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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.

[ MORE: EURO 2016 stats | EURO 2016 bracket

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.

PL Sunday preview: Man Utd and Arsenal chase top five; Chelsea host Liverpool

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures is filled up to the brim of top-six sides in action, as Manchester United and Arsenal look to climb into the top five in the table, while Chelsea looks to send a strong message as they host leaders Liverpool.

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West Ham vs. Manchester United — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Aside from leaders Liverpool, there is no other team in the league experiencing such a positive run as West Ham. The Hammers are unbeaten in their last four bouts – wining twice and drawing twice – as they head into Sunday’s showdown against Manchester United. Equal with five other sides with eight points, Manuel Pellegrini is conscious that it’s the ideal time to make a statement and climb into the top six.

“We have a very strong team in front of us, it will be a strong test against United. It is the only way we can get into the top six, demonstrating you are able to do it,” Pellegrini said heading into Sunday.

As for the Red Devils, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side – who share the podium with West Ham – are looking to extend their current winning form to three games. Ahead of the game, however, the talk surrounding United isn’t Sunday’s game, but Paul Pogba‘s rumored move to Real Madrid this summer. What a better way to get everyone’s mind of theoretical situations and injury worries than with a win.

INJURIES: West Ham — OUT: Michail Antonio (hamstring), Arthur Masuaku (suspended) | Manchester United —OUT: Anthony Martial (thigh), Paul Pogba (back), Luke Shaw (hamstring), Eric Bailly (knee), Timothy Fosu-Mensah (knee)

Crystal Palace vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers — 9 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Not many expected it: Wolves winless throughout the first five games of the season. That, however, is the reality for a team that finished seventh last season. By now, Wolverhampton Wanderers have had plenty of time to pick up on the alarm bells, it’s time for them to respond.

Manager Nuno Espírito Santo, for instance, knows that it’s time for his side to get back into shape before it’s too late.

“This is important,” he said. “We face the reality and the reality says we not performing well so we have to analyse it and find solutions in the team to improve. We must react immediately. We have to take decisions and find solutions for the team because we have to come out of this situation and improve our performance so we can bounce back.”

Crystal Palace, on the other hand, are dealing with adversity of their own after falling to Tottenham Hotspur, 4-0, last week. Playing at Selhurst Park this time around should be a positive, but Palace has only managed to score a goal in three matches in front of their home crowd this season.

INJURIES: Crystal Palace — OUT: None | Wolverhampton Wanderers — OUT: None

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Arsenal have had several things going for them this season: scoring at home, positive first Europa League performance, a healthy and productive Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, among others. One thing they’ve been missing, though, is an effective Nicolas Pepe, especially after shelling record-money for the 24-year-old Ivorian.

“He needs more adaptation,” Emery said in his pre-match press conference. “He is playing good but progressively we know there is going to be more performance in him to help us and I want to do now quickly the last step in the adaptation for us, for example, against Aston Villa.”

With Alexandre Lacazette still out with an ankle injury, Pepe, again, will have the opportunity to showcase his true worth to a packed Emirates Stadium. Arsenal, too, can use his skill to get that much closer to three, vital points.

“When will Aston Villa finally break out of their shell?” is the million-dollar question for the visitors. At times, the newly promoted side has shown the flair that made it so powerful in the Championship last season, only to leave spectators on the edge of their seats, waiting for that final blow. In North London on Sunday, Dean Smith and Co. have the chance to do so with several players back in the mix, but that’s not to say the task will be a walk in the park.

INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Alexandre Lacazette (ankle) | Aston Villa — OUT: James Chester (thigh), Jonathan Kodjia (cheek)

Chelsea vs. Liverpool — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Liverpool, like Chelsea, suffered opening losses in European play midweek; however, there is a different, more positive impetus fueling Jurgen Klopp‘s side. The defending Champions League winners’ immaculate record speaks volume to their current situation, one that’s biggest setback has been the aforementioned loss to Napoli and the injury to goalkeeper Allison, while regaining influential player Nabi Keita in trainings.

It begs to ask: with Manchester City already behind and several top-six sides struggling, how will Liverpool not runaway with the league title this season? That type of talk, however, is exactly what Klopp doesn’t want to hear. The season is green – very, ver green – and this season, for one reason or another, is nothing like last year’s.

“Nothing is won already,” Klopp said. “We have seen teams make big steps. There is nobody you think will go down with no points. Watford and Wolves have been at the bottom, struggling, but will end up going back up. The league is much different (to last season). So many things can happen. Five games is nothing, not even created a basis…”

Klopp’s counterpart on Sunday, Frank Lampard, as a result of his own environment, is managing a different dialogue ahead of the clash, like the possibility of fielding Mason Mount, who came off midweek against Valencia in Champions League play.

On the bright side, Chelsea are unbeaten in their last four league bouts, and have a game against Liverpool under their belts this season already – a penalty-shootout loss in the UEFA Super Cup – that should have seasoned them ahead of this season’s part two of the rivalry.

“Times have changed slightly, but it doesn’t change that feeling,” Lampard said on the Chelsea-Liverpool rivalry. “I think the fans feel it, the players feel it, it does involve a lot of passion whenever it’s played. If your levels aren’t there it’s a game that can get away from you quickly so my first thing to say to the players is to make sure they feel this game, recognise what it is, because it always does have an edge.”

