Diego Benaglio

Europa League group draw: Everton, Spurs face stiff tests

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There was a time when capturing the UEFA Cup was considered a better accomplishment than winning the European Cup, which only included league champions and thusly left out plenty of top opponents.

Winning the trophy now has a bit more luster with the added bonus of a Champions League berth to the victor, though certainly no one’s comparing the two trophies much anymore. The UEFA Europa League group stage draw was conducted this morning, as teams learned the next step on their desired paths to the UCL.

There are some groups where it’s relatively easy to predict the two clubs who will emerge but, unfortunately for fans of Everton and Tottenham, Groups C and H are not among them.

The latter group features Spurs, and will find the London club battling for a spot in the Round of 16 alongside Turkish powers Besiktas and respected Serbian club Partizan Belgrade. In the rankings of fourth teams to put in a group, Asteras may not be a household name but hail from a Greek Super League ranked No. 12 in the UEFA coefficient. Still, you’d have to figure Mauricio Pochettino’s boys will be favored to emerge.

Meanwhile, Everton has a beast of a challenge ahead of itself. They’ll take on Divock Origi and the dangerous Great Danes of Lille, a Wolfsburg team that boasts Kevin De Bruyne and Diego Benaglio, and Kubin Krasnodar of the eighth-ranked Russian Premier League.

Returning champions Sevilla get a tough draw in Group G.

Here are the groups. As an added bonus, I’ll italicize the two teams I predict will emerge from the group (provided their clubs like the prospect of advancing in the competition and treat it seriously).

Group A: Villarreal, Borussia Monchengladbach, Zurich, Apollon

Group B: Copenhagen, Club Brugge, Torino, HJK Helsinki

Group C: Spurs, Besiktas, Partizan Belgrade, Asteras

Group D: Red Bull Salzburg, Celtic, Dinamo Zagreb, Astra

Group E: PSV Eindhoven, Panathinaikos, Estoril, Dynamo Moscow

Group F: Inter Milan, Dnipro, St Etienne, Qarabag

Group G: Sevilla, Standard Liege, Feyenoord, Rijeka

Group H: Lille, Wolfsburg, Everton, Krasnodar

Messi the hero as playmaker and Di Maria’s extra time goal beats Swiss

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After 117 minutes of scoreless soccer, Lionel Messi fed Angel Di Maria, who scored the goal that made the Arena Sao Paolo erupt.

The goal also pushed Argentina to a 1-0 win over Switzerland and a berth in the World Cup quarterfinals.

Argentina will move on to play the winner of the Belgium and United States game, which kicks off at 4pm ET.

A fun, back-and-forth first half between Switzerland and Argentina gave way to a tentative, defensive second as the two sides searched for the goal that could lead them into the quarterfinals.

Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld said on Monday that his team would show the way to stop Lionel Messi, and they punished the diminutive superstar with hard tackles and physical play. Messi’s chances were limited, and his team was frustrated.

Hitzfeld was presumably coaching with a heavy heart, as his brother passed away from leukemia hours before the match.

Meanwhile, first half counterattacks probably should’ve lead to goal for the underdogs. Granit Xhaka’s point-blank shot was saved by the foot of Argentine keeper Sergio Romero, while Josep Drmic’s cheeky chip didn’t get the height to soar above the keeper.

Here’s what we were saying at halftime.

In the second half, the chances were lesser. Marcos Rojo’s splendid cross was headed on target by Gonzalo Higuain, but Benaglio was able to tip it over the bar.

Benaglio made a diving stop on Messi in the 77th minute, able to get his right arm on the ball and thwart the shot.

And it was Messi magic again in the 89th minute, as his slaloming run ended with a pass for Palacio that was received poorly and skidded away from danger.

Extra time it would be. Of course.

The first period of extra time did not provide a wealth of prime chances, as the teams continued to beat each other about with hard fouls.

The second featured an early rip by Di Maria that Benaglio pushed over the goal, as Switzerland’s continued attention to Messi opened up some lanes for the Argentines.

With Argentina controlling possession and attack, it felt they were only team that could tally before kicks… and Messi found Di Maria for the goal.

