Champions League Group H has arguably been the most compelling since matchday 1. And then it got even more interesting after last week’s outcomes. We’ve said plenty about round 2 of Chelsea-Ajax (both in podcast and player ratings form), which ended in a 4-4 draw, but if you haven’t watched those highlights yet, go check them out.
While that game was the arguably the best of the competition – and definitely the most bizarre – Valencia very quietly beat Lille to secure three more points and move into a three-way tie for first place. This might be the only group where there’s drama on the final matchday about who’s going through – imagine Chelsea or Ajax going home! – before knockout play begins.
The oddsmakers currently like Chelsea (+120) to finish first, but Ajax (+150) is not far behind. Valencia (+350) is a long shot, but remains in the mix. Interestingly, top-2 odds are the same for Chelsea and Ajax (-335), while Valencia is -155 to go through.
On matchday 5, Chelsea travels to Valencia on November 27 for a 12:55 p.m. kickoff, while Ajax visits Lille later that afternoon.
This group will wrap up on December 10, when Valencia travels to Amsterdam to meet Ajax and Chelsea hosts Lille.
Through four games, Lille has been blown out twice (at Ajax and at Valencia), but earned a draw at home vs. Valencia and also pushed Chelsea in a 2-1 loss at home. Could they possibly trip up Ajax? I doubt it. I also doubt Ajax loses at home to Valencia – but then again, I thought three points were in the bag when they stretched the lead over Chelsea to 4-1.
The game that’s going to go the furthest to decide this group is Chelsea at Valencia. Chelsea must still be kicking themselves for how they lost to Valencia at home to open group play on Sept. 17. After allowing Valencia to go up 1-0 in the 74th on a set piece finished by Rodrigo, Chelsea blew a chance to equalize when Ross Barkley sent his penalty kick in the 87th off the top of the crossbar and over the net.
No team in Europe looks more different now than they did in mid-September than Chelsea. In the UCL, they have two wins and a draw in their last three, including a victory at Ajax and a draw in a game they trailed by three goals after 70 minutes. They’re doing OK in the EPL as well, winning their last five to move into a tie for second place. Since Christian Pulisic’s late assist off the bench in the first Ajax match, the American has played at an unbelievable level in Premier League competition, with five goals in his last three matches dating back to a hat trick vs. Burnley on Oct. 26.
Chelsea (+132) is the favorite at La Mestalla on November 27, but not prohibitively. Valencia (+205) is also playing well right now, especially compared to how they looked a month ago. This team was impressive in blowing out Lille last week. Valencia has also now won two in a row in La Liga and earned a draw vs. Sevilla in its last three.
And in Valencia’s last eight games overall, just one of its opponents has scored more than once. That defense, plus what promises to be a raucous atmosphere, means Chelsea will have their hands full. The good news for the Blues is that a victory will all but assure their place in the knockout stage. Chelsea’s too hot to expect less than a draw here, but it should be another interesting test for Frank Lampard’s young squad.
This group will go down to the wire
We’ll assume Ajax beats Lille, but even if that happens and Valencia loses to red-hot Chelsea, the La Liga side will have a chance in Amsterdam on the final matchday to win and be tied with Ajax with 10 points. We’ll talk plenty more about that match-up once matchday 5 is in the books, but right now, I think Ajax will win that one at home.
So while Valencia certainly cannot be ruled out, expect it to be Chelsea and Ajax advancing from Group H, which collectively deserves a trophy as hands down the best foursome of the group stage.
This weekend, we have another lackluster slate in Spain.
First-place Barcelona (22 points) hosts 18th-place Celta Vigo. Real Madrid — which also has 22 points and also has a game in hand on the rest of the league — travels to 14th-place Eibar. Third-place Real Sociedad (22) hosts last-place Leganés, while fourth-place Atleti (21) is home vs. 19th-place Espanyol. The lines for those games match the disparity between where those teams are in the table.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that none of those games will be terribly close – although it was hard to imagine Barcelona struggling with Levante last weekend, and we saw how that worked out.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any interesting match-ups in Spain, as an improving Valencia (17) could vault from 13th place to within a few points of a Champions League spot if they knock off sixth-place Granada (20). Valencia has our attention because A) they’ve piled up two wins, two draws and a loss in their last five after a terrible start and, more importantly, B) they are tied for first in Group H in the Champions League after routing Lille 4-1 on Tuesday. Valencia (-157) is a substantial favorite over Granada (+510), who oddsmakers continue to doubt, but that line is tempting!
*Breaking addition* C) Valencia just sacked General Director Mateu Alemany. So owner Peter Lim has now run off the coach, Marcelino, and GM behind back-to-back successful seasons. A big Champions League win on a Tuesday and a baffling (it’s actually not thaat confusing – Lim wanted Alemany out, so he’s out, but I digress…) executive decision the following Thursday – only at Valencia!
Trouble in Catalonia
This time a week ago, we were wondering when Barcelona would even break a sweat again, much less lose. And then they turned around and suffered an embarrassing 3-1 loss at Levante. So Real Madrid is not the only Spanish powerhouse we can’t figure out. We’ll get to Los Blancos, but the most pressing topic in Spain is Barcelona’s current state.
Apparently, Lionel Messi doesn’t cure every ill for this team. They’ve struggled to generate scoring opportunities the last 180 minutes – their only goal vs. Levante last weekend came on a penalty from guess who Messi, and they were shut out in a 0-0 Champions League draw at home vs. Slavia Prague on Tuesday. Offensively, the Catalans have come to a screeching halt after entering last weekend having outscored their last seven opponents – both domestically and in Europe – 20-4.
The draw vs. Slavia Prague was the latest reminder of how crucial Luis Suarez is to this team’s attack. Though he’s drawn criticism from his own fans this year, he’s scored eight goals, six in La Liga and two in the Champions League. And if that level of production doesn’t speak for itself, watch the tape of the last few games he’s been hobbled or absent. It isn’t pretty. There’s still a good chance Antoine Griezmann integrates into this lineup at some point and starts playing like the Griezmann of the last few years, but Barcelona’s last two appearances have been concerning.
They still should be favored to win La Liga, but it’s hard to see them playing well enough on the road in the UCL to capture that trophy, as the loss to Levante was just the latest example of their vulnerability away from home. We won’t say too much here about the Champions League disasters at AS Roma and Liverpool the last two seasons, but in the current La Liga season, Spain’s best club has lost away to Athletic Bilbao, Granada and Levante and drawn Osasuna.
All that being said, expect Barcelona (-500) to blow out Celta Vigo (+1200) this weekend.
Is Real Madrid back on track?
Los Blancos’ last La Liga effort, their 0-0 draw vs. Real Betis last Saturday, was not exactly a head-turner. But the performances sandwiching that draw have offered a glimpse at what this team could evolve into. The 5-0 win over Leganés on Oct. 30 featured Luka Jovic’s first goal of the season, as 18-year-old Rodrygo, Toni Kroos and Co. all broke out.
And on Wednesday, RM was dominant again, routing Galatasaray 6-0. Rodrygo had another strong outing, this time notching a hat trick, a tremendous accomplishment for a teenager in a UCL match. Real Madrid (-162) should cruise again this weekend against Eibar (+440).
Where to bet La Liga in the US
In the US, you can legally bet on soccer in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
As we podded yesterday, the game of managerial musical chairs is just beginning. By the end of the ’19-20 season, we might be looking at coaching vacancies at several of the biggest clubs in Europe. At the moment, no one’s seat is hotter than Unai Emery’s at Arsenal. However, he’s one of a number of managers – Mauricio Pochettino, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Zinedine Zidane and Ernesto Valverde – who could be out of work soon.
But it was Bayern Munich’s Niko Kovac who became the unlikely first sacking of the season at a top-tier club. The German side ended his tenure this weekend following a 5-1 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt on Sunday.
Depending on where you’re willing to look, you can find just about any name you can think of being mentioned as Kovac’s long-term replacement. For now, the club will be led by assistant Hans Flick, who was on Joachim Löw’s staff from 2006 until 2014, when Germany won the World Cup in Brazil.
Ralf Rangnick (RB Leipzig) and Erik ten Hag (Ajax) have been mentioned by the likes of ESPN and the London Guardian as the favorites to take over at Bayern. Other top candidates (some mentioned in No Grass in the Clouds) include, but are not limited to, Arsene Wenger and Max Allegri. And yes, Jose “The Special One” Mourinho has been linked to this position as well.
Bayern have communicated they want a manager who speaks German. That could rule out some obvious high-profile names. However, it does not rule out the one name they should be considering the most: Jesse Marshe.
What about Jesse Marsch to Bayern Munich?
But let us at High Press Soccer be one of, if not the first, to throw out Jesse Marsch’s name. Bayern is probably going to go with someone who is more established and has more experience in a top European league. Regardless, Marsch should be an intriguing possibility for any club seeking a new coach. His work at RB Salzburg has been tremendous, and we’re not just talking about that speech at Anfield.
“How many fouls have we committed? Maybe 2? It’s not a f–king friendly, it’s a Champions League match.”
Jesse Marsch’s halftime talk vs Liverpool has gone viral. Salzburg scored 2 goals right after this for 3-3, ended up losing 4-3. (Language warning.)pic.twitter.com/eE1NxiAzN2
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 4, 2019
His team plays hard, thrives in a fun-to-watch system and is fearless. Bayern could use all those things, as one of the most talented teams in Europe has no business losing to Hoffenheim or drawing Hertha Berlin, RB Leipzig and Augsburg.
Marsch has proven his coaching ability in MLS at New York Red Bulls and learned under Rangnick as an assistant at RB Leipzig last season. The soon-to-be 46-year-old will likely be a hot commodity at the end of this year, regardless of what else RB Salzburg accomplishes in Europe. To me, the question is not whether he’ll get a chance with a top club, but which one will come calling.
Bayern needs to phase in a new generation of players as Benjamin Pavard, Joshua Kimmich, Alphonso Davies, Lucas Hernández, Serge Gnabry, etc. become the leaders of a club who recently said goodbye to Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. We’re not putting them out to pasture yet, but Jerome Boateng, Robert Lewandowski and Manuel Neuer are undeniably closer to the end of their careers than the beginning (though Lewandowski in particular remains an absolute force). It would make sense to entrust the evolution of the roster to a coach on the rise like Marsch.
