Tag Archives: Napoli

Serie A Week In Review

Do we have a presumptive champion already?

Welcome to the Serie A Week in Review. It’s been a little while since we have had one of these, but we are back. Here, we will be naming our player of the week, our three winners and losers, and discussing what we learned from another week (or so) of action in Italy.

Player of the Week

Zlatan Ibrahimović, AC Milan

The big man himself was crucial for Milan in the last week, scoring in assisting in their shock wins over Lazio and Juventus. While age has begun to catch up to the Swede, Ibra still has the ability to be influential on matches because of his ability to play as a target man and draw the attention of defenders, as well as a maintained technical ability that may never go away. Two goals and two assists in two colossal wins for the Rossoneri, games that may be significant in their race for European football next season. And at the center of it is the legend himself.

Winners of the Week

1.) AC Milan

In the last about week and a half, Milan have beaten Roma, Lazio, and Juventus. These are three massive scalps for Stefano Pioli’s team, and these three wins put them firmly in the race for a Europa League place. There is starting to be some serious chemistry forming in the team, especially at the back, where Alessio Romagnoli has formed a strong partnership with on-loan center back Simon Kjær. Theo Hernández, Ismaël Bennacer, and Zlatan remain stars of the show in their respective positions, but they are boosted by strong performances from Ante Rebić and Hakan Çalhanoglu, as well as some surprise production from youngster Alexis Saelemaekers and veteran Giacomo Bonaventura. Pioli is stringing together some fantastic results, finally reaping the benefits of the work he has put in as manager. Should this be his final season in the San Siro dugout, as rumors indicate, Pioli seems to want to make the most of this remaining time. Getting Milan back into Europe would be quite a way to go out as manager.

2.) Napoli

The most in-form team in Italy not named Atalanta is, surprisingly, Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli. Following some struggles earlier in his tenure, Gattuso has begun to get a tune out of his team, guiding them to a Coppa Italia title and only one loss in their last seven league matches, dating back to before the hiatus. Yes, their loss to Atalanta did sting, but they responded well and got all three points in a must-win match against Roma a few days later. Napoli have always been a talented team, but it is a combination of that talent and the underrated managing of Gattuso that has made this Napoli we are now seeing. This was characterized perfectly in the Roma match, with the first goal being a near-Sarriball level of team combination and off-ball runs leading to José Callejón getting on the end of a perfect cross, while the second goal was a piece of individual brilliance from Lorenzo Insigne. While the 15 point gap between the Partenopei and the Champions League is not completely insurmountable with eight games left, it is still safe to say that they will be front-runners for the Europa League place. Gattuso deserves credit for the job he has done in Naples.

3.) Juventus

Juventus accomplished quite a bit in the last week without really doing much themselves. Despite not looking that strong all season, and despite their recent loss to Milan, they look well on their way to another league title. It will come down to Juve restarting the season well and Lazio stumbling when it mattered the most. Questions still loom around the future of Maurizio Sarri, and while a seven point lead with seven games left is not fully safe, especially still having to face Lazio, Atalanta, and Roma, I feel at least somewhat comfortable in saying that the Bianconeri will be champions. Should this be Sarri’s only year in Turin, going out with a Scudetto would not be terrible.

Losers of the Week

1.) Lazio

This past week has been a massive slip up for Lazio, and I mean massive. Simone Inzaghi’s team seemed to recover somewhat well from their capitulation against Atalanta, but a loss to Milan paired with their shock loss to Lecce yesterday sees them falling away from Juventus in the Scudetto race. With Juventus also losing yesterday, the loss to Lecce is a serious missed opportunity to make up ground, especially knowing they still must travel to Turin to face the reigning champions at the end of the month. The dramatic loss in Bergamo may have been what ended the Lazio title challenge, but if Atalanta beat Juve this weekend, they may have the chance to redeem themselves when they go to Turin.

