It’s the first of March and it’s time to get the Through Ball back in overdrive with posts, video and audio about my thoughts on the beautiful game!
Along with a site redesign, I am also launching a new podcast today. Have a listen to the prologue below and let me know your thoughts. It’s just a small sample of what’s to come!
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)
European competition has concluded for 2016 and from now until February, the focus will be on domestic football on the continent. This weekend sees some heavyweight clashes across many different leagues. Here are my picks for the games to watch this weekend:
Friday, December 9th
Eintracht Frankfurt vs Hoffenheim (5th vs 4th in the Bundesliga)
Saturday, December 10th
Cologne vs Borussia Dortmund (7th vs 6th in the Bundesliga)
Bordeaux vs Monaco (7th vs 2nd in Ligue 1)
Leicester vs Manchester City (The Premier League Champions in 16th welcome 4th placed City)
Sunday, December 11th
Anderlecht vs Club Brugge (3rd vs 2nd in the Belgian Pro League)
Torino vs Juventus (7th vs 1st in Serie A’s Turin derby)
Manchester United vs Tottenham (6th vs 5th in the Premier League)
Schalke 04 vs Bayer Leverkusen (8th vs 9th, between two of Bundesliga’s European powers)
Benfica vs Sporting (1st vs 2nd in the Primeira Liga)
Paris Saint-Germain vs Nice (3rd vs 1st in Ligue 1)
Monday, December 12th
Villarreal vs Atletico Madrid (6th vs 4th in La Liga)
Roma vs AC Milan (2nd vs 3rd in Serie A)
With no international football until March, the domestic season now enters its most crucial stage. The resumption of club football sees plenty of great fixtures. Here are ten enticing games in Europe this weekend.
Friday, November 18
Bayer Leverkusen vs RB Leipzig
The underachieving hosts welcome the surprise joint leaders of the Bundesliga. Bayer Leverkusen must look at RB Leipzig and wonder why they can’t be at the summit with all the talent in their squad. Roger Schmidt’s men seem to be getting some momentum however, with two wins and a Champions League victory against Spurs before the international break. Despite Leipzig being unbeaten, Leverkusen will always look to dictate the tempo when playing at home. The problem is that Leverkusen have already conceded 15 goals and their attacking system will always give the visitors a chance on the counter. Ralph Hasenhüttl has shown that there aren’t many better exponents of the counter than his team. Expect goals in this one!
Saturday, November 19
Manchester United vs Arsenal
For so long the defining clash of the Premier League era, Manchester United vs Arsenal brings it with new antagonism this time around as Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger lock horns in the Premier League’s early kick off. There is a lot of pressure on Mourinho as United are yet to win against another big team in the league this season. Arsenal have started better, just two points off the top, but have dropped points in their last two home fixtures. Mourinho has never lost to Wenger in the league and despite United’s lack of fluency in the league, Arsenal’s mental demons at Old Trafford present a tough obstacle to overcome. Will the hosts finally kickstart their league campaign or will the visitors lay a marker in the title race? We wait with bated breath for the action to start at Old Trafford.
Borussia Dortmund vs Bayern Munich
The top dogs of the Bundesliga face off in what has become German football’s biggest clash this decade. Thomas Tuchel would ideally have liked to be closer to Bayern in the standings, but a six-point margin is not insurmountable at this point of the campaign. In fact, the hosts have actually scored more goals than the champions so far, but defence has once again been the achilles heel for Dortmund. Injuries have denied Tuchel consistency of selection, but their home record means they always start as favourites. In the other dugout, Carlo Ancelotti has faced difficult questions despite being unbeaten at the top of the league. Bayern have dropped points uncharacteristically and have yet to display the intensity of the Pep Guardiola era. Despite their problems, both Dortmund and Bayern have enough high quality players to make this a memorable match. Both teams need to answer questions. Will Dortmund join the title race or will Bayern pull further away? Tune in to the Signal Iduna Park to find out.
Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid
Another top of the table clash this weekend in which both teams come in to the game facing questions. A month ago the Madrid derby would have featured two teams in full flow playing great football. However, Atleti have lost their last two away fixtures and come in to this game six points behind their rivals. Meanwhile Real have had to deal with a raft of injury problems. First Casemiro, then Luka Modric. Just as Modric returned, Toni Kroos got injured. That’s just the midfield. At the back, both Sergio Ramos and Pepe are currently out. That Real are still leading the league is down to the talismanic form of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. Can Real’s attacking talent breach Atleti’s stingy defence away from home? It’s a tough ask. At the other end of the pitch, will Diego Simeone encourage his players to take more risks against a Real defence missing key players? History would suggest the answer is no. The team that manages to play above itself will likely find the right answers in what is bound to be a cracking atmosphere for the last Madrid derby at the Vicente Calderon.
Sunday, November 20
Zulte Waregem vs Anderlecht
The top two face off in Belgium as surprise leaders Zulte Waregem host Anderlecht. Both teams have scored an equal amount of goals but it is the upstarts tighter defence that has led to a five-point gap at the top. Essevee have played excellent football in this campaign so far, but Anderlecht are Belgium’s most storied club and will come in to town wanting to make a statement and cut the deficit to the top. The hosts will remain in first place even if they lose, but a win against Anderlecht would lay down a marker and put Zulte Waregem in a great position to win their first ever league title. The stakes are high in this crucial table-topping clash.
Atalanta vs Roma
Fifth welcomes second in this match between two teams who have both won five of their last six matches, drawing the other. Seeing AS Roma in such a scenario is no surprise, but Atalanta’s name so high in the table has caught many in the punditocracy off guard. Gian Piero Gasperini’s men are in their lofty place on merit as their good run has included excellent wins over Napoli and Inter. They face their toughest test against Luciano Spalletti’s in-form Roma team. The Giallorossi have been irrepressible going forward, with Mohamed Salah and Edin Dzeko in scintillating form. The league’s highest scorers will need to take their chances if they are to maintain the pressure on Juve. Any complacency on Roma’s part will surely be punished by an Atalanta team looking to add another big scalp to their list of impressive wins this season. Plenty of intrigue in this one.
Guingamp vs Bordeaux
A match of significance for Jocelyn Gourvennec. The astute manager played a vital role in taking Guingamp from provincial anonymity to winning the Coupe de France and a great campaign in the Europa League. He got his just rewards by becoming manager of a historic club like Bordeaux. Bordeaux have shown greater steel than last season, but have still not played particularly fluent football. Meanwhile, Gourvennec’s old club seem to have got better under the intelligent stewardship of Antoine Kombouaré. The former PSG manager has instilled a winning mentality at Guingamp, toughening up the defence while retaining the flair that Gourvennec cultivated. As a result the hosts sit in fourth, four places above their more storied visitors. Will Guingamp pull further clear and put some pressure on their former manager, or will Gourvennec mastermind a win that will put Bordeaux back in the hunt for European football? It should be a fascinating tactical battle between Kombouaré and Gourvennec.
Fenerbahce vs Galatasaray
The biggest Istanbul derby of them all, as Fenerbahce welcome Galatasary for the first Intercontinental Derby of the season. It feels surreal that this match is not at the top of the table, as the two giants of Turkish football are struggling in comparison to the capital’s other sides, Istanbul Basaksehir and Besiktas. After a shaky start to the season, Fener have picked up their form, winning their last three matches in the league and getting a Europa League triumph over Manchester United. Galatasary though, are going in the opposite direction, losing their last two home matches to fall six points off the summit. If Fener win, they’ll have the added bonus of going above their hated rivals and putting Galatasary under greater pressure. This is always one of the most heated fixtures in European football and though neither team is currently in the title race, the stakes remain high in what is bound to be a charged-up atmosphere.
Athletic Bilbao vs Villarreal
Seventh hosts third in this battle between two La Liga teams that always perform above their means. The Basques haven’t won in three games, but are just four points off a Champions League place. They have been banging in the goals at home, but welcome the best defence in the league this weekend. The visitors are flying high in their usual understated fashion. Villarreal will harbour hopes of qualifying for the Champions League again. Coming away unscathed from San Mamés will be crucial in that respect. For Athletic, they’ll be looking to get back to winning ways in front of a crowd that always gets louder when a leading team visits. Should be a gripping game featuring plenty of good players on both sides.
