Getty Images

Euro 2016 Dark Horses: What teams, players will surprise?

Leave a comment

We all know about France, Germany, Spain, and the other heavyweights at the Euros this season. But what about those less talked about?

Here are some teams and players you may want to know about when the time comes for them to shine:

TEAMS

Just off the top: Poland

Any team with Robert Lewandowski is dangerous, but Poland is so much more than that. A hair off the elite group of teams in Europe, this team is as top to bottom as it comes. For starters, the goalkeeping talent on the Polish squad might be the deepest in Europe alongside Germany. Wojciech Szczesny was the third-best goalkeeper in Serie A last season, just a tick behind superstars Gianluigi Buffon and Samir Handanovic according to Squawka. He might not even start, with Swansea’s Lukasz Fabianski and Bournemouth’s Artur Boruc nipping at his toes. Grzegorz Krychowiak’s growth at the holding midfield position has changed the team’s tactical philosophy entirely. Lukasz Piszczek is in top form, voted to the Bundesliga team of the season this campaign. This squad has it all, and should give Germany and others all kinds of trouble.

Christian Fuchs has 75 caps for Austria (Photo: Getty Images)
Christian Fuchs has 75 caps for Austria (Photo: Getty Images)
[ MORE: PST writers predict Euro 2016 ]

Under the radar: Austria

Portugal may seem like the Group F favorites, but that group is probably more up for grabs than most, and Austria has a serious chance to top it. Austria bombarded through European qualification, with just one draw on an otherwise unblemished record. Unfortunately, three losses in five friendlies since have dampened the mood, but don’t ever count Austria out. This team can defend with the best in Europe, with Leicester City rock Christian Fuchs on the left and Aleksandar Dragovic – already with 47 caps at age 25 – in the middle, plus the do-it-all David Alaba likely in front of the back four. Stoke City workhorse Marko Arnautovic is the creative force on the wing, while Zlatko Junuzovic does the dirty work in the middle, and Mark Janko finishes them off. Austria could do some serious damage if the squad plays to its potential.

[ EURO PREVIEWS: Group A | B | C | D | E | F ]

Out of nowhere: Albania

There’s nobody the casual fan has ever heard of on this squad, and with Albania in its first-ever major tournament, they’re largely being counted out of a Group A bunch with France, Switzerland, and Romania. If you think those three have an easy one on the cards, think again. A high-pressing bunch that relies on a host of top-flight experience at the back, Gianni De Biasi could surprise a few. Captain Lorik Cana – with 90 caps to his name – saw significant time at center-back for FC Nantes this season and has played for Marseille, Lazio, and PSG in the past. Alongside him will likely be Cologne defender Mergim Mavraj, and Ansi Agolli on the left, who will become the first Azerbaijani Premier League player to feature in the Euros. Albania’s high press, led by striker Sokol Çikalleshi, could put a few big names out of their element.

PLAYERS

The young gun: Renato Sanches

The 18-year-old has already beaten Cristiano Ronaldo at one thing, becoming the youngest Portuguese player to travel to a major tournament, and there’s surely more to come. A Marcus Rashford-esque type rise, Sanches just made his Benfica debut in November. Since then, he’s made a $40 million move to Bayern Munich and now he could see significant time in a European Championship. He’s so good, some officials have apparently questioned if he’s really only 18. With five caps to his name, all off the bench, the central midfielder could soon overtake Danilo or Joao Moutinho in the middle of the field for years to come.

[ MORE: Which PL stars are at EURO 2016?]

The midfield engine: Vladimír Darida

At 25 years old, the Czech midfielder runs and runs and runs, and then runs some more. Unfortunately, he plays alongside national legend Tomas Rosicky in the midfield, who seems to get all the credit. Darida is a workhorse, and at just 5′ 6″, he can often get lost in the shuffle. Nothing stands off Darida’s stat sheet, with an 82% pass completion rate and a poor tackling record at Hertha this season, but he created 35 chances and scored five goals in league play this season, and that was enough to generate rumors of a move to Real Madrid, which he brushed aside. The Czech Republic is in a very difficult group, and if Pavel Vrba’s squad is to advance past Croatia and Turkey, they will need Darida to play a starring role.

The experienced vet: Mehmet Topal

With 59 caps, it’s hard to buy into a “dark horse” label for the 30-year-old central defender. Yet, with Turkey another one in the Group D mix, they will need Topal and another grizzled vet in Hakan Kadir Balta to be playing their best at the back. Obviously Spain is the favorite of the bunch, but with an attacking-minded Turkish squad grouped with defensively sound

Kingsley Coman has just five caps for France, but was a key player for Bayern Munich this year (Photo by Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images)
Kingsley Coman was a key player for Bayern Munich this year (Photo: Getty Images)
Czech and Croatian sides, Topal will need to win the war of attrition that will be a staple of Group D. This is a contract year for Topal as well, with his Fenerbahce deal coming to an end this summer. There have been rumors of a move to Tottenham, but he’ll need to earn a dotted line to sign in France.

