Here’s where three European groups stand after the final day of qualifying for this international break.
Liechtenstein 0-8 Spain
Spain finishes the break three points ahead of second-place Italy, with a mere 17 goals of differential advantage thanks to braces from Iago Aspas and Alvaro Morata. Sergio Ramos, Isco, David Silva, and an own goal completed the scoring in Vaduz.
Republic of Ireland 0-1 Serbia
Aleksandar Kolarov‘s 55th minute goal means Serbia will finish no lower than the playoffs, and Orlovi would need to really fall apart to miss out on Russia.
Pep Guardiola gets his second go-around with Manchester City, hoping to improve on a third-place finish that came down to the wire. The Spaniard has done much work this summer to overhaul the roster and get significantly younger in key areas.
Last season’s acceptable finish eased some of the pressure that was mounting on Pep Guardiola, but another finish in the same spot this season won’t be taken so lightly. This team expects much more after such a massive summer investment, and anything less than a title will probably seem like a disappointment.
Best, worst case scenarios – Best-case scenario is clear: win the Premier League championship. With such a prestigious manager plus over $280 million spent this transfer window, there’s a clear target. Should those moves gel quickly, they could be one of the most dangerous teams not just in the Premier League but in all of Europe.
However, should it take Pep Guardiola time to mesh the new players together, an early-season sputter could scuttle the season before it even truly begins. Worst-case, this team finishes outside a Champions League spot, and Guardiola likely wouldn’t last long enough to see it come to a disappointing close.
Star player: Kevin De Bruyne — Sergio Aguero’s rocky relationship with Pep Guardiola and the arrival of Gabriel Jesus has seen the Belgian playmaker rise to the top as Manchester City’s most influential star. He played the most minutes of anyone on the squad last season across all competitions, and he was involved in 30 goals (7 scored, 23 assisted), one fewer than Raheem Sterling‘s team lead. One a team bursting at the seams with both creative and finishing talent, de Bruyne is the glue that holds it all together.
Coaches’ Corner: Pep Guardiola — Despite a solid third-place finish in his first season taking over an aging squad, Guardiola’s first season in charge had largely a disappointing feel to it. The Spaniard brought in players like John Stones and Leroy Sane who either struggled or failed to make a significant impact. After his success at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich made Guardiola one of the most sought-after managers in the world, he must prove he can navigate the Premier League or he may run out his welcome in Manchester.
PST predicts: This team is just flat out too talented to struggle two seasons in a row. Guardiola will figure out how to piece the attacking talent together, rotating Jesus and Aguero through the numerous competitions and working Ilkay Gundogan, Leroy Sane, and Bernardo Silva into the rotation behind them. The central defense is still this team’s weakness, but for all of John Stones’ struggles last season, City still managed the fourth-best defensive record in the English top flight. Kyle Walker is a fantastic addition despite his high price, and Guardiola has managed to get this team significantly younger since he arrived. This is a top-two team, and will challenge for the title.
The club, the city, the fans, name it: The relentless 27-year-old has renewed his commitment to AS Roma with a new contract, and understands how players like Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi devote their entire careers to i Lupi.
“It’s Rome,” Strootman exclaims, speaking ahead of the club’s second Stateside match of the International Champions Cup.
“You’re not going to leave easy. This is Rome. We all have the ambition to win something here, and to celebrate with the fans. Totti told us when he won the scudetto in 2001, there were parties for three months. If you win something here, it’s going to be really special. About the city you don’t even have to talk, it’s so beautiful you cannot compare it with anything else.”
Yeah, the Eternal City is pretty nice, but it’s most celebrated football club is growing in magnitude, too. Roma’s finished second in Serie A three of the past four seasons, and last season came within four points of its first scudetto since the aforementioned win earlier this century.
Strootman was a massive part of the campaign, returning to the elite form displayed in his first season at the club and in previous campaigns with PSV Eindhoven. He scored six times with seven assists between Serie A and the UEFA Europa League, averaging 2.7 tackles per game, 1.7 interceptions, and 1.4 dribbles per Serie A contest.
That his reclamation of that status came after knee surgeries limited him to 18 matches over the previous two seasons was sweet (if nervy).
“For me it was like such a relief, especially in the beginning you’d play a game and you’d be happy to play,” Strootman said. “If you won everyone was happy with the win, but I was just happy that I didn’t get injured again. The fitness coaches and technical staff did a great job. I played 50 games, we made the Champions League, and I signed a new contract. I was happy to pay them back on the pitch. I feel good.”
Payback is a theme in our talk with Strootman, who speaks glowingly of club chairman James Pallotta, the American businessman who stood by the midfielder during his injury struggles (NOTE: PST profiled Pallotta in depth last summer).
“He brought me here when he started the project, and he’s always supported me even during my injuries,” Strootman said. “He would call me, and was always there for me. I always told him, when I’m fit I want to pay you back with my play on the pitch. He’s like a president should be.”
It’ll be different from Strootman this season, and not just because of the changes to the Roma roster. Gone are Mohamed Salah, Antonio Rudiger, Leandro Paredes, and retiring Francesco Totti. Arriving are Maxime Gonalons, Hector Moreno, and reports of bids for Riyad Mahrez and the impending arrival of Aleksandar Kolarov excite the fan base.
I Lupi are a club which has been on the precipice of greatness for some time. Now with the Champions League group stage and battles with not just Juve and Napoli but surging AC Milan and Inter Milan, Strootman says it’s time to stop talking big and start acting it out.
“The last couple years we talked in the preseason about winning the scudetto, winning cups, but we have to show it on the pitch,” he said. “We still need some time, that’s normal, but we need to show on the pitch that we are hungry. We’re a young team with some experienced players. It’s a good mix. We have to show it from the first competition and game by game.”
Strootman also admitted, as many have, that American soccer continues to grow in renown around the Netherlands and Europe in general.
“I think it’s rising,” he said. “A lot more players from Holland are going over to MLS. I don’t see a lot of the games because they don’t show them in Italy. But when you’re here and see the friendly games against the big teams, the level is going up. MLS is getting higher and higher.”
Roma faces Spurs at Red Bull Arena on Tuesday before a July 30 battle with Juventus at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.