Rangnick or ten Hag?
At this point, it’s unclear whether Bayern’s first choice would be Rangnick or ten Hag. However, the Bavarians’ preference between 61-year-old Rangnick and 49-year-old ten Hag will tell us a lot about what they’re looking for right now. Ten Hag’s phone (and by his I mean his agent’s) will surely be busy every time a top job opens over the coming months. Does he want to stay in a great spot at Ajax or join one of Europe’s richest teams? You have to imagine the answer is the latter, but he’s in a position to be picky.
Ultimately, Rangnick strikes me as a bit more likely to be the next Bayern manager, as it seems like his familiarity with the Bundesliga gives him a slight edge over ten Hag.
Bayern does not seem like the type of club to suffer a manager like Mourinho, and I don’t see them going for 70-year-old Wenger, either. Allegri, however, would not surprise me, as long as he’s willing to end his post-Juventus sabbatical after one season at the age of 52.
Who: Sevilla vs Atlético Madrid
When: Saturday, November 2nd @ 1:30pm ET
Line: Sevilla +138| Draw +215 | Atletico Madrid +215
This week is the first of two busy ones in a row in Spain. Domestically, the turnaround between matchdays 11 and 12 in La Liga is a short one, as matchday 11 will not wrap up until after Getafe-Granada today, which kicks off at 4:15 p.m. Eastern. On Saturday, Matchday 12 will kick off at 8 a.m. Eastern with Espanyol-Valencia.
And next Tuesday and Wednesday, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Valencia will be in action in the Champions League.
Matchday 11 was not a total dud, but it was not exactly the best of the season, either. Valencia managed a much-needed – if they hope to finish top-four again – draw vs. Sevilla, which had won three of four. Elsewhere in Spain, Atleti settled for another disappointing 1-1 draw thanks to a must-see goal in the 83rd minute by Alavés’ Lucas Pérez.
What a goal from Lucas Perez!@Alaves equalises and it’s a beauty from Perez who has now scored 5 goals in his last 5 matches!
— Strive Sport (@strivesport) October 29, 2019
And Barcelona and Real Madrid both cruised, over Valladolid and Leganés, respectively.
Sevilla vs. Atlético Madrid Preview
The best game this weekend will be Sevilla’s (+132) home clash vs. Atlético Madrid (+215) on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. Eastern. A draw in that game is priced at +225, which is not a bad idea considering who’s involved. Atleti has settled for one point in four of its last five games, and on the road against a good opponent, 0-0 seems distinctly likely for Diego Simeone’s club.
At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, a win here would be huge for Sevilla, which has a good chance to finish third if Atleti and Real Madrid cannot get on track.
While we’re talking Los Rojiblancos, when’s the last time they impressed? The answer would be each of their Champions League group stage games so far, but still. It’s been a rough month for a team so many were so high on during the summer and opening weeks of the season. They remain in good shape in Europe, but the fact these guys have 20 points through 11 games – and have failed to beat the likes of Valladolid, Valencia and Alavés in recent weeks — is both puzzling and disappointing.
Another reminder of who is the best player in the world
This week was about Lionel Messi. The Argentine shouldn’t be able to surprise us at this point. Yet there he was Tuesday against Valladolid, with two goals and two assists. In his best performance of the season, it was impossible to pick which of his moments of brilliance was most impressive. He delivered another free kick that only he can make and both assists were unreal. He also nutmegged a hapless Vallaodolid defender more than once.
After injuries limited him the first several weeks of the season, he’s been on a rampage since his first 90-minute performance of the season on October 2 vs. Inter Milan in the Champions League. He’s scored in each of his last four games, with a total of five goals and three assists in that stretch. In case those numbers don’t quite get the point across, his WhoScored rating was 9.44 vs. Inter (10/2), 10 vs. Sevilla (10/6), 8.65 vs. Eibar (10/19), 9.7 vs. Slavia Prague (10/23) and 10 vs. Valladolid (10/29).
Expect more Barcelona blowouts
Messi’s impact on his team, even though we’ve seen this over and over again, has been staggering. Barcelona had two losses and two draws early this season, before Messi was healthy. Dating back to his first start of the year on September 24 vs. Villarreal, this team has won its last seven – including two UCL games — by a combined score of 20-4. Even for Messi and Barcelona, that is ridiculous.
The bad news is that there won’t be any semblance of a race for first place in La Liga. The good news is that we’re going to get a ton of highlights from a player who somehow looks better than ever at the age of 32. Barcelona (-278) should win comfortably again Saturday at 11 a.m. at Levante (+600).
Can Real Madrid make it two easy wins in a row?
I’m pretty sure I’ve been wrong about Real Madrid (-345) every time I’ve written about them this season. We’ll see if this weekend is any different when they host Real Betis (+775) on Saturday at 4 p.m. Los Blancos’ dominant performances have been few and far between this season, but the line tells me they’re winning by multiple goals again this weekend. Their 5-0 win over last-place Leganés on Wednesday shouldn’t have turned too many heads, but Madridistas had to love seeing goals from young players Rodrygo and especially Luka Jovic, whose RM tenure is off to a tough start.
Let’s see if Jovic’s first goal of the year gets the Serbian going.
Sergiño Dest has committed to play for the USMNT.
Didn’t see that one coming!
No, seriously, see for yourself:
The American Dream continues…🇺🇸
— AFC Ajax (@AFCAjax) October 28, 2019
Why did Dest choose the US?
Let’s start with the question of whether 18-year-old Dest made this decision because he truly believes in Gregg Berhalter, or because he doesn’t like his chances at breaking into the Dutch line-up, which is considerably stronger than what the U.S. is working with. The answer, considering the state of the USMNT, has to be “who cares??” The teenage dual national was choosing between the U.S. and the Netherlands, where he was born. It’s somewhat very surprising that anyone would want to tie their future to the group that was last seen getting embarrassed by Canada, but we’ll take it!
If we want to give the question a little more careful analysis, we can start by judging his expression and what he says in the video above to announce the decision. He doesn’t appear overjoyed, and talks about how tough it was to choose between the two. Is that because both were great options, or because he felt like he was settling? The pessimist/realist in me would go with the latter, but I think the appropriate reaction is to be excited about this.
Regardless of why Dest made this choice, this is extremely welcome news. At the risk of overstating the impact of a teenager’s decision, his commitment to Berhalter’s team makes today the best day for U.S. Soccer since … who knows? It’s been a while since there was anything to really be excited about, unless you count Christian Pulisic’s hat trick over the weekend.
But when Dest’s club team, Ajax (a squad you should be watching, if you’re not already), tweeted at 11:19 a.m. Eastern that he would be playing for the U.S., it was cause for celebration.
Who is Sergiño Dest?
Fortunately, Dest is not the only young American playing in a good European domestic league and or the Champions League. But he’s on a short list. And the fact he’s starting for a squad as good as Ajax at his age means his future is as bright as any U.S. prospect.
It’s not as if he’s in and out of the Ajax line-up, either. He has played 90 minutes in all three of his club’s Champions League group stage games. He’s been somewhat anonymous over those 270 minutes — which is a good thing for a defender — but earned solid WhoScored ratings of 7.45 vs. Lille on September 17, 6.73 vs. Valencia on October 2 and 6.23 vs. Chelsea on October 23. He also has three assists in his last two Eredivisie matches. So seriously, go watch Ajax, and keep an eye on the right back in the No. 28 shirt.
Though he plays right back for Ajax, he lined up on the left for the U.S. in both his appearances with the senior team. Regardless of where he ends up spending more of his time, he’s a massive boost for the U.S. program.
Now let’s see if he can spark his team to a win over Canada on November 15 in Orlando when the U.S. plays a rematch of that nightmare (check out that night’s High Press Pod for more on how awful that performance was), which he sat out while deliberating over his international future.
Embarrassment of riches?
OK, “embarrassment of riches” is an overstatement regarding the USMNT talent pool. But Berhalter’s defenders include Dest, DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle) and John Brooks (Wolfsburg). In the midfield, he has Pulisic, Weston McKennie (Schalke) and Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig). And we haven’t even mentioned Zack Steffen (Fortuna Dusseldorf) or promising young forwards Timothy Weah (Lille) and Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen).
While that core probably won’t scare Germany or France, it’s more than enough for the red, white and blue to be winning comfortably against everyone in CONCACAF besides Mexico. And with Dest in the mix, another effort or two like what we saw vs. Canada should cause USSF to realize the players aren’t the problem, not that they were before Dest joined the fold today.
The American scored his first career EPL goal in the 21st minute, then added another just before halftime.
He made it a hat trick on a ridiculous header in the 56th minute. After a poor clearance of a corner by Burnley gave Mason Mount another chance, Mount’s perfect cross into the box found Pulisic, who used the back (!) of his head to beat Burnley keeper Nick Pope.
It was hard to say which of Pulisic’s goals was most impressive. On the first one, he took on multiple Burnley defenders, then managed to slide a low left-footed shot past all three of them, plus Pope, to make it 1-0. The opportunity was created by Pulisic, and he finished it himself. I give that goal a slight edge over his header.
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) October 26, 2019
The second goal Pulisic scored came with his right foot, again after an impressive display of dribbling. This time, though, he was the beneficiary of his shot’s fortunate deflection off a defender.
A career week
Pulisic’s heroics came three days after he came on late as a sub vs. Ajax on the road in the Champions League. All he did in that one was create the chance that became the game-winner with a strong move and a perfect pass into Michy Batshuayi.
Let’s just say that Pulisic has probably earned a spot in the Chelsea XI for at least the next few games. Frank Lampard certainly has his options up top, but he had to be thrilled with his results from the 4-2-3-1 he employed against Burnley, with Tammy Abraham as a striker and a five-man midfield. From left to right, Pulisic, Mount and Willian filled the attacking midfield positions.
Chelsea led 4-0 after 58 minutes on a strike from Willian before Burnley scored twice in garbage time to account for the final score.
