2018-19 EPL Match Day 1 Preview — Arsenal (0-0-0) vs. Manchester City (0-0-0)

(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match in this blog.)

Wenger is out, but can Emery fit in?

For the first time in 23 seasons, Arsenal will have a new manager on the touchline as Unai Emery could not have picked a more difficult opponent to make a Premier League debut against than Pep Guardiola and Manchester City as the reigning champions come to the Emirates on Sunday.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The divide that roiled a fan base finally reached an anticlimactic conclusion last season as the Frenchman bid au revoir to the north London side. While Wenger won a record seven FA Cups with the Gunners (19-6-13 in 2017-18), the gradual slide that had seen them fall out of Champions League play for a second straight year and lack serious title challenges for most of the decade finally wore out supporters and the Arsenal board.

“Le Professeur” enjoyed a gracious long good-bye after a sixth-place finish – his worst in his lengthy tenure at Arsenal – and a semifinal exit in the Europa League.

Given the lack of big names in the coaching market – Tito Villanova reportedly priced himself out of a potential hiring while ex-Arsenal players-turned coaches Mikael Arteta and Patrick Vieira were considered too green – Emery seems a vanilla hire who does not address the lofty ambitions of a club who last won a title with “The Invincibles” in 2004.

Emery won three consecutive Europa League titles at Sevilla from 2014-16, but his two seasons at Paris-Saint Germain were nothing spectacular. He won the treble last season as Ligue 1 winner, but PSG were eliminated in the round of 16 in both of his Champions League campaigns – a place that does not sit well with the Arsenal fan base considering Wenger made his exit in that round in his last seven appearances.

“We need to work together and the first way to do that is by finding the performance,” Emery told supporters in his first meeting with them per The Times. “I want a team with energy and I want players to give their all on the pitch.

“I want to give them the habits that I want to see from them in each match. I want to see them demonstrate these habits in every game and give their all. … It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just a different moment for this club.”

Emery does not lack for talent and has one of the best attacks in the Premier League in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexander Lacazette, Mesut Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey. It will be Aubameyang’s first full season at the Emirates after coming over from Borussia Dortmund in the January window and making a huge impact with 10 goals in 13 league matches. Ramsey, though, could give way to teenager Matteo Guendozui due to a knock.

Ozil, who spent last season and summer as a lightning rod of all criticisms leveled at the club and country level following Germany’s flameout in group play at the World Cup this summer, retired from international play after a falling out with the DFB amid cries of racism regarding his Turkish heritage and is intent on taking out a lost summer on Premier League opponents.

The defence – a sore spot all of last season as Wenger vacillated between three and four-man backlines – appears set to be four under Emery, who likely will use a 4-3-3 for this match after experimenting with a 4-4-2 in preseason. Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulous will pair in central defence, though Ainsley Maitland-Niles could be the weak link in this match at left back since Nacho Monreal is out through injury.

Newcomer and Uruguay international Lucas Torreira will anchor the midfield with Ramsey while Ozil is likely to push forward in attack with the front three. There is also likely to be a new goalkeeper as summer signing Bernd Leno has seen extensive action in the preseason over incumbent Petr Cech.

While Arsenal have had a summer of upheaval, Manchester City (32-4-2) have quietly gone about their business preparing their bid to be the first team to repeat as champions since Manchester United won three straight Premier League titles from 2007-09.

The Citizens are better than even-money favourites to repeat after coasting to the title by 19 points over eternal rivals United. They demolished almost every single-season record in the 26-year history of the Premier League – most notably being the first 100-point top-flight team in English football history – but the anger of a Champions League quarterfinal elimination by Liverpool is all the motivation Guardiola needs.

“The best way is to think ‘What’s next,'” Guardiola told City’s official website. “Focus on what we have done in our job, the desire to improve. We are still hungry and we hold them to be better and better players. It’s not easy (to repeat) but we’re going to try. It’s unrealistic to think about it early, the best way to do it is game-by-game.”

City had 16 players at the World Cup, the most of any Premier League team, and they are at various stages of match-fit. One of those players, Sergio Aguero, is in form after bagging a brace in their 2-0 victory over Chelsea in the Community Shield last Sunday at Wembley.

One player who did not go to Russia and could factor large in this match is Riyad Mahrez. He was the lone summer signing for City, who finally pried the Algeria international from Leicester City for £60 million after a January deal fell through. He further adds to a staggering wealth of talent in attack that includes Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Leroy Sane, and Gabriel Jesus.

“He’s ready,” Guardiola said after observing Mahrez throughout City’s preseason tour. “I think he understands what we’re looking for, he played completely differently at Leicester. We have to give it time.”

Guardiola could use a 4-1-4-1 formation for this game as left back Benjamin Mendy returns after missing nearly all of last season with a knee injury. John Stones, who was one of England’s best players at the World Cup, is expected to pair with Aymeric Laporte in central defence in front of Ederson.

