2014/15 EPL Preview: Sunderland to West Ham

Part 1: Arsenal to Crystal Palace

Part 2: Everton to Manchester City

Part 3: Manchester United to Stoke City

Sunderland

Mere weeks into last season, and Sunderland already looked certain to go down. The Black Cats, led by the animated, fiery Paulo Di Canio, were rock bottom in the Premier League. Despite having a relatively decent squad, nothing was going right for the Wearside club.

An opening run of four defeats and one draw saw Di Canio fired, and Uruguayan Gus Poyet was brought in with a seemingly impossible task – get this lifeless, uninspiring group of players to get their act together. He tried, and partially succeeded, but when Christmas rolled around Sunderland were still bottom of the Premier League. No club in their position had ever managed to turn around and escape relegation.

With six games remaining (including games against United, City and Chelsea), they were still seven points adrift of 17th place, and Poyet admitted they would need an absolute miracle to stay up. But a 2-2 draw against Manchester City started a run that Sunderland fans will never forget. It was followed by an incredible 2-1 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge (Mourinho’s first ever loss there) and three successive victories followed that, including a win at Old Trafford. With one game to spare, Sunderland had completed the great escape and secured Premier League football. Madness.

But this time around they’ll be looking to achieve their goals in a much less dramatic fashion. Solidifying will be key, and Poyet will be keen to cling on to the spirit around the club’s miraculous run as a foundation for a successful Premier League season. They’ve made a variety of different moves in the transfer market, bringing in Manchester City back-up keeper Costel Pantilimon and failed project Jack Rodwell. They’ve also added Chelsea’s promising leftback Patrick Van Aanholt to the squad, and, barring the departure of Jack Colback, have held onto all of their key assets.

They’re also publicly confident in sealing a permanent transfer for last year’s loan hero Fabio Borini, who became a fan favourite due to his desire and knack for scoring important goals. If Liverpool are willing to do business, it could complete a successful transfer window for Sunderland. With Poyet’s calming presence, they could easily have a comfortable Premier League season. They’ll need to, after what they went through last year.

Player to watch: The tail end of last season was a miraculous one for Gus Poyet’s men, and at the forefront of that was young striker Connor Wickham. The former Ipswich man came to Sunderland in 2011 with huge potential, but injury and a lack of form had kept him from living up to his name – until last year’s run in. With Sunderland looking all but certain of relegation, Wickham stepped into the spotlight; and revelled in it. A number of big goals, including those against Chelsea and Manchester City, kick-started the powerful striker’s career. He’ll need to keep the confidence from that fantastic run and use this season as the one to prove that he is truly ready for Premier League football.

Swansea

Ever since their debut season in the Premier League three years ago (where they became the first ever Welsh club to do so) the Swans, with their surprisingly attractive brand of football, have captured the imagination of neutrals all over the world.

Led in their first year by now-Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, Swansea showed a boldness that was not usually seen from promoted clubs. Most newcomers to the league played a defensive, combative style of football (ala Stoke), but it was refreshing to see a team have success with a “purer” approach to the game. Rodgers’ predecessor Roberto Martinez, and his eventual replacement Michel Laudrup, were all part of an evident strategy by the Swansea board: play good football.

Laudrup, unfortunately, couldn’t do so while also getting results. The Barcelona legend parted ways with the club midway through last season, and centreback Gary Monk eventually took up the reins as a player-manager. Yes, the next link in a chain of incredibly intelligent, modern managers would be Gary Monk. Credit to the Englishman, he steadied the ship and guided the Swans to a comfortable 12th-place finish with absolutely no previous experience at management.

Monk’s success prompted the Swansea board to offer him a three-year contract at the end of the season, and the club comes into this season with the former defender still at the helm. He’s been very capable in the transfer market so far, adding Arsenal goalkeeper Łukasz Fabiański and Lyon striker Bafétimbi Gomis – both on free transfers. The return of Icelandic midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson is also a great move by Monk, and if the attacking midfielder can continue where he left off two and a half seasons ago, he could be the perfect man to play behind Bony.

The club have lost a couple of big names though, with promising leftback Ben Davies and goalkeeper Michel Vorm both moving to Tottenham. But they seem well-equipped to deal with the departures, and with a little bit more experience under his belt, Monk could be set to manager the Swans to yet another solid Premier League season.

Player to watch: Although his future is still very much uncertain, Swansea’s Ivorian striker Wilfried Bony is certainly the man to watch at Liberty Stadium this year. Just from a glance it is easy to see that Bony is made for the Premier League – his physique and power have helped him settle quickly into the English game, and his finishing and heading have been key assets in the final third. His haul of 25 goals in all competitions was a fantastic return for a debut season (especially at a club with limited service like Swansea) and if the Swans can ward off interest from some of the league’s bigger clubs, they’ll have a man who is guaranteed to score goals – something that they would sorely lack if not for Bony.

Tottenham

Following a Premier League Player of the Year award two seasons ago, Tottenham’s Welsh winger Gareth Bale looked nailed on to join Real Madrid – a world-record £85.3 million deal that would eventually be completed before last summer’s transfer window reached a close.

Knowing they’d need to replace Bale, and with a pile of money to do so, the club went to work, spending around £100 million on seven different big-name players including Erik Lamela, Paulinho, Christian Eriksen and Roberto Soldado. On paper, they had done excellent business. But the season that followed proved the dangers of shuffling your hand too extensively, and manager André Villas-Boas eventually got the sack after a poor run of form culminated in a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Liverpool.

Caretaker manager Tim Sherwood came in and, although he steadied the ship a little bit, ultimate also failed at getting the best out of Spurs’ new signings. Roberto Soldado, formerly a prolific goalscorer, looked absolutely lost. Lamela couldn’t adapt to the league at all, and Chadli was useless at best. A 6th-place finish (still ahead of Manchester United) wasn’t enough to convince the board that Sherwood deserved a permanent deal, and he was let go at the season’s end. Southampton’s Mauricio Pochettino was approached to fill the vacancy, and the Argentine comes into this season as Tottenham’s new manager.

The absolute worst thing Tottenham could do would be to throw last season’s transfers out the window and start again, but thankfully, they’ve been fairly intelligent in the market this season. Under a new manager, many of last year’s attacking players have a chance at a fresh start to their Tottenham careers, and Lamela and Soldado in particular will be grateful for it.The club is content to give their offensive players another shot and has instead focused on defensive signings.