This was supposed to be the weekend of the first El Clásico of the season.
Barcelona, which was not exactly dominant in Wednesday’s win over Slavia Prague, is nonetheless rolling. The Catalans have won their last four domestically, by a combined score of 11-1.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, was last seen in Spain losing 1-0 at Mallorca last weekend. RM bounced back to beat Galatasaray on the road in a UCL game they desperately needed on Tuesday, but would have been a heavy underdog at Camp Nou, where the game was scheduled to take place.
Instead, the best game on the slate is … Osasuna-Valencia? Sevilla-Getafe? Atletico Madrid-Athletic Bilbao? With that in mind, I have one thing to say before explaining why we’re not getting Barcelona-Real Madrid: 1) No, I do not recommend betting on and/or clearing your schedule for any of those match-ups.
So let’s talk politics, I guess …
A new meaning of the term “political football”
The political unrest in Catalonia is such that La Liga and the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) did not feel comfortable holding the game in Barcelona this weekend. Politically, it’s a complicated and fraught situation that is difficult to explain. But in a few words – not that one or two sentences is enough – many people in Catalonia want the region to secede from Spain, and the Spanish government would, uh, rather they didn’t. I could go on, but this isn’t the first time* politics directly impacted soccer in Spain, and it surely won’t be the last, either.
So was the game canceled?
No. It is currently scheduled for Wednesday, December 18, but La Liga is not happy with that date and is challenging the RFEF’s decision to schedule it mid-week. That bring us to another bureaucratic/political mess that’s hard to explain. But let’s just say that this is the latest in a looong line of points of contention between the Spanish league and federation. Is it just me, or is now a good time to pivot to a conversation about actual soccer??
We’re still only nine games into the season, and history tells us the final standings of the season will feature Barcelona followed by some combination of RM, Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and Valencia. But we’re deep enough into the season to give third-place Granada, fourth-place Real Sociedad and seventh-place (but statistically impressive) Villarreal a little love, or at least a quick overview.
Let’s start with promoted side Granada, which is blowing expectations out of the water a season after it was in Spain’s second tier. We praised them on High Press Soccer prior to their game vs. Real Madrid on October 5th, only for them to lose 4-2 at the Bernabéu. Still, their 17 points through nine games tells you they are legit. And it’s not like they’re winning by parking the bus, as they’ve scored 16 and allowed 10. With their next two against 18th-place Real Betis and ninth-place Getafe, they could still be in second when they take on Real Sociedad at home on November 3.
Speaking of Real Sociedad, check out 20-year-old Martin Odegaard’s squad ASAP if you haven’t already. It’s not just RM loanee Odegaard, though. The club’s top offensive threat is another young player, 22-year-old Mikel Oyarzabal, who has four goals, three assists and a solid WhoScored rating of 7.38 through nine matches in La Liga. Outside of the 11/3 trip to Granada, there isn’t another game that will tell us a whole lot about this club until they take on Los Blancos in Madrid on November 24.
It’s hard to be more intriguing/puzzling than Villarreal. If goal differential is to be trusted, this team will be in the top four in Spain sooner than later. Scratch that — this team (14 points) is already just two points out of fourth place, but is behind three teams that currently have 16 (Real Sociedad, Atleti and Sevilla). With 20 (!) goals through nine games, the offense is there, and the goal differential of +7 is the same as Real Madrid’s, with only Barcelona (+13) in better shape in that regard. As for the team’s top players, the leading scorers are Gerard Moreno (six goals) and former Arsenal man Santi Cazorla. Villarreal’s slate for the rest of October and November is very manageable, but business will pick up in December, when they meet Valencia (Dec. 1), Atleti (Dec. 8) and Sevilla (Dec. 15).
Manchester City is not exactly fighting for its life in Group C. Three teams are still very much alive in Group F. Ajax and Chelsea are in great shape in Group H. And Group G is as “meh” as expected.
So which groups are the most worth your attention over the final three matchdays? (Matchday 4 is on November 5-6, Matchday 5 on November 26-27 and Matchday 6 on December 10-11). I don’t know whether the word for the groups at the top of this list is unpredictable or compelling, but I do know that some of these groups offer way more intrigue than others.
1. Group F
Barcelona – 7 points, Borussia Dortmund – 4 points, Inter Milan – 4 points, Slavia Prague – 1 point
There aren’t many groups where it’s truly unclear who will finish top-two. Barcelona will likely almost certainly win this group. But the battle between Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan for the second spot could be undecided going into matchday 6.
No team took a bigger step toward staying alive this week than Inter with their 2-0 home win over BVB on Wednesday. If they can get another win at Dortmund on Matchday 4, they’d go from seriously on the ropes to in great shape in just 180 minutes.
We were high on Dortmund coming into the Champions League, but they’re currently in fourth in the Bundesliga and are far from a lock to make it to the knockout rounds. They’re also a home win over Inter away from being in great shape in their group – the takeaway here is you should be sure to watch BVB-Inter on November 5.
2. Group G
RB Leipzig – 6 points, Zenit St. Petersburg – 4 points, Lyon – 4 points, Benfica – 3 points
This is the only group where everyone has at least 3 points. Benfica is also the only fourth-place team with a realistic chance to finish top-two – and the Portuguese club actually still has a chance to win this group. If any of these teams had a little more brand recognition, this would be the group everyone was talking about. At the moment, Leipzig appears to be the likely winner, but I doubt we’ll know who joins them until the final matchday.
3. Group C
Manchester City – 9 points, Shakhtar Donetsk – 4 points, Dinamo Zagreb – 4 points, Atalanta – 0 points
No, this group as a collective is not exactly pushing City to the limit. City’s goal differential of +9 is ridiculous, but not much of a surprise. The question is whether it’s Shakhtar Donetsk or Dinamo Zagreb who make it out. Also, what on earth is up with Atalanta? So much for that dark horse. Atalanta and Bayer Leverkusen are the only teams with 0 points through three games.
This week’s 2-2 draw between Shakhtar and Dinamo did little to differentiate these two. Dinamo has a 4-0 blowout of Atalanta and was decently competitive vs. City (they lost 2-0, and it was 0-0 until the 66th). Both those results are more impressive than what Shakhtar did against their common opponents, as Shakhtar fell 3-0 to City and only beat Atalanta 2-1. So unless one of them gets all three points when they meet again on November 6, flip a coin for second place here.
4. Group A
Paris St. Germain – 9 points, Real Madrid – 4 points, Club Brugge – 2 points, Galatasaray – 1 point
Group G was probably the last one without two clear favorites/locks to advance. You just about have to flip a coin to pick between Group A and Group B for fourth and fifth in this ranking. Both have a runaway leader (PSG here, Bayern for Group B) and a second-place team that is set to go through despite looking decidedly vulnerable. It’s hard to overstate how bad Real Madrid looked against both PSG in their UCL opener and in the draw to Club Brugge. But do I think Los Blancos are going to be overtaken by Brugge or Galatasaray? Not quite.
5. Group B
Bayern Munich – 9 points, Tottenham – 4 points, Red Star Belgrade – 3 points, Olympiacos – 1 point
Spurs have to be thrilled there’s not a team like Red Bull Salzburg or Inter Milan in their group. Despite how bad Mauricio Pochettino’s team looked losing 7-2 to Bayern, they’re probably going to scrap their way to the knockout rounds. But unless things change dramatically by January, Tottenham will be one of the weakest teams in the round of 16.
6. Group H
Chelsea – 6 points, Ajax – 6 points, Valencia – 4 points, Lille – 1 point
Valencia fans will hate me for bringing this up, but we were seconds away from having three teams with 6 points apiece here.
The last-minute goal that made Wednesday’s clash with Lille end in a draw will not soon be forgotten by fans of the La Liga club. Valencia’s win over Chelsea on matchday 1 seems hard to fathom now, but is evidence that the reigning Copa del Rey champs are no pushover. That being said, from what I’ve seen, there’s a massive gap in quality between Chelsea/Ajax and Valencia/Lille, regardless of what the standings say at the moment.
7. Group E
Napoli – 7 points, Liverpool – 6 points, Red Bull Salzburg – 3 points, Genk – 1 point
Unfortunately, RBS is now a massive long shot to advance. The Austrian side had its chances to get a win or draw vs. Napoli this week, but was not good enough defensively. They now probably need to win out and get help in the form of a surprise result by Genk against Napoli and or Liverpool. In other words – and I’d love to be wrong on this – the end is probably near for Erling Braut Haaland and Co.
8. Group D
Juventus – 7 points, Atlético Madrid – 7 points, Lokomotiv Moscow – 3 points, Bayer Leverkusen – 0 points
Atleti, based on their offensive struggles domestically, is yet another team that better be glad it was drawn in a group whose third-best team is not terribly formidable good. While it seems obvious who will finish top-two in several groups, there’s no bigger lock than the Juve-Atleti combo in Group D. It will, however, be interesting to see how the second Juve-Atleti match-up plays out, and which of these teams wins this group.
We’ve called fun-to-watch teams “League Pass”-worthy* here at High Press Soccer plenty of times in recent weeks. But until now, we lacked an “official” ranking of Europe’s most intriguing clubs.
*-We’re borrowing stealing this concept from the annual rankings of NBA teams, based on entertainment value, that Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe used to do for Grantland. Lowe continues to do them for ESPN now. The short explanation is that these are the most must-see – but not necessarily the best or most well-rounded – teams in Europe.
What’s a soccer League Pass team?
There’s no specific formula for this. However, here are a few things any team reading this should emphasize if they aspire to join this illustrious group:
- young talent (Red Bull Salzburg and Ajax are prime examples)
- a fun style (think wide-open like Man City, as opposed to whatever Diego Simeone’s club is up to)
- big – but likeable (so not CR7) – personalities
- charismatic/expressive/goofy managers (fingers crossed a top European club calls Miguel Herrera or Diego Maradona soon)
- a propensity for off-field/locker-room drama (PSG and Real Madrid, anybody?)
- an ascendant quality, because teams on the way up are generally more interesting than those trying to remain elite.