Aguero would be the lone striker up front, with De Bruyne and Silva the central midfielders while Sane and Mahrez man the flanks. Fernandinho would clean up in front of the back four as the defensive midfielder.

City won all three matches between the teams, with a 3-0 hiding in the Carabao Cup final in late February bookending their league victories. The twin 3-0 thrashings four days apart galvanised Arsenal’s board in moving Wenger to the exit, as the second defeat was in front of wide patches of empty seats at the Emirates.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Manchester City are solid 17/20 favorites to win while Arsenal and a draw return 14/5 odds. City get a better return on investment with 21/10 odds on a win with both teams scoring a goal, and for the real daring, there are 3/1 odds for a Citizens win coupled with the over of 3.5 goals.

Aguero leads the way for first-choice goal-scorers at 10/3 odds, followed by Jesus (4/1) and Aubameyang (5/1). Sane, Sterling and Mahrez all lurk just behind the Arsenal striker at 11/2. Aguero’s brace in the Community Shield also make him an even-money bet to score during the match.

PREDICTION

It has been mainly optimistic in north London in terms of Arsenal’s preseason results. The Gunners ruthlessly walloped Emery’s old team PSG around draws against Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, splitting results via penalties.

But now comes the real test, one that Emery probably would not have minded being pushed back until after the first international break to better get a sense of his team. Even an A/B mix of City players severely outclassed Chelsea in the Community Shield, and as this team likely will range closer to “A” than “B,” it could be another long night for the Gunners at the Emirates.

What will be curious to see about City is to examine “how” they will be better than last season. It may not take the form of losing only two matches in league play as they likely will finish with fewer than 100 points. Guardiola has talked little about Champions League and the motivation of crashing out to Liverpool in the quarterfinals compared to chasing history, and that choice to look forward will serve this team well.

In the end, there is likely just too much class for Arsenal to overcome this soon in the season, though they should give City some moments of bother in the final third.

PREDICTION: MANCHESTER CITY 3, ARSENAL 1

2018-19 EPL Team-by-team previews: Manchester City (August 6)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 20th and final preview of 20 EPL teams in 20 days ahead of Friday’s league-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City. Links to previous teams’ previews can be found at the bottom of the page.)

MANCHESTER CITY CITIZENS

Manager: Pep Guardiola (Hire Date: July 1, 2016)
Tenure Length: 10th/20 in Premier League and 30th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 32-4-2, 100 points, 1st in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 106
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-79
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 17 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 2002
Last Relegation: 
2001 (Premier League to First Division)
2017-18 Champions League: Quarterfinal loss (Liverpool)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Champions
2017-18 FA Cup: Fifth-round loss (Wigan Athletic)

2017/18 REVIEW

Manchester City sputtered out of the gate, having to grind out a 2-0 victory at promoted Brighton and Hove Albion to start the season and then was held to a 1-1 draw by Everton to open its home slate as it played 44 minutes down a man after Kyle Walker was given his second yellow card late in the first half.

Then came the winning. A lot of winning.

City reeled off 11 consecutive victories across all competitions with some ridiculous score lines along the way. 5-0 over Liverpool. 4-0 at Feyenoord to open Champions League play. 6-0 at Watford. 5-0 versus Crystal Palace. 7-2 over Stoke City. The Citizens trailed for all of eight minutes of the 990 during their winning streak, which finally came to the end in the Carabao Cup against Wolverhampton, which pushed them to penalties before falling.

Another eight victories followed before a 2-1 loss at Shakhtar Donetsk in a dead rubber to complete Champions League play marked City’s first loss of the 2017-18 season. The good news was that it came at the perfect time ahead of their first Manchester derby at Old Trafford, where Guardiola’s men recorded a 2-1 victory to open up an 11-point chasm between the teams after 16 matches.

City set a Premier League record with their 15th consecutive league win by thrashing Swansea City 4-0 in Wales. They would push that run to 18 matches before a scoreless draw at Crystal Palace on New Year’s Eve in which the flash point was a horrific challenge on Kevin De Bruyne by Palace’s Jason Puncheon in the final minutes that the Belgium international was fortunate to escape serious injury from.

The dream of matching Arsenal’s “Invincibles” would end a fortnight later at Anfield, where Liverpool ran riot for a nine-minute stretch and scored three times to take a 4-1 lead before holding out for a 4-3 victory. That would be a foreshadowing of things to come not in the Premier League race, which was being readily conceded to City despite it being only mid-January, but in Champions League.

Guardiola’s charges would resume their winning ways, reeling off four on the bounce and reaching the Carabao Cup final before a 1-1 draw at always-stubborn Burnley. Manchester City made quick work of Swiss side FC Basel in the round of 16 in Champions League play, winning 4-0 on the road in the first leg to render their 2-1 second-leg defeat moot.

