World Football: The Top 50 Games You Must Watch This Season
The football season is upon us.
MLS football started in March. In July, the Scottish league kicked off, last weekend it was the Championship, next weekend will be the turn of the Premier League and the Bundesliga. And then we'll have the excitement of La Liga on our screens starting on 20 August and Serie A on the last weekend of the month.
Girlfriends and wives up and down Europe are virtually widowed, cafe culture and the summer gradually morph into raucous autumnal and wintry pub scenes and football fans across the summer proudly don their shiny new replica shirts or wrap up in their club's official bobble hat and scarf.
A magical time of year for millions of followers, a miserable time for a few non-believers.
Here in good time is my unofficial guide to 50 matches across the globe which you should tune into or buy tickets for, if you happen to be in the vicinity.
It's time to kick-off the season!
Two World Cup Finalists in 2014? See Them Square Up This Wednesday
Dates: 10 August
Matches: Germany v Brazil
Reasons to Watch: The history: eight world cups, Beckenbauer, Pele. The match-up: know-how and youth vs. flair and flamboyance. The players: Neymar and Mesut Ozil.
If that doesn't get you going, how about the chance of watching two teams full of stars who could be contesting the greatest prize on earth three years from now battling it out in a stunning, packed stadium?
Can PSG Bounce Back from Shock Opening Loss to Lorient?
Dates: 13 August
Matches: Rennes v Paris Saint-Germain
Reasons to Watch: When QIA (Qatar Investment Authority) bought a 70% stake in PSG this summer and then spent huge amounts of money on recruiting star French forward Kevin Gameiro and Argentine hotshot Javier Pastore, the expectations of their fans soared. Cue a dire 1-0 loss at home to Lorient last weekend.
Now Les Parisiens will be desperate to pick up three points away from home on Saturday and show the world that they will be a force to be reckoned with this season.
Premier League New Boys: Trio Look to Set Tone for Season
Dates: 14 August
Matches: Manchester City v Swansea, QPR v Bolton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic v Norwich City
Reasons to Watch: Last year, Blackpool shocked the Premier League with a stunning 4-0 win at Wigan Athletic on the opening day of the season, West Bromwich Albion suffered a humiliating opening day 6-0 defeat at Chelsea and Newcastle United were taught some valuable lessons in a 3-0 loss to eventual champions Manchester United. Perversely, Blackpool were the only of the three clubs to be relegated.
Although the performances were not a good gauge of how each team might fare in the top league in England, they gave good indications of how the newly promoted teams would attempt to acclimatise to their new surroundings.
La Liga: Two Giants Set Their Campaigns in Motion
Dates: 21 August
Matches: Malaga v Barcelona, Real Madris v Athletic Bilbao
Reasons to Watch: Alexis Sanchez, Cesc Fabregas, Nuri Sahin, Messi and Ronaldo; a potential upset; dramatics, theatrics and controversy...all possible reasons for tuning into the opening day of La Liga 2011-12. Unfortunately, you'll have to take your pick as all games kick off at 16:00 BST!
Serie A: Milan Duopoly or New Force to Emerge in 2011-12?
Dates: 27, 28 August
Matches: Cagliari v AC Milan, Napoli v Genoa, Internazionale v Lecce
Reasons to Watch: Last year, AC Milan flopped in the Champions League but won the Scudetto, Inter Milan played some breathtaking football but lacked steel and Napoli surged on the back of ambitious investment and bright football. This opening trio of games will show us how each team might develop this year and might indicate whether any is strong enough to go a stage or two further in the Champions League.
The Premier League Derbies: ''You're Not Singing Any More''...or Are You?
Dates: Virtually every week
Matches: Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa v West Bromwich Albion, Bolton Wanderers v Blackburn Rovers, Everton v Liverpool, Manchester City v Manchester United, Manchester United v Liverpool, Sunderland v Newcastle United
Reasons to Watch: Controversy, hatred-filled vitriol, passionate singing, heroes and villains, cards galore, blood, sweat and tears.
Here is a sample of some results from last season's three North London derbies: Tottenham 1-4 Arsenal, Arsenal 2-3 Tottenham, Tottenham 3-3 Arsenal. Three matches, 15 goals, four penalties, extra-time and two stirring comebacks. Expect much of the same from the other derbies!
El Clasico: Europe's Most Dramatic and Expensive Rivalry
Dates: 11 December 2011 and 22 April 2012
Matches: Barcelona v Real Madrid (La Liga x 2, Copa del Rey, Champions League also?)
Reasons to Watch: Fantastic football, disgraceful and distasteful antics, Messi and Ronaldo, the history, the passion and hatred, pig heads, white flags, Jose Mourinho's pre- and post-match interviews, and so much more.
Last year, La Blaugrana had the edge over Los Merengues last year with a 3-1 aggregate victory in the Champions League semi-final and a 5-0 hammering in La Liga but Mourinho's men did manage to snatch the Copa del Rey from Barca's hands and will be looking for revenge this year.
The Old Firm Clash: Football, Religion and Bragging Rights
Dates: 18 September, 28 December 2011 and 24 March 2012
Matches: Celtic v Rangers (x3)
Reasons to Watch: 96 titles, Catholicism v British Unionism, two novice managers, two large stadia full of raucous Scottish fans, title-deciding matches. Last season, just one point separated the two Glasgow teams, with Rangers winning the title for a third consecutive year with a 5-1 victory over Kilmarnock.
Derby Della Madonnina: Will AC or Inter Milan Reign Supreme This Year?
