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The story of EURO 2016 so far

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Okay, that was fun.

The group stage of EURO 2016 is now over and with 36 games in the books, the next 15 are the business end of the tournament.

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Before the knockout rounds begin this Saturday, let’s take a look at the main themes from the opening games in France as things have got going rather nicely.


Playmakers paradise

It is clear that the mercurial talents at EURO 2016 are enjoying themselves.

With Dimitri Payet scoring goals for France and Gareth Bale the main man for Wales, Gylfi Sigurdsson adding poise to Iceland’s purpose and Mesut Ozil purring for Germany, there’s plenty of attacking delights to choose from.

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Looking at some of the stars who have emerged in this tournament, Ivan Perisic of Croatia has been particularly impressive, as have established deep-lying playmakers Luka Modric, Wayne Rooney (this is what he’s classed as, now) and Toni Kroos. Others who have shone are Slovakia’s Marek Hamsik, while emerging stars include Poland’s teenager Bartosz Kapustka and England’s Dele Alli. There hasn’t been a shortage of quality on display and now the group stage is over, these quality attackers will clash against one another. Bring it on.

TOULOUSE, FRANCE - JUNE 20: Gareth Bale of Wales celebrates scoring his team's third goal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group B match between Russia and Wales at Stadium Municipal on June 20, 2016 in Toulouse, France. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Overall, if it style and flair you’re after, you’re watching the right tournament. Even if Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco are scrapping away in Major League Soccer instead of playing for Italy while this all goes on…


Rise of the underdogs

Iceland. Wales. Northern Ireland. Slovakia. All four are in the Round of 16 and all four are competing in their first-ever European Championships. Plus, Hungary is through in their first tournament since 1972. Not bad.

Wales and Hungary won their groups. Slovakia and Northern Ireland finished third and have tough games against Germany and Wales respectively in the knockout rounds but they are just happy to still be in the dance.

LYON, FRANCE - JUNE 16: Gareth McAuley (L) of Northern Ireland celebrates scoring his team's first goal with his team mate Conor Washington (R) during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group C match between Ukraine and Northern Ireland at Stade des Lumieres on June 16, 2016 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

There’s no doubting which underdog has stolen the show: Iceland. With a population of just over 320,000, the Icelandic players have won admirers the world over. Except for Cristiano Ronaldo…

Iceland now face England in the Round of 16 in Nice next Monday and many believe an upset of the Three Lions isn’t out of the realms of possibility.

Given how things have gone for the outsiders at EURO 2016 so far, why can’t at least one of them reach the last eight?


Intrigue until the end

With the tournament expanded to 24 teams for the first-time ever, everything was set up to make every single game in group play interesting. That was a resounding success.

There’s been hardly any talk of “dead rubber” games as teams scramble to be among the four best third-placed teams to reach the Round of 16 and no team has won all three games in the group stages.

BORDEAUX, FRANCE - JUNE 21: David Silva of Spain and Marko Rog of Croatia compete for the ball during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D match between Croatia and Spain at Stade Matmut Atlantique on June 21, 2016 in Bordeaux, France. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Only 11 of the 36 group games were won by one or more goal with tight games playing out — yes, there should have been some blowouts but poor finishing from some of the big boys has kept things interesting — and putting to bed fears there would be a huge imbalance in talent due to the expanded field. That has clearly not been the case. Plus, now we get an extra round of knockout games.

The 24-team experiment has been hugely successful and perhaps plenty of the excitement has come from late goals as 19 of the 63 strikes has come in the 80th minute or later, with 15 of those arriving after 87 minutes. Tight.


Bext XI of the group stage

Here’s my team of the group stage.

Agree? Disagree? Hit me up in the comments below.

—– McGovern —–

— Sagna — Pique — Bonucci — Alba —

— Kroos — Modric —

— Payet — Ozil — Perisic — 

—– Bale —–


Violent outbreaks, fan misbehavior

I don’t want to spend more time than necessary discussing this but it needs to be addressed. Some of the fan behavior at this tournament has been absolutely shocking.

From the running battles in Marseille between English and Russian fans to flares being thrown on the pitch by Croatian supporters, there is no place for any of this in the beautiful game.

