Set your DVRs, plan your late long lunches, etc. The Champions League is back. If you're a follower of European club football, you're excited as we are. If not, but you plan to watch the World Cup this summer, this is the competition you need to watch to get ready. Here are our previews of this week's four first leg matches, with a focus on which players to watch on each team (and a particular focus on players that will feature prominently at the World Cup this summer): Man City-Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen-PSG, Arsenal-Bayern Munich and AC Milan-Atlético Madrid.
Sunday, May 6
EPL, Newcastle United vs Manchester City (8:30amET, FSC & Fox Deportes): A massive game in the Premier League, both for the title race and Champions League qualification.
Following Man City’s tense 1-0 victory in last Monday’s much-hyped Manchester derby, this match becomes the new title-decider. If City win this one, they’ll need only a final day win over Sunderland at home to claim the title (assuming Manchester United win their final two–versus Swansea at Old Trafford later today, and at Sunderland on the final day).
But Newcastle will be fighting for a win here as much as City. They’re even with Spurs on 65 points, who play Villa today–only 2 points behind Arsenal, who slipped up badly this weekend with a 3-3 draw at home against Norwich.
And Newcastle is equally in form, especially January signing Papiss Demba Cissé. He’s the talk of the league after scoring 13 goals in 12 appearances since coming over from the Bundesliga’s SC Freiburg (where he was also prolific–his 22 goals last season, in his first full Bundesliga campaign, were 2nd only to Bayern Munich’s Mario Gomez). But he’s especially the talk of the league after his spectacular exta-time goal Wednesday at Stamford Bridge–frontrunner for goal of the season. If you haven’t seen it, watch it now; if you have, watch it agian:
Key matchups: Cissé and his Senegalese strike-parter Demba Ba against the City’s center back pair of Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott; and in midfield, Newcastle’s creative Frenchman Yohan Cabaye and Ivorian hardman Cheikh Tioté against the likes of Yaya Touré, David Silva, and Samir Nasri. Watch also for another creative Frenchman on Newcastle’s wing, Hatem Ben Arfa.
Interesting historical resonance: City are looking to win their first title since 1968–when they clinched the title with a 4-3 victory over Newcastle at St. James’ Park, allowing them to squeak past crosstown rivals Manchester United. In addition to the photo above of the opening goal, see the rest of the Telegraph’s gallery of photos from that day.
Serie A, Inter Milan vs AC Milan (2:45pmET, FSC, Fox Deportes & ESPN3.com): La Derby della Madonnina , i.e., the Milan derby. Not only one of the most storied and heated rivalries in the game, but also, as if often the case, a match with big implications for the Serie A table. Like the Newcastle-ManCity match, this match simultaneously impacts the race for the domestic title as well as Champions League qualification.
AC Milan sit one just point behind still-undefeated Juventus. So they’ll need Juve to slip up, either today against Cagliari or next week at home against Atalanta. But they’ll certainly need to keep winning to give themselves any hope of winning another Scudetto.
On the other hand, Inter have had a roller coaster of a season. They’ve been on the rise again over the past month, after Claudio Ranieri was sacked and Andrea Stramaccioni was promoted from manager of Internazionale Primavera to manage the senior squad. But they now sit in 6th place, one point behind 5th place Lazio and 3 points behind 3rd place Napoli and 4th place Udinese. With the top 3 finishers in Serie A going to the Champions League, while 4th and 5th go to Europa, Inter will need at least one of those teams to falter in order for a return to European competition next season.
The three matches we chose yesterday weren’t the most compelling: Sunderland-Spurs the most dreary, a scoreless draw, while Lazio beat Napoli 3-1 (highlighted by a fantastic chilena goal by Mauri), and Porto beat Sporting Braga 1-0 on their home ground. There were other interesting results in Italy, where AC Milan lost to lowly Fiorentina due to a late late goal, and later in the day Juve dispatched Palermo, thus pulling even with Milan on points at the top of the table. And in Germany, both Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund won (vs Augsburg and Wolfsburg, respectively), and thus Dortmund’s 3-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga table was conserved–setting up a showdown this coming Wednesday. But more on that later–for now, here are a few matches to watch on this sunny Easter Sunday:
Arsenal vs Manchester City (11amET; FSC & Fox Deportes): The big match of the weekend in England. #4 (though perhaps only temporarily) hosting #2 at the Emirates, with a full 3 points crucial for both teams. Arsenal need them to climb back into 3rd (ahead of local rival Spurs), in their continuing effort to consolidate a top 4 (preferably top 3) finish. City need them to stay within striking distance of their local rivals United–if City drop points today, they can say goodbye to any chance of winning the title. Which would give extra pleasure to many Arsenal fans, given that City have developed a habit of poaching some of Arsenal’s key players over the past few years–most recently and prominently French playmaker Samir Nasri–luring them north with petrodollars, plus the promise of hardware in the near future–something Wenger has been unable to guide his sides to in the past handful of years.
