Atlético Madrid vs. Real Madrid
El Derbi madrileño takes place on Saturday and damn if we're not excited. Not only is this one of Spain's hottest derbies, but it pits last year's Champions League winners against the runners up. It's third-place against first, and if Atlético Madrid do the double on Real, they'll be even on points with Barcelona -- at least, until Barca wins on Sunday, at which point they'll be just a point off first. Add to that Atleti's absolutely fiery display against Barcelona (not even their rivals!) just over a week ago, and you get the sense that this could spiral quickly into madness.
You want feisty? Let's talk feisty. In this season's previous edition of the Madrid Derby, the referee brandished 11 yellows. James Rodríguez won the first, but it was Atleti that took the grand prize, collecting seven on the night. But considering they came away with a 2-1 victory, Diego Simone likely didn't care too much about the bouquet of cards collected. In fact, the Argentine was probably ecstatic with his side's haul.
One man who wasn't gifted with a card of yellow was Cristiano Ronaldo. Apparently the Real star never needs to worry about bad fouls -- if he makes them, the powers-that-be will lighten his sentence. Ronaldo, who made the most of a foul in the reverse fixture, earning a penalty and his side's only goal, returns for the derby ... despite earning a straight red for kicking out against Córdoba two weeks ago. The megastar also slapped Edimar's face and looked to have punched José Ángel Crespo, but hey, a spectacle is a spectacle, and what's a Madrid derby without Ronaldo?
It's not like Real can't score without their talisman. Yet Los Merengues might have reason to be concerned. James Rodríguez, who scored in both Ronaldo-less matches, is now out for an extended period of time. Sergio Ramos is also injured, while Marcelo is suspended. Yet the visitors have Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema up top, so at least they'll still head to the Vicente Calderón armed with both firepower and theatrics.
But a derby without drama is really just an ordinary game, so we're in favor of a little histrionics. Like, say, an insta-goal from Fernando Torres. He repaid Atleti's faith by scoring within seconds of his first start, helping knock Real out of the Copa by netting both goals. Problem is, Simeone hasn't been too keen on starting Nando. That's a bit fair; he's got Mario Mandžukić and Antoine Griezmann, and Raúl García and Arda Turan. Torres may be able to score, but he's not raking his studs down the opposition's legs, or throwing his boot at unsuspecting officials. Come to think of it, pretty much any lineup Atlético puts out will be capable of providing the sort of entertainment their play often does not.
Some detest Ronaldo. Others hate Atleti's style of play. Others of us are critical of both. Yet there's plenty to admire -- Real's powerful attack, Simeone's dogged tactics. You've got to think this match is going to be a (smashing) good time.
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Arsenal
It's derby day in the Premier League, ladies and gentlemen. Tear up your form guides, throw away your tea leaves, let that poor, frightened chicken go on its way. When two teams from quite close to one another meet, nobody has any idea what's going to happen.
Actually, for once that might be true. The formbook flying through the window may be a cliche, but like most cliches it's right twice a day, and as it happens England has not one but two fairly unpredictable derbies coming up on Saturday. Later in the day, Roberto Martinez's dangerous-yet-soft-centred Everton host a Liverpool side that are simultaneously a team rediscovering the fluent attacking patterns and vivacious pace that nearly nabbed them a Premier League, and a side that struggled to get past Championship Bolton over 180 minutes in the FA Cup. That's not even snark; both those things are genuinely true. It's very odd.
However, before Merseyside goes at it, we've got lunchtime in north London, and if you've got a strong view on who's going to win then, well, good luck at the bookies. Tottenham are the home team, and after an uncomfortable start to the season have begun to look, week on week, like an actual football team, which is kind of new. Much of this is thanks to the efforts of Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen, two wholly endearing footballers who have taken contrasting paths to the Spurs first team. The soft-footed visionary from the Ajax academy and the former Leyton Orient/Millwall/Norwich/Leicester loanee have, between them, scored 31 of Spurs' 77 goals this season, and Eriksen in particular has discovered a happy knack for late winners.