HPS League Pass Teams for 2019-20 v1
Without further ado …
1. Red Bull Salzburg
Frequent readers of this site – and/or anyone who watched this team against either Genk or Liverpool – will not be surprised to see the Austrian club atop this list. They check all the “League Pass” boxes, or at least all the ones that help a team win. It starts with Erling Braut Haaland, but he’s just one of several talented pieces up top. Hwang Hee-Chan (23 years old), Takumi Minamino (24) and Patson Daka (21) also get theirs on a team with 47 goals through 11 games domestically. It’s also fun to watch an American manager with A) Jesse Marsch’s fire
“How many fouls have we committed? Maybe 2? It’s not a f–king friendly, it’s a Champions League match.”
Jesse Marsch’s halftime talk vs Liverpool has gone viral. Salzburg scored 2 goals right after this for 3-3, ended up losing 4-3. (Language warning.)pic.twitter.com/eE1NxiAzN2
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 4, 2019
(DEFINITELY not taking a subtle shot at Gregg Berhalter) and B) his apparent knack for getting the most from this players.
The only bad news on RBS is that after the loss to Napoli, they’re probably cooked in the UCL, so enjoy their last three group stage games – and fingers crossed they find a way to make it to the knockout rounds.
The purpose of this list is not to rattle off all the teams full of household names. Success, however, does not preclude a team from a high ranking here. Managers (especially not the game’s best) don’t get more fun to watch than Jurgen Klopp, whether you’re a fan of his teams or not.
In addition to his touchline antics, Klopp’s teams always play with a frenetic energy. That scheme + world-class players all over the pitch + the electric atmosphere at Anfield make it impossible to rank Liverpool lower than second or third.
How much time do you have? The darlings of last year’s Champions League appear to have an even bigger chip on their shoulder than they did a year ago. With many questioning what they could do after Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong left this summer, Ajax smoked its first two UCL opponents before Wednesday’s close loss to Chelsea. Hakim Ziyech would have a case to be No. 1 on a list of “League Pass” players, and he’s one of several guys on this roster who play absolutely beautiful soccer – Dusan Tadic is another human highlight reel. The chemistry on this squad isn’t bad either.
David Neres getting a slap in the face from Dusan Tadic in the Ajax goal celebrations 😂
— Photos of Football (@photosofootball) September 17, 2019
Few attacking trios can touch the ceiling that Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann can reach. These three are just now getting used to playing together, but if this group jells, it could recall – or surpass?? – the devastating work that Messi, Suarez and Neymar did before the Brazilian’s exit to PSG. Barcelona also boasts an excellent keeper in Marc-Andre ter Stegen and after flameouts the last two springs, the tension for this team’s knockout match-ups will make each game a hell of a spectacle.
Nobody’s playing better while relying more on teenagers than Frank Lampard’s squad. Winning at Ajax on Wednesday in the UCL was a massive feat. After that result, in addition to being just two points out of second place in easily the toughest league in the world, the Blues are currently tied atop Group H with Ajax.
They’ve also won four of five in the EPL and have scored more (19 goals through nine games) than anyone other than Liverpool and Manchester City. When’s the last time a top European team was getting it done while being so dependent on so many young players essentially breaking out at the same time??
6. Leicester City
The winners of the ’15-16 EPL have by no means fallen off the map since that Cinderella run. Claudio Ranieri might be long gone, but this remains a likeable, entertaining team – and one that also happens to be really good. At third place in the EPL and with a goal differential of +8, they’re not going anywhere. Even if this isn’t the first time they’ve pushed their far richer rivals, it’s still really entertaining. Go watch their narrow loss to Liverpool – or at least highlights of it — from October 5th and tell me you’re not in on James Maddison and Co.
7. Inter Milan
It starts with Antonio Conte, another of the rare managers who’s worth keeping an eye on as much as possible. They also have scoring talent both young (22-year-old Argentine Lautaro Martinez is on a tear) and not-so-young (Romelu Lukaku) who, it turns out, is actually only 26. That seems hard to believe. Anyway, Inter were probably going to get left off this list if they didn’t beat Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday to keep their Champions League knockout hopes alive. But with that win, they’re in the mix in Group F. The return, at some point, of a seemingly rejuvenated Alexis Sanchez will also give this team a lift.
8. Borussia Mönchengladbach
The first-place team in Germany is not Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund. Those two powers are currently third and fourth, respectively, behind second-place Wolfsburg. But let’s talk about the team with the easiest name to spell in Europe. They are not loaded with top names, but any underdog leading a top European league after eight games is worth checking out. And based on their goal differential of +8, they’re not going anywhere.
What the hell is going on with these guys? Only one team in Spain has a better differential than this club’s +7. With that in mind, you’d imagine they’d be no worse than about fifth in the standings, right? Instead, they’re currently in seventh place with just 14 points through nine games. They opened the season by drawing Granada 4-4. If that’s not a “League Pass”-type score, I don’t know what is. They also earned a draw vs. Real Madrid on September 1 and played Barcelona tough in a 2-1 loss. This is a team worth getting to know ASAP.
10. Real Sociedad
Staying in Spain (and forgoing well-known options like Manchester City, Napoli, etc.), Real Sociedad is in fourth place. Their place on this list is 90% about Martin Odegaard, who might be the best player in the league outside the big three clubs. OK, so he’s actually a Real Madrid loanee, but the 20-year-old is nevertheless making his current team one of Spain’s most intriguing. The long-hyped Norwegian’s numbers through nine La Liga games (two goals and two assists) do not do justice to the impact he’s having. There’s been a lot of buzz about Odegaard for a while, and he’s shown what all the fuss is about through the first two months of the ’19-20 season.
Note: This list will be updated as the season rolls along.
Believe it or not, by the end of next week, we’ll be halfway through the group stage of the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League.
We’re once again putting all 16 games into one of four tiers:
- Tier 1 – Actually worth watching;
- Tier 2 – Worth a look (and a shorter breakdown);
- Tier 3 – There’s always worse things to be doing than watching soccer; and
- Tier 4 – Admittedly not sure what to say on these.
For those who haven’t been following the UCL, each team will have met every opponent in its four-team group by the end of this matchday. Matchdays 4, 5 and 6 will offer added intrigue for two reasons: A) everyone will be familiar with each other and B) More importantly, the stakes will be raised (unless the team in first is already way ahead of the pack).
But that’s enough more than enough throat-clearing for now.
Tier 1 – Actually worth watching
1. Inter Milan (+143) vs. Borussia Dortmund (+185) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
Inter Milan is probably a much better team than the results of its first two games — a draw vs. Slavia Prague and a loss to Barcelona — would indicate. But the standings don’t care about that, as Inter is in last place with just one point. Another loss or draw vs. BVB would mean this team would probably need to win all three of its remaining games, and still need some help, to finish top-two.
With a win, Inter and Dortmund would be tied for second with 4 points, assuming Barcelona wins at Slavia Prague. Inter is a good team (18 points through seven Serie A games) with a good manager, so I think they’ll manage three points here, but it will be tough without injured Alexis Sánchez (can you imagine saying that just 6 months ago???). BVB has been in a funk domestically, settling for draws in each of their last three.
2. Red Bull Salzburg (+170) vs. Napoli (+143) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
All RBS have done so far is produce a historic 6-2 blowout over Genk (it was 5-1 at halftime!) and give Liverpool everything they wanted. And yet they’re the underdog on their home field when Napoli comes to town this week. If you weren’t watching when this team erased a 3-0 deficit at Anfield, tying the game in the 60th minute before losing 4-3, I’ll forgive you – I missed it, too, sadly.
But there’s no excuse not to have an eye on this game. As if that effort by RBS wasn’t impressive enough in itself, they did it with star Erling Braut Haland watching from the bench for the first 56 minutes! We don’t have an official High Press Soccer UCL “League Pass” (most entertaining) ranking – at least not yet – but if we did, this team would have a case for the No. 1 spot. They’ve scored 46 goals in 10 games in the Austrian Bundesliga to go with nine through two Champions League games.
Napoli, for their part, has a win over Liverpool as well as a 0-0 draw against Genk, making them the field’s biggest wild card.
3. Ajax (+125) vs. Chelsea (+210) Wednesday, 12:55 p.m.
Speaking of teams that would rank toward the top of a “League Pass” list … Ajax are everyone’s favorite upstart juggernaut (it’s time to start calling the No. 6 team in our Global XI Soccer Table what it is, with or without Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs de Ligt).
They can reach the halfway point with nine points if they beat Chelsea. They’re favored here, so this line as not as ridiculous as the one for their last game, but how do you not bet on this team at home at +125?? Chelsea’s another fun team to watch thanks to Frank Lampard’s willingness to unleash young stars Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham (and hopefully Christian Pulisic, too, sooner than later).
Tier 2 – Worth a look (and a shorter breakdown)
4. Lille (+185) vs. Valencia (+160) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
Staying in Group H, lines don’t get much more even than this one. Lille was blown out by Ajax before playing Chelsea tough in a 2-1 loss on Matchday 2. That’s about the best case I can make for tuning into a Ligue 1 club other than PSG clashing with Valencia, which is, at best, La Liga’s fifth-best team right now.
5. Benfica (+105) vs. Lyon (+235) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
Once again, I’m expecting a close match based on the lines. Benfica, which lost its first two in Group G, can probably forget about the knockout stages if they don’t win this one. Lyon is tied with Zenit St. Petersburg for first in the group, with four points. In a foursome with no bona fide European power, Lyon has reason to like its chances to advance, especially with a victory in this one.
6. Galatasaray (+440) vs. Real Madrid (-162) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
To be honest, this one should probably be a tier or two lower, but I really don’t want to call 11 of 16 games this week barely/not very watchable. Real Madrid, on paper, should finish in the top 2 of Group A with ease. But they have just one point so far and are playing this game in a hostile atmosphere. I don’t think RM makes it back-to-back disappointing draws, but keep your eye on this match-up, especially early, to see how Zinedine Zidane’s banged up squad looks. It’s also worth noting that last time Los Blancos were heavily favored, Club Brugge happened, as Zidane’s team fell behind 2-0 before salvaging a draw.
