The Big Weekend Preview

Manchester United v Liverpool, Premier League, March 14, 2009

Two of the biggest teams in England clash just days after both conquered foreign opposition to further the reputation of the Premier League.

Liverpool produced the stand-out display of the Champions League this week with a stunning demolition of Spanish champions Real Madrid. After a fine performance in the Bernabeu had left them one-up on aggregate, Liverpool literally tore into Real at Anfield and whilst they may have ridden their luck with certain decisions (in particular Heinze’s handball for the second) they were exceptional on the night with stunning performances from Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard.

In many ways however, in recent weeks we have seen Liverpool as a microcosm under Rafa Benitez. Whilst two stunning performances over Real Madrid have placed Liverpool as one of the favourites for the Champions League and confirmed their position as the best side in Europe over the past five years, their league football has been a little patchy with a surprise defeat at Sunderland and a home draw with Manchester City.

Whilst Benitez was correct in defending his European record prior to the game with Madrid this week, after all Champions League participation brings in valuable resources and also makes the club attractive to incoming transfers.

However, Liverpool don’t seem suited to challenging for the Premier League title and Manchester United’s dominance and seven point gap with a game in hand at the current time just underlines this.

In fairness to the Merseyside giants, Liverpool are not the only team to have been left trailing United this season it is more that for once Benitez’s side looked capable of mounting a title challenge. Rafa’s now infamous “rant” marked the beginning of a dip in form and United have since looked almost unstoppable as they charge towards an unprecedented quintuple.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s team will once again be favourites for this game due to their impressive squad strength which means players such as Darren Fletcher and Carlos Tevez will likely take part in this Saturday lunchtime clash having missed the victory over Inter Milan.

Liverpool will be buoyed by their 2-1 win at Anfield earlier this season and will be fully aware that this game represents their last chance saloon for their title challenge. If United win they will be 10 points clear with a game in hand a surely insurmountable challenge.

The corresponding fixture last season saw United cruise to a 3-0 win aided by a Javier Mascherano sending off and a similar result could be on the cards this time.

The consolation for Benitez and his side is that Manchester United are a class apart and they will be able to focus all on their energies on the Champions League.

After all, with United closing in on their 18th English title, to go level with their Merseyside rivals, Liverpool’s incredible record in Europe’s premier competition (five victories compared to United’s three) is becoming more and more important.

101predicts: Manchester United 2 – Liverpool 0 (7/1)

Hertha Berlin v Bayer Leverkusen, Bundesliga, March 14, 2009

German Bundesliga leaders Hertha Berlin will try to gain more ground ahead of a first title win since 1931 when they host Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday.

With Marko Pantelic and Andriy Voronin scoring 16 goals this season, Hertha has a four point lead above Bayern Munich ahead of the coming round, and another win could prove vital as we are coming towards the decisive moments of the season.

With Voronin scoring seven goals in the last five league matches, it seems no one in the German league can stop him on his current form. But the Ukrainian firmly believes that it has to do with the excellent crop of players playing alongside him. “We play as a team,” Voronin said this week. “I get the passes that I need from my team mates, I make the goals but football is a team game.”

Hertha is expected to continue playing its usual 4-4-2 diamond system, where Voronin is the supporting striker to target man Pantelic.  This is an important point as Leverkusen usually play with the exact same system, which makes Saturday’s game a fertile ground for individual moves that can alter the match. This is what Voronin lives for – and in the last couple of matches he proved he has the ability to do so even against top defenders.

Leverkusen are in seventh place and last won a league match on February 13th against TSG Hoffenheim. Since then they have failed to win in three successive league matches, and now they have to win in order to stay in touch with the title race. Leverkusen is probably the most inconsistent team in the Bundesliga, with some dazzling performances this season alongside some extremely disappointing matches.

But one characteristic will be very important for Leverkusen this Saturday – it is the fact that Leverkusen is the best away team in the Bundesliga. The teams are only separated by nine points, and with 11 games left in the German season (counting this weekend), a lot can still happen. A win for Leverkusen this Saturday, and the season might take a whole new shift.

101predicts: Hertha Berlin 3 – Bayer Leverkusen 0 (22/1)

Trabzonspor v Galatasaray, Turkish Super Lig, March 15, 2009

Two of Turkey’s most dominant clubs will clash on Sunday when 3rd place Trabzonspor, who are enduring a tough period, will host 5th place Galatasaray for a crucial match to all teams involved in the championship race.

Trabzonspor have won only one of its last four matches and doesn’t seem as sharp as it was in the beginning of the season. On Sunday it has a chance to prove critics wrong, and to get back into the race with a win over giants Galatasaray, who beat Bursaspor 2-1 in its last match.

