SOCCER

Warne: Champions League Races Are Heating Up

Jul 3, 2020, 3:07 PM
Leicester City...
Ricardo Pereira of Leicester City tackles Kortney Hause of Aston Villa during the Carabao Cup Semi Final match between Leicester City and Aston Villa at The King Power Stadium on January 08, 2020 in Leicester, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
(Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Man was I wrong about Leicester City! They are in free fall right now and after an incredible first half of the season where they looked nailed on for Champions League football, they’re now looking worryingly over their shoulder at Chelsea, Man Utd, and Wolves. Right now they will be lucky to finish sixth as the race heats up for the last two CL places with five teams in hot pursuit.

Starting the 4th of July weekend off right

Man United’s schedule is by far the most favorable in the top six. There have been some flashes of good soccer from the Red Devils, along with putting sides, you expect them to put away, with relative ease and come the end of the season Man United will be in the top four. Although Chelsea was recently defensively sound against Man City, they looked anything but against relegation-threatened West Ham United midweek going down 3-2 at the London Stadium. Proving once again, there are inconsistencies over at Stamford Bridge. They’ve made some very good attacking signings for next season, but they certainly need to strengthen at the back.

Just as I thought Spurs might get themselves back in the hunt, they went up to Sheffield and showed their frailties. Completely outworked and out-thought for 90 odd minutes. Going down 3-1, and seemingly an end of Champions League dreams for 2020/21.

The champions got a walloping on Thursday, as Man City flexed their brilliance at the Etihad 4-0, giving a timely reminder. Yes, the title might be won for this season, but the competition is already building for next season. Earlier in the week, the Reds manager Jurgen Klopp sounded the war cry of their title defense for next season “We will not defend our title, we will attack the title”. With the money being spent by Chelsea and Man Utd looking much improved, the 2020/21 season looks like the best multiple team fight for glory in a long time.

In Spain, there are five rounds to go, and it’s looking like Real Madrid is heading to the title, holding a four-point lead over Barcelona. Sunday the leaders go to Athletic Bilbao which will be a solid test of the championship credentials. And Barca head to Villarreal, who are currently fifth, trying to break into the top four. It’s all very much to play for in Spain which is exciting. You can find the matches on Bein Sports.

Italy is in a similar position, but once again, teams are chasing a dominant Juventus with nine rounds to play. Juve holds a four-point lead and hosts local rival Torino on Saturday on ESPN+, 9:00 a.m. And the main chaser in the pack is Lazio, they will host  AC Milan also on Saturday also on ESPN+ and a 1:30 p.m. kick-off. Did you want live sports? You’ve got it all, and still an evening to bbq and have fun. What more could you ask for?

Back to the EPL…

Man Utd vs. Bournemouth

You’re probably wondering why I picked this match that kicks off 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, NBCSN. Bournemouth will come to Old Trafford bereft of confidence. But don’t let that turn you off. Manchester United is actually really fun to watch right now, and that’s what you need to focus on with this first preview.

United has the most favorable remaining schedule for all the teams looking for Champions League football for next season. This just means they’ve already played a host of tough matches and are still in contention. What we’re seeing is a team that is starting to turn the screw on opponents as they did under Sir Alex Ferguson. It has been a relentless restart for the Red Devils. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves though, they have yet to prove themselves over a 38 game season, and all eyes will be on them for this reason, next season. But what I can tell you is that the academy is once again turning out some real talent. Dean Henderson on loan at Sheffield United has proven he can one day be a regular, not only at United but for England as well. Mason Greenwood is another player that is a phenomenal prospect. He might be the perfect 9 1/2! Then you have young fullback Brandon Williams, who is also a future England international. Marcus Rashford is already established along with Scott McTominay. It just feels the tide has turned a little bit. Some of the goals have been great from this team, the build-up play has, on occasion, been a joy. Pogba being back has helped, and Bruno Fernandes, the player that moved them to a much needed new level, has taken to his role as the orchestrator for the attack with relative ease. The entire team has benefited from his arrival from Sporting Lisbon.

Bournemouth’s situation is a little more clear, they are in a right pickle. A manager that looks desperate for some inspiration from somewhere, anywhere. The team looks short on ideas, confidence and the lack of desire and work rate is probably the most alarming thing. Since their arrival in the EPL, there have been some hit and miss player signings, and now it’s finally caught up with them. A team that came up with a core group that wanted to play attractive soccer, and adapted to make sure they were always safe by season’s end, has vanished. They do have some very good players, that regardless of Bournemouth’s final position, will be snapped up. Ryan Fraser has already left after letting his contract expire and not signing a mini extension. Nathan Aké, another player with potentially more offers to come. David Brooks though is the one to keep an eye on. Missing for almost a year, his return could and should give the Cherries a boost in the run-in as he gets match fit. He can cause United problems, but he needs more from the players around him. Bournemouth’s goals have been on short supply this season. Brooks can do it all, of course, but this is Bournemouth, a team that came up much like Sheffield United and raised eyebrows in how they attacked the league. Somehow they lost their way and identity under Eddie Howe, who has done wonders, but now seems to have lost his edge. United will put them to the sword, as the relegation drop looks ever so likely by season’s end.

