A quick preview and breakdown of the biggest matches of the weekend. This part will feature matches taking place on Friday January 31st and Saturday February 1st.
Rennes vs. Nantes
We start the weekend with the Derby de la Bretagne. Nantes travel 100 kilometers down the road to face their heated rivals at Roazhon Park, where Rennes will be looking to defend their place on the podium from several clubs vying to overtake them.
Rennes looked the team most likely to capture the final podium place through the first half of the season, but they have stumbled coming out of the winter break. An away win against Nimes is paired with a loss to Marseille and a draw against Nice that sees their lead in third become that much more precarious. They are in to the quarterfinals of the Coupe de France, but they made hard work of it, outlasting Angers 5-4 in extra time after throwing away a 3-1 lead in normal time. That exhausting cup tie will not do Rennes any favors, but key players Eduardo Camavinga and Raphina coming off the bench in that match should mean they are relatively more fresh for this game. Flavien Tait finally looks like he has settled into life with his new team, so he should be a key player in the attack moving forward, hoping to pair well with the in-form M’Baye Niang.
Nantes have had similarly questionable form coming out of the winter break, with a dominant 2-0 win over Saint-Etienne paired with an emotional 1-0 loss to Bordeaux on the anniversary of former striker Emiliano Sala’s passing. They will be without center back Andrei Girotto, who misses out due to the red card he received against Bordeaux. They will also continue to be without club vice-captain Nicolas Pallois and striker Kalifa Coulibaly. Molla Wague should be fit to return to bring some added stability to a solid defense. In Coulibaly’s absence, there will be more pressure on Ludovic Blas and Moses Simon to make things happen going forward.
Prediction: With an injury-riddled Nantes facing an exhausted Rennes, this seems to be a clear score draw. Both teams are solid defensively but are slightly weakened in attack for injury/fitness reasons. However, this is a derby, which adds an extra bit of intensity and unpredictability to the affair, so I think there will be a winner. Rennes, being the home team, are the more likely winner. Eduardo Camavinga and Raphina, being more rested due to limited involvement against Angers, should be difference makers here.
Rennes 2-1 Nantes
Real Madrid vs. Atletico Madrid
Another derby to enjoy this weekend, as the Madrid Derby sets up a match up between a team firmly in the title race and a team calamitously falling out of it.
Real Madrid are a very good team, and not many seem to be talking about it at the moment. Sure, they may not be the world-beating team they were before Ronaldo left, but Zidane went from being on the brink of losing his job to being in full control of the title race pretty quickly, and it is time this Real Madrid team got its praises. They have the best defense in La Liga, a title usually reserved for their red-and-white clad neighbors, having only conceded 13 league goals this season and having conceded twice in the league since the beginning of December. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane have been very good this season, and Thiabut Courtois is demonstrating why he was so coveted. In midfield, Toni Kroos and Casemiro have been solid this season, with Kroos especially shining as of late, and the emergence of youngster Federico Valverde has changed quite a bit for Zidane when it comes to team selection. The issue remains going forward, as this los Blancos team still struggles for goals. Karim Benzema is enjoying a fine season, with 12 league goals to his name, but no other Real Madrid player is in double figures. Their last nine league goals have not come from forwards, which is a positive because it shows they can find goals from other areas of the pitch, but it also highlights their dependence on Benzema to score. With Eden Hazard still sidelined with an ankle injury, they will have to hope to keep finding goals from other areas of the pitch to ease the burden on Benzema or hope they can ride a strong defense to see out results.
Atletico Madrid are having a torrid time. They have one of the worst attacks in La Liga, having scored only 22 league goals through 21 league games. Their defense, usually a staple of Simeone’s Atletico teams, is also leaking goals. They are in very poor form, coming off a 2-0 loss to relegation-fighting Eibar and a 0-0 draw to relegation-fighting Leganes. They were eliminated from the Copa del Rey by third division side Cultural Leonesa. The attacking support they thought they would be getting from the transfer market seems to not be arriving, as they have failed to match the valuation set by PSG for striker Edinson Cavani. Diego Simeone looks as though he has ran out of ideas, and this seems to be a sign of a “generation-ending” moment for los Colchoneros. On the injury front, neither Thomas Lemar nor Koke are expected to recover in time, while Joao Felix will also be absent due to a muscular injury. Kieran Tripper and Jose Gimenez are also doubts, weakening an already frail Atletico defense. All of the responsibility in the world may rest on Jan Oblak to keep his team alive in this game under what will probably be relentless pressure from Real Madrid.
