A quick preview and breakdown of the biggest matches of the weekend. This part will feature matches taking place on Saturday March 7th.
Atletico Madrid vs. Sevilla
We open the weekend with a match that is colossally important in the fight for the Champions League places in Spain. Both clubs, and mainly both managers, are under significant pressure, and failure to qualify for the Champions League for either team could lead to a significant change in the summer.
Atletico Madrid have been an impossible conundrum to solve this season. Their win over Liverpool in the Champions League should have been the return of Cholismo and a return to form for the team, and their 3-1 win over Villarreal in the league immediately after was also quite impressive, but their 1-1 draw with Espanyol highlighted some of the lingering issues with the team. In a game where an individual moment of brilliance from Saul was the only thing that they could produce going forward, the questions about Atleti’s attacking potency under Diego Simeone will once again rear their ugly head. In a race for the top four where there is very little margin for error, with four points separating third from seventh, Atleti desperately need someone that can score goals. While Joao Felix, Alvaro Morata, and Angel Correa, among others, have shown quality in flashes, they have been unable to find consistency in attack. Yannick Carrasco has probably been their best attacking player since his return from China, but he cannot do it all on his own. Overall, Atleti have been better as of late, but they need to show that this Espanyol draw was just an anomaly and not a sign of things to come. Key midfielder Thomas Partey will miss the match due to suspension, so the pressure lies heavily on Saul in midfield, as well as Marcos Llorente, who will likely take Thomas’ place, to provide the stability in midfield that Simeone teams need to stay defensively sound and, hopefully, create chances going forward.
Sevilla are also a conundrum of their own. While they have only lost one of their last six in the league, including a resounding 3-0 win over top four rivals Getafe, their one loss came to relegation fighting Celta Vigo, and they also had a draw of their own against Espanyol and needed a 93rd minute winner to beat ten-man Osasuna. In the Europa League, they narrowly scraped by Romanian side CFR Cluj, moving on to the next round on away goals. The pressure is seriously mounting on manager Julen Lopetegui, especially from the fans, and failure to qualify for the Champions League could see an end to the Spaniard’s reign with the Andalusian giants. With matches still coming against Villarreal, Real Sociedad, and Valencia later in the season, Lopetegui knows he has other chances to snag points from top four rivals, but those chances are still limited. He will at least feel confident in the fact that they now have a striker that can score goals, with January signing Youssef En-Nesyri already scoring three times in six appearances, nearly equaling former first team striker Luuk de Jong’s tally in a quarter of the games. Lucas Ocampos has also continued his fine form this season, and those two will pose a significant threat against an Atleti defense that has been more porous this season than in previous years. The midfield battle will also be crucial, and with Fernando and Oliver Torres suspended, they will look to Joan Jordan to provide the physicality in midfield, as well as Ever Banega to provide the outlet passing on the counter.
Prediction: Despite their struggles this season, I still look at every Atleti match and instinctively think that not many goals will be scored. I do feel that Atleti tend to turn up in the bigger games, where the attitude of Cholismo tends to work best, but I find it hard to believe that Sevilla will not score at least once. Part of me thinks a draw, but I will go with Atleti narrowly sneaking out a win at the Wanda.
Atletico Madrid 2-1 Sevilla
Barcelona vs. Real Sociedad
Well, more twists and turns at the top, I suppose. This title race, as I said previously, will not be decided by El Clasico and will definitely go down to the wire.
Yeah, Barcelona lost El Clasico. But man, they looked awful for large stretches of that match. They kept the ball well, but they just looked so slow and languid in possession. They did not have much in the way of creativity, and even then, they generated three chances that they should have scored. After Real Madrid’s goal, they did not look likely to get back into the match. Messi, Griezmann, De Jong, and Vidal looked largely ordinary at best, and questions have rightly been asked about Quique Setien’s tactical set up going into this match. He seemingly got it wrong, and because of that, Barcelona are now below Real Madrid in the table. The title race is far from over, but Barcelona have to take a step up in quality if they want to win the title, and this is a very difficult match to go into when you are licking the wounds from a Clasico defeat. Sociedad are a dynamic, energetic, and potent attacking team, seemingly a combination that equates to Barcelona’s kryptonite, so Setien will have to either change his tactical mindset or hope his possession style is able to neutralize the attacking talent that la Real have in their team. I would expect, that if Setien were to make changes, it would be the introduction of Ansu Fati into the team to provide some actual width, dynamism, and general attacking alertness into the team. Similar to how Vinicius was used to attack space and create openings in the Clasico, Fati should be used to disorganize and attack the open spaces on the wing in this match. The Clasico further highlighted the sad decline of Samuel Umtiti, who looked the poorest of the bunch defensively on Mariano’s goal, so I would also expect Clement Lenglet to push his way back into the team, if available.
