Looking Ahead Vol. 1

It’s that time of the year. This weekend all of Europe’s top 5 leagues will be in action, marking the beginning of my favourite annual journey in the sports season. Between the 49 matches from Friday to Monday, there are games for everyone to follow based on their favourite teams, matches between big sides and some fixtures will be followed purely for the narrative. Here are the 10 games I am looking ahead to this weekend, in chronological order.

Freiburg vs. Dortmund

Christian Streich’s men could be forgiven for wallowing in their heartbreaking end to last season, missing out on Champions League qualification in a fight that went to the last day and then losing the Pokal final against Leipzig in extra time. However, Streich and the management at this brilliantly run club have reinforced over the course of the summer, with debutants Michael Gregoritsch and Ritso Doan scoring in Freiburg’s 4-0 rout at Augsburg in the opening round, a game that was topped off by the returning Matthias Ginter also getting a goal.

Their opponents on Friday also opened the campaign with a win, albeit in a more scrappy manner, with Gregor Kobel’s string of amazing saves earning Dortmund a 1-0 win over Leverkusen. Despite summer transfer business that promised a lot of optimism, Edin Terzic’s men travel to a team that have beaten them in each of the last two seasons with morale low. With the spectre of Sebastien Haller’s malignant tumour already casting a shadow over the team, Dortmund suffered more injuries to their new signings in the season opener. They have signed Bundesliga veteran Anthony Modeste to compensate in attack, but like last weekend Terzic will be relying on the grit of his team rather than the quality of their football if they are to claim anything at Europa-Park.

Villa vs. Everton

In truth, neither team were particularly watchable during their first outings this season, and with the pressure from two expectant fanbases rising even at this nascent point, this game could end up being defined by nervous tension more than anything else. But sometimes the narrative is simply too large to ignore. Yes, it’s Steven Gerrard vs. Frank Lampard!

Everyone is talking about it, everyone is thinking about it, and best of all, one can be sure that the two men themselves are thinking about it. The ironic aspect of their managerial tenures so far has been that Gerrard has at times got Villa playing sumptuous football, but their commitment and intensity has been lacking. Lampard on the other hand has barely got Everton to play in a coherent system, yet has actually managed to get some crucial results purely on the basis of desire and persistence. I would be inclined to give the hosts the edge on the basis of their quality, but neither team can be relied upon for consistency over the full 90. A fact that only adds to the intrigue.

Arsenal vs. Leicester

When Brendan Rodgers took Leicester to the brink of the Champions League in two successive seasons the general sentiment was that the Foxes were leaving the Gunners trailing in their rearview. In fact, at certain points in both those seasons, many a pundit proclaimed that Rodgers would be a better for fit for Arsenal than Mikel Arteta.

Fast forward from the summer of 2021, and Arsenal appear galvanized for the new season with some excellent work done over the summer, while Leicester have an air of staleness precipitated by the fact that they made no signings in the off-season. Arteta’s side look to have a clear idea of how to play while Rodgers is desperate to incorporate some freshness amongst his men. Considering the mental state of the two teams, the Gunners have to be the favourites at an expectant Emirates stadium, though regardless of the result, there are several technicians amongst the 22 players to make this an enjoyable watch.

Monaco vs. Rennes

Two teams that missed out on direct entry to the Champions League this season despite having things in their hands at various points during the last Ligue 1 campaign face off with early clouds already gathering. For the second successive year Monaco have suffered heartbreak in extra time of the Champions League playoffs and putting the misery of Eindhoven at the back of their minds will be extremely difficult as they get back to domestic action with the main aim of their season already scuppered.

Rennes are hardly buoyant themselves, suffering a home loss against Lorient without scoring despite having numerous attacking options in their squad. Philippe Clement and Bruno Genesio got their sides to play some of the best football in France this season. Rennes were the second highest scorers, with only 8 fewer goals than PSG, while Monaco were fourth in that chart. Let’s hope both teams can shake off the early season stupor and enthral us with a good game.

Brentford vs. United

Last year the Bees set the tone for their campaign with a rousing win in their first home game of the season against a beleaguered Arsenal. Beleaguered is probably also an apt way to describe the state the Red Devils are in. After being played off the park against an exceptionally well-drilled side in Brighton, Erik Ten Haag takes his men to another well-coached side as Thomas Frank’s Brentford are guaranteed to make hell for their visitors. At least Christian Eriksen might give Ten Haag some clues on how to prepare for his opponents, considering his revitalizing stint in West London. One thing is guaranteed though, it won’t be easy for United at the Community Stadium.

Monza vs. Torino

James Horncastle has detailed in great length the summer of turmoil that has enveloped Torino and their manager Ivan Juric, but in truth Il Toro are simply the guests at what is expected to big be one of the biggest parties of the opening weekend in Serie A. Yes everyone, Silvio Berlusconi is back!

