This Football Saturday

Saturday sees another day of frantic football action all over Europe. Here are my picks for five of the continent’s best games.

Wolfsburg vs Bayer Leverkusen

Looking at their current predicaments in the lower half of the Bundesliga, it is hard to believe that Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen have been fighting each other for Champions League qualification during the last three seasons. It is quite remarkable that this match is being previewed with the hosts in 16th and the visitors in 11th.

There is no denying the fact that the sales of Kevin De Bruyne and Ivan Perisic have had a huge impact on the Wolves, but a team featuring Julian Draxler, Mario Gomez, Luiz Gustavo and Ricardo Rodriguez should be doing so much better than being in the relegation zone. Manager Dieter Hecking had to pay the price with his job but interim boss Valérien Ismaël couldn’t have asked for a worse display on his debut in a humbling 3-1 defeat at Darmstadt. Wolfsburg haven’t won since the opening round and a massive turnaround will be needed to win this match.

Bayer Leverkusen had their own humiliating loss, losing on penalties to the ten men of third division side Sportfreunde Lotte in the DFB Pokal. While Roger Schmidt has a lot of credit in the bank, his tactical naivety has led to a middling start to the campaign, consequently increasing the pressure on the manager. Leverkusen followed up an impressive win over Borussia Dortmund before the international break with two inept performances after the resumption of domestic duty. Not unlike their opponents, Leverkusen are stacked with enough quality to merit being higher than 11th.

Will nerves and pressure lead to a tense occasion? Or will a moment of magic by one of the many star players light up the match? Either way, with talented individuals and high stakes, this match is must-watch football!

Tottenham vs Leicester City

Last season’s top two take on each other with the champions unlikely to be involved in an exhilarating race, as was seen last season when Leicester and Spurs duked it out for the title. Leicester have lost every away match in the league this season and come into the game as huge underdogs. Spurs are the last remaining undefeated team in the Premier League, but they have drawn more than they have won. Mauricio Pochettino’s men have dominated games without being ruthless in front of goal. The Foxes have been blown away in the first half in all their losses. Spurs will have to capitalize on this early travel vulnerability. However, if Spurs don’t take their chances, the likeliness of falling to a counterpunch only increases. It may be only fifth versus twelfth, but intrigue abounds at White Hart Lane in what should be a cracking game.

Toulouse vs Lyon

One of the French League’s surprise stories takes on one of the season’s underwhelming disappointments as Toulouse welcome Lyon. Pascal Dupraz’s men have lost only one of their last six matches, a run that has seen them outplay PSG and Monaco, resulting in comprehensive 3-1 victories at home to against Ligue 1’s top dogs. Meanwhile last season’s runners-up have lost three out of their last four matches, leaving Lyon languishing in 10th. Bruno Génésio needs a win badly. Having Nabil Fekir and Alexandre Lacazette back together will certainly boost Génésio’s hopes but an increasingly porous defence will face their own challenge dealing with the red hot form of Martin Braithwaite and Ola Toivonen leading Toulouse’s attack. This should be an entertaining and open game for neutrals. Will Lyon finally kickstart their season or will Dupraz lead Toulouse to another win against of Ligue 1’s big teams? Tune in to find out.

Borussia Dortmund vs Schalke 04

The Ruhr Derby would have a different story if it was held a month ago. In stead we see two teams moving in opposite directions as Borussia Dortmund host Schalke at Signal Iduna Park.

While Dortmund are still tied for most goals in the league alongside Bayern Munich, defensive weaknesses coupled with a crippling injury crisis have stunted Thomas Tuchel’s men in the past month. Tuchel could be without as many as 10 starters in a big match against their rivals. Winless in three, Dortmund really have to keep some semblance of pressure on Bayern.

Many pundits thought Markus Weinzierl would be the first manager to lose his job in the Bundesliga after the league campaign started with five straight defeats for Schalke. The tide has turned in the last month or so as the Royal Blues gained seven points from their last three domestic games while maintaining a perfect record in the Europa League. Yevhen Konoplyanka seems to have found his groove, while most impressively, Nabil Bentaleb has come to the fore, scoring goals from midfield. 

Derbies always have a story of their own. Whether the heroes of this particular story will be the injury-stricken Dortmund or the improving Schalke remains to be seen. Goals should feature in this derby.

Juventus vs Napoli

Last season’s clashes between Juve and Napoli were intense affairs, with the Bianconeri’s win at Juventus stadium proving to be the decisive turning point of the title race. This time around, Juve lead Napoli by four points and the sense of occasion is not the same, but this is still a big match in the Serie A calendar.

While Juve have lost on their visits to the San Siro, they have looked impregnable at home. They shook off some of their October rust with a 4-1 thrashing of Sampdoria, with Miralem Pjanic becoming more influential with each passing game. Napoli seem to be finding some semblance of form after a rough stretch of form saw them lose three on the bounce at home and in Europe. Maurizio Sarri’s solution to Arkadiusz Milik’s long-term injury seems to be the use of a false nine alternating between José Callejón and Dries Mertens. As dangerous as that fluid forward line can be, it’s another challenge altogether against Juve’s famed back three. 

The champions should come out on top at home, but expect Napoli to test them all the way in the battle between first and third.

This Football Weekend

After another intense week of continental football, we turn our attentions back to a jam packed weekend of domestic action. In a break from tradition on the Through Ball, 12 matches in stead of the usual 10, are highlighted on this football weekend.