AC Milan vs Inter
The first Derby della Madonnina of the season as both Milan sides go through cultural and playing transitions. As things have turned out so far, the red side of Milan have done better this season thanks to the freshness of youth and the attacking philosophy of manager Vincenzo Montella. The Rossoneri sit pretty in third, in large part down to the contribution of youngsters Gianluigi Donnaruma, Manuel Locatelli, Suso and M’Baye Niang. The defence however remains vulnerable. It is that defensive weakness that Inter’s new manager Stefano Pioli will look to exploit. Inter have had a terrible start to the season, leading to the sacking of Frank de Boer as manager. Even amongst the craziness however, the Nerazzurri have enough quality in their squad to suggest an upturn in fortunes if they are led well. Whether that happens will be down to Pioli and while the pressure of the derby is not ideal, it also presents Inter with an opportunity to kickstart their season. Inter have the better players, but Milan have the form. Who will prevail between two of Italy’s unpredictable teams is anybody’s guess. Expect a lot of drama at the San Siro!
After some great European action, it’s time to get back in to the thick of things on the last weekend of domestic action before the international break. Here are 10 games to watch this weekend.
Friday, November 4th
Galatasaray vs Istanbul Basaksehir
Not one of the traditional Istanbul derbies, but high stakes as third place Galatasaray welcome surprise league leaders Istanbul Basaksehir. Will the upstarts maintain their lead or will the giants pull level at the top by handing Istanbul Basaksehir their first defeat of the season?
Saturday, November 5th
Bayern Munich vs Hoffenheim
Another battle between first and third sees unbeaten league leaders Bayern Munich welcoming an undefeated Hoffenheim at the Allianz Arena. Amongst the many intriguing battles is the one in the dugout between experienced campaigner Carlo Ancelotti and 29-year old Julian Nagelsmann. Wisdom and experience against dynamic inspiration. Who will come out on top?
Real Sociedad vs Atletico Madrid
A visit to San Sebastian is never easy, especially as the locals ratchet up the atmosphere when one of the big teams come to play against Real Sociedad. Two teams in form and two of the best exponents of wide play in La Liga. Should be entertaining and feisty!
Chelsea vs Everton
Two teams that have already shown plenty of improvement from last season’s dismal campaigns. Managers Antonio Conte and Ronald Koeman have already put their stamps on their new teams. Will Everton join the crowd at the top of the table or will Chelsea pull further away?
Napoli vs Lazio
This has become one of Serie A’s grudge matches over the last two seasons. Once again Napoli and Lazio find themselves close to each other in the table, with the visitors in fourth, one point above Maurizio Sarri’s men. The two teams have combined for 42 goals already this season. How many more will we see in this match?
Sunday, November 6th
Arsenal vs Tottenham
North London derby. Arsenal vs Tottenham. Wenger vs Pochettino. Second vs fifth. A difference of just three points between the sides. One attack that is fluid and is getting goals from a variety of sources. The other can’t buy a goal at the moment. The hype is incessant. Rarely, if ever, does this fixture follow the form book. How can we predict a game between two of England’s most unpredictable clubs? It’s best to just wait for kickoff!
Anderlecht vs Oostende
Second against third in the Pro League. While seeing Anderlecht in such a fixture is no surprise, not many punters would have imagined seeing Oostende that high up in the table. Level on points and separated by goal difference, will Anderlecht’s big match experience prevail or will Oostende keep the fairytale going?
Porto vs Benfica
After reviving their respective Champions League campaigns, storied rivals Porto and Benfica face off in the first O Clássico of the season at the Dragao. Porto need the win to reduce the gap at the top to the visitors. If Benfica win, they’ll establish an eight-point lead that would be almost insurmountable in the Primeira Liga. Who will come out on top?
Sevilla vs Barcelona
A Sevilla team on a high take on a Barcelona team facing some questions. After getting a huge win over Atletico Madrid at the Pizjuán last time out, Jorge Sampaoli will be keen to add Barcelona to Sevilla’s list of victims. If the hosts manage to win, they’ll jump above the champions. Can Sevilla lay down another marker as contenders or will Barcelona dig deep and prevail despite their injuries? Should be a feast of a football!
Paris Saint-Germain vs Rennes
Normally this would be a routine win for the French champions, but recent victories have been far from easy for Unai Emery’s men. A statement win is needed in the capital, but with Rennes only three points behind and unbeaten in four, Christian Gourcuff will be confident of getting a result. Will the champions finally break through the shackles or will Rennes make it another war of attrition? Tune in to the Parc des Princes to find out.
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.
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.
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.
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.