In between, however, was a shocking FA Cup exit at the hands of Wigan Athletic, which brought back the nightmares of losing to a relegated Latics side in the 2013 final. Manchester City took its frustrations of that loss out on Arsenal in emphatic fashion, winning the Carabao Cup final 3-0 at Wembley before handing out another 3-0 beating at the Emirates four days later.

Now champion-elect, Manchester City drew arguably the worst of the remaining Champions League sides in Liverpool, though it was still a winnable tie. Guardiola, however, made his largest mistake of the entire season in the first leg at Anfield, inexplicably starting Ilkay Gundogan as a holding midfielder over Raheem Sterling.

Within a half-hour, Liverpool turned Anfield into the vaunted cauldron it always has been for high-pressure matches and fashioned itself a 3-0 lead. The damage done, the Reds added insult to injury by holding that lead and putting up a clean sheet to make City do the heavy lifting in the second leg.

The hangover of that loss did not carry into the second Manchester derby as City attempted to become the first team to clinch a Premier League title in their 32nd match. The chance to do it against their eternal rivals United at home was a once in a lifetime opportunity that seemed to good to pass up.

For the first half-hour, it was exactly that as Vincent Kompany and Gundogan scored six minutes apart for a two-goal lead, and City nearly ran United out of the Etihad the remainder of the first half. But just as suddenly, the match swung red. Paul Pogba scored twice in two minutes, and Chris Smalling was first to a free kick and beat Ederson and both history and a title would have to wait as United salvaged some pride with a 3-2 victory.

There was no time to wallow, though, as Liverpool was coming to the Etihad and a three-goal deficit had to be overturned. Gabriel Jesus scored in the second minute, and City just applied pressure in waves at Liverpool looking for a second to further the momentum and gain everything to play for. They thought it came when Leroy Sane scored just before halftime, but it was incorrectly chalked off for offsides.

Guardiola went ballistic in complaining to referee Mateu Lahoz, earning himself an ejection at halftime. The combination of the disallowed goal and Guardiola’s thunder and banishment sapped City, who gave up a back-breaking goal to Mohamed Salah before the hour and another to Roberto Firmino late as Liverpool advanced 5-1 on aggregate.

All that was left for City was to play for history and a re-writing of the Premier League record book. They scored 12 goals in winning their next three matches, surpassing the century mark in a 4-1 hiding of West Ham United in their 35th match.

The Premier League presentation trophy was the highlight of a scoreless draw against Huddersfield Town, which all but secured a second season in the top flight with the valuable point, and it left City needing two wins to become the first Premier League team to achieve 100 points.

The first win was a straightforward 3-1 home victory over Brighton and Hove Albion, and the second took a little work. City left it very late as Jesus’ goal in the 94th minute provided the historic 1-0 victory at Southampton that made Guardiola’s side centurions. The 32nd win established a new Premier League record for victories, bettering the mark of Tottenham’s famous 1961 side.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Manchester City Lineup.png

The frightening realisation for the rest of the Premier League, and by extension England for domestic cups and Europe for Champions League play is Guardiola can arguably flex his side into any formation and any lineup he wants on a match-to-match basis.

For argument’s sake, the XI presented here is based on a 4-3-3. Look at the names out there. Now consider the names missing: Bernardo Silva. Aymeric Laporte. New signing Riyad Mahrez. Gundogan. Danilo. Phil Foden. Benjamin Mendy barely played last season due to a torn ACL, yet it is well known he is one of the best at his position and still was good enough to make France’s roster this summer.

A serious case can be made the weakest backup link is Claudio Bravo between the sticks.

If Guardiola opts for a three-man backline, Kompany or Stones gets sacrificed, and given how well Stones played in Russia, it would be hard to sit him even at the expense of Kompany, who himself had a solid run for Belgium when he was 100 percent. This is a team that is going to have 60 percent possession or better in all but a handful of league matches and domestic cups, and Guardiola will relish in the challenge of tinkering his team between those set-ups.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

After spending and spending and spending the past two seasons to build a team Guardiola was confident could run a two-track course between Premier League and Champions League, this summer was refined and specific: Welcome, Mahrez.

The Algeria international’s arrival from Leicester City nearly came in the January window, but the deal feel through late. Six months and £60 million later, City finally got their man — arguably one of the most creative playmakers in the Premier League and the world.

What makes the move interesting is it is entirely possible Mahrez is little more than a rotation player on both tracks except for early in the season as players recover from World Cup responsibilities and again starting in December when the fixtures come fast and heavy. Still, his quality cannot be denied in being the driving force of Leicester City’s run to the Premier League title in 2016 and quarterfinal appearance in the subsequent Champions League.

Mahrez totaled 40 goals and 29 assists in all competitions in his last three seasons with the Foxes and was one of four players to rack up at least 35 goals and 20 assists in league play in that stretch along with Dele Alli, Roberto Firmino and Alexis Sanchez.

