As we approach the halfway point of the season, the pressure is mounting at the top end of leagues all across Europe. Teams will be looking to finish 2016 on a high note, but to do so they will have to overcome tough opponents. There are plenty of exciting big games and unpredictable fixtures taking place all over the continent and here are my picks for the matches to follow this football weekend.
Friday, December 16th
Hoffenheim vs Borussia Dortmund (4th vs 6th in the Bundesliga)
Saturday, December 17th
RB Leipzig vs Hertha Berlin (2nd vs 3rd in the Bundesliga)
Atletico Madrid vs Las Palmas (6th vs 10th in La Liga)
Guingamp vs Paris Saint-Germain (6th vs 3rd in Ligue 1. Guingamp manager Antoine Kombouaré will be looking to prove a point against his former employers)
AC Milan vs Atalanta (3rd vs 6th in Serie A)
Oostende vs Zulte-Waregem (4th vs 1st in a clash of Belgium’s most surprising teams)
West Bromwich Albion vs Manchester United (7th vs 6th in the Premier League)
Juventus vs Roma (1st vs 2nd in Serie A)
Sunday, December 18th
Bournemouth vs Southampton (10th vs 9th in the Premier League’s south coast derby)
Napoli vs Torino (4th vs 8th in a match between Serie A’s third-highest scoring teams)
Ajax vs PSV Eindhoven (2nd vs 3rd in the Eredivisie’s biggest rivalry)
Manchester City vs Arsenal (4th vs 3rd in the Premier League)
Barcelona vs Espanyol (2nd vs 9th in La Liga’s Catalan derby)
Lazio vs Fiorentina (5th vs 7th in Serie A)
Monaco vs Lyon (2nd vs 4th in Ligue 1)
Sporting Lisbon vs Braga (3rd vs 4th in the Primeira Liga)
Monday, December 19th
Everton vs Liverpool (8th vs 2nd in the Premier League’s Merseyside Derby)
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.
Such is the relentless pace of the European football calendar that we’ve barely had enough time to savour the return of continental competition and another round of tantalizing domestic league competition is upon us. There are some great matches to look forward to across the continent and these are my picks for the games to watch this football weekend.
Friday September 16
Sampdoria vs AC Milan
Vincenzo Montella returns to the Luigi Ferraris as manager of AC Milan in what is surely going to be a contentious game in a feisty atmosphere. Montella’s reign as manager of Sampdoria was tumultuous at best and the early indications are that his reign at the helm of the Rossoneri won’t be smooth either.
Meanwhile Sampdoria have gotten off to a great start under the canny management of Marco Giampaolo. With Luis Muriel firing on all cylinders, Sampdoria won their first two fixtures and look set to get maximum points against Roma last weekend before mother nature intervened and changed the momentum of the match.
Samp will be keen to get one over their former manager, while Montella will want to get a positive result or the pressure will increase a few notches with an already disillusioned fanbase in Milan.
Chelsea vs Liverpool
Mourinho vs Guardiola last weekend, Conte vs Klopp this weekend. This is the season that just gives when it comes to managerial battles in the Premier League. Both teams come into the game with a mixture of positives and questions from their performances in the league so far.
Chelsea have looked focused, though not always inspired. Ironically, when they played some of their best football at Swansea last weekend, they contrived to lose two points thanks to some shaky defending and refereeing incompetence.
Shaky defending is something Liverpool are familiar with, having conceded 7 goals already. The Reds are purring in attack however, and look set to thrill fans regardless of consistency.
Under Klopp Liverpool have saved their best for big games such as these. On the other hand, Conte loves to prepare tactics and ideas for big opponents as well. How this one turns out is anyone’s guess.
Saturday September 17
Hoffenheim vs Wolfsburg
Hoffenheim have started the Bundesliga season as the great entertainers, scoring six and conceding the same amount. As if having 29-year old manager Julian Nagelsmann wasn’t a story in itself, Hoffenheim were the first opponents for the Bundesliga’s newest and most hated team, RB Leipzig. They conceded a late equalizer to draw that match 2-2 and followed it up with an absolutely mental game at Mainz. Nagelsmann’s men were torn to shreds trailing 4-1 at the half, only to come back and tie the game with three goals after the 70th minute.
Wolfsburg were tipped by many to struggle this year after last season’s very disappointing campaign. However, Dieter Hecking’s men have been steady so far with four points from the first two games. It’s highly unlikely that the Wolves will reach the heights of their memorable 2014-15 season, but with Julian Draxler, Mario Gomez, Luiz Gustavo, Ricardo Rodriguez and Jakub Blaszczykowski in the side, there is enough in this squad to keep a football fan excited.
It will be interesting to see who comes out on top in this battle between the youngest manager and an elder statesman of the Bundesliga.
Sunday September 18
Feyenoord vs PSV Eindhoven
It’s a game that is pencilled into the calendars as soon as the Eredivisie fixtures are released. The fact that is also a clash of table-toppers adds an extra layer of intrigue to the occasion. Feyenoord have fallen away in the last decade in comparison to PSV and Ajax, but there is finally a sense of upward momentum since the team from Rotterdam won the KNVB Beker last season.
