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The Counter Press EP 25
The Counter Press EP 24

Happy FIFA Day! Fire up your PS4 and turn The Counter Press up to ignorant levels! Josh and Vijay are back with friend @MindofDharma to talk about the opening month of the soccer season, from Champions League to domestic cup failures in England and a whole lot more!

Follow Josh: @highbiscuits
Follow Vijay: @VJVemu

Premier League Matchday: Five Games to Watch

Chelsea vs Liverpool

The marquee matchup of this weekend will most definitely take place at Stamford Bridge where Liverpool will face off against Chelsea, a quick rematch after these teams faced off midweek in the Carabao Cup with Chelsea emerging victorious, Both of these teams will head into this match with unbeaten records in the league, Liverpool having won all six of their contests so far. Liverpool can become only the second team in Premier League history to win their first seven matches of a PL season, the other just so happens to have been Chelsea in the 05/06 season.

Arsenal vs Watford

At the Emirates this weekend will be two teams trending in opposite directions matching up in red-hot Arsenal and middling Watford. While Arsenal come in having won their last four PL contests, Watford, on the other hand are losing steam, looking for their first win in their last three contests after starting the season with a four game winning streak of their own. The combination of Lacazette and Aubamayeng up top for Arsenal has been lethal as of late for Arsenal and will be looking to put Watford to the sword yet again.

Wolves vs Southampton

Most teams in their first year after promotion to the Premier League come into the season ready to scrape for points and prepare for a relegation battle but this is FAR from the case with Wolverhampton Wanderers. After dominating the Championship last season, Wolves have carried their momentum into the PL and are unbeaten in their last four games, including draws against Manchester City and Manchester United. The only teams with more shots on goal than Wolves heading into this weekend are all in the top three. Southampton have struggled out of the gates and with Wolves looking to stay unbeaten at home, those struggles may not been over yet.

Crystal Palace vs Bournemouth

Wrapping up the match day, on Monday, two mid-table teams in 11th place Crystal Palace and 8th place Bournemouth will clash at the Vitality Stadium. After a hot start to the season, Bournemouth head into this match after being on the receiving end of an absolute hammering by a Burnley team that had not yet won a game heading into last weekend. Crystal Palace continue to look to Wilfried Zaha to provide the majority of their offense and look for him to try to spark the team once again this week. It doesn’t bode well for Bournemouth that the team have never won a PL match played on a Monday but the team will be hoping to put an end to that unwanted record.

Cardiff vs Burnley

An early season six-pointer between relegation candidates Cardiff and Burnley will take place in Cardiff City Stadium this weekend. Sean Dyche and Burnley hope they have put the worst behind them and look to build on their first win of the season, a 4-0 battering of Bournemouth last weekend. Cardiff continue to chase their first win of the season but their recent history against Burnley can only inspire them knowing the team are unbeaten against Burnley in 13 matches since 2007. This may not be the prettiest game to watch but the importance of this result could be significant for both sides come season’s end.

Premier League Player Power Rankings

  1. Eden Hazard, Chelsea

  2. Sergio Aguero, Manchester City

  3. Virgil Van Dijk, Liverpool

  4. Aleksandar Mitrovic, Fulham

  5. James Milner, Liverpool

  6. Jose Holebas, Watford

  7. Alexandre Lacazette, Arsenal

  8. Lucas Moura, Tottenham

  9. Aymeric Laporte, Manchester City

  10. Ruben Neves, Wolverhampton Wanderers

Premier League matchday 6 preview: games to watch, and where each Champions League team stands after matchday 1

After the first round of Champions League fixtures of the season, we’ll assess each Premier League’s teams chances going forward in the competition:

Manchester City - After getting shocked by Nabil Fakir and Lyon in their opening match, still expect Manchester City to coast through Group F as the reigning champions should have no trouble with the likes of Hoffenheim or Shakhtar.

Tottenham - Spurs put Inter Milan to the sword for the majority of the match at the San Siro, that is until the 85th minute where Mauro Icardi scored a magnificent equalizer and Vecino went on to steal all three points for Inter in stoppage time. With a matchup with European giants Barcelona looming in their next Champion’s League fixture, Tottenham must bounce back from their current three-game losing streak immediately if they have any hope of advancing from Group B.