More grating to City’s rivals is the Citizens recouped more than half of that outlay by loaning out some of their promising younger players. Third-choice keeper Angus Gunn commanded almost £15 million in going to Southampton, while defenders Pablo Maffeo and Angelino nearly matched that total between them on loans to VfB Stuttgart and PSV Eindhoven, respectively.

Veteran midfielder Yaya Toure was released, and backup keeper Joe Hart is reportedly close to finalising a move to Burnley, which is in need at the position following a long-term shoulder injury to Nick Pope.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Kevin De Bruyne (MF)

There is something about De Bruyne’s game that borders on ethereal. If it’s not the direct pass that leads to the goal, he often gets the “hockey assist” in making the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the goal.

Whether it is his vision to make passes few see, let alone successfully make, or his sense of timing when to take over a match in terms of trying to score, the Belgium international rightfully created a split in PFA voting last year and would have been a worthy winner had he not finished runner-up to another worthy winner in Liverpool’s Salah.

De Bruyne had a solid World Cup campaign in leading Belgium to a third-place finish in Russia, and with an embarrassment of riches around him in Aguero, Sterling, Jesus and now Mahrez, De Bruyne’s biggest threat comes in the form of being able to pop up anywhere in the opposing half of the pitch to create a scoring chance for others or fashion one for himself.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, City are overwhelming favourites to become the first team to repeat as champions since Manchester United won the last of its three straight titles in 2009. The Citizens are 8/11 odds to win it all again, and there are ridiculous odds for top-four (1/20) and top-six finishes (1/500).

It is a little closer to even money Guardiola’s team will be atop the table on Christmas Day at 10/11, and for top-two finishes, City have 3/1 odds to finish 1-2 ahead of Liverpool and 9/2 with United.

Aguero is listed fifth in odds to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot at 8/1, with Jesus sixth at 14/1. Sane and Sterling are further long shots at 33/1. Player of the Year odds is where it gets interesting as De Bruyne is a slight favorite at 8/1, Sane fifth at 14/1 and David Silva seventh (16/1).

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 12 — Arsenal (6th) A
Aug. 19 — Huddersfield Town (16th) H
Aug. 25 — Wolverhampton (N/A) A
Sept. 1 — Newcastle United (10th) H
—————
April 20 — Tottenham Hotspur (3rd) H
April 27 — Burnley (7th) A
May 4 — Leicester City (10th) H
May 12 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) A

OUTLOOK

For a team that won the Premier League by 19 points, reached 100, set all sorts of single-season records (it’s easier to just link to the Wiki page rather than add 200 superfluous words and numbers) and also registered a double by also winning the Carabao Cup, there is still unfinished business for Guardiola and Manchester City.

Some of that was self-inflicted by the Spaniard, whose decision to start Gundogan in the first leg of City’s Champions League quarterfinal at Liverpool ran counter to everything he had been building on the blue side of Manchester to that very point, and he paid for it.

Dearly.

Guardiola will not be prone to overthinking this time around, but it will also not be as easy to repeat as champions either. There is always a bizarre variable that comes off a World Cup summer, and while City have more than enough depth to rotate players to address any matchup issue Guardiola may perceive, there will be a creeping unknown of sorts until they actually play the matches and get through them.

Additionally, the primary foil in the Premier League is no longer City’s hated rivals across town, but is indeed, Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool. Manchester City had five meaningful losses all of last season — the Champions League ones to Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Basel had nothing at stake — and three of them came to Liverpool.

Further, the one victory over the Reds can be talked away as a match turned on its head when Mane got his red card and a 1-0 game turned into a 5-0 laugher. Liverpool has spent… and spent… and spent to get its team up to a point where it can at least attempt to stand with Manchester City, and it will be upon the reigning champion to knock the Reds down once more.

The success of teams hitting on the counter at the World Cup will probably result in a renewed effort to do so among clubs who play Manchester City. It is nothing new for the Citizens to face, but it will be something to watch. Guardiola loves a game of cat-and-mouse like few other managers, and with his legacy on the line as he enters his third season at the Etihad, expect a cagey and focused Spaniard on the sideline as he hunts glory and beyond.

PREDICTED FINISH

1st place

PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS

July 18 — Fulham                                      July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City                               July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton                      July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton                           July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town                 August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion    August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford                                     August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United                    August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth                          August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace                          August 6 — Manchester City

2018 World Cup Recap Match 49 — France 4, Argentina 3 (June 30)

Kylian Mbappe became just the second teenager to score two goals in a World Cup match, and he drew the foul that led to a penalty for a third as France advanced to the quarterfinals with a 4-3 victory over a disjointed Argentina side that also opened speculation on Lionel Messi’s future.