Saturday October 22

Hertha Berlin vs Cologne

That this is a match between second and fourth in the Bundesliga feels surreal even at this early stage of the season. The reality is that both teams occupy their high places in the table on merit. In Pal Dardai and Peter Stöger, both teams have inspiring intelligent managers at the helm. Both teams also possess prolific goal scorers. Vedad Ibišević has scored five goals for the capital side, while Anthony Modeste has gone two better for the visitors. Who comes out on top in the battle of in-form strikers could well be the decisive factor in what should be a tight battle amongst two well-organized high-flying sides.

Valencia vs Barcelona

Always one of the most anticipated fixtures in the Spanish calendar, Barcelona with an injured back four, visit Cesare Prandelli’s Valencia. The Italian won his first game in charge last weekend away at Sporting Gijon and will be looking to win over the faithful at the Mestalla on his debut in the home dugout. While the league table would suggest an easy win for the champions, Prandelli will certainly pose a test for Luis Enrique with his tactical flexibility. Expect a cauldron-like atmosphere at this game.

Bayern Munich vs Borussia Mönchengladbach

An intriguing match between two of Germany’s Champions League representatives awaits us at the Allianz Arena. While the champions are six points clear of their visitors, this fixture hasn’t been kind to them in recent years. Bayern’s displays in the Bundesliga have been well below par in the last few rounds and as we saw in the Champions League this week, Gladbach are not a team to be trifled with.  Carlo Ancelotti will want his team to impose their game on one of the Bundesliga’s poor travellers, and with the Foals suffering from injuries in defence, Bayern can expect to see a lot of opportunities. However, André Schubert has his own attacking weapons in Andre Hahn and the underrated Lars Stindl, who will certainly relish the spaces that Bayern’s defence are wont to give, even when dominating a game. Will Bayern finally make a statement and pull clear?

AC Milan vs Juventus

There is a lot of excitement and anticipation ahead of, what until recently was one of Serie A’s marquee matches. Milan’s fall from grace in recent seasons had reduced the aura of this fixture, but with the Rossoneri unbeaten in five games with four wins, a rise up to third in the table gives this clash the stature it deserves. In totality, Juve are clearly the superior team, but Massimiliano Allegri has seen his team stutter on both fronts this past week despite ultimately prevailing with wins. Allegri was the last manager to win the league for Milan, and while Vincenzo Montella is unlikely to repeat the feat, he has certainly brought renewed optimism to the San Siro. Nothing can further cement that goodwill like a win over Juve, but to do so he’ll need Carlos Bacca and M’baye Niang at their very best. However, the home side’s porous defence face a stiff challenge themselves in the form of Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain. The stakes are high in this game. If the hosts win, they’ll find themselves just two points behind the champions, surely putting Montella way ahead of schedule. The Old Lady however, will want to put the pretenders in their place and pull away from the chasing pack. An intriguing battle awaits.

Sunday October 23

Manchester City vs Southampton

Unless there are a whole slew of upsets on Saturday, Manchester City will enter their home game against Southampton having relinquished their lead at the top of the Premier League. While fans are still on board, there is no doubt that the critics are sharpening their knives after a tough month for Pep Guardiola. A few weeks ago, a home game against Southampton would have been the ideal opportunity to get three points and regain momentum. However, Saints are playing some terrific football at the moment, as Claude Puel has retained the solidity of Ronald Koeman but garnished it with flair and fluency in midfield. With three wins in their last four, Southampton are no mugs. Pertinently, Puel has exactly the kind of in form vibrant attackers that won’t hesitate to take the game to City’s increasingly vulnerable defence. Guardiola will hope that his forwards are more ruthless at finishing opportunities after they wasted so many chances in their last home match against Everton. City are favourites, but by no means is this match a foregone conclusion.

Feyenoord vs Ajax

It’s not often that you see two teams taking on each other on six-game winning streaks, but that is the case in the clash of the Eredivisie’s top two. It speaks volumes about Feyenoord’s start to the season, that they are already five points ahead of Ajax despite the aforementioned streak. That’s because Feyenoord’s streak includes no losses or draws since the beginning of the season. De Kuip is bouncing like the good old days as Giovanni van Bronckhorst has inspired his men to play some scintillating football on the way to collecting maximum points. Ajax themselves have picked up their form in the past month after a horrible start to the season, with Davy Klaassen and Hakim Ziyech in excellent form. Whether the Amsterdam side will have enough in defence to cope with the threat of an inspired Nicolai Jørgensen at the other end is another matter. Who will come out on top in the battle of irresistible force and immovable wall?

Torino vs Lazio

Two teams with identical match records and points, separately by a goal difference of just two. Fourth-placed Torino, having one of their finest starts in recent history welcome sixth-placed Lazio, who have started the season well themselves. Siniša Mihajlović and Simone Inzaghi played with and against each other in their footballing prime, but now pit their wits against each other as managers. Both teams strengths lie in attack. Torino may have garnered all the headlines due to Joe Hart’s arrival, but it is up front where the real excitement lies. New Italy international Andrea Belotti has been firing in the goals, ably supported by the trickery and pace of wingers, Iago Falque and Adem Ljajić. Just behind the front three, captain Marco Benassi has also contributed alongside the imaginative Daniele Baselli. For Lazio, the goals have been boosted by a reinvigorated Ciro Immobile, who has been thriving on the service provided by Felipe Anderson. Anderson himself looks like he has regained the form that made him such a star two seasons ago. The battle of these multi-dimensional attacks should make for an entertaining spectacle at the Grande Torino.