United’s physical dominance will once again be on show against a team that has no answers or threats.

Prediction: United 3 Bournemouth 1

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Arsenal

A good little test for the 10:30 a.m. kick off on Saturday, NBCSN viewers will be treated to a couple of teams that are trying to lock in European soccer, and another one trying to get momentum as they search for a settled identity. Wolves are by far the most interesting team to watch right now. Their style and movement have been a good watch, trying to be defensively sound, and blistering in the attack. Moving between a 3-4-3 and a 3-5-2 formations given any game, it’s the fluidity that is most impressive. The midfield three of Dendoncker, Neves, and Moutinho give the entire side a good balance of solid support defensively and moving the ball through the middle of the park. Allowing the explosiveness of Adama Traore to spring in behind, with Jiménez and Jota taking full advantage of the Spanish attackers’ ability to draw multiple defenders’ attention, and leaving gaps for them to take full advantage of.

With Arsenal, it’s a lot more complicated, the drop off from the Arsène Wenger days is a cause for concern, much like United without Sir Alex Ferguson, but, in my opinion, this is deeper than the issues that faced Man United. Arsenal’s current status is another conversation entirely. Arsenal has some good parts to the squad, and the young prospects look the real deal. As I’ve said for most of the season, they’ve needed some quality in the spine of the team. The backline has very little quality, yet here they are, in with a shout of European football for next season, which would be amazing for them. They have also been linked with a host of players that would no doubt improve them. I’m of the opinion that missing out on Europe wouldn’t be a disaster for the Gunners as they try to steady the ship. Fewer games and travel, whilst giving the younger players valuable first-team minutes, surrounded by quality veterans and you might see a much more competitive Arsenal in the next couple of years. The job is massive for Arteta, but he knows the club, much like Lampard at Chelsea and Ole Gunnar Solskjær at Man Utd. I think Arteta is good enough to steady the ship, but are all three of these coaches, who were low hanging fruit to appease fans, able to take their respective clubs to the next level? This question is still up for debate. As for now, this match is really well set up. I’d make Wolves favorites, but there are glimpses of life at Arsenal, even if we still haven’t seen a solid 90-minute performance, with the attacking talent on display I’m expecting some goals, but I can’t pick a winner. I do think we’ll see a thoroughly entertaining match, as both teams go for it. I’m hoping that Arsenal youngsters Eddie Nketiah and Bukayo Saka get the starts in attack, as they have phenomenal potential and are fearless and another showcase of one of the best academies in England is able to still produce top talent.

Prediction: Wolves 2 Arsenal 2

Liverpool vs. Aston Villa

Last up is Sunday’s matchup on NBCSN, also check local listings as this might be a KSL 5 game as well, slated for a 9:30 a.m. kickoff time. Thank goodness Liverpool wrapped up the title the week before as they got a thumping from Man City on Thursday. The Reds weren’t particularly bad, but City was particularly ruthless, it was tough to see if it was the Reds taking their foot off the gas or City’s brilliance. Probably a bit of both was my conclusion, but it does make me excited for next season, even with six games remaining in this one. Liverpool was at full strength when they announced their starting line up, but don’t be surprised at a couple of tweaks for this match.

As the relegation dog fight continues, it’s probably one of the more interesting stories in the EPL right now. Survival! West Ham took a massive step this week with a victory over Chelsea. Norwich, Villa, Bournemouth, and Watford need a boost to try and get things moving. And Villa come into Anfield with the pressure off of their shoulders, they shouldn’t win, right? That may be so, but much like Bournemouth this weekend they’ll come in with little to no expectations, and without the added weight of expectation, this could help. Jack Grealish will once again be your focal point, he is one of my favorite players to watch. He does everything he can for his Villa. He just needs to be given a platform. Villa is awful in defense and has been all season, and if they can just work out how to keep the ball out of their own net a little bit more then he can help create enough chances. John McGinn’s return is timely, but it’s the lack of goals that have hindered Villa. They gave Liverpool a stern test at Villa Park earlier in the season, eventually going down 2-1 as the Reds left it late.

Will the Reds bounce back for the midweek defeat? Sure. Will it be easy? Highly unlikely. It’s go time for the teams in trouble and I expect at least a couple more shock results before the season comes to a close, just not from this matchup. 

Look for Salah and Mane to be in amongst the goals as they try to close the gap on the golden boot race, and on the flip side, look for Grealish to put in another captain’s performance that leaves you in no doubt, come seasons end regardless of Villa’s position, he’ll be playing somewhere else.

Prediction: Liverpool 2 Villa 0

As always, thanks for tuning in. And do what you can to look after each other. Open a door for someone. Smile through your mask at someone. And let’s celebrate the weekend in style… At a safe distance. Until Monday, I bid you adieu.

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