2.) Inter

Pazza Inter is a phrase that you run into quite a bit when reading Italian football coverage. It is synonymous with a fan-written song, “Pazza Inter Amala”, that used to be played at the San Siro before matches, but it is also synonymous with a “crazy” Inter. Pazza Inter refers to an Inter team that finds a way to play worse than the sum of its parts, to lose matches that it should be winning easily, to grab defeat from the jaws of victory. Antonio Conte’s arrival was thought to be a signal of the end of the pazza days for Inter, but, low and behold, we are back. Their 3-3 draw against Sassuolo was as crazy as the reputation says, but they seemed to shape up with a very lucky 2-1 win over Parma and a 6-0 demolition of Brescia. Their most recent match, a 2-1 loss to Bologna, was a return to this pazza mentality. Inter had the chances in the first half to be 4-0 up at halftime, but a rather drab second half from the Nerazzurri allowed Bologna to score twice. An incredibly disappointing second half of the season has seen Conte’s team fumble out of the title race, only a point ahead of Atalanta in fourth. If they are not careful, they may be fighting with Napoli to stay in the top four altogether.

3.) Roma

Roma were once comfortably in the driver’s seat in the race for the Europa League place, but losses to Milan, Udinese, and Napoli have seen them begin to crumble. They did not play as poorly against Napoli as they did in the previous two matches, but the goals have seemed to dry up. Paulo Fonseca’s three at the back experiment has not shown the results he may have wanted, as well, and it seems that Roma are seemingly lacking any momentum. In one bit of positive news, young star Nicolò Zaniolo made his return to the team following a cruciate ligament injury in January, coming on as a substitute in the 66th minute against Napoli. It is unclear how much of a role Zaniolo will play in the team, but if they are able to get near the level of quality that the young Italian has shown previously, then Roma could get back on track for the rest of the season. It may not be all doom and gloom for the capitol club.

What we Learned

1.) This might be the worst Juventus team to win the title in a while

The gaping flaws of this Juventus team have been laid out for the world to see over the last 12 months. They are a team that lacks any real quality in midfield, are prone to collapse in defense largely due to the ineffectiveness of the midfield, and are seemingly too reliant on Ronaldo going forward, despite the incredible amount of attacking talent in the team. When the attack can click, as they did against Genoa, they are a very good side with plenty of individual skill, but so many times this season, Juventus have been exposed. Their failure in the Coppa Italia, where a loss on penalties to Napoli after a pitiful display in normal time restarted their season with a whimper, further highlights the existence of those issues. However, thanks to the struggles and ineptitudes of Lazio and Inter, it looks like Juventus will win the Scudetto for a ninth consecutive year. However, this year seemed to really be the year where Juve wins the title not because of their individual quality, but because of the failings of their title rivals. If Juventus do not do something in the transfer window to fix their flaws, then next season might be the one where their title streak ends.

2.) Are Milan back?

No. Of course not. That’s a ridiculous question. A club of the stature of AC Milan cannot be considered to be “back” until they reach the level of a team that is contending for Scudetti and is competing regularly in the Champions League.

But there is optimism. There is a view that there are things finally going right on the Rossonero side of Milan. The wins over Roma, Lazio, and Juventus put them in a great position to qualify for the Europa League next season, which should alleviate some of the financial issues the club continues to face. They have found a solid and consistent back four, with Simon Kjær and Andrea Conti providing some stability to partner established stars Alessio Romagnoli, Theo Hernández, and Gigio Donnarumma. Zlatan continues to be Zlatan, and while they cannot rely on the big Swede for that much longer, he will at least get the job done now. Ismaël Bennacer continues to be the breakout star of the season in Serie A, providing incredible performances from midfield on a weekly basis. And they are able to tie this all together through the management of Stefano Pioli. The Italian has not done a great job at the helm of Milan, especially earlier in the season, but he is finally seeing some fruit from his labor. The impending arrival of Ralf Rangnick to replace Pioli has put the Italian manager in an awful situation, but he is at least able to use it to so far inspire a strong run to the end of the season from his team. The financial boost from qualifying for the Europa League would allow Rangnick, should he be the next manager, to begin his Milan rebuild in a good position financially and on the pitch.

