B/R Experts: Big-Game Predictions, February 17-19
After a quite outstanding round of European action, domestic football takes centre stage this weekend.
We have league action in Spain, Germany and Italy, while the FA Cup takes pride of place in England.
Fresh from their battering at the hands of Bayern Munich, Arsenal face non-league outfit Sutton United. Surely not?
Bleacher Report's Dean Jones has his finger on the pulse of English football and will give his verdict on the FA Cup games, while Italian football guru Adam Digby is charged with deciphering what's going on in Serie A.
Spanish football expert Karl Matchett will look after La Liga, and German football authority Lars Pollmann will select his winners in the Bundesliga.
Juventus vs. Palermo
Their relegation-haunted opponents look doomed, sitting eight points adrift of safety and having won just three times all season, they face a huge task in this encounter.
The Bianconeri laboured in the last meeting between these teams, however, winning 1-0 back in September only to since find their form after coach Massimiliano Allegri switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation.
They also boast some proud records going into this fixture that they will look to maintain, Juventus having won their last 28 home matches in Serie A as well as their last nine games in all competitions against Palermo.
Furthermore, they have kept a clean sheet in those same matches, making a comfortable win the most likely outcome.
First goalscorer: Mario Mandzukic
Huddersfield vs. Manchester City
We head into a crucial week for Pep Guardiola as Manchester City face two cup fixtures that can shape their season.
This FA Cup game is followed by a Champions League tie against Monaco, and City will then have a 12-day break (as long as there is no replay).
You would imagine Guardiola will, therefore, be willing to pick the strongest team for both games as City eye silverware in his first season at the club.
Injury to Gabriel Jesus is a blow, but Sergio Aguero and Nolito can both put forward their case for being City's main man once again. Kelechi Iheanacho should also hope for a chance.
Huddersfield are on a hot streak, having won their last six matches. The run is even more impressive when you track back over the past couple of months—they have collected 12 wins from the past 14 outings.
Boss David Wagner is a close friend of Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp and may lean on his old pal as he attempts to mastermind a famous result.
First goalscorer: Sergio Aguero
Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea
Wolves made back-page headlines when they beat Liverpool in the last round, but this Chelsea team are made of stronger stuff.
It was an impressive showing that saw off Klopp's Reds, but the truth is it was not a major surprise, given Liverpool's current poor run of form and fragile mentality.
To beat Chelsea would be stunning, probably the biggest upset of the season. But it is not likely.
Wolves have lost three matches in a row, scoring one goal along the way against Burton Albion. Meanwhile, Chelsea are unbeaten in seven and top of the Premier League.
Of course, the league remains their priority, but, in a season when they are not competing in Europe, Chelsea are also taking the FA Cup seriously.
To be honest, anything less than a cup-final appearance in this competition would be a surprise for the Blues.
First goalscorer: Cesc Fabregas
Sporting Gijon vs. Atletico Madrid
Atletico Madrid’s away form hasn’t been spectacular this season, but as their last outing in La Liga showed, they’re still capable of obtaining positive results by whatever means necessary.
It’s possible that Diego Simeone could rest one or two ahead of a Champions League game in midweek, but with Sporting struggling in the relegation zone, this is a winnable game regardless as Atleti chase a top-four finish.
Sporting were solid, resilient and industrious in their win over Leganes a week ago—perhaps a new direction for the team under new boss Rubi.
Even so, Atletico are looking at every game as must-not-lose right now...and they won’t lose.
First goalscorer: Lacina Traore
Real Madrid vs. Espanyol
As a result, it’s a rare opportunity for Zinedine Zidane to rotate his side and rest a few stars. Given Real’s injury problems earlier in the campaign, perhaps it’s wise he does so.
Even if the big guns don’t feature, Espanyol at home is pretty much a guaranteed three points for Real Madrid; the Catalonia-based side regularly roll over with a whimper in this fixture, and there could be plenty of goals to enjoy.
First goalscorer: Alvaro Morata
Borussia Dortmund vs. Wolfsburg
Following a disappointing 1-0 defeat at Benfica in the Champions League on Tuesday, Borussia Dortmund return to the Bundesliga with a point to prove.
A strong performance in midweek did little to neutralise the sour taste an embarrassing 2-1 loss to last-placed SV Darmstadt 98 left on the previous matchday, and so the Black and Yellows will aim to let visiting VfL Wolfsburg feel their frustration.
The Wolves, surprise winners over 1899 Hoffenheim on Sunday, are not quite out of the deep waters, but a six-point advantage over the relegation-play-off spot means they do not have too much pressure at the Westfalenstadion.
The stadium is the big unknown: Following fan violence and other protests ahead of the meeting with RB Leipzig earlier in February, Dortmund's south stand—the imposing Yellow Wall—will be closed for the encounter with the Wolves as part of the punishment by the German Football Association (DFB). How Thomas Tuchel's men cope with the sombreness of an empty stand that usually holds more than 25,000 fans will go a long way in deciding a match they should be able to win without much difficulty on paper.
