The Big Weekend Preview

With Manchester United reserves facing Spurs reserves on Saturday at tea-time, there is only one glamour tie in the FA Cup and that comes at Anfield on Sunday. Elsewhere in Europe there are some important games at the top of the league in Italy, Portugal and Holland.

Liverpool v Everton, FA Cup, January 25, 2009

For the second time in six days, Everton and Liverpool lock horns in another Merseyside derby with Tim Cahill’s late equalizer on Monday still fresh in the memory.

Rafa Benitez may have shrugged off the dropped two points which prevented Liverpool from returning to the top of the Premier League but it is becoming abundantly clear that the Spaniards tactics and transfer policy may well leave the club short of claiming the title.

Almost throughout Benitez’s time at the club, Liverpool’s full backs have struggled to make an attacking impact. Consistently players such as Dossena and Aurelio struggle, on Monday night Jamie Carragher played right back and failed to provide much attacking intent.

The lack of attacking minded full backs is further compounded by wingers who are simply not of the quality to win silverware. Dirk Kuyt is an industrious player but is nowhere near the quality of some of the attacking players in England. Similarly, Albert Riera looks to be another average player who is not the solution to the left wing position for the Anfield club.

The icing on the cake for Benitez has been the form of Robbie Keane, the lack of attacking ambition from the wide players leaves the Republic of Ireland’s all-time top goalscorer with limited space to work in. This is compounded when Torres and Gerrard also pick up the space in front of the opposition defence where Keane does his best work.

The longer the season goes on, the money spent on Keane looks more and more like a major error by Benitez who simply does not seem able to utilize the player in the right way. It would be no exaggeration to say that Keane touched the ball around five times in the Premier League game against Everton and was completely anonymous.

Liverpool’s blunt attack gives Everton a chance. Jagielka and Lescott were outstanding on Monday night as was Pienaar and Arteta in midfield. Whilst you can never rule out Cahill to pop up with a goal.

They will of course miss Marouane Fellaini and are still struggling with just Anichebe up front but Liverpool are in a poor run of form and the Toffees will have gained a lot of confidence in the Premier League game.

Historically, clashes between these two sides in the FA Cup entertain. The 1991 FA Cup fifth-round replay that led to Kenny Dalglish quitting the club was one of the all-time great Merseyside derbies. Here is hoping for more of the same on Sunday.

101gg predicts: Liverpool 2 – Everton 2

AZ Alkmaar v De Graafschap Doetinchem, Eredivisie, January 24, 2009

With AZ Alkmaar top of the Eredivisie by three points and looking good for a realistic title challenge pundits are trying to work out how Louis van Gaal has put together such a class outfit.

Players such as Mounir El Hamdaoui, Ari, Graziano Pelle, Moussa Dembele, Stijn Schaars, Demy De Zeeuw, Kew Jaliens, David Mendes Da silva and Brett Holman are finally putting AZ on the football map.

AZ Alkmaar have always been in the shadow of the big three (Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord) in Holland, winning just one championship in 1981. Louis van Gaal led the team in 2005/2006 to second place and the following season they finished third. However, 2007/2008 ended in a disappointing 11th place.

At the end of last season van Gaal initially announced that he want to leave AZ due to disappointing results, but when several players pointed out that they would like him to stay, Van Gaal said he would give the players a chance to prove themselves. There is little doubt that the players have proved themselves in the first half of the season.

AZ have built up a solid team over a number of years as most of their side have been there for a number of years, this has led to a very united squad. Their biggest signing in the summer was Brett Holman, the Australian attacker who joined from NEC for 3,500k.

Of course, strikers Mounir El Hamdaoui and Ari have taken the plaudits for claiming 23 goals combined this season. The Morocco international striker is looking great this season and he was chosen as the best player of the first half of the season and he could well be off to Spain or England at the end of the season.

Ari, doesn’t play every game, but he is effective, claiming eight goals and two assists in 11 games – scouts note his pace and good technizue. AZ have an abundance of attacking talent thanks to additional strikers Graziano Pelle and Moussa Dembele.

This Saturday they will meet De Graafschap, who are bottom of the table, with their new Israeli striker, Ben Sahar, who joined on loan from Chelsea FC, and in his first match last week scored a beautiful goal, giving the team an important 0-1 victory against Willem II.

Sahar will have his work cut out against the league leaders this weekend.

101gg predicts: AZ Alkmaar 3 – De Graafschap Doetinchem 1

FC Juventus v AC Fiorentina, Serie A, January 24, 2009

Juventus are just three points behind table toppers Inter, and their Scudetto aspirations will be severely tested by Fiorentina on Saturday night.

Claudio Ranieri’s squad has had so many injury crises this season, but even the “tinker man” was in shock to see that most of his squad were struck down with a flu epidemic earlier this week.

After Gianluigi Buffon went down with the sickness, all three first choice goalkeeper have reportedly contracted the illness and it is possible that 18-year-old youth team goalkeeper Timothy Nocchi could play in this game.

To add to Ranieri’s problems, Momo Sissoko and Cristian Molinaro are suspended and Jonathan Zebina, Dario Knezevic, Hasan Salihamidzic, David Trezeguet, Mauro Camoranesi and even Vincenzo Iaquinta are sidelined.

The good news for Juve is that Zdenek Grygera is back from a ban and will strengthen the defence and Giorgio Chiellini might be fit to play his former club. Claudio Ranieri will have to improvise with his starting line-up, but if they can eke out another win it will be further confirmation that Juventus are serious title challengers.

Fiorentina come into this match on the back of two consecutive defeats and will be without Adrian Mutu who has a dislocated elbow. Gianluca Comotto is out with a ban, but central defender Alessandro Gamberini is back at full fitness to play. Steven Jovetic is talented, but yet to score a goal in Serie A, and against the “Old Lady” ha has to step up and help out Alberto Gilardino who has been in great form this season.

The rivalry between these two clubs goes way back to Roberto Baggio’s infamous move from The Viola to Turin. Last season Fiorentina won in Turin 3-2, getting their first away victory over the “Old Lady” since 1988.

Nacional Funchal v Sporting CP Lisbon, Portuguese Liga, January 24, 2009

It is tight at the top of the Portuguese Liga with the gap between Benfica in first place and Maritimo Funchal in seventh just seven points. On Saturday, two of the top seven face off as National Funchal (5th place, 24 points) clash with Sporting Lisbon who are second having won nine games out of 14 played.

The player Sporting will no doubt be keeping a keen eye on is National Funchal’s 25-year-old striker Nene who is the top goal scorer in the league with nine goals.

Nene, who can also play as a left forward, spent most of his career playing for small teams in Brazil except for one season with Cruzeiro Belo Horizonte (2007) when he claimed two goals in 14 matches.

This is undoubtedly the best season of his career and considering this is his first season in Europe, he could not have asked for a better opening. Nene is blessed with good technical ability and a sense for scoring goals which includes three in his last four matches.

Sporting Lisbon will also be basing their hopes on a talented Brazilian striker, in Leidson who is in great shape. The 31-year-old, playing his sixth season at the club has now claimed 89 goals in his time at Sporting.

Unlike Nene, Leidson was well known in Brazil before he arrived in Portugal thanks to spells at Coritiba, Flamengo and Corinthians. He is a great striker who is worth around 12 million euros. Leidson is a natural goal scorer who works hard and wins a lot of the ball in the final third.

Nacional Funchal know all about Leidson after he claimed two goals in a 4-1 win last season, the previous match between these two teams ended 0-0 but if Nene and Leidson have their say it is unlikely to end goalless on Saturday.

101gg predicts: Nacional Funchal 1 – Sporting CP Lisbon 2