A quick preview and breakdown of the biggest matches of the weekend. This part will feature matches taking place on Saturday February 8th.
Getafe vs. Valencia
An immensely important match at the top of La Liga, this could be a game that decides the European places and…wait…Getafe are third?????
Third??????? They are third??? Getafe, a team that were not even in the top three leagues of Spanish football twenty years ago, are now third in La Liga and are in pole position to qualify for next season’s Champions League. They are the second-highest placed Madrid team in the table, just behind Real Madrid and ahead of Atletico Madrid and Leganes. They have won their last three in a row, keeping clean sheets in all three, and they are usually very strong when playing at home. Going forward they are still a solid team, spearheaded by the in-form Jaime Mata and Marc Cucurella, but they earn their points by being the mini-Atletí, a team incredibly formidable in defense while frustrating the opposition with professional fouls. Being near or at the top among Spanish teams in fouls conceded, Getafe are an immensely frustrating team to play against at times. They will rely on frustrating Valencia in the midfield, not allowing Dani Parejo to influence the match and forcing turnovers to lead to counters. They have been able to ride this momentum and playing style into the Champions League places, and this match against a fellow top four-hunting rival will be important in ensuring they remain in that position moving forward.
Valencia have had a bit of a weird start to the calendar year, with an embarrassing 4-1 loss to Mallorca preceding a 2-0 win over Barcelona in mid-January. They will be hoping to find a similar level of bounce-back performance here following their loss to Granada in the Copa del Rey earlier in the week. They will have to do so without several important players, as they will be without the suspended Francis Coquelin and Daniel Wass, as well as the injured Ezequiel Garay and Kevin Gamiero. In the absence of Wass, this would be the perfect time for new signing Alessandro Florenzi to make his debut. I would expect Mouctar Diakhaby to keep his place in the team due to Garay’s injury, and I would also anticipate Geoffrey Kondogbia to come in for the suspended Coquelin. The key for Valencia will be controlling the tempo of the match, and that starts in midfield. Dani Parejo is usually an important player for los Ches, and he will continue to be in this match. Getafe are a team that like to use tactical fouls to break up play and slow things down, so it will be down to Valencia’s midfield to maintain some consistency in tempo and organization.
Prediction: Valencia are a good team, but the defeat to Granada and the injury/suspension issues should take all of the wind out of their sails that they got from beating Barcelona. Getafe at home are a difficult team to go against, and Valencia will struggle at times in this match.
Getafe 1-0 Valencia
Everton vs. Crystal Palace
The middle of the Premier League is nearing Ligue 1-levels of slog, and this match is firmly in the middle of that slog. Both teams are a slip up away from dooming themselves to a lower mid-table finish, but are also a strong surge away from potentially fighting for the European places.
Everton have had two remarkably opposite matches in their previous two league games, with a very strong performance but disappointing ending characterizing their 2-2 draw with Newcastle at Goodison Park, while a very poor performance but very strong phases describing their come-from-behind 3-2 victory over Watford last time out. Overall, it is clear to see that Carlo Ancelotti has changed this Everton team for the better, even with the very limited resources he has had to work with and with no incoming players in the January window. Since the appointment of Ancelotti as manager, Everton have earned the second most points of any team in the Premier League, trailing only cross-town rivals and runaway league leaders Liverpool. They have gone from solidly mid-table to potentially finding themselves in a race for a European place. Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin have continued their strong form in attack, while Mason Holgate has continued his strong form in defense, which has characterized him as the revelation of the season for the Toffees. Going into this match, it will be interesting to see how Ancelotti changes his team, and there are several questions that I am sure the Italian is considering. Does he bring out the same team that beat Watford, minus the suspended Fabian Delph, or does he make changes to work out the issues that were exposed by the poor performance at Vicarage Road? Does he revert back to his 5-at-the-back system in an effort to better deal with Wilfried Zaha? Does Michael Keane come back into the team as an effort to deal with the vertical threat posed by Christian Benteke? I would be interested in seeing Holgate back in midfield, replacing the suspended Delph, while Keane comes in to fill his role in defense. Ancelotti is a tactical manager who has changed and altered game plans to fit the pieces he has available and the opponent he is facing, so him getting the team and game plan correct is critical to beat a team as frustrating, but still talented, as Palace.
