The Football Podcast with Wasim Parkar Episode 5

Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Bayern and Real as they progress to the Champions League quarterfinals. The difficulty in addressing Arsenal and Arsene Wenger’s declining fortunes and an update on the Championship, which is set for another unpredictable climax.

You can listen to the podcast through the player below or subscribe through iTunes here.

This Football Saturday

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.

This Football Saturday

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.

The Europa League is back!

The return of European football gets most fans excited about the Champions League. With the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, PSG and others involved, it is of course natural that Europe’s secondary club competition gets overlooked. However, this writer always looks forward to the Europa League knockout competition. Jurgen Klopp recently called the tournament a “Mini-Champions League”. Looking at the calibre of the remaining teams and some of the fixtures in the round of 32, his suggestion is not far off the mark. Some of these matches could quite conceivably be seen in next season’s Champions League, while others are ties between some great historic clubs.

Here are some ties that should the whet the appetite for all football fans:

Anderlecht (3rd in Belgian Jupiler League) vs Olympiakos (1st in Greek Super League)

Borussia Dortmund (2nd in Bundesliga) vs Porto (3rd in Portuguese Liga)

Fiorentina (3rd in Serie A) vs Tottenham (2nd in Barclays Premier League)

Saint-Étienne (4th in Ligue 1) vs Basel (1st in Swiss Super League)

Villarreal (4th in La Liga) vs Napoli (2nd in Serie A)

Galatasaray (5th in Turkish Super Lig) vs Lazio (7th in Serie A)

Marseille (11th in Ligue 1) vs Athletic Bilbao (7th in La Liga)

Shakhtar Donetsk (1st in Ukrainian Premier League) vs Schalke 04 (5th in Bundesliga)

Sporting Lisbon (1st in Portuguese Liga) vs Bayer Leverkusen (3rd in Bundesliga)

Serie A State of Play Post Round 22

Some thoughts after an exciting round of Serie A games filled with glorious goals and enterprising play.

Top two pull away
 
It was only a few rounds ago that everyone was claiming this to be the most exciting Serie A season in modern times as the top five were separated by just three points. However, with Roma and Inter both going through a rough patch of results recently, that merry band was whittled down to just three. Now, after Fiorentina’s goalless draw at Genoa the title race is down to the top two of Napoli and Juventus. The Viola are now six points behind second place Juventus, with Napoli a further two ahead of the champions. Paulo Sousa’s men will now focus on holding on to the all-important third place and the Champions League play-off spot that comes with it.
Meanwhile, the two best teams in the league continue to march on. Matching each other in strut, class, grit and beautiful goals, Napoli and Juve are both performing at a peerless standard. The neutral can only hope that this remains the case as we enter April. It would be a disappointing anti-climax for Serie A fans if Juve pull away in comfortable fashion as they always tend to do.
Juve were first up this weekend. The clash away to Chievo was meant to be a tough one, however the Bianconeri took to their task immediately when Alvaro Morata opened the scoring in the sixth minute. If fans of the Old Lady were worried about missing Mario Manduzkic they needn’t have been, as the underrated Spaniard once again proved his value to the team. He got his second after some excellent interplay between Juve’s midfield and attack and his chemistry with Paulo Dybala suggests that Max Allegri may well stick with the Argentinian-Spanish partnership even when Mandzukic returns. Juve romped through the second half courtesy of an excellent assist from Paul Pogba (does he do normal assists?) for Alex Sandro, before the young Frenchman finished exemplarily (does he do normal goals?) himself. Remarkably, it was the first time this season that Juve climbed atop Serie A.
With the gauntlet laid down, Napoli welcomed the excellent Empoli at the San Paolo. Maurizio Sarri’s former club came to town to face their old boss under the stewardship of Marco Giampaolo. While not many would have predicted Sarri’s positive impact at Napoli, Giampaolo’s achievements with the Azzuri this season have arguably been more impressive, guiding his men to the top half of the table.
What was always bound to be a difficult encounter seemed even harder after Leandro Paredes’ deflected free kick gave the visitors the lead. This Napoli team are a different beast however. Five minutes later, the player of the season brought the hosts level. Gonzalo Higuain finishing with a beautiful header off an equally excellent Lorenzo Insigne cross. Insigne then gave Napoli the lead with a delightful free kick. What could have been a nervous second half was anything but, as Sarri’s men put their foot on the throttle and ran out 5-1 winners courtesy of some enterprising attacking play.
While some may despair at how quickly this has become just a two-horse race, the sheer quality that Italy’s top two are demonstrating, makes this a battle to savour. The excitement is only going to ratchet up when Juve welcome Napoli in two weeks time.
Milan rivals moving in opposite directions
Compared to recent iterations, this Derby della Madonnina actually delivered on the hype. On an action-filled night at the San Siro, supporters got to see goals, attacking play, good saves, controversy and everything else that a football fan wants to see in a big game.
It seems like only yesterday that Sinisa Mihajlovic was on the verge of the sack as the Rossoneri were struggling to get results. Unless this huge win against their rivals is followed up by an unfathomable sequence of defeats, it now seems like the Serbian will at least get to see out the season.
The most encouraging signs for Mihajlovic during the derby were that some of this season’s underperforming players came to the fore. Keisuke Honda put in his best performance in a while, delivering the cross for Alex to head in Milan’s first goal and generally being a nuisance against Inter’s full backs. For once Honda outshone the excellent and understated Giacomo Bonaventura, who had another fantastic game. M’baye Niang has been showing greater maturity in recent months and the young Senegalese finally delivered in a way that Milan fans have been waiting ages for. He set up Carlos Bacca for the team’s second goal with a peach of a cross, before finishing a counterattack to secure victory with an excellent finish for the third goal.
Meanwhile, the usual suspects maintained their consistency. Carlos Bacca continues to reaffirm his pedigree with each passing game. The Colombian now has 11 goals for the season, a remarkable stat considering he gets very few chances presented to him. Then there is 16-year old Gianluigi Donnarumma. The goalkeeper made some crucial saves as Inter tore into the Milan backline for most of the second half. The momentum of the game could easily have turned but for the teenagers heroics and regardless of where they finish in the table, Donnarumma is now clearly going to be Milan’s biggest gain of the season.