Tier 3 – there’s always worse things to be doing than watching soccer
7. Manchester City (-530) vs. Atalanta (+1300) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
I understand why City are such heavy favorites here, but Atalanta is better than its first two performances would lead us to believe (I think). Either way, we have a high-scoring European power taking on an Atlanta team that is both desperate and high-scoring in its own right.
I refuse, however, to call a team with UCL losses to Dinamo Zagreb and Shakhtar Donetsk a “European power.”
8. Genk (+850) vs. Liverpool (-360) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
9. Slavia Prague (+550) vs. Barcelona (-210) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
The road teams in these two match-ups should cruise, but Liverpool is worth watching, regardless of the opponent. The same can be said for Barcelona when Lionel Messi is fully fit, which he should be for this one. Expect Barcelona’s first comfortable UCL victory of the year.
Tier 4 — admittedly not sure what to say on these
(*fingers crossed this is the only time this category features six games it’s hard to make a case for*)
10. Brugge (+525) vs. Paris St. Germain (-182) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
11. Atletico Madrid (-155) vs. Bayer Leverkusen (+510) Tuesday, 12:55 p.m.
12. Juventus (-455) vs. Lokomotiv Moscow (+1400) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
13. Olympiakos (+600) vs. Bayern Munich (-240) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
14. RB Leipzig (-177) vs. Zenit St. Petersburg (+475) Wednesday, 12:55 p.m.
15. Tottenham (-420) vs. Red Star Belgrade (+1200) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
16. Shakhtar Donetsk (-143) vs. Dinamo Zagreb (+425) Tuesday, 12:55 p.m.
This weekend marks the first in a while without an undeniably marquee match-up in Spain. We’re just a weekend away from the first El Clásico of the season – unless it’s rescheduled due to the protests in Catalonia – but for Matchday 9, the closest thing we have to a showdown is Atlético Madrid (-155) hosting Valencia (+410) on Saturday at 10 a.m. Eastern.
We’ll get to whether we should expect this to be the weekend when Atleti starts scoring in domestic play, but the most interesting storyline is whether Lionel Messi and Barcelona are finally on track.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before…
For now, Barcelona (16 points) remains in second place, two behind Real Madrid (18). But, in a shocking turn of events, the Catalans look like the frontrunner to win La Liga again now that Messi has returned to the lineup. Since losing to Granada 2-0 on Sept. 21, Barcelona has won its last three in La Liga by a combined score of 8-1. Oddsmakers agree, as Barcelona is currently -150 to win the league, compared to +175 for RM and +1100 for Atleti.
Messi has only played 90 minutes the last two games, so it’s too early to assume the 32-year-old will be his dominant self every match. He appeared to be over his early-season issues, however, against both Inter Milan in the Champions League on October 2nd and especially in his team’s last outing, a 4-0 blowout of sixth-place Sevilla on October 6th. The Catalans (-186) are unlikely to be tested Saturday at 7 a.m. Eastern at Eibar (+440), but we’ll know after they face Los Blancos on October 26th whether this team, which has won four of five, is poised to run away with another La Liga title.
Can Messi and Griezmann mesh?
The biggest reason Ernesto Valverde’s team has earned just 16 of a possible 24 points this season is that its best three players up top have rarely been healthy at the same time. Interestingly, with Antoine Griezmann, red-hot (four goals in the last three games) Luis Suárez, Ousmane Dembélé and Messi all fit for the first time vs. Sevilla on Matchday 8, it was Griezmann who was the odd man out – and he never even came on as a sub!
That game, in which all three starting forwards scored, did not bode well for the Frenchman. For the most part, he’s yet to look at home at Camp Nou. The notable exception was his two-goal effort in the 5-2 win over Real Betis back on August 25th. In that game, due to injuries to his star teammates, he played centrally, flanked by Carles Perez and Rafinha.
With “good, fit Dembélé” making an 88-minute cameo in the win over Sevilla, it could have been time to wonder if Griezmann’s place in Barcelona’s preferred XI was in jeopardy.
But Dembélé’s late-game red card for “disrespecting the official” (“you’re very bad”??) not only got him sent off, but also earned him a suspension for the next two matches.
Griezmann gets his chance
So, for the third time this year, we’ll likely see Griezmann on the left, Suárez in the middle and Messi on the right at Eibar on Saturday.
In the previous two games this year with that starting forward combination (a 2-1 win on September 24th vs. Villarreal and the UCL win over Inter on October 2nd), Barcelona has gotten the job done, but has not exactly thrived. The on-field chemistry doesn’t have to be perfect by the end of the next 180 minutes, but if the fit is still off after El Clásico*, it’s going to be very interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out for Griezmann/Dembélé/Ansu Fati??
(OK, I don’t really expect the 16-year-old to unseat Griezmann) But could Valverde give him minutes on the left at Griezmann’s expense, assuming 32-year-olds Suárez and Messi stay healthy and in their ideal spots?
*Assuming, again, that it’s played as scheduled a week from Saturday.
As for this weekend
The lines for Saturday’s Atleti-Valencia and Mallorca-Real Madrid (Mallorca is +550 at home, compared to RM’s -210 for the 3 p.m. Eastern kickoff) tell you how likely upsets are for either team from the Spanish capital. There are interesting questions regarding both games, though.
- Can Diego Simeone’s team score? They have just seven (!) goals through eight games. They’re going to struggle to qualify for the Champions League, much less push their rivals for a league title, if the offense doesn’t drastically improve ASAP.
- Can Valencia stay “hot?” Team off-field dysfunction has strung together four solid results in a row, with two draws and two wins over the last few weeks. Another result this weekend would send a message that we can’t bury this squad just yet.
- Real Madrid’s injuries don’t mean they should be on upset alert, do they? Thanks to every European club manager’s favorite added difficulty, Euro 2020 qualifiers, Los Blancos will likely be without Gareth Bale and midfielders Lucas Vázquez and Luka Modric. Playing shorthanded on the road in a tough atmosphere, with a pivotal week ahead featuring a must-win trip to Galatasaray in the UCL and a road El Clasico, what could possibly go wrong?? What I’m saying is that under these circumstances, this is a trickier match-up than it appears to be at first glance. What I’m not quiite saying is that the line is skewed — +340 for a draw here is tempting, but staying away or going with the heavy favorite is probably advisable.
Champions League Group H Top 2 Odds: Ajax -560 | Chelsea – 210 | Valencia -112 | Lille +1100
All it took for ’18-19 UEFA Champions League semifinalist Ajax to get the respect it deserved in Group H was a pair of 3-0 wins. One at home over Lille on September 17 and the other at Valencia on October 2. The Dutch side is now (finally) favored (-143) to win the group.
Now the most compelling questions in this group are how Ajax matches up with Chelsea and who we should expect to join Erik ten Hag’s squad as the other team advancing from this foursome.
Both teams will enter the October 23 match at 12:55 p.m. Eastern at Amsterdam Arena in good form. Ajax (+125) is favored over Chelsea (+210) in that one, but remains a good bet. The Dutch club, as we’ve mentioned every time we’ve gotten the chance on High Press Soccer, is first in the Eredivisie with 29 points through nine games and has been rolling in the UCL.
And Chelsea is on a bit of a tear itself, even if you choose to downplay the 7-1 win over Grimsby Town in the EFL/Carabao Cup on September 25. No, Brighton (September 28) and Southampton (October 6) are not exactly powerhouses. But back-to-back EPL wins, with a Champions League win at Lille (October 2) between those victories, constitute a quality stretch.
The question is how Frank Lampard’s teenager-heavy attack will fare at a venue where teams like Juventus and Real Madrid both faltered last spring. As far as age goes, the gap between these two teams is not exactly yawning. But Donny van de Beek, Hakim Ziyech, Dusan Tadic, David Neres and Nicolas Tagliafico, among others, are all vastly more experienced in games like this than Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Chelsea did what they had to do against Lille to get three points, but the way they looked in both that game and the home loss to a dysfunctional Valencia squad make you wonder how much of a fight they’ll give Ajax on the road.
The Blues are currently two points behind second-place Manchester City in the Premier League after securing 9 of 12 possible points from their last four games. However, their four EPL victories this year are over Brighton, Southampton, Wolves and Norwich, exactly 0 of whom are currently top 10 in the Premier League.
Who else makes the knockout round?
Let’s start with the oddsmakers’ take. On DraftKings Sportsbook NJ, after Ajax (-143), they like Chelsea (+220) way better than either Valencia (+500) or Lille (+6,000) to win the group. Top-2 odds are as follows: Ajax (-560), Chelsea (-210), Valencia (-112) and Lille (+1100).
I don’t see Lille, who have 0 points through two games, making a furious rally. But there is a path to Lille getting right back in the mix by the end of the next matchday. All the French club would have to do is beat Valencia at home and have Ajax defeat Chelsea. If that happens — and those are the most likely outcomes, as the oddsmakers and I are on the same page — all of a sudden, it would be Ajax in first with 9 points and three teams with just 3 points.
It has to be Chelsea, right?
Even if Chelsea are one of three teams with 3 points at the halfway point of group play, they seem like the best bet to get out of this group. For one thing, their current goal differential of 0 is better than Valencia’s -2 and Lille’s -4. Their last three also present good opportunities for points: home vs. Ajax, at Valencia and home vs. Lille (the ideal final-game venue and opponent if qualification is still up for grabs).
The wild card
The wild card is Valencia. They got off to a terrible start to the season but have rebounded. We’re also talking about a team that proved last year that it can pull off a turnaround.
This year, they’ve gone draw, draw, win, win in their last four in La Liga. That followed a rough start to the season: a draw, a loss, a win and a loss. And their win at Chelsea shows they can occasionally play at a high level, if not maintain it.
Despite the rough start, Valencia is just two points out of fourth place in Spain. The club is also very much alive in this group. Between the never-ending off-field nonsense and the on-field ups and downs, they’ll be as interesting as anyone outside Europe’s elite over the next month or two.
Gareth Bale and Zinedine Zidane are at odds. Again.
This is Part 700 (give or take) in the feud between these two. The latest chapter could result in Bale finally finding greener pastures. Reports today claim Bale will try to leave the Spanish capital during the winter transfer window. One potential destination? Relegation candidate Manchester United.