Prediction: These kinds of derby matches have usually finished 0-0 in the past. Both sides being risk averse or relying on defense for whatever reason usually leads to fewer chances and draws. However, I do not fully trust Atletico going into this match. Their current form combined with their injury issues will end up costing them. Real Madrid will win in classic Atletico fashion.
Real Madrid 1-0 Atletico Madrid
Leicester City vs. Chelsea
It is not a derby, but it is still an important match to decide the top of the Premier League table. In a weekend with plenty of big games in England, this just may be the biggest.
Leicester recovered from their poor run of form with a convincing league win over West Ham and a win over Brentford in the FA Cup, but they also crashed out of the EFL Cup in heartbreaking fashion with a 2-1 loss away to Aston Villa. Brendan Rodgers will have to hope that his team can move quickly past the Villa loss to be in the right frame of mind going into this massive game. Despite the recent struggles, Leicester remain in third and are currently eight points ahead of Chelsea in fourth and 14 points ahead of Manchester United in fifth, so their top four place is seemingly secure at the moment. They could afford to drop points here without finding themselves in a precarious situation. They are also only three points behind Manchester City in second, so they should aim to try and finish ahead of them, which would make this match quite important. The pressure to win is there for Leicester but, at the moment, it is not as serious as it could be. On the injury front, it looks as though Jamie Vardy will return to the starting XI after coming off the bench against Villa. He will be a crucial addition to the team to help them turn their form around.
Chelsea are also coming off of spotty form, having dropped points in three of their last five league matches, including a bonkers 2-2 draw against Arsenal last time out. Unlike Leicester, their position in the Champions League places is more precarious, only six points ahead of the trio of Manchester United, Spurs, and Wolves. While United and Spurs are struggling, Wolves are in great form and could look to narrow that gap to fourth if Chelsea slip up. Frank Lampard’s team are seemingly hitting the rut that is expected to come for young teams, and despite their transfer ban being shortened, they have not been in a rush to add any players in the January window. Going into this game, Lampard could have to do without striker Tammy Abraham, who continues to face a late test to make the match day squad. In more positive news, Reece James should be fit enough to return and take up his place on the right side of Chelsea’s back four.
Prediction: I expect a strong response from Leicester following their defeat at Villa Park, but I also expect Chelsea to be lively after an extended rest. Leicester are strong at home, while Chelsea are strong travelers. The main questions come with Chelsea’s attacking capability potentially without Abraham and with a somewhat struggling Mason Mount. Leicester are overall the stronger team and should come out firing from the first minute.
Leicester City 2-1 Chelsea
Bournemouth vs. Aston Villa
Another massively important match in England, but on the other end of the table. Bournemouth and Aston Villa are only separated by two points in the relegation fight, so we have another perfect definition of the phrase “relegation six pointer” right here.
Bournemouth finally won a game, ending their six match winless run in a 3-1 demolition of fellow relegation fighter Brighton. Villa are a tougher test, however, and Eddie Howe will not be helped out by the current injury situation with the Cherries. Already being without the likes of David Brooks, Josh King, and Chris Mepham, they could also be without midfielder Philip Billing. Howe will have to cling to the Brighton result as a source of confidence for his team, especially with the positive performances from Harry Wilson and Callum Wilson. If Bournemouth want to stay in the Premier League, they will have to score significantly more goals than they had been prior to the Brighton game, and key to their entire attack will be the performance of Callum Wilson. If he can produce, then Bournemouth have a chance in this match and for the rest of the season.