Crystal Palace have been stuttering. With only one league win in their last ten, and two key losses in their last two matches, they are slowly losing sight of the top half of the table. Roy Hodgson knows how much a win would boost his team, and while Everton have been in great form recently, they still are a team that could slip up at any moment. Without January signing Cenk Tosun, Palace will have to look to either Andre Ayew or Christian Benteke to lead the line. Regardless of who else they play in attack, Palace are still seemingly a one man team, and Wilfried Zaha will have to be the man to make things happen for them going forward. If Zaha does not perform well, Palace will not win this game. I expect Palace to go to Goodison Park with a very defensive game plan, and they will look to Zaha and Andros Townsend to try and hit Everton on the counter when they have over-committed players forward. A draw would be a fine result for Palace, but sneaking out of Merseyside with a win would be even better.
Prediction: Based on form, Everton would be a clear winner, but the eye test would dictate that Everton are not quite as good as the form table would suggest. While they are still a very solid side, they are prone to disappointment and slip ups. Palace have historically been a banana skin for the Toffees, and this match should be equally tricky. The victory against Watford, while not being a good performance, should banish some of the bad memories formed against Newcastle and restore some of Everton’s confidence. A boring draw seems likely here, especially with it being the early game, but I will go ahead and take the leap and say Everton win here in what will undoubtedly be a very frustrating match for both sides.
Everton 1-0 Crystal Palace
Nottingham Forest vs. Leeds United
Leeds were storming away with the Championship, seemingly on their way to the Premier League and unable to be caught by the trailing pack. Now, they are second and only three points off dropping into the playoff spots. Groundhog Day has come again for Leeds fans. This Midlands Derby offers a chance for Marcelo Bielsa’s team to turn it around, but it also offers Forest a chance to close in on automatic promotion. This will be quite important.
A 2-1 loss away to Birmingham in their last match was the only hiccup for Sabri Lamouchi’s side, having gone unbeaten in over a month and having found themselves within touching distance of the top two. What will worry Lamouchi is the plateauing of top scorer Lewis Grabban’s form. Grabban has only scored twice in his last five matches, so helping him break out of that rut could be key in Forest taking command of the playoff race, or even breaking into the top two. A man who could be influential in helping Grabban find the back of the net is fullback Matty Cash, who stayed put in the Midlands despite heavy interest from other clubs during the January window. Him and midfielder Joe Lolley are the primary chance creators in this team, and with a target man like Grabban lurking in the box, it is crucial that those two retain their good form going forward.
Leeds are falling apart again. It all feels too familiar. A strong start to the season gives way to exhaustion and a poor run of form in the middle of the season that takes them from top of the league to fighting to keep their spot in the automatic promotion places. Leeds have only won twice since their 2-0 victory over Hull on December 10th, and this poor run of form has many asking questions of the capability of manager Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa will have to do without midfield maestro Kalvin Phillips, who is serving the last of his three-match red card ban, so they will once again be reliant on Mateusz Klich to provide some dynamism in midfield and help transition from midfield to attack. New signings Ian Poveda and Jean-Kevin Augustin will hope to have an expanded role in the team, with Augustin especially hoping he could make a difference if handed a Leeds debut by Bielsa. I would anticipate that Bielsa sticks with his tried and true first-choice team, but if Leeds are losing, then Augustin will be handed a debut.
Prediction: The way Leeds are playing, and especially without Kalvin Phillips, I do not have any shred of confidence in Bielsa’s side winning this match. Augustin could come on and make a massive difference in this match, but I believe he would be doing so in an attempt to rescue points from a losing position. This will be a score draw.
Nottingham Forest 2-2 Leeds United
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Borussia Dortmund
There are a whole lot of different races for a whole lot of different positions in Germany. The title race is heating up at the top, and Dortmund are definitely involved in that chase. However, Leverkusen have been in decent form and see a possibility to close the gap on Dortmund and the top four to two points.