The 19-year-old Mbappe joined the legendary Pele as the only players to have at least a brace in a World Cup contest, with the Brazilian recording a hat trick in the 1958 final versus Sweden at the age of 17. The PSG starlet’s pace flustered Argentina all match long as Les Bleus returned to the quarterfinals for the second consecutive tournament for the first time in club history.

Antoine Griezmann converted the penalty Mbappe created and Benjamin Pavard’s first international goal was a world-class strike in the 57th minute started France’s fightback after Gabriel Mercado had given Argentina a 2-1 lead three minutes after the restart.

France will play the winner of the Uruguay-Portugal match in the quarterfinals Friday at Nizhny Novogorod.

Messi assisted on Mercado’s goal and Sergio Aguero’s header in the third minute of stoppage time that gave the two-time champion a glimmer of hope, but Aguero’s cross into the penalty area was re-directed wide by Maxi Meza as the disjointed Albiceleste failed to return to the title game for the second consecutive World Cup.

It also opened the forum on Messi’s legacy since his international future is uncertain. The 31-year-old dragged a heavily imbalanced Argentina side into the World Cup on the strength of a hat trick in the final South American qualifier and had a key goal in the win over Nigeria to help escape group stage.

But Messi again failed to score in a knockout round match, and all six goals spanning his four World Cup appearances have come in the group stages. The superstar was a lightning rod of controversy throughout his stay in Russia, missing a penalty in the opening match against Iceland and playing arguably the worst match of his career in an Albiceleste shirt in a 3-0 loss to Croatia that showed just how fragile the South American power was even with one of the top players in the world.

And all that does not even speak to the dysfunctional dynamic between Messi and Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli, whose tactics and personnel decisions were derided throughout the World Cup. Once more, Aguero was not in the starting XI, and strikers Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala were unused substitutes in the final 20 minutes with La Albiceleste needing two goals to equalize.

France immediately asked questions of Argentina, with Mbappe’s pace proving problematic. Javier Mascherano fouled him 25 yards from goal, and Griezmann thumped his left-footed free kick off the crossbar in the ninth minute as Albiceleste keeper Franco Armani watched on helplessly.

Mbappe continued to torment Argentina’s backline, collecting a loose ball in midfield and tearing past Mascherano into the final third. The PSG winger smartly pushed the ball ahead of himself and was hauled down by Marcos Rojo, and referee Alireza Faghani rightly pointed to the spot and gave Rojo a yellow card.

Griezmann sent Armani the wrong way with his attempt, converting his second penalty in as many tries in this tournament. Eight minutes later, Mbappe again drew a foul in a dangerous area as this time Nicolas Taglifico was booked. Paul Pogba, though, failed to punish La Albiceleste as his attempt from just outside the penalty are went well over the bar.

France keeper Hugo Lloris was finally pressed into action in the 25th minute as he raced off his line to prevent Enzo Perez from getting a clear shot on target. While Argentina was dominating possession, N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi were forming a competent shield in front of France’s central defenders in midfield that Messi could not pick out players in attack as he kept dropping deeper to find the ball.

Griezmann was active on both ends of the pitch, tackling the ball away from Messi in the penalty area as he ran stride for stride with the Barcelona ace. But Argentina would find an equalizer against the run of play shortly before halftime. After Messi earned a corner that resulted in an Argentina throw-in from the left, Cristian Pavon played it to Ever Banega, who slid a pass to his right to Angel Di Maria.

Given plenty of time and space, Di Maria unleashed a rasping 30-yard left-footed strike straight on that flew into the upper right corner past a diving Lloris in the 41st minute and gaining a measure of atonement for his underachieving play throughout the World Cup until that moment.

La Albiceleste then took the lead in equally unexpected fashion. Di Maria earned a free kick that Banega clipped into the penalty area from deep on the left. Pogba tried to clear it, but it deflected to Messi, who spun in the penalty area to clear some space for himself. His left-footed shot lacked pace, but Mercado was at the right place and the right time to deflect it with his left foot from eight yards as Lloris was stranded wrong-footed.

France’s equalizer nine minutes later that swung the momentum back in its direction came from a moment of magic. Lucas Hernandez’s cross from the left was deflected and bounded across the penalty area. Pavard loaded up his right foot and lashed a fizzing, spinning strike from just outside the penalty are on the right and inside the left post just below the upper 90.

On the front foor once more, Les Bleus took a 3-2 lead through Mbappe in the 64th minute. Hernandez played another low cross in from the left, and ball pinged among six players before it fell to Mbappe. The teen stabbed it to his left with his right foot to create some space before taking a sharp-angled shot with his left foot from six yards that Armani did not get down fast enough to stop.

Four minutes later, France doubled its lead through an end-to-end goal that was equal parts wondrous and typified Argentina’s tournament-long struggles. Lloris started the play with a simple pass to Kante, who played it into the midfield circle for Griezmann.

