France

Weekend Roundup (September, 17th): Slovenia wins the 2017 EuroBasket

Welcome to our new weekly report in Wheeling a round puck: the Weekend Roundup, where we’ll provide a rundown of the events that happened in the world of sport on the two busiest days of each seven-day spam.

While this concept is still a work in progress that is sure to see a few chances over the next months, the hope is that these pieces – mostly informative, but veering into commentary at times – will deliver a sensible summary of the most important incidents and results from a selected group of sports.

Therefore, football (mostly the five major European leagues), cycling (World Tour races) and tennis (ATP and WTA Tour) will be ever present – except in the offseason, of course – and it’s probable we’ll also venture regularly into the World Cup of the major winter sports (alpine skiing, ski jumping, cross country, biathlon) when time comes.

Moreover, we’ll tackle other sports as the calendar rolls around and major competitions from the likes of Athletics, Swimming or ice hockey take the spotlight. As you’ve already guessed, in this first post basketball makes an appearance due to the end of the 2017 EuroBasket, and that’s precisely the model to follow. So, let’s jump right into the hoop(s).

Basketball: Slovenian delight in Istanbul

After 18 days of competition across Europe, the European Basketball Championships ended this Sunday at the Sinan Erdem Dome in Istanbul, Turkey, the location selected to host the knockout rounds of a competition whose group stage span four different countries (Finland, Israel, Romania, Turkey) for the second time.

Slovenia and Serbia, two nations that were once part of the Republic of Yugoslavia, made it out of the 24-team field to contest the decisive match and, following a thrilling spectacle, the Slovenians were crowned European Champions for the first time by virtue of a 93-85 win.

Built around an explosive backcourt that featured Miami Heat’s point guard Goran Dragić, and 18-year-old wunderkind Luka Dončić (Real Madrid), the Slovenian’s high-flying offense had earned rave reviews throughout their flawless campaign (8-0 in the final tournament, 6-0 in qualifying), yet the Serbian’s were able to establish control in the first ten minutes and close the first quarter up 22-20.

However, with the nerves of a maiden Final put on the rear view, Slovenia took charge in the second inspired by a sublime Dragić – who ended the game with 35 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals – and they crafted a nine point advantage (56-47) at the half.

After the break, Serbia’s hopes were hanging by a thread as Slovenia looked to pull out, yet disaster struck with 4.44 min to go in the third when the influential Dončić hurt his left ankle. A consternated green-and-white fan section looked frozen as his prodigy was helped off the court, and the situation offered a perfect rallying call for their opponent. Led by Bogdan Bogdanović, which served as Serbia’s primary facilitator in the absence (from the tournament) of the entrancing Miloš Teodosić, the deficit shrank and, by the middle of the fourth period, the lead was changing hands in every possession.

It was right around this time that Slovenia’s captain Goran Dragić was also forced to leave with an injury, and few believed his team would still be able to pull off victory without its two best players. But, stunningly, they did, with their backup guards Jaka Blažič and Aleksej Nikolić coming up big in crunch time, shooter Klemen Prepelič icing big three pointers all night, naturalized forward Anthony Randolph stepping up in the final minutes, or center Gašper Vidmar making a huge block on a Bogdanović reserve lay-up to stunt Serbia’s chances of a late comeback.

Slovenian players exult after the final buzzer (credits: fiba.eurobasket)

A truly epic team effort to seal a sensational run by Slovenia, which swept Group A (Helsinki, Finland), dispatched Ukraine in the round of 16, fended off a Kristaps Porzingis-led Latvia in the quarters, and vanquished the defending Champions Spain in the semi-finals to surpass their previous best result at the EuroBasket: a fourth place in 2009, when they fell to Serbia in overtime on the semis. Not bad for a country of just 2.1M people.

Moreover, to cap it off, Goran Dragić was elected the tournament MVP, and he was joined by Dončić, Russia’s Alexei Shved, Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanović and Spain’s Pau Gasol on the EuroBasket All-Tournament Team. In the third place game, Spain defeated Russia (93-85) to claim bronze and provide a fitting send off for retiring captain Juan Carlos Navarro, who collected a staggering tenth international medal with the national team.

Tennis: Belgium and France qualify for Davis Cup Final

Third consecutive week without ATP Tour events, as Grand Slam action in New York was immediately followed by the last batch of Davis Cup ties highlighted, naturally, by the semi-finals of the World Group.  France and Belgium hosted Serbia and Australia, respectively, and they took full advantage of home court to book a spot on the Final, scheduled for late November in France.

In Lille, the French faced a Serbian team missing Novak Djokovic and Viktor Troicki, but they couldn’t avoid an early scare when Lucas Pouille succumbed to Dušan Lajović in four sets at the opener. However, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made quick work of rookie Laslo Đere to level on Friday, and then two-time Grand Slam Champions Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicholas Mahut won in doubles to set France on the right path.

Tsonga completed the job by ousting Lajovic on Sunday, laying waste to the final rubber, and thus sending the team captained by Yannick Noah to a third final in seven years (2010, 2014). With no Novak Djokovic (2010), Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka (2014) standing on their way, France has no excuses this time. They should end their 16-year drought in a couple of months.

France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga jubilates after winning the Davis Cup semi final against Serbia (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

Meanwhile, in Brussels, pundits expected a cracking matchup and it delivered. Belgium’s No.1, David Goffin, dropped the first set against John Millman but rebounded quickly to pull the hosts in front, while Nick Kyrgios rallied back from 2-1 down to brush past Steve Darcis in five sets and level at 1-1.

On Saturday, Australia’s pair (John Peers/Jordan Thompson) captured victory in commanding fashion, yet Belgium was able to respond with their backs to the wall 24 hours later. The resolute Goffin slowed down Kyrgios to triumph in four, and then Darcis snatched the vital third point in a straight sets victory over Jordan Thompson. Elation in Brussels. Belgium will make a short trip south of the border to contest a second Davis Cup Final in three years after capitulating at home to Andy Murray’s Great Britain back in 2015. Maybe they’re reserved better luck as huge underdogs on the road.

