A quick preview and breakdown of the biggest matches of the weekend throughout Europe. Part 1 features the matches from Saturday, 11 January. Part 2 will feature the matches from Sunday, 12 January.
Leeds United v. Sheffield Wednesday
A weekend of derbies in the Championship starts with a Yorkshire Derby near the top of the table, as league leaders Leeds welcome playoff chasers Sheffield Wednesday.
Leeds are a peculiar team. After rattling off seven straight wins through November and into December, they proceeded to win only one of their next five league games. They are still clearly a talented side, and their strong performance against Arsenal in the FA Cup, despite the poor result, demonstrated that they have enough quality to be a Premier League team. Eddie Nketiah’s departure leaves the brunt of the goalscoring responsibility firmly on the shoulders of Patrick Bamford, who has always retained the confidence and belief of Marcelo Bielsa, but Leeds have demonstrated the ability to find goals from other sources. Rotation in the line up for the Arsenal match has allowed for some rest for key players, including forward Helder Costa, utility man Stuart Dallas, and captain Liam Cooper. Leeds need a positive result in the league in order to start to pull away from West Brom at the top of the league, so I anticipate Bielsa putting out a strong side for this one.
Wednesday also come into this match on poor league form paired with a strong FA Cup performance, having won one of their last five in the league but defeated Brighton 1-0 last Saturday. Garry Monk’s team will travel to Elland Road without their top scorer Steven Fletcher, who suffered a knee injury in their win over Brighton that will keep the Scot on the sidelines for up to ten weeks. Fletcher has been massively important to Wednesday’s playoff hunt, having scored nearly a third of the team’s league goals this season. Their joint-second top scorers, Jordan Rhodes, Kadeem Harris, and Atdhe Nuhiu, each only have three league goals to their name. The Owls primary hope for a result in this match lies in the midfield battle and limiting the influence of Kalvin Phillips and Mateusz Klich in midfield.
Prediction: Leeds will not be short on confidence, especially at home, following a positive performance against Arsenal. Without Fletcher, Wednesday seemingly lack the threat and capability going forward to pose a serious goal threat.
Leeds 2-0 Sheffield Wednesday
Hull City v. Fulham
Fulham travel north to face Hull City with the teams only separated by three points in the table. With how congested the top half of the Championship is, this is a crucial game for the outcome of the playoff places.
Hull have continued their fairly consistent surge up the table, carried by the meteoric rise of young English midfielder Jarrod Bowen. Bowen and Polish winger Kamil Grosicki have been the primary focal points of Hull’s attack, with the duo being responsible for seven of the team’s last 10 league goals, and they will seemingly go as far as those two can bring them.
Fulham’s recent fortune has been more mixed than that of their opponents, having notably beaten Leeds but also lost to mid table Reading and Preston, lost to promotion rival Brentford, and drew to bottom-of-the-league Luton Town. Their main threat comes through their star striker, Serbian Aleksandar Mitrovic, with the supporting cast of Anthony Knockaert, Bobby Reid, Ivan Cavaleiro, and Tom Cairney around him. A win over Aston Villa in the FA Cup, which allowed them to rest Mitrovic and Reed, should allow them to be rested and confident heading into this match. The potential absence of Cairney and midfielder Harrison Reed poses an issue, and manager Scott Parker will have to ensure he gets the midfield balance right in order to provide the baseline to support Mitrovic up top.
Prediction: Fulham have not won away since November, but they could fancy their chances here. However, their recent inconsistencies combined with the soaring form of Bowen and Grosicki has me not too confident about their chances, but I do not think Hull have the quality to win the match outright. Both teams are among the worst in the top ten of the league when it comes to goals conceded, so I anticipate a few more coming in this one.
Hull City 2-2 Fulham
Crystal Palace v. Arsenal
I do not think anyone would have predicted that Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal would be an important London Derby at this stage of the season, but here we are, with a mid-table clash between these two teams taking place at Selhurst Park this weekend.
Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace team continue to be the defining image of mid-table, which is a commemoration of the work Hodgson has done with this resource-strapped team. They are still reliant on talismanic forward Wilfried Zaha, but they have also found good performances from the likes of Luka Milivojevic and James Tomkins to solidify their place in the middle of the league table. They are still struggling to find goals, with most of their creative and goalscoring output coming from Zaha, but they are still a solid team defensively and have been good enough to get the results they need. It is unclear whether newly arrived loanee Cenk Tosun will be fit to play, but if so, he will probably be heavily utilized by Hodgson as a different type of forward and different way to attack defenses, as compared to current number nine Jordan Ayew.