It would be quite poetic if Tuchel were to lose his first league home match since taking charge of the Black and Yellows almost 20 months ago, but his side need three points and have to show a reaction to recent woes.
First goalscorer: Marco Reus
Hertha Berlin vs. Bayern Munich
Playing Arsenal predictably worked wonders for Bayern Munich, who looked tedious and slow for most of 2017 until the restart of the Champions League on Wednesday. Carlo Ancelotti's men will hope they can carry their new-found mojo into the Bundesliga.
Hertha BSC could be the perfect opponent in that quest going by recent history: The Bavarians have beaten the capital club a whopping 11 times in a row, with seven clean sheets and a composite score of 33-5. To put that in perspective: The last time Hertha won a point from Bayern, Jurgen Klinsmann was in charge of the perennial champions.
That said, Hertha have proved to be a stingy opponent on many occasions under club legend Pal Dardai, for example forcing a DFB-Pokal tie at Dortmund into a penalty shootout earlier this month.
Berlin are comfortable sitting deep in their defensive third and would love nothing more than to let Bayern slowly peter out in their own possession game.
With the tailwind of the Champions League in mind, however, it is difficult to see past the visitors.
First goalscorer: Douglas Costa
Fulham vs. Tottenham
Harry Kane revealed in the Telegraph this week that the fear of humiliation drives his self-belief, and Spurs have a fantastic opportunity to make a statement of intent in this competition.
They have not won the FA Cup since 1991, but Kane and Co. know they have to start loading up the trophy cabinet if they want to be taken seriously as an elite club.
A title challenge last season was impressive, and, at times, this term they have looked the best outfit in England. However, a 2-0 defeat to Liverpool last weekend raised new concern.
Spurs have only scored once in their last three league games and now have the Europa League to deal with as well.
Championship side Fulham are one of the most impressive sides in Europe when it comes to possession, and they will attempt to use that same style of football in their bid for an upset.
Midfielders Stefan Johansen and Tom Cairney are two standout players of this season.
Spurs should have enough strength to ensure Kane does not endure one of those embarrassing defeats he so dreads.
First goalscorer: Dele Alli
Blackburn vs. Manchester United
Once upon a time, this was a must-see Premier League fixture.
But these days, Blackburn are fighting for survival in the Championship, while United are not in the title race.
Progressing in this competition is far more important to United manager Jose Mourinho than opposite number Owen Coyle, yet it would provide an obvious pick-me-up for Rovers if they could cause an upset.
The signs are not good for Blackburn, who have won just five of their 16 home matches this term and relegation is probable—not possible.
Mourinho has vowed to show his hosts respect and that means a strong team will take to the field.
They trounced Wigan in the last round 4-0—even Bastian Schweinsteiger was among the scorers. Another convincing win is likely.
First goalscorer: Wayne Rooney
Barcelona vs. Leganes
A huge game for Barcelona: Do they show character, play the way they are capable of and destroy one of the poorest sides in La Liga or fumble their way through the next game after they crumbled against Paris Saint-Germain in Europe, humbled and humiliated for all the world to see?
Luis Enrique is under huge pressure, and he has to get a reaction from the side at home. The Camp Nou will demand it, the players should expect it of themselves and anything less than a convincing win will be deemed further evidence of Barca’s decline.
A home win by a comfortable margin, but it could still see muted celebrations.
First goalscorer: Luis Suarez
AC Milan vs. Fiorentina
That allowed Vincenzo Montella’s men to keep the momentum in their favour after a similarly difficult win over Bologna just a week earlier, but the coach still has a number of concerns in defence. Mattia De Sciglio, Luca Antonelli and Alessio Romagnoli will all miss this clash, and Fiorentina will hope to capitalise.
Like Montella, Viola boss Paulo Sousa is under pressure to deliver results but will be boosted by Nikola Kalinic’s return to beef up his attack.
If the Portuguese tactician can get his formation right after countless changes in recent weeks, the visitors could nab a narrow win.
First goalscorer: Federico Bernardeschi
Sutton United vs. Arsenal
Imagine if this is how it all ends. A defeat at non-league Sutton United would surely lead to Arsene Wenger's departure.
This Arsenal team are broken. Their performances are disjointed, their star names look despondent, the trust has disappeared.
Wenger has no idea what he is going to get from his players when he puts them on the field anymore, and Sutton have an unbelievable opportunity to capitalise on all the negative feelings.
Of course, they still have a mountain to climb. No matter Arsenal's overall form, they should beat the lowest-ranked team left in the cup.
But there are new factors they will need to overcome: Sutton use an artificial pitch. The changing facilities are far from perfect. A win would net the non-leaguers around £1 million and transform the club.
Defeat is unthinkable for Wenger. Surely.
First goalscorer: Lucas Perez