Dzemaili headed a cross off the post in the 121nd minute before pushing the rebound wide with an off-balance touch. That was it for the Swiss.

LINEUPS

Argentina: Romero; Zabaleta, Fede Fernández, Garay, Rojo (Basanta, 105′); Gago (Biglia, 105′), Mascherano, Di María; Lavezzi (Palacio, 73′), Messi, Higuaín

Goals: Di Maria (117′)

Switzerland: Benaglio; Lichtsteiner, Djourou, Schaer, Rodriquez; Shaqiri,  Inler,  Xhaka (Fernandes, 64′), Behrami, Mehmedi (Dzemaili, 112′); Drmic (Seferovic, 81′)

Top Ten Players of the 2014 World Cup’s Group Stage

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It’s quite a task selecting the best 10 performances from 32 teams playing three games each, but in the hard world of being employed to rank world footballers, I stand ready.

It’s especially hard not to just latch onto incredible moments and insert a player on the list. Robin van Persie’s headed goal against Spain still amazes me, but was he the driving force behind the Netherlands’ surprising group stage? Certain teams got by on defending, so does that mean one defender can rise above the rest?

[ RELATED: Complete bracket for Round of 16, more ]

Oh, shoot. Let’s just do this thing. The Top Ten players from the 2014 group stage were:

10. Gervinho, Ivory Coast – No, Les Elephants were not able to charge out of their group stage funk, but that was no fault of the electric Gervinho, who challenged back lines and midfields alike.

9. Arjen Robben, Netherlands – He’s a menace, and his motor never stops going (even during his full-energy dives). Robben drove the Dutch into the knockout rounds.

8. Enner Valencia, Ecuador – The bright spot in a disappointing tournament for La Tri, the ‘other’ Valencia has been linked with a number of Premier League sides including Newcastle United.

7. Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico – You watched the Brazil/Mexico match, right? Can you believe El Tri had coaches who didn’t suit this guy up?

source: AP6. James Rodriguez, Colombia – Absurdly-gifted and just as productive, James is one of the main reasons Colombia could emerge from the loaded CONMEBOL quadrant and into the semifinals.

5. Karim Benzema, France – If this guy played in England, he would be one of the most popular players for American audiences. He’s big, talented and hard-charging.

4. David Luiz, Brazil – So PSG is going to team Luiz up with Thiago Silva? Champions League, beware.

3. Neymar, Brazil – If there’s been more stress placed on a younger player by a host nation, we’ve yet to find him. Coming into his own during this tournament.

2. Thomas Muller, Germany – All he does is score goals, and that bullet against the United States was bordering on impossibly well-placed.

1. Lionel Messi, Argentina – Any more questions about the Atomic Ant on the international stage? He was Argentina in the group stage.

Honorable mention: Wayne Rooney, England; Yeltsin Tejeda and Bryan Ruiz, Costa Rica; Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard, United States; Daley Blind, Robin van Persie and Memphis Depay, Netherlands; Blaise Matuidi, France; Xherdan Shaqiri and Diego Benaglio, Switzerland; Andre Ayew, Ghana; Juan Cuadrado, Colombia; Merhdad Pooladi, Iran; Serey Die, Ivory Coast; David Ospina and Jackson Martinez, Colombia; Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard, Belgium; Ivan Perisic, Croatia; Claudio Bravo and Alexis Sanchez, Chile; Vincent Enyeama, Nigeria; Oribe Peralta, Mexico; Diego Godin and Luis Suarez, Uruguay; Islam Slimani, Algeria; Keisuke Honda, Japan; Mesut Ozil and Mats Hummels, Germany.

Revisiting our Top 100; Who are the Top 100 knockout round players?

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I love getting yelled at, and you guys sure gave it to me over the course of ProSoccerTalk’s four-part “Top 100 players of the World Cup” series before the tournament began. How could we possibly have Bastian Schweinsteiger, a guy who ended up starting one group stage game for Germany and played 20 minutes in another, at No. 77? Just absurd!

Oh, you mean you were saying that was too low? Oh, okay.

Anyway, we wanted to take a look at who remained. And I’m a glutton for punishment, so I figured I’d fill in the back end with players who are still active in the World Cup’s knockout rounds.

