Everyone loves an underdog story, don’t they? After all, a team or an individual triumphing against the odds is one of the great things about sport.
But in soccer, the cutthroat, finance-geared nature of the modern game has diluted these instances where we get to see these unexpected stories. This season though, we could yet see two surprise champions in two of the game’s highest profile leagues.
In Spain, Atletico Madrid are showing that organization, hard work and a sprinkling of genius can go a very long towards a successful campaign. They sold their prize asset Falcao for circa £50 million the summer, whilst their two title rivals—Real Madrid and Barcelona—brought in acquisitions that surpassed that figure. And yet, Diego Simeone’s team are top of the pile in La Liga, on the verge of an historic title triumph.
In England, too, we could see Liverpool lifting the league title come the end of the campaign. An all-out-attack mantra has seen them blow plenty of teams away in the Premier League, including some of the top sides in the country. With seven games to go, they’re just one point off the Premier League leaders and, after winning seven games in a row, could yet emerge as Premier League champions in a whirlwind season in England’s top flight.
Both of the aforementioned sides have crucial games this weekend, and they’ll both feature in our top five selections this week. Elsewhere we’ve got another key title clash in each of those divisions, and to kick the weekend off, an intriguing contest between the top two in English football’s second tier.
All kickoff times are Eastern Time (don’t forget daylight savings time changes in England early on Sunday morning!). Enjoy your weekend and enjoy the games!
Burnley vs. Leicester City
The best two teams in the Championship meet on Saturday morning to kick start a bumper weekend of soccer. Burnley and Leicester City occupy the two top spots in English football’s second tier and a win for either side here would go a long way to guaranteeing their promotion to the promised land of the Premier League.
They are two sides that have done things very differently this season. Sean Dyche’s Burnley team side sold off their prize asset Charlie Austin in the summer and whilst little of his £7 million transfer fee has been reinvested into the playing squad, Burnley have blossomed. After a rip-roaring start, things looked like they were about to unravel over the course of the Christmas period, but they’ve won nine and drawn five of their last 14 games, putting a buffer between themselves and QPR in third place.
The visitors to Turf Moor on Sunday are league leaders Leicester City. The Foxes are a side that suffered a heartbreaking loss in the playoffs last season, but they have regrouped and gone again this campaign. They’ve spent a fair bit on the playing squad down the years without ever really mounting a challenge for automatic promotion, but Nigel Pearson’s team are seeing the benefits of their investment now.
In truth, both sides should still have enough to claim promotion come the end of the campaign, but the Championship is a division know for throwing us the odd curveball. These will be desperate to finish top of the pile and a win for either here would go a long to achieving those title ambitions.
Espanyol vs. Barcelona
The big fixtures just seem to keep on coming in Spain. After we were treated to a magnificent Clasico last weekend, this Saturday Barcelona travel to the home of the team that who are arguably their fiercest rivals, Espanyol. The “Derby of Barcelona” may not be as high-profile or keenly contested as the clash between La Liga’s two biggest sides, but in Catalonia this game is second to none when it comes to all matters football.
Given the gulf between the two sides, this fixture can be something of an anticlimax when played at the Camp Nou. But whenever the fixture takes place at the Estadi Cornella-El Prat, with the raucous home crowd creating a hostile atmosphere, there’s a palpable sense that just about anything can happen.
Espanyol are a proud club and their supporters—dubbed the Pericos—will be really fired up for this one. They have little to play for themselves, but relish the opportunity to derail any potential success that might be heading the way of their great rivals. With the Spanish title race as close as its been in years, they will know any kind of positive result against the Blaugrana would put their championship chances in jeopardy.
But do they have the resources to knock Barca out of their stride? On many occasions this campaign, Tata Martino’s side have struggled on the road against supposed lesser teams. But you suspect that given the nature of this clash they’ll be fully focused on the task at hand. After all, that marvellous Clasico win would count for little if they were to drop points here.