The plucky Belgians are back in the Davis Cup Final (Emmanuel Dunand /AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

In the World Group playoffs, Canada (without Milos Raonic), Croatia, Germany (missing  the Zverev brothers and Philipp Kohlschreiber) and Switzerland (no Wawrinka or Federer) were able to guarantee another year amongst the elite, while Russia was upset by Hungary and the 2012 and 2013 Champions Czech Republic fell to the Netherlands. Without Del Potro, Argentina lost at Kazakhstan to become just the third nation to be relegated the year after winning the title, while the Japan-Brazil (3-1) tie was only concluded on Monday after rain and an incoming typhoon cancelled play in Osaka on the weekend.

On the WTA Tour, the aftermath of the US Open brought a week imbued with two small, 125k international tournaments (Tokyo and Québec City) boasting rather unremarkable draws. Consequently, it wasn’t exactly a major surprise that the Japan Women’s Open Final pitted two qualifiers, World No. 171 Miyu Kato and Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas (No.100), nor that the slightly more experienced competitor eventually prevailed.

Diyas, a finalist on the same tournament back in 2014 (loss to Sam Stosur), conjured better memories this time and triumphed by 6-2, 7-5 to hold aloft her first WTA Tour trophy. Incidentally, despite a stronger field, similar scenes were observed in Canada, where Belgium’s Alison van Uytvanck defeated Hungary’s Tímea Babos in three sets (5-7, 6-4, 6-1) to conquer the 25th Tournoi de Québec and her first title at this level.

Zarina Diyas, of Kazakhstan, kisses the trophy of the Japan Women’s Open

Cycling: Irrepressible Matteo Trentin keeps rolling

With no World tour races on the calendar ahead of the World Championships, the highest ranked competition of the weekend was the Primus Classic (1.HC), also known as the GP Impanis-Van Petegem. A Belgium event won by the likes of Fernando Gavíria, Andre Greipel or Greg van Avermaet in recent seasons, this year’s edition reaffirmed the credentials of one of the most in-form riders on the tour.

Fresh off four stage wins in Spain, Quick-Step Floors’ Matteo Trentin flexed his muscles once again to triumph in Boortmeerbeek, Flanders, on Saturday. Part of a 15-men group sitting in front of the peloton late, the 28-year-old disregarded a highly-advantageous situation for his team – numbers in the break and sprinter Gaviria lined up to take victory – when he took off with 6.5 km to go carrying just BMC’s Jean-Pierre Drucker on his trail. A risky move bound to upset his directors had it gone wrong, but one the Italian would follow up perfectly when he eschewed his partner-in-crime with a couple of kilometres to go and rode solo to raise his arms at the finish line.

Victory for Matteo Trentin in Belgium

With the World Championships road race one week away, that was a mightily impressive display from the man that should lead a strong Italian contingent looking for a first title since 2008.

This weekend also concluded the 2017 Tour of Denmark with a fourth consecutive overall triumph for a local boy. About to complete his first World Tour season, 21-year-old Mads Pedersen (Trek Segafredo), the Danish National Champion, held off two-time winner (2014, 2016) Michael Valgren (Astana Pro Team) to secure his best career win to date in front of his compatriots. Pedersen had obtained the lead after winning stage 3, edging Valgren at the finish, and he administered his meagre advantage during Friday’s ITT and Saturday’s last stage, when he finished second to Max Walscheid (Team Sunweb) to clinch victory in the general classification.

On Sunday, the UCI World Championships kicked off in Bergen with the team time trial competition. Since the rebirth of the event, in 2012, only five teams (BMC, Quick Step, Orica-Scott, Sky and Movistar) had managed to medal, yet the day would belong to Team Sunweb, still regarded as an outsider despite boasting, probably, the best time trail specialist in the World.

Team Sunweb won the team time trial title at the start of the World Championships in Bergen (NTB Scanpix/Cornelius Poppe via REUTERS)

With Tom Dumoulin and fellow Dutch Wilco Kelderman powering the six-men unit, the German outfit upended pre-race favourites BMC, who repeated the second place of 2016, and the star-studded Team Sky, whose lineup contained Chris Froome and former World Champions Vasil Kyrienka (ITT, 2015) and Michal Kwiatkowski (road race, 2014). Quick-Step Floors, who has won a record three times, including in 2016, finished fourth, 35 seconds off Team Sunweb’s pace.

Football: Shorthanded Real Madrid pulls through at San Sebastián

La Liga

Traditionally, Real Sociedad’s Anoeta is one of the toughest grounds in Spain, and Real Madrid didn’t make their task any easier by dropping points unexpectedly in the previous two matchdays and lining up without Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema (all injured) and Cristiano Ronaldo (suspended). Zidane’s team couldn’t afford to give Barça more leeway at the top of the table, and they didn’t, scrapping a 3-1 victory against a team that was three of three up to this game.

One day earlier, at Getafe, FC Barcelona suffered to keep their 100% win record intact and the four-point gap on the rivals. The hosts scored first, on a screamer from Shibasaki – the first goal allowed by the Catalans on the league – but substitutes Denis Suárez and the much-scorned Paulinho turned the game around. The bad news would came later, when it was announced their 105M addiction Ousmane Dembélé had been ruled out for a few months with a thigh injury.

Paulinho’s first goal with FC Barcelona allowed the Catalans to grab the three points at Getafe (Denis Doyle/GettyImages)

Elsewhere, Atlético Madrid opened their new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, with a narrow 1-0 victory over last place Málaga. Antoine Griezmann scored the game’s lone goal and the “Colchoneros” moved up the table to fourth, tied with their city rivals, while Sevilla passed at Girona with a goal from Colombian forward Luis Muriel and rose to second, with 10 pts. At the bottom, Málaga is still stuck on neutral, as is Alavés, still goalless on the season and comprehensively beaten at home by Villareal (0-3) this week.