Monza make their Serie A debut at home, bankrolled by Berlusconi, with partner-in-crime Adriano Galliani in tow as CEO. While recreating the glory of the Milan era seems like pure fantasy, Italy’s former prime minister has wasted no time in stating that the ambition for Monza is to be in Europe soon, that too in the Champions League. Surely a period of consolidation first awaits and coach Giovanni Stroppa has a decent mix of Serie A veterans and well-scouted youngsters that should at least stave off relegation. If they can get Stefano Sensi fit on his loan from Inter, then a position between 10th and 14th shouldn’t be out of the question. Either way Saturday promises to be just the beginning of what is bound to be an entertaining ride.

Barca vs. Rayo

Let’s face it, for most of us the real intrigue in this game is how many of their new signings will Barcelona be able to register for their league debut, if any at all. Joan Laporta’s exorbitant summer spending spree has been in equal parts a source of frustration, envy, anger and outright laughter amongst the hierarchies and fanbases of Europe’s other big clubs. How it all plays out on the pitch is anyone’s guess.

Speaking of things on the pitch, Barca actually lost to Rayo home and away last season, an embarrassing double, the first of which cost Ronald Koeman his job and the second of which highlighted the scale of the task that Xavi faces at the Camp Nou. For all the drama of the summer, Xavi needs his men to do the talking on the pitch straightaway, regardless of the composition of his playing even this weekend.

Bayern vs. Wolfsburg

Considering how Bayern obliterated a fellow Champions League team away from home on the opening weekend, this contest appears a complete mismatch. There is the Niko Kovac factor however, the Croatian manager who proved that simply winning is never enough at Bayern, when he was fired midway through his second season in charge as the fans were simply uninspired by his style of football. To his credit, Kovac redeemed himself by getting an exciting Monaco side to the brink of the Ligue 1 title in 2021 before being unfairly sacked, again midway through his second season at a club. 

The problem for Kovac and his new Wolfsburg side is that Julian Nagelsmann has already got his Bayern team purring, playing in a new expressive 4-2-2-2, with mobility and interchanging positions at the core of his approach. Sadio Mane has already linked up well with fellow attackers Serge Gnabry and the ageless Thomas Muller, but at the heart of everything good in attack has been 19-year old Jamal Musiala, who’s been pulling the strings and knitting all their moves together. It’s hard to see anything other than another dominant Bayern win, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining.

Chelsea vs. Spurs

Undoubtedly, the big game of the weekend. It’s a passionate London derby between two supporter bases that can’t stand each other. It’s Thomas Tuchel vs. Antonio Conte. It’s Kane, Son and Kulasevski against Silva, Koulibaly and Azpilicueta. It’s Havertz and Sterling against Dier and Davies. Ok, the last one is definitely a bit of a stretch.

The simple fact is this game doesn’t need a lot of selling. The quality of the men in the dugout combined with that of the men on the pitch makes this compulsory viewing. Spurs were swashbuckling on the opening weekend, combining relentless energy off the ball with a mixture of intricate and direct play in possession. Chelsea on the other hand, were rather more staid, trying to settle into a new mode of attack for the third consecutive season, as they relied on a penalty to win at Goodison Park.

Many, including myself, believe that Spurs will finish above Chelsea this season, their ascendancy outlined by a demanding manager who excepts nothing below the best from his men. Stamford Bridge provides an opportunity to lay down an early season marker. That being said, it was at Chelsea, that Conte’s first bubble at Spurs was burst, initially in the EFL Cup semifinal, and then with a nondescript performance in the league. One can simply never write Chelsea off when they are playing Tottenham. Let’s hope for a classic battle when these two rivals face off on Sunday.

Salernitana vs. Roma

My last selection of the weekend is for the dreamers amongst us. The denizens of Salerno got their dream by arriving in Serie A last season thanks to the largesse of Claudio Lotito, but turmoil took over soon enough, as the league rightfully didn’t allow the Lazio owner to have two clubs in the division. A protracted sale threatened to turn their season into a nightmare, before serial survival specialist Davide Nicola came in and led his men to safety just in the brink of time. For once, this season, we get to see what Nicola can do from the start of a season.

But you want dreams, nobody can top this summer when it comes to selling dreams than AS Roma. Take the unveiling of Gini Wijnaldum.  Then have a look at the unveiling of Paulo Dybala. This is a fanbase that’s energized and fully committed to their club’s ambition. Jose Mourinho may have invited scorn for his celebrations on leading Roma to win the first ever Europa Conference League, but ultimately it is the fans that measure success on their terms and that win over Feyenoord in Tirana meant a lot to a fanbase who haven’t won much in their recent history.

All of my football logic says that Dybala under Mourinho simply won’t work. He is probably not going to authorize Wijnaldum to cross the halfway line more than three times in a game. But whatever the idiosyncrasies of Mourinho’s tactics maybe, I can’t deny that the last three months of last season were the best atmospheres I have ever seen at the Stadio Olimpico. Mourinho is bound to give us plenty to quibble about as the season goes on, but before even a ball is kicked, why should we rain on an excited fanbase’s parade? Let the dreaming begin.

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