Mikel Arteta has had a shaky start to his tenure as Arsenal manager, but it is hard to say that there is not positive signs. The results against Bournemouth and Chelsea were not ideal, but it was easy to tell that the team was growing and learning in both of those matches. The comprehensive 2-0 win over Manchester United and the impressive second half turnaround against Leeds in the FA Cup have been the best demonstrations of Arteta’s tactical mind and managerial ability, able to get a tune out of this team that Emery never could. The difference in form between new signing Nicolas Pepe and veteran striker Alexandre Lacazette, however, have become the conflicting signs of optimism and worry for Arsenal fans in this new era. Pepe has visibly grown in confidence since his arrival, having strung together several strong performances and registered two goals and one assist in Arsenal’s last six games. Lacazette’s goal drought has been worrying, having only scored once in his last six league appearances and only five league goals on the season. While he has put together some solid performances with his hold up play and support in the attack, a striker has to score goals, especially one that is forcing a world-class goalscorer like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to play as a winger. Lacking goals from their number nine, Arsenal will need to hope that Lacazette breaks his goal drought or hope they can continue to find goals from other players.
Prediction: Arsenal have only won twice away from home all season. Palace have only lost at home three times all season. In the reverse fixture, Palace escaped North London with a point after a Sokratis goal was disallowed by VAR. However, this is a different Arsenal from the team Palace faced in October. While clearly not the finished product, Arteta’s Arsenal have shown growth in attacking confidence and organization compared to the Emery team that faced Palace previously. Their results under Arteta have demonstrated this upward trend, and I anticipate it will continue. In traditional Arsenal fashion, it will not be a clean sheet and they will make the supporters worry, but they will get the result.
Crystal Palace 1-3 Arsenal
Tottenham v. Liverpool
Liverpool’s next key step in their quest for their first league title in 20 years comes with a trip away to a hobbled but still dangerous Tottenham team in a rematch of last season’s Champions League Final.
Spurs have found life under Mourinho slightly better than that under Pochettino, but there are still clear issues in the team. The defense continues to leak goals and they have struggled to find true consistency in results. Injuries have also hit the team hard, having lost French duo Moussa Sissoko and Tanguy Ndombele within the last week. Most importantly, club captain and star striker Harry Kane has also been ruled out for several months with a thigh injury. Having also only won three of their last seven in the league, there probably could not have been a worse time to have to welcome the reigning European champions. To get a result, they must rely on attacking production from Heung-Min Son, Dele Alli, and Christian Eriksen against a strong but not invulnerable Liverpool defense.
What is there to even say about Liverpool at this point? They have not lost in the league all season. Their entire team, for the most part, has been in scintillating form, Salah and Mane have been consistently scoring goals, Firmino has been supporting the attack and scoring in key moments, Robertson and Alexander-Arnold have continued their incredible knack of assisting, and Joe Gomez has grown rapidly into his role as a starting center back alongside Virgil van Dijk. Liverpool won the reverse fixture in a dominating performance at Anfield, and they will not be short on confidence for this one.
Prediction: There could not have been a worse time for these injuries to come for Spurs. The lack of Kane and leaky defense will be detrimental to their chances of even drawing this game. I imagine this will be another dominant performance from Liverpool.
Tottenham 0-4 Liverpool
Angers v. Nice
A top half clash in the absolute mess that is the middle of the Ligue 1 table will no doubt be one of the key matches of the weekend in France, as both Angers and Nice are about as susceptible to being dragged into a relegation fight as they are supporting their fight for the European places.
Angers have found wins hard to come by, having only won twice since the beginning of November and finishing the first half of the season losing three of their final five games. Without a consistent goalscorer and only one player with five or more league goals, they have had to rely on goals from throughout the team to get their results. When those goals dried up, they began to struggle, falling from the podium places into the mid-table slog. The strength in defense, namely from youngster Rayan Aït-Nouri and goalkeeper Ludovic Butelle, has kept them in games, but they will need to find goals if they want to rekindle their previous form.
