Welcome to the first weekend with a complete European fixture list to pick from. Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga make up the magical five leagues. As I’ve mentioned before, it it difficult to get it right on the opening fixtures with new players bedding in, lack of fitness etc.
Swansea v West Ham, Saturday
After my prediction of QPR to beat Swansea was made to look very foolish last week, I may be forced to revise my opinion of them under Michael Laudrup. It could be they caught QPR cold, but they looked excellent, in particular Michu carrying on where he left off for Rayo in Spain last year. In my defence, I did say they had made some interesting signings and could well be brilliant, I just erred on the side of caution. There is also a school of thought that believes Brendan Rodgers merely took the Welsh side along their natural progression after the good work of Roberto Martinez and Paulo Sousa before him.
West Ham started with a narrow victory over an Aston Villa side who are still trying to escape the hangover of the Alex McLeish reign of terror. I am far from a fan of Sam Allardyce’s teams, but the big man can certainly put together a side who will be unlikely to get in much trouble. The grit and determination always embodied in his teams is beginning to show at West Ham, but last season showed they can still be as flaky as ever. They also leaked more goals than his sides usually do and Allardyce moved for James Collins at centre back over the summer, presumably to provide a mature head alongside his other defenders. The problem with that is Collins’ best days are gone and I don’t see him helping at all. I think West Ham will be alright this season, but I think games like this will see them well beaten apart from the odd miracle performance.
Southampton v Wigan, Saturday
Another bet of mine to go down the first weekend was Man City to beat Southampton. To be honest, City did enough for a comfortable victory, but let the Saints back in the game after going ahead and rallied late on to take the victory. After dropping last season’s star striker Rickie Lambert to the bench, manager Nigel Adkins brought him on and saw him make an huge impact. I would assume he will be restored to the starting line-up for this match. There’s probably been an over-reaction to the opening game in favour of Southampton (they would have been fortunate to leave with a point) but I possibly underestimated them in my antepost betting column. They should certainly view this as a winnable match and they didn’t struggle for goals or attacking flair last season so I’m going to gamble on them taking the game to Wigan and having too much for them.
Wigan started with a loss at home to Chelsea last Sunday and they were completely over-run by the likes of Eden Hazard and Ryan Bertrand. It’s very easy to predict a season of struggle for them again, but I fail to see how to avoid that type of season when the team is so dodgy at the back and lightweight up front. Their best player was again Victor Moses and as he seems to be about to sign for Chelsea, I really fear for them. Ivan Ramis was also signed as the answer to their perennial centre half woes and he looked hopelessly out of his depth in his debut match. Whilst Martinez was praised for lifting the side at the end of last season to survive, perhaps more should be made of the fact he was also responsible for them being in such a horrendous position to start with. Wigan rarely start that well and Southampton should be full of confidence after a narrow loss away to the champions.
Liverpool v Man City, Sunday
The biggest match this weekend sees champions Man City travelling to Anfield. Liverpool were horsed away to West Brom last weekend. They showed us all the problems of last season for the most part too. Luis Suarez buzzed around, looked skilful, beat players and then missed again and again. Pepe Reina looked a shadow of the keeper he was under Rafa Benitez. The wide players contributed very little. Daniel Agger lost his head and was sent off. The partnership Agger and Martin Skrtel had formed was perhaps the only positive to come out of last season and they will miss the Dane for this match. Joe Allen looked like a good player, and linked pretty well with Lucas for the most part, but it is also hard to see how Steven Gerrard can be accommodated in Rodgers’ midfield if pressing and accurate passing are the keys. I would envisage him being given a fair crack at earning his spot, but I don’t see how he can. I predict more bad than good this season for Liverpool.
Man City dominated Southampton as expected last Sunday, but let them into the game with defensive errors to only end up with a 3-2 victory. The tinkering manager Roberto Mancini has been doing with a 3-4-3 formation pre-season could perhaps have led to this with the players getting back into the more normal 4-2-3-1 City tend to employ. The other major worry was the injury to Sergio Aguero, but he should be back in a month. I would expect Mario Balotelli to get his first start of the season after a good World Cup with Italy. If he shows the same hard work and power he did for his national team over the summer then the loss of Aguero will not be nearly as painful. The talking point from both last weekend and the Community Shield has been the return of Carlos Tevez to his best form. The little Argentine truly looks as fit as he has ever been and willing to graft as he really can when the mood takes him. If this Tevez stays fit and happy all season then City will have an extra threat against all opponents.
Pescara v Inter Milan, Sunday
Italy’s Serie A is back this week and it could shape up to be an interesting season with penny pinching at AC Milan, the usual uproar at Inter Milan and Juventus and Antonio Conte in hot water again.