English Premier League

Heading into round 5, Manchester United and Manchester City shared the Premier League lead with 10 pts, and things didn’t change in the weekend after both sides picked up easy wins and watched as their competitors left points on the board.

On Saturday, Manchester City cruised to another rout, pumping 6 goals at Watford, who had entered the round undefeated (2W, 2D). Kun Agüero tallied three times on the afternoon to  push the Citizens goal scoring record over the last seven days to a staggering 15-0, while their rivals responded by dispatching the struggling Everton (1 win in five matches) by 4-0. It wasn’t as easy as it looks though, since Old Trafford was only allowed a sigh of relief when Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored the second goal in the 83th minute.

Argentine striker Sergio Agüero was on top form in Man City’s visit to Watford (AFP Photo/Ben STANSALL)

Chelsea continues in pursue of the front duo, but they lost ground after drawing 0-0 against Arsenal. Liverpool dropped points at home once again, this time to Burnley (1-1), while Tottenham couldn’t break past Swansea’s wall and have yet to win at Wembley for the Premier League. It stands to reason their mid-week triumph over Dortmund didn’t broke the curse, and that’s good news for a team like Newcastle, who won for a third consecutive week after dropping the first two matches of the campaign, and leaped to fourth.

At the bottom, Crystal Palace’s sacking of Frank de Boer and subsequent appointment of Roy Hodgson didn’t pay immediate dividends, as the former England manager oversaw a 0-1 defeat to Southampton that saw the South Londoners write some history…

And the nightmare may not end soon since their next three opponents are Man City (a), Man Utd (a), and Chelsea (h)…

Serie A

Inter, Juve and Napoli had collected three points in every game played and they kept the pace in round four. The Nerazzurri found two late goals at Crotone to snatch victory, Paulo Dybala bagged a hat trick to steer Juventus on their visit to Sassuolo and now counts eight goals in four matches, and Napoli schooled newly-promoted Benevento (0 pts, last place) at the San Paolo (6-0).

Ciro Immobile’s brace helped Lazio came out victorious at Genoa (2-3), keeping the capital side two points off the top, while AC Milan bounced back from last week’s loss with the Laziale to climb to fifth, with 9 pts, after overcoming Udinese (2-1)

Bundesliga

After being surprised on the Europa League mid-week, Hoffenheim couldn’t beat Hertha Berlin at home on Sunday, and were thus dumped out of the front carriage. Hannover and Dortmund, who routed Cologne (5-0) and have yet to concede a goal, are now the duo ahead, with ten points each, while Bayern Munich is right behind.

The Bavarians calmed their fans with a cool 4-0 home win over Mainz courtesy of their star forwards. Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben and Robert Lewandowski (2) were on target, and the five-time defending Champions now accumulate nine points, the same as Schalke 04, who triumphed at Werder Bremen.

Thomas Muller (#25) and Robert Lewandowski (#9) celebrate one of the goals scored against Mainz on Saturday (Andreas Gebert/dpa)

Last year’s runners-up RB Leipzig were stifled by Borussia Mönchengladbach (2-2), while Bayer Leverkusen finally picked up a win (4-0, Freiburg) to leave the relegation zone.

Ligue 1

Monaco hosted Strasbourg after the humbling 0-4 defeat in Nice last week, and they did what was asked, with Falcao notching twice in their 3-0 victory to keep them three points off PSG. The Colombian now has 9 goals in 6 games to top the Golden Shoe race, and distanced himself from Edison Cavani, who was held off the scoresheet as the Parisians eventually broke Lyon’s opposition late. It took own goals by defenders Marcelo and Jérémy Morel, but PSG is now a perfect six of six.

Saint-Etiénne, winners 1-0 at Dijon, are in third place with 13 pts, followed by Bordeux, Lyon and Marseille, while Marcelo Bielsa’s Lille lost in stoppage time at Guingamp, and haven’t taken three points since the opening fixture. They have 5 pts amassed in six matches, and are just one above the red line.

Moment of the weekend

A couple of outstanding football goals around the world this week, but we’ll grant the stage on this first Weekend Roundup to another debut.

After 50 years at the Vicente Calderón, Atletico Madrid revealed their new home and Antoine Griezmann was the man on duty, directing home the ball after an excellence play down the right flank by Angel Correa. A goal worth three points for Diego Simeone’s team, and just another reason to celebrate on a special night.

 

Advertisements

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group C

Headlined by one of the main candidates to the title, Group C is the most interesting of the preliminary stage because every team can realistically entertain the idea of advancing.

If everything goes according to plan, France should casually stroll to the next round and leave Switzerland, Iceland and Austria to discuss the other ticket, with the Swiss edging their rivals in individual talent, Iceland counting on being the only side to have participated in the competition previously, and Austria believing their core group of Germany-based players can carry the mail and overachieve.

France

Will Les Bleues finally get over the hump?  On paper, France is blessed with the strongest squad in the competition – next to Germany – but over the last international competitions they’ve repeatedly been stopped in the knockout rounds (QFs at the 2013 Euro, 2015 WC and 2016 Olympics) and underperformed significantly to the dismay of their fans.

Populated by Olympique Lyon and Paris St. Germain players’, the Finalists of this years’ Champions League, it’s more than time the French put it all together and topple Germany and the rest of the field to win a maiden international trophy. If they miss the mark again, tensions will escalate to unbearable highs ahead of the 2019 World Cup, which France will host.

Qualification: Group 3 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Sixth

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Olivier Echouafni

Star Player: Amandine Henry (Portland Thorns, USA)

The 27-year-old Henry is probably the finest defensive midfielder in women’s football these days due to her blend of controlled aggression, vision, passing range and poise in possession.