Real Sociedad are fun. A young, attacking, dynamic side with incredible individual talent as well as good coaching and organization, they have probably been one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in Europe this season. They are also in very good form as of late, having won four of their last five in the league, as well as sealing their first Copa del Rey final in 32 years. While the highly anticipated Basque Derby final will be the showpiece of la Real‘s season, they will have to focus back on the league, where they are involved in a serious race for the Champions League places. With Atletico Madrid and Sevilla also playing this weekend, the chance to take points off a hobbled Barcelona team could be a huge difference maker in Real’s ability to finish in the top four. Unlike their opponents, their squad is in pretty good shape. Willian Jose started the match against Mirandes in midweek, so Alexander Isak should be rested and ready for this match. While many other first team players featured midweek, Real really did not need to get out of second or third gear, so they should feel relatively fine physically going into this game. The struggle for the team, and for manager Imanol Alugacil, will be to avoid a let down after such a massive cup result. Due to the historic nature of their win over Mirandes, it is easy to lose focus on the upcoming matches. La Real are a very good and very dangerous team, and if they are focused, they should feel confident about their chances to beat the Catalan giants, something they have not done in quite some time.
Prediction: One would think that there would be a slight relaxing among Real Sociedad players following their cup victory, as well as a heightened sense of desire and reaction among Barcelona players following their Clasico defeat. However, I am just not sold on Setien’s Barcelona at the moment. I think Real are the exact team that would do very well against this Barcelona style, able to inject some chaos into the order that Setien wants. La Real have shown their ability to perform on the big stage, most notably in their 4-3 Copa del Rey win against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, and I think they get a result again here.
Barcelona 1-2 Real Sociedad
Crystal Palace vs. Watford
This is a very weird but still very interesting match up between two teams in quite unique situations, so yeah welcome to the preview, Watford and Palace.
Palace are in a situation that is quite peculiar and could only possibly happen in this season’s Premier League. Despite some early 2020 struggles, Palace are only four points off of the hypothetical “40 point barrier” that, more or less, guarantees safety. They are not technically safe yet, but being nine points ahead of 18th place Bournemouth feels at least somewhat safe. Weirdly enough, they are also four points off seventh place Tottenham. Yes, Crystal Palace are four points off what will most likely be a Europa League place this season. Roy Hodgson in Europe, who wouldn’t want to see that? Palace still have issues of their own, with Everton loanee Cenk Tosun suffering a season-ending knee injury, and they should still be without James Tomkins, Jeffrey Schlupp, and Mamadou Sakho. It will not have to completely be the “Wilfried Zaha Show”, as Christian Benteke has at least been solid in the lone striker role. Expect quite a bit of the attack to go through Zaha, however, as he remains the biggest difference maker in this Palace team.
Watford beat Liverpool. 3-0. I do not think we have had long enough to appreciate that. Nigel Pearson has worked wonders with this team. The Hornets were very impressive against the presumptive champions, with Senegalese winger Ismaila Sarr showing the quality that was much-discussed upon his arrival from Rennes in the summer. They will need more from him, as other star winger Gerard Deulofeu has been ruled out for the season with a serious knee injury. Watford still find themselves in the thick of a relegation battle, with all three of the bottom teams having the quality necessary to dig themselves out, so while the Liverpool win was quite impressive and they do deserve plaudits for their performance, it will all be less significant if they are playing in the Championship next season. Going into this match, I highly doubt there are many changes from the team that beat Liverpool. Deulofeu’s injury could force the only change, with Roberto Pereyra likely coming in to replace him. Pearson has no reason to change a team that worked so well previously.
Prediction: I expect a bit of a let down from Watford coming off of the Liverpool win, but I do think they have the quality necessary to be competitive here. Palace are a good side, even with Tosun’s injury, and should also threaten. Score draw? Yeah, that sounds about right.
Crystal Palace 1-1 Watford
Arsenal vs. West Ham
Wait…Arsenal lost to who last week??????
Arsenal, I really want to have faith in you. I want to have faith in you, Arteta. The second half against Newcastle was incredibly impressive. The performance against Everton, despite the goals they conceded, showed they have the mental fortitude to fight through a tough situation, and holding out in the final 15 minutes of that match showed they have some semblance of defensive solidity, as well as quite a bit of luck that was not present earlier in the season. They had some strong performers, including youngster Bukayo Saka, who continues to impress and amaze despite being played out of position. I thought Arsenal had turned a corner under Arteta, and they were ready to push on to become a serious challenger for the European places, as well as the Europa League. And then they went and lost to Olympiakos, putting out a dismal and, at some stages, unlucky performance that had me reconsidering everything I thought about this team. Mesut Ozil was largely absent after stringing together some good performances, the midfield was ineffective after stringing together some good performances, and the back line was almost comedically abysmal, with both Olympiakos goals coming from simple Arsenal errors. Arteta is running out of pathways to Europe for next season. Sure, the FA Cup still offers them a path back into the Europa League, and their quarterfinal draw against Sheffield United is quite favorable for them, but a team like Arsenal needs to be in the Champions League for a multitude of prestige-, recruiting-, and financial-based reasons. The Champions League is a longshot, but it is not impossible, being only five points off of fifth, which will presumably be a Champions League spot due to the Manchester City ban. If they hope to make the top five, however, they need to turn things around and quickly. Their response to the Olympiakos defeat will be quite telling, and a home match against a struggling West Ham team offers them a good chance to get things back on track, but they need to start winning again and quickly. A win in the FA Cup against Portsmouth midweek serves as a vital launching point, but a win here is crucial for Arteta’s team to get back on track.
