The Big Weekend Preview

There is no rest for the wicked as clubs throughout Europe return from the Champions League and UEFA Cup to domestic action this weekend. In Italy, Inter and Roma will look to pick themselves up after less than wonderful results against English opposition. And over in Spain, Barcelona are looking to end a sequence of three games without a win with Real Madrid starting to breathe down their neck. Powerhouses clash in both Portugal and Turkey, while in England there is the small matter of the Carling Cup final.

Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur, Carling Cup final, March 1, 2009

Sir Alex Ferguson will send out his Manchester United side at Wembley on Sunday looking to secure United’s first trophy in a season that could see them complete a clean sweep of silverware in England. With the Red Devils looking set for another Premier League title and well placed in Europe and the FA Cup, this could also be the second leg of an unprecedented quintuple.

The Carling Cup is traditionally a competition United don’t take overly seriously but it is yet another indication of just how impressive their squad is this season that even with an under strength team they will be favourites against Tottenham.

Ferguson has claimed on numerous occasions that he will rest a number of players and it is possible to piece together some of the players that will play. SAF is likely to stick with the side that got to the final, the likes of John O’Shea, Nani Darron Gibson, Danny Welbeck, Carlos Tevez and Ben Foster will surely start.

Depending on fitness, Gary Neville and Anderson will also make an appearance and Wayne Rooney will probably also be chomping at the bit to start as he bids for full fitness ahead of the Inter Milan second leg. Of course, some of United’s biggest stars (Ronaldo, Berbatov etc.) could also come off the bench if needed.

Spurs also have their own selection worries, not least because of cup tied players and a packed fixture list in recent days. Heurelho Gomes will be tested in the Spurs goal although he may gain some protection for once if both Jonathan Woodgate and Ledley King start.

Without the likes of Wilson Palacios and Robbie Keane, Spurs will rely on the attacking threat of Luka Modric, likely to be playing behind Roman Pavlyuchenko and Aaron Lennon who has arguably been Tottenham’s best player this season.

In many ways this game has come at a strange time and the organizers of the competition must be ruing this year’s fixture list, especially when the European games have come around. United have just returned from their clash in the San Siro and Harry Redknapp has not stopped defending his selection policy in recent days due to 6 games in 17 days.

For United a win at Wembley will be just one victory in a season likely to see some fabulous moments, whilst for Spurs this would be the pinnacle of a campaign that has been troubled since pre-season.

Nevertheless, don’t write off the Lilywhites, they proved in the final against Chelsea last year that on their day they can beat anyone and will have enough match winners on the pitch to defend their trophy.

Much will be made of the “battle” between Harry Redknapp and Sir Alex Ferguson but on the pitch both Tevez and Pavlyuchenko are firing in this competition with five goals each and if given the service either could seal the win.

There is always something special about Wembley finals and traditionally these two teams play out some great games. A 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane earlier this season and a recent FA Cup win for United at Old Trafford bode well for this showpiece.

If Rooney and Tevez start it is difficult to see United failing to break down a porous Spurs defence whilst as we have seen in the last few months, whichever defence United play is likely to keep a clean sheet.

So we can expect more United dominance of English football on Sunday and when the season comes to a close the Carling Cup final may not even be cited as one of their most important games of an incredible campaign.

101gg predicts: Manchester United 2 – Tottenham 1

Inter Milan v AS Roma, Serie A, March 1, 2009

Both these teams were involved in the much hyped battle between the Premier League and Serie A in the Champions League earlier this week.

Inter Milan were resilient to grab a 0-0 draw with Manchester United that leaves them with a real chance at Old Trafford in the second leg and Roma came away with a respectable 1-0 defeat at Arsenal that also gives them a major chance of progressing.

Going into the game it is fair to say that Roma’s need for points is slightly greater as they push for a Champions League place at the end of the season. The Rome club are currently sixth place, two points behind Fiorentina in fourth.