Amandine Henry, the outstanding “milieu du terrain” for France

Initiating the transition from the space usually destined to the defensive anchor, the French midfielder is able to impact the game in several areas, breaking lines with her elegant strides, picking up both long and short passes, initiating the press high up the pitch or tackling with aplomb. Moreover, her all-around brilliance shines even more when she can seamlessly swap roles with long time midfield partner Camille Abily, with whom she played for 9 seasons at Lyon to incredible success.

Awarded the Silver Ball for the second best player of the 2015 World Cup, Henry embraced a new challenge last year, traveling overseas to represent the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, but she’s still well versed on the style and tendencies of most of her French teammates, who surely breathe better knowing the midfielder is shielding their back.

Player to watch: Sakina Karchaoui (Montpellier HSC)

A surprise late call up for the French team that played at the 2016 Olympic Games, Sakina Karchaoui is rapidly becoming an important member of Les Bleues as a result of a series of solid defensive performances in high-stake matches.

The 21-year-old ascended the youth ranks as an offensive midfielder, but transformed into a left back at the end of her academy days in Montpellier and the decision is paying off big time. Speedy, athletic and aggressive, Karchaoui displays good defensive instincts, but what sets her apart is the effusive disposition and the energetic runs up and down the flank which usually end up with venomous crosses towards the box. Those are qualities that don’t proliferate in women’s football, much less in quality full backs, and therefore the Franco-Moroccan will be one of the hot properties to monitor over the next few seasons.

Twenty-one-year-old Sakina Karchaoui is one of the new faces of Team France

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): S. Bouhaddi; J. Houara – G. Mbock Bathy – W. Renard (C) – S. Karchaoui; A. Henry – C. Abily; E. Thomis – G. Thiney – C. Lavogez ; E. Le Sommer

The 4x2x3x1 has been France’s staple for many years and in Dutch soil that’s bound to continue, yet Olivier Echouafni isn’t short in personnel to change the mix if things get stale. Particularly the midfield’s offensive trio, which has been under the spotlight following Louisa Necib’s retirement after Rio and Amel Majri’s ankle injury.

To wit, speedster Elodie Thomis will have to watch her shadow in youngster Kadidiatou Diani, and expected left winger Claire Lavogez is far from untouchable, while Gaëtane Thiney could be squeezed out by the reallocation of forward Eugénie Le Sommer to the creation zone.

Moreover, striker Marie-Laure Delie is also bound to receive an opportunity to get going, with a slight tweak to the system possibly in the cards, leading to the implementation of the 4x3x3 and the introduction of a third central midfielder in veteran Élise Boussaglia or 20-year-old portent Onema Geyoro.

Switzerland

Two years after hurdling past the group stage at the 2015 World Cup, the Swiss make their first appearance at the European Championships to provide a stark contrast with the other debutants, who will be more than satisfied with an honourable exit from the tournament.

A level of ambition justified by a perfect qualifying campaign, where they won all eight matches, and the presence of a handful of world-class performers in their ranks. While far from title contenders, Switzerland has the goods to upset any team in the tournament on a good day, and therefore the quarter-finals are the minimal requirement.

Qualification: Group 6 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Martina Voss-Tecklenburg (GER)

Star Player: Ramona Bachmann (Chelsea FC, ENG)

Standing at a stocky 162cm, Ramona Bachmann doesn’t immediately radiate the aura of terrific football player, but you just need to wait until she gets going to realize the dynamic skill set and ability to pick defences apart. The 26-year-old Swiss zips around the pitch with and without the ball, making good use of her low center of gravity, and backs down defences with her dribbling ability, which opens up terrain in the final third for teammates to operate.

Ramona Bachmann scored an hat-trick against Equador at the 2015 World Cup, and will be looking for more during her Euro debut

With the characteristics of a winger, she’s primarily used as a nomadic forward or a false striker with Switzerland, exploring spaces between defenders with diagonal runs and overloading half spaces, but the 42 goals in 80 international caps certify the ability to finish is also there. After all, there has to be a reason Bachmann turned professional at age 16 and over the last ten years has represented top clubs in four different countries (Sweden, USA, Germany and England).

Player to watch: Lia Wälti (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

A diminutive midfielder that coordinates Switzerland’s play at the center of the park, Lia Wälti’s game is one that relies on intelligence and flawless, yet understated, technique.

Acting as the outlet at the start of the Swiss buildup, she distributes the ball with both feet and tremendous poise and accuracy, playing at one or two touches to accelerate but also controlling the pace when necessary. In addition, defensively Wälti is able to overcome the lack of size and strength with non-stop activity and positioning.

You can make a case that the 24-year-old is the silent mechanism that makes Switzerland’s machine run swiftly and on time, and that’s worth appreciating even if all the sparkle is provided by others.

Lia Wälti performs the unsavory tasks necessary to carry Switzerland to new heights

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): G. Thalmann; A. Crnogorčević – C. Abbé (C ) – R. Kiwic – N. Maritz; E. Aigbogun – L. Wälti – M. Moser – L. Dickenmann; F. Humm – R. Bachmann

Martina Voss -Tecklenburg’s team plays a direct, fast and attacking style of play that appeases onlookers but concurrently contributes to some tactical anarchy, with the four attacking players regularly exchanging positions and getting caught in transition. The role of veteran Lara Dickenmann is thus essential, since she’s the one responsible for curbing the offensive impetus and organizing support to the two central midfielders. In alternative, the introduction of Vanessa Bernauer in substitution of Fabienne Humm or Eseosa Aigbogun could similarly help tone down some riskier tendencies.

Conversely, if Switzerland is chasing the score, loosening the grip on Ana-Maria Crnogorčevic is the solution to adopt as she’s clamouring for a more prominent role in offense since being incomprehensively adapted to a full back position, hence quashing an element that scored seven times during the qualifying phase.