Sevilla vs Atletico Madrid

Third welcomes first in what should be a fantastic game at the Sánchez Pizjuán. Atletico lead La Liga, with Sevilla only a point behind. Whether this game will feature a lot of goals is debatable, as both Diego Simeone and Jorge Sampaoli have already shown this season that they can shut up shop when they face big teams. Atletico’s defence are notoriously difficult to break down, so Sampaoli’s creative magicians, Franco Vazquez and Samir Nasri will have to be at their absolute best to get the points. Too close to call in this top of the table clash in La Liga.

Chelsea vs Manchester United

As if a meeting between Chelsea and Manchester United needed further context. This match always has plenty of talking points but the hype around Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge as manager of Manchester United is unprecedented. Add in the fact that it will be the first managerial tussle between Antonio Conte and Mourinho, and you get an extra layer of intrigue to this match. In truth, clashes between the two don’t always turn out to be fun, with very few meetings remaining etched in the memory of neutrals. It would be no surprise to many if Mourinho repeated the same template he used in getting the draw at Anfield on Monday. Conte himself will not necessarily go in all guns blazing, even though there are genuine signs of fluency with his favoured formation featuring wing backs. Ultimately though, the narrative in this one will be about the managers. Will Mourinho prove Chelsea made a big mistake in firing him? Or will Conte prove that Chelsea made the right choice in choosing him to deliver success? We’ll find out at least part of the answer on Sunday at Stamford Bridge.

Villarreal vs Las Palmas

The Yellow Submarines saw off one dangerous mid table team at El Madrigal in Celta Vigo last weekend and they welcome another one in Las Palmas this weekend. Always defensively solid, Fran Escribá’s men are now finding the net regularly as witnessed in the 5-0 demolition against the Galicians. With Nicola Sansone, Alexandre Pato and the just returning Cedric Bakambu all in good form, Villarreal will be confident of another win. The visitors from the Canary Island are not to be underestimated however, having already drawn against Real Madrid and beaten Valencia this season. With the likes of Roque Mesa, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Jonathan Viera in good form, Las Palmas could easily cause an upset if Villarreal are below top form.

Real Madrid vs Athletic Bilbao

A match between Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao is always intense and with both teams starting the season well, plenty of fireworks can be expected. Though Athletic are sixth in the table, they are only three points behind Real in second, after winning five of their last six games. Both teams have goals in them, while they are equally vulnerable in defence. Real will always attack at the Bernabéu and the odds are that the trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema will help their team find the back of the net. However, there are issues of balance in midfield and defence in light of recent injuries, something Athletic will look to expose with the goalscoring threat of Aritz Aduriz and Iñaki Williams. Goals are the order of the day in this one.

Paris Saint-Germain vs Marseille

While this rivalry has increasingly gone only one way since PSG became the richest club in France, Le Classique remains must watch football for fans of the beautiful game. Both teams have had inconsistent starts to the season in relation to their aims. Being second at this stage of the season is no disgrace, but PSG are judged by different standards in light of their recent dominance in France. Unai Emery hasn’t got his team playing consistently and even worse there have been reports of disharmony in the dressing room. Disharmony is a common theme at Marseille, but there is a rare sense of optimism for the L’OM faithful after American Frank McCourt bought the club last week. Subsequently McCourt appointed Rudi Garcia as manager, boosting the morale of the fans that extra bit more. PSG have been winning their last few matches despite not convincing, but could easily be ambushed by the new manager bounce if they are below their best in Ligue 1’s biggest game.

Champions League Report Card – Matchday 3

We are at the halfway stage of the Champions League group stage after Matchday 3. It’s time to assess the performances of all 32 teams and see who excelled, who struggled and who needs to do better. 

A

Leicester City

It could be argued that Leicester were fortunate to win against Copenhagen. Such an argument would have merit. That is missing the point though. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Copenhagen have significant Champions League experience and in the first game of this group, they dominated Porto away from home. Leicester are playing in the Champions League for the first time. That they are here is already an achievement in itself. The fact that they have won their first three games and now need only one win from three games to qualify for the last 16, is quite frankly, remarkable. The Foxes are underdogs in every sense, against almost every other opponent in this competition. Yet they have maximum points without conceding a goal. It is a feat that can be forgiven deeper analysis while being cherished and celebrated.

Barcelona

The scary thing about their win over Manchester City was that Barcelona were hardly at their best. Nevertheless, there is excellence to be appreciated in taking your chances ruthlessly. In Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, the Blaugrana have a front three that are the epitome of efficiency. Luis Enrique’s men are now almost guaranteed to win the group, even legislating for a possible loss at the Etihad. If the midfield and defence step up however, Enrique will be confident that with a prolific MSN leading the charge, City can be beaten away as well.

Arsenal

A performance of complete comfort. Arsenal were effervescent in every aspect with their front four again in blistering form. Not only did Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott score again, but Mesut Ozil scored a hat trick. Crucially, after years of suffering in the group stage, Arsene Wenger is ideally placed to come first in the group. Arsenal have a goal difference advantage of three over PSG, with the French champions still to visit the Emirates. The Gunners are looking good!

Besiktas

There were elements of luck in their win at Naples, but Senol Günes and his men were once again adept at making the most of their chances. Turkish teams winning matches in the Champions League has become rare in recent seasons, so an away victory in particular, is really special for Besiktas. The Turkish champions are now the only undefeated team in Group B. With two home games remaining and blessed with the poaching instincts of Vincent Aboubakar, Günes will be confident that Besiktas can take advantage of this upset to make it to the next round.

Borussia Dortmund

A mature away performance that belied the inexperience of Thomas Tuchel’s injury-plagued squad. Dortmund were dominant for the first hour in Lisbon, taking a two-goal lead with a performance embodying control and precision. Even more impressive however, was the resilience and calmness shown in defence after Sporting pulled a goal back with over 20 minutes left to play. With a four-point lead over their hosts with the return fixture at home, Dortmund have a comfortable cushion to qualify for the last 16 and remain in contention for first place in Group F despite Real Madrid having the easier opponent on the day.

