Yep, this one is all about pressure. Newcastle have poured in on Spurs with their win over Swansea on Good Friday, now Spurs can slather it over Arsenal with a win at the Stadium of Light.
That’s far from a given, though. Sunderland have lost on home soil only once since November, should’ve completed a double over Manchester City last weekend, and are playing with the verve and swagger of brash young pop stars. You know, REO Speedwagon, Norman Greenbaum and the rest of the popular beat combos the kids are listening to today.
Lazio vs Napoli (3pmET): A proverbial six-pointer in the competition for 3rd place in Serie A (and hence a spot in next season’s Champions League). Lazio currently hold that 3rd position with 51 points, but Napoli (and Udinese) are close behind with 48 (and Roma are a single point behind them).
Sporting Braga vs FC Porto (3:30pmET): A rematch of last spring’s Europa League final, and another 6-pointer, in the fervid race for the Liga Sagres race. It’s tight at the top of the Portuguese table: Porto are in 1st (60 points), their Lisbon archrivals Benfica are in 2nd (59), and surprising Braga have climbed to 3rd (58), following a remarkable run of 13 straight wins that started in early December and continued until last weekend–when they fell to Benfica!
These teams are from the same country and tonight they seek the same prize – but that’s about all they have in common. On one hand we have Porto, long one of the top clubs in Europe, a side who have just finished their domestic league unbeaten and 21 points clear of their nearest pursuers, and who have a fearsome forward line in the form of Falcao and Hulk as well as the most acclaimed young manager in the continent, 33-year-old André Villa Boas. And on the other hand we have Braga, a humble club whose only major is the 1966 Portuguese Cup (what it about 1966 and minnows winning cups?), who finished fourth in their domestic league this season, and in the process suffered two defeats by Porto. Indeed, that tends to be how their meetings go: Porto have won 92 of the 131 previous encounters between these clubs, Braga have triumphed in just 17. It would be a minor revolution if the underdogs were to prevail tonight.
Well, some things have changed at Porto over the summer. AVB of course left for the big time, as did Falcao (who’s continued to bang in the goals for Atlético Madrid, in La Liga and again in Europa–most recently on two days ago).
See also here for our preview of that Europa League final last spring, including a Google Map showing how Braga and Porto are a mere 50km apart in the north of Portugal.
See also this NYT article about Portuguese Pritzker Prize-winning architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, who designed Estádio Municipal de Braga, where today’s match will be played:
Among Mr. Souto de Moura’s major works is a soccer stadium set into a mountain in Braga, Portugal, which was completed in 2004.
It is in a former granite quarry, and more granite was blasted away and crushed to make concrete for the structure. The stadium has two long sides, with the jagged face of the mountain forming a third side and the fourth open to a view of the city.
It was shaping up to be a packed weekend, with some interesting EPL matchups and the start of the La Liga season in Spain. But alas, Spanish football is still in shambles, with the players on strike over unpaid wages. Hopefully that will be resolved over the coming week so that we’ll see those interesting fixtures next weekend. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the EPL games that we’ll be watching–along with the FIFA U20 World Cup final:
Saturday, August 20
EPL, Sunderland-Newcastle (7amET, ESPN3.com): An early kickoff for this edition of the Tyne-Wear derby. Last year this fixture resulted in a Sunderland suffering an embarrassing 5-1 thrashing–though Kevin Nolan scored 3 of those goals, and Andy Carroll was on the pitch for Newcastle as well.
This year Sunderland is probably picked my most to finish above their cross-town rivals. See Coach Larry’s thoughts on Sunderland following their draw with Liverpool last Saturday.
EPL, Arsenal-Liverpool (7:45amET, ESPN2/ESPN3.com): Another early morning game for those of us in the US–is it worth waking up for? Liverpool supporter & observer Coach Larry weighs in:
I think for the fans of the two teams it is. Both teams are trying to adjust to their new players still, and with the high stakes involved for the two, I’m not sure either will be too adventurous. They did do this in 2009.