Dates: 15 January, 6 May 2012
Matches: AC Milan v Internazionale (x2)
Reasons to Watch: Last season, AC Milan won the Scudetto and Inter finished second. Both have 18 in total, but AC Milan have won the Champions League and Coppa Italia on more occasions. Both teams play in the same stadium ensuring a deafening atmosphere, while gripping football will definitely be on the agenda while the likes of Alexandre Pato, Samuel Eto'o and Wesley Sneijder are involved.
Europe's Other Top Domestic Rivalries
Matches: Bayern Munich v Nuremberg, Besiktas v Fenerbahce, Porto v Sporting Lisbon, Panathinaikos v Olympiacos, PSG v Marseilles
Reasons to Watch: While each domestic league has its own rivalries between clubs from the same cities or clubs whose hatred has nothing to do with geography, some are more feisty, passionate or symbolic than others. The above selection should be a good introduction to European domestic football.
Key Euro 2012 Qualifiers
Dates: 11 October
Matches: Denmark v Portugal, Serbia v Slovenia
Reasons to Watch: In Group C, Italy are five points clear and should soon confirm their place in next year's competition in Eastern Europe but there is a real tug-of-war for the second qualifying place in the group between Serbia and Slovenia. In Group H, three teams have 10 points each with young Ajax star Christian Eriksen (pictured) hoping to spur on his country Demark to a victory over rivals Portugal.
Latin American Derbies: Let the Rhythm Take You over
Matches: Boca Juniors v River Plate, Corinthians v Palmeiros, Nacional v Penarol
Reasons to Watch: English newspaper The Observer once suggested that the first rivalry here would make The Old Firm clashes between Scottish clubs Celtic and Rangers seem like ''a primary school kickabout''.
An adaptation of Romeo and Juliet has been made of the second rivalry with Corinthians taking on the guise of the Capulets and Palmeiros taking on the guise of the Montagues.
22 red cards in a 1985 match and nine players in jail for month after an encounter in 2000 make the last rivalry surely the most feisty on the pitch anywhere around.
The FA Cup Final: The Oldest Football Competition in the World Comes to a Head
Date: 5 May 2012
Reasons to Watch:This season 763 teams have entered the FA Cup final, English premier domestic cup competition and the oldest of its kind in the world.
Tottenham Hotspur are the only team to have won the trophy as a non-league club, only three clubs have ever won the tournament in successive seasons, 42 different clubs have won the trophy since the cup's inception in 1872.
These facts, the great TV coverage the tournament receives and the Wembley setting of the final make the competition a great sporting spectacle.
The UEFA Champions League Final: Can Any Team Usurp Barcelona?
Date: 19 May 2012
Reasons to watch: Many would argue that this is as good as football gets...in terms not only of the quality of the players but also as a spectacle.
There is glitz and glamour galore, big prize money and real prestige involve. Teams also have to win more games to qualify for the tournament in the first place and then to win it. This year,
Barcelona should be favourites to retain the trophy, but will be pushed all the way by Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid. A wealthy team with big ambitions such as Manchester City or PSG could also have a chance if luck is on their side.
Milwall vs. West Ham: Not a Day out for the Family
Date: 17 September 2011 and 4 February 2012
Matches: Milwall v West Ham (x2)
Reasons to Watch: Films such as The Football Factory, Geen Street and The Firm do not show British football in its best light. But it has to be said that East London police officers will not look forward to the potentially violent clashes to come between notorious East London teams Milwall and West Ham United, who will both play in next year's Championship after the latter was relegated from the Premier League. For those sadistic and slightly perverse fans looking for some non-footballing action off the field, this may be the one for you!
The Championship Playoff Final: Who Will Make Their EPL Dream Come True?
Reasons to watch: Opinions differ as to the economic value of winning the Championship play-off final to secure the last berth in the Premier League the following season, but chairmen up and down the English football league dream of being in the position of Swansea City's manager Brendan Rodgers and his players who secured a dramatic 4-2 victory last May over Reading at Wembley.
Three Key Premier League Matches for Next Year?
Date: 19 November 2011, 28 April and 13 May 2012
Matches: Wigan Athletic v Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City v Manchester United, Wigan Athletic v Wolverhampton Wanderers
Reasons to watch: Blackburn Rovers' novice boss Steve Kean has struggled to add to his goalscoring options in the offseason and has lost key defender Phil Jones to Manchester United, with Chris Samba also expected to leave the club. I expect he will be sacked, possibly after a loss at local rivals Wigan.
Manchester City could prove to be United's main rivals for the title this seasons, but will have to show more concentration and nerve than during their capitulation in Sunday's 3-2 Charity Shield Loss to the Red Devils.
The last match, on the last day of the season, will surely see one of the two teams involved being relegated - an outcome which may be decided by the result on the day.
The Olympics Final: Chasing a Golden Dream
Date: 11 August 2012
Reasons to watch: Football has been included in every Olympic Games bar two and next year sees the tournament held in a fabulous new Wembley stadium in a country boasting a passion for football and sport in general. Although ticket prices are expensive and not all of the world's biggest stars will be involved, it should still be a fascinating 90 minutes involving dozens of players and coaches vying for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to own a famous gold medal.
Euro 2012: The Business End of Europe's Elite International Competition
Date: 21 June - 1 July 2012
Reasons to Watch: 16 of Europe's best international teams will compete in 31 matches in Poland and Ukraine, with the final taking place on 1 July.
The two host nations have already qualified for the tournament, but the favorites will include France, Germany, Italy and Spain. England will again exit on penalties.
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