When these two teams met in mid-December at the Etihad, City slipped by the Gunners 1-0 thanks to a goal by their slight Spanish star David Silva. Indeed, the theme of our writeup was “Silva es magico.” But since then City’s (on-field) fortunes have waned, and the conventional wisdom seems to be that it’s primarily due to Silva tiring. He certainly hasn’t displayed the magical realism that was on display weekly in the fall (most prominently in the Massacre at Old Trafford early in the season).
We noted that that December result knocked the Gunners out of the title race–but that was only the beginning of the crisis, with Arsenal seemingly falling out of contention for even a Champions League spot after a horrendous January (lowlighted by the Night Arsene Lost the Emirates–also against United). But they rebounded with an impressive February, which started with that memorable 5-2 win against Spurs, although they’ve wobbled against recently, with a loss to QPR last weekend.
Athletic Bilbao vs Sevilla (12pmET; GolTV): Two underachieving sides, at least domestically. We’ve been tracking Athletic closely, and they’ve been delivering in cup competitions–thru to the semis of the Europa League, and in the finals of the Copa del Rey (where they’ll be taking on Barcelona, in May)–but they’ve slipped into the bottom half of the table as their league form has slipped badly. Sevilla has been trying to get back to the level they achieved a handful of years ago, and although they’ve got some talent–including current Spanish internationals Álvaro Negredo and Jesús Navas–their game perhaps depends a bit too much on aging former stars like Malian Frédéric Kanouté and well-traveled former Spanish international José Antonio Reyes. Reyes has come full circle–he came up through Sevilla youth system and made his La Liga debut with them over a decade ago, and then went on to play for: Arsenal, Real Madrid (on loan), Atlético Madrid, Benfica (again on loan), before returning to his first club.
Real Madrid vs Valencia (3:30pmET; ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN3.com): The slightest bit of pressure is on Madrid now in La Liga, since Barcelona have pulled to within 3 points. Hence, anything less than a win would be considered disastrous among los madridistas. It is Valencia, which as seemingly always sit in 3rd–although if they lose and Malaga win Monday against Racing, the latter would pull ahead of them in the table. Valencia, like Athletic, is thru to the semis of the Europa League, but similarly their domestic form has dipped recently too.
We took a close look at the remaining fixtures in this season’s Barclays Premiership, and we are unimpressed. Surely the Manchesters won’t simply run away with the league, and there’s got to be some sort of shakeup between third, fourth and the also rans between now and the middle of May… But apparently, no. As you’ll see in our carefully crafted points-tracking chart below, everyone will keep their current standing, though it won’t be without a few bums becoming squeaky. We’ll revisit our predictions each week through the remainder of the season to see just how right we were.
Click on the chart for an expanded view, and click on the expanded view for an even more expanded view, blindy.
African Cup of Nations (Group C), Gabon vs Tunisia (1pmET, Al-Jazeera Sports / Eurosport International):Tunisia and tournament co-host Gabon both won their first two group games and hence will advance to the final eight (while the other two teams in the group, Niger and disappointing Morocco, will go home). So might as well take a look at two teams that we’ll see in the quarterfinals, as they play for top of the group:
- Gabon will win the group if they do not lose to Tunisia.
- Tunisia will win the group if they defeat Gabon.