Suarez might just have the full run of the middle of the pitch with Arsenal without Wilshere (injured) or Song (suspended) in the midfield. Stuart Downing and Enrique taking on Sagna should also add some fun. We should get more info on whether Dalglish has in mind rotations/matchups or starters/subs for his eight MFs at least.
RVP will give Carragher and Agger a rough time, and the Gunners should try and attack in spaces behind both left and right back. But the usual question remains, if they do, will they convert the chances into goal attempts. And they also have to solve a left back issue considering Gibbs’ and Djourou’s balky hamstrings.
From the numerous Arsenal-supporting branch of the CultFootball family, Tyler opines that Gunners fans and pundits are overly pessimistic. (Case in point: longtime Arsenal supporter Eddie wrote in: “I have to say, this is the most depressing start of season for Arsenal. I will feel compelled to watch the game, as I would video-clips of a tsunami disaster..” Last week while watching Newcastle-Arsenal together at the Chip Shop, Eddie mentioned how he started following the Gunners as a young lad in Singapore–actually he converted from supporting Leeds United, back in the days of Don Revie and Brian Clough. Naturally we immediately commissioned him to write the 2nd installment of our “They Reminsce” series. Look for that in the coming weeks.) On the other hand, Kirby joins Tyler in his cautious optimism: “I truly believe that it could be both a good match, and if Arsenal wins, a huge boost for the challenges ahead. A depleted squad goes in, but Robin, Vermaelan, Sagna. Who knows, maybe Arshavin will decide the time is right to be kickass again and bag 4 goals. Looks like Nasri may be playing tomorrow, btw. That just made the game a bit more star-powered.”
EPL, Chelsea-West Brom (12:30pm, FSC): Our resident Chelsea supporter, who prefers to go by the nom de plume The Cunning Linguist, writes in with these thoughts on the Blues after their lackluster scoreless draw opener against Stoke: “I hope people start giving ManU some stick for spending money. I’m sure no one will forget the 50mm quid on el niño, who looked very sharp and dangerous. Too bad his supply line is crap; Salomon still hasn’t got a kalou and Malouda is, well, he’s French. I prefer Anelka on the right as a wide man and would like to see Benayoun in the mix. Chelsea don’t impress me and doubt they’ll do much this season. May have to start cheering for QPR.”
FIFA U20 World Cup Final, Brazil-Portugal (9pm, ESPN3.com): We have to admit, we haven’t been watching the U20 World Cup. So we might as well tune in for this all-Lusophone final. We’ve variously heard over the past week that the best teams in this tournament were ones that didn’t make the final (Spain, according to Jonathan Wilson, and Mexico, according to Tommy, who also had some unflattering comments about Portugal: “they start that flopping crime in Portugal early. I’ve been watching a lot of the U20 Cup, and the final 30 minutes of Wednesday’s Portugal showing vs France was humiliating. Apparently France had several snipers posted in the stadium because the Portu-gals were going down like they were on an adult film set. Bad news for the US – the Mexican U20s look great. They may have lost to the Brazilians in the semis, but they were the best team I saw. Gddmmit.”)
Sunday, August 21
EPL, Bolton-Man City (11am, FSC): Both teams put in 4 last weekend, albeit against newly promoted sides (QPR and Swansea, respectively), and hence are at the top of the table after one week. All eyes will be on Kun Agüero’s after his Premier League debut performance–two goals sandwiched around a spectacular assist to David Silva, all after coming as a substitute in the second half.
I should have spent more time on Sunderland in my preview of their match versus Liverpool, but I didn’t want to make it a season preview. They definitely need to add attacking options and put a leash on Lee Cattermole. But Stéphane Sessègnon is impressive; Ahmed Elmohamady, Kieran Richardson & Gyan are all big factors, and their back line was well organized, essentially making Andy Carroll irrelevant. Think they will finish 8-10.
Liverpool still has a cutting edge problem, though they are more balanced then before. Suarez is a beast to play against. He uses his speed so well to play inside-out, and then he also has the “craftiness” to win penalties and kicks. He will for sure make a lot of enemies around the league. Dalglish played Luca Leiva, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, and Charlie Adam (the latter three all newly arrived in the squad), with Kuyt and Meireles only subbing in late once things got urgent after Larsson’s flying side-volley that pulled Sunderland even. Again looks like its gonna be hard on Merseyside to strike the right balance.
