A quick preview and breakdown of the biggest matches of the weekend. This part will feature matches taking place on Friday January 24th through Saturday January 25th.
Borussia Dortmund vs. FC Köln
The next step on the Erling Håland hype train is his possible home debut, which could come in a match with potential implications at the top and bottom of the table.
Well…some debut that was, huh? Coming onto the pitch with Dortmund 3-1 down, Erling Braut Håland inspired a remarkable comeback, scoring a hat-trick on his debut as Dortmund ran out 5-3 winners. He is the first Dortmund player since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to score a hat trick on his debut, and he worked out pretty well in the black and yellow shirt. The Norwegian’s power, positional sense, and finishing ability offered Dortmund something they had been seriously missing since Aubameyang’s departure, and they looked a much different and much better side going forward with him on the pitch. The media hounded the youngster and manager Lucien Favre with questions about whether he would start this match or not, and with Håland still getting into match fitness after missing most of December with Salzburg through injury, there is legitimate reason to not start him, but it is a dilemma for Favre to handle. The counterpoint to this match is the fact that they were down 3-1 to a fairly average Augsburg team with a little over 30 minutes to go in the match. Favre was staring a crisis in the face, and having to answer questions about Håland’s fitness is surely much easier than the alternative had they not come back to win. The issues in defense do remain for Dortmund, and with in-form center back Dan-Axel Zagadou set to miss a second consecutive match, I would anticipate Favre would move away from the back three that had served him well up to this point. He is going to have to hope that his attack, namely the aforementioned Håland and in-form winger Jadon Sancho, are still able to outscore the opposition in the short term.
FC Köln, once thought to be relegation favorites, are slowly starting to put the pieces together, and while they are only three points off the relegation playoff place, there is a sense of confidence and assuredness in the team. Effzeh have won their last four matches, including 2-0 and 4-2 wins over Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt, respectively, prior to the winter break, and their most recent 3-1 demolition of Wolfsburg. Their once languid and impotent attack has seemingly found new life, with the loan acquisition of center forward Mark Uth and the emergence of youngsters Ismail Jakobs and Jan Thielmann making tangible differences. This is a team growing in confidence and hitting form at the right time, and manager Markus Gisdol will hope that this new attack can produce enough goals to keep them in the Bundesliga.
Prediction: Dortmund are a vulnerable team going against an in-form attack. This normally spells disaster for Favre’s team, but in Håland, they have a difference-making number nine that they have lacked recently. While their defense is still fragile, they have the attacking capabilities to somewhat offset that issue. They will not be able to just outscore every team they face, but Köln are one of those teams.
Borussia Dortmund 4-2 FC Köln
Valencia vs. Barcelona
A Valencia team fighting for European football welcomes a Barcelona team fighting for a title. This is an impactful match at the top of the La Liga table.
Valencia have been quite inconsistent, even after the sacking of manager Marcelino earlier in the season. After relative league stability leading into the winter break, los Ches lost twice in a row, a 3-1 loss to Real Madrid in the Supercopa semifinal and a shocking 4-1 loss to Mallorca in the league. They recovered with an unconvincing 1-0 win over Segunda B side UD Logroñés in the Copa del Rey, but still head into this match against Barcelona in a precarious position. Despite the early struggles out of the winter break, Valencia remain only 2 points off fifth-placed Getafe and four points off third-placed Atlético Madrid, so their chances at the Champions League are still alive. They will have to do without key players Goncalo Guedes and captain Dani Parejo, but could welcome back striker Rodrigo Moreno into the team. Rodrigo should be an impactful player, and look for young star Ferran Torres to get involved in some way. His pace and directness on the wing could cause problems on the counter. Despite a poor league record against Barcelona in the past, Valencia have to feel that the Catalans are there for the taking.