3.) Gattuso’s new Napoli is going to be interesting to watch next season…

I will continue to insist that Gattuso is not getting the credit he deserves for the job he has done at Napoli so far. Yes, it did not start that well, but he is really starting to get production out of a team that, let’s not forget, literally mutinied against their ownership and former manager Carlo Ancelotti earlier in the season. The individual talent at Napoli, especially in attack, is now coming to the fore, but it is not just down to talent. Gattuso has put together several masterful game plans to get results for the Partenopei, the most effective being his masterful tactics in the Coppa Italia Final against Juve. With Hellas Verona center back Amir Rrahmani arriving in the summer, as well as the club’s outward courting of Lille striker Victor Osimhen, the foundations are being laid for the evolution of this team next season, but with most of the core of this team likely staying, Gattuso has himself a talented team that also works hard and fights through adversity. That might sound like a cheesy pairing of key words, but it is really true. No, this Napoli team does not have the gloss of the Sarriball teams, and it may not be as good, at least not right now, as those teams, but Gattuso is building a team that should be back into the Champions League places very soon. For now, look for Napoli to be the favorite to finish at least fifth, and possibly, when the Champions League returns, stand a decent chance of knocking out Barcelona.

Other Posts That You Might Like

On the Arthur-Miralem Pjanić Swap Deal

And what it tells us about…well…a lot, really… So a week or so ago, rumors started to come out around a very peculiar deal. Barcelona and Juventus were in discussions over a deal for Bosnian midfielder Miralem Pjanić, which is not necessarily old news. People had been covering Barcelona’s potential interest in Pjanić for a […]

Serie A is back!

And this is slightly late cus they had a cup final a few days ago…

Feature Image by Marco Pomella from Pixabay

Serie A has returned, and with it, the four of the top five leagues with plans to return this season have all followed through. Italian football really returned last week, as the semifinals and final of the Coppa Italia were finished, but the league will resume this weekend. So, you know the usual questions at this point. Where did we leave off? What do you need to watch for? What players should you pay attention to?

First, a quick recap of the Coppa Italia. Italy’s premier cup competition resumed last week with the second legs of the semifinals. Juventus drew 0-0 with Milan but advanced on away goals after a 1-1 aggregate, while Napoli beat Inter 1-0 to advance 2-1 on aggregate. In the final, Napoli beat their arch rivals on penalties to win their sixth Coppa Italia and first trophy since 2014. Dries Mertens’ goal against Inter in the semifinal made him Napoli’s all-time leading goal scorer, surpassing former teammate Marek Hamšík. These two games offered some deserved vindication to Napoli manager Gennaro Gattuso, who seemed to not put a single foot wrong for either game. His line up and tactical decisions in the final were a significant reason for the Partenopei success, with the structure of the team in defense designed to force Juventus out wide and into crosses that would be easily dealt with by the center backs. This should be a significant momentum boost for Napoli, a team with an outside chance of finishing in the top four this season, and it is a way to start the season with momentum that no other team will have.