Russia and England were threatened with expulsion by UEFA and the former was charged for throwing fireworks and crowd disturbances inside the Velodrome. Russia was handed a “suspended disqualification” but they’ve already been knocked out. England and Russian fans clashed again in Lille and Turkey, Croatia, Hungary, Belgium, Romania, Albania and the Czech Republic have all been investigated by UEFA for crowd issues inside stadiums.

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - JUNE 11: England fans throw bottles and clash with police ahead of the game against Russia later today on June 11, 2016 in Marseille, France. Football fans from around Europe have descended on France for the UEFA Euro 2016 football tournament. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
(Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

This is 2016. We should not be reading about woman and children fleeing baying mobs as tear gas canisters fly around or supporters being hospitalized. It is a miracle nobody has been killed and although security inside the stadiums in France and in the fanzones has been generally on point, questions have to be asked about the often heavy-handed policing in and around host cities by French police.

Plus, how supporters are still managing to smuggle fireworks and flares into stadiums when security is supposed to be ultra-tight is extremely concerning. Let’s hope scenes of utter jubilation we’ve seen from the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Iceland fans spread to supporters of every other nation competing in the Round of 16.


Bracket imbalance

All it took was a couple of favorites to finish second in their groups and now we have a very lopsided bracket in the knockout rounds.

With Germany, Spain, Italy, France and England all on the same side, we are set for some stacked quarterfinal and semifinal matchups. As for the other side of the bracket, the likes of Belgium and Croatia will be rubbing their hands with glee. Heck, even the likes of Poland and Wales will be fancying their chances of making a run to the final four.

Everywhere you look in the Round of 16 there are huge storylines. From a British battle between first-timers Wales and Northern Ireland, to a potential upset of England from Iceland, a rematch of the EURO 2012 final, Spain vs. Italy, and a chance for redemption for the Republic of Ireland against France, this next round is packed with narratives.

Take a look at the schedule below to see what I’m talking about. Yep. If the Round of 16 games go the way of favorites, it will be France vs. England and Germany vs. Spain in the quarterfinals. Tasty.

Americans Abroad: Gall scores; Weah returns from injury

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Two USMNT names resurfaced over the weekend – for all the right reasons.

It’s been an overall quiet year for Romain Gall in Sweden, but the 25-year-old managed to challenge the narrative by scoring in Malmo’s cup bout.

While in France, Timothy Weah made a much-anticipated return from injury in Lille’s 2-1 loss. The 19-year-old played 10 minutes after being out for six months.

Here is a list of several other USMNT affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) abroad this weekend.

Premier League

Christian Pulisic, Chelsea — Pulisic is still recovering from his injury and will miss Monday’s game against Manchester United.

DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle — Yedlin didn’t dress in Newcastle’s 4-0 loss to Arsenal on Sunday.

Indiana Vassilev, Aston Villa — Vassilev didn’t dress in Aston Villa’s last-minute 3-2 loss to Tottenham on Saturday.

EFL Championship

Antonee Robinson, Wigan Athletic —  For a second weekend in a rown Robinson did not dress for Wigan. The failed move to AC Milan is apparently still haunting him.

Duane Holmes, Derby County — Holmes started and played 29 minutes before leaving with an ankle injury on Saturday.

Matt Miazga, Reading (loan from Chelsea) — The 24-year-old is out with a hamstring injury. There is no timeline on his return.

Eric Lichaj, Hull City — The defender is out for the season after sustaining an injury.

Geoff Cameron, QPR — The 34-year-old defender started and played 90 minutes in QPR’s 4-2 win over Stoke City.

Tim Ream, Fulham — Ream started and played 90 minutes in Fulham’s 3-0 loss to Barnsley on Saturday.

Cameron Carter-Vickers, Luton Town (loan Tottenham Hotspur) — Carter-Vickers started and played 90 minutes in Luton’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough.

Bundesliga

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt Chandler started and played 90 minutes in Franjfurt’s 4-0 loss to Borussia Dortmund.

John Brooks, Wolfsburg – The 26-year-old defender started and played 90 minutes for the time since January 18. Wolfsburg won 3-2 over Hoffenheim.

Weston McKennie, Schalke —  McKennie started and played 90 minutes in Schalke’s 0-0 draw with Mainz.