While Bale’s relationship with Zidane has been extremely rocky at best, he has never truly wanted to leave Spain until now.
Bale was reportedly “angry” over his complete exclusion from the squad in last weekend’s UEFA Champions League draw against Club Brugge. He returned to the line-up this weekend against Granada. With Bale doing Bale things, RM won 4-2. Check out this banana assist around the 0:40 second mark in the embedded video. Few players are capable of this.
So maybe Bale feels like for the first time he has public sentiment on his side. The timing is just right. His play this certainly warrants immediate starter status for RM. He’s tallied two goals and two assists in domestic play. His passing in particular is “prime Bale” good.
Of note, his highest statistical output has been when he’s deployed as a center-forward. Do you know what club desperately needs more quality at the forward position?
Bale to Manchester United a good short-term fix
Manchester United are a mess.
Or are they?
Their underlying statistics show them to be more unlucky than bad. (How’s that for a rallying cry? “We’re not bad! We’re unlucky!”)
Bale’s pace and creativity could help unlock the offense. Paired with Daniel James on the wing and supported by a potentially rejuvenated Paul Pogba, United would have the weapons to find the net and avoid relegation.
As a short-term fix, the deal makes sense for both sides. Bale will get all of the playing time he can handle. If United improve with him, he’ll have a fan-base and coach that actually appreciates him. And Manchester United avoid dropping to the Championship next season.
Win-win all around.
Who: Real Madrid vs Granada
When: Saturday, October 5th @ 10:00am ET
Line: Real Madrid -335 | Draw +480 | Granada +750
Matchday 8 in La Liga is the best of the season, even if last weekend boasted the best single game of the year (Atleti-Real Madrid). Though one of the four teams in the games I’m about to mention were promoted to the top flight this year, it’s still hard to overstate the fact we get first place vs. second place and fourth vs. sixth on back-to-back days.
This weekend, Real Madrid (-335) hosts Granada (+750) at the Santiago Bernabéu on Saturday at 10 a.m. Eastern. We’ll elaborate later in this piece, but for now, let’s just say that line would have made a ton of sense before the season started. Now? Not so much. Granada is in SECOND PLACE, WITH A LEAGUE-BEST GOAL DIFFERENTIAL OF +7.
I promise I didn’t call this the most interesting matchday of ’19-20 just because it’s the next one or because I’m interested in Granada’s trip to Madrid. Barcelona (-177) also has one of its toughest games of the season (to date), as they host a Sevilla (+450) squad that is only two points out of first place despite dropping two of their last three.
Real Madrid Rollercoaster
We’ll get to the Granada clash in a second, I swear, but until Real Madrid steadies itself, reviewing their most recent week will be a necessary part of previewing their games.
The good news for Los Blancos is that they are in sole possession of first place and have not lost since that Champions League meltdown in Paris on September 18th. But if you think that means all is wel … who am I kidding, by now, everyone knows what happened on Tuesday vs. Club Brugge, when they were lucky to salvage a draw. And last week’s tie at Atleti wasn’t what they were looking for, either.
So with advancing from their Champions League group in major jeopardy, no pressure – or reason to worry — as Granada comes to town, right? That’s clearly what oddsmakers seem to believe. Dismissing a team with as little star power as Granada boasts would make some sense if they’d only played a game or two or beaten nothing other than also-rans.
But first of all, we’re seven games (more than 630 minutes, if you want to think about it that way) into the season. And Granada has a 2-0 win over Barcelona and has only lost once. That, along with their goal differential*, should give them more respect, but for whatever reason, it isn’t happening, at least not yet.
*Speaking of goal differential in Spain, guess who is tied for first in that department at +7?? If you said Villarreal, you’re either a liar or a fan of the eighth-place team.
So who are these guys?
Now, if you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned Granada’s players or how they’ve piled up 14 points, let’s just it’s definitely not because I haven’t gotten around to watching them play yet. That will change Saturday, but in the meantime, I can tell you it’s a balanced attack offensively: 27-year-old Antonio Puertas leads the way with three goals and is one of eight players who has contributed to the 12 goals they’ve scored. And the always-useful WhoScored profiles them here. They are managed by 38-year-old Diego Martínez, who learned under Sevilla mastermind Monchi for a number of years. This is just his second head coaching job with a top senior team after he managed Osasuna in ’17-18. You’re going to hear a lot more about Martínez if this team continues to win.
As for Real Madrid, if they’re on their game, they should have enough to get three points at home. Unfortunately for Madridistas, that’s such a big “if” that betting Granada at +750, or the draw at +480, makes a ton of sense.
It’s worth noting that FiveThirtyEight is not a Granada believer, as the site gives this team just a 10% chance to win this weekend. FiveThirtyEight also believes Granada has just an 11% chance to even finish top-four. Bulletin board material, anybody?
Barcelona-Sevilla Match Preview
A couple weeks ago, it looked like Sevilla might have a chance to not only stay in first place for a while, but build up a bit of a cushion. Through four weeks, this team had 10 points, and when it hosted RM (then on 8 points), it was a golden opportunity to make a statement. Instead, Sevilla lost that game 1-0 and followed that with a puzzling loss at Eibar. They bounced back by beating Real Sociedad last week, but head to Camp Nou a tough team to figure out.
Barcelona is coming off its first game with Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann all starting up top. It took the Catalans a while to get going vs. Inter Milan on Wednesday (and they honestly were lucky to only be down 1-0 at halftime), but Suárez scored two incredible goals, giving him three in the last 180 minutes. Messi didn’t quite look like himself (at least not in my opinion, though WhoScored, which gave him a 9.45 (!) would beg to differ). But it was still probably easily his best performance of the season, as he set up the Uruguayan for the winner in the 84th. In the process, he reminded everyone how dangerous his team is when he plays 90 minutes.
Away from Camp Nou, I’d expect Barcelona to struggle – and Sevilla at +450 would be very intriguing – but Ernesto Valverde’s team has scored 12 goals in three games in front of its home fans. The truly discouraging news for Sevilla is that Messi played just 45 minutes in those three games. Barcelona is up-and-down enough to make the draw at +325 enticing, but another home victory is the most likely outcome.
If Academy Award-winning director Asif Kapadia’s film, Diego Maradona, on the Argentine legend only showed what a dominant player Maradona was, it would be plenty compelling.
If it was just a two-hour highlight reel of the most ridiculous moments from the virtually never-ending bender that was Maradona’s time in Naples, it would have been worth watching.
But what we fortunately get, instead — in the latest apparent hit from Amy and Senna director Kapadia — is a revealing answer to a confounding question. How and why did Maradona go from a very good player at Boca Juniors and Barcelona to a legend who experienced ups and downs of mythological proportions when he moved to Napoli in 1984??
Below are five reasons to check out the premier of this documentary on HBO Tuesday night at 9 p.m. Eastern.
1. Breathtaking on-field footage of a player many consider the G.O.A.T.
Maradona is undeniably one of the greatest soccer players of all time, and the extensive field-level clips of him in action* are something to behold. Everyone who has seen Lionel Messi weave through defenders marvels at the way the ball stays attached to his foot, and Maradona had the same unfathomable control.
It was even more impressive and notable because of what Maradona’s opponents in Serie A were able to get away with. If you’re ever wondered why it was possible to lead a domestic league with 15 or 20 goals in the ‘80s, when top scorers today sometimes find the net 30-plus times in a season, here’s your answer. Serie A looked more like the NFL in the 1980’s than the product it is today.
*Kapadia sifted through endless (500 hours!) archival footage shot by two personal photographers whom Maradona’s ex-agent hired to make a movie about him. That never came to fruition, but years later, a trove of footage became available to Kapadia, who made the most of it.
2. An unbelievable story with an incredible level of detail/perspective
To call Maradona in Naples a fascinating character in a fascinating city would be to drastically understate this period of the Argentine’s life. Under no circumstances today would a player’s introductory press conference feature a question about the mob’s relationship with his new team. But that’s exactly what greeted Maradona on one of his first days in Italy.
In addition to being a compelling sports story and character study, this movie has enough crime drama to satisfy a Scorsese buff. It also covers a National Lampoon-esque level of debauchery (but it’s mostly just stories of that nature — as opposed to racy footage — as the film stays about as family-friendly as something with this type of subject matter could). It also helps that Kapadia’s interviews with those closest to Maradona are illuminating and insightful. We learn about not only what Diego was up to, but why.
3. The historical context surrounding the 1986 World Cup
Maradona’s two-goal effort to help Argentina beat England 2-1 in the semis of the 1986 World Cup included one of the most controversial goals of all time (the infamous “Hand of God”). And his second goal that day was merely one of the best displays of individual brilliance in World Cup history.
But how many fans realize Argentina was meeting England just four years after the Falklands War? That aspect of the classic at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca will likely come as news to younger viewers of this film.
4. The passion of Italian soccer fans
The extent to which Maradona was deified by his own fans, and seemingly all of southern Italy, defies belief. Yes, top athletes are idolized in 2019. But there was a truly unhinged quality about the way Napoli fans revered Maradona.
The film successfully unpacks why fans adored him the way they did, for better or worse. We also get a good look at the intensity of the mutual disdain between supporters of Napoli and their rivals. Some of the vile chants at Serie A crowds today are tame in comparison to the vitriol in this film (but still completely reprehensible, for the record).
5. Don’t you want to see what all the fuss is about?
Virtually every major soccer media outlet in the U.S. and Europe has already gushed about this movie. And a number, including High Press Soccer, got to speak with Kapadia.
Do yourself a favor and go see what we’re all talking about. I can promise it won’t disappoint, regardless of your level of soccer fandom or familiarity with Maradona.
The second week of the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League group stage pales in comparison to the first, when several match-ups pitted European powers against each other.
But that doesn’t mean all 16 games we’ll be treated to on Tuesday and Wednesday lack for intrigue. Here are this week’s Champions League Watchability Rankings. We’ll format this just like we did a couple weeks ago.
Tier 1 – Actually worth watching
1. Barcelona (-175) vs. Inter Milan (+450) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
If Barcelona has Lionel Messi at full strength, then maybe this line makes more sense. But at the moment, Inter at +450 is incredibly tempting.
