Juventus Carlos Tevez Replacements: RVP, Cavani, Higuain, Dybala

Recent reports have linked Juventus striker Carlos Tevez with an early return to his old club Boca Juniors. Tevez wants to finish his career with Boca and there is speculation that it’ll happen after his contract expires following next season.

Carlitos has been superb for the Bianconeri this season with 26 goals and eight assists in 27 appearances across all competitions. While he recently “rubbished” those rumors, Juve will need a replacement, especially if they hope to build on their ever-improving European success of this season.

Juve have a star in Alvaro Morata who will be a full-time starter next season, but with Fernando Llorente underperforming and likely to be sold, coupled with Kingsley Coman not being quite ready to log heavy minutes, the team will need someone to step in for Tevez should the Argentine depart.

With bonus money from Juve’s Champions League run coupled with cash from player sales, the Old Lady will have money to spend during the upcoming summer transfer window. If they need to find a replacement for Tevez, here are some options.

Gonzalo Higuain  

With Rafa Benitez potentially exiting, Higuain could follow his manager out the door. Reports have linked the former Real Madrid star to Arsenal as well as Juve.

The Argentine has accumulated 23 goals and eight assists in Naples across all competitions, so he obviously has a track record and is comfortable with Serie A.

A pairing of Higuain and Morata would certainly be exciting to watch and would strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenses. The pairing would also give Real Madrid a look at what they’re missing. Los Blancos are obviously better off with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, but the new-look Juve attack would show a little of what could have been.

Higuain’s exit coupled with Benitez’, could signal the end of a once-promising era for Napoli. The club invested a heavy amount of cash in the first team, but never overtook Juventus or made much noise in the Champions League. Napoli currently sit in Europa League spot in the standings and it’s not inconceivable that they slip even further. This lack of success could mean the end of Higuain’s time in southern Italy.

Simone Zaza

Zaza was a Juve-owned player until he was sold to Sassuolo where he has gone on to net nine goals in 24 appearances. He also has an assist.

The striker has also opened his scoring account for the national team with a goal for the Azzurri in a European qualifying match against Norway. Juve will have to ward off interest from other interested clubs due to the player’s young age (23) and potential. However, the Bianconeri have a buy-back clause, similar to the situation with Real Madrid and Morata.

Robin van Persie

The Dutch forward has netted ten goals and handed out two assists for Manchester United this season, but could find himself on the way out at the club. Manchester United have long been linked to Dutch attacker Memphis Depay and are bound to be linked to a number of other elite players in a bid to improve the club.

This means that van Persie, along with Javier Hernandez, Nani and Radamel Falcao, could be offloaded to make room.

The Dutchman nearly joined Juve in 2012, but if available at a cut-rate cost, may go through with the move to Turin this time around. He’s been linked to Juve on a free transfer, and while he wouldn’t be the tireless, ground-eating machine that Tevez is, he would score a load of goals, some which would probably be quite spectacular.

Paulo Dybala

Another Argentine, Dybala is one of the more coveted young footballers in European football and looks set to leave Palermo after the current season ends.

The forward has 13 goals and 10 assists in 30 appearances for the Sicilian club. He’s been linked to a who’s who of elite clubs, specifically in the Premier League, and will cost Juve a large sum of cash, likely similar to the total they spent on all of their new arrivals this season.

The question becomes whether the fee is worth it for a largely unproven player, or if Juventus would be better off investing elsewhere. Juve reportedly have a deal in place, but it remains to be seen if this Argentine will move to Turin thanks to interest from a host of other clubs.

Radamel Falcao

Juve have been linked to Falcao before, but the forward never made the move. Similar to Robin van Persie, the Columbian may be available on a cut-rate deal after struggling on loan at Manchester United. Monaco may be willing to distance themselves from the once prolific hit-man and may sell. After all, they did loan him to United before the season despite having Champions League football on the docket.

With Juve and Monaco meeting in the Champions League, the Bianconeri have stepped up their interest once again. Despite the dip in form, Falcao hasn’t turned 30 yet and could have a few good years left in him.

Juventus have had success raiding Manchester for talent in the past with Paul Pogba, Patrice Evra and Tevez all turning around their careers in Turin—is Falcao next?

Domenico Berardi

Similar to Simone Zaza, Berardi is a player currently in a Sassuolo shirt who could be wearing the black and white of Juventus next season. Where he differs from Zaza is that he is actually owned by the Old Lady and wouldn’t require a buy-back fee.

The attacker has 11 goals and six assists for Sassuolo this season and would give Max Allegri the tactical flexibility that is so vital to Juve thanks to his ability to play out wide on the right.

