Grantland logo

Filling the Football Void: A 48-Hour Guide to the Weekend You Finally Start Following Soccer

Your sports-watching life is suddenly empty, but don’t fret: Soccer’s here to save you, and this is the weekend you decide to love it back.

The Super Bowl has come and gone. Drive by any bar in the northeast and you still may hear the faint bellowing of a celebrating Gronk, but the NFL season is done. College football ended weeks ago, and we’re already on to Snoop Dogg’s son and Equanimeous St. Brown. Djokovic just beat Murray, and Serena won again. The NHL still needs to find its legs after a mystery-plastic-cup-filled intermission. For everything Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook have to say about it, the NBA has entered that pre–All-Star break doldrum state. And college basketball is slowly, painfully aching its way through the no-man’s-land that is the last month before conference tournaments begin.

Quite simply, your sports-watching life is suddenly empty. But don’t fret: Soccer’s here to save you, and this is the weekend you decide to love it back.

You know, soccer? That sport you vowed you were going to start following this summer — after all of those boozy afternoons filled with chants of “USA! USA!” and conversations about what the hell was on the side of Cristiano Ronaldo’s head — only to immediately forget about once NFL training camp started? See, soccer understands. Soccer knows the American answer to “Are you ready for some football?” But soccer’s always here.1 So with football behind us, this weekend provides the perfect time to get reacquainted with that beautiful sport you tuned in to for a few weeks this summer.


1.

Literally. If you watch MLS and European leagues, there will always be soccer.

In fact, this just might be the biggest weekend of the year. Starting bright and early Saturday morning, there’s can’t-miss game after can’t-miss game. So here’s your 48-hour guide to a rollicking weekend with the world’s favorite sport.

Saturday

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Arsenal
7:45 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Network

Ah, yes, the North London Derby.2 Spurs and Arsenal have a long-standing rivalry — as in, they first played in 1887 — but one that has recently been especially excruciating for Spurs fans as Arsenal seem to be just a bit better than their North London rivals every season. Arsenal fans have even coined the term “St. Totteringham’s Day,” for the point in each season when they move ahead of Spurs in the standings for good. While Arsenal sit tied on points with Southampton for fourth place and the final Champions League spot, Spurs lurk only two points behind.3 A Tottenham win at White Hart Lane would reset the holiday clock.


2.

Terminology note: If you find the word “derby” confusing, feel free to substitute “bowl,” as neither actually makes any real sense, but they pretty much mean the same thing.

3.

For the uninitiated, a certain number of teams in each European league (for the top leagues, it’s four) qualify for the Champions League, a competition between the best teams in Europe that takes place during the week over the course of the season. Winning it is the ultimate achievement every season, but qualification alone means an extra, and large, stream of revenue. Races for the Champions League spots (and the money that comes with them) in each league are often more competitive than the fight for the domestic title.

For the neutral, though, this game couldn’t come at a better time. After uneven starts to the season, both sides have recently rounded into form.

mesut-ozil-villaPaul Gilham/Getty Images

Arsenal’s peformance uptick doesn’t come as a surprise, as their very strong underlying numbers belied several of the club’s unlucky early-season results. Last weekend, they crushed woeful Aston Villa, 5-0, and before that they scored their best result of the campaign: a stunning 2-0 road victory over the defending champions, Manchester City. Plus, Mesut Özil, whom you may remember from the World Cup–winning German side, and speed demon Theo Walcott are finally back from long-term injuries. However, this year’s standout star, Chilean Alexis Sánchez, will miss the game because of injury. If that makes you sad, take a look at his adorable rehab regimen.

While Arsenal return to teamwide form, Spurs have been carried by two baby-faced breakout stars in Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane. The latter is the rarest of rare breeds, a young English striker who scores goals by the bucketful, and he’s fresh off a two-goal romp last weekend against West Bromwich Albion. Eriksen, meanwhile, simply can’t stop scoring free kicks. Check out this beauty from the West Brom game:

eriksen-wba-goal

Between them, the dynamic attacking pair has accounted for 19 of Tottenham’s 35 goals, which is particularly stunning when you take into account that Kane didn’t make his first league start until November.

TL;DR: Arsenal are the better team, but not by much. Tottenham play at home, which means the match should be a crapshoot. Plus, it has potential Champions League qualification implications, which provides some added importance — not that it needs any.

Atlético Madrid vs. Real Madrid
10 a.m. ET on beIN Sports4


4.

Chances are, if you’re a sports fan, you get this channel.

If the Real Madrid–Barcelona rivalry is Yankees–Red Sox, then Real-Atlético is Yankees-Mets. Right now, though, it’s something like the late-’80s Mets combined with the late-’90s Yankees. Atlético don’t have the financial firepower to compete with Real year in and year out, but the last two seasons served as a brief Golden Age for the capital’s second team. Atlético shocked the world last year by winning La Liga, clinching the title by tying Barcelona on the final day, and then nearly pulled off a stunning double before succumbing to Real Madrid in extra time in the Champions League final.