Juventus

The Italian champions were far from fluent, but an away game at Lyon was never going to be easy. In true fashion, Gianluigi Buffon put in a performance for the ages, just as an army of critics were chastising him after recent errors. Impressively, after being under the cosh for most of the match Juventus actually improved after going down to ten men, keeping the ball better and taking the game to Lyon. While some may consider it daylight robbery, was it any surprise that Juve got the winner? Champions after all, always find a way to win.

Real Madrid

There are issues of balance without Casemiro in midfield, highlighted emphatically by Legia Warsaw cutting through the centre with ease in the move that led to their penalty. However, this was not an occasion for Casemiro and defensive midfielders in the first place. Real’s only remit in this match was to plunder goals and boost the goal difference. A 5-1 win did nicely for Zinedine Zidane in that regard.

Benfica

A performance in tune with their great run to the quarterfinals last season and a much-needed to win to kickstart their campaign this time around. Benfica never looked like losing in Kiev. Win their return fixture at home and Rui Vitória’s men will control their own destiny as Napoli and Besiktas take points off each other.

Sevilla

A measured and controlled away win giving further fuel to the theory that Sevilla have in fact upgraded by getting Jorge Sampaoli as manager. Sevilla played entertaining football in last season’s group stages, but exited with only six points. They have already got seven at the halfway stage this time around. With home matches against Zagreb and Juve to come, the Europa League champions have a great shot at actually winning the group.

Borussia Mönchengladbach

Just desserts for André Schubert’s brave approach at Parkhead. Gladbach play football in an admirable way, always taking the attack to the opposition regardless of circumstance, often coming up against teams with greater quality. Against Celtic they played with a strut that their hosts simply had no answer for. Gladbach now have the edge over Celtic for Europa League qualification, but with two home games left and Manchester City to play Barcelona once more, could Schubert and his men cause the ultimate sting in the tale by qualifying for the last 16?

Atletico Madrid

Diego Simeone’s men played almost exclusively on the front foot at Rostov and probably should have won by more goals. Yet, with the crucial win against Bayern in the last matchday, all Atletico need to do is keep accumulating the points until the last rubber in Bavaria, maintaining their hold on first place in the group. Another bonus was a second successive win without Antoine Griezmann scoring.

B

Bayern Munich

Carlo Ancelotti had asked for more intensity from his Bayern side and they delivered. The Bavarian giants were deserved winners, but the casual defensive errors that have been prominent this season led to a sloppy concession of a goal. Thereafter, for half an hour, PSV troubled Bayern. Better teams than PSV will not provide the German champions with the same largesse. Ancelotti clearly still has some fine-tuning to do.

Monaco

From a barely deserved point in Matchday 2 to undeservedly missing out on all three in Matchday 3. Monaco threw the kitchen sink at CSKA and Bernardo Silva’s late equalizer was the least they deserved. Two points gained from late equalizers could well end up making the difference for Leonardo Jardim’s men in a congested group. Monaco now have to ensure they get all three points in the return fixture at home, so as to establish some daylight ahead of the chasing pack in Group E.

Porto

Porto took a while to get going in Belgium, but once they got out of their stupor they were good value for their win against Club Brugge. It should restore some confidence for the Portuguese giants who had gone four games without a win in the Champions League group stages dating back to last season. Nuno has to ensure a comprehensive victory in the return fixture at home, before the crucial trip to Copenhagen on Matchday 5.

Paris Saint-Germain

Another stuttering win for the French champions. They scored first against the run of play before their greater quality came to the fore in the second half against Basel. The appointment of Unai Emery was meant to signal a shift in Europe for PSG. All the evidence seen in the campaign so far would suggest that PSG are likely to fail the moment they come up against one of Europe’s big guns yet again. Emery and his men need to buck up their ideas, and buck up quickly. 

C

Tottenham Hotspur

On reflection, Spurs got an excellent away point at Leverkusen. After all, the German side are regulars in the Champions League, while Spurs are a young team in age as well as experience in Europe’s premier club competition. That being said, it was still a harsh lesson for Spurs’ young guns. They had their chances in the first half when the hosts looked ragged. Having failed to take advantage, Mauricio Pochettino’s men were put on the back foot right from the resumption till full time. Only the magnificence of Hugo Lloris prevented a defeat, meaning Spurs still have qualification from the group in their own hands.

Copenhagen

As dominant a performance as one could have in losing a match. The Danish champions were extremely unlucky to leave the Midlands with no points. However, Copenhagen are still in the picture for qualification to the next round. Not many teams control games away from home, yet Copenhagen have done so in Portugal and England. If they display the same levels of performance at home, they are bound to win. The visits of Leicester and Porto will now decide their fate.

D

Bayer Leverkusen

Many would rightly say that Leverkusen deserved more from their match against Tottenham. The problem is that it feels like Leverkusen always deserve more, but they simply don’t make the most of their chances. They dominated against CSKA Moscow but contrived to throw away a two-goal lead and then conceded a last-minute equalizer at Monaco to the host’s only shot on goal. Roger Schmidt’s men could conceivably already have been on nine points, in stead they are third in the group with just three. To qualify now, Leverkusen will need to win at least one of their remaining two away games in Moscow or London.