The most likely scenario (though I’m admittedly guessing) is that the Argentine starts the game on the bench before coming on after halftime. The Catalans have not looked good enough against quality opposition to be this heavily favored, though Barcelona is much better at home than on the road in recent years. Will Inter look like the team that is perfect through six games in Serie A or the group that settled for a draw (at home!) vs. Slavia Prague to open group play?
2. Tottenham (+225) vs. Bayern Munich (+110) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
Tottenham is not exactly thriving, either domestically or so far in the UCL. Their draw at Olympiakos was not the end of the world, but Europe’s elite don’t settle for draws after going up 2-0.
They have not looked any better since, losing to Leicester City and Colchester (really, Spurs?) last week before rebounding with a win over Southampton on Saturday. Despite being at home, we don’t like their chances here – Bayern at +110 seems like a gift.
3. Valencia (+148) vs. Ajax (+180) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
This line makes the least sense. Ajax has been extremely impressive this season, while Valencia’s win at Chelsea two weeks ago was one of the few things that has gone right this year for owner Peter Lim’s club.
Valencia is ninth in La Liga and has a goal differential of -1. Mestalla is an imposing venue, but less so to a team like Ajax. If I recall, the Dutch club fared pretty well at Juventus and Real Madrid a year ago, among other places, and should have Donny van de Beek back tomorrow.
Not sure what’s going on here, but it seems like this is the third game of this group where there’s a clear smart bet to be placed, and it isn’t on Valencia.
4. Liverpool (-335) vs. Red Bull Salzburg (+800) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
This one makes this section despite it being hard to imagine RBS pulling the upset. But Liverpool at Anfield is must-see, even for a neutral fan. And after what Erling Braut Haland and his team did to Genk a few weeks ago, they’re worth keeping an eye on, though there’s good reason they’re a massive long shot here. RBS is already a trendy dark horse, and with a strong showing vs. Jurgen Klopp’s team, even in a losing effort, the Austrians could be the talk of the week.
Tier 2 – Worth a look (and a shorter breakdown)
5. Lille (+270) vs. Chelsea (+104) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
Chelsea needs this one badly after opening UCL play with a home loss. There’s a reason they’re a pretty substantial favorite here, but this is no gimme, especially if Frank Lampard plays his usual contingent of teenagers.
6. Zenit St. Petersburg (+130) vs. Benfica (+220) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
This one is probably as interesting as it gets for a game featuring two teams outside the big five leagues. That being said, I won’t pretend to feel too strongly about either of these squads based on Benfica losing 2-1 to RB Leipzig and Zenit drawing Lyon.
7. RB Leipzig (-162) vs. Lyon (+390) Wednesday, 3 p.m.
The other Red Bull-owned squad that got off to a good start in this tournament is a strong favorite against their Ligue 1 opponent. Expect the Bundesliga club, which is just one point behind first-place Bayern Munich, to get to six points and remain atop Group G.
Tier 3 – there’s always worse things to be doing than watching soccer
8. Atalanta (-132) vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (+330) Tuesday, 12:55 p.m.
Atalanta had one of the most disappointing UCL openers of anyone, losing 4-0 to Dinamo Zagreb. Can they bounce back?
9. Red Star Belgrade (+195) vs. Olympiakos (+145) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
Two relative unknowns, (at least for most of us), but the line is a good sign it will be tight.
10. Slavia Prague (+295) vs. Borussia Dortmund (-110) Wednesday, 12:55 p.m.
I doubt BVB stumbles here, but if Slavia Prague pulls another upset or draw (they already got one vs. Inter Milan), it will be time to take them seriously.
11. Juventus (-190) vs. Bayer Leverkusen (+575) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
Would be shocked to see anything other than a Juventus W, but this one does not quiite belong in the “nothing to see here” category.
Tier 4 – admittedly not sure what to say on these
12. Lokomotiv Moscow (+540) vs. Atlético Madrid (-157) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
13. Real Madrid (-385) vs. Club Brugge (+1000) Tuesday, 12:55 p.m.
14. Galatasaray (+800) vs. PSG (-315) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
15. Genk (+575) vs. Napoli (-230) Tuesday, 12:55 p.m.
16. Man City (-1667) vs. Dinamo Zagreb (+3300) Tuesday, 3 p.m.
Though it seems like a new soccer documentary comes out every day, HBO’s Diego Maradona is shaping up as the best of the year.
At this point, any time you see the letters HBO in the same sentence as a name like Maradona’s, you can expect something pretty compelling. The film was directed by Academy Award-winning Asif Kapadia, the man behind hits Amy and Senna. As if those aren’t enough big names attached to this project, one of HBO’s executive producers was Bill Simmons.
When Does HBO’s Diego Maradona Documentary Premier?
HBO’s Diego Maradona documentary premiers next Tuesday, October 1st at 9 p.m. Eastern.
HBO Diego Maradona Trailer
Soccer fans tend to get excited every time Amazon or Netflix drops something, but the excitement for this one seems to transcend EPL and USMNT diehards. I personally can’t remember a trailer for a documentary ever getting as much hype as HBO did when it released the one below a couple weeks ago.
What does the Diego Mardona documentary cover?
As for the story itself, in case you’re unfamiliar with Maradona, he’s a, um, fairly interesting and accomplished former Argentine soccer player with an incredible story — he’s admitted to what we’ll call an incredible amount of partying during his heyday, and many consider him the best footballer of all time.
Kapadia’s film focuses on Maradona’s tumultuous time in Serie A with Napoli. This period is both a professional high-point for Maradona and a personal, uh, high-point for the Argentine. Cocaine use really became a problem for Diego during this time. It’ll be a fascinating character study of an all-time great talent.
HBO’s Diego Maradona Critic Reviews
If you believe what’s been said and written since it debuted at Cannes earlier this year, “Diego Maradona” will have you glued to your TV next Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern, when it airs on HBO. The doc is currently also in select theaters.
We won’t say too much else here besides linking below to a couple reviews, and one podcast appearance by Kapadia, for anyone looking to read or listen to more on the doc before they tune in.
And stay tuned to High Press Soccer next week, where we’ll have plenty of coverage.
Who: Atlético Madrid vs Real Madrid
When: Saturday, September 28th @ 03:00pm ET
Line: Atletico Madrid +140 | Draw +225 | Real Madrid +200
With all due respect to last week’s Real Madrid-Sevilla showdown, matchday 7 in La Liga gives us our first truly marquee matchup of the season. Real Madrid (+200), fresh off two reassuring wins to put the UCL-opening disaster vs. PSG in the rearview mirror, travels to Wanda Metropolitano to take on rival Atlético Madrid (+130) on Saturday at 3 p.m. Eastern.
That is the clear headliner of this week’s slate, but if you thought we weren’t going to talk about Barcelona and how they’ll look without Lionel Messi at Getafe on Saturday at 10 a.m., lo siento.
Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid: Crosstown rivals trending (mostly) in opposite directions
But back to Zinedine Zidane vs. Diego Simeone.
After El Clásico, this is the biggest rivalry in Spain, and one of the best in Europe. When these two teams meet, it’s must-see TV, regardless of where they are in the standings. Under these circumstances (RM alone in first place with 14 points, and ATM just one point behind them), this is easily the best match of the week in not only Spain, but across Europe – sorry, Manchester United vs Arsenal, although that one should be interesting, too.
Just a week ago, it seemed hard to imagine Atleti needing a win worse than RM here. Atleti stormed out of the gates this year, with nine points from its first three games. Meanwhile, Real Madrid entered last weekend coming off a brutal showing in Paris in the Champions League.
Los Rojiblancos have struggled in three of their last four matches, losing 2-0 to Real Sociedad on September 14, drawing Juve (2-2) on September 18 and drawing Celta Vigo (0-0) last weekend before beating Mallorca 2-0 on Wednesday.
After the embarrassing 3-0 loss to PSG last week, RM responded with a 1-0 win at Sevilla in what was quietly the most impressive domestic result by Barcelona, RM or Atleti through six games. Los Blancos then handled Osasuna at home on Wednesday.
Zinedine Zidane rested a number of key players in that matchup, including Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard and Karim Benzema. They’ll be the fresher team, as Atleti largely stuck to its best XI vs. Mallorca. Let’s also note here that Real Madrid was dominant in a match in which both goals came from Brazilian teenagers (Vinicius in the 36th and Rodrygo in the 72nd).
Real Madrid is in a bad way at left-back, though, without either Marcelo or Ferland Mendy. The good news for RM last weekend was that they shut out Sevilla for their first clean sheet of the season. The bad news was that Mendy got hurt. With the young Frenchman and Marcelo out, Zidane started Nacho vs. Osasuna.
The question is whether João Félix and Diego Costa — who both scored on Wednesday — can take advantage of the injuries to Marcelo and Mendy against an opponent that has recorded back-to-back shutouts. Álvaro Morata would be another quality option, but he got himself sent off late against Mallorca and will not be available on Saturday.
Along with Félix, it will be fascinating to see how RM Eden Hazard looks in his first taste of the Madrid derby. Hazard is yet to make a splash for his new team. Madridistas could hardly dream up a better scenario than a trip to Wanda Metropolitano for the Belgian’s first big performance under Zidane.
Barcelona (once again) without Messi
Now, let’s talk about the most scrutinized lower body on the continent, in case Lionel Messi’s health hasn’t been enough of a topic so far this year. Tuesday against Villarreal was his first start of the season, and it didn’t take the Argentine long to have an impact. His corner, and Antoine Griezmann’s finish, for his team’s opener in the 6th, offered a glimpse at what should concern supporters of any team other than Barcelona.
But unfortunately for the Catalans, the postgame discussion was another round of questions: “How seriously is Messi hurt?” and “What will Ernesto Valverde’s team look like without him?”
While Valverde said that Messi didn’t play the second half for precautionary reasons after what the manager claimed was a tweak of his groin near the 30-minute mark, we’ll see about that this weekend when Barcelona (-125) heads to Getafe (+350). At this point, it would be a shock if Messi suits up, especially with a Champions League match against Inter Milan next Wednesday.
