6 World Football Games to Watch This Weekend
Another weekend; another fine feast of football to gorge on. Ours is the game that keeps on giving and this is your guide to the very best of what's on offer.
In England, two North London tribes go to war in a Premier League clash that could have big implications for Champions League qualification.
A battle with similar stakes will take place in Italy. AC Milan forward Mario Balotelli will lead the recent conquerors of Barcelona into a clash against a prominent representative from the nation's capital city.
The start of the MLS season in the U.S. will draw plenty of attention, too. I've honed in on a coming together that will see the competitive debuts of two new coaches, hoping to spark a new dawn for their respective teams.
We'll also stop off in Turkey, but there can be no dispute as to the biggest game of the weekend. For that, we travel to Spain.
Here are my six games to watch this weekend.
6. Besiktas vs. Fenerbahce
When: Sunday, 12 p.m. ET (no U.S. TV listing found)
The Besiktas-Fenerbahce rivalry is a big one in Turkey. The two teams are both based in Istanbul and share a mutual disdain for each other that has been building over 90 years of feisty fixtures.
This game would be big whatever the stakes. As it turns out, the two clubs are in direct competition for second place in the Super Lig and thus fighting it out for Turkey's second Champions League spot behind Galatasaray.
Fenerbahce are currently a point ahead, with 11 games of the season remaining. They beat Besiktas 3-0 at home in October and have been boosted of late by the goals of former Liverpool striker Dirk Kuyt.
Besiktas can't afford to lose on Sunday. They scraped past 10-man Sivasspor last time out in the league, but will have plenty of motivation to better that performance from the vocal home support desperate to put one over on Fenerbahce.
5. Portland Timbers vs. New York Red Bulls
Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images
When: Sunday, 7.30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
MLS 2013 is upon us. The action starts on Saturday, but the game I'm picking is Sunday's meeting of Portland Timbers and New York Red Bulls in Oregon.
Both teams have new coaches for this campaign. Caleb Porter is doubling up his duties as U.S. Under-23 coach to take on the Timbers, while Mike Petke will attempt to drag the underachieving Red Bulls toward something approaching what they ought to be doing based on their resources.
Porter and Petke are 38 and 37 respectively. Their appointments represent long-term planning on the part of both of these franchises, and all eyes will be on how they set their teams out on opening day.
The Timbers have been busy in the offseason. Former Manchester United and Arsenal full-back Mikael Silvestre and Jamaican winger Ryan Johnson are among the new arrivals.
Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Brazilian veteran Juninho—the master free-kick specialist—are the star attractions for the Red Bulls.
4. Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion
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When: Saturday, 10 a.m. ET (Fox Soccer)
This one is all about Rafa Benitez. The Chelsea manager let loose on Wednesday, ripping the club's fans and accusing the board of undermining him when they laid the title of "interim manager" upon him in November 2012.
Benitez openly criticized the decision-making of Roman Abramovich, yet still he remains. The Spaniard has vowed to see out his contract until the end of the season and told BBC Sport on Thursday that his relationship with Chelsea's billionaire owner is "excellent."
His relationship with Chelsea fans is not. Expect them to attack him with all their might at Stamford Bridge, as Chelsea entertain West Brom for their first game of the post-Rafa rant era.
It's a match Chelsea cannot afford to lose. Their Champions League qualification next season depends on a strong run-in and the Blues are just two points clear of Arsenal in the fourth and final spot as things stand.
West Brom, meanwhile, have their own European agenda. Steve Clarke's overachieving team are chasing a Europa League spot and have been buoyed by the goals of Chelsea's own Romelu Lukaku—arguably the loan signing of the season in the Premier League.
Lukaku is not allowed to play against the club who owns him, unfortunately.
3. AC Milan vs. Lazio
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images
When: Saturday, 2.45 p.m. ET (beIN Sport USA)
Milan are riding high. Unbeaten in their last eight Serie A matches and with a notable Champions League win against Barcelona along the way, the Italian giants are unquestionably back on an upward trajectory.
Their stock is up; Lazio's is most definitely down. The Rome club were on a blistering run but have taken just four points from their last five Serie A matches and now find themselves clinging on to third place in the division.
Milan are two points back; Inter are also in touching distance. This is a vitally important game for both MIlan and Lazio because it plays into Champions League qualification matters.
All eyes (and ears) will be on Mario Balotelli. The striker was subject to racial abuse in last week's Milan derby and also received a fine himself for gestures made to opposing fans (Yahoo!). Let us hope the crowd at the San Siro commits no similar crimes this weekend.
When these teams met in Rome, a thriller finished 3-2 to Lazio. More of the same would be a great way to spend your Saturday afternoon.
2. Tottenham vs. Arsenal
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When: Sunday, 11 a.m. ET (Fox Soccer)
A North London derby needs no supplemental plot to sell it. This one has several.
Arsenal are reeling from a Champions League battering from Bayern Munich and an increasing number of fans are turning on long-serving coach Arsene Wenger. The very least they expect is a top-four finish and Champions League football next season, but Chelsea and Tottenham currently stand in their way.
Arsenal are fifth, Spurs are third, but there are only four points between them and Wenger fully believes he can make up the deficit.
Defeat at White Hart Lane is unthinkable. It's also very possible when you factor in Tottenham's continued improvement under Andre Villas-Boas and the remarkable match-winning form of Gareth Bale.
Arsenal fans will take hope from the 5-2 beating they inflicted on Spurs at the Emirates in November. Bale scored that day, but it didn't stop the Gunners running riot.
Whatever happens on Sunday, drama is guaranteed.
1. Real Madrid vs. Barcelona
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When: Saturday, 10 a.m. ET (beIN Sport USA)
The best rivalry in sport? It's hard to argue otherwise based on the history between these two teams and the fact they currently boast the two most gifted players on the planet—Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo of Madrid.
Ronaldo was emphatically the victor in Wednesday's Clasico meeting, which saw Madrid sack Camp Nou and raise further questions as to whether Barca's reign as the rulers of world football is coming to an end.
It was the sixth game running Ronaldo has scored at the home of Madrid's great rivals and the 12th match in a row that Barca have failed to keep a clean sheet (Guardian).
Barca's lead atop La Liga is unassailable, but this edition of the rivalry is about pride, not points. Barca will want to strike back and silence their critics. Jose Mourinho will want his Madrid side to continue their momentum into Tuesday's Champions League showdown with Manchester United.
Madrid will also want a victory to put pressure on city rivals Atletico, who are currently four points ahead and occupying second place.