[ RELATED: Top five US performers during Group G play ]

[ RELATED: Three things we learned from USA-Germany ]

[ RELATED: Convinced? Klinsmann’s personnel moves keyed US advance ]

A remarkable 45 players have been either eliminated or injured, so we’ll bump all our pre-rankings forward and add in 45 newcomers.

100. Jasper Cillessen, Netherlands

99. Fabian Johnson, United States

98. Joel Campbell, Costa Rica

97. Ogenyi Onazi, Nigeria

96. Emmanuel Emenike, Nigeria

95. Dimitris Salpingidis, Greece

94. Hector Herrara, Mexico

source: AP

93. Olivier Giroud, France

92. Teofilo Gutierrez, Colombia

91. Islam Slimani, Algeria

90. Ahmed Musa, Nigeria

89. Sofiane Feghouli, Algeria

88. Sergio Romero, Argentina

87. Stefan De Vrij, Netherlands

86. Gary Medel, Chile

85. Marcelo, Brazil

84. Pablo Armero, Colombia

83. Granit Xhaka, Switzerland

82. Andres Guardado, Mexico

81. Daniel van Buyten, Belgium

80. Gonzalo Jara, Chile

79. Kevin de Bruyne, Belgium

78. Mathieu Valbuena, France

77. Matt Besler, United States

76. David Ospina, Colombia

75. Jan Vertonghen, Belgium

74. Fred, Brazil

73. Fernando Gago, Argentina

72. Chares Aranguiz, Chile

71. Eduardo Vargas, Chile

source: AP70. Dries Mertens, Belgium

69. Vincent Enyeama, Nigeria

68.  Javier Mascherano, Argentina

67. Mamadou Sakho, France

66. Yeltsin Tejeda, Costa Rica

65. Juan Cuadrado, Colombia

64. Memphis Depay, Netherlands

63. Claudio Bravo, Chile

62. Jermaine Jones, United States

61. Giorgos Karagounis, Greece

60. Yeltsin Tejeda, Costa Rica

59. Angel Di Maria, Argentina

58. Mats Hummels, Germany

57. Daley Blind, Netherlands

56. Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico

————————————-

55. Rafa Marquez, Mexico

54. Diego Benaglio, Switzerland

source: AP53. Bryan Ruiz, Costa Rica

52. Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Greece

51. Madjid Bougherra, Algeria

50. Emmanuel Emenike, Nigeria

49. Clint Dempsey, United States

48. Ezekial Lavezzi, Argentina

47. Xherdan Shaqiri, Switzerland

46. John Obi Mikel, Nigeria

45. Fabio Coentrao, Portugal

44. Thomas Muller, Germany

43. Diego Forlan, Uruguay

42. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany

41. Diego Godin, Uruguay

40. Vasilis Torosidis, Greece

39. Jackson Martinez, Colombia

38. Stephan Lichsteiner, Switzerland

37. Blaise Matuidi, France

36. Thibault Courtois, Belgium

35. Gokhan Inler, Switzerland

source: AP34. Oribe Peralta, Mexico

33. Michael Bradley, United States

32. Mario Gotze, Germany

31. Dirk Kuyt, Netherlands

30. James Rodriguez, Colombia

29. Paul Pogba, France

28. Marco Reus, Germany

27. Gonzalo Higuain, Argentina

26. Tim Howard, United States

25. Hugo Lloris, France

24. Oscar, Brazil

23. Javier Hernandez, Mexico

22. Per Mertesacker, Germany

21. Romelu Lukaku, Belgium

20. Dani Alves, Brazil

19. Alexis Sanchez, Chile

18. Karim Benzema, France

17. David Luiz, Brazil

16. Pablo Zabaleta, Argentina

source: Getty Images15. Neymar, Brazil

14. Radamel Falcao, Colombia

13. Toni Kroos, Germany

12. Wesley Sneijder, Netherlands

11. Mesut Ozil, Germany

10. Arturo Vidal, Chile

9. Thiago Silva, Brazil

8. Manuel Neuer, Germany

7. Edinson Cavani, Uruguay

6. Philipp Lahm, Germany

5. Vincent Kompany, Belgium

4. Arjen Robben, Netherlands

3. Eden Hazard, Belgium

2. Robin van Persie, Netherlands

1. Lionel Messi, Argentina

 

France goes coast-to-coast, smothering Switzerland in 5-2 rout

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The French controlled Switzerland through and through, and from the very start it was clear not “if” but “by how much” would be the appropriate question.