The famous Aston Villa are going to Wembley after Trezeguet’s 93rd minute goal lifted the Villains past Leicester City. That match was the perfect way to cap off a rare good week in a season of struggle for Dean Smith’s team. Prior to their cup heroics, they beat Nigel Pearson’s resurgent Watford team to earn an important three points in the relegation fight, and they also secured the transfer of Tanzanian striker Mbwana Samatta from Genk. Samatta fills an important void in the team following the injury to Wesley and the departure of Jonathan Kodjia, and while Samatta did not score against Leicester, he performed well and should keep his place in the team. I have said it before and I will say it again, however, the burden for keeping Villa in the Premier League lies with Jack Grealish. The young Birmingham-born midfielder is having a career year, a year that could see him in the England team for the Euros this summer, but he will have to continue to perform if Villa want to stay up.
Prediction: Both teams will go into this match with confidence on the back of strong results previously, but I still have trouble backing Bournemouth for success. Their injury list is quite extensive, and while they did perform well against Brighton, it is unclear whether they can string good performances together over multiple games. Villa, on the other hand, are riding a massive result for their club, have signed a key player in a key position, and have a star player in the best form of his life. I back Villa here.
Bournemouth 1-2 Aston Villa
Crystal Palace vs. Sheffield United
More big games in England. Seemingly everyone who is grouped near each other in the table is playing this weekend. In this match, eighth-placed Sheffield United travel to Selhurst Park to face 11th-placed Crystal Palace, in a match between two teams that are only three points apart. Both teams are theoretically still in the hunt for the European places and in the hunt to be crowned “best of the rest”.
It feels fitting that Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace can get a draw against both Arsenal and Manchester City and still lose to Southampton a week later. Palace will be content with their current position, mid table while being away from the relegation fight, but they now see the possibility of finishing seventh as a possible, but maybe not probable, outcome. As Lloyd Christmas would say: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?” The loan acquisition of Cenk Tosun from Everton has boosted Palace’s attack and provided another option apart from purely relying on Wilfried Zaha, but they will both need more support if Palace want to make this European dream come true. They will be boosted by the return of Luka Milivojevic, but they should still be without Mamadou Sakho, Patrick van Aanholt, and Andros Townsend due to injury. I would expect that, for Palace to win, Jordan Ayew will have to provide some form of support for Tosun, but most of the pressure to deliver will, as usual, be on Zaha.
Sheffield United have, for the most part, kept chugging along this season, continuing to find ways to get results and string points together. Several draws, however, has slowed their progress to the top six, and they now find themselves on the outside of the European places. They also, more worryingly, find themselves dangerously close to dropping down into the bottom half of the table. While Sheffield United still retain some of the “playing with house money” ideal that afflicts a newly promoted club doing as well as them, it would be much sweeter at the end of the season to be sitting in the top seven than it would be to be in 14th. Part of the issue for the Blades is goalscoring, with the team having only scored eight times in their last nine matches. Their defense has stayed strong, but the lack of goals mean they leave more matches with only one point instead of all three, leading to their slowed climb up the table. New signing Sander Berge is a massive coup for a club that was playing in the Championship last season, and he will be crucial for Chris Wilder’s men in the second half of the season, but he will not yet be ready to feature in this game. In positive news, midfielder John Lundstram should return to the team for this match, and there are no other major injury issues for Wilder to deal with.
Prediction: Palace have done really well to get to this point, and they are clearly a safe mid-table team at this point. However, despite their struggles, Sheffield United are the more talented team. While the Blades’ form may look bad on paper, three of their last five matches were against Liverpool and Manchester City in matches where they were not necessarily that bad. Sheffield United are great travelers, and I anticipate their attack will find goals and they will return from their trip to South London with all three points.
Crystal Palace 1-2 Sheffield United
Manchester United vs. Wolves
More important matches in England, and this match features two teams on the exact same amount of points. Manchester United are fifth, ahead of Wolves on only goal difference, and are clinging on to their top four chances for dear life, while Wolves are surging back up the table.
