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 Weekend

There’s some great action as another football weekend dawns upon us. Here are 10 matches in Europe that should be really exciting.

Saturday October 1

1. Bayern Munich vs FC Cologne

A match between first and third in the Bundesliga. Not many would have written that sentence with FC Cologne in mind. Like Bayern, Cologne are undefeated in the Bundesliga this season. While not many domestic rivals can dream of points at the Allianz Arena, Peter Stöger’s Billy Goats will go in to this match with nothing to lose against a Bayern side that have been below their best in recent weeks. An interesting tactical battle awaits.

2. Paris Saint-Germain vs Bordeaux

The pressure is on Unai Emery as PSG continue to bumble through the opening phase of the season, both domestically and on the continent. While they still remain clear favourites for the title, the champions are clearly struggling to find the fluidity they had under Laurent Blanc. In the opposite dugout, Jocelyn Gourvennec has had a positive impact at Bordeaux, though they are prone to concede just like the entertaining Guingamp side he managed before moving in the summer. Only goal difference separates the two sides. This used to be a marquee fixture and the sense is Bordeaux are moving in a direction to make it so again. A game at the Parc des Princes that should challenge the champions.

3. Bayer Leverkusen vs Borussia Dortmund

The clash between two of Germany’s Champions League regulars is always a must-see game. This season’s first meeting between Leverkusen and Dortmund should be a marker for the club’s seasons. While Dortmund are the superior team at the moment, Leverkusen will want to make a statement as their campaign hasn’t really kicked off. Dortmund have so many options in attack, but their defence will always give the opposition a chance. Funnily enough, the same can be said about Leverkusen. This game really should have a lot of goals.

Sunday October 2

4. Valencia vs Atletico Madrid

While Valencia may be struggling at the bottom end of the table, hosting Atleti is always a big deal at the Mestalla. There is some optimism building up for the hosts after two consecutive wins and the news of Cesare Prandelli taking over. The Italian won’t be in the dugout for this one, but the players will be keen to make a good impression. Atletico come into the game having found form, with the victory over Bayern displaying all the hallmarks of a great Diego Simeone performance. Expect this one to be tight, cagey and feisty.

5. Tottenham vs Manchester City

Second vs First. Mauricio Pochettino vs Pep Guardiola. Tottenham vs Manchester City. The best defence vs the best attack. This fixture has provided lots of entertainment and drama in the last five years and with two excellent managers at the helm, there is even more reason to be excited this time around. Will Tottenham be the first team to take something off City in the Premier League? Can City break through the league’s best defence without Kevin De Bruyne? Will Pochettino’s pressing tactics ruffle Guardiola’s high line? So many questions to be answered and so much excellent talent on the field. I can’t wait for this one to kick off at White Hart Lane.

6. Real Madrid vs Eibar

After three consecutive draws, Real Madrid will be looking for a win this weekend to get their momentum back. The problem that Zinedine Zidane faces is that Eibar are going to be no walkover. The Basque side continue to confound expectations as they sit in eighth place. Despite losing leading scorer Borja Baston in the off-season, Jose Luis Mendilibar has found goals in his team, including from other team’s cast-offs like Bebe and Pedro Leon. The best thing about Eibar is that even on the road, they won’t hesitate to attack, which should result in a cracker at the Bernabéu.

7. Schalke 04 vs Borussia Mönchengladbach

This is usually a match that has ramifications for the race to the Champions League, but this time around Schalke welcome Gladbach to Gelsenkirchen with the hopes of getting their first point or win of the domestic season. Paradoxically, Schalke have won both their games in Europe, while the visitors have lost both of theirs. André Schubert’s men are not the best of travellers, so this is a great opportunity for the hosts to get off the mark and release some of the pressure on Markus Weinzierl. Expect goals in another game featuring creaky defences.

8. Standard Liege vs Anderlecht

This is currently Belgium’s biggest and most intense rivalry. The stakes are higher this time as the teams sit on second and third at the moment, separated only by goal difference. Both will want a win to catch surprise leaders Zulte-Waregem. Les Rouches will depend on their stingy defence to thwart the visitors prolific attack. Tension abounds in what is likely to be an acrimonious atmosphere.