He turned it to Matuidi on the left, and the Juventus midfielder played it back into the middle into the path of Olivier Giroud, whose first touch was a deft through pass behind Argentina’s backline that Mbappe raced onto and first-timed a right-footed curling shot away from Armani and into the lower left corner of the net.

Giroud spurned a chance to make it 5-2 almost immediately thereafter, lashing the side-netting after being sent through by Pogba as Argentina teetered on the edge of disaster. Mascherano made two interventions while on a booking that could have resulted in his sending off, but Faghani failed to reach into his pocket.

Messi had a chance to draw La Albiceleste cloer in the 85th minute as Mascherano forced Nabil Fekir into a turnover and passed ahead, but after jinking around three defenders, Messi did not have enough steam on his shot to challenge Lloris from 15 yards straight on.

Messi, though, would not waste a second chance as a playmaker, curling a cross from the right to Aguero, whose leaping header from six yards went inside the left post. Meza’s re-direct of Aguero’s cross proved to be the last kick of the game as France deservedly moved on, but not without some nervy moments.

 

 

World Cup Group D — Argentina (0-1-0) vs. Croatia (1-0-0)

It took 90 minutes to put Argentina in a state of crisis. Another such 90 minutes would result in a full-blown panic as the Albiceleste look to tighten Group D on Thursday when they face leader Croatia in Nizhny Novogorod.

The 2014 runner-up was the first major power to absorb a shock scoreline Saturday when World Cup debutant Iceland held the two-time champion to a 1-1 draw. All the talk after the match centered around Lionel Messi, whose penalty in the 64th minute was stopped by keeper Hannes Halldorsson, and a lack of incisive finishing as the Albiceleste unloaded 27 shots while putting just seven on frame.

Sergio Aguero accounted for the goal, which was canceled out four minutes later in the first half. Even while having more than 70 percent of possession, the Albiceleste still looked tentatively in open play when Iceland had the ball.

Croatia climbed to the top of the group with a workmanlike 2-0 victory over Nigeria in its opener. The seasoned Vatreni squad took advantage of an own goal in the first half and a penalty by Luka Modric in the second as both goals originated on corner kicks, with the latter coming on a rare defensive foul called in the penalty area.

Despite the comfortable scoreline, Croatia did not put a shot on target during open play until second-half stoppage time. The Vatreni were rarely under stress save a five-minute sequence after the restart in which they conceded three corner kicks, but Danijel Subasic was hardly troubled.

A victory, coupled with a draw in the match Friday between Iceland and Nigeria, would see Croatia through to the round of 16 for the first time since its maiden appearance in 1998 when the Vatreni finished third. Such a result would teeter Argentina on the edge of a group play exit, something that has not happened since 2002 and only two times prior.

LAST TIME OUT

Argentina’s inability to break down a well-disciplined Iceland weighed heavily on Messi, who did all he was asked by coach Jorge Sampaoli. The Barcelona man backtracked deeper into the midfield to collect the ball and start the attack, often linking up with Angel Di Maria, but the PSG winger could not find an escape route on the left side to create many clear-cut chances.

Aguero was industrious but failed to threaten beyond converting his chance and drawing Messi’s penalty. The hope for the Albiceleste on the other side of the pitch is that keeper Willy Caballero shook off the nerves after a shaky debut in which his spilled save allowed Iceland to equalize.

Some of the good vibes from Croatia’s win were quickly wiped away Monday when coach Zlatko Dalic sent home striker Nikola Kalinic for refusing to enter Saturday’s game as a substitute. While Kalinic claimed he had a back injury, the AC Milan man also did not enter when asked in the Vatreni’s friendly against Brazil prior to the World Cup, and Dalic ran out of patience with the 30-year-old.

FORMATIONS

Sampaoli is expected to change both personnel and formation for this match, opting for a three-man back in order to take advantage of pace on the flanks. While Messi would be on the left wing in the 3-4-3 Argentina is expected to open with, he will undoubtedly range into the middle and tuck inside with Salvio likely providing support on the left.

In terms of personnel, Salvio would replace Di Maria and Marcos Acuna is expected to crack the lineup at the expense of Lucas Biglia on the right.

With the word filtering out about Sampaoli’s changes, Dalic has some decisions of his own with regards to formation. One possibility would be having Andrej Kramaric in a more reserved role slotted between Modric and Ivan Rakitic to flood the midfield and slow Messi’s backtrack to the ball.

COACH’S CORNER

The changes Sampaoli is expected to make could very well define his tenure with the Albiceleste. He may have been slow to remove Di Maria, who lasted until the final quarter-hour, but sometimes players simply have to put the ball in the back of the net. He can’t control Messi having a penalty stopped, but he can use a quicker hook.