Ben Davies, Eric Dier and DeAndre Yedlin are three young additions to the Tottenham back line, and Michel Vorm will prove a solid backup to the ever-present Hugo Lloris. The added defensive depth, as well as a year to settle for last year’s failed attackers, could signal a promising season for Spurs. But Pochettino still has a huge task on his hands – even with all the positives, it will be extremely hard to finish ahead of two of United, Liverpool or Arsenal in the quest for fourth place.

Player to watch: Among a sea of new faces last summer, Erik Lamela was deemed as the one to replace the departing Gareth Bale. The tricky Argentine winger joined the club from AS Roma, but a number of injuries contributed to an overall disappointing year. But many players take longer than one season to adapt to English football, and with a new manager and a year of experience under his belt, this is his time to shine. Lamela is coming off the back of a very impressive pre-season, and last year’s woes look well and truly behind him. He can score and create with ease, and he looks fully capable of surprising those who have written him off after one poor year. He’ll be like a new signing for Tottenham, and he has the talent to become one of the league’s elite attackers.

 

West Brom

Since promotion into the Premier League in the 2009/10 season, the Baggies have become something of a familiar face. Entering their fourth consecutive season in the English top flight, the blue and white stripes are becoming more and more recognized. But last year they came dangerously close to ending the adventure.

It took them five games to finally record a win last season (defeating a Sunderland side who were the only team worse off than West Brom were at that point) and it prompted the club to eventually relieve manager Steve Clarke of his post in early December. His replacement, Pepe Mel, took a completely different approach to the side, setting them up in a 4-4-2 diamond.

But regardless of the man at the helm, West Brom looked completely uninspiring. A tight 1-0 victory over Newcastle United on New Year’s Day separated two absolutely embarrassing runs of form – it followed a nine-game winless run and proceeded another poor spell, this one a run of eight games without a win. It was, to be blunt, a woeful year for the Baggies, who finished in 17th, dangerously close to the final relegation spot.

They’ve certainly tried to reshuffle after last year’s woes and have been one of the busiest clubs on the transfer market, moving on seven players and bringing in eight others. Nigerian forward Brown Ideye has been the most substantial addition, and the former Dynamo Kyiv man has little competition for a starting berth. With a lowly net spend of around £12 million, they could still be in the hunt for an addition or two to their squad in hopes of strengthening enough to avoid going down.

A close call last year looks ominous, though, and it’s hard to look past West Brom as one of the teams who will leave the Premier League this season. They’ve enjoyed four years in the top flight, but a fifth looks like it could be a bridge too far. If they’re to have any chance, Pepe Mel needs to add some consistency to his side – and fast.

Player to watch: In a team that looks depressingly void of creative players, all eyes will be on Stephen Sessegnon. The former Sunderland man is entering the second year of his West Brom career, and he certainly has room for improvement. He’s shown flashes of the brilliance that made him so coveted prior to his signing, but he’ll need to take his game up a level if the Baggies are to have any chance of Premier League survival. There will be few players with more weight on their shoulders this season – if Sessegnon can’t get back to his creative best, his side will have a very, very hard time creating goals for the likes of Berahino and Ideye to finish. His pace and dribbling are a joy to behold, and the Premier League would be better off to see Sessegnon back on form.

 

West Ham

The Hammers – an apt name for a side who rely on launching balls up to a battering ram of a forward. West Ham are, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most direct sides that the Premier League has on display.

Such is the reputation that they’ve gained under the blunt personality of manager Sam Allardyce. The Englishman, currently managing his eighth different club, is well known for his style of football – and not because it looks pretty. Allardyce is a throwback to a style of play long dead; traditional, longball English football is his game, and he’s a master at playing it.

A successful reintroduction to Premier League football in 2012/13, in which Allardyce led the newly-promoted club to a very solid 10th-place finish, was enough proof that his direct style can be very, very effective. It prompted him to sign Liverpool flop Andy Carroll on a permanent deal, but injuries to Carroll meant that the Hammers spent much of last year without a recognized striker. Their top goalscorer, captain Kevin Nolan, ended up with only seven league goals. A 13th-place finish came at the end of a comfortable enough season, but it was one that lacked any sort of progression from the club.

Goals are certainly an area they have looked to address, though, and this off-season has seen them add forwards Diafra Sakho, Mauro Zarate and World Cup star Enner Valencia to bolster their front line. A loan move for Arsenal’s Carl Jenkinson may prove very clever, while the free signing of teenage Championship star Diego Poyet (son of Sunderland manager Gus Poyet) has the potential to be one of the signings of the summer.

It’s business that bodes well for West Ham, who have also offloaded players who they’ve deemed inadequate. They’ve strengthened across the board, and mid-table looks to be calling their name once again. Allardyce and his men are far too good to go down, but it remains to be seen whether the club and fans are willing to tread water – particularly in a way that is far from easy on the eye. Regardless, the Hammers have their identity and they look like they’ll be sticking around for a while yet.

Player to watch: While most other teams will be relying on a striker or midfielder (somebody who can influence goals) as their key man, the Hammers will be looking to goalkeeper Adrián. The young (in goalkeeper terms) Spaniard eventually displaced long-time West Ham goalie Jussi Jääskeläinen last season – a huge feat in itself. His performances were consistently outstanding, and the fact that the Hammers boasted one of the Premier League’s best defensive records was largely down to Adrián’s performances between the sticks. He looks extremely mature and composed, and the 27-year-old will be called upon again to face a barrage of shots. He’ll save quite a large number of those if last year is anything to go by.

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2014/15 EPL Preview: Manchester United to Stoke City

Manchester United

What a difference 10 kilometres makes – Manchester City may be at the peak of their powers, but just down the road arch-rivals Manchester United  just endured their worst season in the history of the Premier League.

Replacing the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson after 26 years under the management of the brilliant Scotsman was always going to bring a period of transition to United, but the laughable appointment of former Everton manager David Moyes set the club back massively. The end of an era gave the club an opportunity to move forward – new players, new ideas and a forward-thinking manager to usher in a new age of Manchester United dominance.

The fact that the Red Devils bizarrely settled for Moyes leaves no sympathy for the implosion that was to follow. A 7th-place finish (22 points back of eventual winners Manchester City) and a season littered with mediocrity eventually saw Moyes get the sack, but it remains to be seen the kind of lasting damage that the horror appointment and the failure to qualify for Champion’s League football could leave.

Thankfully, the club have brought in a man fully capable of steadying the ship and getting the Premier League era’s most successful club back on the right track. In new manager Louis Van Gaal, United have a man capable and comfortable of making important decisions. Already, you can see Van Gaal exerting his authority on the club. Even with only weeks left in the window, the club have a plethora of targets on their radar, and anybody not fancied by LvG is set to be offloaded.