Following a shocking start to the season, Luciano Spalletti’s side have been in fine form of late and had lost just one league game in six. As always Roma will be looking to talisman Francesco Totti to produce the goods on the big occasion after his quiet night in London, which perhaps can be put down to a slight injury.

Roma have struggled against Inter Milan this season. The Nerrazzuri ran out 4-0 winners at the Stadio Olympico in October and were also victorious in the Coppa Italia in January.

Alongside these results Roma will also have to achieve something a number of teams have failed to do. Jose Mourinho has not lost a home league game since early 2002 when he was manager of FC Porto and judging by both sides’ current form, it is unlikely to happen this Sunday.

Inter are flying at the top of the table and with a nine point lead over main rivals Juventus and AC Milan look almost certainties to claim another Scudetto.

Julio Cesar was in impressive form against Manchester United and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Adriano form probably the best strike partnership in Europe. Combine this with a tough tackling midfield of Cambiasso, Muntari and Zanetti and if you were a betting man you would have to back the home side in this one.

101gg predicts: Inter Milan 1 – Roma 0

Atletico Madrid v FC Barcelona, Primera Division, March 1, 2009

For Pep Guardiola’s side this game could be one of the biggest this season as they look to avoid a mini-slump that has seen Real Madrid re-enter the title race in Spain.

Following a swashbuckling first half of the campaign, Barcelona had built up a twelve point lead at the top of the Primera Division and were looking unstoppable as they played some of the finest football seen in Europe for many years.

Their brilliant form and results slowed down with a 2-2 draw at Betis which was followed by a 2-1 home defeat by local rivals Espanyol which marked the first time ever in Primera Division history that the bottom side had beaten the team at the top away from home.

Ivan de la Pena did the damage against his former club and left serious doubts about this Barca side which were again highlighted in the 1-1 Champions League draw with Lyon on Tuesday night.

Returning from France with an away goal is certainly not a bad result but serious question marks are again returning about the quality of goalkeeper Victor Valdes who was at fault for Espanyol’s second and then looked bewildered by Juninho’s free kick for the Lyon opener.

Added to the mix are injuries to Eric Abidal and Andres Iniesta alongside the excellent recent form of Real Madrid and the La Liga title no longer looks like a foregone conclusion. Juande Ramos’ side have now won nine league games in a row and have re-found their attacking verve thanks to the security provided by Lassana Diarra.

Whilst Real may be hoping their city rivals will do them a favour, a look at Atletico’s recent form does not bode well. Currently down in seventh and looking unlikely to secure a Champions League spot, Atletico Madrid have won just once in all competitions this calendar year.

This horrible run has seen them replace Javier Aguirre with Abel Resino as coach and to further their troubles ahead of the visit of Barcelona, they have lost to the Catalan club three times this season already. Twice in the Copa del Rey and they were smashed 6-1 at the Nou Camp in October.

Nevertheless, despite a defence that gives goals away almost every game, Atletico Madrid have some top attacking players with the likes of Diego Forlan and Sergio “Kun” Aguero who recently became a father.

Barca need the win to keep their title challenge on course whilst their hosts need to get their season back on track. Both teams should have had enough rest since the Champions League ties earlier in the week and with the attacking players on display this promises to be a cracker.

101gg predicts: Atletico Madrid 1 – Barcelona 2

FC Porto v Sporting CP Lisbon, Portuguese Liga, February 28, 2009

This clash is arguably the biggest game of the Portuguese season between two of the top three teams in Portugal. Four points separate these teams at the top of the table and Porto could take a major boost to their championship credentials if they win.

Both teams come into this match off the back of differing fortunes in Europe in midweek. Sporting were embarrassed at home by Bayern Munich who romped to a 5-0 away victory whilst Porto were impressive in Spain on Tuesday.

Porto currently lead the table by four points and the champions are in good form and will be buoyant after a fine performance in the Vicente Calderon saw them return from a first leg at Atletico Madrid in the Champions League with a 2-2 draw.