INJURIES: Chelsea OUT: Antonio Rüdiger (groin), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (achilles), Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James (both fitness) | Liverpool  OUT: Alisson (calf), Nathaniel Clyne (knee)

Serie A roundup: Inter win Derby della Madonnina, Juventus edge Verona (video)

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Inter Milan’s rampant run and Juventus’ win headline Saturday’s Serie A action.

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AC Milan 0-2 Inter Milan

The stats books following this season’s first Derby della Madonnina make two things very clear: at the moment, Inter are the best team in Milan and in Serie A.

With four consecutive victories to start the season, Antonio Conte and Co. lead Italy’s top-flight by two points.

 

After nearly being up two goals in the first half, Inter broke deadlock in the 49th minute. From a orchestrated set-piece play, marcelo Brozovic’s strike skimmed the heels of Rafael Leão, deflecting the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma, and into the back of the net. An offside call was reviewed through VAR, but the goal stood.

In the 78th minute, a short, lofted cross from Nicolò Barella found Romelu Lukaku, who headed the ball into the far post. The Belgian, who arrived from Manchester United during the summer, has scored three goals in four league games.

Dominating time with the ball didn’t do much for AC Milan, whose clearest chance came late in the second half when Theo Hernández’s strike inside the box hit the bar.

Yet to taste a draw or defeat, Inter marches on as they host Lazio next, while AC Milan travel to Turin to take on Torino.

Juventus 2-1 Hellas Verona

In a game that could have gone either way, Juventus, with its star-studded team and all, walked away with three points against 10-man Hellas Verona.

Aaron Ramsey, who made a shock switch to the Old Lady in July following an 11-year spell with Arsenal, scored his first Serie A goal. From distance, in the 31st minute, the 29-year-old’s shot deflected Verona’s Koray Gunter, beating Marco Silvestri and into the goal.
Ramsey’s goal, however, only leveled the score.
Following a missed penalty and second chance, Miguel Veloso scored what can be the goal of the week: a first-time, left-footed volley into the top corner of Gianluigi Buffon’s goal. Verona, who had a couple of clear chances in the second half, were unable to get past Buffon again.
With three points desperately needed to keep pace with Inter Milan, Cristiano Ronaldo came to the rescue. The Portuguese converted from the sport – his first of the season – following a solo run from Juan Cuadrado.

With positive momentum behind them, second-place Juventus travels to Brescia next, while Hellas Verona receive a lackluster Udinese side.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Cagilari 3-1 Genoa

Udinese 0-1 Brescia

VIDEO: Kei Kamara scores superb bicycle kick goal against Sporting KC

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Kei Kamara has scored plenty of goals at Children’s Mercy Park, but none like his bicycle kick goal on Saturday.

The 35-year-old, now in his 16th season, showcased his penchant for scoring right before halftime against his former team. The goal makes 12 for the Colorado Rapids’ forward this season, placing him within the top 10 of the league and two begin his 14-goal season last year.

Overall, Kamara is fifth in the all-time MLS scoring list with 124 goals, second among active players behind San Jose Earthquakes’ Chris Wondolowski.

Enjoy a superb goal from a superb goalscoerer.

La Liga roundup: Messi, Barcelona stunned by inspired Granada (video)

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Granada’s shocking 2-0 win over Barcelona and subsequent rise to the top of the table headlines Saturday’s La Liga action.

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Granada 2-0 Barcelona

Not even Lionel Messi, who made his season debut on Saturday, was able to save Barcelona against a red-hot Granada.

Granada, who are off to their best start in their 88 years of existence, had a perfect night in front of their supporters, convincingly getting past a Barcelona that dominated possession, but lacked the offensive ingenuity needed to score.

Barcelona’s defense wasn’t noteworthily robust, either.

Two minutes in, the newly promoted side scored through a headed goal from Ramon Azeez, following a defensive turnover from Junior Firpo.

Unable to record a shot on target in the first half and looking to wakeup a dormant attack, Barcelona brought on wonderkid Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi at halftime. Despite the duo connecting on several occasion and generating a shot on target, it wasn’t enough to get past Rui Silva.

In the 66th minute, following video review, substitute Alvaro Badillo converted from the spot, handing Granada their third win of the season.

Atop of La Liga, Granada set their sights on Real Valladolid, while Barcelona, who are off to their worst league start in 25 years, host Villarreal at Camp Nou.

Atletico Madrid  0-0 Celta Vigo

For a second consecutive week, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid dropped points, drawing with Celta Vigo 0-0 at Wanda Metropolitano.

Tied with league leaders Granada and Sevilla with 10 points, the alarm bells are far from going off in Madrid. However, as Saturday’s performance showed, los Colchoneros are having trouble finishing chances this season, despite fielding an attack with the likes of Joao Felix, Diego Costa and Alvaro Morata.

In five games, Atletico have managed to score only five goals, six fewer than leaders Granada. Against Celta, Atletico registered 20 shots, five on target, but were unable to crack a stellar Ruben Blanco, who registered five saves.

Leveled with Granada and Sevilla, Atletico Madrid look to get back into winning ways as they take on RCD Mallorca. Elsewhere, Celta Vigo, who have won win after five games, host Espanyol next.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Villarreal 2-0 Real Valladolid

Levante 0-0 Eibar