9. Roma vs Inter

Two of Serie A’s titans go in to this game still seeking consistency. As is typical with Roma, there have been flashes of play where they have been irresistible going forward but at the same time almost comedic in defence. Meanwhile, Frank de Boer has shown green shoots of recovery with some promising results, but two horrible performances in the Europa League have undermined the progress. There have been plenty of classics between these two and with Francesco Totti still setting up chances and scoring at the age of 40, we should get to see some moments of genuine quality in this battle of big-hitters in Rome.

10. Lyon vs Saint-Étienne

The Derby Rhonealpin is one of the must-watch games of the French football calendar. Usually this match is about local bragging rights, but currently Les Verts are ahead of Lyon in the table. Bruno Genesio’s men have tailed off after an impressive start, with recent outings reminiscent of last season’s disjointed performances. Scoring against Christophe Galtier’s defence is a tough ask, and given Lyon’s problems up front, it is not inconceivable for Saint-Étienne to cause an upset. This match should be played out in a cracking atmosphere.

This Football Weekend

Another bumper weekend of football action is upon us. Here are the 10 most interesting matches to look forward to.
Saturday September 24
1. Manchester United vs Leicester City
The point that won the championship for Leicester last season. Then there is Mourinho vs Ranieri. When it comes to the football, this match should enable us to get a clear picture of where these squads lie and somewhat determine their realistic aims for the season.
2. Eintracht Frankfurt vs Hertha Berlin
Fourth vs Fifth in the Bundesliga. While it’s unlikely that these two will hold their current positions, both clubs have played some quality football so far, which should make for a good watch.
3. Arsenal vs Chelsea
Contrary to the vibes in pre-season, Arsenal come into this game looking more settled than Chelsea. Will the wise head of Wenger prevail against the new energy of Conte? A fascinating watch awaits in this London Derby!
4. Athletic Bilbao vs Sevilla
Their Europa League quarterfinal last season was a classic. Emotions from that tie linger. Athletic are finding their form while Sevilla are second in the table. Will the Basque side get their revenge? Will the side from Andalusia finally get an away win??
5. Besiktas vs Galatasaray
The Istanbul Derby needs no introduction. The stakes are high this time around, as the two rivals are unbeaten and on the same points, with only goal difference keeping the hosts ahead in second.
6. Las Palmas vs Real Madrid
The team from the Canary Islands have been a revelation in 2016. This was one of Zinedine Zidane’s toughest away matches in his first campaign. Should be a close match again as both teams look to move on from disappointing midweek results.
7. Napoli vs Chievo
Napoli underwhelmed in their goalless draw at Genoa, but will look to get back on track against Serie A’s surprise team so far in Chievo. The intricate passing of Marek Hamsik and Valter Birsa should be a delight to watch as they try to give their teams the advantage.
Sunday September 25
8. Hoffenheim vs Schalke 04
Four games and four draws for Hoffenheim. Four games and four losses for Schalke 04. Both teams are desperate for their first win. Nagelsmann and Weinzierl are under pressure and something has to give! Nerves will play a part, but expect goals the way these two defences have operated so far.
9. Cologne vs RB Leipzig
Peter Stoger’s men are second in the table, playing some excellent football as witnessed in their midweek win at Schalke. The Leipzig momentum had a bit of a stutter as a result of their home draw in midweek. Nevertheless, a chance to join their hosts at the higher end of the table should make for an exciting match between two counter attacking teams led by understated managers.
10. Fiorentina vs AC Milan
This is always one of Serie A’s must see fixtures and it should be no different this time. Milan are finding some form after two wins and two clean sheets, while La Viola need a win to join the race for Europe. The Artemio Franchi is always bouncing and never more so, than when one of the big teams visit. Should be a cracker!

Football Today

Wednesday is another big day in the European football calendar. While Barcelona hosting Atletico is the big match, we also have table-topping clashes in the Bundesliga and Ligue 1, Real chasing a record and other football treats. Here is a look at six of the best fixtures today.