Speaking of lacking goals, Patrick Vieira’s Nice side are usually lacking for goals, having only scored more than two goals in three of their 19 league games this season. Weirdly enough, those three games were in their final five games before the winter break, in a 3-1 win in the reverse fixture against Angers, as well as a 4-1 win over Metz and a 3-0 win over Toulouse. For most of the season, they have struggled for goals, with their top scorer being midfielder Wylan Cyprien. Young striker Kasper Dolberg has only scored five league goals, but three of them have come in their last six games before the break. Nice are obviously a team trending upward overall since their financial takeover by Ineos, but it is hard to figure out whether Vieira can take this team to the next level. While the answer to that big-picture question is still unclear, they had been improving leading up to the break, and the improved form of Dolberg paired with the good form of Cyprien and midfielder Pierre Lees Melou should give some hope for a strong second half of the season for Le Gym.
Prediction: On paper, these teams are somewhat even, but going into the break, it is clear that one team is trending upward while one team is trending downward. Sometimes it is that simple. Growing confidence in the Nice attack, paired with the memories of their 3-1 win against Angers in November, is enough to make Nice the favorite in this one.
Angers 1-2 Nice
Bordeaux v. Lyon
Another battle in the middle of the French mid-table mess features Lyon, a team loudly underperforming this season, and Bordeaux, a team quietly creeping into the hunt for the European places.
Bordeaux are about as inconsistent as most teams in Ligue 1 this season, going from scoring six goals against Nimes at the beginning of December to only scoring one goal in the league for the rest of the month. Nicolas De Preville has carried most of the burden in attack, being the club’s joint top goalscorer and joint-top assister, but Les Girondins have had some help from some promising youngsters. Ex-Sunderland striker Josh Maja has seemingly taken the starting role from league veteran Jimmy Briand after the Nigerian’s hat-trick against Nimes, and he has done well to maintain his role by supporting in the build up play, despite not scoring since that match against Nimes. Teenager Aurelien Tchouameni has shown promise in his appearances in central midfield. The real star of the show, however has been fellow teenager Yacine Adli, who has really begun to show the promise that many had talked about when he was coming through at PSG. If Bordeaux want to beat Lyon this weekend and continue to push toward the European places, they will have to rely on Adli.
Lyon are slowly beginning to make their way out of the hole they found themselves in following the sacking of Sylvinho, but European football for next season, let alone the Champions League, is far from guaranteed. Knee injuries to Memphis Depay and Jeff Reine-Adelaide, arguably their two best players this season, has also placed a significant roadblock on their path back to the podium. Easier cup matches since the return from the winter break has allowed Lyon to feature some of their next crop of academy talent who are going to be crucial for them in the second half of the season. Rayan Cherki, Maxence Caqueret, and Amine Gouiri all featured in one or both of their wins over Bourg-en-Bresse in the Coupe de France and Brest in the Coupe de la Ligue, with Caqueret and Cherki especially having grown in confidence and demonstrated why they are as highly regarded as they are. Despite those performances, I do not trust Lyon to fully commit to trusting them enough to start them, at least not yet, so I anticipate Lyon putting out a team more susceptible to faltering against Bordeaux.
Prediction: Lyon have shown enough signs of improvement to think they could easily get a result against a promising but still fairly average Bordeaux team. Houssem Aouar and Moussa Dembele’s return to form, paired with the growth of the younger players, has seemingly given Rudi Garcia’s team a bit of confidence moving forward. However, this is a team always ready for a disappointment and dropping points, and this will probably be the case here.
Bordeaux 1-1 Lyon
Lazio v. Napoli
We have an interesting and funny match up in Italy this weekend between the team that is somewhat surprisingly in the title race and a team that is surprisingly not in the title race. One was supposed to be the anti-Juve for the last few years, and the other has emerged as the potential anti-Juve for this season.