Getting over the hump: Kingsley Coman

France is all about the next generation now. Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial have taken all the headlines, yet all 20-year-old Kingsley Coman has done is win. Still somewhat of a raw talent, Coman went on loan from Juventus to Bayern Munich (beat that loan move) and played a crucial role in their Champions League run, bagging two goals and six assists across eight Champions League games. Coman is an electric talent down the flanks and the perfect heir to Franck Ribery’s throne, but surrounded by flashier players at both club and country, he still hasn’t become a household name. Yet superstardom could be in his future if he feeds enough goal-starved mouths (see: Giroud, Olivier) during a European championship run in his home country.

Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

Photo by Oscar J. Barroso / AFP7 / Europa Press Sports via Getty Images
Leave a comment

MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jose Mourinho seems to be quite happy that the Premier League will implement its first-ever winter break next month, allowing players a bit of rest and recovery time during a marathon campaign, but says its timing makes the break almost worthless for clubs competing in European competitions.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

The next four weeks will play out as follows for Tottenham Hotspur: FA Cup against Southampton this weekend; PL fixture against Manchester City next weekend; the following weekend off which results in two weeks without a game; PL fixture against Aston Villa the following weekend; Champions League first leg against RB Leipzig three days later.

In Mourinho’s perfect world, that first round of PL fixtures following the break would be held a week earlier, leaving the seven English clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with a week and a half between games before setting out once again to chase European glory. Instead, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea will all have a quick turnaround from PL action to UCL competition — quotes from the Guardian:

“It is what it is. I’m not happy that the break comes in the wrong moment. The break should be before the Champions League and, in the end, before the Champions League we don’t have the break. We have to play Aston Villa on the Sunday, playing [RB Leipzig three] days later. So we don’t really care about the break, honestly.”

Mourinho’s point is a solid one: if the winter break is going to exist — and it should — then why shouldn’t its benefits be maximized? Non-European sides — typically those with smaller squads — would still have the full two weeks between games, while those in Europe are able to better leverage their slightly larger squads with only 10 or 11 days between games — still a lengthy break relative to the rest of the season.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

It’s only the first year of the winter break in the PL, so perhaps hopefully they’ll receive Mourinho’s criticism — and that of any other managers — constructively.

Serie A: AC Milan extends unbeaten run since Zlatan’s arrival

Leave a comment

BRESCIA, Italy (AP) Ante Rebic scored his third goal in two matches, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb and AC Milan won 1-0 at relegation-threatened Brescia on Friday to climb into the Europa League places in Serie A.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Rebic, who scored twice in a win over Udinese last weekend, pounced on a loose ball directly in front of the goal following a cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.

Since Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan over the holiday break, Milan is unbeaten with four wins and a draw across all competitions.

Donnarumma produced several difficult saves to deny Dimitri Bisoli and Ernesto Torregrossa.

Also, Milan fullback Theo Hernandez hit the crossbar in the closing minutes.

The Rossoneri moved up to sixth place, four points behind fifth-place Atalanta.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

“Our goal is to qualify for Europe,” Donnarumma said. “We’ve got to continue like this and not rest for a moment. There’s another big Italian Cup match coming up with Torino midweek and we want to reach the semifinals.

“We’ll take it one game at a time and try to keep this momentum going.”

Brescia was without Mario Balotelli, who was suspended for two matches after protesting a booking last weekend that ended up with the striker being sent off.

Brescia remained one point above last-place Genoa.

FA Cup: Sheffield Wednesday into 5th round; Derby headed for replay

Photo by James Chance/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sheffield Wednesday became the first club to reach the fifth round of the 2019-20 FA Cup by beating Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Friday.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

The Owls took a 1-0 lead into halftime after Morgan Fox squeezed his shot past the goalkeeper from a tight angle, and Sam Winnall put the EFL Championship side 2-0 up by slotting the ball home just before full-time. QPR pulled a goal back through Nahki Wells just moments later, but it wasn’t enough and the game finished 2-1.

It’s the second time in three seasons that Wednesday has reached the fifth round after doing so just twice in their previous 17 seasons.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

Elsewhere, fellow Championship side Derby County, featuring Wayne Rooney who played all 90 minutes, couldn’t see off League Two side Northampton Town and will be forced into the dreaded replay after struggling to a scoreless draw away from home.

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.