Nice vs Monaco

While Lyon and Marseille continue to stutter and stumble their way to a second successive season of underperformance, the French Riviera clubs have taken on the mantle of providing PSG with some semblance of a challenge for the league title.

The Derby de la Côte d’Azur is often intense, but the stakes have rarely been higher. Win, and in addition to local bragging rights, fans also get to see their team top of the table. Factor in two excellent tacticians in Lucien Favre and Leonardo Jardim at the helm of both sides, and we really should be getting a high quality encounter.

Monaco have already played some delightful football this season. Over the course of the last two seasons we have learnt that Jardim is an excellent organizer of defences. This year we are starting to see signs of evolution in attack as the Monégasques have consistently found the back of the net. Their results so far include a 3-1 win over PSG and away wins in the Champions League against Tottenham and Villarreal. Even Radamel Falcao has got in amongst the goals.

Nice have transitioned nicely from Claude Puel to Favre. The Swiss manager is known for organizing his teams in a compact manner and so far we have seen no different on the south coast. Interestingly, Favre signed two mavericks on transfer deadline day in Mario Balotelli and Younes Belhanda, and the pair have already delivered. Balotelli scored a brace on debut against close rivals Marseille, while Belhanda popped up with a late equalizer in the weekend clash away to Montpellier.

Many neutrals thought Nice played the better football last season, but ultimately Monaco’s experience and nous saw them qualify for the Champions League playoffs ahead of their rivals, pipping them to the post by just two points. While a run at the championship is surely unsustainable for both clubs, this game should serve as a barometer for their ambitions to finish in the top three. Roll on Falcao, Balotelli, Belhanda and Bernardo Silva. It should be a derby to savour!

Real Madrid vs Villarreal

It’s not often that records are broken this early in the football season, but such has been the consistency of Real Madrid since Zinedine Zidane has taken over, that the Merengues are one win away from topping the streak of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

After finishing last season with a remarkable run of 12 straight victories, Real have started this campaign in fine form, claiming maximum points from their first four fixtures. Another win against Villarreal will give them the Spanish record for most consecutive victories. Zidane’s success has been based on two fundamentals – a) camouflage the deficiencies of the team with astute tactics and b) use the bench and maximize the talents of the youngsters. This has been prevalent especially in this nascent season as the famed BBC struggle with fitness issues. The likes of Asensio, Vazquez and Morata have stepped in and not missed a beat. A lot of the credit has to go to the man-management skills of Zidane.

A win at home would be an early season crowning moment at the Bernabéu, but this can’t be taken for granted against a Villarreal side that are also unbeaten in La Liga. Fran Escribá had a rocky start at the helm of the Yellow Submarines, with defeat in the Champions League playoffs a particularly tough pill to swallow. However, slowly, the confidence is coming back, coinciding with the return from injury of a few key players. Nicola Sansone has started winning hearts, especially after his terrific goal on the weekend from the halfway line, while the back four of Mario, Musacchio, Ruiz and Costa is together again for the first time this season.

I always enjoy watching Villarreal’s matches against the top three as their intricate passing style combined with solidity at the back makes them a tough opponent. This match should be no different, and with the anticipation of a new record, it should only make it more exciting.

Bayern Munich vs Hertha Berlin

As far as table-toppers go, you won’t get to see as disparate a pair as Bayern Munich and Hertha Berlin. While Bayern would rightly be expected to have maximum points from their opening three Bundesliga games, the side from the capital would be perfectly content with a spot in mid table. In stead Pal Dardai’s men have started the season in the same committed and determined mood as last season.

This writer thought Hertha would have a psychological hangover from last season when qualification for the Champions League seemed well within their grasp, only to collapse in the last three months of the campaign. That they have in stead, started so well out of the blocks this season, speaks well of Dardai’s powers of persuasion and the sense of loyalty instilled in the players. The defence gets most of the plaudits, but the attacking trident of Mitchell Weiser, Vladimir Darida and Genki Haraguchi are under-estimated at their opponents peril.