Feyenoord have started the season in blazing fashion with five wins out of five and carried that momentum into the Europa League, where their campaign kicked off with a fantastic win over Manchester United. PSV had a less celebratory week in Europe as once again penalty woes against Atletico Madrid cost them. Nevertheless, nothing can soothe those wounds better than a home win over Feyenoord and jumping over their rivals into top spot. I just can’t wait for kickoff in this one!
Athletic Bilbao vs Valencia
Memories of last season’s tempestuous Europa League round of 16 match are still fresh in the minds of both sets of fans. Neither team have started the season well. Valencia have lost all three La Liga games so far, including two losses at home. Athletic at least got off the mark last weekend thanks to a stunning goal from Raul Garcia at the Riazor, but they then followed it up with a humiliating 3-0 defeat to European debutants Sassuolo in the Europa League.
Nothing I have seen from these two in the season so far would suggest a free-flowing classic, but the animosity and pressure make this a high-stakes game.
Hertha Berlin vs Schalke 04
One team comes into this game with maximum points, behind Bayern Munich only on goal difference, while the other has yet to open its account. Many would assume that Schalke would be the former and Hertha the latter. In stead, the Berlin side have continued their fine form from last season, thanks in large part to the creativity and energy of Genki Haraguchi allied with the defensive shape and discipline of manager Pal Dardai.
Schalke would like to believe that they have a talismanic manager in their own right in Markus Weinzerl. Though the new era hasn’t got off to the greatest of starts, it should be pointed out that one of the losses was against Bayern Munich in what was actually the Royal Blues’ best performance in a big match after a long time.
Results however, are the only currency that matter. An away trip to the capital is no easy feat, but it will be intriguing to see how the attacking talents of Yevhen Konoplyanka, Max Meyer, Breel Embolo and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar match up against Dardai’s organized and intelligent defensive unit.
Inter vs Juventus
The stature of this fixture may be diminished for some in light of Inter’s recent struggles. However, the Derby d’Italia is still a marquee match for many football fans and this occasion won’t be any different.
Juve continue to operate like clockwork in Serie A. The loss of Paul Pogba has been offset by the goals of Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic is just getting warmed up. The Old Lady did however hit a road block against Jorge Sampaoli’s organized Sevilla team in the Champions League.
While that was considered a disappointment by many in Italy, it pales in comparison to Inter’s shambolic loss at the San Siro to Hapoel Be’er Sheva in the opening game of their Europa League campaign. The knives are already out for new manager Frank de Boer, despite the fact that he was hired only a week before the new season started. A positive result at home to Juve would certainly buy him some time.
While Juve are clearly the favourites, the Nerazzuri will have a point to prove. Make sure to watch the battle between the two orchestrators – Pjanic and Ever Banega, while also keeping an eye out on the intelligent runners – Sami Khedira and Joao Mario. Then of course, there are the Argentinean forwards going against each other, Dybala and Higuain for Juve, Icardi for the home side. Need I say more?!
Fiorentina vs Roma
Another Serie A game between two teams that underwhelmed in Europe. Clashes between these two rarely disappoint thanks to their commitment to playing attacking technical football. Outside of the calamity that was the Champions League playoff, Luciano Spalletti’s men have actually started quite well in Serie A with seven points so far.
La Viola had their matched rained off last weekend, and hence, should be fitter in this contest. However, Paulo Sousa is another manager who is starting to feel the pressure as Fiorentina have failed to push on in 2016. The Portuguese will hope for the crowd at the Artemi Franchi to give his players full backing in what is bound to be a tough assignment.
Watch this match for the quality of passing and attacking, but more importantly, watch it for Francesco Totti, who continues to defy time by delivering peerless performances from the bench.
Marseille vs Lyon
In an ideal world this would be a top of the table clash between two of PSG’s most viable challengers. In stead, the clash of the Olympiques sees two inconsistent teams who are still trying to sort themselves. The 2014-15 season when they ran PSG so close now seems like an eternity ago.
Nevertheless, before QSI set up shop in Paris, this was the big match in Ligue 1 and for fans of both teams they aren’t many games that are bigger. Both sides conceded three goals last weekend and everything suggests there will be defensive jitters in this game as well. Combine that with the attacking prowess of Cornet, Ghezzal, Tolisso, Gomis, Thauvin and Cabella, and we should get to see an entertainer.
Monday, September 19
Braga vs Benfica
If there is one team in Portugal that manages to make a dent amongst the big three of Benfica, Sporting and Porto, it is Braga. The 2011 Europa League finalists are playing some good football, following on from their cup win to end last season.
Despite being unbeaten so far, Benfica are still to hit the high notes from last season. However, Rui Vitoria’s men live for the big games, and an early season test welcoming a Braga side that are ahead of the Eagles only on goal difference should get the juices flowing at the Stadium of Light. Throw in to the mix Benfica’s purchase of Rafa Silva from Braga and there’s bound to be plenty of intensity and animosity in this top of the table clash. The Estádio da Luz will be the place to be on Monday night!