Liverpool - Continuing with their current league form, high-flying Liverpool won yet again, this time against their biggest rival in Group C, Paris Saint-Germain. What looked to be a sure draw after an equalizer by Mbappe in the 83rd minute, Roberto Firmino found the winner in the 91st to keep Liverpool’s winning streak alive. Even after being drawn into a tough group with PSG and Napoli, with their current form, it’s tough to see a scenario in which Liverpool do not advance from this group.

Manchester United - While the rest of the Premier League participants were matched with powerful opponents in the first round of Champion’s League fixtures, United were blessed with a match against BSC Young Boys. United walked through their opening match to three points as expected but with their inconsistent performances in the league so far and with Juventus and Valencia looming in Group H, they will most likely be fighting to escape with second place by the end of this round.

Five Games to Watch

Manchester United vs Wolves

Premier League newboys Wolverhampton Wanderers are finding their footing coming off two wins, and head to Old Trafford hoping to send a message to the rest of the league. On the other side, United have bounced back from consecutive losses with consecutive wins and hope to keep moving in the same direction back up the table. The confidence of Paul Pogba should be revitalized after two goals midweek, but he will have a long day ahead with the likes of Ruben Neves and the electric Wolves midfield running the show.

Bournemouth vs Burnley

Two teams that have defied expectations so far in this early season go head to head at the Turf Moor this weekend. Unfortunately for Burnley, the way in which they have defied expectations so far is in a purely negative sense, as last year’s surprise upstarts have stumbled out of the gate with a measly one point from a possible fifteen. At the other end of the table, Bournemouth find themselves in fifth place at this point in the early season and have scored two or more goals in all but one of their five games. The Cherries will hope to keep their success going while Burnley will be getting desperate to find their first win and escape the bottom of the league moving forward.

Everton vs Arsenal

Arsenal have bounced right back to life by following their opening two losses up with three straight wins and will look to find the fourth straight against Everton this weekend. Everton will head to the Emirates hoping to correct their problems on the road this season in which they have lost the lead both times, leaving with only two points from a possible six. Everton face an uphill battle coming up against an in-form Arsenal and the fact that the Gunners are unbeaten in their last 24 home games in this match-up.

Tottenham vs Brighton

Spurs have struggled mightily in their past three fixtures with losses to Watford, Liverpool and Inter Milan consecutively. Without captain Hugo Lloris in goal, Tottenham are noticeably weaker and their struggles against set pieces continue to plague what should be a dominant back line. While Tottenham have struggled to maintain a lead, losing after going 1-0 up against Watford and Inter Milan, Brighton on the other hand have come from two goals down to draw in both of their last two fixtures. Tottenham look to rebound immediately but Brighton’s refusal to quit could cause another late game struggle.

Chelsea vs West Ham

Unbeaten Chelsea look to continue their early success against a West Ham team coming off their first win of the new campaign. Marko Arnautovic looks to be a game-time decision which could be a deciding factor on this match with Arnautovic factoring in all but one of West Ham’s five goals this season. After resting Eden Hazard in the midweek Europa League fixture, look for Chelsea to be carried by his fresh legs and dominance on the ball. While not as exciting as some of the other London derbies, this match could still prove to be fiery in it’s own right.

2018-19 UEFA Champions League Preview: Group Stage Edition
 Photo Credit:  Reuters Photo

Photo Credit: Reuters Photo

We are inching ever so close to having Champions League football back in our lives. The draw a few weeks ago helped us take one giant step towards us hearing “The Champions” blaring across our TV screens. The results turned out to be quite interesting. Sure some of the groups are real cakewalks (looking at you, Manchester City and Bayern Munich) but the rest of the teams surely have their work cut out for them.

There are some amazing matchups we are going to get during the group stages. Let’s take a look at the narratives in each of the eight groups along with who will make it to the Round of 16.