Napoli

It is now three consecutive defeats across all competitions for Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli side. While the injury-enforced absence of Arkadiusz Milik is a big blow, it was no excuse for this defeat, where the Azzurri were their own worst enemies. Lorenzo Insigne’s missed penalty was one of many missed chances, while the defence was calamitous on the few occasions they were called upon. Napoli could have wrapped up qualification for the next stage if things had gone their way. In stead, everything is up in the air for an increasingly nerve-ridden side.

CSKA Moscow

Visiting CSKA used to be an awkward trip for most teams in the Champions League. This season we’ve seen two atrocious performances by the home team in Moscow, with the visitors completely dominant. Remarkably, CSKA were on the verge of being the first home team to win a match in Group E. This travesty was justly denied by Bernardo Silva’s late equalizer for Monaco. Such is the  tight nature of the group, that somehow CSKA are just three points behind the group leaders and still alive in the race for qualification to the last 16.

Sporting Lisbon

The Champions League continues to be a tough nut for Jorge Jesus. After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at the Bernabéu, it was imperative for Sporting to get maximum points at home. The home faithful would justifiably have expected a great performance to gain hold of second place. Except for a brief period in the second half however, the crowd saw their team being easily nullified by a visiting team that exhibited a better temperament for the occasion. Now four points behind Dortmund, Sporting travel to Germany needing a win to stay alive. It’s looking like another Europa League campaign beckons for Sporting.

Basel

The Swiss champions were actually the better team for most of the first half at PSG. That they followed it up with a meek performance in the second half was extremely disappointing. A reasonable tilt at second place was possible if Basel had shown gumption. As it turns out, a Europa League place is now the summit of their ambitions.

E

Manchester City

There is no doubt that City had their chances at the Camp Nou and in many ways their first half performance was admirable. The Champions League though, is not a forgiving arena and the sheer lunacy of their mistakes merited a chastening defeat for Pep Guardiola’s men. While City would like to believe they have a chance at home, such defensive ineptness is likely to be equally punished by the aforementioned MSN even at the Etihad. Qualification out of the group is no longer straightforward.

Lyon

Considering their inexperience, defeat to Juventus was no disaster. However, that fails to take into account a Bianconeri side that were there for the taking. Alexandre Lacazette fluffed his chance with a poor penalty that would have given Lyon the lead. Even then, Les Gones were provided another great opportunity when Mario Lemina was sent off. In stead the home side capitulated. Now four points behind Juve and Sevilla, Lyon could be out of contention after their visit to Turin on Matchday 4.

Club Brugge

The Belgian champions gave as good as they got in the first half against Porto, deservedly taking the lead. To some observers their defeat at full time may seem harsh, but as other teams have discovered in this round, criminal defending is unlikely to go unpunished in this tournament. As good as Miguel Layún’s equalizer for Porto was, he was afforded full freedom of Brugge’s left flank, while the foul for Andre Silva’s injury time penalty verged on the amateur. Brugge now face a fight just to get off the mark.

Dynamo Kiev

A nondescript performance by the Ukrainian champions in a home game they had to win. Last season’s round of 16 appearance is now unlikely to be repeated, with Serhiy Rebrov’s men now needing a miracle just to make it to the Europa League.

FC Rostov

The Russians never looked like scoring against Atletico and they were completely out of their depth against a European giant. Yet, unlike other teams of similar ilk, Rostov played with pride and commitment and valiantly ensured they didn’t concede more than one goal, avoiding a humiliating thrashing that so many other minnows suffered on Matchday 3.

F

Celtic

Celtic’s most realistic goal after they were drawn in Group C would have been to qualify for the Europa League. To that end, a point against City last time out was a great result. To then follow up with a thoroughly underwhelming performance against Gladbach when they had the momentum was just inexcusable. Kolo Toure’s comedic defending contributed to the goals, but the defeat was justified in every sense as Brendan Rodgers’ men were outplayed from the first whistle to the last. It’s now hard to see Celtic getting another point in this campaign.

PSV Eindhoven

That PSV lost 4-1 away to Bayern is no disgrace. What was disgraceful however, was the shambolic defending evident in the first two goals. These are the Dutch champions after all and surely one expects better from them, than to concede directly from a short pass on a corner. Phillip Cocu did so well last season to take PSV to the last 16. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to build on that success as a group stage exit beckons.

Legia Warsaw

Another hammering for the Polish champions. The long-awaited return to the Champions League is increasingly becoming a nightmare. One goal scored, 13 conceded and a game each still to play against Real and Dortmund. This could get even uglier.

Dinamo Zagreb

Three games in and Zagreb remain the only team to not score in the group stages. Not to add to their misery, but it’s hard to imagine how they are going to find the net in their remaining three games. Not up to scruff.

Ludogorets

Better teams than Ludogrets have struggled to live with Arsenal at their fluent best. However, the defending in the last 10 minutes at the Emirates when they conceded three was simply non-existent. Doesn’t paint a flattering picture for the Bulgarian champions who until now have always displayed fight and a never-say-die attitude in the Champions League.

Liverpool 0 Manchester United 0 Player Ratings

After weeks of build-up and hype, Liverpool and Manchester United delivered a fairly tepid stalemate at Anfield. A few players were excellent, but the majority were average and some were just below par. Here are the player ratings based on how I assessed the performances.

Liverpool

Loris Karius 5

Karius didn’t have much to do thanks to United’s sporadic attacks. Parried an awkward cross from Ashley Young away from danger in the first half after dealing with some long range shots straight at him. Could have been embarrassed after a terrible pass in the second half but for Zlatan Ibrahimović being offside. Decision-making for Zlatan’s open header when he just stood on the line didn’t inspire confidence.