To say Manchester United have been struggling recently might be an understatement. Having lost three of their last five in the league, including a humiliating loss to Burnley at Old Trafford, United are really in rotten form. Two convincing wins, one over Norwich in the league and the other over Tranmere in the FA Cup, are the only signs of life that manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær can cling to. The only other good news comes from the transfer front, where United have finally, at long last, secured the signature of Portuguese midfielder Bruno Fernandes from Sporting. While he did cost quite a bit of money, he fills a position that United have desperately needed, and he should provide some creative attacking potency in the team that has gone missing due to the absence of Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford. I would not be surprised if Fernandes made his United debut in this match, considering how important he would automatically become to this team. They will be without Nemanja Matic in midfield, who has to serve a suspension due to his red card against Manchester City in the EFL Cup semifinal, but they do not have any other new injury or suspension issues. Unless they sign a striker in the closing hours of the transfer window today, I would anticipate Anthony Martial starting up top, and the pressure will be on Fernandes to be the creative key in midfield to help break down the Wolves back line.
Wolves have also been in poor form recently, losing three of their last five matches in the league. While, to be fair, two of them were against Liverpool, they still did lose to Watford, draw with Newcastle, and had to come from behind to beat Southampton. These struggles are also paired with a loss to Manchester United in the EFL Cup Quarterfinal. Despite these struggles, they have still only lost six times in the league all season, tied with Manchester City for the second-least amount of losses this season. Their ten draws are seemingly the thing holding them back from challenging for the top four. Also similarly to United, Wolves recently signed their own Portuguese attacking midfielder, securing the signature of Daniel Podence from Olympiakos. While Podence is fit enough to start this match, I anticipate he will be named to the bench, and we could potentially see him in the second half. Nuno Espirito Santo will probably choose the same team he sent out against Liverpool in their last match. The key for Wolves will, once again, be Adama Traore and Raul Jimenez, who are the two star performers in this team this season, going against a struggling United defense.
Prediction: Both of these teams have struggled as of late, but one is still clearly better than the other. Wolves are the more complete team and are much more dangerous going forward. Raul Jimenez will probably be a nightmare for Phil Jones and Harry Maguire to deal with, and I anticipate that he will score. I do think Bruno Fernandes will start, and I do think he will be a good signing for United, but I also think it will take him time to adapt to his new surroundings, so he may not perform at his best in this game. I would say Wolves would win fairly easily.
Manchester United 1-3 Wolves
Strasbourg vs. Lille
The match ups between teams close in the table continues in France, where two teams fighting for European places and the potential to catch Rennes for the final podium place meet in a fairly evenly matched affair.
Strasbourg entered the winter break in fantastic form, having won their final three matches before the break. They exited the break as many other French teams did, with a slight bump in the road to start the second half of the season. A 3-1 demolition of Monaco in the Principality remains their highest point of this half of the season so far, as that match is paired with a 1-0 loss to Metz in the league, penalty defeat to Reims in the Coupe de la Ligue, and, most recently, a 3-1 defeat to Marseille in the Coupe de France. Despite the struggles, they have still enjoyed the good form of talismanic striker Ludovic Ajorque, who was sensational in their win against Monaco. Adrien Thomasson has also been in fine form recently playing behind Ajorque. Le Racing should be boosted by the return of right back Kenny Lala from injury and center back Alexander Djiku from suspension. Lebo Mothiba could also be in line to feature in some capacity following an injury layoff, and it is possible he could form a good partnership with Ajorque up front. Despite their struggles, Strasbourg still find themselves three points off the Europa League place and seven points off the final podium place, so if manager Thierry Laurey can work his magic again, Strasbourg can make a serious run at European football next season.