Much of the focus in this game will be on Porto goalkeeper Helton, after he made a major mistake for Diego Forlan’s goal on Tuesday night. Porto defender Bruno Alves has been quick to defend his team mate: “he is a great goalkeeper, other players also commit mistakes.” Following his mistake, the Porto players were quick to try and cheer Helton up and refocus his mind on the game.

Lisandro Lopez was one Porto player who furthered his reputation in the Champions League game earlier this week.
The 25-year-old Argentinean striker claimed two goals in Spain to take his tally to five in Europe this season, the same amount that he has scored in the league this campaign. He doesn’t have one particular aspect of his game that is brilliant, but he is an all-round striker with no clear weaknesses.

Lopez is a true target striker, he knows how to put pressure on the opposition, is very quick and intelligent. Last season he was the top goal scorer with 24 goals.

Sporting’s league season is still far from over and they will want to return to form domestically with their European season now all but over. They are in third place with the same number of points as Benfica and could still claim a first Portuguese championship since 2001/2002. During the last two seasons they have finished second to Porto and will be eager to get one over their great adversaries. Especially after their excellent 3-2 win over Benfica last week.

Sporting’s star man in the victory was striker Liedson who scored two goals. The 31-year-old Brazilian striker has so far scored eight goals in the league and another two in Europe. His playing style is similar to Lisandro Lopez, he knows how to pressure the defenders and is a very hard working player.

Liedson suffered a very serious knee injury last season and only returned in late September 2009. Since he arrived at Sporting during the 2003/2004 season he has scored 89 goals and has been the top goal scorer in Portugal twice.

The first meeting between these two teams saw Porto emerge victorious 2-1, thanks to goals from Lisandro Lopez and Bruno Alves, Joao Moutinho scored Sporting’s goal.

101gg predicts: Porto 3Sporting Lisbon 1

Fenerbahce v Sivasspor, Super Lig, February 28, 2009

Since the Turkish Super Lig was established in 1959, only the “big four” have taken the championship. After decades during which Turkish football was ruled by Galatasaray, Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Trabzonspor, another team is now challenging for the title.

Sivasspor, who were only promoted to the top division in 2005, is in the midst of a fantastic season so far, leading the table, and a win away at Fenerbahce on Saturday can give it a major leap towards the final stages of the season.

Last season, Sivasspor managed to maintain itself as a title contender until five or six weeks before the season ended, when it collapsed. Many pundits in Turkey believe that this season will see the same happening. But several factors make this season different.

First, all the big clubs are having a bad season. Even Galatasaray, with the best crop of players in the club’s history, is eight points behind Sivasspor. Second, Besiktas and Gala changed their coaches already, while Fener wants to do so but can’t, since then it will have to pay Luis Aragones seven million euros. And third, in the last season Sivasspor couldn’t win any match against one of the “big three.” This year they have won three out of three against the big teams.

Can they do it again on Saturday?

Sivasspor have a great chance to cause a huge surprise this time. Fener is not in good shape and it lost 1-0 to Genclerbirligi in the last round. Its leading players are not performing up to their level so far. So Sivasspor’s players know that they can win, and if they do, they themselves will perhaps be able to believe they can take the championship.

The main reason behind Sivasspor becoming such an excellent team is its manager, Bulent Uygun. Only Fatih Terim (national team), Ersun Yanal (Trabzonspor) and Bulent Uygun are worthy of being called managers in Turkey, all the rest are just coaches. Those managers are capable of taking responsibility for the whole team – organization, scouting , etc. Bulent Uygun has proved that he is able to do this during this campaign.

Uygun has made pinpoint transfers when needed. After selling central defender Servet Cetin to Galatasaray in the summer of 2007, he compensated this summer by bringing Brazilian center back Fabio Bilica, who is the most important part of the defense, a superb sweeper. He also brought target man Herve Tum and defensive engine Ibrahim Dagasan who are very strong players.

Perhaps the most important point for Sivasspor this season is the ability of Mehmet Yıldız. The experienced target man has netted 11 times in 19 games and despite many offers in January, Uygun managed to keep him at the club. Yildiz, who is an excellent striker with explosive stamina, might leave in the summer when his contract ends but until then, it seems no one in the Turkish league can stop him from continuing to score.