Bayern have moved smoothy from Pep Guardiola to Carlo Ancelotti and the champions should have too much in their arsenal for the visitors. That being said, there were signs of laziness in the last home game against Ingolstadt that could easily be punished by Hertha if that complacency is repeated.

It’s probably not going to be a table-topping clash when the reverse fixtures come around in the second half of the season, but for now Bayern vs Hertha should turn out to be a good match between the two form teams of the Bundesliga.

RB Leipzig vs Borussia Mönchengladbach

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Bundesliga’s newest and most hated team were expected to struggle at the highest echelon of German football. In stead RB Leipzig have adapted seamlessly to life in the top flight, with an impressive seven points out of nine. A late equalizer against Hoffenheim was followed up by an excellent 1-0 win over Dortmund, before a masterclass in counter-attacking saw them thrash Hamburg 4-0 away from home.

Leipzig will be looking to win their second home against another Borussia, this time in the form of André Schubert’s entertaining Gladbach side. Home or away, Schubert only knows how to play on the front foot. It is no surprise that the Foals have won both their home matches while losing their away games. Their enterprising play has led to seven goals, but on the flip side, the gaps at the back have led to five goals already being conceded.

Ralph Hasenhüttl will surely look to exploit Gladbach’s defensive fallibility with the speed of his players on the break and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the newcomers pull off another win against one of Germany’s storied clubs in front of what will surely be a raucous home crowd. Expect goals and chances galore in this one.

Schalke vs Cologne

The arrival of Markus Weinzierl and Christian Heidel as manager and director of football respectively was meant to herald the arrival of a new era at Schalke 04. Three games into the domestic season and Schalke have yet to open their account, neither in points on the table nor goals scored. For my money, I think Weinzierl is an excellent choice as manager and will get things right, provided he gets the time. However, time is not a commodity afforded to many in the world of football, even less so in the world of Schalke 04. This is already a must win game for Weinzierl.

On the other side of the dugout is Peter Stöger, who in his own unfancied way has led Cologne to seven points with the side yet to concede a goal. Ironically, they boast a goal difference that is the exact opposite of their hosts – five scored and none conceded. A compact shape and a consistent poacher in the form of Anthony Modeste is the basis of Stöger’s success. Sometimes it really is that simple.

While a loss would not do much damage to Cologne, the itchy trigger will definitely be closer for Weinzierl if the home side lose. Will the likes of Embolo, Konoplyanka, Meyer and Huntelaar finally fire for Schalke or will Modeste dig Weinzierl into a deeper hole? The pressure is on in this one!

Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid

The title alone whets the appetite! Then there’s the history. Barcelona have won the last four meetings in the league, but Atletico have knocked out Barcelona the last two times they came to head-to-head in the Champions League. Then there’s the animosity between the players and the sheer intensity of last season’s continental meeting that is still so fresh in the minds of players and fans alike. Whisper it, whisper it very quietly, but the intensity and quality of this matchup in the last three years has even superseded that of El Clasico.

Atleti started the season with two frustrating draws. Frustrating not only because the two opponents were newly promoted teams, but also frustrating because Diego Simeone deferred a little too easily to pragmatism when a little adventure was needed. In their last two matches however, Simeone has released the shackles. Koke and Saul have played as central midfielders, with Nicolás Gáitan and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco providing and supporting the French pair of Antoine Griezmann and Kévin Gameiro. The result was nine goals without answer in two games. That being said, only the wilfully optimistic would expect Simeone to throw caution to the wind at the Camp Nou.

With Neymar at the Olympics and Messi not at full fitness, it took a while for the famed MSN trio to be together this season. In their absence, Barcelona even contrived to lose at home to Alaves, in turn making Atletico’s draw against the Basque team look like a point gained after all. Nevertheless, since the return of Messi, Suarez and Neymar as Barca’s attacking trident, the Blaugrana have been irresistible, scoring 12 goals in two games.