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

So, we left off with a title race, but is it a two horse race or a three horse race? Really, I am not quite sure. We left off with Juventus in first while Lazio and Inter are one and nine points behind them, respectively. While nine points is a significant gap for Inter, they do have a game in hand on the other two, so that deficit could be knocked down to six points with a win. Even with a six point lead, Inter are seemingly on the outside looking in when it comes to this title race. They are still in it, but they need quite a bit of help. However, we also return to a Juventus team in crisis. They did not play well in either the Milan or Napoli matches, and they seem to be more reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo than ever. When Ronaldo does not deliver, as he did not in the Coppa Italia Final, there seems to be not much more this Juventus team can do. Their midfield, especially, is still massively struggling outside of the usually great Rodrigo Bentancur. The defense is still solid, with Matthijs de Ligt finding his feet and becoming a key player in the team, but when they are not scoring enough, they will struggle to keep stringing together 1-0s and 1-1s. Lazio sit in perfect position, waiting for Juventus to mess up. Simone Inzaghi’s team have been the surprise package of the Serie A season, with quality players littered across the team. Ciro Immobile has been in incredible goalscoring form, and the midfield trio of Luis Alberto, Sergej Milinković-Savić, and Lucas Leiva have been nothing short of outstanding. Francesco Acerbi has been a rock at the back, as well. The spine of this Lazio team is fantastic, fully deserving of being in the position they are in. They also know that they still have to play Juventus, which gives them the opportunity to make up any ground they need to on the Bianconeri.

Below the top three, there is Atalanta in fourth, Roma in fifth, and Napoli in sixth. Those teams are the major contenders for the final Champions League place, with Atalanta and Roma being the main two teams in that fight. With Napoli’s Coppa Italia momentum, they definitely cannot be ruled out, but they have much more ground to make up. Atalanta are the top scorers in the league, assembling an incredibly entertaining and talented team that is able to compete for another season in the Champions League. Roma have been inconsistent under new manager Paulo Fonseca, but if they get young budding superstar Nicolò Zaniolo back healthy, they could be in with a good chance of finishing in the top four. Napoli have had a difficult season, sacking manager Carlo Ancelotti in December and replacing him with former Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso. It has not been smooth sailing for the Rossoneri legend in Campania, but with their triumph in the Coppa Italia, it seems that things are finally starting to turn around. If you wanted to expand this European discussion, there is a nine point gap between Napoli in sixth and Fiorentina in 13th. Sixth and seventh, currently occupied by Hellas Verona, are both Europa League qualifier places. It is a difficult path into Europe, but it would be a massive deal for some teams. One of those teams is Milan, currently in eighth. The ever-struggling Rossoneri are desperate for European football to alleviate some of the issues of Financial Fair Play and keep some of their key players at the club. Due to Napoli’s interesting position, they are able to challenge for the top four or drop out of the top six, and they need to maintain their momentum from winning the cup to finish the season well.

At the bottom of the table, two of the relegation places seem more or less decided. Brescia and SPAL seem destined for Serie B, being seven and six points away from safety, respectively. The real race is for the last spot, currently occupied by Lecce, who are only behind Genoa on away goals. There is a seven point gap between 18th and 11th, so theoretically all of those teams are at risk of relegation at this moment. Lecce, Genoa, Sampdoria, Torino, Udinese, Fiorentina, Cagliari, and Sassuolo all find themselves, more or less, within the wide frame of the relegation fight. The real race is including Udinese, Torino, Sampdoria, Genoa, and Lecce. Udinese, in 14th, and Lecce are only separated by three points. There is genuine talent in some of these teams, especially Udinese, Torino, and Sampdoria, but the race will likely be tight until the end of the season.