Nathaniel Clyne 7

Didn’t face much of a defensive challenge, but whenever he had to, he completely nullified Ashley Young. Made some excellent runs on the right flank in the first half, but was criminally ignored by Liverpool’s midfield.

Joel Matip 8

Continued a fine start to his career in the Premier League. Matip is the centre back that inspires confidence for Liverpool at the back. Comfortably dealt with Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba, both, on the ground and in the air. Almost 90% passing accuracy, the highlight being a confident run and pass that set up a chance for Emre Can to open the scoring.

Dejan Lovren 8

It’s safe to say we are finally seeing the Dejan Lovren that cost Liverpool 20 million in the summer of 2014. The Croatian was a colossus at the back with four interceptions and four clearances. In addition, there is growing evidence that he is one of the best passers from the back as he hit seven accurate long passes, one of which, a delightful ball that found Lallana in space on the left flank.

James Milner 7

Liverpool’s Mr. Consistent was at it again with a solid display. Linked up beautifully with Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana in the attacking third. His crosses would have yielded opportunities against most other defences. Didn’t hesitate to compete physically, though was troubled on a few occasions by Rashford on the flanks.

Emre Can 7

A decent first start of the league campaign for the young German. Like the rest of Liverpool’s midfield, was guilty of ceding possession too cheaply in the first twenty minutes. Once he got his bearings in order, Can displayed why he is more likely to be in the starting eleven than not. Held his own in a physical confrontation with Pogba. His ball-playing ability set up Liverpool’s transitions in the second half and almost scored after holding off three defenders, but was denied by David de Gea’s smart reflexes.

Jordan Henderson 6

The captain improved a lot in the second half, asking for the ball in tight spaces and finding his teammates with some excellent passes. The first half however, displayed some of his worst attributes, too rushed with his runs and careless in possession. By standards set in the past month, an average outing for Henderson.

Philippe Coutinho 7

Didn’t look comfortable in the first half an hour of the game when he was pinned in his own half, as the nuances of a deeper role didn’t appear to suit him. Got into his groove as he took more advanced positions and was clearly the most potent threat for the Reds. Could have scored another of his famous screamers but for de Gea’s brilliance, though curiously still indecisive with his shooting when actually inside the box.

Roberto Firmino 6

Anfield’s other magician tried his best. Firmino hustled and pressed like only he can, but wasn’t able to get much change from United’s tight defence. The Brazilian also contributed in the air, heading a cross at de Gea and won some crucial headers in the middle of the park. 

Sadio Mané 4

Easily the Senegalese attacker’s worst outing since joining Liverpool. Mane lost the ball too many times, tried too much with his dribbles and simply couldn’t contribute in a meaningful way. Completely neutralized by Daley Blind’s composure and game intelligence.

Daniel Sturridge 5

Virtually anonymous while on the pitch. A performance to reignite the debate over whether the striker really fits in Jurgen Klopp’s system. Had some nice touches of the ball and made some good runs in space, but nothing to suggest he would be decisive on the night.

Adam Lallana 6

Seemed to immediately bring a lift to Liverpool’s play when he came on in the second half. His introduction coincided with a 10-minute spell when Liverpool seemed most likely to score. Tried his best with some clever turns and sharp passes, but United’s defence was not to be breached.

Manchester United

David de Gea 9

The Spanish number one didn’t actually have much to do, but what he did was brilliant. As Jim Beglin said on the international feed, you can see why he has been United’s player of the year, three seasons in a row. Not only were his saves crucial, he made the two saves look routine when they were anything but. Coutinho’s reaction when denied said it all.

Antonio Valencia 7

Valencia hardly ventured forward except for a few forays early in the game. The Ecuadorian had a defend first remit and largely succeeded. At times struggled to cope with the triple threat of Coutinho, Firmino and Milner, but came to the fore in the really crucial moments, as proven with a superb last-ditch tackle to deny Firmino a clean shot at goal.

Eric Bailly 8

Another assured display by the summer signing from Villarreal. The Ivorian had seven clearances, six interceptions, two tackles and one blocked shot. Numbers don’t tell the whole tale, but when they are maintained with such consistency, they do contribute to a growing case for what is increasingly looking like a transfer market success story.

Chris Smalling 7

There are not quite Ferdinand and Vidic, but Bailly and Smalling has a nice ring for United’s fans. Smalling was unbeatable in the air and complemented Bailly perfectly with his intelligent positioning resulting in a match-leading 13 clearances.

Daley Blind 8

Another performance to suggest that it is no certainty that Luke Shaw will get his place back in the starting eleven. He was hardly troubled by Mané. How many left-backs has that been said about this season? Took United’s only corner and his outswinger almost led to Marouane Fellaini scoring.

Ander Herrera 8

A supreme performance in a defensive midfield position that is supposedly not his natural game. Herrera pressed superbly in the first half an hour as United looked to get Liverpool out of their rhythm. When Liverpool started playing on the front foot, Herrera seemed to be everywhere, tackling and intercepting at will. Easily the best midfielder on the park. 

Marouane Fellaini 5

It’s hard to figure out exactly what Fellaini’s role was in the game. Hardly contributed in midfield, except for some sideways passing. In contrast to Herrera, the game seemed to bypass him completely. A presentable chance of Blind’s corner was headed wide. For how much longer will he command a place in the starting eleven?

Paul Pogba 5

A slight of foot followed by a delicious cross that should have resulted in Ibrahimovic scoring. Other than that, was completely shackled. Supposed to play an advanced role in support of Ibrahimović, but simply couldn’t get past the double pivot of Henderson and Can.

Marcus Rashford 5

By recent standards, a fairly underwhelming display by one of United’s best players this season. That he still had the maturity to help defensively with two tackles and two interceptions is a testament to his continuing development and growing game intelligence.

