In a normal year, by mid-October, most European leagues would be well into their season, and clubs would have played eight or so games by now. In the year of covid-19 however, just like everything else, club football too feels strange. The most obvious difference is the fact that there are no spectators. Broadcasters try to make up for this with piped audience sounds, but it’s not the same. But even apart from this, there are other massive differences this year.
The 2020-21 season has begun late, because the previous season ended much later due to the pandemic lockdowns. With limited pre-seasons hampering preparations for the clubs and games coming thick and fast in a compressed format, there’s been a certain breathlessness to proceedings, with many eye-catching results and upsets already. However, now that clubs have completed player transfers and squads are more or less complete, the season can properly ‘begin’. There’s plenty of football to catch this weekend. Here are some of the stand-out ties.
Everton Vs Liverpool and Manchester City Vs Arsenal
It’s been a strange few weeks for cross-town rivals Everton and Liverpool. Merseyside’s team in blue look transformed under manager Carlo Ancelotti, winning seven games in all competitions. Everton currently top the league, having won each of their four opening games convincingly. The club have bought well in the transfer window, adding world class players like Allan and James Rodriguez. Striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin is in terrific form, having scored six goals in the league already. This looks like a well-balanced side that can end decades of underachievement this season.
In stark contrast, reigning league champions Liverpool look uncharacteristically out of sorts. They’re coming off a 7-2 shellacking at the hands of Aston Villa, a scoreline that still looks impossible, such has been the Reds’ dominance for the past three years. In that match, nothing went according to plan. The stingiest defence in the league froze like deer in the headlights as Aston Villa took them apart. The normally menacing attack failed to convert chances, apart from Mohamed Salah’s two goals. The goalkeeper Adrián had a howler. Was this a one-off, or is there some structural malaise at Liverpool that nobody had expected? We’ll likely find out in this game. Both Sadio Mané and summer signing Thiago Alcântara should be back in the starting line-up after missing games due to covid infections. But for the first time in over a decade, Everton will go into a Merseyside derby as favourites. It promises to be some match.
Manchester City are expected to challenge Liverpool for the title this year, but just like the champions, City too have had a strange start to the campaign. The team have played three games, winning one, drawing one and losing the third. The loss to Leicester City wasn’t any old defeat but a 5-2 hiding, where manager Pep Guardiola’s charges were thoroughly outplayed. Nor do they look likely to bounce back immediately as Kevin De Bruyne, arguably the best midfielder in the world right now, will be out injured for at least three games. He joins other the influential Sergio Agüero, also injured, on the sidelines.
City have looked very brittle so far, and their opponents Arsenal are very well placed to take advantage. Under manager Mikel Arteta, the Gunners have become a tough team to beat. Extremely well organized and dangerous on the counterattack, Arsenal are something of a dark horse to win the league this season. They finished last season strongly by winning the FA Cup and will be strengthened by the addition of influential midfielder Thomas Partey from Atlético Madrid on transfer deadline day. He joins a team with just the right balance of experience and youth, alongside Willian and the brilliant Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Before taking the Arsenal job, Arteta served his apprenticeship as assistant manager under Guardiola at City. This gives him an advantage and Arsenal will be disappointed if they come away from Manchester without a result.
Real Madrid Vs Cádiz and Getafe Vs Barcelona
These two games are, of course, important in their own right, but they will also give a good indication of where Real Madrid and Barcelona are at before they meet in the season’s first el Clásico next weekend.
It’s been a bit of a mixed start to the season for the Spanish giants. Many of the problems that have plagued Barcelona in the past few seasons remain, the chief amongst them being the best position for Antoine Griezmann. The French international appeared to criticise club coach Ronald Koeman when he told reporters after France’s 2-1 win over Croatia that he feels good playing for France because he plays in his best position for the national team. This is as a playmaking number 10 behind a main striker, Griezmann’s preferred position. For Barcelona, Koeman plays him on the right of an attacking three, and his favourite position is taken up by Lionel Messi. Koeman responded to Griezman’s comments with a tart, “the coach is in charge,” but this is an old problem, that of fitting other players around Messi. Given the packed schedules, Messi might be rested against Getafe, so Griezmann may yet get the chance to play as a number 10. Koeman’s Barcelona is a more direct attacking team than last season’s edition, but they remain a work in progress. And with Luis Suarez gone, and Messi still not warmed up, one wonders where the goals are going to come from.
Real Madrid have continued where they left off last season, on top of the league. The team has been unbeaten since March, winning 13 of their past 15 games. However, this seems to be a bit of a transitional season for the league champions. Many of the most important first team regulars, like captain Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Luka Modric and Karem Benzema are well into their thirties. The younger guard, from the exciting striker Vinicius Junior to midfielder Martin Ødegaard are yet to become automatic starters under coach Zinedine Zidane. Indeed, Ødegaard will be missing the match with an injury, joining a long list of injured players including Dani Carvajal, Álvaro Odriozola, Mariano and Eden Hazard. This is a big season for Hazard, as he needs to live up to the billing as Madrid’s marquee signing last summer. He may be fit to play in the Clásico next weekend.