Trabzonspor opened this season in excellent form, showing it is a clinical attacking team. The attacking mentality and hardworking spirit combined with some fine individual performances made Trabzonspor look like it was definitely heading for the league title. A 4-4-2 formation with two natural target strikers and the super talented midfielder/forward Ibrahima Yattara playing the free role behind them made Trabzonspor an extremely dangerous team. But the last month has been awful for this talented crop of players.

After a point at Besiktas, Trabzonspor suffered a first home loss this season, against lowly Denislispor. It was followed by a tough win against minor side Antalyaspor, and another defeat, again at home, to Konyaspor. It was the first time in three seasons that Trabzonspor suffered back to back home losses. This raised questions whether the team would embark on a long free-fall period, after a good run, which is labeled as “the curse of Yanal” in Turkish football.

Coach Ersun Yanal led his sides to the top spots in his previous stints at Genclerbirligi and Vestel Manisaspor, but both teams suffered long periods of poor results. As Yanal similarly managed to drive Trabzonspor through successful periods, it is a question of wonder this is just a simple slump or the curse is at work again.

It seems Sunday’s game might provide the answer. Galatasaray, who perhaps have one of its best squads in their history, is not living up to expectations this season. But the new rookie coach Bulent Korkmaz has been showing impressive leadership and guidance skills lately, and the team won back to back matches in the league. The big question is whether former captain Korkmaz, who replaced the disappointing German coach Michael Skibbe, can rise above his brief unsuccessful stints with several minor clubs since turning into a coach in 2006, and become a classy manager.

Meanwhile, Korkmaz has at least injected tons of motivation into his squad. Fernando Meira, a big name that made a lot of mistakes this season, was sold. Korkmaz believes this move will only strengthen his team, but that still remains to be seen. But Milan Baros, Shabani Nonda, Arda Turan and Harry Kewell all look super motivated since the arrival of Korkmaz, which should frighten Trabzonspor’s shaky defense.

Sunday’s match will be a game between two excellent offensive teams who are yet to find their defensive balance. The one who finds it on Sunday will win the match, and gain valuable points ahead of the final straight towards the championship.

101predicts: Trabzonspor 1 – Galatasaray 2 (Galatasaray are 7/5 to win)

Inter Milan v Fiorentina, Serie A, March 15, 2009

Fiorentina could be the only team in Italy who were disappointed that Inter were knocked out of the Champions League, as they can now expect a backlash, and if they are not careful they could soon be out the running for fourth place in Serie A.

On the other hand, if the Viola can take advantage of the Nerazzurri’s tiredness and disappointment to grab a win then Inter’s gap at top could be cut to just four points by Juve and will also keep Fiorentina in the race for fourth place.

After the Champions league failure, Inter return home with a problematic and unstable defensive line as Chivu, Materazzi and Burdisso are all out injured. It is unlikely that Jose Mourinho will give his reserve players a chance to impress as he tried that in the 3-0 Italian cup defeat against Sampdoria and vowed that he would not give these players another chance after the loss.

Walter Samuel, who is also half-fit, will probably start alongside Ivan Cordoba as the Nerazzurri center backs, and up front Adriano will come back to the starting lineup instead of Balotelli after his disappointing performance at Old Trafford.

It seems that tiredness is the only factor which is likely to prevent Inter from winning at the San Siro. The Nerazzurri haven’t lost in Serie A since January 18, and are also very impressive at home, and if they are come focused they will probably continue to be undefeated and will go one step closer to another Scudetto.

Fiorentina have not played well in a while, even coach Cesare Prandelli has admitted that. But the unusual home defeat to Palermo last week signaled the team is in a slump as they were unbeaten at home in six matches prior to Palermo’s visit to the Artemio Franchi. Add in the fact that the Viola haven’t beaten Inter at the San Siro since May 2000 and it doesn’t look too encouraging this time.

The Viola’s hopes of leaving the San Siro with some points rest on the shoulders of Adrian Mutu and Alberto Gilardino. The two talented strikers have scored 27 goals until now, which is 67% of Fiorentina’s league goals this season.

Keep an eye on: Davide Santon, who is showing signs of becoming a great defender for both Inter and Italy’s future. The 18-year-old defender is a multi skilled wing back who can play on both flanks as well as a right midfielder. Santon has all the makings of a great defender, he is tall, strong and well built, he is also very fast and has very good technical ability and he can also use both feet to cross pass and shoot. He is a hot prospect for the future, and if he continues to strengthen and improve his pace and technical ability then he is a potentially top defender for many years to come.

101predicts: Inter Milan 4 – Fiorentina 2 (50/1)