Zack Steffen and Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf — Steffen is out with an injury, while Morales started and played 90 minutes on Saturday.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen  Sargent came off the bench and played 25 minutes in Werder Bremen’s 3-0 loss.

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig — Adams is out with an injury. There is no timeline on his return.

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach Johnson dressed but didn’t feature for Borussia Monchengladbach.

Eredivisie

Sergino Dest, Ajax — Dest started and played 90 minutes in Ajax’s 3-0 win over RKC Waalwijk.

Haji Wright, VVV-Venlo — The 21-year-old striker was on the bench but didn’t feature on Friday.

Ligue 1

Timothy Weah, Lille — After a six-month absence, Weah featured for Lille in official competition. The attacker played the final 10 minutes in Lille’s 2-1 loss to Marseille.

Theoson Jordan-Siebatcheu, Rennes — Jordon-Siebatcheu started and played 56 minutes in Rennes’ 1-0 loss to Stade Reims.

Honorable Mentions

Romain Gall, Malmo — Gall played the final 31 minutes in Malmo’s 8-0 thumping of Syrianska and contributed a goal.

Richard Ledezma, Jong PSV — Ledezma played 60 minutes and scored a goal in Jong PSV’s 1-1 draw with FC Eindhoven. The attacker missed out the final 30 minutes after seeing a straight red card. 

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Manchester United

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Manchester United look to leave a poor three-match streak behind as they travel to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea  (Watch live at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The last time both teams faced off was during the season’s opening matchweek, which saw the Red Devils steamroll Chelsea 4-0 at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Since, United’s quality hasn’t been the same, slipping to ninth in the league, while the Blues have maintained themselves in the European competition conversation throughout the majority of the season.

A win for either side at this point of season will provide a huge morale boost, as both teams go into Monday’s match without a win in three bouts.


Injuries/suspensions

Chelsea: OUT —  Pulisic (groin), Van Ginkel (knee) QUESTIONABLE — Abraham (knock), Giroud (knock), Loftus-Cheek (calf)

Manchester United: OUT — McTominay (knee), Tuanzebe (thigh), Pogba (ankle, 5 Mar), Rashford (back), Fosu-Mensah (match fitness), Grant (surgery) QUESTIONABLE — Ighalo (match fitness)


Probable lineups

Chelsea: Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Tomori, James; Kante, Jorginho; Hudson-Odoi, Mount, William; Abraham.

Manchester United: De Gea; Williams, Maguire, Lindelof, Wan-Bissaka; Fred, Matic; Greenwood, Fernandes, James; Martial


What they’re saying

Chelsea’s Frank Lampard on dropping Kepa Arrizabalaga last weekend: “It wasn’t about giving him a jolt. It was just a selection on that day. I want everyone’s reaction spot on. I know how it will feel for him. I had it in my career, it is part and parcel. I am pleased with the reaction.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Odion Ighalo: “As a striker you get thrown on out there and it might be he’ll have to come off the bench, give us a goal and he does whatever he does.”


Prediction

Chelsea will be in front of their supporters on a Monday night with Manchester United in town. That scenario tends to go well for the Blues more often than not. Chelsea, 2-1.

Mexicans Abroad: Rodolfo Pizarro’s goalscoring start headlines handful of debuts

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A handful of Mexicans abroad debuted with their respective clubs over the weekend, but none were at par with Rodolfo Pizarro’s.

The 26-year-old attacking midfielder scored on his fourth touch as an Inter Miami player, two minutes after coming off the bench. Pizarro’s right-footed strike proved to be historic, as it became the first official goal in club history.

Also on Saturday, in different regions of the United States, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Alan Pulido, respectively, made their debuts. Chicharito played 78 minutes in Los Angeles Galaxy’s 2-1 preseason loss to Toronto FC, while Pulido logged 61 minutes in Sporting Kansas City’s scoreless bout.

Qatar’s new marquee star, Marco Fabian, debuted in Al-Sadd’s hard-earned cup win.

Here is a list of several other Mexico national team affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) outside of Mexico this weekend.


Premier League

Raul Jimenez, Wolverhampton Wanderers —  Jimenez started and played all 90 minutes in Wolves’ 0-0 draw against Leicester City. The forward registered four shots off target and one blocked.