Berardi is only 20, and if he can break into and contribute to Juve’s first team next season, he’ll provide a pillar for the team to build on for the future along with Morata, Pogba and Coman.

Also, excuse the music please…

Edinson Cavani

Edinson Cavani has some rather curious stats. The striker has scored six goals in nine Champions League games, which is a positive and quite the achievement against Europe’s best, but he’s only scored nine times in Ligue 1.

Like many players on this list, he’s been linked with a move away from the French capitol, and Juve have rumored interest. Like Robin van Persie, he may be sold to make room for new additions.

The Uruguayan hasn’t been himself when playing out of position (out wide) for the Parisians, but would nonetheless cost a pretty penny. Pairing him with Morata would be exciting, but Juve must be careful if Tevez sticks around for another year. Morata can’t spend a full season on the bench behind Cavani and Tevez while Cavani can’t continue to toil away on the wing. Needless to say there would be some issues.

Ciro Immobile

This is pure speculation on my part, but Immobile might be a fit back in Serie A. He’s struggled to acclimate to the Bundesliga and may be better suited back in Italy. The World Cup veteran only has three goals in 19 Bundesliga appearances.

With Jurgen Klopp leaving Dortmund and the possibility that Ilkay Gundogan, Mats Hummels and Marco Reus could follow, there could be a lot of change in terms of the German giants’ first team.

Dortmund may be inclined to an offseason rebuild instead of going forward with the same, especially with a new coach. Because of this, and the potential departure of some of their biggest stars, Dortmund may be willing to sell Immobile, especially considering he’s been a flop in the Bundesliga.

All stats courtesy of http://www.whoscored.com/ unless otherwise noted.

For more Juventus, click here. For more Soccer/Football, click here. For more from the world of Serie A, click here.

Juventus Potential Carlos Tevez Replacement: Simone Zaza

Zaza was a Juve-owned player until he was sold to Sassuolo where he has gone on to net nine goals in 24 appearances. He also has an assist.
The striker has also opened his scoring account for the national team with a goal for the Azzurri in a European qualifying match against Norway. Juve will have to ward off interest from other interested clubs due to the player’s young age (23) and potential. However, the Bianconeri have a buy-back clause, similar to the situation with Real Madrid and Morata.

Coming very soon, more potential Tevez replacements including the Edinson Cavani, Robin van Persie and Paulo Dybala.

All stats courtesy of http://www.whoscored.com/ unless otherwise noted.

For more Juventus, click here. For more Soccer/Football, click here. For more from the world of Serie A, click here.

To read about another potential Tevez replacement, Gonzalo Higuain, click here. 

Juventus: Rare Cost-Efficient Champions League Success

The upcoming slate of Champions League games features some of European football’s usual suspects joining Juve in the last eight: Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. Monaco and Porto have also qualified.

With the exception of Porto, all of these teams differ from Juve in the fact that they spend an exorbitant amount of money on new players. Sure, Atleti and Bayern sell a number of high-level players too, but they still spend top dollar to replace them.

Juventus are the rare success story in terms of not spending a ridiculous amount of money. Sure they’ve splurged on a player or two, but they tend to keep it conservative with their spending. With the exception of three players, every single Bianconeri player was acquired in 2010 or later. Captain Gianluigi Buffon and Vice-captains Giorgio Chiellini and Claudio Marchisio (an academy product) are the only exceptions.

All three have been catalysts of Juve’s recent success with Buffon and Chiellini anchoring one of Europe’s best and most cohesive defensive units. Martin Caceres would be suiting up alongside the Italian duo, but an ankle injury in March sidelined the Uruguayan defender. Caceres is a versatile defending option who can play any position on the back line. He cost Juve a mere €8 million. Rising Italian defender Angelo Ogbonna cost the Bianconeri €13 million plus half of Ciro Immobile’s rights. Andrea Barzagli, who when healthy is one of Europe most consistent and underrated defenders, cost Juve €300,000. Barzagli’s teammate Leonardo Bonucci may be the best passing central defender in the world. He cost Juventus €15.5 million. This justifiable when you consider he is only 27 and developing into one of the better players at his position. Right back Stephan Lichtsteiner joined Juve €10 million while his counterpart on the left side of the defense, Patrice Evra, cost a mere €1.2 million.