[Update: this match has been postponed due to heavy snow!] Italy (Serie A), Parma vs Juventus (2:45pmET, ESPN3.com or foxsoccer.tv in US): Juventus still topping the table, in pole position as the race for the Scudetto enters the home stretch. We wrote this last month re La Vecchia Signora (The Grand Old Lady, as Juve is called in Italy) ahead of their match with Udinese [with annotations in brackets]:
Juventus is perhaps even more surprising [than Udinese]–still undefeated in the league (9W 6D 0L) [in fact, still undefeated! 12W 8D 0L]. We finally got to watch Juve play (thanks to the fact we flew cross-country on JetBlue, and so were captive with GolTV for 10 hours), specifically the rather dramatic Coppa Italia match they played against Bologna. Players to watch on Juve: holding midfielder and Milan transplant Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Paraguayan Marcelo Estigarribia, ageless trequartista Alessandro del Piero; we also like to see Dutchman Eljero Elia, whose been somewhat lost in the shuffle since coming over from Hamburg in August.
We don’t know much about Parma, who are mid-table (11th place); here’s what livesoccertv’s preview has to say:
Parma are likely to be stiff opposition, as since their humiliating 5-0 defeat to Inter Milan at the San Siro in early January they have gone unbeaten in three successive league games, with a 3-1 home victory over Siena and two away draws against Bologna and Catania, respectively.
Furthermore, their home record is quite impressive, with five wins, three draws and a mere two losses in ten games. But in order for Parma to obtain a positive result, much depends on the form of former Juve striker Sebastian Giovinco.
The diminutive 25-year-old has scored four goals in his last three games against his former club and will be hoping to convert once again in order to boost his teams chances of causing an upset.
“Giovinco is the star and we know him well,” Giorgio Chiellini, the wary Juve defender, stated in reference to the talented striker, who incidentally scored Parma’s only goal in the 4-1 defeat to Juventus in September.
England (Premier League), Everton vs Manchester City (3pmET, Fox Deportes and FSC in US) or Manchester United vs Stoke City (also 3pET, ESPN Deportes, ESPN2, ESPN3.com in US): It’s come down to the two Manchester teams at the top of the Premier League table–City on top with 58pts, ManU on 51. With the results a week ago Sunday, they’ve put some distance between them and the rest of the pack (Tottenham is 3rd with 46, Chelsea 5th with 41).
Pick whichever Mancunian side you prefer to watch. The Everton-ManCity match (which like Parma-Juve is a case of the league-leaders going playing away against an erractic mid-table side) has the added attraction of American Landon Donovan, who’s not long on loan and on display in the Premier League. –Everton are 14th in the league, but they’re coming off a big 2-1 win Friday against Fulham in the FA Cup (with Donovan assisting both goals from his right wing position).
MU-Stoke is a closer matchup in terms of the table–Stoke sits in 8th, just 4 points behind Liverpool (and 5pts behind Newcastle and Arsenal, both of whom have 36pts). But we really don’t have anything to say about what to watch w.r.t. Stoke.
Spain (Copa del Rey semifinal – 1st leg), CD Mirandés vs Athletic Bilbao (4pmET, no US TV): The Spanish clubs turn right around after playing out their quarterfinal ties last week for semifinal first legs this week. The more high-profile match is tomorrow (Valencia vs Barcelona), and given this is a mismatch on paper–Mirandés plays in Segunda División B (i.e., 3rd division, below La Liga and Segunda División A), and so Athletic, one of the great clubs of Spain, is heavily favored to advance to the final. Nevertheless, we try to watch Bilbao play whenever possible, given their Bielsan philosophy. Here is what we wrote in November, ahead of their match against Barcelona:
Athletic Bilbao–the Basque team which aspires to be one of the “alternatives” to the Barcelona/Madrid axis of hegemony in La Liga, which is newly managed by a crazy genius Argentine whom Pep Guardiola considers one of his managerial inspirations–to whose house in Argentina Guardiola made a pilgrimage when he was considering a career as a manager.
His name is Marcelo Bielsa, his arrival in Bilbao was highly anticipated, and his tenure there started terribly: two draws and three losses in their first five league matches. But they started to turn it around at the beginning of October, which prompted both of the Guardian’s cerebral football columnists Sid Lowe and Jonathan Wilson to devote columns to Bilbao under Bielsa.