Dalic made all the needed moves with his three substitutes, having confidence in his team’s maturity to see out the final half-hour with a lead after swapping out Kramaric on the hour for a more defensive midfielder in Marcelo Brozovic while letting Modric take on all the playmaking responsibilities. The lone concern is how the Vatreni respond to what will look to be wholesale changes to Argentina’s shape in the first quarter-hour.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Maxi Meza (MF)

With Di Maria expected to be dropped, there will be more scrutiny on the right flank with Meza, who failed to distinguish himself versus Iceland before being lifted late for Gonzalo Higuain. If the Independiente winger fails to spark, Sampaoli may have a quick hook for Meza and turn to either Di Maria, Biglia or Higuain even earlier.

Dejan Lovren (D)

After an exceptional performance in a losing effort in the Champions League final for Liverpool, Lovren turned in a professional effort versus Nigeria. He will have to find that Champions League level again in matching wits with Aguero, who he is intimately familiar with in his Premier League clashes with Manchester City. Aguero’s work rate always goes unnoticed until he doesn’t have results, but Lovren is keenly aware the Argentina international will pop up all over the final third in support of Messi.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Argentina is a 21-20 favorite while Croatia is listed as a 14-5 underdog. The odds of a draw are slightly better than the underdog at 11-5. Oddsmakers feel very strongly about Messi atoning himself by scoring the first goal, giving him 3-1 odds. Aguero is close behind at 7-2, followed by Higuain at 4-1. Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic is the top option for the opposition at 7-1, slightly longer than there being no goal-scorer (13-2).

PREDICTION

Is an overreaction better or worse than no reaction? That is the question facing Sampaoli, who has opted for the former to jump-start Argentina’s bid to get out of Group D. However, all of his changes in the grand scheme of things are peripheral because the ball will be at Messi’s feet for the majority of the time the Albiceleste has the ball.

That share of possession will not be as overwhelming against Croatia as it was against Iceland, but the Vatreni as a collective and individually in the midfield are far too savvy to be pushed and pulled for gaps to open that Messi will skip through before taking a shot at the top of the penalty area or closer. Dropping Kramaric into that reserve role will only muck up the midfield further, which might be the most effective way of stopping Messi.

There is understandable curiosity of the dynamic between Dalic and his players after he exiled Kalinic, but having pro’s pros in Modric, Rakitic, Lovren and Ivan Perisic means there shouldn’t be any dissension in the locker room and no tears wept.

Croatia’s biggest challenge may be walking the line between playing with a margin of error and taking advantage of the chance to push Argentina to the edge of elimination. A victory ahead of their grudge match with Iceland, who pipped the Vatreni in UEFA qualifying, would allow Dalic to rest anyone on a yellow card and keep his players fresh for the round of 16.

It’s all there for Croatia, but look for Argentina to have enough to be frustrated into another 1-1 draw.

 

 

 

2018 World Cup — Group D Argentina vs Iceland Match Preview

The thunderclap meets one of the world’s best players as Iceland makes its World Cup debut against Lionel Messi and two-time champion Argentina on Saturday to open Group D play in Spartak Stadium in Moscow.

Iceland is the smallest nation in World Cup history to qualify with a population of approximately 340,000. The Strakarnir Okkar are making their second appearance in a major tournament after a surprising run to the European Championship quarterfinals in France two years ago in which they drew eventual champion Portugal in group play and stunned England 2-1 in the round of 16 before losing to host France.

As was the case in France, a sizable contingent of Iceland’s population has made the trek to Russia. At the Euros, the fan base became an international sensation with their post-match thunderclap led by captain Aron Gunnarsson. Iceland has become a trendy follow for World Cup neutrals in a tournament without perennials Italy, the Netherlands and the United States.

Argentina, meanwhile, is facing the urgency of what will likely be Messi’s final World Cup. The Albiceleste were runners-up to Germany in 2014, but qualifying for Russia proved an arduous task that was not settled until the final match day of South American qualifying. This will be Messi’s fourth World Cup appearance, and the five-time Ballon d’Or winner won the Golden Boot in 2014 with four goals.

Still, Argentina is again loaded with talent, especially at the forward position where Sergio Aguero and Gonzao Higuain have been consistent goal-scorers at the international level in addition to Messi and are augmented by youngster Paulo Dybala.

If there is one area of concern for coach Jorge Sampaoli, it is between the sticks. With first-choice keeper Sergio Romero sidelined through injury, Willy Caballero is expected to be Argentina’s starter, and he appeared in just three matches serving as Chelsea’s backup. Caballero and fellow keepers Nahuel Guzman and Franco Armani have nine caps combined.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

After losing out to Croatia in a two-legged playoff in 2014 World Cup qualifying, Iceland left no doubts about its fate this time by winning a balanced Group I that included fellow Group D participants Croatia as well as Turkey and Ukraine. The Strakarnir Okkar closed group play with a flourish, winning their final three matches by a combined 7-0 scoreline and securing their spot in the field of 32 with a 2-0 victory over Kosovo on the final matchday.