So just to recap, arguably the best defensive unit in Europe cost Juve the following, in order of cheapest to most expensive:

  • Andrea Barzagli: €300,000
  • Patrice Evra: €1.2 million
  • Caceres: €8 million
  • Stephan Lichtsteiner: €10 million
  • Ogbonna: €13 million (Plus half of Ciro Immobile’s rights. Juve would later sell the other half of Immobile’s rights to Torino for €8 million.)
  • Leonardo Bonucci: €15.5 million

Remember, PSG spent over €69 million during the last summer transfer window for David Luiz alone while Barcelona splurged €42 million on the defensive trio of Jeremy Mathieu, Thomas Vermaelen and Douglas in the last calendar year. Real Madrid just agreed to pay Porto €31 million for another defender, Danilo.

Slightly further up the pitch, Juventus relies on a midfield grouping that generally consists of some combination of Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, Simone Pepe and Roberto Pereyra. Marchisio was an academy product, and as such didn’t require a transfer fee. Pogba, one of the world’s best and a future Ballon d’Or winner cost Juventus less money than it would cost you to buy a potted plant. He came on a free transfer. Azzurri legend, masterclass passer and metronome Andrea Pirlo arrived for free as well. Vidal and Pepe were slightly more expensive, costing a combined €20.6 million (Vidal €10.5, Pepe €10.1). Did I forget to mention, when on form, Arturo Vidal may be the best two-way player in the world? Oh, I did? Let me say it again. When on form, Arturo Vidal may be the best two-way footballer in the world. He cost €10.5 million. Pereyra is on loan from Udinese. In order to bring the attacking midfielder in on loan, Juve paid a mere €1.5 million. Even if you factor in utility/squad player Simone Padoin’s €5 million fee, Juve haven’t surrendered much financially form one of Europe’s best midfields.

  • Marchisio: Free* (academy product)
  • Pirlo: Free
  • Pogba: Free
  • Pereyra: €1.5 million (Loan fee. Juventus have the option to make the move permanent for €14 million over the summer.)
  • Padoin: €5 million
  • Pepe €10.1
  • Vidal €10.5

In other words, that’s a combined €27.1 for a midfield that could potentially guide Juventus into the Champions League semifinals. Real Madrid doled out €25 million for the rights to Toni Kroos, not to mention €80 million for another midfielder, albeit more of an attacking type in James Rodriguez. Barcelona paid more for Ivan Rakitic (€18 million) than Juve did for their four best midfielders in Marchisio, Pirlo, Pogba and Vidal (€10.5). The same can be said of Bayern Munich, who in the summer of 2013, paid €37 million for Mario Gotze and €25 million for Thiago.

As we move further up the pitch, transfer fees get more expensive. Barcelona paid €81.25 million for Luis Suarez this past summer transfer window. Real Madrid paid a combined €185 million for their star duo of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. Atletico Madrid remade their attacking contingent over the summer by paying a combined €86 million for forwards Alessio Cerci (€16 million), Angel Correa (€7.5 million), Raul Jimenez (€10.5 million), Mario Mandzukic (€22 million) and Antoine Griezmann (€30 million).

Juventus possess a dangerous strike force that was significantly cheaper than the likes of the near free-spending clubs listed above.

The Bianconeri admittedly splurged €20 million on Alvaro Morata, but the young Spaniard already looks like a bargain thanks to some strong performances. Like the midfield, Juventus used a number of free transfers and loaned players to fill out their roster. Promising youngster Kingsley Coman was signed for nothing while towering striker Fernando Llorente was also brought in for free. Alessandro Matri rejoined the club on a loan deal to provide depth. While €20 million seems like a bargain for Morata, the real bargain came when the team bought Carlos Tevez from Manchester City. Tevez cost an initial €13 million (and change) and has gone on to reestablish himself as one of Europe’s most dangerous strikers. Here’s just a taste of what Carlitos has done lately.

Here’s what Juve paid for their attackers:

  • Coman: Free
  • Llorente: Free
  • Matri: Free* (On Loan)
  • Tevez: €13.89 million
  • Morata: €20 million

Considering the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid have recently spent enough money on attacking players to fix a small country’s economy, €38.89 million seems like a relatively small price to pay for a group of strikers that have advanced Juve as far as their Spanish counterparts.

While teams like PSG, Barcelona and Real Madrid spend exuberantly when they get the chance, Juve have made it just as far with much cheaper, but just as effective talent. It’s also worth noting that Juventus, the champions of Serie A, widely regarded as a struggling league from a financial standpoint, made it further in the competition than every single English team. England’s Premier League is widely regarded as the most financially prosperous league on the planet.

Of Juventus players listed above, the Bianconeri paid €108.99 million. Real, Barca and Atleti all paid more than that amount for players in the most recent summer transfer window. Monaco are in the position they are now because of a heavy investment in their squad that cost them over €140 million during last season’s summer transfer window. PSG sonly spent €58 million this past summer transfer window, but during the previous two seasons, they spent over €130 million in each summer window.