Van Gaal has a huge task on his hands, but without any European football to worry about he can have his side fully concentrated on regaining their top-four position in the Premier League. With a new formation and the expensive acquisitions of defender Luke Shaw and midfielder Ander Herrera, Manchester United look set to erase the painful memories of last season. The club will surely improve – it’d be an incredible feat not to.

Player to watch: One of the only players to come out of last season with any credit was versatile frontman Wayne Rooney, and Van Gaal looks to already be getting the best out of one of the Premier League’s elite strikers, handing him a prominent role and naming him as United’s new captain. The shackles of the Moyes era are removed, and an impressive pre-season leaves Rooney in pole position to lead United’s charge back to the top. Though the Dutch connection means Val Gaal clearly rates Van Persie, it is Rooney who you’d expect to have the bigger impact on United’s season. The partnership between the two (if Van Persie can stay fit) could be the selling point in the new manager’s 3-5-2 formation.

 

Newcastle

You can search the lands far and wide, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better rollercoaster ride than Newcastle United. Forget what it does to the fans, having Newcastle in the Premier League every season is guaranteed entertainment.

From their directionless forays into the transfer market to their mind-bogglingly fluctuating form, Newcastle are, at the very least, a fantastic talking point. And all this before considering the hilarious eight-year contract handed to manager Alan Pardew in 2012. Although if there’s one man who suits a club like this, it’s certainly one who is prone to head butt opposition players.

Newcastle are glorious for being nonsensical – or, at least they were. After consecutive transfer windows without paying any money to sign players, the Magpies have actually gone about their business this year in an incredibly astute manner. Rémy Cabella, Siem de Jong, Darly Janmaat and Emmanuel Riviere (among others) have all been added to the black-and-white-stripped revolution.

They bolster a side that, on paper, was already a solid Premier League unit – no where close to the the European places, but far better than most that the league has to offer. But with these signings, Newcastle look genuinely capable of challenging for a Europa League spot.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not all of their new signings can adapt to the Premier League, but The Toon look set for an interesting season. It’ll inevitably come with ups and downs, as well as a few bizarre Pardew moments, but they’re great fun to watch – aren’t they?

Player to watch: Of all the new additions to Pardew’s Newcastle side, it is attacking midfielder Rémy Cabella who is the most salivating prospect. The former Montpellier man is a very complete attacker – a good crosser and passer who is also useful from set pieces, he will surely bring a lot of strengths to his new club. Fourteen league goals and five assists in Ligue 1 last year suggest that Cabella could be very deadly indeed if he hits the ground running in the Premier League. Last year Newcastle lost Cabaye to PSG, and have since lacked a creative spark. Cabella could finally be the one to fill that void.

 

Queen’s Park Rangers

Queen’s Park Rangers are perhaps the most interesting side in the Premier League. Despite a huge influx of money, they found themselves relegated two seasons ago. Now, they’re back and ready to flex their financial muscles once again.

A fifth-place finish in the Sky Bet Championship put QPR in the promotion playoffs, and an eventual playoff final victory over Derby County, courtesy of a Bobby Zamora goal, gave the club the third and final promotion spot – after only one year without, they would welcome back Premier League football to Loftus Road.

With infamous “wheeler and dealer” Harry Redknapp – don’t tell him, though – at the helm, QPR have a man who has been around the Premier League his whole career. Managerial stints at Portsmouth and Tottenham mean that Redknapp is a familiar face (and personality) for fans all over the world. The level of his managerial ability is definitely in question, but he’s more than experienced enough to make his new club a tough opponent to beat.

QPR’s ownership gives them an advantage that most other lower sides envy; their financial pull means that they can afford to buy (or loan) many players that normally have no right being at a club who will linger in the Premier League’s bottom half. In their four-year spell under their current ownership they’ve already seen the likes of Esteban Granero, Julio Cesar, and now Mauricio Isla come to a club that otherwise could never dream of luring them.

But all the money in the world didn’t help them last time – the late appointment of Redknapp in the 2012/13 season wasn’t enough to save the club, and they were eventually relegated. They’ll be wary of the same this time (and the lasting negative effects that taking a bunch of high-earners into the Championship creates) and, hopefully for their fans, are better equipped for Premier League survival.

Player to watch: Despite failing his Liverpool medical, you’d bet on Loïc Remy still leaving the club before the window closes. If he does, front man Charlie Austin will once again be relied on to score goals. A 17-goal return in last year’s Championship added to an impressive record for Austin (who had scored 41 Championship goals with Burnley prior to joining QPR) and the 25-year-old still has time on his side to get even better. Many solid Championship goalscorers fail to translate their form to the top tier, but Austin looks like one who can buck the trend.

 

Southampton

The words fire-sale have never been more pertinent than they are right now for Southampton. Two strong seasons in the Barclay’s Premier League, the most recent of which saw them finish incredibly in eighth place, put their players in the public eye – and they’ve been flying off the shelves in this summer’s transfer window.

A change of ownership and manager have seen the club offload their big names for premium prices, with everybody wanting a piece of the Southampton project. Club captain Adam Lallana heads a list of departures that includes others like Calum Chambers, Dejan Lovren and Luke Shaw. They’ve already brought in almost ₤100 million in transfer fees, and the money will certainly be burning a hole in new manager Ronald Koeman’s pocket.

He’s already begun his spending – bringing in Eredivisie stars Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pellè, among others, and it certainly makes for an interesting new-look Saints side. Their rapid acceleration from League 1 side to Premier League mainstay has been largely down to holding onto key players, but this summer has brought a different approach.

With so many new faces at the club, it will be a season of big transition at St. Mary’s. Huge upheavals can often go either way, and Southampton will be dying to prove that their success hasn’t just been a flash in the pan. But Koeman will be wary of trying to integrate too many new players too quickly – the club still have many quality players (even without the new signings) and allowing them to gradually make the step will be key.

One thing is certain – Southampton are not the same side that they have been these last two seasons. They’ve become known as a pressing, quick-passing side thanks to former manager Mauricio Pochettino, but they have a chance to carve out a new identity. How Koeman will line up his side is anyone’s guess, but either way it will be worth keeping an eye on Southampton this year. They may not be in as much trouble as everyone seems to think.

Player to watch: Striker Ricky Lambert had five successful seasons at the club, scoring 106 goals in the process, before his move to boyhood club Liverpool this summer. His departure leaves a massive question mark over who will score the goals for the Saints this season, and new man Graziano Pellè now has that burden on his shoulders. Pellè has an advantage that should help him settle quicker – he spent the last two seasons under Koeman at Feyenoord, scoring 50 goals and establishing himself as one of the league’s finest strikers. With a manager who already knows how to use him, it may not be long before he’s smashing them in in England.