After watching the first 40 minutes of Man City and Swansea’s Monday night football match, 3 observations: Swansea did well to purchase a young athletic GK as he will be needed to make more than a few reaction saves. YaYa might be my hero. And MCFC are right back to playing with two defensive MFs, despite being at home and against a team that has advanced 4 divisions in 6 seasons.
Which leads me to a last point. Can we abandon the idea that they and others play a 4-2-3-1? Look at how they play, not how they line-up for the kickoff. Two defensive central midfielders sure. One central attacking mf in Yaya. One wide mf who cuts inside as much as possible in Adam Johnson, one trequartista in Silva, and one forward in Dzeko.
Liverpool played the same: Adam and Lucas. Henderson. Downing. Suarez. Carroll.
Chelsea does it too. Mikel and Ramires. Lampard. Malouda. Kalou. Torres.
Arsenal last year did it too, at least when Walcott didn’t play.
This really counts on their full backs to get forward to provide most of their width, otherwise there just is not enough space on the pitch.
Asamoah Gyan is a favorite around these parts, not least because of his character. Yes, he’s a speedy striker with an eye for slamming the ball into the ol’ onion sack, but what makes him loved is his pure enjoyment of the game (obvious to all if only for the joy in his celebrations).
It’s easy to forget how the 25 yr old was only a teen when Cantona ruled at Old Trafford, and as the Black Cats are slated to line up against United in a few dozen hours Gyan has been caught reminiscing over his youth spent watching the Manchester elite:
This will be my first-ever visit to Old Trafford and I have been waiting a very long time for it. I have supported Manchester United since I was a small boy and my hero was Eric Cantona. My dad was a fan for many years before that. He was a defender and his favourite player was Gary Pallister. I didn’t get to watch a lot of highlights although I remember watching the whole of their Champions League final against Bayern Munich in 1999 with my dad.
I hope I can score a goal for Sunderland against them because that would mean so much to me and my family. But I will also try and swap shirts. That will definitely happen although I don’t know whose shirt I want. Any player.
Baby Jesus, please let Asamoah score a game winner. This guy is a genuine player and a true good-hearted spirit. Black Stars to Black Cats. And here is future wife:
Up until a couple weeks ago, it seemed as if Chelsea were going to run away with the Premier League title (even the Special One chimed in all the way from Madrid to that effect!), as they rolled through the first 10 games of the season: 8 wins (a few of them blowouts), a draw, and a hard-fought 1-0 loss to Man City. Then came a surprising 2-0 loss to Liverpool. Perhaps that could be explained away: the game was away at Anfield Park, Liverpool is actually a “big club” (according to tradition if not the current table), and Fernando Torres suddenly rediscovered his scoring touch. But after yesterday’s shocking result–a 3-0 loss at home to Sunderland!–Chelsea no longer looks invincible, and we have at least a 3-horse race for the title.
Sunderland had performed doggedly but modestly through their first 9 games–2 wins, 1 loss…and 6 ties. Then came an embarrassing 5-1 loss against their rivals Newcastle. That’s the kind of loss that can derail a season–but they bounced back with a win against Stoke City and a draw against Spurs last week. Still, no one expected them to go into Stamford Bridge and dominate the mighty Blues.
An odd Sunderland stat: all of their mere 10 goals in the 12 games prior to yesterday had been scored by only 2 players: Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan. But that changed yesterday, as Nedum Onuoha waltzed through the Chelsea defense to score first for Sunderland, and Danny Welbeck finished nicely for their third. (Onuoha, incidentally, is a 24-year-old defender, born in Nigeria and raised in Manchester, on loan to Sunderland from Man City. Welbeck is a 20-year-old winger/striker, born in England to Ghanaian parents, on loan from Man Utd. Both have appeared for England’s U21 team–we may see them in the future for the senior squad.)