The Bianconeri are in a position to make the Champions League semifinals thanks to a favorable matchup with Monaco. The French club have dialed back their spending after a summer of spending cash last season. They’re more of the less of a group of evils than being a favorable matchup. There are no easy games at this stage of the Champions League, but Monaco seems to be the least intimating of the final eight. While most of the other eight teams bought elite talent for top dollar, Juventus have found their own elite talent through more cost-efficient methods, something that is a rarity these days.

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Juventus Transfers: Alvaro Morata Quickly Making Fernando Llorente Expandable

Over the summer, it was obvious that Juventus were in the market for another attacker to bolster the incumbent duo of Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente. The club was linked to Radamel Falcao and nearly signed him, but in the end brought in Real Madrid youngster Alvaro Morata.

While not nearly at the level of Falcao, Morata is only 22-years-old and possess about as much potential as a young striker can have. A knee injury prevented him from integrating himself immediately, but as the season has progressed, the Spaniard has become a crucial member of the squad. So crucial in fact that he is pushing countryman Fernando Llorente out of the starting lineup. Llorente has struggled with form and Morata has seized the opportunity to pass the towering hit-man with some superb displays.

On the surface, the two Spanish strikers’ numbers are very similar.

 Morata                 Llorente

Appearances (All Competitions)       28                           28

Goals                                                  9                              6

Assists                                                4                              2

Pass Success Percentage              75.1                        72

Shots Per Game                               1.8                          1.8

Average WhoScored Rating             6.78                        6.77

 

Despite the similarities, there are differences. Llorente is skilled in the air (mainly due to the fact that he towers over defenders at 6’5”) and averages 2.3 aerials won per match. Morata (who’s no slouch at 6’3”) only averages a singular aerial win per game. Morata takes the cake in terms of assists with four compared to Llorente’s one. Despite all this, the biggest difference may come in minutes played. Morata has logged 1,065 minutes on the year while Llorente clocks in at 1,728. That’s a difference of 663 minutes, or seven full games and change.

It’s pretty clear that Morata has been more efficient with his times.

His goal against Borussia Dortmund in this week’s Champions League knockout round first leg insured Juve had a 2-1 advantage heading into the second leg in Germany.

With the exception of a yellow card against Atalanta, Morata has been on fire. He had a hand in both goals in a 2-2 draw with Cesena, scoring one and setting up another. He also tallied a goal and an assist in a 3-1 over Milan, earning Man of the Match honors. Before that he netted the only goal in a 1-0 Coppa Italia victory for the Bianconeri against Parma. Other recent conquests include an assist each in blowout wins over Napoli (3-1) and Verona (4-0). Morata also scored in a separate demolition of Verona, this one finishing 6-1. That’s five goals and four assists in his last 10 matches, six of which he played the full 90. Llorente only managed two goals and two assists in his last 10 games. He played the full 90 minutes only twice in that span.

Throw in the fact that Morata is a full eight years younger than Llorente and it makes sense that the former Real Madrid man is making Llorente expendable.

Given Llorente’s play and age, and the fact that Carlos Tevez will return to Argentina when his contract expires, Juve will need some new attackers.

Sassuolo duo Domenico Berardi and Simone Zaza are both forwards who have been heavily mentioned as possibilities to move to Turin in the near future.

Berardi is actually owned by Juve and is spending the year on loan with the Neroverdi. He has seven goals and six assists in 19 appearances for Sassuolo and provides tactical flexibility thanks to his ability to play on the right wing. Zaza is actually Neroverdi property, but Juventus has a $15 million buy-back option on the forward’s contract this summer. Zaza has nine goals and an assist in 21 appearances for his club and has already opened his scoring account for the Italian National Team with a goal in the Azzurri’s 2-0 win over Norway in a Euro 2016 qualifying match.

Llorente has been linked with moves to Tottenham, Marseille, Liverpool and Arsenal, so there are suitors. Should a sale occur, their will clearly be funds for Juve to get a new striker to replace the struggling Llorente in the team. The Old Lady don’t necessarily need a replacement for Llorente, but a long-term one for Tevez. They already have Llorente’s replacement in-house—Alvaro Morata

All stats courtesy of http://www.whoscored.com/ unless otherwise noted.

Italian National Team: Familiarity in Conte’s First Squad Selection and will the Trend Continue?