 

Stoke City

They may not be the most glamorous club that the Premier League has to offer, but the truth is that nobody (and I mean nobody) relishes a trip to Stoke’s Brittania Stadium. Every year big and small clubs alike look at their fixture schedule and dread the day they visit Stoke – a place where giants are continuously slain.

They’ve certainly developed a reputation as a stubborn, hard-to-beat club – especially in their own back yard. The barometer (usually jokingly) for if a Premier League player can handle the physical aspect of the English game is usually gauged by: “But can he do it on a wet, windy Tuesday night in Stoke?”

Again, they haven’t been winning any awards for style points –  former manager Tony Pulis will tell you, rightly, that the result comes first. But current manager Mark Hughes, entering his second season in charge, is trying to change the Stoke City ethos. Last year they were still typically resolute, but you can tell they’re trying to add a little bit of flair to their play.

Hughes guided the club to a comfortable 9th place finish last year, and there’s nothing more the club could really ask him to do. But astute business in the transfer market has put them in a good position to try and solidify their place in mid-table. Veterans Phil Bardsley and Steve Sidwell, two good additions, have both joined the club on free transfers, while the striker problem (namely relying on Peter Crouch) has also been addressed – the free transfer of Mame Biram Diouf from the Bundesliga and a potential bargain in the ₤4 million signing of Barcelona’s failed striker Bojan Krkic leaves the Potters with options up top.

The club look destined to linger in mid-table for all of eternity – and that’s not a bad thing at all. They have punched considerably above their weight ever since their return to top-flight football in the 2007/08 season, and they have their roots fully set in the Premier League. They’ll end up in pretty much the same place as they always do.

Player to watch: While Bojan has the potential to kick-start his career with a move to a new country, the offensive output for Stoke may have to come largely from Austrian forward Marko Arnautović. The powerful frontman (he can play wide or up top) had a slow start to his Stoke City career after his transfer last summer, but towards the end of the season he really stepped up a gear, creating and scoring at a much higher rate. This could mean he was finally adapting to English football, and there’s certainly another level in his locker. For a big man, he has exceptional feet and trickery, and he’s adept at scoring all kinds of goals. With Crouch well past his best, Stoke may come to rely on the big Austrian this season.

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2014/15 EPL Preview: Everton to Manchester City

Part 1 Here: Arsenal to Crystal Palace 

Everton

One year ago, Everton made the best decision that they’ve made in a long, long time. Manchester United’s laughable insistence to hire Everton’s David Moyes left the Toffees with a big choice to make as to who would take the club forward. They hit the jackpot.

Step forward Roberto Martinez – the former Wigan manager came to Everton waxing lyrical about progressive, possession-based football; his kind of football. It was the same approach that city rivals Liverpool took, hiring a forward-thinking manager implementing a modern approach to football at a lower Premier League side. Both can safely say it was a risk worth taking.

In one season at the helm, Martinez has shown more to inspire Evertonians than Moyes did in an entire decade at the club. Gone are the primitive, old-school tactics that just don’t cut it at a team aspiring to be more than Premier League brutes. Everton now boast the most attractive football that many people have ever seen them play.

At the forefront to that were two loan signings – Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry – both of which Martinez has rightly persuaded to sign permanently. His faith in young players has also heralded the emergence of English talents Ross Barkley and John Stones, while bringing the absolute best out of attacking fullback Seamus Coleman.

Everton will be looking to improve on a very impressive first season under Martinez, but it will not be easy to achieve their goals. With top four in their crosshairs, they’ll know that they have many competitors for the Champion’s League places. However, with Martinez leading the way, they could spring a surprise.

Player to watch: You just simply can’t look past record signing Romelu Lukaku. The former Chelsea man is touted as one of the best young strikers in world football, and his 15 league goals on loan at Everton last year showed that, despite his age, he can hit the back of the net. He’ll need to at least maintain that tally this season, and if he is to live up to his potential he’ll have to start coming close to breaking 20 for his club. He is the man that Everton will rely on to score the goals, and his continued development will coincide with the club’s progress.

 

Hull City

Last season Hull City appeared in only their second ever Barclay’s Premier League season, and, like so many other promoted clubs, they were expected to go straight back down.

But the Tigers showed an astuteness in the transfer market that many of the league’s bigger clubs completely lack – manager Steve Bruce identified weaknesses in the squad, and they were dealt with. Two transfer windows while playing Premier League football saw the club bring in Tom Huddlestone, Nikita Jelavic and Shane Long, among others.

The addition of players with significant top-flight, and in some cases even big-club, experience was crucial in Hull’s season. Despite a few wobbles, the club finished a solid 16th place – never too far from the relegation zone, but never truly looking like they would face the drop.

Many of the Premier League’s lower clubs panic in the transfer market, throwing wages and big fees at players in an attempt to stay in the top flight – but, just like the previous season, Hull have gone about their business with cool heads. Robert Snodgrass and Jake Livermore have both been added on permanent deals to add to an already talented midfield, while the signing of tricky winger Tom Ince could prove to be one of the bargains of the summer.

Hull have kept their important players while strengthening across the board, and they look set for a successful season. They may not threaten the European places, but there are many clubs in the Premier League in worse shape than the Tigers – they won’t pull up any trees, but they have the foundation to maintain their status in the league for this season and beyond.

Player to watch: It sounds odd to say,  but last season Hull City had one of the best centrebacks in the Premier League on their books. The addition of Curtis Davies last season ended up being one of the best buys in the club’s short Premier League history. Davies, who after only one season has solidified his status as captain and mainstay in Hull’s back line, impressed so much so last year that English fans were clamoring to give him a chance on the national team. The 29-year-old is rock solid at the back, and his continued presence will be needed to inspire his club to yet another successful Premier League campaign.

 

Leicester City

Who? Many of the new generation of Premier League viewers will be asking that very question. Leicester City, on the surface, seems like relative nobodies – but they boast a greater history than half the league has to offer.

The Foxes have won three League Cups, while also finishing as runners-up four times in the illustrious FA cup. On top of that, they actually came within one place of winning the league title back in 1928/29. They may not be one of the powerhouses of the current English game, but they certainly aren’t a minnow either.

And while many would assume them to be the weakest of the promoted teams, they were actually far and away the strongest team in the Sky Bet Championship last year, finishing first place on a massive 102 points – nine more than second-placed Burnley and a massive 22 points ahead of eventual playoff winners QPR.

