Recommendations last weekend should have been up to your standards as, minus Crystal Palace v Stoke City’s 0-0 draw, you got matches with a ton of goals, with the best of the bunch entertainment-wise being Swansea City and Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with 3 goals in the last 10 minutes. The second full weekend of 2013 sees the return of Ligue 1 action with the Germans still on winter holiday. Let’s start in France, shall we?
(Also, I know there are a couple of big games going on in England on the 13th, but you won’t be getting anything here about either of those. You guys don’t need me to tell you to keep an eye on those, do you?)
Who: Montpellier v Lorient
What: Ligue 1, Matchday 20
Where: Stade de la Mosson
When: January 12, 2:00pm ET
After the winter break in France, the second half of the season sees a three-way tussle at the top between the usual French suspects – PSG, Lyon, and Marseille. The three of them have pretty winnable matches against AC Ajaccio, Troyes, and Sochaux, respectively (of course they’ll all lose now) so we’ll dip just below to see a key match in the race for a European spot.
The middle of the Ligue 1 table is tight and only 6 points separates 4th place Rennes from 12th place Toulouse. Montpellier, in 11th, hosts Lorient who sits in 5th – just 1 point back from the Europa League. Christian Gourcuff, the father of Yoann (remember him?), has worked a bit of magic this season with Lorient and the club that finished just one point above being relegated are unbeaten in their last five. Lorient’s offense runs through Jérémie Aliadière who leads the club in both goals (7) and assists (6). The former Arsenal and Middlesbrough striker is beginning to settle in France, which he never quite seemed to do in England. Lorient, fortunately, remains relatively unscathed numbers wise with African Cup of Nations departures. Only two players will be heading to South Africa: Alain Traoré (Burkina Faso) and Alaixys Romao (Togo). On the flip side, these are two key players. Traoré is the second leading scorer and assist man on the squad behind Aliadière and Romao is a hard-tackling, ball-winning midfielder who brings the grit to the defensive side. How Gourcuff is able to adapt to the loss of these two players will go a long way in not only this match but for the next month. A troubling statistic for Lorient is their propensity to bleed goals on the road. In nine away matches, Lorient has allowed 16 goals, a worrisome number for a team trying to fight for Europe.
Montpellier, the champions of Ligue 1 last season, has not been able to quite find their form from a year ago which saw them to win their first league title. In their last league match before the break, Montpellier was thumped 4-1 at Lille and will be looking to start 2013 off better than 2012 ended. Gone from that side is Ligue 1’s Golden Boot winner Olivier Giroud, now at Arsenal, and no one player is looked at singularly to put the ball in the net. Souleymane Camara and Younès Belhanda both lead Montpellier with six goals each – about half of the club’s total goals scored come from these two. Belhanda will be away in South Africa representing Morocco so the burden will fall squarely on Camara to find the goals. However, with René Girard’s squad only conceding eight goals in their nine home matches, they may not need to score many to get a result. Joining Belhanda in South Africa will be his Moroccan teammate, defender Abdelhamid El Kaoutari. A win for Montpellier puts them right back in the hunt while a loss will all but end a repeat of playing those midweek European matches.
Who: Real Betis v Levante
What: La Liga, Matchday 19
Where: Estadio Manuel Ruiz de Lopera
When: January 13, 6:00am ET
In Spain, where Barcelona scores for fun and Real Madrid fans wonder if Iker Casillas will ever see time between the posts again, the most intriguing matchup to round out the first half of the La Liga season has Levante traveling to Andalusia to take on Real Betis. The old adage of “if you can’t score goals, you can’t win” will never be more relevant than with this match. Levante, currently in 6th place (and in the final Europa League spot, are only one point behind their opponents and a win may actually move them up to 4th if other results go their way.
