A quick preview and breakdown of the biggest matches of the midweek slate. This part will feature matches taking place on Tuesday January 28th through Thursday January 30th.
Monaco vs. Saint-Etienne
The midweek cup run in France is bookended by two interesting match ups between two Ligue 1 sides. Saint-Etienne travels to the Principality to face AS Monaco for a chance at the quarterfinals of the Coupe de France.
Monaco began the second half of the season with an impressive 3-3 draw against PSG in Paris, but followed that strong performance with a 4-1 loss at home to PSG and a 3-1 loss at home to Strasbourg. Newly crowned Ligue 1 Player of the Month Wissam Ben Yedder is not getting the support from his teammates that he needs, and the rumors surrounding the departure of other striker Islam Slimani could put more pressure on the other forwards on the team to support Ben Yedder. The draw against PSG featured strong counter-attacking play, namely from Gelson Martins on the wing, and that counter attacking quality has been missing in their last few matches. It is still obscure as to what Robert Moreno’s Monaco truly looks like, and they need to discover that identity in order to turn their form around.
Things have gone worse for Saint-Etienne since the return from the winter break. Their most recent 2-1 home win against Nimes reversed their previous form, which included a devastating loss to Nantes and a too-close-for-comfort cup win over Paris FC in the previous round. Luckily for Claude Puel, he now has key attackers Denis Bouanga and Romain Hamouma returning from injury, with Bouanga having VAR rule out his potential goal against Nimes. Last season’s star Wahbi Khazri was also very good in their last match, hopefully kick-starting a run of good form after a poor first half of the season from the Tunisian. Saint-Etienne’s poor run of form coincided with injuries to Bouanga and Hamouma, so having both of them back could be crucial for les Verts in beating Monaco and turning around their season.
Prediction: Despite their struggles, Monaco are still one of the most talented teams in France on paper. Moreno is a good manager and can figure out their struggles. While Saint-Etienne are still a good team, it is unclear how much Bouanga and Hamouma will be able to feature in this match. Talent will win out, and Monaco has the talent.
Monaco 2-1 Saint-Etienne
Leeds United vs. Millwall
A surprisingly important match at the top of the Championship table pits two teams that do not really like each other, and that many others do not like either, against each other.
Leeds have hit their first major roadblock of the season. They have only won two of their last eight in the league and have fallen off of the top spot in the league. The haunting memories of last season, echoes of “Leeds have fallen apart again”, must have reverberated with manager Marcelo Bielsa and the Leeds hierarchy, because they have been motivated to make moves in the January transfer window, most recently bringing in striker Jean-Kevin Augustin on loan. Patrick Bamford, a favorite with Bielsa, has not been as good this season, and their loanee Eddie Nketiah returned to Arsenal. Augustin will be important to solve the goalscoring issues up top for Leeds, but he may not be fit enough to feature in this one. Also not featuring is local boy Kalvin Phillips, who faces a three match suspension for his red card against QPR. In his place, Mateusz Klich will be tasked with filling that same role of carrying the ball forward from midfield and driving the Leeds attack. Loanee winger Ian Poveda could feature in the matchday squad, but will probably not be preferred over Jack Harrison and Helder Costa. They need to be better going forward than they have been in previous games, and that responsibility will probably fall on midfielder Pablo Hernandez. If they cannot score, and probably score early, then they allow Millwall to frustrate them.
Gary Rowett has worked wonders with Millwall this season. The South London club have not lost in the league since the beginning of November, and they now find themselves directly in the Premier League promotion hunt, only two points off the final playoff place. Ryan Woods, who recently arrived in South London on loan from Stoke, was brilliant in his debut and will undoubtedly be a key player in this match up, especially with Phillips’ absence. Jed Wallace should also return to the team, helping to create chances for Matt Smith and Tom Bradshaw up top. Millwall won this match up in The Den earlier this season, so they will be confident in their ability to get a positive result in Elland Road.
Prediction: The new signings could possibly help Leeds in their promotion push, but there are legitimate questions around whether Bielsa’s exhausting high-pressing style is cohesive to succeeding in the long Championship season. Millwall are continuing to churn along toward the playoffs, and Rowett has his team playing with the confidence necessary to get a result here, especially with the key absences for Leeds.
Leeds United 1-1 Millwall
Brentford vs. Nottingham Forest
Another key match up at the top of the Championship, with both teams are looking up at the slimming gap between them and the automatic promotion places and looking down at the several teams lurking outside of the playoff places. It seems that the playoff spots are always decided by a handful of points, so matches within the top half are all very important.