To add to their Championship-winning group of players, manager Nigel Pearson five experience British faces on free transfers, saving their modest transfer budget in an attempt to secure a key player or two if they become available.

Perhaps the most unfashionable of teams in the Premier League, Leicester won’t have many neutrals cheering them on come the start of the season. But if they can continue in the same vein that saw them rampage to the Championship title last year, they may just win a few people over. Of all the promoted teams, including money-fueled QPR, they could just be the most likely to last the year.

Player to watch: Five players have been added to Pearson’s squad without costing them a cent, but it’s the sixth name that stands out; the £7 million signing of Brighton star Leonardo Ulloa will be the name that excites Leicester fans. Ulloa was an instant success in his only season at Brighton, scoring 23 goals for the club and leading them to a playoff spot. Their failure to gain promotion opened the door for a departure, and Leicester made the move to bring the striker to the club. The Argentine has proven he can score regularly in second tier football (prior to last season, he had also finished as top scorer for Almeria in Spain’s second division), but he will need to show that he can also do it at the top level. If he can translate his success to the Premier League, it will bode extremely well for Leicester City’s survival chances.

 

Liverpool

Last season marked the return of one of world football’s biggest clubs. After half a decade of uninspiring performances, Liverpool Football Club finally woke up.

Sparked by the arrival of manager Brendan Rodgers two summers ago, the Reds slowly removed the shackles formed by previous owners and managers. The results of all of Rodgers’ hard work were on full display last season, as Liverpool put in breathtaking performance after breathtaking performance – and in the process coming the closest they’ve been to a league title since they last won it in the 1989/90 season.

Led by the record-breaking Luis Suarez, Liverpool were an unstoppable attacking force, overwhelming teams (big and small alike) with their fast, slick brand of football. The development of players like Raheem Sterling, Phillipe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge saw the Reds boast a side with huge talent, but even bigger potential – continued development will see Liverpool competing for the title more frequently than not.

But they’ll have to do so without the jewel in their crown. The £75 million sale of star Luis Suarez to Barcelona means that despite their fantastic showing last season, the Reds will need to rebuild. Rodgers has wasted no time in doing so – already adding hungry, talented footballers like Adam Lallana, Emre Can and Lazar Markovic to his side.

The loss of Suarez is undeniable, but Liverpool are collecting an increasingly impressive number of talented youngsters to fill the void. If the club are to have a similar level of success as last season, it will be up to a few of these players to fill the extraordinary boots of the departing Uruguayan. It will be a season of transition, but if things go right, it could just as easily be a season of glory.

Player to watch: Daniel Sturridge is clearly the man that Liverpool will hope can fill the goalscoring boots of Suarez, but it’s wonderkid Raheem Sterling who could end up replacing the Uruguayan’s impact. Even at just 19 years of age, Sterling became an integral part of the side in the latter half of last season – even outperforming Suarez in the final stretch. His development has been a joy to behold, and there are few players his age with a similar level of talent and potential. Coming off the back of a fantastic pre-season and promising World Cup, Sterling looks poised to become a key player in the Reds front line. His understanding with the likes of Sturridge, Coutinho and Henderson is key to Liverpool’s fluid, interchanging attacks. Expect big things from the fleet-footed youngster this season.

 

Manchester City

It’s odd to think that a decade ago, Manchester was virtually a one-club city. While United continuously dominated the modern Premier League, Manchester City lingered in mid-table (and worse). It was a rivalry based solely on location – because in all other aspects, City were dwarfed by their historic neighbours.

But that all changed in 2008 when Manchester City were purchased by the absurdly wealthy Sheikh Mansour. He promised to turn the club into a dynasty within a decade; he’s come good on that promise four years early. City now boast the strongest squad in the Premier League, and despite a close challenge from Liverpool, eventually lifted their second league title in three years.

The club are entering the second season under manager Manuel Pellegrini, and they already look like favourites to retain their title. Pellegrini has the Citizens playing a beautiful brand of football, blowing teams away with their progressive, attacking fullbacks and relentlessly prolific frontmen. The strength in depth at the club is absolutely staggering – with superstars like Dzeko and Jovetic hungry for a chance to gain a foothold in City’s starting XI.

Scarier yet, they’ve already added more incredible players to choose from. Adding the likes of goalkeeper Willy Cabellero, rightback Bacary Sagna and centreback Eliquim Mangala, City now truly have two top-class players available for every position on the field. They could split the squad in half and have two teams capable of challenging for the Premier League title.

And challenge they will. The Sky Blues are no longer just “noisy neighbours” – they’re now far and away the strongest side that the league has to offer. But with City’s embarassment of riches comes huge expectations. Failing to win the league (or at least a major trophy) could seal an exit for Pellegrini. He’ll have watched previous manager Roberto Mancini bring success to the club, only to receive the axe for the slightest slip. Pellegrini certainly has the tools available to compete on all fronts, though, and it looks set to be yet another successful season. There is indeed a Blue Moon Rising.

Player to watch: The attacking talent available to Manchester City is endless, and as soon as somebody suffers a dip in form there is a player waiting in the wings to take up the mantle. It’s at the back where City will be hoping for stability, and new man Eliquim Mangala will be tasked with a role that so far, nobody has been able to fill – partnering Vincente Kompany. In club-captain Kompany, City have one of the best (albeit injury prone) centrebacks in the league. But for far too long they have partered Kompany with mediocrity: the far too young Nastastic; the aging Kolo Toure; and the incredibly average Jolean Lescott. It’s time for somebody to step up and create an imposing pairing. You’d bet your house that Mangala will be the one to do it.

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2014/15 EPL Preview: Arsenal to Crystal Palace

Arsenal

Every year seems to be the same story for Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal team. At some point in the season, they always look like genuine title contenders – but it never lasts. Is this the season to finally break the trend?

It very well could be.

Typically frugal spenders, Arsenal continued their campaign to smash that tag with the post-World Cup signing of Chilean star Alexis Sanchez. Alexis’ transfer from Barcelona is the second most expensive signing in Arsenal history (after last year’s marquee signing of Mesut Özil) and it looks like Wenger is finally willing to break the bank in an effort to compete for the ultimate prize.

Sanchez has been joined by defenders Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers in Wenger’s shopping spree, and his attempts to also bring a powerful midfielder (which the squad is sorely lacking) are well known, with William Carvalho and Sami Khedira both potential targets.

With new recruits to the Premier League’s fourth-best defensive unit (including goalkeeper David Ospina), as well as the presence of yet another world-class attacker in Sanchez, Arsenal’s squad is looking very deep. Wenger has given himself plenty of options in attack, and if one more midfielder (in the ilk of William Carvalho) could be added, it would complete a very, very strong team.