Lille are not fully enjoying their return from the winter break, having only won three times in the year 2020, with none of those wins coming in the league. They beat Amiens 2-0 in the Coupe de la Ligue, only to lose to Lyon on penalties in the next round. They won two matches in the Coupe de France, only to lose to fourth-division side Epinal after heavily rotating their team. Their league campaign following the winter break was halted by a disappointing loss to Dijon and a comprehensive loss to PSG. Despite the struggles, they still are not a bad team by any means. They did perform well against Lyon and at times against PSG, and there is still plenty of talent on the pitch for les Dogues. Manager Christophe Galtier will not lose faith in their chances to challenge for the podium, and since the middle of the table in France is so congested, they find themselves in a good enough position to challenge those higher in the table. Since they heavily rotated in the Coupe de France match, they should have several key players, namely Jose Fonte and Victor Osimhen, rested and ready for their trip to the East of France. Osimhen, regardless of whether he is partnered with Loic Remy or Jonathan Ikone up top, will definitely cause some issues for the Strasbourg defense, and he will be the player that Lille will look to when they need a goal in this match.
Prediction: Both teams know a win helps them in their push for Europe, but, with only three or four points separating these teams from 15th in the table, both teams know a loss could drop them quite far down the table. Both teams, with in-form attackers, will go for the win. Anticipate plenty of goals, but the more rested Lille team will come out victorious.
Strasbourg 1-3 Lille
RB Leipzig vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach
The final key clash of Saturday comes at the top of the Bundesliga, where things are beginning to sort themselves out. Both teams are still involved in the title race, but this result could be massive for either team’s chances at staying in this race.
RB Leipzig were flying high in the league until a shocking 2-0 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt grounded them. With the gap between them and Bayern down to only one point, Julian Nagelsmann knows the margin for error in this team is now very slim, and with their trip to Bavaria coming up in just over a week, it is important for Leipzig to not slip up here, as defeat here and in Munich could see them with a steep hill to climb to get back to the top of the table. Leipzig are going against the statistically toughest defense in the league, so they will need a return to form from Timo Werner and their other attacking players, possibly including the returning-from-injury Emil Forsberg, to break through a formidable Gladbach defense. Leipzig’s makeshift back line combinations including Dayot Upamecano, Lukas Klostermann, Marcel Halstenberg, and Nordi Mukiele will also have to be stout to keep out the dynamic duo of Alassane Plea and Marcus Thuram. The newest addition to the team, Spanish forward Dani Olmo, may not be ready to feature in this match, but going forward he is able to provide much-needed width to a team that often plays quite narrow. If he does feature, look for him to challenge the fullbacks and try to pull the back line apart, opening up space for Werner in the middle.
Gladbach have fallen a bit out of the title race, following some struggles going into the winter break and a 2-0 loss to Schalke to start off the Rückrunde. Despite the struggles, they are still only two points off of Leipzig and would leapfrog the East German team with a win. That is really how amazingly close things are at the top of the Bundesliga. Marco Rose has the best statistical defense in the league at his disposal, with his team having only conceded 21 goals this season. Much of that success is down to the ability of center backs Matthias Ginter and Nico Elvedi, as well as fullback Stefan Lainer. Going forward, the French duo of Alassane Plea and Marcus Thuram have worked very well together, with them being the club’s two top scorers through this point in the season. Winger Patrick Hermann is not getting as much attention, but he is also having a great season playing in support of the French duo. They are going against a very stout defense as well, with Leipzig only having conceded two more goals than Gladbach this season. The Red Bulls defense features players, namely Upamecano, Klostermann, and Halstenberg, that are quite big and physically imposing players, so the also big and imposing Marcus Thuram will need to be influential and winning individual battles against those three in order for Gladbach to have success. Look for Marco Rose to take inspiration from what Adi Hütter did well with Eintracht against Leipzig, having his team sit back and allow Leipzig to have the ball while hitting them on the counter. Rose should be confident enough in his defense to willingly sit back and let Leipzig have the majority of the possession, and attacking on the counter using Hermann and Thuram’s pace on the wings could cause the Red Bulls some issues.
Prediction: This is a very difficult match to call. It should be quite fun for the neutral observer, even with the reputation of both teams defenses. While I think Gladbach will cause Leipzig plenty of issues, I think Nagelsmann will get the reaction he wants out of his team, and Leipzig will get the win at home.
Leipzig 2-1 Borussia Mönchengladbach