Not that Tottenham's decent recent form -- slip-ups at Crystal Palace aside -- is entirely down to their Odd Couple up front. Hugo Lloris has been excellent in goal, and Mauricio Pochettino seems to be making progress in the explanation of the why and the how of his high-pressing p********y. He's also noticed that Jan Vertonghen is much better than all the rest of his defenders, even if he is a mard arse.
Pochettino isn't the only manager who's been noticing things. His Islington counterpart, one Arsene Wenger, appears to have finally twigged (after, what, three thousand four hundred and twenty seven years) that tough away trips are perhaps best handled by playing like … well, like not-Arsenal. Last month's 2-0 victory away at Manchester City wasn't quite the masterclass in catenaccio it's since been hailed as, coming as it did with a few hairy moments and against an unusually subdued opposition, but it still demonstrated that Arsenal can, if they want to, play football like grown-ups.
They'll have to do it without Alexis Sanchez, however; Wenger, having warned earlier in the season that the Chilean was spending too much time in the red zone, has been proved right, and the player-of-the-season elect is likely to be missing. Fortunately for the visitors, the adorable Santi Cazorla is in the form of his life, while Mesut Özil looks to have returned from injury in decent form, if a stroll past a hopeless Aston Villa side can be any measure.
To add spice to the proceedings, this game isn't just important for all the usual nearest-and-dearest reasons; it's a big one for the league as well. Arsenal are in fifth, two points ahead of Tottenham in sixth, and level on points with Ronald Koeman's Plucky Southampton, who later in the day visit managerless, rudderless, clueless Queens Park Rangers. With European football soon to return for both London clubs -- neither a distraction nor an exhaustion for the Saints -- all points are precious.
In short, it's a big one. Can Arsenal hang on to this newfound big-game solidity? Or can Harry Kane, the hammer of Chelsea, continue his miraculous season? Can Jan Vertonghen and Olivier Giroud, perhaps the two most disdainful looking footballers in England, go ninety minutes without sneering one another's faces off? Don't look at us for answers. It's a derby. Nobody knows anything.
Lyon vs. PSG
It's still a little early in the season to be talking about decisive matches, but Sunday’s Ligue 1 fixture between league leaders Lyon and third-placed Paris Saint-Germain will be the closest thing we’ve had to one in l'Hexagone this season. With second-placed Marseille currently enduring a worrying mid-season wobble -- attributed by some to the terminal Bielsa burnout that has hit just about every single one of the loco Argentinian’s sides in the past -- the early pacesetters could soon see their hopes of getting their hands on the trophy evaporate completely. That would leave only Lyon and PSG left to fight things out.
Heading into their match this weekend, Lyon are two points clear of PSG, though their impressive winning streak came to an end in an underwhelming goalless draw with Monaco last time out. It was a performance that did little to quell concern of an overreliance on their star striker Alexandre Lacazette, with Herbert Founier’s side alarmingly impotent in attack. It was the first time this season the young French forward missed out, and only the fourth that they had failed to score.
Alas, the division’s top scorer will be absent again on Sunday, having failed to recover from the thigh injury that has hampered him over the last couple of weeks.
That plays greatly into the hands of Laurent Blanc’s PSG, whose expensive defence (in their last league game their back four had a combined transfer value of around €150 million) hasn’t been quite as solid as their competitors’. They may have only conceded 19 times in their opening 23 games, but that's still more than Lyon, Saint-Étienne and Monaco. Fortunately they have been a little better up top than they have at the back, but there’s no doubt that with the finances at their disposal, they’d have been expecting to be cruising at the top of the table at this stage of the season.
As it is, rumours persist that Blanc has struggled to deal with the egos of his expensive stars; Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi have reportedly been among the Parisians’ troublemakers. But three wins on the bounce -- even if they haven't been of the most convincing nature -- suggest that they may be coming into form at just the right time. By the end of the weekend, they could well be sat at the top of the table, a position more symbolically and morale-boostingly important than one may imagine. If they do fight back to first, they’ll be difficult to dislodge.
However, another defeat, and they’d be right back to square one. The rumours of disquiet would be amplified, and Blanc’s position made to look ever more precarious. In the long run, this game may as inconsequential as any other; in truth, its outcome will set the tone for the entire second half of the Ligue 1 title race.