Still, it’s not clear whether the Gunners will have success or not. They definitely have the potential to compete for, and win, the title – but then again, they’ll probably just finish fourth.

Player to watch: While Alexis Sanchez may be the name on fans’ lips, it is creator Mesut Özil who will be the key man for Arsenal’s season. Last year, Wenger’s record signing endured a roller coaster of a campaign. His brilliance was always visible in patches, but he didn’t live up to the incredible standards that he set for himself at Real Madrid. Sanchez may help him solve that problem, though – Özil is clearly a player who feeds off of pacey forwards making intelligent runs, and Sanchez can give him the perfect player to slide passes through to. He’s had one year to adapt, now it’s time for chameleon eyes to deliver the goods.

 

Aston Villa

When manager Paul Lambert came to Aston Villa from Norwich, it was heralded as a fantastic coup – this was a man with a clear football brain, a modern thinker. He would turn Aston Villa around.

But two years on, it poses a question – has he been successful?

It’s hard to say – Lambert clearly does have a football brain, and his grasp of tactics and the modern game is very good. But Villa have hardly progressed in his time in charge. True, his first season at the helm saw Aston Villa boast the youngest squad in the Premier League (a sign that boded well for the future), but Villa have been far from convincing on the pitch.

Two consecutive 15th-place finishes may be enough to sate owners who (rightly) don’t see the club as being able to challenge for the European places any time in the near future – but is this enough for the Villa faithful? Unfortunately, Villa don’t look to be making any major improvements either.

Villa’s summer spending has consisted so far of three free transfers, with the mighty Joe Cole at the forefront of them. The lack of reinforcements put a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Villa’s powerful striker Christian Benteke. The Belgian suffered from an injury-ravaged campaign last season, but will need to be back fit for the Villains to continue to secure their Premier League status.

Even with a fit-again Benteke, it will be a hard ask for Villa to have a season with any reasonable amount of success. They’ve flirted with relegation heavily for two seasons – this may be the one that it finally happens.

Player to watch: Benteke is clearly the dangerman for Lambert’s side, and any successful offensive play will likely include him. However, Villa’s defence is just as big an issue. Last year Aston Villa conceded the most goals of any Premier League team to not be relegated. If not for Dutch centreback Ron Vlaar, there would have been a lot more. Coming off the back of a successful World Cup (yes, an Aston Villa centreback played in the Netherlands’ World Cup squad), Vlaar will need to be the man to shore up the shambles that is Villa’s back line. If he can keep things relatively in check, there may be some hope for Villa to finish closer to the top half.

 

Burnley

The Clarets are back in England’s top flight, and thankfully for the fans, it didn’t take quite so long as it did the last time. Burnley made their first Premier League appearance in 33 years in the 2009/10 season – they may have been relegated that same year, but they’re back for another shot at the big time 28 years sooner than they were the last time around.

An impressive season in last year’s Sky Bet Championship saw Burnley finish second place by a comfortable eight points – a feat that earned them automatic qualification to the Premier League.

With the fourth-best offence in the Championship, Burnley will be hoping that their attacking unit, including star striker Danny Ings, can handle the challenge of making the significant jump up. Last year Ings enjoyed by far the most productive spell of his career to date, netting 21 league goals and successfully filling the void left by the recently departed Charlie Austin.

But while Burnley did well in front of goal, their true strength was to be found in their back line. The Clarets conceded a league low of 37 goals in 46 games –  a phenomenal record. This, even more so than their output up top, bodes extremely well for their chances at Premier League survival.

Many clubs make the step up to the top flight only to find that they can’t cope with the skillful attackers on display – Burnley, while admittedly used to defending against players of a lesser calibre, have a good foundation to avoid that.

Player to watch: Burnley’s defensive record speaks for itself – but a closer look reveals that fullback Kieran Trippier may be the most important player at both ends of the pitch. The Manchester City youth product was an integral part of Burnley’s stellar campaign, scoring two goals and assisting a staggering 14 from leftback. An extremely talented offensive fullback, Trippier is to Burnley what Leighton Baines has been to Everton. After links to Arsenal emerged, Burnley quickly tied down the two-time Football League Championship Team of the Year defender, and it is easy to see why. If he can maintain anything close to this level of output, he will certainly catch the eye this season.

 

Chelsea

Chelsea are, quite simply, the bullyboys of the Premier League – and manager Jose Mourinho wouldn’t have it any other way.

Under Mourinho, Chelsea are more than capable of putting teams to the sword – with brilliant creators like Hazard, Oscar, Willian and Schurrle, they’ve proven that they have the firepower to compete with anybody. But Mourinho is a man who will win at all costs, no questions asked. When needed, he is more than willing to set his Chelsea team up to soak up pressure and attempt to kill a game – and they are damn good at doing it.

They’ve once again flexed their financial muscles (although they’ve actually maintained close to a net spend of zero, with big fees received for outgoing players) and have brought in even more world-class talent. Fans’ hopes are pinned on combative striker Diego Costa to finally be the goal-scorer that Chelsea have so dearly lacked, and former Arsenal and Barcelona midfield maestro Cesc Fabregas returns to the Premier League to strut his stuff for the Blues.

On top of that, Chelsea have added to their already imposing back line, bringing in fullback Filipe Luis and welcoming back loanees Thibaut Courtois (who will challenge for Chelsea’s No. 1 spot) and muscular centreback Kurt Zouma. It’s hard to see a weakness in Mourinho’s squad; the Blues certainly have one of the deepest teams (rivaled only by Manchester City) that the league has to offer.

A solid, but trophy-less, season last year has given Chelsea a good foundation to build from, and they look to be making all the right moves to ensure that they are competing for the title. In a Premier League season as unpredictable and tight as the upcoming year promises to be, there are few certainties – but Chelsea being title challengers is one of them.

Player to watch: It’s easy to say that a big-money arrival will be the player to make the difference, but that really needs to be the case with Diego Costa. Coming off the back of a 27-goal season in Spain, the former Atletico hitman is one of Europe’s finest forwards on his day. Costa is seemingly the whole package – he can finish with either foot, is good in the air, and is willing to work his socks off for the team. Since the £50 million arrival of Fernando Torres in 2011, Chelsea have been unable to nail down a forward who consistently scores goals. They’ve thrown the big money out for Costa, and it finally looks like Chelsea have a striker capable of 20 league goals again – a feat not seen in blue since Drogba’s prime.

