This Football Weekend

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!

Celta Vigo 1 Sevilla 1

The second game in this week’s triple-header between Celta Vigo and Sevilla finished in a thrilling 1-1 draw. How Sevilla managed to escape with a draw is anyone’s guess. The home side battered their opponents especially since Federico Fazio’s sending off in the 25th minute, but their poor finishing combined with some heroic last-ditch defending from the visitors meant only one point in stead of three.

In the grand scheme of things, a point didn’t do much for either team. Sevilla stretched their unbeaten streak in the league to five games, however they are yet to have an away win this season. Such poor returns on the road make it unlikely for Unai Emery’s men to make up the eight-point deficit to Villarreal in the last Champions League spot.

Meanwhile, Celta are outside the European spots on the basis of goal difference and their limited squad makes it difficult to see them overtaking either Sevilla or Athletic Bilbao. However, a season of promise can still finish well. If Claudio Beauvue’s finish was anything to go by, the Galician team might just have one of the most exciting attacking trios in the league once Nolito returns to the playing eleven. Nolito, Beauvue and the underrated Iago Aspas can be a handful against most defences in the league.

Attention now turns to the final instalment of this trilogy on Thursday. Sevilla should easily navigate the Copa Del Rey semifinal after their 4-0 win at home in the first leg. Nevertheless, with the non-stop attacking football we have seen in the two matches between these teams so far and with a Celta Vigo side with nothing to lose, hopes are we’ll see another crazy end-to-end game in the second leg.

Athletic Bilbao 0 Villarreal 0

The sixth place team in La Liga hosting the fourth place team. One expected fireworks. In stead we got an anti-climax of a game. The onus was on Athletic to take the game to Villarreal. The home side needed a win to make the race for the last Champions League spot somewhat interesting. In stead, after this stalemate, Villarreal have a 10-point lead over Bilbao with 15 games remaining. In a league where away wins are still difficult, that is a substantial gap.

The Yellow Submarines will be happy with the point. Marcelino Garcia Toral’s men seemed to have learnt some important lessons from last season. They were well in the mix for fourth spot last season, but some soft defeats derailed that bid. This season, Villarreal may not score much, but they have certainly become tougher to beat, both, at home and on the road. The only concern that Garcia Toral will have is the injury to Mateo Musacchio. With Eric Bailly also currently sidelined, Villarreal will hope that their Argentine centre back is not seriously hurt. If most of the first team manages to stay fit, Villarreal should navigate their remaining fixtures while retaining that all-important fourth spot.

Atletico Madrid 3 Eibar 1

In most La Liga seasons this matchup would be considered a gimme for Atletico Madrid. However, this Eibar team are a different beast altogether. The Basque team made Diego Simeone’s men sweat for the three points and ultimately the result was decided on the prowess of Koke’s set piece delivery.

The three points were crucial for Los Colchoneros, enabling them to stay in the hunt for the title. While that is the most important outcome of the match, two other aspects of the game stand out.

The first is that Saul Niguez started as centre back, covering for the suspended Diego Godin. This obviously speaks volumes about the versatility that the young Spaniard has. In his nascent career, the 21-year old Spaniard has been touted at various different times as an attacking midfielder, playmaker or false nine. Now, we can add centre back to his skill set. What this also tells us is that there may be no better manager in the world than Simeone when it comes to driving defensive discipline in his players. The romantics, including this writer, may ponder how attractive Atleti could be if their manager allowed his players to express themselves with a few more risky through balls or dribbles in a tight area. Simeone however, will rightly point out that the Rojiblancos have never had it this good. Intensity, focus and efficiency have resulted in unprecedented success for the club. That Simeone can mould all his players — veterans, superstars and youngsters — to his desired template is of immense credit to the Argentinian.

The other noteworthy aspect of the game is something that could ultimately come to restrict Atletico in the big games. Even against an opponent that chose to sit back, the home side only managed 50 % of the possession. Possession of course, isn’t everything in football. However, it does suggest that for all his attention to detail, Simeone has not been able to come up with a solid plan B. Recent results against Barcelona and Real suggest the traditional top two have become used to Simeone’s nuances and Atleti could face similar troubles against the continent’s established elite in the Champions League. While their willpower, physical fitness and desire to win can never be discounted, a little tactical variety and flair could enable Atleti to dream of even bigger things.