Pescara have been promoted as champions of Serie B and are rewarded with the visit of giants Inter Milan on the opening weekend. They were very good at home last season with a record of fifteen wins, two draws and four losses. They also scored more than two goals a game at home on average and thoroughly deserved their promotion. Their star man is Vladimir Weiss who got his grounding in the Premier League with Man City and looked a decent player when sent on loan to Rangers a couple of years ago. There is also plenty of experience of Serie A within their squad and they will be hoping that it sees them through the season.
Inter were shambolic last season, and have been ever since the treble under Jose Mourinho. The current manager is the ex-youth team coach Andrea Stramaccioni who has no previous experience of anything like this level. He sort of stabilised the side after Claudio Ranieri’s brief spell, but it is still to be seen whether he can bring any long term success to the club. They have shipped out Samuel Eto’o and numerous others from the Champions League winning squad and the only players of note left are now Maicon, Diego Milito, Esteban Cambiasso, Wesley Sneijder and Javier Zanetti. It could be argued that all of these have been shadows of themselves since that win and Sneijder, in particular, often seems more disruptive to the team than helpful. They’re a club in need of direction and I don’t think such a young, inexperienced manager is the way to get that.
Stuttgart v Wolfsburg, Saturday
Stuttgart had a good, if not brilliant, season last year and finished in sixth position to qualify for European football. They were good at home winning ten of seventeen, scoring thirty six and only conceding seventeen. Since they have not really made any wholesale changes to their squad, I would expect them to be about the same again come May. The likes of Dortmund and Monchengladbach have shown the benefit of stability and this should also benefit the Swabians. The 2-0 win against Dinamo Moscow in this week’s Europa League should also have them match fit and firing.
Wolfsburg had a topsy turvy season last time out and finished adrift of European football, but well away from relegation in the end. After their disastrous start they will have been quietly pleased with that, but they will be hoping for improvement this season. It is not hard to see where their problems lay last season, their away form was absolutely hopeless. They lost eleven of seventeen, with three draws and three wins and with a goal difference of minus twenty. They’ve not done a great deal of business over the summer that I have seen either so I think they may be more settled, but I don’t think that Stuttgart will fear them particularly.
Orduspor v Eskisehirspor, Saturday 1800
Orduspor signed some experienced players over the summer and are expected to consolidate their position in the Super Lig this time out. A 0-0 draw away at Mersin Idman Yurdu last weekend did nothing to dampen those thoughts for me. The key to doing well in Turkey doesn’t seem to be too difficult, you need to have some organisation at the back and some flair in attack. If you can also throw in some midfielders who are not completely headless then you’re not far off the European places. The midfielder and captain Jean-Jaques Gosso is a good player at this level and provides plenty of yards for his team. The experience of both Selcuk Sahin in defence and Bogdan Stancu in attack also mean the spine of the side is pretty strong and should see them avoid scrapping at the foot of the table. Home wins are always valuable and they should view this as a winnable match.
Eskisehirspor have had a few good seasons recently, but have not started this one so well. They were well beaten by Marseille in Europe last week to exit the Europa League before the group stage and started the season with a disastrous last minute home loss to newly promoted Akhisar. The strong area of recent years has been their excellent defence, which has meant they have only needed to score a few goals to take 1-0 wins and keep high in the table. If this defensive solidity were to crumble, as it appears it may have, then they do not have enough goals in the side to stay safe. They will probably pull themselves together, but I think they’re worth opposing in their current state.
Besiktas v Galatasaray, Sunday
The first Istanbul derby of the season is on Sunday with fallen Besiktas hosting champions Gala. Since following Turkish football I have noticed a similarity in Besiktas as you often see on Liverpool in England. People recognise the name, and they have always been a big side around the top three places, but they’re no longer a force at all. They will finish near the top of the table in terms of positions because of their spending power and the relative weakness of the rest of the division, but they’re miles off Gala and Fener. They do have some handy players like Manuel Fernandes who was briefly out of contract this summer and should really have found a better team, but there are too many like Simao and Ricardo Quaresma only in it for the pay cheque.
Gala, as mentioned, are a lot better than Besiktas on paper and on the pitch. They might even surprise a few people in the Champions League with a well put together side. The Uruguyan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera is excellent and probably deserves a better league to show off his talents. In defence, Tomas Ujfalusi and Sabri Sarioglu are both experienced enough to know how to deal with most of the threats this division offers. Felipe Melo and the young Selcuk Inan are a good midfield pairing with Melo looking reborn after leaving Juventus on loan last season and then arranging the same deal again for this season. After signing last season’s top scorer Burak Yilmaz, many assumed he would partner Johan Elmander in attack, but such has been Umur Bulut’s form with ten goals in eight matches that he has yet to start. Basically Gala are spoilt for choice and should not be short of motivation to win.
Published with permission from Born Offside.