It’s fair to say that it is highly unlikely that either team will keep pace with their scoring average in this fixture. That only makes the game even more meaningful. While we all marvel at the scoring feats of Messi, Suarez and Neymar and appreciate the relentless pressing and defensive discipline of Diego Godin, José Giminez and Gabi on a weekly basis, it is when attack and defence go against each other at their supreme best, that the true joy of watching football is appreciated. Simeone and Luis Enrique will have their say and it’s likely that someone amongst the 22 players on the pitch will be most decisive, but ultimately this match, with its battles all over the pitch, should be a festival for all football fans.

Football Today

The football calendar rolls on with more action in the middle of the week after another thoroughly entertaining weekend of goals and upsets. Here are my picks for the matches that you should keep an eye on today.

Wolfsburg vs Borussia Dortmund

Not many teams in the upper echelons of European football win matches 6-0, let alone twice consecutively across the Champions League and their domestic league. That’s precisely what Dortmund have done this past week in dispatching Legia Warsaw and SV Darmstadt. Most encouragingly for Thomas Tuchel, the twin thrashings featured excellent performances by the club’s youngsters – both, newcomers and academy graduates. The likes of Raphael Guerreiro, 22, Julian Weigl, 21, Ousmane Dembélé, 19, Emre Mor, 19, and Christian Pulisic, 18, put in sparkling displays as Dortmund pulled their opponents apart.

Wolfsburg though, are a different class of opponent. The Wolves have yet to concede a goal in the new Bundesliga campaign, as the defence has automatically improved with the departure of Dante. Up front however, they have scored only two goals, this despite Mario Gomez and Julian Draxler missing a host opportunities in the last match against Hoffenheim.

Last season this fixture was a tremendous match that was decided in favour of the visitors thanks to an injury time winner by Shinji Kagawa. We’ll be in for a treat if we get half as good a match this time around.

AC Milan vs Lazio

Two of Italy’s historic clubs have already participated in entertaining matches in this nascent season. Games featuring have AC Milan and Lazio have seen 13 goals each in just four rounds of action. Lazio have regained their attacking verve under the tutelage of Simone Inzaghi, with Felipe Anderson in particular displaying the form that made him a hot property in the 2014-15 season.

Meanwhile Vincenzo Montella still hasn’t got all the parts moving together at the San Siro, with the defence still vulnerable to soft goals. However, with a striker like Carlos Bacca, Milan can win matches without even playing reasonably well, as was witnessed in their 1-0 win over Sampdoria on the weekend. Whether that will be enough against a fluid Lazio attack remains to be seen.

Leicester City vs Chelsea

On their list of priorities for the season, I doubt Claudio Ranieri and Antonio Conte have winning the League Cup EFL Cup at the top. Nevertheless, there is a fair amount of intrigue around the marquee tie of the round. Will Ranieri actually make a better fist of cup competitions this time around as league success is unlikely to be replicated? Will Conte rotate his first eleven and give some of his bench players a chance to stake a claim after two disappointing league results? These and many other questions will be answered in what is bound to be a cracking cup tie at the King Power Stadium.

Sevilla vs Real Betis

The Derbi Sevillano is always must-watch football. The two hated rivals face off at the Sanchez Pijuan and adding to the occasion is the presence of two new South American faces in the dugout.

Jorge Sampaoli has brought his brand of pressing to the Europa League winners, resulting in an unbeaten start, though Sevilla have yet to cure their away day hex in the Liga. Sampaoli has shown that he is a versatile tactician. At times, Los Rojiblancos have been irresistible going forward with as many as six attackers on the pitch, as witnessed in the crazy season-opening 6-4 win over Espanyol. On the other hand, their stalemate away to Juventus in the Champions League was an exhibition in defending from the front.

Gus Poyet on the other hand has encouraged his men to take the attack to the opposition, although this has led to Betis conceding few too many goals. Veteran striker Rubén Castro continues to belie his age as he racks up the goals and assists. Whether Poyet can come up with a tactical alteration to stifle Sevilla will probably end up being the key factor in the derby.

Sampaoli’s tactical nous and the backing of a vociferous home crowd should see Sevilla take the three points, but anything can happen in a derby, especially with a poacher like Castro in the opposition.