In some situations you go with what you know. That’s exactly what new Italian National Team coach Antonio Conte did with his first squad selection. Of the players selected, many were familiar to Conte at Juve. Some selections seemed more confusing than logical, but no one can argue with the results. Conte dispatched World Cup semifinalist the Netherlands 2-0 in his first game in charge before trumping Norway by an identical score in his first Euro 2016 qualifier.

Of the players called up, 11 have Juve connections to Conte, a potential 12th call up, Andrea Pirlo, was out with an injury. Among the 11 were captain and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, defenders Giorgio Chiellini, Angelo Ogbonna and Leonardo Bonucci, midfielders Claudio Marchisio and Emanuele Giaccherini as well as forwards Simone Zaza, Fabio Quagliarella, Ciro Immobile and Sebastian Giovinco. Another player with a connection to Conte, former Bianconeri forward Daniel Osvaldo was ruled out due to injury.

It remains to be seen how many of these players Conte will use in the future. Form and injury will affect his selections going forward, but it will be interesting to see if he sticks with consistently calling up players he has experience with.

Of the Juve/ex-Juve player contingent, some players are logical locks to be continually called up. Buffon, Pirlo, Chiellini, Bonucci, Marchisio and Immobile can all be placed in that category. Giaccherini is another player who will likely be constantly called upon. Previous coach Cesare Prandelli used the Sunderland midfielder in a utility role while Conte deployed him similarly at Juventus. It’s likely the England-based player will stay with the Azzurri. When healthy, Andrea Barzagli is one of the better center backs in the world, however, injuries have derailed him of late. When he recovers, expect the Juve defenseman to play a part in the national setup at least through the 2016 Euros. Zaza’s recent fine form and a potential move back to Juve could see him cement his place in the national team, regardless of what happens with Mario Balotelli.

The last four are harder to predict. Ogbonna and Giovinco have showed glimpses of talent worthy of the national team, however both have had stretches of inconsistency. In addition, neither are established starters in Turin—something that could work against them. Quagliarella and Osvaldo are harder still to predict. Italy’s forward situation is far from certain. Giuseppe Rossi would be the unquestioned first choice, but another injury will keep the New Jersey born forward out for an extended amount of time. When he finally recovers, he’ll be the number one striker option for Conte. In addition, Alberto Gilardino and Antonio Cassano are both near the end of their international careers while Alessio Cerci, Lorenzo Insigne and Stephan El Shaarawy are all talented but are more likely to play behind the striker, or even in an advanced midfield position. Because of all the depth, it will be interesting to see where Quagliarella and Osvaldo fit with the team moving forward.

Overall, Conte will continue to deploy his old Juve players—most of them at least. Established starters like Buffon, Pirlo and Chiellini will all continue to suit up for their former coach. Other players are harder to predict, but if anything is to be learned from this, it’s that Conte goes with what whom he thinks will fit his tactics. For now, that’s a contingent of Juve players. The main reason is because he knows what he wants to do tactically and he knows that his former players can fit into his system.

Why Euro 2016 Will be a Crucial Tournament for Europe’s Best

With the World Cup over, the collective attention of the footballing world has turned to the club season. However— most fans will also be looking forward to the next biggest international tournament. The 2016 European Championships. Like the World Cup, the “Euros” are held every four years and feature a slate of qualification games leading up to the tournament.

Compared to past Euros, Euro 2016 will have a very different feel to it, because it will be a crucial tournament for every country involved. Here are some of those countries and why the tournament will be key for them.

Spain

La Roja’s era of dominance is over. The cracks started to show, however briefly, at the last Euros. By the time Brazil 2014 came and went, Spain’s reign had unceremoniously ended. With the departures of team pillars Xavi, David Villa and Xabi Alonso, the Spaniards will be handed over to a mix of youngsters and veterans to carry the team. The likes of Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Ramos and David Silva will still feature heavily, but Spain must do a better job of integrating younger talents such as Koke, Isco and Daniel Carvajal if they are to stop the tailspin they are in. Euro 2016 will be crucial for Spain. As it stands, they are on the fence – the fence between the world’s elite (i.e. Germany, Argentina and the Netherlands) and the upper echelon’s middle class (i.e. England, Mexico and Croatia). If Spain can integrate its youth, it stands a chance to stay at the big kid table. If it doesn’t, slipping is a real possibility.

France

France carries the weight of a nation, or rather the support of one. The French will host in 2016, and after a favorable showing in Brazil, Les Bleus will look to build upon the positivity. The team only lost by one goal to eventual champs Germany, something that can’t be said of Brazil, and seamlessly integrated future stars Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann into the team. For one reason or another, the team that went to Brazil didn’t feature Samir Nasri, Clement Grenier or Gael Clichy. If Didier Deschamps can integrate those players, along with talented youngster such as Florian Thauvin and Alexandre Lacazette in the same fashion he introduced Pogba and Griezmann into the side then France could win the tournament on home soil.