This year’s Atlético haven’t quite hit last year’s face-melting form, but they’ve been damn close — they’re in third place in the league, seven points behind Real and three behind Barcelona. Atlético also knocked Real out of the Copa del Rey 4-2 over the two-leg matchup last month, including a stunning return from the hometown hero and given-up-for-dead striker Fernando Torres, who scored twice at Real’s home, the soon-to-be Abu Dhabi Bernabeu.

In a welcome change for Spain’s “two or three teams and then everybody else” makeup, Atlético can no longer just focus on the teams above them, either. Sevilla trail them by five points with a game in hand, so any dropped points by Atlético put them at risk of tumbling down to fourth, though it would take a pretty big swing for fifth-place Valencia to catch Los Rojiblancos and knock them out of the Champions League spots.

gareth-bale-atleticoGonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

As for the matchup itself, Atlético might be catching Real at just the right time. James Rodríguez, Golden Boot winner at the World Cup, was just diagnosed with a broken foot and will be out for a couple of months, while seemingly all of the team’s back line is either broken or suspended. Sergio Ramos pulled his hamstring, Pepe has bruised ribs, Marcelo is suspended from accumulated yellow cards, and Marcelo’s backup, Fábio Coentrão, may recover in time for the game, but he has barely featured at all this season. Oh, and Luka Modric, the team’s brilliant midfield metronome, remains out, too. Somehow, Real will have to get by with just Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Isco, and Toni Kroos. Poor, poor manager Carlo Ancelotti.

As for Atlético, they will continue to do what superstar manager and former Atléti player Diego Simeone has drilled them to do: be the meanest, nastiest, snarliest defense around and attack with a shocking combination of speed and power. Torres might start, but it’ll probably be Antoine Griezmann, who is quietly becoming a superstar. Griezmann’s 0.79 goals per 90 minutes is behind only Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar this year in Spain.5 The Frenchman’s speed will be accompanied by the bruising power of Mario Mandzukic. And then there are the set pieces. Atlético have scored 20 goals from free kicks this season — double (!!!) anybody else in Spain. It’s not because they’re taking tons more than everybody else, either, as they’ve only attempted the sixth-most set pieces in the league. Bruising center backs Diego Godín and Miranda, along with Mandzukic, all have three set play goals.


5.

All stats courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info.

TL;DR: Given Real’s injuries and recent slight dip in form — and the game being played at Atlético’s Vicente Calderón Stadium, which is sure to be rocking and filled with fans thirsty for Real blood — Saturday could kick off the beginning of a wide-open La Liga race.

Everton vs. Liverpool
12:30 p.m. ET on NBC

The Merseyside Derby remains the longest-running uninterrupted derby in the top flight of English soccer, but things in Liverpool have been rather gloomy on both the red and blue sides of the city.

After tragically missing out on the title last campaign, Liverpool spent the early part of this season struggling to replace the dynamism of Luis Suárez, who was sold to Barcelona, and the goals of Daniel Sturridge, who was felled by a series of leg injuries. A midseason formation change from manager Brendan Rodgers seems to have stabilized the side as of late, though. They now play with three central defenders, have freed Steven Gerrard from the shackles of a deep-lying playmaker role, and have also been able to push 20-year-old attacking dynamo Raheem Sterling higher up the field. As a result, the Reds haven’t lost in their last seven, and they’ve climbed to within four points of the Champions League places.

coutinho-liverpool-pointAlex Livesey/Getty Images

Everton, on the other hand, still can’t get out of their own way. With largely the same team that fought for a top-four spot last season, the Toffees sit in 12th place with only 26 points from 23 games. That’s not good! Despite briefly flirting with moving the iconic and Hobbit-like Leighton Baines from left back to midfield — and also breaking out a three-center-back system to disastrous results — manager Roberto Martinez has largely resisted tinkering with the structure of his team. Without the injured James McCarthy, the midfield has suffered badly, and with young, once-promising Ross Barkley seemingly now regressing, the continuity hasn’t helped Everton jell. If anything, it seems to have hardened them into a dull, uninventive, monotonous side.6


6.

But hey, they just bought Aaron Lennon!

Now, take everything you just read and throw it out the nearest window.7 In years when neither side contends for the title, beating the other half of Liverpool often serves as a trophy in and of itself. In fact, a lot of fans would prefer to beat their rivals and not win a title rather than the opposite. So, while it’s a disappointment that the only thing Evertonians have left to fight for is the derby — well, besides fighting off relegation — they’ll forget all about it if Phil Jagielka does this again on Saturday:


7.

Metaphorically. DO NOT THROW YOUR COMPUTER OUT THE WINDOW.

jagielka-liverpool-goal

TL;DR: Liverpool have more to play for, as they hope to repeat last year’s tremendous late-season run and sprint up into the Champions League spots. But even those lofty goals are secondary to beating Everton. Also, watch this game if you like red cards.