Iceland

On their third consecutive appearance at the European Championships, Iceland will try to mirror the result of 2013, when they advanced past the group stage before succumbing to hosts Sweden.

Similarly to the men’s team that captivated the continent last summer, the Icelanders have been growing their profile in the women’s game over the last few seasons, and much is owed to their all-time top scorer, Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir, who unfortunately won’t play in the competition after rupturing the cruciate ligament on her knee a few weeks ago. A massive blow that can make all the difference between progressing or heading home early.

Qualification: Group 1 winners (7W, 1L)

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2013)

Head coach: Freyr Alexandersson

Star Player: Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir is a workhorse in Iceland’s midfield

By assuming the team captaincy in 2014 on the heels of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir’s pregnancy, Sara Björk further increased her influence inside an Icelandic group that paces at the rhythm of its midfield heartbeat.

Armband draped on her arm, the 26-year-old does a bit of everything for her national team, directing traffic and her teammates, covering for positional mishaps, claiming the ball from defenders to start the transition and setting the example with her enduring predisposition to run.

Astute decision making, many rungs above her teammates, completes the description and clearly demarks why Gunnarsdóttir is the rare player on the roster to feature regularly for a top-level European club.

In her case, German double winners Wolfsburg, the team she chose to represent in 2016 after five seasons and four national titles amassed with Sweden’s FC Rosengård.

Player to watch: Elín Jensen (Valur)

Elín Metta Jensen can be considered a special case in Iceland’s squad, and not just because her name is much easier to scribble than the vast majority of her teammates’.

For instance, despite her youth, the 22-year-old has already participated in the tournament before, called up in 2013 after notching 18 goals in 18 games to pace the 2012 Icelandic League as a teenager. Moreover, her propensity for taking defenders off the dribble and individualize actions shocks with Iceland’s “Team first” battle cry, and that may be the chief reason behind her struggles to consistently break into the starting lineup over the years.

Maybe it will finally happen in Dutch soil, probably not in a center forward role but on the wing, where Elín Jensen can offer a jolt of offensive talent to turn around matches going the wrong way.

Probable Lineup (3x4x3): G. Gunnarsdóttir; G. Viggósdóttir – S. Atladóttir – A. Kristjánsdóttir; R. Hönnudóttir – D. Brynjarsdóttir – S. Gunnarsdóttir (C) – H. Gísladóttir; F. Friðriksdóttir – K. Ásbjörnsdóttir – H. Magnúsdóttir

After surging through qualifying on a 4x2x3x1 formation that sometimes versed a 4x3x3, the loss of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir instigated a drastic change of tactical structure, with Freyr Alexandersson expected to take his chances in matchday one against France with a 3x4x3 that defensively will very much resemble a 5x3x2/5x2x3.

The loss of influentional forward Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir (#9) changes everything for Iceland

Due to the new-fangled nature of this system, it’s still not clear where everyone will slot, especially up front, but in this projection I elected experience: from Dagný Brynjarsdóttir being hailed as the partner to Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir in the middle, to 32-year-old Hólmfríður Magnúsdóttir as the final piece of the forward trio alongside Fanndís Friðriksdóttir and the mobile Katrín Asbjornsdottir, who is expected to unseat qualifying joint-top scorer Harpa Thorsteinsdóttir.

Meanwhile, on defence, Sif Atladóttir is the main beneficiary of the extra center back position, and as a reward she brings with her a singular weapon Iceland will rely heavily on: the ability to propel the ball into the goal area from free throws, generating cheap opportunities to incite mayhem in front of the net.

Austria

Until a recent 4-2 home triumph over Denmark, It had been more than 3 years since Austria last defeated one of the other 15 participants at the Euro 2017, and that speaks volumes to the task ahead of Dominik Thalhammer’s women in this tournament.

On the contrary, in qualification the Austrians lost narrowly at home to Norway only to snatch a 2-2 tie away, while a look at their roster reveals six players that pontificate in top-four Frauen-Bundesliga outfits. It’s fair to say Switzerland and Iceland should underestimate the Austrians at their own peril.

Austria’s qualification for the Euro 2017 is the first in their women’s football history

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 8 (5W, 2D, 1 L), five points behind Norway

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Dominik Thalhammer

Star Player: Nina Burger (SC Sand, GER)

Top scorer of the Austrian League in six consecutive seasons from 2006 to 2012, Nina Burger was forced to take her talents abroad when things got too easy at home. She first landed in the USA before eventually returning to Europe to represent SC Sand, where she tallied 15 goals over two seasons.

That’s an unimpressive total that we can probably chalk up to her unusual style of play. Far from a complete striker, Burger is, instead, more of an old-school poacher, someone that sticks to her high position, lays claim to lose balls in the area and aims for the net at every opportunity.

A limited skill set that is still incredibly valuable for the Austrian national team, since the five goals she notched in qualifying helped secure the ticket to the Netherlands and cemented her status as the country’s top scorer of all-time. Now, time to beef up those numbers at the biggest stage she’s ever been.

Player to watch: Sarah Zadrazil (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

Despite wearing the No. 9 shirt for Austria, Sarah Zadrazil is far from a major scoring threat in the pitch. In fact, the 24-year-old would match up far better with the No.8, the numerical digit usually associated with the box-to-box midfielder, the function she carries out to great lengths alongside Freiburg’s Sarah Puntingan.

Austria’s Sarah Zadrazil tries to break an English attack during an international friendly match

Industrious, unrelenting and highly reactive to lose balls, Zadrazil keeps Austria permanently prepared for the defensive transition, and any team could use a responsible player like that, which is why Turbine Potsdam coveted her services after a three-year spell playing college soccer at the United States.

