Bayern Munich vs. Borussia Dortmund
Prior to the start of the season, Bundesliga fans must've eagerly marked November 1 on their calendars, highlighting it in pink, drawing little hearts and blocking out 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. CET as "do not disturb."
But now that we're nine weeks in, the clash between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund might no longer seem like a must-watch match. Bayern are dominating the league, of course, sitting top with 21 points. But it's that other Borussia side, Mönchengladbach, that are in second, four points off the pace — pretty much where people expected Dortmund to be right about now.
Instead BVB are languishing down in 15th, holding a mere seven points. They've won just twice and have lost an incredible six games, including four in a row. Yet their league performance is almost incomprehensible, as Dortmund have thoroughly dominated in the Champions League. They've yet to give up a goal, but have scored nine themselves.
After Bayern's complete and total dominance over the last two seasons, it's reasonable to think Jürgen Klopp has simply given up. There's no way to dislodge the Bavarians from the top of the table, so there's no need to prioritize the league. Besides, winning the Champions League guarantees they'll be there next season, even if they are forced into a play-out to remain in the Bundesliga. There's no need to worry.
Well, Klopp may be crazy but it's highly unlikely he's that unstable. What if, instead, he's simply been saving all his energy for this highly anticipated match in Munich? Dortmund may have only scored ten league goals thus far, but they've proved they're still able to find the back of the net. Klopp's got a plan — he's going to crank it up to 11, put five past Bayern, and leave Bavaria on the shoulders of the fans. That'll put BVB within 11 points of Bayern. But they'll be so despondent about the loss that they'll lose to Roma, sending them into a spiral of shame. Meanwhile Dortmund will keep winning handily, and go into the Winterpause tied for first.
Watch. It'll happen.
Manchester City vs. Manchester United
If there's one thing better than a meeting between two football teams who have very high opinions of themselves and very low opinions of one another, then it's that happening while both teams are also in a bit of a state. With that in mind, it's a big SB Nation "hello!" to the Manchester derby, here to scratch that big-team-falling-on-their-face itch.
Weirdly, despite being four points and five places behind their neighbours, it's perhaps Manchester United that go into this weekend's fixture in better heart. Last-minute equalisers against the inevitable Premier League champions tend to have that effect, though perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the draw against Chelsea wasn't the point as much as the performances of a number of squad players. Perhaps the trickiest part of Louis van Gaal's job is to find somebody competent to fill the spaces between David de Gea at one end and Angel di Maria at the other, and while nobody predicted that Marouane Fellaini and Chris Smalling might threaten to achieve competence, they were both excellent last weekend and should start this.
Even the early season humiliation against MK Dons has had an unexpected upside, as United have had the week off to rest and prepare. City, by contrast, recorded their third disappointing result in a row on Wednesday night, as a strong XI crashed out of the League Cup, at home, against a second-string Newcastle. That result, hot on the heels of a 2-1 loss at West Ham and a blown 2-0 lead against CSKA Moscow the previous week, has been blamed by Manuel Pellegrini on a decline in confidence throughout the team, and by everybody else on a simple and amusing inability to defend.
Even worse for Pellegrini, his selection gamble failed after just ten minutes, when David Silva limped off with ligament damage that is expected to rule him out of this weekend's fun; Samir Nasri, back from injury, may take his place. In the red corner, Radamel Falcao's fitness is still in question but United, for once, are relatively untroubled by injuries. Of the other possible first-team starters, only Jonny Evans and Phil Jones are certainly missing, and that's the very definition of a blessing in disguise. Oh, and Wayne Rooney should be back, if you like that sort of thing.
All of which bodes well for the neutrally-inclined viewer. At one end, Di Maria and Robin van Persie up against the shaky Eliaquim Mangala; at the other, Sergio Aguero faces off against his equally infirm compatriot Marcos Rojo. City are obvious favourites but are under the greater pressure: a loss, or even a draw, and they could end the weekend eight points behind Chelsea, their title defence not quite dead but certainly coughing heavily.
As for United, while the expectations at this stage are obviously less, they're going to have to start putting performances together at some point. Last season's derby games were significant occasions: a 4-1 loss at City was the first sign that David Moyes might not be the right appointment, and then a 3-0 loss at Old Trafford one of the final nails in the camel's back. If Louis van Gaal can take something away from the Etihad, it will stand as perhaps the first piece of solid evidence that things are getting better; if not, then one or two awkward questions might follow. And we know how Van Gaal loves awkward questions.
Villarreal vs. Valencia
The last couple of seasons have been pretty disappointing for Valencia, who dropped from their traditional position as Spain's third club to fifth and then eighth last season. However, this season a new era has begun in style, with young Portuguese coach Nuno having impressed since taking over from the axed Juan Antonio Pizzi in the summer. Now, buoyed by the arrival of new owner Peter Lim, they’re looking a genuine force once again.
It’s not just results that have impressed, but the way they’ve managed to pick them up. Sofiane Feghouli, Rodrigo and Pablo Piatti have all excelled, but none as much as 21-year-old wonderkid Paco Alcácer, who who has scored four goals in the league this season, and been involved in creating four more. Heading into the 10th round of La Liga matches, Valencia are just a point adrift of Real Madrid, and two off league leaders Barcelona. Before long, they could well start dreaming of a return to Champions League football after a few seasons away.
However, this weekend they’ll go up against a local rival who’ve also been enjoying something of a resurgence of late. Back in 2008, Villarreal finished a remarkable second in the league, and subsequently went on to establish themselves as one of Europe’s most dangerous teams — not bad for a town whose population could fit into five La Liga stadiums with room to spare. Alas, things went very wrong in 2012, when they were related to the second tier after a nightmare year.
Now, though, they’re back. Having lost their star players after relegation, they’ve had to rebuild their squad, but they finished an impressive sixth on their return to the top tier last season. So far, they're down in eighth place this season, but are only six points adrift of Valencia. Most impressively, they're a very young team, with most of their players still having plenty of time to develop. They've put their faith in youth, and it shouldn't be long before they start reaping the rewards.
Who knows, they may soon be dreaming of a return to the Champions League, too.