So who are the main names you should keep an eye on? You probably know the main ones: Ronaldo, Dybala, Immobile, Mertens, Insigne, Lukaku, Lautaro Martinez, Skriniar. There are definitely others, however, and, as usual, I will point them out here. Despite his struggles to adapt earlier in the season, it is worth giving another look to Matthijs de Ligt, who is showing the level of quality we all remember seeing when he was in Amsterdam. Milinkovic-Savić gets the most attention from outside Italy when discussing Lazio’s midfield, but Luis Alberto is a brilliant creative midfielder and currently the league’s assist leader. He is not just the Liverpool flop that many English fans remember him as being. Milan may continue to struggle, but left back Theo Hernández and midfielder Ismaël Bennacer have been stars this season, likely putting on great auditions for moves to other teams when the transfer window opens. Speaking of “audition for moves away”, surprise package Hellas Verona have two eye-catching Slavic center backs that have been stars this season. Kosovoan Amir Rrahmani and Albanian Marash Kumbulla have been fantastic all season and have attracted significant interest from other teams, the 20-year-old Kumbulla especially. Rrahmani seems to be going to Napoli, but Kumbulla has a long list of suitors within and outside of Italy vying for his signature. His defensive intelligence, ability on the ball, and maturity despite his young age makes him one of the best center back prospects on the continent. I am not going to select a single Atalanta player, but I am going to encourage you to watch them. Your player to watch for Atalanta is all of their players. Genuinely, they are such a fun team, playing such an intense attacking style and scoring plenty of goals. Their front three of Josip Iličić, Duván Zapata, and Alejandro “Papu” Gómez are the stars of the show, but there is so much that makes that team work. Further down the table there are plenty of great attacking players, such as Andrea Belotti at Torino, Federico Chiesa at Fiorentina, and the aging-like-fine-wine Fabio Quagliarella at Sampdoria. There are also a good set of brilliant box-to-box midfielders, including Fiorentina’s Gaetano Castrovilli, Udinese’s Rodrigo De Paul, and the much-discussed Brescia wunderkind Sandro Tonali.

So, what is going to happen? Well, at the top, I do genuinely think this is the year that Juve’s hegemony ends. This seems to be a Juventus team in crisis, a team that has spent so much money on financing Ronaldo’s move that they have been unable to really upgrade the rest of the team. Their main competition, Lazio, seems to be an incredibly complete team that has many fewer weaknesses than Maurizio Sarri’s team. Sarri has seemingly reached a crisis point following their Coppa Italia failure, as there is a real possibility that the Bianconeri end the season without any trophies. Should that happen, it would likely lead to Sarri’s departure. Inter’s struggles have likely taken them out of the title race, but I believe they will comfortably finish third, with Atalanta rounding out the top four. Napoli will make a run, but not enough to catch Atalanta, finishing fifth, while Roma finishes sixth. I think Hellas Verona will narrowly hang on to seventh over Milan and Parma, but Milan, especially with a healthy Ibrahimović, could finish in that sixth spot. At the bottom, I think Brescia and SPAL both go down, with Lecce being the team to join them. Lecce are in a race for survival, but I think they are the least talented of the relegation fighting teams, and with the restart allowing some of the other more talented teams to get some much needed rest, Lecce will suffer the most.

Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

The return of Serie A still feels weird. Italy was the hardest hit European country by COVID, and the impact of the disease will be felt in Italian society for decades to come, especially in the north of the country. Lombardian clubs Inter, AC Milan, Brescia, and Atalanta return to play in the region hardest hit by the virus. While things seem to be returning to “normal”, there is a sense that nothing will be what is was before and that the definition of “normal” has been forever changed. In a way, this can be said about every country in the world, not just Italy. I just hope that the return of football can bring some much needed joy back into people’s lives, put smiles on the faces of people who have been, and continue to be, impacted by this virus.

Champions League Round of 16 Preview Part 2 (2/25-2/26)

A quick preview for this week’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 First Leg matches…

Tuesday 2/25

Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich

A rematch of the 2012 Champions League Final is on the cards, and while quite a bit has changed for both teams since that famous night in Munich, this is still quite an interesting match up and will certainly be one that fans of both clubs have had circled on the fixture list for a while.

Chelsea were victors on that night eight years ago, but certainly look to be the team worse for wear going into this match. Despite a moral-boosting 2-1 victory over Tottenham in their last league match, they have won only four of their last 12 in the league, still suffering from key injuries that may make this tie quite difficult. In more positive news, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tammy Abraham both made the bench in the victory over Spurs, but neither will probably feature in this match, given Loftus-Cheek’s lack of game time and the current form of Olivier Giroud, respectively. Defensive issues have characterized Lampard’s team recently, but with Andreas Christensen returning to the fold, there are more options available to choose from. Lampard will likely stick with his 3-4-3 system, hoping a back three can provide more defensive security against a scary Bayern attack led by a perpetually in-form Robert Lewandowski. Chelsea will need a strong home performance to go through this tie, with the ideal scenario being holding a lead and stopping away goals for their return to Bavaria.

