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.