Gylfi Sigurdsson scored both goals in Iceland’s 2-0 victory over Ukraine that started the late-qualifying charge, and the Everton attacking midfielder has a team-high 19 goals in international play.

Argentina opened South American qualifying in disastrous fashion with two draws and two losses in its first four matches. Sampaoli was the third manager La Albiceleste used over the course of qualifying, having churned through Gerardo Martino and Edgardo Bauza. Messi himself missed matches during the process due to a spat with the Argentine football federation before rescuing the squad in the final qualifier with a hat trick versus Ecuador.

This is Argentina’s 12th consecutive World Cup appearance as it looks to make it to the knockout round for the fourth straight edition. La Albiceleste have reached the quarterfinals or better in four of their last five appearances, with the only exception a group stage exit in 2002.

FORMATIONS

While Iceland is usually identified with a 4-4-2 formation, Sigurdsson often roams underneath Finnbogason to find space in the attacking third. The other key attacker for Strakarnir Okkar is Johann Berg Gudmundsson, who is adept at whipping in crosses from the right and coming off a solid season at the club level in helping English side Burnley qualify for the Europa League.

Gunnarsson and Ragnar Sigurdsson are joint leaders in international appearances with 77 for Iceland, with another six players owning at least 50 caps. Finnbogason is the only other player on the roster in double figures in goals, totaling 13 in 47 appearances.

Argentina’s 4-2-3-1 set-up puts an emphasis on a solid spine, with both Manchester backlines represented in Marcos Rojo (United) and Nicolas Otamendi (City). Even at 34, Javier Mascherano remains one of the best defensive midfielders in the world and joined in front of the back four by Lucas Biglia.

Up front, the quartet of Messi, Aguero, Higuain and Angel Di Maria have combined for 151 goals, with Messi’s 64 the most in Argentina’s storied history. The Barcelona man is also one of two centurions on La Albiceleste’s roster with 124 appearances, and Mascherano will pass Javier Zanetti as Argentina’s most-capped player at kickoff when he notches his 144th cap.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Iceland – Gylfi Sigurdsson (MF)

The attacking midfielder is the focus of Iceland’s attack and arguably the club’s lone world-class player who can swing a match with a moment of magic. There has been concern he will not be 100 percent after seeing limited action in Iceland’s run-up to the World Cup, but after a disappointing first season with Everton that was cut short with a knee injury, look for Sigurdsson to put forth an inspired effort.

Argentina – Sergio Aguero (F)

While Messi grabs all the headlines, Aguero is a silent assassin due to a tremendous work rate evident for both club and country. Yet that has not translated to the World Cup, where he failed to score in his two prior appearances, and he also did not score in Argentina’s qualifying cycle.

While there are times there have not been enough balls to go around for Argentina’s attack, Manchester City’s all-time leading scorer cannot be overlooked when Messi is drawing multiple defenders to him when he dribbles.

RUMORED TO MOVE

While he will likely come off the bench as an attacking option, Dybala is rumored to be of interest to Atletico Madrid, who will have to spend a substantial sum of money in the transfer market to pry him from Juventus. Di Maria could be part of a sell-off by Paris-St. Germain, which needs to raise money to not run afoul of Financial Fair Play rules.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Argentina is a heavy favorite at 1-3 odds compared to Iceland getting a 10-1 return. The odds of a draw are listed at 15-4. Messi is also the front-runner for the opening goal at 9-4 odds, followed by Aguero and Higuain at 3-1 while Dybala is 7-2 and Di Maria is 13-2. Finnbogason is Iceland’s top option at 9-1, and Gylfi Sigurdsson is 12-1.

PREDICTION

All the good tidings and happy stories about Iceland making its World Cup debut disappear the moment Szymon Marciniak blows his whistle. Then it is about how Strakarnir Okkar play over the 270 minutes and whether they view these three matches as the culmination of six years of toil or if they honestly believe they can advance out of this group.

While Argentina is the favorite, both in the group and to potentially return to the title game, there is a lot of pressure on this squad. Messi has hinted this could be his last international tournament for La Albiceleste, and his teammates need to take some of the pressure off his shoulders.

Iceland does have the potential to cause worry out wide, especially with Gudmundsson if he’s on his game with crossing the ball. Argentina does not have exceptional wide defenders, and if they can create play away from the central triangle of Rojo, Otamendi and Mascherano, a goal could be had.

Argentina will find Iceland tough to break down as one of the better-drilled teams in the tournament. But there likely will be a moment of Messi magic late to break the hearts of the small nation as Albiceleste emerge with a hard-earned 2-0 victory.

UP NEXT

Iceland will face Nigeria for its second match Friday in Volgograd, while Argentina faces Croatia on Thursday in Nizhny Novogorod.