 

Crystal Palace

From relegation fodder to mid-table comfortability: this was the story of Crystal Palace’s 2013/14 Premier League season. An early tumble made relegation look a certainty, but a managerial shuffle proved to be the ace in Palace’s pack.

Nine games into the season, Palace had managed only a single victory. Ian Holloway was subsequently fired, and after a month of searching, Palace emerged unscathed on the other side, boasting a tracksuit-wearing saviour on the touchline that would guide them comfortably to safety – it is known as none other than the Tony Pulis effect.

Pulis has a reputation for making his sides incredibly hard to beat; he took Stoke City from minnows to a Premier League mainstay, and his approach brought instant success to Crystal Palace. His sides are a throwback to old-school English teams – set up in two defensive banks of four sending long balls up top for their strikers to compete for. It’s unfashionable, but he does it oh so well.

By the end of his first full (almost) season in charge, Pulis had the Eagles sitting in 11th place. Their defense, like all Pulis sides, proved incredibly frustrating for opposition sides to break down. A final tally of 48 goals conceded left them with better defenses than both Liverpool and Tottenham. Despite the poor defensive showings from the aforementioned two, that’s still quite a feat.

This season, Crystal Palace will be hoping for more of the same. With a relatively unchanged team, they’ll be much the same side as they were last year – although with a year more experience under their belts. A year more of learning to play the Pulis way. Expect many successful attempts to frustrate their opponents at Selhurst Park.

Player to watch: In a side built on a defense-first basis, Australia and Crystal Palace captain Mile Jedinak is integral to everything that happens. The hard-working, gritty midfielder will put his body on the line – and his opponents on the ground. The 30-year-old started every single one of Palace’s 38 league games last year, winning 133 tackles and 139 interceptions. Palace will, first and foremost, attempt to stop their opponents (particularly the big clubs) from playing their own styles of football. Jedinak is the epitome of this, and the destroyer will be the embodiment of his manager’s philosophy.

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World Cup Day 23: Shootout sends Argentina to Germany clash

It was powerhouse vs powerhouse as South American juggernauts Argentina came up against Europe’s historic Oranje.

With Germany already waiting in the final, the Netherlands and Argentina would battle to decide who would have the impossible task of toppling the Germans.

After the explosive meeting between Brazil and Germany, this game would need to be spectacular to come anywhere close.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite turn out that way.

Right from the off it was evident that this game wouldn’t be as action-packed as the previous semifinal.

Louis Van Gaal set his Dutch side up with their typical five at the back, and an Argentinian lineup packed full of defensive midfielders (and sorely missing Di Maria) couldn’t break through them.

The first half passed in a blur of failed attack after failed attack.

Neither side improved much in the second half – Argentina, who were showing more intent to actually go and try to win the match, were thwarted time and time again by a resilient Dutch side.

Robben and co. were uncharacteristically toothless on the counter attack, and the full time whistle brought an end to an extremely predictable (and rather boring) 90 minutes of semifinal action.

It was now do or die time – like so many other knockout games this World Cup, it was primed to explode into life in extra time.

But just like regulation time, the 30 additional minutes failed to provide anything meaningful.

With a spot in the World Cup final on the line, Argentina and the Netherlands would contest a penalty shootout.

The Dutch were no strangers to penalties, having relied on them just one game prior to advance over Costa Rica. They would be hoping that the experience in the previous shootout would aid them.

Their hopes were quickly smashed.

Aston Villa defender Ron Vlaar stepped up first…and fired a shot right at goalkeeper Sergio Romero. Lionel Messi (of course) dispatched the next spot kick, and just like that Argentina had the result in their grasp.

Romero came up big again to save the third Dutch penalty, this one from Wesley Sneijder, and Argentinian veteran Maxi Rodriguez converted the fourth consecutive penalty for his country, sending them through to the World Cup final.

For the Dutch, it was a disappointing way to cap what started as a phenomenal World Cup. Their dismantling of Spain and brilliant showing in Group B proved to be their peak – they started fantastically, but like many teams have in the past, they peaked far too early.

Argentina are a different story altogether. Messi and co. started slow, winning games by single-goal margins, and they’ve still yet to hit top form. In fact, they’ve hardly even looked like a cohesive team.

They’ll come up against a Germany team that is coming to life at the perfect time, and Argentina will need to have saved their best showing for last if they’re to claim this trophy.

Lionel Messi in particular will be having sleepless nights – he is now one game away from the ultimate prize. The four-time Ballon D’or winner has won everything possible with Barcelona, but his detractors will always point to his lack of international success.

If he can lift the World Cup trophy on Sunday, he’ll go down as the greatest player of all time. He just needs to perform the small feat of carrying his country to victory over the best team in the world. Simple.

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World Cup Day 22: German rampage stuns Brazil

Brazil and Germany met in the first semifinal of the 2014 World Cup to settle an age old grudge – who is the ultimate football nation?

The teams, with eight World Cup trophies between them, are two of the games biggest superpowers. This was about more than just another shot at the final, this was about making a statement.

Three-time winners Germany had yet to hit top form coming into this, but there were signs that they were finally starting to click.

For five-time winners Brazil, they would have to cope without injured superstar Neymar and suspended captain Thiago Silva, undeniably their two best players. Others needed to step up in their absence.

The last time these two met, Brazil won to claim the 2002 World Cup trophy. They’d be seeking a repeat, Germany a redemption.

An explosive start to the game saw Brazil drive forward at Germany dangerously, but it was the Germans who drew first blood.

Only 11 minutes into the match and the roles were reversed – Brazil, who had taken the lead early in their last two knockout games thanks to a set piece, were behind. Thomas Müller expertly dispatched the ball into the back of the net from a corner, and Germany had an early lead.

Only 12 minutes after and Germany had doubled that lead – a clinical German attack gave Miroslav Klose the chance to finish his own rebound. The veteran striker netted his 16th career World Cup goal (one more than the Brazilian Ronaldo) – a new record.

It was at that moment that logic ceased to exist.

One single minute later, and Brazil were picking the ball up out of the back of their net once again. This time it was midfielder Toni Kroos, who fired a ferocious left-footed strike into the bottom corner past a stunned Julio Cesar.

Brazilian fans around the stadium (and the country, for that matter) stood with their mouths wide open. This was not supposed to happen.

They didn’t have much time to process the three-goal deficit.

Kroos added another goal just two minutes after his first, slotting the ball into an empty net, leaving Julio Cesar stranded in the middle of his box.

Brazil’s nightmare refused to end, and three minutes after Kroos’ double, box-to-box midfielder Sami Khedira scored a fifth.