Welcome to Quique Setién’s Barcelona. The Spaniard took charge of Barcelona following the dismissal of Ernesto Valverde earlier this month, and he has been quick to implement his tactical style. With a heavy focus on possession and less of an emphasis on the directness Valverde was more known for, Setién trotted out his new-look 3-5-2 Barcelona team against Granada last weekend, where the team enjoyed over 80% possession, completed over 1,000 passes, but still scrapped to an unconvincing 1-0 win, thanks to a moment of magic from Lionel Messi. In the Copa del Rey earlier this week, Barcelona looked horrendous playing away to third division side UD Ibiza, coming from behind to win 2-1 after a second half brace from Antoine Griezmann. Despite his admission to the contrary, it is hard to say that Setién has done well in his early days as Barcelona manager. This next test, a trip to what will undoubtedly be a hostile Estadio Mestalla, is a completely different test entirely from Granada at home and a third division side in the cup. In better news, Messi did not play midweek against Ibiza, so he will be rested for this match. The possible return of Samuel Umtiti is also a positive, as it allows Setién to deploy his 3-5-2 without having to play Sergi Roberto as a third center back and Ansu Fati as a wingback. Arturo Vidal will also return to the first team after his late appearance against Ibiza, and the midfield of him, Sergio Busquets, and Frenkie de Jong will be crucial in this match. In a style that values possession as a form of defensive security, Busquets, Vidal, and de Jong will have to win the midfield against a Valencia midfield missing Dani Parejo, a crucial component. If Barcelona has control of the midfield, then they can control the match and truly orchestrate Setién’s plan.
Prediction: This is quite the test for this new-look Barcelona team. Despite their inconsistencies, Valencia are a very good team and are very capable of winning this match. Rodrigo coming back into the team is a huge boost for them going into this match. They will be up for it emotionally and will probably score first, but Barcelona will claw their way back into the match. Lionel Messi may be their savior once again. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Valencia 1-1 Barcelona
West Ham vs. West Brom
Premier League relegation scrapper vs. top of the Championship in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Seems to be the ideal scenario for an upset, right?
You could forgive David Moyes for thinking he had righted the ship in East London after only a few matches in charge. However, after winning their first two matches in charge under Moyes, West Ham would then fail to win in their next three matches, including their most recent 4-1 defeat to Leicester City on Wednesday. While the injury issues seem to be sorting themselves out, there is still the sense that Moyes does not have enough available to him to keep West Ham in the Premier League. Refreshing the team could be a key spark, and the quick turnaround from their league match on Wednesday gives Moyes enough of a reason to change the team up. Michail Antonio could end up being key in this match, providing a directness on the flank that could create opportunities.
West Brom, despite being top of the Championship, are also not in great form. They have only won one in their last six in all competitions, holding onto a slim one point lead over Leeds United. Manager Slaven Bilic, formerly a player and manager at West Ham, has an important balancing act to play. He knows beating West Ham could be a real momentum shift in their season that could get them out of their current rut, but he also knows promotion is more important than the FA Cup. Bilic will also see this match as a chance to rotate, with an important match away to Cardiff in less than a week. Fringe players will get their chance to impress the boss and earn a chance to feature heavily in the final run-in. If West Brom are to win, it will come from Charlie Austin finding space within the notably porous West Ham defense.
Prediction: Neither of these teams are playing particularly well at the moment. I have reasons to say why both teams could lose. Despite the rotation, I still feel that West Brom are the better side, so I am leaning toward the upset.
West Ham 1-2 West Brom
Eintracht Frankfurt vs. RB Leipzig
Yep. There is a title race in Germany. I think we can officially say it, so now that means that the margin for error for RB Leipzig is very slim, and they know that Bayern will always be lurking behind them. Frankfurt see an opportunity to move into a fight for the Europa League Qualifiers place. This match is definitely important.
Eintracht Frankfurt have struggled this season compared to their incredible last season, and they finished the Hinrunde with a whimper, failing to win their final seven league matches. They returned to winning ways to begin the Rückrunde, however, with a 2-1 win over Hoffenheim last week. The 4-4-1-1 formation debuted by Eintracht manager Adi Hütter against Hoffenheim will most likely stay, with Bas Dost playing slightly ahead of Mijat Gaćinović and two banks of four behind them. American Timmy Chandler, who scored his first goal of the season against Hoffenheim, should keep his place in the team and be seen as a key player in attacking Leipzig on the counter and playing crosses into Dost.
Leipzig are fully in the title race at this point, and they know going away to Eintracht is quite a tricky match up for them. While they have improved in playing against sides sitting deep against them, they still have their defensive struggles. Knowing they will have to outscore Frankfurt, the pressure is, as always, on the current Torjägerkanone leader Timo Werner, as well as the supporting cast around him. Yussuf Poulsen could find his way back in the team to replace the injured Patrik Schick, while Emil Forsberg could also be back in the team after recovering from illness. With Kevin Kampl, Willi Orban, Ibrahim Konaté, and Matheus Cunha all still out, manager Julian Nagelsmann could have to, once again, include teenagers Fabrice Hartmann and Tom Krauß on the bench.
Prediction: This is a real “banana peel” match for Leipzig, knowing their margin of error in this title race is still very slim. Despite their injury list, the form of the Leipzig attackers, especially Timo Werner, is too potent to side against. They may concede in this match, but Leipzig will definitely score enough to win.