Juventus vs. AC Milan
2:45 p.m. ET on beIN Sports

Ten years ago, this would’ve been the game of the weekend, but in 2015, Juventus are cruising to their fourth straight title, while Milan flounders all the way down in eighth. If anything, the battle between the two most successful clubs in Italian history highlights just how far the mighty Milan (and Serie A as a whole) have fallen. The club’s Champions League hopes are so slim that their director suggested that the club get a wild-card invite because, hey, they’re AC Milan.

jeremy-menez-milanMarco Bertorello/AFP

On the field, Milan do have some attacking talent in Jérémy Menez and Keisuke Honda, who’s back from the Asian Cup, but they’ll be without the oft-injured Stephan El Shaarawy, who can do things like this, but who also can’t stay healthy. Defensively, Milan also won’t have Philippe Mexes, because he recently lost his mind and found somebody else’s neck.

The real reason to watch this match, though, is the flaming supernova-comet-asteroid also known as Paul Pogba. (This is scientifically accurate. Pogba fundamentally altered the rules of astronomy.) The Frenchman might be the best pure midfielder in the world right now, which would be cool. But you know what’s even cooler? Pogba is 21 YEARS OLD. He’s a dominant physical defensive presence — third among Juve regulars in tackles per 90 minutes — and he also does this:

paul-pogba-chievo

And this:

pogba-napoli-goal

TL;DR: Everybody seems to agree that Pogba eventually will leave Juventus for one of the European super clubs, but for now he’s got Juventus on his back and all of Italy at his feet. You wouldn’t pass up watching Anthony Davis — so don’t miss out on Pogba.

Sunday

Ivory Coast vs. Ghana
2 p.m. ET on beIN Sports

If international tournaments are more your speed, then you’re in luck! Along with Egypt, which failed to qualify, and Cameroon, which failed to advance from the group stages, the Ivory Coast and Ghana are the most accomplished nations in Africa’s history — and by far the most talented teams in the tournament.

ivory-coast-happyAnadolu Agency

While perennial contenders, Ghana has not won the tournament since 1982. What’s exciting about this group is that, after a generation of players propelled the nation to World Cup success over the past decade, it’s now a new team with no players over 30. Among the squad, only Asamoah Gyan and Andre Ayew have more than 60 international appearances. Gyan didn’t even play in the semifinal, as he tries to work his way back from injury, but it didn’t matter, with Ghana winning at a canter, 3-0, including this gorgeous counterattack at the end of the first half:

ghana-counter-attack

Unlike the Black Stars, the Ivory Coast is primarily hanging on to the same generation of players that have been around for the past decade. Didier Drogba might be gone, but Yaya and Kolo Touré remain, as do Salomon Kalou, Siaka Tiéné, and Boubacar Barry, all of whom have taken the field more than 70 times for Les Éléphants. While it seems like we’ve said it many times before — including during both of the past two World Cups — this is, for real, the last chance these guys will have to win some hardware. If they lose on Sunday, though, the Ivory Coast will become Africa’s Buffalo Bills, with three second-place finishes in the last six continental competitions.

TL;DR: The two best teams in Africa face off in the finals of a major tournament. What more do you want?

Lyon vs. Paris Saint-Germain
4 p.m. ET on beIN Sports

Right after the African Cup of Nations final, you can catch up with this already-in-progress Ligue 1 showdown.8 In recent years, it hasn’t been that interesting watching PSG stomp through the French league, laughing their way from weekend to weekend, crushing the poor, helpless Toulouses and Caens of the world. Since Qatar Sports Investments sank its hands and petrol dollars into the club, the Parisians have comfortably spent their way to the top of Ligue 1, winning the competition by 12 and nine points in the last two seasons. The biggest question for the club has become how best to prepare for infrequent, midweek Champions League matches with the lack of competition in the domestic league every weekend. Well, until this year.


8.

The game actually starts at three, but this is what happens when beIN buys the rights to everything without actually having the channels to air them on. Barcelona’s matchup with Athletic Bilbao this week doesn’t “premier” until seven at night. NBCSN’s Premier League coverage has spoiled us.

cavani-lavezzi-psgJean Catuffe/Getty Images

PSG sit tied with Marseille, two points behind their opponents on Sunday. As you might expect with a club consisting of tons of high-priced superstars, headlined by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the team hasn’t quite handled these struggles so gracefully. First, Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi decided to come back late from Christmas break, both receiving a fine and a two-game suspension, which included a 4-2 loss to now-16th-placed Bastia. That was followed by Zlatan leveling a reporter who dared to ask him about his relationship with Cavani.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nkPDWJiovA

And that wasn’t even the funniest interaction between the two this week.

Despite the frayed nerves and somewhat mediocre results, PSG will luckily catch Lyon at below full strength. The league leaders are without the jewel of their youth system, 23-year-old striker Alexandre Lacazette, who has been a superstar this season with 21 league goals (nobody else has more than 14) and five assists, the second most in the league.9 In their first game without him, last weekend again Monaco, Lyon only managed a tepid 0-0 draw.


9.

However, BUYER BEWARE: His actual goal total is far outpacing his 12.67 expected goal tally.

TL;DR: PSG are an entertaining hot mess, but they get to travel to a Lyon side without the primary reason for their unexpected season. Still, are you really going to pass up an opportunity to cap off the weekend with Zlatan?

zlatan-smile