Wasim looks ahead to the round of 16 in the Europa League, where several interesting clashes take place including Lyon vs Roma, Olympiacos vs Besiktas and Schalke 04 vs Borussia Mönchengladbach.
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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)
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.
Roma continued their mini-revival under the auspices of Luciano Spalletti, winning their third consecutive game in Serie A. What looked like a routine home win turned into a nervy 2-1 win over Sampdoria. With Fiorentina and Inter both stuttering, the Giallorossi have stormed back into contention for the last Champions League spot on the back of nine points in their last three games.
Starting with the positives, Spalletti’s men really should have buried the game in the first half. There was some fabulous interplay between Mohamed Salah and the pair of new signings, Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy. At least three clear chances were wasted before Alessandro Florenzi grabbed the opener on the stroke of half time. Perotti then scored an excellent second early in the second half. In stead of seeing the game out, Roma then suffered their traditional bout of nerves. Sampdoria got one goal back courtesy of a Miralem Pjanic deflection and then the home side’s midfield lost the plot completely. The visitors piled the pressure and only a trio of brilliant saves by Wojciech Szczesny ensured the capital side took the three points.
While Roma are gaining some sense of momentum, la Samp remain mired in the relegation battle. Vincenzo Montella’s men seem to play at a high level for about 40 minutes in each match, but their poor phases of play are being ruthlessly punished by their opponents. Montella has to get the team focused from kickoff to the final whistle. It may be easy to dismiss their relegation fears on the basis of the team being too good, but a rut at this stage of the season can be irreversible. It is only the inadequacies of Carpi, Frosinone and Hellas Verona that separate Sampdoria from the relegation zone. There is undisputed firepower in the team with Luis Muriel, but Montella needs to tighten up at the back immediately so that Sampdoria can at least salvage a lower mid-table finish. If not, it’s going to be hard to see Montella managing at the Marassi past the end of the season.