Arsenal vs. Manchester City
The transfer window's closed, the Phoney War of the first few fixtures is over, the weird interruption of that hideously-timed international break has been shrugged aside, and now the Premier League can really get down the important business of being the Premier League. This means noise, shouting and hyperbole, of course, but it also means big, expensive football teams banging into one another. This weekend's Big Clash takes place on Saturday lunchtime and sees Manchester City visit Arsenal; two sides hoping to make serious title challenges, but who have both made slightly odd starts to the season.
Take City. Good enough against Newcastle for a 2-0 win, then excellent against a feisty Liverpool, they ruined their perfect start to the season by losing in peculiar fashion to Stoke at home. Alright, Mame Biram Diouf running 70 yards then nutmegging the England goalkeeper isn't really the kind of thing that can be planned for — though it can be prevented, can't it, Joe? — but it's the big fat nil in the goals scored column that will really have concerned Manuel Pellegrini. Evidence, perhaps, that his side can be frustrated and even defeated by a side who are happy to sit deep, keep their shape, and ride their luck as far as they can.
Fortunately for City, they're playing Arsenal, who are chronically allergic to defensive football. Yet Arsene Wenger's clutch of attacking midfielders have looked weirdly gauche in attack: it took them until the 90th minute to nick a winner against Crystal Palace, until the 83rd minute to begin their comeback against an Everton side who shipped six the following week, and they never once threatened to overcome Leicester City. Indeed, their best performance so far this season came in the Community Shield against (an admittedly weakened) City; once the games got competitive, Arsenal's edge seemed to dissipate.
Which is where, in theory, Danny Welbeck comes in. With Olivier Giroud currently injured (and arguably not good enough when fit) and with the promising Yaya Sanogo horribly over-promoted, the deadline day snaffle from Manchester United should make his debut on Saturday lunchtime. Assuming Wenger doesn't have a moment and stick him on the left wing, he will finally be handed the central striking role he's always craved, ready to begin Operation Get It Right Up You, Louis Van Gaal.
In doing so, he may well run into City's biggest summer purchase, Eliaquim Mangala. It's no real surprise that the answer to the question 'Nastasic or Demichelis?' is 'somebody else', but the highly rated Frenchman has yet to play for City this season having arrived some way below peak fitness. A first chance, then, to see these sides looking more or less how they will for the rest of the campaign/until they panic in January. Arsenal-City: the season starts here. Again.
Barcelona vs. Athletic Club
While most of the attention heading La Liga’s way on Saturday will be devoted to a rematch of the 2014 Champions League final, there’s another match that deserves a significant audience as well. Barcelona kick off against Athletic Club in the early match, and although it’s easy to guess the outcome (Athletic haven’t won at the Camp Nou for more than a decade), it’s the process that makes this match worth watching.
These are two excellent, exciting football teams. Barcelona are always a treat, win or lose — they’re guaranteed to do something that makes even the most cynical of viewers smile with almost every possession, and their commitment to keeping their post-Puyol defensive quality per money spent to a bare minimum tends to make for a frenetic match whenever they lose the ball. Which, admittedly, is rare. Most clubs have highs and lows in a football game; the Catalans stand out by making it a sport of highs and lols.
There’s also Lionel Messi. The Argentinian wizard — this is a player, remember, for whom not winning the World Cup is a disappointment — currently sits within striking distance of his 400th senior goal (356 for Barcelona, 42 for Argentina, since you asked), and scoring at the rate he does it wouldn’t be much of a shock to see him reach that milestone this weekend. If achieved against Athletic, he’ll have done it in just over 550 matches. Not watching Lionel Messi is a weird thing to choose to do.
But spare a thought, too, for Athletic. Having knocked Napoli out of Champions League contention in the final qualifying round in what was some of the young season’s best football to date, Athletic seem poised to assume the curiously patronising mantle of everyone’s favourite non-threatening Champions League team. There’ll be a big Athletic bandwagon if they make the knockout rounds (which they probably will, although Shakhtar Donetsk and Porto will have something to say about that), and if that happens you’ll be kicking yourself if you didn’t see them before they were cool.
Ok, they’ve always been cool.
Real Madrid vs. Atlético Madrid
Europe's brightest lights shone on the Madrid Derby last season. Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid took the pitch in Lisbon for the ultimate game of the campaign — the UEFA Champions League final. And it was Real Madrid who came out on top, parading around Iberia with not just the biggest trophy in club football, but their 10th European title, a further reminder to the smaller intra-city rivals who was not only king of the city and country, but the continent.
Lost in the hoopla of the Champions League was Atlético's remarkable run to the La Liga title. The league, which had long ago been ceded to either Real Madrid or Barcelona, was captured by Diego Simeone's team, who didn't just sneak their way to the top, but repeatedly beat Spain's two biggest clubs. They took four points off of Real in the league, then draw 1-1 against Barcelona on the final day to capture the crown.
In the time since, Real Madrid have added James Rodriguez, seen Gareth Bale become even better and waited on bated breath for every update on Cristiano Ronaldo's health. Atlético replaced Diego Costa with Mario Mandžukić and signed Antoine Griezmann, but more important than anything, they retained Diego Simeone.
The fiery Atlético manager became the face of the club he once played for, dressed in all black and raving as he stomped around the dugout. The team was built in his image, and they pressed, tackled and counterattacked with the same fervor that he managed. It was the perfect match, and the ideal counter to Real Madrid's team full of stars and hair gel. Granted, he's suspended for this match thanks to his antics the last time these two sides met, but he'll be stalking the touchline with a vaguely Bond-henchman look about him in spirit regardless.
Now the Madrid Derby is back. Gone is the stage the Champions League final provided, as well as the air of invincibility. Both teams have struggled this season, but the images of last May, and all of last year are not far gone. The potential for greatness from each club, and this derby, are too fresh to relegate this to another match. As we learned a year ago, this could determine the league, and set the stage for another final with all of the continent watching.
It's Europe's champion versus Spain's champion. The king's club versus the people's club. The stars versus the team. It's a reminder and a reprisal of last season, maybe La Liga's greatest moment in the sun, and one of the best years the league has ever seen — all thanks to the capital's clubs.