Bayern have, conversely, been in incredible league form, having only failed to win once in their last 11 in all competitions. Hansi Flick has found a formula that works, with Bayern scoring goals for fun and playing incredible football, coinciding with the ending of their injury crises. Robert Lewandowski has gotten all of the attention, and deservedly so, for his incredible goalscoring form this season, but coasting a bit under the radar is the renaissance of Thomas Müller during Flick’s tenure. Müller has returned to the best form of himself, roaming across midfield and the final third to find the spaces where he can cause the most damage. In a Chelsea midfield without N’Golo Kante, there could be quite a bit of space between the back three and the rest of the team, and Müller could be quite influential in this match if he is able to find those spaces. Also hoping to continue his brilliant form is Canadian left back Alphonso Davies, who has been a revelation for Bayern this season and has forced long-time left back David Alaba out of his preferred position. Alaba will continue at center back, where he has done an admirable job filling the void left by the injured Niklas Süle, and he will likely be joined by the now fully-fit Lucas Hernandez. Hernandez returning to the team will likely be the only change Flick will consider, because, as the old saying goes, why fix what is not broke?

Prediction: This is going to be quite difficult for Chelsea. Bayern are on fire at the moment, and Chelsea are sputtering following their strong start to the season. If Chelsea score first, they could possibly hold on to a slender lead to bring with them to Germany, but I do not believe they will score first. Bayern should control this match, and add in a few away goals to make the second leg an easier task.

Chelsea 1-3 Bayern Munich

Napoli vs. Barcelona

In a match filled with Messi-Maradona symbolism, a resurgent Napoli team hosts a Barcelona team still trying to figure things out under a new manager. Messi travels to the kingdom of the man he has been perpetually chasing, Diego Maradona. Oh, and Barca have the slight issue of a Clasico in a few days time. Poor timing, huh?

Gennaro Gattuso’s start to his life in Campania was nothing short of miserable. Having lost four of his first six matches in charge and watched his team plummet to mid-table mediocrity, many had begun to write their eulogies of this Napoli team, calling it an end of an era. However, they would turn it around, going on to win six of their next seven in all competitions, including a league win over Juventus and Coppa Italia wins over Lazio and Inter, turning around their fate completely and beginning a surge back toward the European places. They have largely been buoyed by match-winning moments from Fabian Ruiz, Lorenzo Insigne, and Dries Mertens, but have also had contributions from the likes of Elif Elmas in midfield and Kostas Manolas in defense. While they have struggled to score in the first half, they have largely become a second half team, seeming to create big moments in the dying minutes of matches. Gattuso will demand a resoluteness from his team, hoping to limit the damage Messi and his teammates can inflict, and despite the continued absence of influential center back Kalidou Koulibaly, Gattuso will like his chances with the team he will send out, likely being unchanged from their win against Brescia.

Quique Setien’s start to his life in Catalonia was equally as troublesome as his counterpart’s start at his new job. Trying to implement a new style and new 3-5-2 system, Setien’s team suffered growing pains. Their “control possession to protect the defense” style ran into issues when opponents high pressed, leading to turnovers and counterattacks against an exposed back three. Following a loss away to Valencia, Barca won their next four league matches, with the only road bump being a loss away to Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey. While they have not looked completely convincing in this new system, they were able to find goals from different areas of their team and allow the influence of Lionel Messi to carry them to victories. They are not short on injury issues, however. They remain without Luis Suarez, while Ousmane Dembele was recently announced to be missing the rest of the season. Their controversial “emergency signing” Martin Braithwaite is not eligible to feature for them in the Champions League, so Arturo Vidal will likely have to continue featuring as the team’s unorthodox “false nine” in attack. They will need a strong performance from their midfield and a usual strong performance from Messi to leave Naples with the advantage.