In addition to the concerns about Messi, Barcelona also is facing several other major questions.
To name a few:
- When will Valverde figure out the best line-up for this roster?
- What is going on with the defense, which has allowed the second-most goals (10) in the league after six matches?
- Is Luis Suárez healthy and sharp enough to play up to his potential?
- He has caused more problems for his own fans (he was booed/whistled at Camp Nou when he came off late in the Villarreal win) than the opponents since his two-goals-in-30-minutes outburst vs. Valencia on September 14. Suárez’s WhoScored rating in his last three games: 7.01 vs. Borussia Dortmund on Sept. 17, 5.91 vs. Granada last weekend and, most recently, 6.65 vs. Villarreal. Last year in domestic play, when he finished tied for second in the league with 21 goals, the analytics site rated him a 7.57.
Elsewhere in Spain
Athletic Bilbao has now drawn relegation candidates Mallorca (Sept. 13) and Leganés (Wednesday) in two of its last three games, but remains just two points out of first place. Can Athletic (+125) bounce back at home vs. Valencia (+230)?
Last week’s 16-game introduction to the 2019-20 Champions League group stage provided several interesting results.
Napoli’s 2-0 win over Liverpool, Inter Milan’s 1-1 draw vs Slavia Prague and Tottenham’s 2-2 draw against Olympiakos were among the most surprising outcomes. But none of those teams need to be reconsidered just yet (no, I’m not worried about Liverpool, or terribly high on Slavia Prague).
Four squads who do have me re-thinking their ceilings in this tournament — or at the very least, where they stand in their groups — are RB Salzburg, Paris Saint-Germain, Atalanta and Ajax.
Red Bull Salzburg (+8500)
Despite us flagging them, and particularly 19-year-old Erling Braut Haland, on this site, I don’t think anyone expected a 6-2 (!) win over Genk. With five goals in the first half, thanks largely to Haaland’s hat trick (he scored in the 2nd, 34th and 45th), RBS opened the tournament with the best half you’ll see.
The highlights of those goals introduced those of us who hadn’t seem him before to a Scandinavian CR7, or maybe a soccer-playing Ivan Drago?? A quick checklist:
Tall? Check (6’3”)
Product in his hair? Next question
Jokes aside, this kid is incredible, and looks like a megastar in the making, if you don’t consider him one already. Check him out ASAP, and if you’d like more on his background, last week’s piece on him in the London Guardian is worth a look.
RBS scored with an ease that means one of two things – because the truth is never somewhere in the middle in cases like this – either all of Europe should be on notice, or Genk is a pushover. Let’s give Genk another shot in this competition before writing them off, but they’re currently in seventh place in the Belgian Pro League on just 13 points through eight games.
Getting back to RBS, we’ll soon see exactly how legit this team is, as they take on Liverpool at Anfield next Wednesday. Who knows how that one will play out, but contrary to what oddsmakers would tell you (Liverpool is -360, RBS is +900), it promises to be fun to watch.
And regardless of how many more moments like the team’s opening half we’ll see, betting on them at +200 to finish top-2 seems like an above-average idea.
The other high-scoring HPS under-the-radar darling got off to a very different start.
Atalanta, a popular pick to advance in Group C, which they share with Manchester City, Dinamo Zagreb and Shakhtar Donetsk, was drilled by Dinamo, 4-0. Losing by that margin would be troubling regardless of the opponent, but it’s especially hard to buy into the Italian club after seeing them look like that against a Pot 3 squad from Croatia.
We were high on Atalanta because of their offense, but their defense was a cause for concern. And that was before they went down 3-0 at halftime and managed just two shots on target in 90 minutes. Without a convincing win next week when they host Shakhtar Donetsk, it might be time to hop off the bandwagon.
I owe the Parisians an apology after highlighting them as the top-tier club most likely to fail to reach the knockout rounds. Their 3-0 romp over Real Madrid would have been impressive regardless of who they trotted out. Does the fact they did it without Kylian Mbappé, Edinson Cavani or Neymar justify their status as fourth-best favorite (+800) to win the whole thing? I don’t know about all that, but it was a hell of a tournament opener for Ángel Di María (who scored two stunning goals) and Co.
The real question is whether we can expect this team to remain that stout defensively. Real Madrid undeniably looked listless, but preventing a solid team from recording a single shot on goal is noteworthy. Let’s wait to see how PSG defends future elite opponents before declaring them a brick wall. But the performance against RM, coupled with the fact PSG have been scored on just twice in six Ligue 1 games, is a sign this might be a vastly improved team on the defensive end.
Last but not least, if one game is anything to go by, look out for Ajax, again. Though midfielder Donny van de Beek and right back Noussair Mazraoui are not exactly Mbappe and Neymar, they’re key pieces for their team. Despite them both missing the Lille match, the Dutch club cruised, 3-0. Who knew Ajax played a style that makes them both dangerous and fun to watch??
And the best news — at least for Ajax enthusiasts like myself — is that the chemistry with which they charmed the soccer world a year ago did not abandon them in the offseason. If teammates who slap each other in the face during a goal celebration, then immediately kiss and make up (literally), aren’t your thing, then we’ll have to agree to disagree.
HAHAHAHAHA… ESSE É UM DOS MELHORES VÍDEOS QUE EU JÁ VI NA MINHA VIDA! 😂😂😂😂
— Esporte Interativo (@Esp_Interativo) September 17, 2019
Seriously, though, we wrote this summer about what it said about this group that the likes of Hakim Ziyech, David Neres and van de Beek stuck around when they could have left for huge paydays. Those decisions make a lot of sense after 90 minutes of Champions League action. Ajax was +300 to win Group H before last week, and they remain a good bet at +200 after what we’ve recently seen from Chelsea (+300) and “favorite” Valencia (+120), whose -2 goal differential through five La Liga games and front office drama are massive red flags.
Real Madrid, fresh off an embarrassing Champions League trip to Paris on Wednesday, is in danger of being five points out first place by the conclusion of matchday 5 in La Liga.
Zinedine Zidane’s team’s clash with Sevilla is easily the biggest game of the weekend in Spain. We’ll also touch on Barcelona at (sixth-place!) Granada (Saturday, 3 p.m. Eastern) and Atleti vs. 16th-place Celta Vigo at Wanda Metropolitano (Saturday, 12:30 p.m.)
Make-or-break moment for Zidane
The stakes as Los Blancos (8 points) travel to first-place Sevilla’s (10 points) Sánchez Pijzuán for Sunday’s match at 3 p.m. Eastern are unusually high for mid-September. A win would allow RM to leapfrog their opponent and sit just one point behind Atleti (9 points), assuming Los Rojiblancos beat Celta Vigo.
A loss, though … and wow, at the risk of overreacting, Zidane’s seat would be getting warm. On second thought, that might be an understatement. The optics of his players’ enthusiasm isn’t helping either.
Varane → Bale → Carvajal
— B/R Football (@brfootball) September 20, 2019
Two wins and two draws in domestic play would be nothing to worry about for most teams, but RM is obviously not your typical franchise. There are currently far more questions than answers for this squad after not only the score of Wednesday’s game (3-0, against a far-from-full-strength PSG), but also the listless attitude on display. Zidane and several players have admitted they were disappointed in their own lack of intensity against PSG. If the fact they did not record one shot on goal doesn’t illustrate how poor their current form is, then I don’t know what would.
This is nuts:
— Semra Hunter (@SemraHunter) September 19, 2019
And Wednesday was by no means a random bad afternoon. Under Zidane after his return to the locker room last March, the club won just five of its last 11 La Liga games. That finish, combined with this year’s start, adds up to seven wins from the club’s last 15 domestically. It’s a situation that already has José Mourinho rumors (which, IMO, seem far-fetched at the moment) swirling.
If there’s a “silver lining,” it’s that a number of RM players are injured. This weekend, Luka Modric, Isco and Marcelo could be among the players unavailable due to injury. Once they are back in the mix, and if and when summer signings Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic and Ferland Mendy get fully integrated and start looking like the players their team hopes they are, things could change. But that’s a lot of way too many hypotheticals for September. And the upcoming schedule is unforgiving: back to the Bernabéu to take on Osasuna on Wednesday, before a trip to Atleti next week. No pressure!
Getting to know Sevilla
We probably should have looked at this from the Sevilla perspective much sooner, but better late than never, right? First of all, the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán is notoriously hostile to Real Madrid, who are 0-for-their-last-four there. More importantly, ex-Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui has his team playing impressive soccer both domestically – 10 points through four games, with just one goal allowed – and in the Europa League, where they just blew out Azerbaijani side Qarabag 3-0. That game marked recent signing Chicharito’s most extensive action yet, and appeared to indicate two things
- At 31, the Mexican striker still has something left in the tank.
Chicharito’s first goal for Sevilla is a STUNNER 😱 pic.twitter.com/UFnhVjUa5r
— Bleacher Report Live (@brlive) September 19, 2019
- He could be the offensive spark his new team is missing. They’ve scored just five goals in four games this year in La Liga. That’s going to have to improve if they want to stay anywhere near the top of the table.
Despite traveling all the way to Azerbaijan just a few days ago, Sevilla promises to be fresh for Sunday afternoon, as Lopetegui rested a number of key pieces in that match and watched his backup-heavy lineup not miss a beat.
Despite all that, Sevilla (+155) is a slight underdog. It’s almost like Real Madrid’s (+150) brand influences the lines for their games.
Atleti-Celta Vigo & Barcelona-Granada
Los Rojiblancos (-245) should whip Celta Vigo (+800), while Barcelona (-315) is perhaps slightly more favored than they should be at Granada (+800).
I say that because while the talent gap between these two is massive, Granada, despite being in Spain’s second tier a year ago, is playing well. With 7 points through four games and a goal-differential of +4 — Barcelona’s is just +5 — on paper, they look like the real deal. It’s also worth mentioning that in their road games this season, the Catalans have lost to Athletic Bilbao and settled for draws at Osasuna and Borussia Dortmund. That being said, don’t be surprised if this is the first time in ’19-20 we’re reminded that Lionel Messi, who is expected to start, can sometimes tilt things ever so slightly in his team’s direction.