Ashley Young 4

Exactly why did he get his first start in eons? Barely challenged Clyne and couldn’t link up with either Ibrahimovic or Pogba. Helped defensively, but for a man of his experience, picked up a petulant yet deserved yellow card for remonstrating with the referee.

Zlatan Ibrahimović 4

The Swede had a very poor outing. There was a lot of talk about Ibrahimović dominating in the air,  but he couldn’t win much against Matip and Lovren. His link-up play was substandard and then missed the best chance of the match with a bizarre header when he had the goal at his mercy. It’s now four games without a goal in the Premier League for United’s starting forward.

This Football Sunday

The Basque Derby, Serie A’s fight for third and an understated, yet exciting clash in La Liga are the games to watch on Sunday.

Athletic Bilbao vs Real Sociedad

The Basques have never had it so good. Five teams from the region now play in Spain’s top division. Yet when it comes to Basque derbies, nothing comes close to the Euskal Derbia between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad. San Mamés is host to the first derby this year, with Athletic sitting pretty in sixth, two points ahead of the visiting Sociedad. Goals have been hard to come by in this fixture the past two seasons, but both teams have found the net consistently in this campaign. Athletic haven’t won against their bitter rivals in eight attempts. They’ll be looking to right that record in the battle for bragging rights in Basque Country.

Chievo Verona vs AC Milan

Not many would have picked either of these teams to make a run for the top three at the beginning of the season, but nonetheless Chievo and Milan find themselves in a position to go third in the table with a win in this encounter. The Bentegodi is a fortress for Chievo and it’s never easy for any visiting team against Rolando Maran’s men. Valter Birsa continues to assist and score for the Flying Donkeys and they will rely on his guile and trickery to catch Milan’s vulnerable defence off guard. Milan have already conceded 10 goals, but thanks to the poaching instincts of Carlos Bacca, the Rossoneri continue to pick up wins and points even they have not played well. It will also be interesting to watch whether 18-year old Manuel Locatelli can dictate Milan’s rhythm from the base of midfield now that Riccardo Montolivo is out until at least March. There’s lots of intrigue around this match and the result will give us some idea as to which team can make a sustained push for a European place this season.

Villarreal vs Celta Vigo

One of three unbeaten teams in La Liga alongside Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, Villarreal have started the season in a typically understated manner. Fran Escribá has overcome a contentious pre-season by adhering to the footballing principles of the Yellow Submarines. Playing with their trademark tidiness in possession, Escribá has also got the team defending in a compact manner. El Madrigal is not the easiest of places to score, but if any team can rip up the copybook it is Eduardo Berizzo’s enterprising Celta Vigo. After a shaky start, the Galicians come into this game with three wins on the trot, including an exhilarating 4-3 win over Barcelona last time out. While Villarreal will always be favourites at home, don’t count against Celta’s ability to tear up the script.

This Football Saturday

How will Manchester City respond after their first defeat under Pep Guardiola? Will either Chelsea or Leicester finally kickstart their season? Who will be Juve’s closest challengers in Serie A? These are the questions facing the big football matches on Saturday.

Chelsea vs Leicester City

On one side is a team where N’Golo Kante’s role is not yet clearly defined. On the other side is a team that are clearly feeling his absence. Of course there are other players of quality in this game to make it about more than one man, but it is Kante that perfectly symbolizes the undefined starts that Chelsea and Leicester have made in this nascent season.

For the champions, this was always going to be a tricky campaign. Leicester lost only three times in the entirety of their wondrous league winning campaign. They have already matched that tally in seven games this time around. It’s likely that there will be a few more defeats as they deal with opposition who are smartening up to their tactics, as well as the integration of new players into the new system. The latter factor may yet end up making Leicester a better team in the long run. In the interim though, they have been dominated and dismantled in their meetings with big teams, as witnessed against Manchester United and Liverpool.

Whether Chelsea are a big team or not is still to be decided. For a side that were champions in 2015, they have a squad that rather alarmingly asks a lot of questions. How is John Terry still their best centre back? Why is Branislav Ivanovic still playing at right back despite being repeatedly roasted on the flank for almost two years? Is Cesc Fabregas worthy of a starting place? Do Chelsea have the potential to unlock defences without Fabregas? Will Eden Hazard ever replicate his league-winning form?

Many expected Antonio Conte to be the man to solve these problems and make Chelsea a team to fear again. Alas, even the Italian strategist cannot fix such problems overnight. To his credit, Chelsea do play with a greater intensity compared to last season, but some of the comedic defending from Gary Cahill in particular cannot be legislated for.

Perhaps we’ll only see the best of these two teams later in the season. For now, these two Italian managers will only be concerned with the three points. Who will prevail between the wise old head of Ranieri and the young strategist in Conte?

Napoli vs Roma

You can call them bridesmaids or the two step sisters, but the harsh reality that Napoli and Roma have to deal with is that in their current guise, their most feasible aims are to be the second best team in Italy after Juventus. It’s not that these two lack for talent, creativity or stature. On their day, the football they play is amongst the finest seen in Europe. It is their inability to play consistently and furthermore, a lack of desire to get the points when they are not playing well that stunts them.

Flair and inconsistency. These two aspects make it hard for any writer to preview such a match. Napoli are extremely difficult to beat at home, while Roma have been quite poor on their travels this season. History would suggest Napoli are favourites, but there are other factors at play.