Prediction: An interesting match up between two good but flawed teams. I see this as a draw. Napoli are confident now and, despite the absence of Koulibaly, have the right players performing well at the moment. However, Barca has Messi, and that is always going to be a game-changing fact. If there is a winner, it is possibly a moment of magic from Messi, but I think it is a draw.

Napoli 1-1 Barcelona

Wednesday 2/26

Lyon vs. Juventus

Possibly the least fascinating of the match ups this week, Lyon match up against Juventus, a team they have never beaten, and enter the knockout stages as massive underdogs. But hey, sometimes underdogs pull it off, so you never know.

To say it has not been the best season for OL would be a dramatic understatement. Despite a surge in form at the turn of the year, they returned to their rut and find themselves stuck in mid-table, with the podium places lurching further and further out of sight. Many of their summer signings, including Thiago Mendes and Joachim Andersen, have flopped. Their Rudi Garcia experiment has unequivocally failed, and their positive results have only come from the individual quality of Houssem Aouar, Moussa Dembele, Jason Denayer, and some of the younger players. To make matters worse, the week began with renewed tensions between the club’s outspoken president Jean-Michel Aulas and Lyon ultras groups, escalating to the point where the club placed a net between the pitch and the Virage Nord and Virage Sud of the Parc OL, the primary home of the ultras groups, to prevent provocation. It is safe to say that Lyon enter this tie as massive underdogs, but them moving on is not completely out of the question. New signing Bruno Guimaraes put together a strong debut against Metz, and if a midfield three of him, Aouar, and Maxence Caqueret performs at a high level against Juve’s weakened midfield, it is possible that they could cause some serious problems for Maurizio Sarri’s team. Despite recent struggles, Moussa Dembele remains a budding superstar and winter signing Karl Toko-Ekambi has started fairly well in his return to France. Jason Denayer is having another strong season, and him and goalkeeper Anthony Lopes could realistically hold the defense together. It could also be the world-premiere moment for academy prodigy Rayan Cherki, who has already earned the plaudits of many in France. I recognize this is asking quite a bit, and it really requires everything to go in favor of les Gones for them to stand a chance at moving on. As Lloyd Christmas said, “so you’re telling me there’s a chance?”

Juventus have not been as invincible as many thought they would be when Cristiano Ronaldo completed his transfer to the Turin giants. While Ronaldo has been near-unstoppable this season, equalling Gabriel Batistuta’s record for most consecutive Serie A games with a goal, the rest of the team has had its issues. They have lost twice in their last five games, which is normally quite good, but they were two bad losses to Napoli and Hellas Verona, and they have not looked entirely convincing in some of their wins. The midfield has been a massive issue all season, and the continued struggles of Aaron Ramsey, Blaise Matuidi, and Adrien Rabiot have not made things easy for manager Maurizio Sarri. Their defense has also had issues, but was strengthened with the recent return of Giorgio Chiellini. Paulo Dybala has continued to have a strong season, and the return of Gonzalo Higuain should help ease the burden off of Ronaldo, but it is clear that this is a vulnerable team. Lyon may not be good enough to take advantage of the Bianconeri‘s issues, but it is clear that this team cannot win the Champions League unless they shape up.

Prediction: Despite the issues between Lyon supporters and the club, I expect Juventus will be walking into a hostile Parc OL. Lyon will be up for this, similar to Barcelona’s trip to the Rhône last season, and this should be the closest of the two legs in this tie. Juve will probably go through quite easily overall, but they will have to work for this game. They should win, but it will be close and it will be tough.

Lyon 0-1 Juventus

Real Madrid vs. Manchester City

I will be honest again. I have no clue how this one is going to go. But hey, I am here to predict and predict I will.