But in between those two goals, Gyan got his fourth goal in the past three games–he’d scored all of Sunderland’s goals in their games against Stoke and Spurs. (In fact, these have been the first three starts of Gyan’s nascent Premier League career, as Bent had been starting ahead of him until he went down with an injury. It’ll be interesting to see if Sunderland manager Steve Bruce finds a way to get them both on the field from the beginning, once Bent recovers.)
And so Gyan did his dance at Stamford Bridge–a dance we may be seeing in England with some regularity in the future, if Gyan can keep up this sort of finishing. See all three goals here:
We’re back once again with our recommendations on when exactly you should plant yourself on your couch or local pub stool this weekend. Again using SoccerInsider’s full TV listing as a reference, here we go, with some notes from various members of the CultFootball collective:
Saturday Oct 30
Manchester United-Spurs 12:30 p.m. FSC: a matchup of the 3rd and 5th place teams in the EPL table, with goal-scoring players in form on both sides (Chicharito and Nani for Man U, Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart for Spurs)
Barcelona-Sevilla 4 p.m. ESPN Deportes: One of the more challenging La Liga games for Barca, especially since Sevilla seems to finally coming into form (6th in the table) after a slow start, and their Brazilian WC2010 star Luis Fabiano back in the lineup and finding the back of the net.
Those are the two matches to make time for, but if you need a couple additional matches to fill out your day:
Hercules-Real Madrid 2 p.m. GolTV: It’ll be interesting to see if Real Madrid can keep up their recent dominating form (well, last week’s scoreless draw against 3rd division Murcia in a Copa del Rey game excepted), or conversely whether Hércules can pull off another upset.
AC Milan-Juventus 2:30 p.m. FSC: AC Milan is 2nd in the Serie A table, and has an exciting set of big names in attack: Ronaldhino, Pato, Robinho, Ibrahimovic, Seedorf, while Juve is in 5th. See Goal.com’s rundown of key individual matchups here.
And since the MLS playoffs have started, a Saturday night special…
San Jose-New York 10 p.m. Telefutura: Sounds like Thierry Henry will miss this match due to an injury, but the Red Bulls have a number of players to watch: Rafa Marquez, the Mexican international recently arrived from Barcelona; Estonian Joel Lindpere; Jamaican Dane Richards; and Senegalese-American goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul (see this NY Daily News article about his journey from Senegal to the Bronx to high school in Manhattan, and eventually to the MLS).
Sunday Oct 31
Palermo-Lazio 7:30 a.m. FSP: Roman side Lazio sits atop Serie A, while Palermo is in 8th. We’ll refer you to Goal.com for eachside‘s rosters, recent team news, and standard formations.
Newcastle-Sunderland 9:30 a.m. FSP: The Tyne-Wear derby. Overlooked step-sister Sunderland have held their own against Newcastle on the pitch over the years, if not in international fame. Always good to share your name with a tasty brew.
Bolton-Liverpool noon FSC: Liverpool played well last week, and Fernando Torres finally scored, so it’ll be interesting to see if they can build on that—and work their way up in the table.
And one more—another MLS playoff game, featuring the star-studded Galaxy:
If you haven’t heard, the gunners haven’t won a cup for a few years now and the team and its supporters are restless. Their lack of hardware has been generally chalked up to their youth and inexperience – they may be fun to watch, but in the grind-it-out fixtures they’ve been beaten into submission. Beyond their lack of physicality, I’ve always though they’ve missed that key bit of luck that sees top sides through to championships.
I honestly thought Fabregas’ opening goal was a sign that their fortune was about to change. His goal, which rebounded off his foot and into the net from a preposterous distance, seemed like just the thing that would break the back of a stubborn Sunderland side. Of course, Fabregas would soon go off with a hamstring injury aggravated by his goal-scoring motion, Alex Song would pick up a soft first yellow and was later ejected from the game, Rosický would miss a PK, and Darren Bent would score in the 95th minute to undo what would’ve been a great win against a Sunderland team that has caused Arsenal to drop points in their last few campaigns.
What has last weekend brought them then? Their injury list expands, they miss out on two points while Chelsea and United plowed through with the full haul, and they start playing twice a week what with the Carling Cup and the Champions League. It’s still early in the season of course, but have they already bled their shallow pool of luck?