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): M. Zinsberger; K. Schiechtl– C. Wenninger –  V. Schnaderbeck (C ) – S. Maierhofer; S. Puntingam – S. Zadrazil; L. Feiersinger – N. Billa – V. Aschauer; N. Burger

The positioning of Nicole Billa is the key element of Austria’s set up, as the Hoffenheim player can drop back to form a trio in midfield with Zadrazil and Puntingan (4x3x3), execute between the lines (the 4x2x3x1), or take a few steps forward to supplement Burger inside the goal area.

Either way, much is asked of wingers Laura Feiersinger and Verena Aschauer (both SC Sand players), who regularly rush up and down the corridor to assist the defence and necessarily tire out by the middle of the second half. The 26-year-old Nadine Prohaska is then called to action to replace one, while the other toughs it out, since depth is an issue for Austria at this level.

Closing remarks on the Euro 2016

The UEFA Euro 2016 ended last Sunday in Paris, with Portugal taking the trophy for the first time in their history, and behind the competition left a trail of notable occurrences. I decided to weigh in on what I’ll recollect from a month of international football on several fronts, handing out my own accolades (and reproaches).

Here are my choices and the corresponding justifications.

 

Best Game: Germany-Italy

If you’re going purely by the entertainment standpoint, obviously Portugal  3-3 Hungary and France 5-2 Iceland extend a strong case, but I tend to get caught on tactical battles. With the caveat that I didn’t see Italy’s dismantling of Spain, my choices got narrowed down to Germany-France and Germany-Italy. The SF encounter was intense, physical and emotional as always happens when those two countries clash, but the chess game played by Joachim Löw and Antonio Conte takes the cake. A fascinating contrast of styles despite analogous starting structures, it featured the thrilling uneasiness that comes with the belief that every erroneous bounce of the ball could decide the match (which would have happened if Boateng hadn’t suffered a brief brain pause). It was just an absolute classic between the two most competent sides in the tournament. In the end, the dramatic, memorable penalty shootout was simply the cherry on top.

Worst Game: Wales- Northern Ireland

A snooze fest that not even two boisterous sets of fans could save. Little to null goal action, a festival of predictable moves and broken plays that was mercifully ended with an own-goal obtained once the most talented player in the pitch gathered the means to try something different.  A preview of Premier League action in a (not so remote) post-Brexit future?

 

Best goal: Xherdan Shaquiri, Switzerland-Poland

An outrageous overhead kick from the edge of the box tying an elimination match with ten minutes to go? Is there really a question about this? Should it really matter that Switzerland ultimately lost? Yes, please. No. No.

Xherdan Shaquiri temporarily stunned Poland with this ludicrous execution

Honourable Mentions: Marek Hamšík (Slovakia v Russia), Éder (Portugal v France)

 

Best coach: Fernando Santos (Portugal)

An experienced manager that believed stubbornly in his ideas and in the end got crowned in spite of the avalanche of critics.

Portugal dominated every group stage match – as they ought to- but a series of unlucky bounces pushed them dangerously close to falling out, yet the confidence of their coach never wavered. They never dazzled but Santos, certainly inspired by his time at Greece, saw the end of the road before anyone else and did everything he could to get there. If it meant committing all his resources to stifling Croatia’s free-flowing style and hope for a reverse of fortune on the fast break, he went for it. If it meant leaving Ronaldo on an island and force him to retreat to the midfield to feel the ball, let it be. If it meant drilling his players’ mind to keep an eye on both ends at every move, may it work. If it meant tempting destiny by tossing his spare striker into the heat of the Final.…well, why not? As they say, “better be lucky than be good”.

Portugal’s manager Fernando Santos is lifted in the air by his players after the triumph in the 2016 European Championship

However, don’t be fooled. Portugal didn’t put the odds in their favour just by shrinking their margins of error, trusting the individual quality on their side and riding the faith of their coach.  They were mature, tactically aware, malleable and resilient in front of the adversity, as Ronaldo’s injury in Paris highlighted. Both Fernando Santos and its players deserved their immortality in Portugal’s football lore.

 

Worst Coach: Tie between Marc Wilmots (Belgium) and Ray Hodgson (England)

Wilmots came into the tournament under pressure for his palpable shortcomings guiding a stacked line-up brimming with highly valued offensive talents, and didn’t exactly dismiss those concerns in France. Being outsmarted by Antonio Conte in the opener may be excusable, but he didn’t learn from his mistakes when the team was again tasked with having to manoeuvre past a stingy 3-5-2 defensive scheme. If you beat teams handily (but not without some compromising signals burbling) with Kevin de Bruyne slotted behind the striker and multiple talents playing off each other, why bring back the Marouane Fellaini option for the QF against a Wales team that thrives with speed on the counter? Was he expecting the midfielder’s bountiful hair to cover the space his legs couldn’t?

Wilmots may be absolved from his backline’s mistakes after his most experienced options went down, but the lack of a clear strategy to overcome a side that blocked them twice on the qualifying phase was embarrassing.  He simply hasn’t displayed the tactical nous necessary and it backfired spectacularly this time, putting his job under serious peril (and… now it’s gone). I highly doubt he’ll have the chance to waste another opportunity like this.

Marc Wilmots was the face of Belgium’s incapacity to surpass Wales

As for Hodgson, the writing has also been in the wall for some time. With a career built majorly at underdog sides he could pummel to fit his defensive approach, the 68-year-old is a relic of another era at a time England is producing generations of  unpredictable talents. The English roster had the depth and high-end skill to match the best in the competition, but no one ever understood how they wanted to play.

It was not only the bizarre saga about Wayne Rooney’s assignment, but the inability to put players in position to succeed, with the likes of Dele Alli and Harry Kane turning into caricatures of their form for Pochettino’s Tottenham. Were it not for Daniel Sturridge’s late match winner against Wales, “The Three Lions” would have left the competition without a victory and the game against Iceland simply displayed the team’s contradictions, with England unable to break down their opponents despite ample warnings. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were free to run forward but England just couldn’t find man advantages at the flanks to afford solid crosses or open space in the middle to pierce through. Watching 18-year-old Marcus Rashford being sought repeatedly on the final minutes to force 1 on 2’s (or 3’s) reeked of desperation and fittingly signalled the end of Hodgson’s tenure.