Spanish football journalist Sid Lowe described Real Madrid earlier in the season as not a team that was incredible but a team “that feels invincible”, and, to be fair, that was very accurate at the time. They had just won the Spanish Super Cup, were the best defense in La Liga, and had leap-frogged over Barcelona to establish a solid lead at the top of the table. They looked to be the best team in Spain and, because of that defensive solidity and the impending return of Eden Hazard, a dark horse for the Champions League. Fast forward a bit, and that invincibility has seemingly worn off. They tumbled out of the Copa del Rey after a 4-3 loss to Real Sociedad and lost their lead at the top of the league to Barcelona following a 2-2 draw with Celta Vigo and a 1-0 loss to Levante in their previous two games. Eden Hazard’s return lasted only 67 minutes, as he limped off against Levante having suffered another ankle injury that will keep him out for the remainder of the season. Their strong defensive form has waned, and they are not getting the goals from Karim Benzema that he was providing earlier in the season. Zidane’s team still has an issue of finding a reliable goalscorer outside of Benzema, and with Hazard out for the remainder of the season, their most likely option in that area is now gone. Zidane will now have to seriously weigh up a recall for outcast winger Gareth Bale, who could complete a redemption arc if he returns to the team and is influential in them winning a trophy. Much of Real Madrid’s success this season was built on the back of their defense and midfield, with the trio of Federico Valverde, Casemiro, and Toni Kroos having very good seasons in the middle of the park, while the pairing of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane has normally been very good at the back. Zidane has to consider the possibility of including Luka Modric or Isco in that midfield, as well as returning Ferland Mendy to the defensive line, in order to resist a Manchester City team driven by their midfield. While normally characterized by a 4-3-3, I would not be surprised to see Zidane, who has been quite open about changing systems this season and in previous seasons, move to a four man midfield for this match, with Benzema and likely Bale or Vinicius as the two forwards. Oh yeah, and they play Barcelona on Sunday in quite possibly the biggest Clasico in recent years and a match that could define the title race. Poor timing, huh? I doubt Zidane would consider using a purposely-weakened team for either of those games, so this is going to be a serious test of Real Madrid’s resolve and endurance.

Manchester City, conversely, have very little to focus on outside of this match up. It is nearly impossible for them to win the league, with Liverpool well out of sight at the top of the table. With the recent UEFA ruling, they will be banned from all European competitions for the next two seasons so, unless their appeal is quickly heard and decided by the Court for Arbitration for Sport, finishing in the top four really does not make a difference. Yes they are in an EFL Cup final and FA Cup Round of 16, but really those trophies do not matter to City at this point. All of Pep Guardiola’s eggs are in the Champions League basket. It is truly a now or never moment. If CAS does not rule in their favor, then their Champions League ban could lead to the departure of several key players and even Guardiola himself. City may never have another chance to win the Champions League. Their form was stuttering, with an unconvincing win over Sheffield United paired with a draw against Crystal Palace and a loss to Tottenham, but strong wins over West Ham and Leicester have gotten them back on track. They will be boosted by good injury news involving Aymeric Laporte, who should be good to go despite limping off against Leicester. Raheem Sterling could also make his return after missing City’s last two matches in a game that could be a Real Madrid audition for the Englishman. His return to the team, paired with the incredible form of Kevin De Bruyne, could ease some concerns about the City attack, who have struggled for goals in recent games. To win at the Bernabeu, they will need a return to form from Sergio Aguero as well as a strong performance from their midfield to help break down a normally resilient Madrid defense.

Prediction: It really feels this tie could help save the season of the victor and fully destroy the season of the loser. There is quite a bit on the line between both teams. Despite their recent struggles, Real Madrid are usually still a strong team at home, and the struggles of Sergio Aguero has me concerned about City going forward. Pep’s team will definitely still create chances, but I think it will be a strong game from the Madrid defense, with Ferland Mendy starring in a return to the team. Zidane’s team will return to Manchester for the second leg with the advantage.

Real Madrid 1-0 Manchester City