Group A

This is a good group if you want to watch two clubs with some young talent on display. Monaco and Borussia Dortmund both are well known for developing some of the world's best young players and selling them for mass profit. Atletico Madrid got younger too with the signings of Thomas Lemar and Rodri in the midfield. Lemar will have a reunion game as he faces his former club when Atletico and Monaco collide on Matchday 1.

Both Dortmund and Atleti will be looking to bounce back in the Champions League after crashing out in the group stage last year. It didn’t turn out so bad for them in Europe as Dortmund reached the knockout stages of the Europa League while Diego Simeone’s team lifted the trophy when it was all said and done. Atletico looked stronger than ever in the UEL final and in the UEFA Super Cup, beating Real Madrid 4-2. Dortmund had a huge win against RB Leipzig last week then followed it up with a 0-0 dud against Hannover. Lucien Favre has this team playing better than last year but they need to step it up a notch if they want to impress in Europe.

Club Brugge are the team from Pot 4 in this group. The good news for the Belgian side is that they have basically two weeks off before their first matchday and the only game in between is against Lokren, who are 14th in the Belgian Pro League. Then things get a bit tough as they have to play in all three competitions right after. Dortmund in the UCL, Gent in league play, and a Round of 32 cup clash against Deinzel all come in quick succession. They will fight hard in group play to snatch points against the big guns. Their best bet is nabbing some against Monaco.

Madrid and Dortmund are the favorites and rightly so, they are the two most talented squads. Monaco should be expected to finish around third with Brugge coming in the final spot.

Atletico Madrid and Dortmund advance

Group B

After impressing in the group stages last season (remember that 3-0 scoreline against Real Madrid?) Tottenham will be looking to do the same in this group. A summer with no transfers gave a lot of worry as to the squad depth of Spurs but they have started out the season in top form. We will truly get a sense of how much their lack of activity in the summer costs them as they try to advance deeper into cup tournaments along with fighting for a top 4 spot in the Champions League.

After getting a come from behind win against Lazio to get into the UCL, Inter Milan was rewarded by getting into a group with two of the top clubs in Europe. Inter have gotten a lot better in the transfer market, picking up additions such as Radja Nainggolan, Stefan De Vrij, and Keita Balde Diao. With Mauro Icardi up top and Ivan Perisic on the wings, Inter has solid threats in front of goal. They will be a much tougher out than many think and are certainly capable of an upset result in the group stages, especially at home in the San Siro.

PSV Eindhoven has a great young player in Chucky Lozano and he will be someone to watch for in the group stage. Lozano and Steven Bergwijn both possess talent on the wings. Even with PSV likely to finish last in the group, they should provide some highlights.

It’s not hard to determine who the best team in this group will be and it’s Barcelona. The Catalans are ready for a deep Champions League run, especially after the collapse they had against Roma. One of the topics Leo Messi talked about in his captain's speech to the fans was about winning the Champions League. It’s clear they want the Champions League title and should be favorites. With a summer of bringing in talent to solidify the bench, Barca is a deep team. It also helps that young starlet Ousmane Dembele has gotten off to a fast start this season. He scored the game-winning goal in the Spanish Super Cup and has been a menace on the wings every time he has featured for the Catalans thus far. He looks a lot more confident and could show those promising steps in development many Barcelona fans hoped for when he first signed with the club.

This will be a tough road for the top three teams but Barcelona will make it out of the group as winners. The Catalans should get enough points early to see their way through. Inter Milan will put up a fight but ultimately Tottenham should finish second. We will get to see some drama in the later matchdays of this group, including the final one where Barcelona will play Spurs. This could possibly decide who finishes first in the group.

Barcelona and Tottenham advance

Group C

This features a group with three strong attacking teams so look for some really high score lines on their given matchdays. We all know about Liverpool and their potent attack. With Sadio Mane and Mo Salah on the wings, they are a constant threat to burn your back line on counter attacks. Roberto Firmino does a good job as the central striker and his pressing defensively helps make Jurgen Klopp’s system run more smoothly. Liverpool also ramped up their midfield with the arrivals of Naby Keita and Fabinho. Keita will be instrumental in their success against Europe’s elite. They shocked the world by reaching the Champions League final before running into the buzzsaw which is Real Madrid. While back to back appearances to the final is highly unlikely, they can make some noise. Their defense has seemed stable so far in Premier League but they will be facing two teams with explosive attacks of their own. Both Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli can punch a couple of goals into the back of the Liverpool net if they are not careful.