West Ham…oh West Ham…oh no. They hoped for a new manager bump, but one never showed up. Since the reappointment of David Moyes in late December, West Ham have only won in the league twice, failing to find their way out of their rut and climb back toward safety. While they have shown signs of improvement, having put out a strong performance in their loss at Anfield and having beaten Southampton in their last two matches, they still find themselves only outside of the relegation zone on goal difference, and they are at serious risk of relegation if they do not improve their form. They could be boosted by January arrival Jarrad Bowen, who was impressive in their win against Southampton. He will likely start again, and his creativity and eye for goal from midfield will be crucial in helping revitalize an Irons attack that is too talented to be struggling. The match at Anfield was a good illustration of West Ham’s season: a team that is clearly talented and able to put out good performances being outdone by mistakes and generally getting in their own way. Moyes can definitely keep this team up, but they have some issues to sort out. Their fixture list does not get any easier, however, so it will be a struggle for West Ham for the rest of the season.
Prediction: I do not have much faith in either of these teams at the moment. I do, however, have slightly more faith in Arsenal at home to get the result and put the Olympiakos nightmare behind them completely. West Ham could cause some scares, but I do not think they can do enough to get a result.
Arsenal 3-1 West Ham
Borussia Mönchengladbach vs. Borussia Dortmund
Another meeting of the Borussen Derby takes place on Saturday, or, in this case, a match up between the two teams desperately trying to catch the runaway train that is Bayern Munich.
Gladbach have notably fallen off the title pace, but they are still a very formidable team, having only lost once in their last seven league matches. Their issue has been the amount of draws they have had recently, which has knocked them down in the table, allowing the surging Dortmund to rise ahead of them. While they are still theoretically in the title race, being only six points off the Bavarian league leaders, they also find their lead over Leverkusen has been reduced to only two points, leaving them clinging onto the final Champions League place for dear life. Catching Bayern might be a bridge too far for Marco Rose’s team, but ensuring their top four finish should be a very doable task and should be top priority for them closing out the season. They have gotten less production from star forwards Marcus Thuram and Alassane Plea, but they have been able to find goals from other positions, most notably from forwards Lars Stindl and Jonas Hofmann. Their defense has had some issues, notably from the error-prone Nico Elvedi, but they have mostly held together when tested. Outside of Germany international Matthias Ginter, left back Ramy Bensebaini has been a star in the team, and he will have his hands full contending with the in-form Jadon Sancho. Going forward, they could potentially be without Thuram for this game, so they must continue to find goals from other members of the attack in order to stay in this game. Dortmund’s defense is not great, so they will definitely have chances, but if they do not take them, they may be buried under the pressure from Dortmund’s attack.
It is hard to look anywhere in football media in the last two months without seeing something about the performances of Erling Braut Haland, and rightfully so. He has been incredible since joining Dortmund in January, and it is very rare that we see January signings have as big of an impact as he has had since arriving in the Bundesliga. There is no doubt that he has cemented himself as one of football’s future stars. However, buried under the Haland story is the impact of two other players who should have a massive role in this match. Jadon Sancho was once in Haland’s position, being the football wunderkind who was the topic of discussion throughout the world last season. He has been in equally impeccable, if not even better, form recently, scoring or assisting in Dortmund’s last seven league matches. He will be up against Bensebaini, the star of the Gladbach defense, and the winner of that match up will have a massive impact in the result of this game. Also going under the radar has been the form of Dan-Axel Zagadou. While Dortmund’s defense has struggled on several occasions this season, the Frenchman has emerged as the rock at the back, often putting out impressive performances that hold Dortmund together defensively long enough for their potent attack to make the difference. He has taken a massive leap in quality this season, and he possibly could find himself in the France team in the summer. He will have another crucial task on his hands, trying to deal with an injured but still quite good Gladbach attack, spearheaded by his countryman Alassane Plea. While Haland is very good and will likely score again, the performances of Sancho and Zagadou will be telling when it comes to deciding the outcome of this match.
Prediction: Both teams need to win in order to keep their fledgling title hopes alive. Gladbach also need to win in order to keep their grip on the final Champions League place, and Dortmund would not want to get dragged into this same fight. While Dortmund’s defense is still not completely trustworthy, their attack is just so impressive. Even outside of Haland, their forwards have been in great form. Even without Marco Reus for this match, I still give the edge to Dortmund.
Borussia Mönchengladbach 1-3 Borussia Dortmund