Brentford have only lost twice since the beginning of December, and their current form is good enough to make a legitimate drive at the automatic promotion places, especially with the recent struggles that are plaguing Leeds and West Brom. They have a serious injury crisis on their hands, however, with Pontus Jansson, Mathias Jensen, and Kamohelo Mokotjo all missing out due to injury. Star winger Said Benrahma will also probably not feature, being granted leave from the club to mourn the passing of his father. With Benrahma’s absence, Bryan Mbeumo will have to step up and support top scorer Ollie Watkins in the attack. With Jansson’s absence at the back, Julian Jeanvier will be tasked with partnering Ethan Pinnock at the back. Several key players are out for Brentford, and they will need to have their reserves step up in a match that can go a long way to securing a spot in the Premier League.
Nottingham Forest have also been in great form, winning four of their last six in the league. Club top scorer Lewis Grabban has been in fantastic form, scoring in three of those four wins and their most recent match, a disappointing 1-1 draw against Reading. The right side of the team, namely winger Joe Lolley and the Milan-linked right back Matty Cash, has been crucial to Forest’s success. Despite the disappointing end to that Reading match, Sabri Lamouchi will be confident in his team and will most likely name an unchanged XI for this match. Forest do not have the injury issues that their opponents do, so all of their key players will be fit and ready for this match.
Prediction: Normally, this match would lean in favor of Brentford, especially at home. With the key players missing for the home side, however, Forest will fancy their chances to pick up some points and close the gap on the top two. Grabban and Lolley will be crucial in attacking the Brentford defense missing Pontus Jansson, and they will cause issues.
Brentford 0-1 Nottingham Forest
Aston Villa vs. Leicester City
More cup drama in the midweek and we have a cup semifinal. After a 1-1 draw in the first leg, Leicester travels to Villa Park with a trip to Wembley on the line.
Villa led for most of the first leg of this match up, with Kelechi Ihenanacho scoring late to level the affair. Since then, Villa’s form has been incredibly spotty. A 6-1 demolition at the hands of City was followed up with a heroic late draw away to Brighton and a 2-1 home win against a resurgent Watford team. Club captain Jack Grealish has put in several strong performances to keep Villa in the fight to stay in the Premier League. Anwar El Ghazi has featured as a false nine in the absence of Wesley and Jonathan Kodjia, but with new signing Mbwana Samatta potentially able to feature, there could be goalscoring relief arriving for Dean Smith. Samatta’s ability to bring a goalscoring threat to the team will be crucial in winning this match, as well as staying in the Premier League, but it will still lie on Jack Grealish’s shoulders to make things happen.
Brendan Rodgers will be saying a prayer every night for Jamie Vardy’s hamstring, with the English goalscorer being forced off against West Ham due to injury. Rodgers did say that he was “hopeful” that Vardy would be able to feature, but with hamstring injuries, it may be better to not risk him. In better news, Wilfried Ndidi made his return from injury, and Leicester’s star midfield trio were now reunited. Leicester lost two of their last three in the league, but will hope their most recent win, a comprehensive demolition of West Ham, will get them out of their rut. With Vardy potentially missing this match, the Leicester defense will be important to their success. If they are able to keep Villa out, then they will most likely find a goal from someone.
Prediction: Even with the addition of Samatta, it is hard to feel confident about Villa going into this match. Leicester, even without Vardy, are a significantly better side with talent all over the pitch. They should win this game easily.
Aston Villa 1-3 Leicester City
Manchester City vs. Manchester United
The other second leg of the EFL Cup is, respectfully, not as interesting as the aforementioned Villa-Leicester match. Even as a Manchester Derby, both sides enter this match up in near-polar opposite levels of form and confidence.
Manchester City have returned to their near-dominant form of years past, but they already find themselves well out of the title race. The priority will then shift to defending their cup titles they won last season, as well as European honors, but they will put out a strong team in this match. Pep rested Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne in their FA Cup win over Fulham last weekend, so both players will be fit and ready for this match. Joao Cancelo and Riyad Mahrez could both miss out due to knocks picked up against Fulham, but City, not lacking in squad depth and quality, will not skip a beat by replacing those two with Kyle Walker and Raheem Sterling, respectively. Pep will remember how comprehensive their domination at Old Trafford was in the previous leg, so there is no doubt they are going into this match with one eye already on the EFL Cup Final next month.
Conversely, things are going from bad to worse for Manchester United. Having lost three of their last five in the league, including two embarrassing defeats to Liverpool and Burnley in their last two matches, Ole Gunnar Solskjær has probably reached the beginning of the end of his tenure with the Red Devils. On top of their poor form, talismanic forward Marcus Rashford has suffered set of serious injuries, sidelining him until at least April. In his absence, they seemed fairly clueless going forward against Burnley. Youngster Mason Greenwood will be tasked with coming into the team and replacing the goal threat that Rashford’s absence vacates. In midfield, Paul Pogba’s continued absence leaves a void that United have struggled to fill, and it will probably fall on Juan Mata to be the spark of creativity in midfield. In defense, Harry Maguire and Phil Jones have struggled recently, but they will need to reverse that trend to keep United in the match.