Juan Ignacio Martinez’s men have been dominant at home, earning points in seven of their nine home games. Unfortunately, this game ain’t in Valencia. Obefemi Martins, who may be more known now for knocking up Mario Balotelli’s biological sister, is the club’s leading scorer. He wasn’t called up for Nigeria’s African Cup of Nations squad, which is good news for a club who’s biggest issue this season has been scoring goals away from home. Their six away goals puts them in a tie of second worst in the league. The club has been linked to a loan move with Manchester United striker Federico Macheda as a way to add some firepower to their attack, but nothing has been finalized. The usual back four of David Navarro, Juanfran, Sergio Ballesteros, and Christian Lell hasn’t played particularly poorly this year, looking at the numbers. Outside of a 4-0 loss to Barcelona (hey, it happens), and allowing three to Rayo Vallecano in late December, they actually aren’t conceding as many goals as you’d believe. Now they just need to work on their finishing.
Real Betis, who were in the second division only two seasons ago, are making a surprising run at a Champions League spot. The team’s biggest victory this season game in November where they defeated that other Real team 1-0. Pepe Mel’s squad has been successful thus far largely due to its road form – winning six of nine away from home, a completely opposite trend as Levante. However, much like Levante, Betis’ woes begin with their inability to put the ball in the net. Rubén Castro isn’t to blame though as he’s knocked in 10 goals so far this season. For followers of CONCACAF (and Arsenal), Costa Rican Joel Campbell has made 10 league appearances gaining valuable playing time in order to become a pain for the United States in the Hex. A couple of other players to keep an eye look out for are midfielders José Cañas and Beñat Etxebarria. Cañas has already sealed a move to join Swansea City in the summer, and judging how well Michu has been doing, Swansea may have found themselves another diamond in the rough. Additionally, Beñat has been linked for a move of his own with Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Wolfsburg, and Fenerbahçe all linked with the 25-year-old midfielder. The latest reports have Fenerbahçe leading the way for his signature.
Who: Udinese v Fiorentina
What: Serie A, Matchday 20
Where: Stadio Friuli
When: January 13, 9:00am ET
Udinese welcomes Fiorentina in a pivotal Serie A match to kick off the second half of the campaign. Fiorentina won their previous two encounters this season. On the opening day, it was a 2-1 victory in Florence behind a Stevan Jovetić brace (including a stoppage time winner). Last month it was a 1-0 at the Stadio Friuli in the Coppa Italia. Jovetić, who has battled injuries and seemingly endless rumors of a transfer out of Florence, has formed a decent strike partnership with Luca Toni (one of my personal favorite players ever…don’t ask) with 14 goals between them. Manager Vincenzo Montella has La Viola playing some of the most attractive soccer in Italy with his free-flowing 3-5-2. Center-midfielders Alberto Aquilani (of Roma fame and Liverpool infamy) and David Pizarro provide the spark and the engine of the midfield, respectively. Their defense has been solid too as they rank in 4th in the league in goals conceded. Interestingly enough, they rank 4th in goals scored and are sitting 4th in the league. Go figure. Gonzalo Rodríguez, who came over in the summer with teammate Borja Valero from Villarreal after they were relegated, as settled into Serie A quite nicely and has emerged as a defensive leader. The fact that he is a threat going forward where he’s chipped in 5 goals doesn’t hurt. The last little tidbit on Fiorentina, which unfortunately has nothing really to do with this match, is that they completed a deal for Giuseppe Rossi last week. While he shouldn’t be ready to play this season, this move definitely boosts their attack should Fiorentina qualify for Europe next season…or if Jovetić does end up leaving in the summer window.
Udinese would love nothing more than to build on the momentum from last week’s 3-0 victory over Inter. As is the case with Udinese, it begins and ends with Antonio Di Natale who spearheads the attack with 12 goals. The club sits in 9th and still has a fighting chance of a Europa League spot but needs all three points on Sunday to keep this a possibility. Udinese plays their best at home where they have only lost once in nine matches so they’ll be feeling good about their chances. Luis Muriel, who came over from Lecce over the summer has become the latest in the line of Udinese attackers who come and seem to go (see Alexis Sanchez for one). He’s been in a fine vein of form recently having scored in each of his last two matches. In defense, the Brazilian Danilo has done a decent job organizing the three-man backline, especially in recent weeks. In the club’s last five league matches, they’ve only conceded three goals and have two clean sheets. Needless to say, this has seen them go unbeaten in these matches. But as I said before, and it’s worth saying again, Udinese only goes as Di Natale goes. If he has a rare off day in Serie A, it could be a long day.