Milan have now lost only one game in their last six, winning three and drawing two. Their last two home games have delivered wins against Fiorentina and Inter, both, teams above them in the table. Meanwhile their last two away games were draws against Roma and the dangerous Empoli. From a season that seemed devoid of any progression, the Rossoneri now have positive momentum that could yet result in qualification for Europe.

Meanwhile the Nerazzurri now seem to be going in the opposite direction. Four points clear at the top  at one point, Inter are now nine points behind the league leaders. Contrary to their rivals, Inter have won just one game in their last six, losing three and drawing two. To make matters worse, this sequence of results includes draws with Carpi and Atalanta and a careless loss to Sassuolo.
It’s a tricky situation judging Roberto Mancini’s team. Arguably, they were playing worse football when they were at the summit. Those results were largely achieved through the brilliance of Samir Handanovic and the centre back pairing of Miranda and Jeison Murillo. However, as good as Handanovic is, he can’t stop everything and it was only a matter of time before a few shots from opponents actually found the back of the net. Meanwhile Miranda and Murillo have also seen a slight dip in form which has coincided with Inter conceding some soft goals.
The problem is that while conceding goals is an eventuality that even the best defences have to face at some point in time, it’s at the other end that Inter aren’t doing enough to redress the balance. The creativity and pace that Adem Ljajic, Stevan Jovetic and Ivan Perisic bring to Inter’s forward play is evident, however goalscoring is clearly become a big hindrance for the team. For whatever reason, Mancini hasn’t been able to get Mauro Icardi to replicate his efforts from last season. Yet, he remains the most natural goalscorer in the team, so it was bizarre not to see him starting the game. That Mancini decided to give new signing Eder his debut at the expense of the Argentinian was even more surprising. The former Sampdoria man may well prove his worth in goals for the Nerazzurri, but Eder’s style is easily compatible with Icardi’s more approach. If Mancini wants more goals, playing Icardi and Eder while dropping one of Ljajic, Jovetic or Perisic may just be the way to go.
While the two Milan teams seemed poles apart as recently as the beginning of December, the gap between Inter and AC is now just five points. Mihajlovic has demonstrated the ability to find solutions in recent games. The onus is now on Mancini to do the same.
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