Leverkusen are slowly figuring things out. They have won three of their last five in the league, and they recovered from their 2-1 league loss to Hoffenheim to beat Stuttgart 2-1 in the DFB Pokal in their previous match. Youth is the key to success for the Werkself, with youngsters Moussa Diaby and Kai Havertz being key to their attack. Joining the young core is Argentinian midfielder Exequiel Palacios, who is expected to make his league debut following Kerem Demirbay’s suspension. Returning to the team from absences are key veterans, including Kevin Volland and Lars Bender. The talent is there, but form and confidence was the issue. If Leverkusen could keep this confidence going, they can win this match and legitimately challenge the top four.
Erling Haland will score again. Ok, we got that part out of the way? Good, let us talk about the rest of the team. Dortmund were flying in the league, but hit a bump in the road after a 3-2 loss to struggling Werder Bremen in the DFB Pokal. Club captain Marco Reus is out with injury, so now we have the chance to see a full league opportunity for Haland to lead the line. American youngster Giovanni Reyna, who scored his first Dortmund goal against Werder earlier in the week, could also find himself with a spot on the bench and an opportunity to come in and make a difference if the match is close. Dortmund’s defense is still leaking goals, but with the incredible form that Haland and Jadon Sancho are going through, Lucien Favre has to feel confident that his team are able to at least outscore some opponents, even away from home.
Prediction: There will be goals. Probably quite a few of them. This will be a very interesting match, and this will be a match that Dortmund get themselves through. There will most likely be more Haland heroics here.
Bayer Leverkusen 2-3 Borussia Dortmund
FC Porto vs. Benfica
Due to the structure of the schedule in the Portuguese league this season, this Portuguese Classico has significantly more meaning than normal. With no match-ups between the top three sides scheduled until late in the season, this match could legitimately decide the title race. Benfica are seven points clear of their rivals, and a win here could see them begin to amass an insurmountable lead, while a Porto win could begin to make things quite interesting at the top.
Porto are playing well, having won four of their last five league games, but a crucial stumble at home to Braga allowed Benfica to extend their lead at the top. If Porto want to catch their rivals, they must win this match. They will at least go into this match with confidence knowing they are the only Portuguese side to beat Benfica this season and knowing that as Águias have only won three times in Porto in the last 20 years. They could be hampered by injury, knowing that midfield rock Danilo Pereira could miss the match with knee issues. They could, however, be about to welcome back veteran center back Pepe into the team, which would be a big boost to Porto’s back line. Brazilian striker Tiquinho Soares could be crucial for Porto’s chances at winning this match, having scored six times in his last six appearances. Scoring first, whether through Soares or not, will allow Porto to pile the pressure on Benfica and grab control of the match.
Benfica have stormed through the Primeira Liga this season, and they find themselves with a chance to pretty much nearly wrap up a league title in mid-February. While they know their only league loss this season has been to Porto, and manager Bruno Lage is certainly aware of Benfica’s poor away record at the Estadio do Dragao, he also knows that he won his last Classico in that stadium. A win for Benfica in this match would make Lage the first manager in club history to win consecutive league matches at the Dragao, so there is another added boost for Lage’s men. Benfica also have their own in-form striker, Carlos Vinicius, who will be tasked with continuing his red-hot form. He will likely be partnered by Pizzi and Rafa Silva, who scored in Benfica’s win at the Dragao last season. They are blessed with an abundance of solid midfield options, but the team selection is a bit easier with Gabriel Pires’ absence. Julian Weigl could also possibly miss out, but he will seemingly more than likely play. While Ruben Dias and Ferro are locks to continue in the heart of defense, injury to Jardel means there is very little cover for those two.
Prediction: Both teams are, mostly, in good form, and that, combined with past history, would seemingly point to a score draw. While that is very possible, I do believe that the potential absence of Pereira and Pepe is devastating for Porto. Bruno Lage, unlike most Benfica managers, only knows how to win at the Dragao, having won his only match there as Benfica manager. With the Eagles’ strong form going into this match, as well as relative lack of injury issues, I do think they will find a way to win. History will be made for Lage.
Porto 1-2 Benfica