 

Underachieving team:  Belgium

When you possess their array of talent, get tendered a soft road to the final, and still can’t beat Wales at the third try, you failed. Plain and simple.

Overachieving Team: Iceland

The smallest nation ever to qualify for a major tournament was vaulted by almost 10% of their own in route to stamp the shock of the tournament, and in the process caught the hearts of millions. Fighting like Vikings until the final drop of sweat left their bodies, Iceland’s infectious disposition was in display as they firmly chased an unsurmountable deficit against France in the game that ended their Cinderella run.

They take the recognition over the other feel-good story, Wales, because they can’t count on a World top-ten (five?) player to lift them at any time.

The “Please, take another drink” team: Croatia

Croatia’s triump over defending Champions Spain didn’t have the follow up they expected

I called them “indisputably one of the most talented (ensembles) in the tournament” and they   didn’t disappoint, amassing a deserved victory over Spain to finish atop the competition’s toughest group. Everything was clicking, even as there were questions about their ability to function as a team, which, outside of those final moments against Czech Republic, proved unwarranted. However, their journey took an unfortunate turn while they sat at home, and they can blame Iceland for that.

Ante Čačić took too long to decipher Portugal’s plan and when he acted (the brazen Marko Pjaca should have been launched earlier) fatigue was already too prominent to control the outcome. Croatia got greedy chasing a goal and was punished on the break, traveling home way too early. Better luck next time.

 

Worst Teams: Sweden and Ukraine

Playing 180 minutes of football in a major competition without recording a shot on goal is acutely disconcerting, and Erik Hamrén should thank Zlatan’s national team retirement for temporarily changing the narrative.

Nevertheless, Sweden’s dearth of a mere flicker of imagination was dispiriting to watch, as their game was entirely founded on Albin Ekdal’s and Kim Källström’s ability to play long balls towards their strikers.  They waited…and waited…and waited for Ibrahimović to do some magic but their frustrated star could never deliver with two or three men hanged over him, as wingers Sebastian Larsson and Emil Forsberg became invisible for the tournament’s entirety. Sweden’s rudimentary style lacked offensive spark and not even the generation that won the U-21 Euro last year seems to have an answer for that.

The Ukrainians were the only team to leave the tournament without tallying despite possessing the firepower to do so in the Konoplyanka-Kovalenko-Yarmolenko trio. To a positive showing against the World Champions, especially in the first half, Ukraine responded with a listless display against Northern Ireland in a do or die situation. They did better against a Polish team already qualified but still came out with nothing to show for it.

 

Best fans: three way tie between Iceland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Vibrant, piping, unconditional and unwavering support coupled with a legacy to boot. We’ll miss the Icelandic “Haka” (or “thunderclap”) the French so shamelessly copied, Wales’ rendition of “Don’t Take me Home” ringing until the Semis and the memorable “Will Grigg’s on Fire”.

Wales’ Red Wall crossed the English Channel to support its heroes in France

 

Best Player: Antoine Griezmann (France)

Out of sorts against Romania in the opener, Atletico’s marksman rescued victory against Albania coming off the bench, yet his party wouldn’t really start until the knockout stage got running.  Five goals in three games powered the hosts to the Final, and the vision of the blue #7 darting through Germany’s end jumps out as the remembrance from the tournament’s most-charged encounter. He didn’t reach the same level of brilliance displayed in the Champions League a few weeks earlier, but so didn’t any of his rivals, and there’s no denying his numbers (six goals and two assists) and influence. Had Griezmann struck on any of his glorious chances in the final, a new French legend would have been born. This way, he just takes two (somewhat) meaningless trophies home.

Honourable mention: Toni Kroos (Germany)

The maestro of the Mannschaft was omnipresent throughout the competition: recovering, distributing with assertiveness, shifting the point of attack, finding his teammates in between the lines, delivering every free kick expertly. It was tiring watching him pull the strings and become the fulcrum for a team that missed dearly the finishing ability of Thomas Müller, probably the major reason they couldn’t go further. After a long season for Real Madrid, the effort laid down by the slick midfielder deserved another corollary. At age 26, he may be the world’s best all-rounded central midfielder.

The class of Germany’s Toni Kroos was in display at the Euro 2016

 

Best eleven of the tournament:

 

GK Rui Patrício (Portugal): A victim of Portugal’s early hitches, he brought his A-Game for the knockout rounds: a vital late stop in extra time against Croatia (with the post’s assistance), a great stretch save to pare down a Polish kick in the shootout, a handful of superb saves in the Final to prolong the tie and set up Éder’s gift from the gods.

RB Alessandro Florenzi (Italy): At the hardest position to fill, I opted for a player that symbolised Italy’s performance, as the hard-working wing-back was key on Antonio Conte’s strategy. His versatility allowed his team to meander between tactical structures almost imperceptibly, and he impressed closing down the flank aggressively and diligently helping out in attack.

Leonardo Bonucci was a leader for the Azurri at the Euro 2016

CB Leonardo Bonucci (Italy): Started the competition providing an outstanding dipping ball for Emanuele Giaccherini’s goal, and ended exhibiting nerves of steel in front of Manuel Neuer, flawlessly converting a penalty late in regulation, an unusual situation for him. He couldn’t do the same in the shootout but he looked sublime throughout, commanding Italy’s backline with aplomb and chalking up the offense, channelling his inner Andrea Pirlo. At age 29, his stock rose so much that he can become the World’s most expensive defenseman this summer.