Eintracht Frankfurt 1-3 RB Leipzig
Bayern Munich vs. Schalke
Manuel Neuer Alexander Nübel Derby should be a classic, with each team in the top five and only separated by three points. While Bayern are the next closest challenger to league-leaders Leipzig, the title race in Germany is definitely not down to only two teams. A win here for either team would be a serious statement in the title race.
A comfortable 4-0 win over Hertha launched Bayern back into second in the table, only four points off the league leaders. They have won their last four league matches, and the return to full fitness of talismanic striker Robert Lewandowski in time for the Rückrune is massive for the Bavarians. The injury plague has lightened, and Hansi Flick will be relieved to see Lucas Hernández back in full training, as well as the return of Joshua Kimmich to the starting line up. The recent loan arrival of Real Madrid right back Álvaro Odriozola adds more defensive support and options for Flick to choose from. The Bavarians are heading into this match full of confidence and in fine goalscoring form.
Schalke are in equally good form, having only lost once in their last ten league matches and coming off an impressive 2-0 win over title rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach. New signing Michael Gregoritsch was impressive in his debut against Gladbach, assisting the first goal and scoring the second. David Wagner may also be receiving good injury news of his own, as star creative midfielder Amine Harit should be fit enough to feature in this match. Midfielder Suat Serdar will be assessed before the match, but should probably be fit enough to feature in some capacity. With the congestion at the top of the Bundesliga table, Schalke know that a win here could be massive in not only their hopes of playing in the Champions League next season, but also of having a realistic shot at winning the league title.
Prediction: Bayern have won four of their last five meetings against Schalke, with those matches also having three or more goals. This match will follow that pattern. Schalke are a very good team who are good enough to be a solid top four team this season, but they do not have enough available to get a result in Munich against a Bayern team in fantastic form.
Bayern Munich 3-1 Schalke
Monaco vs. Strasbourg
It says quite a bit about the current state of Ligue 1 that these teams are separated by three places in the table, being ninth and 12th respectively, but only separated by two points. This match is one of many that could help sort out the middle of the table in France.
While not enough matches have been played to truly judge Robert Moreno’s Monaco, their 3-3 draw against PSG sure did show quite a bit of what the Principality side were missing under Leonardo Jardim. Their devastating ability on the counter through Gelson Martins and Keita Baldé allowed them to attack the outnumbered PSG defense and cause problems, with the Parisians being bailed out by Keylor Navas several times. They will be disappointed with their 4-1 loss to PSG, which confusingly happened right after their 3-3 draw with them in Paris, but there is enough to see that they are going in the right direction. Wissam Ben Yedder, fresh off being crowned Ligue 1 Player of the Month for December, will want to keep his goalscoring tally going against weaker opposition. Les Monégasques will, however, have to do without Keita Baldé, who misses out due to suspension, and could also be without Islam Slimani and Gelson Martins, who are doubtful with injuries. In their absence, Stefan Jovetic will partner Ben Yedder up top, while Benjamin Henrichs will slot in on the right and be tasked with filling the creative void that Martins left. This match will be a different sort of test for Moreno’s side, as their counter-attack strategy from their 3-3 draw in Paris will not work against a Strasbourg side that will sit back and absorb pressure.
Strasbourg, like basically every team outside of the top two or three in France, are quite inconsistent, and that is how they found themselves within the mid-table slog. Ending the first half of the season with three straight league wins, they started the second half of the season losing on penalties to Reims in the Coupe de la Ligue quarterfinals and losing 1-0 in the Derby de l’Est to Metz. Striker Ludovic Ajorque continues to shine in the absence of Lebo Mothiba, but Strasbourg as a team have struggled to score goals away from home lately. They could be without star right back Kenny Lala due to injury, but key midfielder Dimitri Liénard will be fit enough to feature, while new signing Majeed Waris could also play a role. I imagine their gameplan will revolve around a reserved, defensive style to limit the pace and counter-attacking ability of Monaco, while finding ways to exploit the Principality team’s still somewhat shaky defense.
Prediction: Both sides would be looking for a win, given how close things are in the middle of the table. Each side know they have a shot at the Europa League places, if not the main podium places. Strasbourg realize the talent Monaco have and will probably set up in a way that Moreno’s men have not dealt with. In the long run, Monaco will be fine under Moreno, but with the absences they face in this match, this will probably end up in either a draw or tight Monaco win. I will go draw.
Monaco 1-1 Strasbourg