Italy

Like various other European powers (see Spain, England, and Portugal) Italy struggled in Brazil. The victim of somewhat unfortunate circumstances, cannibalism included, the Azzurri struggled. With new coach Antonio Conte in charge, the team suddenly has a much brighter future. Conte, the former Juventus manager, relied heavily on a back three in his formational forays at Juve. His goalkeeper and back three at the Old Lady typically had Gianluigi Buffon in goal with the trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli sitting in front. All four will be at his disposal with the national team. Because of the renaissance the back-three has experienced in world football and the Juve players’ familiarity and success with the formation, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Italy achieve success at Euro 2016.

Germany

The World Cup winners lost Phillip Lahm, Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose to international retirement. However, thanks to their status as World Cup trophy winners, and their tremendous depth, the team should be considered favorites heading into 2016. Germany has an abundance of quality to replace Lahm, Mertesacker and Klose, with the respective likes of Jerome Boateng, Benedikt Howedes and Mario Gomez (among others) waiting to fill in. The 2016 Euros will be especially crucial for the Germans as they look to build a dynasty similar to the one Spain recently had. Only this time, with the tremendous depth and development in the German senior and youth ranks, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Die Mannschaft win more trophies than the Spanish.  

England

England is in transition. With Steven Gerrard retired and Frank Lampard likely to follow the same path before too long, the Three Lions will be without the midfield backbone they’ve had for the past decade. The fate of England lies with its youngsters. If exiting talents like Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Luke Shaw can continue their trajectory towards being elite, world-class players, then the one-time world champs will have a chance in France. If not, it could be a long road back. Wayne Rooney is the only consistent/elite leg the English have to stand on. Despite a roster littered with Premier League veterans, Roy Hodgson’s team looked challenged in Brazil. If the youth comes through, England shouldn’t be discounted. On the other hand, if the youth falters, it will be another international tournament where Wayne Rooney carries more of a burden than is necessary.

Portugal, Sweden and Wales

All three teams are extremely star driven. For Portugal it’s Cristiano Ronaldo, for the Swedes it Zlatan Ibrahimovic and for the Welsh its Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale.

Ronaldo will be 31 in 2016, and it may be the Portuguese’s last chance to win a major piece of silverware with the world’s best player. The situation is similar for Sweden. After failing to make it to Brazil 2014, 2016 could be the last time we see Zlatan on a big international stage. This could be the last time for each to make their mark internationally.

Wales’ duo of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale won’t be going away any time soon, but this will be a crucial tournament for the Welsh as they look to establish themselves as respectable players in world football. The team isn’t just Ramsey and Bale either, the Welsh also boast quality players like Swansea captain Ashley Williams, recent Spurs signing Ben Davis and Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen. The 2016 European Championships will be Wales’ chance to get their foot in the door of international football.

Cinderella-type runs aren’t as unheard of at the Euros as they are at the World Cup. Greece won it all in 2004 and Italy made a run out of nowhere to finish second in 2012. All three countries (Portugal, Sweden and Wales) certainly have the talent to do it.

Croatia  

The Croatian national team has some truly gifteded players like Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric just to name a few.  However, outside of group stage exits, the country doesn’t have much, to show for since finishing third at the 1998 World Cup. The 2016 Euros and 2018 World Cup are the last chances for a supremely talented generation of Croatians to prove that they can make an impact. If the team can put in a positive, lengthy run at 2016, they can build momentum for a strong finish in 2018. Maybe a return to France (where their 1998 World Cup success occurred) will help Croatia. They certainly have the talent to accomplish bigger things.

The Netherlands

Similar to other European nations, this may be the Dutch’s last chance to add to their trophy cabinet while Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie are still playing. The rest of the Dutch team is loaded with youth and potential, but for three of the world’s most feared attacking players their international careers are winding down. After finishing second in South Africa and third in Brazil another piece of silverware certainly isn’t out of the question. If the Dutch can continue to mesh young players with their key veterans, they will not only have a chance to be successful in 2016, but also at the 2018 World Cup and beyond.

The European Championships in 2016 will be crucial for just about every contender in Europe. Some countries will be looking to build for the future while other countries will attempt to eke out one last glorious run from an aging generation. Either way, 2016 will be of the upmost importance.