The Biancocelesti were indeed a popular dark horse candidate for the Champions League places, and for some, even a potential Scudetto challenger. Here they are, six points off the top with a game in hand, firmly entrenched in the title race. In the quest to find the anti-Juventus, they have done what no other team could do this season and beat the reigning champions. They won their final nine games before the winter break, including a 3-1 win over Juventus in Rome, and their star striker Ciro Immobile continues to score goals at a breakneck pace. Strong seasons for Joaquin Correa, league assist leader Luis Alberto, and defensive stalwart Franco Acerbi, among several others, illustrate how much talent is in this team and how incredible of a job Simone Inzaghi has done as manager. A strong start to the second half of the season will be crucial for Lazio to continue their title challenge, as they really cannot afford to drop points when chasing Juventus and Inter. They have historically struggled against Napoli, having not beaten them since 2015, but with Napoli’s recent struggles and their strong, form, they will surely fancy their chances. If Inzaghi’s team want to win the league, these are the games they have to win.
Things have not gone well for Gennaro Gattuso in the beginning of his Napoli tenure, which fits the overall theme of things not going well for Napoli at all this season. The Partenopei have only won once in their four games under Gattuso, only once in the league in their final five games before the winter break, and only twice in the league in total since the beginning of October. Most recently, they suffered their first defeat to Inter at home since 1997. They have been unable to find consistent goals in their team, only scoring more than once in a league match three times since the beginning of October. They have found a modicum of consistency from Dries Mertens and Arek Milik going forward, while Insigne and Callejon have shown some flashes of creativity on the wings, but they have not been able to string strong performances together, and they have struggled at times to finish goalscoring chances and put games away. They have not found much quality in midfield or defense recently, with Manolas not living up to the expectations put on him, injury issues with Koulibaly, and last year’s star addition Fabian looking like a shell of his former self. While they showed some signs of improvement against Inter, individual mistakes and lack of quality and confidence do not inspire me with much hope for Napoli at the moment.
Prediction: Napoli are improving slowly under Gattuso, and new signings Diego Demme and Stanislav Lobotka will help reinforce that midfield for the rest of the season. However, the team has not improved enough to show they have truly turned a corner, and this, combined with Koulibaly’s absence due to injury, does not give me the confidence to say they can stop Immobile and co.
Lazio 3-0 Napoli
Inter v. Atalanta
Top of the league up against top four contender. This year’s title hopeful against last season’s surprise package. The next serious test for Antonio Conte’s men in their quest to win their first Scudetto in a decade.
Inter have, for the most part, continued to answer every question and pass every test necessary to challenge for the league title. Most recently, their historic 3-1 win against Napoli, their first in Naples since 1997, has once again demonstrated their pedigree and ability to challenge for the title this season. Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez continue to set the world ablaze, forming possibly the most potent strike partnership in Europe this season. Stefan De Vrij is having possibly his best season as a professional, and he has formed a strong connection with Milan Skriniar at the heart of Inter’s defense. Despite a fairly clear injury list, Inter will be without the aforementioned Skriniar and midfielder Nicolo Barella, both suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Wing back Danilo D’Ambrosio will also miss the match due to injury, meaning Conte will probably have to rely on Antonio Candreva, a less defensively able alternative, in that right wing back position. Atalanta have shown a weakness to teams who are able to outwork and outpress them, so look for Stefano Sensi and Marcelo Brozovic’s work in midfield, along with Martinez’s movement up front, being key to winning the match.
The outstanding work of Gian Piero Gasperini has earned Atalanta respect throughout the league. They are no longer viewed as pushovers, and everyone knows they will offer an incredibly tough test for Inter. They have scored 10 goals in their last two matches and 17 in their last five, winning four of them. Josip Ilicic and Alejandro Gomez have been on fire recently, and strikers Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel will both be available after injury layoffs. This is a very strong team who is very good going forward and strong in midfield. They will look to attack with their own attacking wing backs and look to situate Gomez and Ilicic between the wing backs and center backs, allowing them to capitalize on any space they find to create chances for Zapata or finish chances of their own.
Prediction: This would be a statement win for Inter, even more so than their win against Napoli. Atalanta are one of the best teams in the league and are entering this match in fine form. They will offer a significant test for Conte’s team. Inter have passed almost every test they faced this season, but they will not pass this one. Nicolo Barella will be a huge miss for them in midfield, allowing players like Malinovskiy and Freulier to shine in that area, and I would not be confident in Candreva and Biraghi going against Atalanta’s wing backs and attackers. Inter will find a way to score goals, and I imagine Sensi will be important in creating chances for Lukaku and Martinez, but I do not believe they will have enough to win. In a title race that demands near perfection, even dropping two points is failing a major test.
Inter 2-2 Atalanta