The Brazilian back line was in tatters – without Thiago Silva, they crumbled embarrassingly. The Germans cut through them like a knife on butter.

An 18-minute period brought an incredible five goals for Germany.
For Brazil, it brought the darkest period in their country’s footballing history.

The half time whistle sounded: Germany 5, Brazil 0. History, embarrassment, madness.

Brazil came out better after the break (they couldn’t come out worse, could they?) but Manuel Neuer refused to allow the Brazilian players the consolation goal that they tried so hard to get.

Germany, although still dangerous, understandably slowed down. They didn’t need any more goals today.

Substitute Andre Schürrle clearly didn’t get the memo, though.

In the 69th minute, the wideman scored a sixth goal for Germany, tapping in from fullback Phillip Lahm’s cross.

Ten minutes later and Schürrle, who decided mercy was not an option, scored again. This time he controlled a lofted pass from Thomas Müller before smashing a left-footed volley in off the underside of the bar.

Brazil’s consolation goal finally came when Oscar broke the offside trap and cut by Manuel Neuer, smashing into the net.

The full time whistle brought an end to a dream day for Germany, and a nightmare for Brazil.

Germany 7-1 Brazil: the heaviest loss in Brazil’s history, and the biggest semifinal defeat in the history of the World Cup.

Brazil came into this tournament hoping to make history, but they’ve done so for all the wrong reasons.

Neymar will be glad that his injury ruled him out of what would have been a massive stain on his international career.

For Germany, they are now one game from the illustrious trophy. They will play the winner of Netherlands and Argentina, and after today’s rampant showing, neither will be looking forward to the game.

The Germans have been slow and steady throughout this World Cup, but today they truly arrived. You wouldn’t bet against them lifting that trophy on Sunday.

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World Cup Day 20: Brazil and Germany edge into semifinals

Germany edge France in clash of titans

Day 20 opened with a truly mouth-watering clash; footballing powerhouses Germany and France met in a quarter-final match-up that would have been worthy of being a World Cup final.

France started with a lethal front three of Griezmann, Benzema and Valbuena, targeting Germany’s slow fullbacks (two centrehalves playing out of postion) with pace on the flanks.

But Joachim Löwe finally gave in to the demands of the German public, moving captain Phillip Lahm back to rightback, and bringing Sami Khedira into midfield instead.

The change of personnel worked wonders for a Germany side that had lately been lacking in efficiency and cohesiveness.

They took an early lead when towering centreback Mats Hummels flicked a header, assisted by a free kick from Toni Kroos, in off the underside of the bar, leaving the man marking him, France’s Raphael Varane, sprawled out on the floor.

France were almost level 35 minutes in, but Manuel Neuer added another outstanding save to his highlight reel, this one a point-blank one-armed parry to deny Valbuena from drawing level.

Hummels’ goal was the only one of the half, and Germany went into the break with a 1-0 lead.

France stepped up their game in the second half, testing Manuel Neuer on a few more occasions. Striker Loic Remy was subbed on with 10 minutes to go – France were going for this.

But Germany remained resolute, holding the French at bay and counter-attacking with speed. Many times Germany threatened to double their lead on the break, but a poor final ball or final touch prevented them from doing so.

Manuel Neuer threw up an arm to deny Karim Benzema with seconds left, and it sealed the 1-0 victory for Germany, sending them into the semifinals for a record fourth time in a row.

It was an improved showing from Germany, who struggled against Algeria, but you the feeling is that they can still move up a gear or two. France will go home disappointed, but after their dreadful showing at World Cup 2010, they can hold their heads high.

Germany play the winner of the day’s later game between hosts Brazil and the brilliant Colombia – what a semifinal match-up.

While nothing is certain in football, many people would bet their house that the winner of the World Cup will emerge from that tantalizing semifinal game.

Brave Colombia fall short at Brazil hurdle

The second game of the day featured the best team of the World Cup so far – and no, that’s not Brazil.

The Brazilians were indeed playing, and Neymar and co. would expect to be center stage as they attempted to take one step closer to their ultimate goal.

But it was their opponents, Colombia, who had so far taken the World Cup by storm. Colombia, led by Monaco’s wonderkid James Rodriguez, have been the most attractive team to watch this summer, bar none. The Colombians have been fantastic in their approach, defeating team after team with their silky, smooth football.

It was Brazil, however, drew first blood.

Only seven minutes into the match, a Neymar corner evaded everybody and fell to a wide-open Thiago Silva at the back post. The captain duly obliged, diverting the ball into the open net and sending the stadium into an explosion of happiness.

Silva’s goal set things up perfectly for Brazil, who have shown the tendency to grow more and more nervous if the match is progressing without them on top. And with it, Brazil put in their most encouraging half of football of the World Cup so far.

The half time whistle brought the game to a close with a slim Brazilian lead, but moreso than the result, the performance was looking very good.

The second half went about in much the same way – both teams looked great on the ball, but Brazil in particular looked rapid on the counter.

With just over 20 minutes left to go, David Luiz scored a sublime free kick to all but seal the Brazilian victory. The free kick, from some distant out, flew over the Colombian wall and dipped spectacularly, flying past David Ospina and into the back of the net.

There only seemed to be one winner from that point on; the Brazilians were looking (for the first time in the tournament) extremely confident, and Colombia’s dream looked to be at an end.

But as so many times before, Colombia’s hero, James Rodriguez, stepped up to the plate.

Rodriguez played a fantastic ball in to teammate Carlos Bacca, and when Julio Cesar brought the Colombian down, it was left to James to convert the penalty. Cool as ever, the playmaker put the ball into the net with 10 minutes to go (his sixth of the tournament) and gave his country a glimmer of hope.

The waves of Colombian attacks became relentless – they piled forward, trying desperately to get one more goal to force extra time.

Unfortunately, James’ penalty proved only to be a consolation, and the final whistle sounded, sending Brazil through to the semifinals.

Colombia exit after a fantastic World Cup in which they won over neutral fans all over the world. James leaves as the tournament’s top goal scorer, and his country will undoubtedly be back next time around. Watch out for them – with Falcao back spearheading the attack and an older, wiser Rodriguez, they will be back better than ever.

Despite the late scare, this was Brazil’s best performance of the tournament. Perhaps, finally, they are hitting form. And it couldn’t come at a better time.

With Germany next up in the semifinals, the Brazilians will have their hardest test of the tournament so far. They should treat the match like a World Cup final – because it very well could be. Whoever progresses from that incredible encounter should go on to claim the entire thing.

Brazil are just two games from the ultimate glory: will they write history, or will they crumble under the pressure?

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