Defending Antonio Conte’s Omission of Mario Balotelli

Newly-minted Italian national team coach Antonio Conte made headlines when he selected his first official squad for a friendly against the Netherlands and the Azzurri’s first Euro 2016 qualifying match against Norway. Those headlines were made based on who he did, and more importantly didn’t, call up. Or in other words, Conte made headlines for not calling up Mario Balotelli.

The coach insists that he is not sending a message with the omission, and it shouldn’t be looked at as such. First off, no player is entitled to a call up every time around. Yes, Balotelli is clearly the most talented striker at Conte’s disposal, but that alone doesn’t merit a call up. It should also be remembered that the last international matches for Italy were at the World Cup—a competition where the Italians struggled. There were few Italian bright spots in Brazil and the former AC Milan striker wasn’t one of them.

Based on Brazil, the only Azzurri members who would have been locks for inclusion in these two games would have been Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo, Lazio’s Antonio Candreva, Torino defender Matteo Darmian and PSG duo Salvatore Sirigu and Marco Verratti. Balotelli obviously is not one of those players.

The newest Liverpool signing is mercurial. In fact, if you look the word “mercurial” in the dictionary, you probably get a picture of Mario Balotelli. Not only that, he picks up his fair share of cards. Among those cards included were two yellows compiled in Brazil including one in Italy’s final game. Because the Italians didn’t progress in the tournament, their star striker will have to sit out the next competitive game on the international calendar. That game is the first Euro qualifier against Norway.

Most will point to the fact of Claudio Marchisio’s inclusion in the team as one of the key reasons why Conte is sending a message by leaving out Balotelli. Marchisio picked up a red card in the Italy/Uruguay game, and like Balotelli will miss the Norway match through suspension. However, this is Conte’s first camp in charge of the Azzurri. He will be implementing his system, his style of play and things of that nature. Not only does Marchisio understand Conte and his tactics from their time together at Juve, he also provides leadership and experience in the midfield. Conte has also been forced to call up a relatively inexperienced group due to injuries. Usual call ups Pirlo, Riccardo Montolivo and Thiago Motta are all out with injuries. Because of this, the likes of Marco Parolo, Alessandro Florenzi and Andrea Poli all been brought in. All have fewer than six caps.

As odd as it sounds, leaving out Balotelli may let Conte evaluate his options in a more comprehensive manner. If Balotelli is in the team, he’s starting. Leaving him at home gives Conte the chance to experiment with and give more minutes to the likes of Mattia Destro, Ciro Immobile, Simone Zaza and Stephan El Shaarawy up front. Doing so will be crucial as all four are under the age of 24 and will play vital roles for the Azzurri leading up to Euro 2016 and Russia 2018.

Antonio Conte’s decision to leave Mario Balotelli off his first Italy roster didn’t sit well with some fans. However, when you consider Balotelli’s mercurial play, suspension and other factors, it makes sense why Liverpool’s newest player was left off the Azzurri team.

World Cup 2014: Positives from Italy’s Campaign

Italy didn’t experience the best of World Cups – not by their own prestigious standards, or the standards of anyone else for that matter. The Azzurri were eliminated in the group stage with one win and two losses to show for it. One of those losses was to an underrated Costa Rica side, the other loss was marred by near-cannibalism. Regardless, Italy didn’t just miss out on the knockout rounds because of a singular incident (although you could make a case with Suarez’ bite…)  they looked slow and uncreative at times.

Once you get past these maladies, there were some bright spots to be had. Here are a few of them.

Matteo Darmian

The 24 year old Torino right back burst onto the scene in his competitive debut for Italy, combining with Antonio Candreva to terrorize England down the right flank in both team’s opening game. Darmian looked solid defensively as well and was one of six Italians to start every game. The others? Established starters Claudio Marchisio, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli. That’s pretty good company for a player who made his international debut just weeks before the tournament began. The performance helps Darmian even more so because it solidifies his hold on the position. With Ignazio Abate unable to hold down the position and Christian Maggio getting older, Italy may have found their right back for the next eight years.

Salvatore Sirigu

At age 36, captain Gianluigi Buffon doesn’t look like he’s slowing down, but at some point he won’t be around to mind the net for the Azzurri. For a while, no keepers embraced the mantle of Buffon’s successor. At one point in time, you could have pegged it on Marco Amelia or Federico Marchetti, but both have fallen by the relative wayside. Now the title firmly belongs to Salvatore Sirigu. The 27 year old shot-stopper is already a full-time starter at French giant PSG, arguably one of the top clubs in the world. Winning games in Ligue 1 and the Champions League is one thing, but winning and playing well at the international level is a completely different animal. Sirigu, starting for an injured Buffon, performed admirably against England in Italy’s win. He looked solid in goal all game, and would have kept a clean sheet had it not been for a smash of a goal from Daniel Sturridge that few goalkeepers could have stopped.