La Liga

Hector Herrera, Atletico Madrid —  Herrera was not called up by Diego Simeone for Atletico Madrid’s draw against Valencia on Friday.

Andres Guardado, Real Betis —  Guardado dressed but didn’t take the field on Sunday.

Diego Lainez, Real Betis — The 19-year-old was is out after undergoing appendicitis surgery.

Nestor Araujo, Celta Vigo — Araujo played a vital part in La Liga’s most surprising outcome of the matchweek – Celta’s 2-2 draw with Real Madrid. The defender recorded eight clearances, one interceptions and two tackles throughout the 90 minutes.

Serie A

Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Napoli —  Lozano, Napoli’s most expensive player in team history, was not called up by Gennaro Gattuso on Sunday. The 24-year-old and the Italian manager seem to be on different pages, and the situation doesn’t appear to be getting better with time. It might be time to panic for Lozano’s development in Italy.

Primeira Liga

Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, FC Porto — Tecatito started and played 84 minutes in Porto’s 2-1 victory over Vitoria, which was marred by racist abuse towards Moussa Marega by Vitoria supporters.

Eredivisie

Erick Gutierrez, PSV Eindhoven —  Gutierrez played the final five minutes of PSV’s 3-0 thumping of AOD Den Haag.

Edson Alvarez, Ajax — After several weeks of little activity, Alvarez seems to be making his way back into Ajax’s starting lineup. On Sunday, the Mexican defender played his second set of 90 minutes in four days.

Jupiler Pro League

Omar Govea, Zulte Waregem — Govea played 76 minutes in Zulte’s 2-1 loss on Sunday.

Major League Soccer

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, LA Galaxy – In front of a semi-full Dignity Sports Park, Chicharito made his Los Angeles Galaxy debut. The storied forward, however, failed to score despite seeing a decent amount of chances. Galaxy open the MLS season against Houston Dynamo on February 29.

Rodolfo Pizarro, Inter Miami – It took two minutes for an Rodolfo Pizarro to score on his unofficial Inter Miami debut. Ironically, the brand-new MLS franchise has yet to announce the signing of the 26-year-old from Monterrey.

Alan Pulido, Sporting Kansas City – Pulido played 61 minutes in SKC’s scoreless, preseason draw against Real Salt Lake.

Elsewhere around the globe:

Ulises Davila, Wellington Phoenix – Davila played all 90 minutes in Phoenix’s 1-0 victory over Melbourne City. The attacker also managed to pick up a yellow card throughout the match.

Marco Fabian, Al-Sadd – Fabian debuted for Xavi’s Al-Sadd on Saturday, playing all 120 minutes in his team’s win via penalties.

Hector Moreno, Al-Gharafa – Moreno and Al-Gharafa were inactive this weekend.

La Liga roundup: Celta spoil Hazard’s return in Real Madrid draw

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Real Madrid’s draw against relegation-battling Celta Vigo highlights La Liga’s Sunday action.

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Real Madrid 2-2 Celta Vigo 

Celta’s Santi Mina scored in 85th minute to give a depleted Celta Vigo a precious point at the Santiago Bernabeu, spoiling Eden Hazard‘s return to Real Madrid’s lineup after a notable absence.

Madrid’s eighth draw of the season moves champions Barcelona just one point behind Zinedine Zidane’s side.

Returning from ankle injury that kept his out of action for three months, Hazard returned to the pitch in fine style, leading all players on the field in chances created with three and earning a penalty that Sergio Ramos converted to put Real Madrid ahead.

Hazard – and all of his flair – left the field in the 70th minute, granting Vinicius Junior the final 20 minutes of the match.

Ramos’ sixth goal of the season builded on Toni Kroos’ left-footed strike early in the latter half of the match. Real Madrid, more or less, were cruising against Celta, who had a goal to their name following Fyodor Smolov’s early opener.

Celta, who had arrived in Madrid in 18th place and had lost their last seven at the host’s home, were destined to do the unthinkable. Denis Suarez and Mina – both utilized as substitutes – paired up for the equalizer with five minutes to go, spoiling Hazard’s return.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Sevilla 2-2 Espanyol

Leganes 0-0 Real Betis 

Athletic Bilbao 0-1 Osasuna