Uygun, 36, the former Fenerbahce captain, has also used Pini Balili efficiently. The Israeli supporting striker has had a wonderful season so far, and is an excellent tool for the fast breaks Uygun loves so much.

Frenchman Yannick Kamanan who came in the winter from Maccabi Tel Aviv is also a perfect fit for the team. The talented supporting striker, another very fast player, has a delicate personality and meanwhile it seems Uygun is getting the best out of him after Kamanan had an awful first half to the season in Israel.

Overall, Sivasspor is not a creative team. It has a lot of strong players and a good solid defence. They have the highest physical strength in the league. They usually try to decide the match with fast players like Balili, Kamanan and Mehmet Yıldız.

Sivasspor can begin to win over the critics with a win over Fenerbahce, and while doing so, will call into question the entire historical hierarchy of Turkish football.

101gg predicts: Fenerbahce 1 – Sivasspor 1

Kashima Antlers v Gamba Osaka, The 2009 Japanese Super Cup, February 28, 2009

The 2009 Japanese Super Cup, takes place at Japan’s Kokuritsu National Stadium on Saturday, February 28th. The season opener – much as England’s Charity Shield is fought out between the Premier League Champions and the FA Cup winners – is between the J League Champions and the Emperor’s Cup winner.

The game, between Kashima Antlers (Champions) and Gamba Osaka (Cup winners) kicks off at 13.35 and, contrary to the approach taken to some season openers around the world, is sure to be much more than a meaningless game.

Last year’s Super Cup produced a red card for each team before the half-time whistle – although, it must be said that this was probably due to some over-zealous officiating from a certain Mr. Iemoto, than any malicious play from the teams.

Anyway, whatever the result, the winners will have bragging rights for the first few months of the season. Whether it be the reigning champions, eager to prove their winning J1 was not just a default when other teams could not put a late run together, and Gamba Osaka concentrated on the ultimate (Asian) prize – the AFC Champions league.

Gamba Osaka, on the other hand, will be looking to show that they can handle both the cup competitions AND the J League this season, and will be aiming to start with a bang against the team that will probably be their biggest rivals for the J1 crown and/or the Champions League this season.

Not all of the new faces for Gamba will be on display. Former S-Pulse Korean international, Cho Jae Jin is injured, and there are doubts about incoming Brazilian Leandro also. I expect Lucas and Yamazaki to start, with Leandro, if fit. Expect Gamba’s adventurous coach, Akira Nishino to go with an attacking formation anyway.

Probably Japan’s most influential player, Yasuhito Endo appears fully fit after a rest, and will be orchestrating from midfield. Gamba will have internationals Hashimoto adding bite to the central midfield with Tomokazu Myojin and Takahiro Futagawa is still nursing an injury.

At the back, Gamba have strengthened with the addition of Japanese international Kazumichi Takagi (from S-Pulse) and Park Dong Hyuk (Korean national team centre back). Along with Yamaguchi and Nakazawa, Gamba will be choosing their centre back pairing from those four accomplished players, but expect the latter two to start.

Michihiro Yasuda will probably start at left back, with Akira Kaji at right back. Expect more goals for Gamba this season, while the back line is shored up a little.

Kashima Antlers will be hoping for more goals from J.League MVP Marquinhos, and have brought in High School football sensation Yuya Osako, not yet 19, standing at 182cm to possibly make an early start partnering the Brazilian up front. He’ll be fighting for a place with Kuroki, who made the jump to the national team late last season.

In midfield, Ogasawara is Kashima’s only missing player, out with a long-term knee injury. Antlers look steady at the back, with Iwamasa, Uchida and Araiba almost ever-present last season. Backed up by keeper Sogohata, it could be a tight game for Gamba’s attacking force and, while attacking, Gamba could leave themselves open to the break.

If either teams takes an early lead, we could see a high-scoring game as both teams then go for the goals.

101gg predicts: Kashima Antlers 2 – Gamba Osaka 3