Arkadiusz Milik, who started the season so well is now out for six months after getting injured playing for Poland. It’s a big blow. In theory they have a great replacement in Manolo Gabbiadini. However, the Italian has been second choice for so long that they are doubts about his confidence and over his ability to integrate into the style of Maurizio Sarri. Nevertheless, with the likes of Dries Mertens and José Callejón in good form, Napoli should possess enough to trouble a notoriously fickle Roma defence.

Roma seem to have found a spark up front. While Francesco Totti’s sublime playmaking is still creating goals and chances for the Giallorossi, it is Edin Dzeko who has stepped up when it comes to end product. The Bosnian had a much-maligned first campaign in the capital, but seems to be rejuvenated after a good pre-season. His link up play with Totti has been superb, but it is also his understanding with wingers Mohamed Salah and Diego Perotti that has been crucial in allowing Roma to constantly apply pressure on opposing defences.

The fact that the two attacks have been highlighted tells its own story when it comes to this fixture. Luciano Spalletti and Maurizio Sarri are two astute tacticians and in many ways they have improved many aspects of their respective teams. Unfortunately, defensive woes still bog the two giants. Ultimately the result may just come down to who makes the least mistakes at the back.

Manchester City vs Everton

Matches between these two have always been fun to watch in recent seasons and it should be no different this time around. In fact, with two new managers who are completely different from their predecessors in both, tactical flexibility and discipline, the two clubs are playing some excellent football. Or should that be were playing excellent football? 

You got the sense watching these two teams in the two weeks leading up to the international break that perhaps momentum was stalling. City were lucky to escape with a victory at Swansea when they were pressed and harassed. Celtic then scored three against them, before they were finally pressurized into submission by Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Everton lost an easy EFL Cup match at home to Norwich, were then non-descript at Bournemouth and were extremely fortuitous to get a point at home against a dominant Crystal Palace side.

It is against the backdrop of those last two weeks, that Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman have to reignite their teams. It seems to churlish to suggest that a team with Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and David Silva are missing just one player, but when that player is a Kevin De Bruyne in form, it is a huge absence. Everton may not provide City with the same pressing test they faced against Celtic and Tottenham, but nevertheless Koeman will ensure his team’s defence isn’t breached easily. Could this finally be the day where Guardiola trusts Leroy Sane with a start? A solution is certainly needed and all eyes will be on the legendary manager to see how he adjusts.

Meanwhile Koeman will count on Yannick Bolasie, Kevin Mirallas and Seamus Coleman to torment City’s vulnerable flanks. With Guardiola himself admitting defending against height is a problem, Romelu Lukaku will be licking his chops in anticipation of the battle against John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi. Certainly, Everton possess enough of a scoring threat to remain alive in the game even if City dominate.

There will be a lot of observant eyes scrutinizing the action at the Etihad. City should be favourites at home, but the battle between Guardiola and Koeman is no straightforward matter.

Football Today

Another international break is over and it’s time to get back into the groove of domestic football. On Friday, we see the clash between second and third in the Bundesliga, while four of the top five face off in France.

Toulouse vs Monaco

Fourth hosts second in Ligue 1 as Toulouse welcome Monaco to the Stadium Municipal. While Monaco’s place in the upper reaches in the league is no surprise, this is rarified air for Toulouse. After saving them from relegation last season, Pascal Dupraz has gone from strength to strength, cementing the self-belief in the squad and encouraging his players to express themselves on the pitch. The visitors meanwhile are playing with greater fluency than last season. Rightly renowned for his defensive organization, Leonardo Jardim has found a way to get more goals from his men without compromising the shape of the side. The historic 7-0 win at Metz last time out means Monaco are well clear of anyone else in the goals scored chart. A repeat of that score is highly unlikely on this trip however, as Dupraz will want his men to replicate the form shown in Toulouse’s last home game when they beat champions PSG 3-1. This game has all the ingredients to be a very good match.

Borussia Dortmund vs Hertha Berlin

The match between second and third in Germany, with Dortmund surprisingly a place below the capital side. After losing their last game against Bayer Leverkusen, Thomas Tuchel’s men need to make a statement as the room for error is minimal if they are to seriously challenge Bayern Munich for the title. The challenge facing Tuchel is a mounting injury list. BVB’s squad depth is going to be challenged against Pal Dardai’s well-organized unit. Dortmund will expect to play on the front foot, but they always give their opponents some chances on the break. With the likes of Mitchell Weiser and Genki Haraguchi creating chances for an in form Vedad Ibisevic, an upset can’t be discounted. Expect goals and an intense tactical battle between Tuchel and Dardai.

Nice vs Lyon

There is a different vibe at the Allianz Riviera nowadays. After being in the shadows of rivals Monaco and Marseille for so long, Nice are currently leading the pack not only in Southern France, but ahead of every other club in Ligue 1. Last season saw the rebirth of Hatem Ben Arfa at Les Aiglons, but this season has seen an even more remarkable renaissance in the form of Mario Balotelli. The temperamental Italian’s goals have fired Nice to the top, but credit is also due for new manager Lucien Favre. The Swiss tactician has tightened things at the back and this discipline will be needed against Lyon’s crop of young attackers.

Bruno Genesio will be having a rueful look at the table. Lyon really should be the team to take advantage of PSG’s inconsistent start. In stead Les Gones find themselves seven points adrift of their hosts after some shambolic losses. Injuries have dogged the squad, but there is good news with Alexandre Lacazette’s return to training. Nabil Fekir and Corentin Tolisso have been the shining lights for Lyon, and it is upon this duo that Genesio will pin hopes of getting a point or three in the south of France.

Balotelli, Fekir, Ghezzal, Tolisso, Belhanda, Seri and other mercurial talents will be on display in this top of the table clash. Should be a barnburner!

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