A couple of big-name matchups in 2nd legs of domestic cup competitions coming up later today: (1) Carling Cup semifinal - Manchester City vs Liverpool - 8:45pm CET / 2:45pmET / 7:45pm GMT (USA TV: FSC); and (2) Copa dey Rey quarterfinal - Barcelona vs Real Madrid - 10pm CET / 4pm ET / 9pm GMT (USA TV: ESPN Deportes, GolTV, ESPN3.com)
It’s hard to watch several leagues simultaneously, which somewhat tempers the distaste for the phenomenon of sugardaddied Manchester City and makes the team an intriguing entity to behold. No one particularly likes a team of mercenaries, but for watchers of the English Premier League, City’s current and prospective roster is like a one-stop shop of some of the world’s best players.
Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli, Edin Dzeko and David Silva were hardly unknown before they arrived in Manchester, but seeing them play week-in and week-out showed EPL spectators just how skilled they truly are. And with the transfer window again upon us, a whole new crew of the best and brightest are being linked with MCFC. At the very least, those following transfer speculation learn about the top talents in other leagues simply by seeing who Manchester City are said to be pursuing.
Fans of Arsenal cringe when a player in Arsene Wenger’s sights gets named, because almost without fail another team with more money and/or better title-winning chances scoops them up. (See Juan Mata, Yaya Toure and many, many more) So it goes with Belgian whizkid Eden Hazard, now apparently on City’s radar. Hazard’s agent recently said, “His future is with one of European football’s prestigious clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester City, AC Milan, Inter or Juventus.” A few year’s ago, name-dropping City in that list would have been ludicrous. Not so, now. Anyhow, Mancini is said to be considering a £25 million bid for the player. Which multimillion-earning midfielder will he replace? No matter, they’ll make it work.
And with whiffs of rumors of £160,000 a week, it seems City may be bringing Roma star Daniele De Rossi to UK shores. Who will he replace in midfield? Hazard, of course. Or Gourcuff, Ozil, Hamsik or Goetze. (The sound you hear is Samir Nasri whimpering, with only his towering stacks of cash to comfort him.)
Despite Jose Mourinho’s comment, “I wouldn’t like any of my men to leave in the winter transfer window,” at least one paper has Manchester City homing in on Real Madrid defender Raul Albiol and preparing £5 million for Real Madrid 15-year-old Jose Angel Pozo. Perhaps the young Madridista does not count as one of Mourinho’s men.
Meanwhile, superstriker Carlos Tevez is also available, if City is willing to meet his £200,000 weekly wages. Oh, right. Scratch that.
Recent results notwithstanding, if anyone could lure the likes of Neymar, Ganso or Soldado to non-Spanish soil, it’s City. They stand poised to start really filling their trophy cabinet and they can outbid nearly anyone. Only Barcelona’s stars, really, are untouchable.
And as for known quantities in the league, will City successfully poach the likes of Gareth Bale, Robin van Persie or Javier Hernandez? Time will tell. Only loyalty would get in the way.
And as Matchday 6 of the Champions League separated the wheat from the chaff, the next eight into the Europa League knockouts are:
Manchester United failed to beat Basel, so MUFC goes to Europa, while the Swiss progress to the knockouts.
Manchester City defeated Bayern Munich at home, but the team progresses, as it were, to Europa due to Napoli’s victory 2-0 victory over Villareal, which means Napoli goes through.
Lyon, after a fantastic 7-1 match overcame all sorts of goal difference, go through over Ajax on goal difference. Of course, there’s a whiff of controversy about this one, with Ajax accusing Lyon and Dinamo Zagreb of match-fixing. Sour grapes? Who knows. Would’ve been nice to have a bet on that scoreline, though.
Trabzonspor’s goalless draw to Lille means Lille goes though and they go on to Europa.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Mata faced his former club and Chelsea took top spot in the group, consigning Valencia to Europa after a convincing 3-0 victory in which Didier Drogba looked like the monster of old.
Olympiakos defeated a sorry Arsenal 3-1 at home and would have gone through to the knockout stages of the Champions League had Marseille not pulled up an incredible come-from-behind victory in Germany, having been down two goals.
Given Apoel Nicosia’s loss to Shaktar Donesk, Porto would have won their group with a victory over Zenit St. Petersburg, but the goalless draw meant the Russians go through and the Portuguese do not.
Plzen scored in the 89th minute and in stoppage time to draw 2-2 with AC Milan, but given Barcelona’s 4-0 battering of BATE Borisov, they would have gone through to Europa regardless.