Arsenal vs. Manchester City
Saturday, March 29, 1:30PM, NBCSN
After a 6-0 beating last weekend and a frustrating draw in midweek, an imperious Manchester City team certainly don’t look like ideal opponents for Arsenal. The Gunners’ title hopes look all but dead and buried after catastrophic results against Chelsea and Swansea City, whilst the visitors to the Emirates on Saturday tea time seem to be finding their groove once again.
Out of the FA Cup and out of the Champions League, Manuel Pellegrini has been able to focus his Manchester City team on all matters Premier League. They battled to a vital win against Hull City after playing for ten men with long spells and have blown away Fulham and Manchester United in their more recent encounters. They’ve not conceded in their last five Premier League games either, and with ten strikes in their last three outings, they are beginning to rediscover their mercurial goalscoring touch too.
Whilst City seem on the proverbial war path at the minute, Arsenal are being left by the wayside. And quite remarkably, they might yet miss out on a top four place with Everton breathing down their neck. They look down on confidence, hampered by injuries and it seems as though a long season is taking it’s toll on the squad. But missing out on Champions League football would be a disaster for the club and the supporters will be desperate for a response here.
A win for Manchester City and they’d have to considered title favourites. Winning at Old Trafford and the Emirates in the space of five days is certainly the hallmark of champions and two consecutive wins at the home of their two fiercest rivals would fill this squad with confidence ahead of what promises to be a intriguing run-in.
Athletic Bilbao vs. Atletico Madrid
After a season in the upper reaches of La Liga, onlookers have remained tentative when discussing Atletico Madrid’s title chances. But at this juncture, they’re out on in their own atop of the Spanish first division. Are they set to break the longstanding duopoly of their city rivals Real Madrid and Catalan giants Barcelona?
This game away to Atheltic Bilbao will go a long way to determining whether they can. A trip to the San Mames remains one of the most difficult tasks in the Spanish game, and Atheltic have already taken points off Real Madrid and Barcelona this season on their own patch. Diego Simeone’s side beat Athletic there in the Copa Del Rey this season, but with the home side chasing a Champions League place themselves, this looks set to be a much more difficult task.
Atletico capitalised on consecutive Real Madrid defeats to overtake them in the title race and with a superior head-to-head record, Carlo Ancelotti’s team are suddenly the outsiders in this title fight; they have three points to make up. Barcelona are breathing down their necks however and Atletico must win to keep them at bay.
This game is a genuine threat to Atletico’s title ambitions. Basque outfit Athletic are a progressive and enterprising team, capable of shutting down the opposition with their high-octane style of play. They have quality within their ranks too, with Markel Susaeta, Ander Herrera and Aritz Aduriz enjoying great campaigns for Ernesto Valverde’s side. But, if any team are set up to cope with Bilbao, it’s the league leaders.
The respective styles of each team should make for a breathless 90 minutes of football and a win here for Atletico would make them big favourites to go on and secure the title.
Liverpool vs. Tottenham
Sunday, March 30, 11:00AM, NBCSN
In the reverse fixture back in late 2013, Liverpool wiped the floor with a hopeless Spurs side to win 5-0 at White Hart Lane. In many respects, that result was the catalyst for Liverpool’s remarkable run of form, one that has seen them move to within a point of the Premier League summit.
The Reds overcame a dogged Sunderland side 2-1 in midweek, showcasing a diligence and determination to compliment their fluid attacking football. For Brendan Rodgers, it’s just a case of his side keeping things going now. They’ve won seven in a row in Premier League and will be hugely confident of putting a Spurs side away who are having their own issues.
Since Tim Sherwood took the job, Spurs have blown hot and cold. Perhaps more than any game this season, their performance against Southampton last weekend encapsulated that. Saints went 2-0 up early on and Spurs looked set to crumble. But galvanised by Christian Eriksen, they came roaring back into the contest and snatched a last minute win.
They’ll need to sharpen up defensively if they are to go to Anfield and get a result, but they’ve shown enough in recent weeks to suggest they can make the trip to the North-West and cause Liverpool’s defenders problems.
Liverpool are right in this title race. Manchester City and Chelsea both face tricky away trips on the Saturday, so the Reds could yet go into this clash knowing that a victory would send them top of the pile. What an incentive that would be.