CB Pepe (Portugal): The lifeblood and vocal leader of Portugal’s defensive unit was in imperial form against Croatia and kept the level up there onwards, using his athleticism to clear every attempt venturing close to Portugal’s net. The “Man of The Match” award in the Final was as much deserved as long overdue.

LB Raphaël Guerreiro (Portugal): Snapped by Borussia Dortmund earlier in the tournament, Guerreiro validated the German’s confidence by showcasing his skilful left foot abundantly. A poised, offensive-minded left back with defensive acumen and speed to transition back and forth, he excelled whipping the ball towards the box on crosses and free kicks. By far the most dynamic full back in the competition, and so, so close to becoming the hero in the final with his smashing shot off the cross bar.

CM Toni Kroos (Germany)see above

CM Aaron Ramsey (Wales): Chris Coleman anchored much of his team’s success on Ramsey’s ability to connect the midfield and attack, and the Arsenal man delivered on the task. He pushed the pace forward elegantly, and smartly attacked the space between defenders, all without ever relinquishing his duties alongside Joe Ledley and Joe Allen. Magnificent against Belgium, he was absent in the SF due to suspension and Wales missed his craftiness dearly. His four assists led the tournament alongside Eden Hazard.

OM Dimitri Payet (France)see below

F Gareth Bale (Wales): Three splendid goals in the group stage to fire up Wales’ debut, and an enduring “never die” attitude after that despite failing to hit the scoreboard again. His teammates looked for him in times of trouble, and Bale relished the challenge of inspiring them with his unrelenting runs and thumping shots.

F Antoine Griezmann (France) – see above

Antoine Griezmann shined brightly for the hosts France

F Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal): The Portuguese captain was the face of anxiousness for the first two games, but everything changed after his crucial brace against Hungary. He ditched the selfishness that was creeping into his game, and understood how he could better help his team: pushing back defences, offering passing lines, supporting the ball movement and crashing the box to finish. The individual moment of genius came on a towering header against Wales and later his teammates picked him up when he went down in tears, managing to claim the title he desired so much.

 

Bonus:

I wrote a series of articles previewing the players that would breakout in the competition, and now decided to do a quick follow up by keying in on my top five hits and slips.

Missed the mark:

Piotr Zieliński (Poland): Only 45 minutes of playing time against Ukraine as Adam Nawałka rested some starters, he gave entry to Jakub Błaszczykowski, who would score the game-winning-goal. The option for the two man partnership up front killed his chances

Jason Denayer (Belgium): Marc Wilmots’ last minute change of heart on his defence’s composition relegated Denayer to the bench in favour of Thomas Vermaelen, and he only got in the action when the oft-injured Barcelona man flailed before the QF. Then, Denayer got caught watching closely as Hal Robson-Kanu fed his inner Johan Cruyff, and both Ashley Williams and Sam Vokes headed the ball home.

Jason Denayer had his hands full against Gareth Bale and the rest of Wales

Paddy McNair (Northern Ireland): Started the first game against Poland but was taken out at halftime as the team looked for a more offensive minded approach. Later, he was thrown in injury-time against Ukraine, and never touched the French grass again.

Federico Bernardeschi (Italy): One hour as a left-wing back against Ireland while Conte rested almost all of his favourites on the group’s last encounter. And that was it for now. I suspect things will look different in Russia’s 2018 World Cup.

Oğuzhan Özyakup (Turkey): Featured in all three of Turkey’s games but the impact just wasn’t there. A half-time casualty against Croatia, opening space for Hakan Çalhanoğlu to tuck inside, Özyakup was one of the victims after Spain’s lashing on the second match. Fatih Terim still gave him 30 minutes on Turkey’s farewell.

 

On the spot:

Dimitri Payet (France): I read somewhere before the Euro’s beginning that Payet might leave as the best player in the tournament. I didn’t exactly buy that right away, but an outstanding kick to pry away the triumph against Romania on the opener turned the spotlight on him. Payet wasn’t unerringly brilliant throughout, but his scented, unpredictable game brought much needed flair to France’s midfield. Didier Deschamps’ option was, thus, completely vindicated by a trio of cracking goals and a couple of assists.

The trickery of Dimiti Payet wreaked havoc in the pitches of France

Elseid Hysaj (Albania): The Napoli man may have been the best right-back of the group stage, with his impressive stamina along the sidelines leading the minnows on their way to an historic first international participation. His stunning through ball to put Armando Sadiku face to face with the Swiss goalie was one of the best pieces of skill in the tournament, but he also locked down his flank impressively, contributing to a unit that proved tough to break.

Ondrej Duda (Slovakia): The creative midfielder scored just seconds after taking the pitch against Wales, and won regular duties as an improvised forward for the rest of the group stage, proving difficult to control due his shiftiness, technique and ability to soundly exchange positions with the members of the offensive trio slotted behind. Ján Kozák opted for a pure striker against Germany and Slovakia was kept at bay…

Jonas Hector (Germany): FC Köln’s inconspicuous left-back played every minute of the competition for the World Champions and his performances were staunchly immaculate. Consistent and dogged on defence, always available to support and offer width to Germany’s possession game, Hector confirmed his report as a dependable full-back destined for bigger stages. All in all, probably the second best in the competition at his position.

Ádám Nagy (Hungary): The slender defensive pivot was a working bee on Hungary’s midfield, vigorously pacing left and right looking to tackle, receive the ball and initiate the offense with crisp passes. Like the rest of his teammates, he seemed a bit bemused by Belgium’s attacking waves during the round of 16 match, but with so much space to cover by himself he can be forgiven.

Arnór Ingvi Traustason (Iceland): 15 minutes against Austria, and a last-gasp goal that reshaped the route of the eventual Champions and arguably the complexity of the entire tournament. THANK YOU, Arnór!

Iceland’s players mug goalscorer Arnór Ingvi Traustason after guaranteeing their first win in European Championships