Prediction: This is only going to end one way, and it will not end in favor of United. With City bringing back key players into the team, they should win this match easily.
Manchester City 3-0 Manchester United
Inter vs. Fiorentina
The tie of the midweek in Italy, Fiorentina travels to the San Siro to face an Inter team that is very talented but also hitting some slight struggles in the league. A spot in the semifinals of the Coppa Italia is on the line.
Inter have struggled in the league recently. Ok, “struggled” may be too strong of a term for this case, but three consecutive league draws saw them drop out of first and remain three points behind Juventus. The issues for the Nerazzurri comes in the midfield, where Marcelo Brozovic and Roberto Gagliardini are out with injury. Presumed new signing Christian Eriksen will most likely not be an Inter player in time to feature in this match, so the responsibility in midfield will fall on ex-Fiorentina player Borja Valero. Matias Vecino is constantly linked with a move away, with Everton and Napoli featured in the rumors, so it is unclear whether he would feature in this match. Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez remain a deadly duo, so they are still the key to winning the match.
Fiorentina have found a new lease on life since the departure of Vincenzo Montella. They are unbeaten since return from the winter break and are around mid-table, only six points behind Parma in the final European place. Federico Chiesa scored a big goal in their win over Napoli, but the driving force of this Viola team is in the midfield, which leaves them with an issue in this match. Star youngster Gaetano Castrovilli will miss the match after picking up a scary knock in their last match against Genoa, leaving Erick Pulgar as the key player in the engine room. Without Castrovilli, more responsibility will be placed on Chiesa to turn drive the team forward on the counter to attack the strong but fairly lumbering Inter back line.
Prediction: This could be closer than Inter would want it to be, but with Juve losing away at Napoli, Inter could be feeling a refreshed chance at a title race, and this feeling could lead to a strong response in the cup to counteract their poor league run. This should be an Inter victory at home.
Inter 2-1 Fiorentina
Nice vs. Lyon
The tie of the round in the Coupe de France closes out an exciting midweek slate. In-form Lyon will be tasked with going to the Riviera to beat a resilient Nice team.
Nice are still a tough team to figure out. They have not lost in their last five, but three of those five were draws. The only two wins were against struggling Metz and Toulouse. Since returning from the winter break, they had two 1-1 draws in the league, against Angers and Rennes, and a close 2-1 win against third division side Red Star FC. They have continued to struggle scoring goals, except for the matches against Metz and Toulouse, and they will need to reverse that trend in order to be competitive in the league and continue in the Coupe de France. Wylian Cyprien and Kasper Dolberg are the only players in the team with six or more goals, so they will either need to keep producing at that rate (or better), or hope that other forwards, namely Alexis Claude-Maurice and Adam Ounas, step forward to help ease the pressure on those two. With how good Lyon are playing at the minute, they will not be able to move on unless they can frustrate their attack and find goals on the counter.
Lyon have been flying since returning from the winter break. They have won every match they played in 2020, including big cup wins over Nantes in the last round of the Coupe de France and Lille in the semifinals of the Coupe de la Ligue. They have climbed up to fifth in the league after being in the bottom half for a large portion of the first half of the season. Their attack, despite injuries to key players Memphis Depay and Jeff Reine-Adelaide, has been consistently scoring goals, and Rudi Garcia is fortunate to know he can rely on goals from multiple positions. In-demand striker Moussa Dembele has seemingly improved since Depay’s injury, and he is partnered by the also in-form Houssem Aouar and Maxwel Cornet carrying les Gones forward. New arrival Karl Toko-Ekambi scored his first Lyon goal in his debut, a 3-0 win against Toulouse. The disturbing collapse of Martin Terrier in the first half of their match against Toulouse was concerning, but it appears he is fine and does not have any lasting injury. I would anticipate that he does not feature in this match, so that may be a chance for Toko-Ekambi to keep his spot in the team. They have also seemingly found their ideal midfield pairing, with academy graduate Maxence Caqueret coming in to form a strong partnership with Aouar and Thiago Mendes. It is still not clear whether Rudi Garcia has truly made things click with the Rhone club, but at the minute, they are in fine form and should be very confident going into this match.
Prediction: This is an ideal match for Nice to sit back among their home comforts and frustrate their opponents into a standstill. Lyon are flying at the minute, and with multiple key players in very good form, it is hard to bet against them at the minute. Garcia’s men will be moving on to the quarterfinals of the Coupe de France.
Nice 1-2 Lyon