that respect. I had Materazzi, Cordoba, Ibrahimovic, Milito, Thiago Motta … guys who were ready to follow me everywhere. It’s a different thing to work in a club where players don’t have the same profile. So before heading in any direction, the first thing you have to do is understand the people with whom you are working.”

United’s derby against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium has been rearranged for Thursday 27 April (8pm).

(The Guardian)

Euro 2016: The Guardian’s Team of the Tournament

Football Soccer - Portugal v France - EURO 2016 - Final - Stade de France, Saint-Denis near Paris, France - 10/7/16Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates with Ricardo Quaresma, Nani, Rui Patricio and the trophy after winning Euro 2016 REUTERS/Carl RecineLivepic

Euro 2016 drew to a close on Sunday night with Portugal beating France in the final in Paris. As with all tournaments there were some good games and some bad games but most were intense and highly watchable.

At the Guardian we have rated every single performance in France and can now present our official best and worst team of the tournament.

A player must have played in at least four games to be included in the starting XI for our team of Euro 2016. For our flops XI a minimum of two matches were required to be included.

Goalkeeper

Lukasz Fabianski –7.25

The Pole gets the nod instead of Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon and Northern Ireland’s Michael McGovern (both also on 7.25/10) because he made more saves during the tournament (20) than McGovern (17) and Buffon (10). The Swansea City player replaced Wojciech Szczesny for Poland’s second group game and was given three 7/10s and one 8/10 (the latter for his performance against Switzerland in the last 16, when Poland proceeded on penalties). Hugo Lloris was handed straight 7s and Portugal’s Rui Patricio paid for conceding three goals against Hungary and ended up with an average rating of 6.42.

Defence

Joshua Kimmich – 7.5

Aged only 21, the Bayern Munich player has showed remarkable maturity throughout the tournament. Has mainly played centrally for RB Leipzig and, last season, for Bayern, in defence or midfield, but excelled at right-back for Germany in France. Pep Guardiola said last season that he “has got absolutely everything” and he is so versatile he has already been dubbed the new Philipp Lahm. He scored one of the penalties against Italy and his only rivals for the right-back spot in the team of the tournament were Kyle Walker (7) and Elseid Hysaj (7) – who played three games each and would not have been considered – and Darijo Srna and Lukasz Piszczek (both 6.75).

Ragnar Sigurdsson – 7.2

A totemic presence in the centre of an Iceland defence that proved extremely difficult to break down. Helped out by his central defensive partner, Kari Arnason, they frustrated Portugal (1-1), Hungary (1-1), Austria (2-1) and England (2-1) before succumbing to France 5-2. Benefitting from the coaching and organisation of his co-coaches Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson (as did the whole team), the 30-year-old Krasnodar player could be on his way to the Premier League with several clubs interested in signing him.

Giorgio Chiellini – 7.5

Superbly aided by his Juventus team-mates Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci – and guided by Gianluigi Buffon behind him in goal – the 31-year-old from Pisa got the best average rating of the three Italian central defenders (7.5 compared to Bonucci’s 7.0 and Barzagli’s 6.0) and was the best defender at the tournament together with Kimmich, according to our judges. Other contenders for centre back were Kamil Glik (7.2), José Fonte, Michal Pazdan and Jérôme Boateng (all 7.0) as well as Pepe (6.83)

Raphaël Guerreiro – 7.2

Grew stronger as the tournament wore on. The 22-year-old Portugal left back, who was born in Paris, was solid defensively and a threat going forward. Borussia Dortmund will be pleased they signed him from Lorient before the Euros for a fee reported to be around £9m. It was not a vintage tournament for full-backs and Guerreiro’s nearest challengers were Jonny Evans and Martin Olsson (both on 7.0 but the latter only played three games) as well as Jonas Hector (6.83) and Ricardo Rodríguez (6.75).

Defensive midfield

Grzegorz Krychowiak – 7.2

The Pole keeps his place after being named in the team of the group stages – but only just. Eden Hazard and Mesut Özil also scored 7.2 but this team needed a more defensive-minded holding player and therefore Krychowiak gets the nod. Toni Kroos and Renato Sanches finished on 7.17 with Paul Pogba on 7.14 after a disappointing final. Krychowiak was a supremely calm presence at the heart of Poland’s midfield as they progressed to the quarter-finals, where they lost on penalties to the eventual winners Portugal. The 26-year-old signed for Paris St-Germain from Sevilla a few days after Poland were eliminated.

Midfield

Ivan Perisic – 7.5

The Inter player flourished on the right hand side of midfield as Croatia surprised everyone and won Group D over Spain. Extremely hard-working – as well as skilful – he scored two goals and provided one assist. Was part of one of the best midfields of the tournament (together with Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric) before they ran aground against Portugal in the last 16. Still only 27, he has improved every season since leaving Borussia Dortmund in 2013. Jakub Blaszczykowski (6.8) and Ricardo Quaresma (6.86) were two other players who performed well on the right hand side of midfield.

Andrés Iniesta – 7.5

Spain may have gone home after losing to Italy in the last 16 and largely had a tournament to forget but with two 8/10s and two 7/10s Iniesta still makes our team of the tournament. Such a classy player, he makes the game look so simple. Did not feature in our team of the group stages but, as others fell away, he now makes up the central midfield with Aaron Ramsey.

Aaron Ramsey – 7.8

The Welshman had a superb tournament and was his team’s best player by some distance. Gareth Bale had moments of brilliance and Ashley Williams led the defence heroically but Ramsey was at the heart of everything. His tireless running exhausted opponents and galvanised his team-mates. Was given an 8/10 in four of the five games he played and Wales looked a completely different side without him when he was suspended for the semi-final loss against Portugal.

Dmitri Payet – 7.29

Has been a joy to watch in the past month (well, all season in fact), and his technique when shooting or crossing has been exemplary. Pretty much carried the hosts through the group stages when his stunning 89th-minute goal beat Romania in the opening game and his strike against Albania ensured progress into the last 16. His influence faded as Antoine Griezmann took centre stage but his place in our team of the tournament was never in doubt, despite his substitution in the final.

Forward

Antoine Griezmann – 7.29

The Atlético Madrid forward takes the sole attacking place in this team after he won the Golden Boot with six goals – twice as many as any other player at the tournament. In the end it was not enough to help his side win the tournament, and coming so soon after Atlético fell at the last hurdle in the Champions League, will have left the 25-year-old heartbroken. He showed at Euro 2016 that he is a complete player. Gareth Bale just misses out on a place in the team with an average rating of 7.17 while Italy’s Éder finished with 7.0.

(The Guardian Sport)