PSG have had a great start to the Ligue 1 season as they look to dominate the French league once again. Like Liverpool, they have a big three of their own in Neymar, Edinson Cavani, and Kylian Mbappe. It will be a nightmare for the rest of the three to try and stop Paris. They cruised in group play last season despite having giants such as Bayern Munich in their group. The real goal for Paris however, will be in the knockout stages. They will be pushed in this group stage as there are three legit teams who all have a shot at advancing. Questions are going to be asked about their defense as well as their depth in the middle of the park. They still haven’t totally gotten over the loss of Blaise Matuidi and need a real box to box player to solidify things. While the Parisians should be favorites to win the group, as they have the best side, it’s not certain.

Napoli had their share of losses too this summer with Maurizio Sarri and Jorginho heading to Chelsea. It doesn’t mean they have taken numerous steps back, however. Carlo Ancelotti still inherits a very talented squad and despite crashing out of the group stage last year, they have a puncher's chance to advance. It was clear from the onset last season they were more focused on the league and decided not to pursue any other trophies because of it. We will see this season how Ancelotti rotates the squad in Europe. At the very least they are slotted at a solid third. Red Star Belgrade will be a tough place to play and the atmosphere will be great. Against these three teams, however, it’s hard not seeing them finish anywhere other than last.

Liverpool and PSG have the most offensive firepower while their defenses seem more stable than Napoli’s at the moment. The Partenopei will be right with them step for step, though. If either of them slips up, Napoli will be waiting to pounce at a chance of reaching the knockout rounds.

PSG and Liverpool advance

Group D

Out of all the groups in the Champions League, this is the one which is a toss-up. This is actually a pretty crazy group when you think about it as it’s not often you see four teams all with a shot at advancing. There aren’t any European giants or any real minnows in group D. It looks to be an all-out slugfest.

The four teams will be Porto, Schalke, Galatasaray, and Lokomotiv Moscow. If anything, it will be a group which requires a ton of traveling as both Porto and Lokomotiv will have to travel across Europe to play each other. None of these teams are particularly overpowering over the other so it will be hard to tell who is the favorite heading into the first matchday. Both Porto and Schalke have experience in the knockout rounds. Galatasaray and Moscow are tough away fixtures. If both are able to churn out a result or two on the road, it will go a long way in their hopes of finishing in the top two or even the Europa League spot. The team to watch out will be Schalke. They have gotten off to a shaky start in Bundesliga play with two losses to begin the season. Things could get even worse with a fixture against Borussia Monchengladbach awaiting them. A good start to their European season would calm down some of the voices of worry but you have to wonder if they will be able to handle both Champions League and Bundesliga simultaneously.

Out of all the teams in the group, Porto is the ones who are the most likely to advance given their pedigree in Europe. Hector Herrera still runs the midfield and Vincent Aboubakar will poach some goals in this group. Second place is honestly a toss up but in the end, talent tops all. Schalke should have enough to barely scrape by for second place. Lokomotiv will surely be in the battle for second too and are a dark horse to watch in this group. After making the Round of 16 in Europa League last year, it will be a big jump in talent for the Russian side. If there is a group where they can raise some eyebrows, this is the one.

Porto and Schalke advance

Group E

Now we enter the first of the two cakewalk groups. It’s a common joke to say the Bundesliga is essentially Bayern Munich and everyone else. It applies to Group E as well.

It’s clear the Bavarians are through and out the heavy favorites to win this group. Even after looking like they took a step back quality wise in the Champions League, Bayern still has enough depth in the middle of the field to keep things chugging along. Their 5-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt should ease concerns too. This will be the first real test for Niko Kovac, Bayern Munich’s new manager. Carlo Ancelotti was immediately sacked after their blowout loss to PSG so it shows you how seriously they view their form in Europe. Luckily for Kovac, there isn’t an opponent of the Parisians quality in their group. Bayern should comfortably finish first.