Les Bleus hit twice in the first 20 minutes, as Olivier Giroud powered in a header and Blaise Matuidi took advantage of a Swiss mistake, and they never looked back, putting themselves on the brink of a place in the final 16.

From the very start of the game it was clear who would be the most dangerous, and Giroud put them up in the 17th minute.  Off a corner kick, he powered in a header from a good distance out, and it split the difference between Swiss goalkeeper Diego Benaglio and the near-post defender Ricardo Rodriguez.

Just a minute later, the restart saw a back pass from Valon Behrami go horribly wrong, and it was intercepted by Karim Benzema. The striker found Blaise Matuidi coming down the left flank, and the PSG midfielder struck home between Benaglio and the near post for a second goal just 67 seconds after the first.

From there the French never looked back, and Switzerland looked shell-shocked for the rest of the match.

Granit Xhaka thought he’d pulled one back after the initial shock, but his header off a 27th minute free kick was ruled out for offsides.

La Nati did have a few chances, but nothing came of them. Their best came in the 30th minute, when a straight-on Admir Mehmedi shot was kept out by Hugo Lloris.  The rebound fell to Xherdan Shaqiri who ripped a bouncer across the face of goal, but Lloris dove expertly and got a fingertip to the shot, which trickled just wide and out of the reach of Haris Seferovic streaking to the far post.

Despite the few moments of brightness, the Swiss didn’t look like they were going to make anything of the first half, and the French put them away with a third before the break.

source: AP
There was plenty of celebrating for the French after annihilating their second World Cup opponent.

They had one chance to do so which wasn’t taken, when Johan Djourou played a mind-boggling tackle on Benzema was the ball was trickling out of play, a clear penalty which the referee gave. Benzema’s spot-kick was saved, however, and Yohan Cabaye blasted the rebound off the crossbar.

Les Blues would find their triple, however, on a corner-kick counter. Switzerland’s try from the flag found only French feet, and Raphael Varane played Giroud in down the left touchline. Giroud, already with a goal to his name, shared the wealth to Mathieu Valbuena in the box, and he struck home the chance with ease.

The second half was just a formality at this point, and the French were happy to sit back and deny the Swiss any serious chances.  They shut up shop for good with a half-hour left as manager Didier Deschamps removed Giroud in favor of midfielder Paul Pogba.

Well…we thought they shut up shop. They added a fourth just for fun when Matuidi delivered a perfect ball into the box, and Benzema beat Philippe Senderos with a scissor kick through Benaglio’s legs.

And another, for Moussa Sissoko after Benzema found him in space on the right edge of the box and the Newcastle midfielder picked up his first international goal with a shot across the face inside the far post.

Switzerland got a pair of consolations to destroy France’s clean sheet, and they’ll feel a little better after taking advantage of France’s let off at the end. The first came on a free kick by substitute Blerim Dzemaili that trickled under the way and past a diving Lloris for a slow-rolling goal. With three minutes to go, Gokhan Inler poked a ball over the French defense for Granit Xhaka to finish with a quality volley.

France may have even had six, had the referee not blown

With a pair of dominating wins, the French look a lock to move into the knockout round, if not a mathematical guarantee.  They would go through with an Ecuador win or draw against Honduras this evening.

LINEUPS:

France – Lloris, Debuchy, Evra, Varane, Sakho (Koscielny 63′), Cabaye, Valbuena (Griezmann), Giroud (Pogba 63′), Benzema, Matuidi, Sissoko

Goals – Giroud 17′, Matuidi 18′, Valbuena 40′, Benzema 67′, Sissoko 73′

Switzerland – Benaglio, Lichtsteiner, Von Bergen (Senderos 9′), Inler, Seferovic (Drmic 69′), Xhaka, Behrami (Dzemaili 46′), Rodriguez, Mehmedi, Djourou, Shaqiri

Goals – Dzemaili 81′