Marco Verratti

Another member of the Italy’s “heir-apparent club” is Verratti. Like his PSG teammate Sirigu, is the long-term replacement for another Azzurri legend, Andrea Pirlo. Unlike Sirigu in goal, you can play more than one midfielder in a game, so Verratti is afforded the rare opportunities to play alongside the man he may one day replace. At 21, he was arguably one of Italy’s best and most consistent players at the World Cup. Like Pirlo, he is a superb passer and regularly is handed starts at the club level ahead of the likes of Javier Pastore and Yohan Cabaye.

Giuseppe Rossi

This isn’t fair, Rossi didn’t make the team that went to Brazil. Nonetheless, he remains a bright spot. Why? Because of the role he will play in the future after Italy’s attacking options faltered in South America. Of the five forwards Cesare Prandelli brought to the World Cup, Alessio Cerci and Lorenzo Insigne only made two substitute appearances. Besides those two, you had the trio of Ciro Immobile, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli. Immobile, still only 24, looked nothing like the goal-scorer he was at Torino. Cassano looked exceedingly sluggish and seemed to struggle physically. Balotelli’s play meanwhile was once again, mercurial. Except this time, it took a downward trajectory as opposed to his previous positive displays in an Italy shirt. After scoring against England, he was relatively quiet and missed a key chance to score versus Costa Rica. However, his yellow card against Uruguay changed the game in a bad way for the Europeans. This meant, if Italy advanced, they would have been without their most dangerous striker. On top of that Prandelli took him out to avoid going down to ten  men only to see the referee give Claudio Marchisio a straight red a few minutes later. The point I’m making with Rossi is that none of Italy’s strikers wowed anyone in Brazil. Together they managed just a singular goal. Teams need goals to win, and Italy needs players who can get them those goals. Sure, the Azzurri have a superbly talented group of midfielders who can score, but the team needs strikers who can consistently put the ball in the back of the net. They know that they have that in the New Jersey born Rossi.

World Cup 2014: 5 Things We Learned from Day 3 of the World Cup

  1. Greece will struggle to score

The Greeks struggled to create scoring chances for much of the game against Columbia. While this strategy is excusable when you don’t allow any goals, it makes for a long day when the other team is scoring against you. It won’t get easier as the Greeks will have to face the physical Ivory Coast and the technical wizards of Japan. This group is being dubbed the “Group of Life,” where everyone has a shot to advance. Greece needs to shows signs of life offensively to have any hope of advancing.

  1. Costa Rica is no pushover

That could have been the headline after a first half where Costa Rica played well and only conceived a well-struck penalty to Uruguay. However, the Ticos came roaring back for a historic win. This put a colossal dent in Uruguay’s hopes moving forward, but also gave Costa Rica a huge chance to move forward.  The CONCACAF reps not only beat their South American counterparts, but they also controlled the game and kept the likes of Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan in check.

  1. No Buffon, no problem for Italy

Italy was without legendary ‘keeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon for their clash with England. His replacement: PSG shot-stopper Salvatore Sirigu was superb in the 2-1 win. The Italians were deserving of the win, and Sirigu was vital in the match. The fact that the team was able to adapt so well without their leader, Buffon, speaks volumes to the quality of Cesare Prandelli’s side.

  1. Italy should have their group rapped up

One would think that the Azzurri are now in control of the “Group of Champions” as a win versus Costa Rica on Thursday would clinch passage to the next round for the 2006 champions. Especially considering that if they beat the Ticos (not a foregone conclusion, just ask the Uruguayans) they could be facing an Uruguay side potentially without Luis Suarez. The South Americans looked derived of creativity in their walloping by Costa Rica, if Suarez can’t make it back, it could be a very brief stay in Brazil for last year’s semi-finalists. Should Italy win all three games, they would face the second place team from Group C. Which, if Columbia wins, will be Japan, Ivory Coast or Greece. That’s a more pleasant route than finishing second in the group, facing Group C’s winner, likely Columbia, beat them (not a forgone conclusion) and then potentially run into Brazil. This is all guess-work and forecasting at this point, but winning the group definitely holds a much easier outlook for Italy.

  1. Is there a changing of the guard in the Ivory Coast Squad? Not yet

Iconic striker Didier Drogba started the Ivory Coast’s opening game on the bench as Wilfred Bony was handed the start instead. Bony responded with a goal, but the African side scored both of its goals in the 2-1 win after the former Chelsea legend’s introduction into the game, cementing his importance.