The battle for the second place spot probably won’t be a drama-filled one either. Despite both having to play in the playoff rounds to reach the group stages, there is a gap of quality between Benfica and Ajax. Like Bayern, this should be an easy group for the Portuguese side to navigate. Finishing second won’t be a hard task for Benfica.

This now leaves the third place spot between Ajax and AEK. The Greek side barely scraped by in the play-off round as well and Ajax fought in a tough two-legged battle against Dynamo Kiev. There are gaps in quality between everyone in Group E. The battle for third place is no different. Ajax is the better side and should make their way into the Europa League.

Bayern and Benfica advance

Group F

All you need to do for Group F is take one look at the teams lined up and know who will top it. Manchester City is far and above the best team and should have it all wrapped halfway through the group stage. Even with the injury to Kevin De Bruyne, the Man City machine keeps plugging along. Pep Guardiola’s side has played stellar and has done so despite the likes of Leroy Sane getting off to tough starts. With the addition of Riyad Mahrez and a healthy Benjamin Mendy, Man City have so much firepower to work with. Bernardo Silva looking more comfortable in the system is a boost too. Last year they got bamboozled by Liverpool in the quarterfinals and looked pedestrian during the tie. Guardiola should have this side motivated and ready to go from the start. They are favorites to not only win the league but are in the mix of teams who can win the entire competition.

Now for who will finish behind Manchester City in the second spot is another open-ended question. Shakhtar, Lyon, and Hoffenheim all have what it takes to rally a couple of strong results together and stumble into second. At the same time, there are numerous questions surrounding the consistency of the last two in the group in Lyon and Hoffenheim. You don’t know which versions of these teams will show up on a given matchday. Lyon, for example, has a very underrated attack with Memphis DePay at the helm but they can’t seem to find the back of the net often. A lot of times for Lyon it’s been a lot of low-quality chances from outside the box and on the counter. Hoffenheim have started their season on an ok note but the jury is still out on how they will stack up against tougher competition in Europe. Shakhtar Donetsk should be the leader of the pack in this race for second. Like Porto, Shakhtar has done well in Europe as of late. While they won’t necessarily trouble Manchester City, they should be favorites to finish second.

Manchester City and Shakhtar Donetsk advance

Group G

Last season was a magical Champions League campaign for both Roma and Real Madrid. It often illustrates the difference in the level of expectations for teams in Europe. While for Roma supporters it would have been grand to see them win the Champions League, just reaching the semi-finals was an amazing achievement. It was even sweeter considering how they reached there, on the heels of one of the greatest comebacks in Champions League history. After being thrashed 4-1 in the first leg, Roma staged an epic comeback back home in the return leg. They beat the Catalans 3-0 and advanced thanks to an away goals tie-breaker. It was one of the best comebacks in a Champions League tie the soccer world has ever seen. Now Roma has to play another Spanish giant as it draws defending winners Real Madrid in their group. Apart from their numerous pre-season matches in the summer, 2016 was the last time these two teams played in a competitive game. It was the Round of 16 in the UCL and Real Madrid dominated the tie, earning back to back 2-0 victories to see off the Italian side.

After winning three straight Champions League titles, this will be a completely different Champions League campaign for Real Madrid and we all know why. The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus this summer shocked the club and not splashing the cash for a superstar to replace him was perplexing as well. While they almost certainly will try to land a top ten player in the world next summer, it looks like Real Madrid are making Gareth Bale the star of this team. The Welshman is now the star and will be looked upon to bag more goals for Los Blancos. Bale does have the talent to be a star for Real Madrid. His blistering pace causes so many problems for defenders and will open up spaces in the defense for others. Guys like Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio will have more goal scoring opportunities because of it. The midfield and the defense will still be the same as Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in the middle of the park. Raphael Varane, who had an exceptional season for both club and country, will lineup along Sergio Ramos. With the loss of Zinedine Zidane factored in as well, it will be a tall mountain to climb for Madrid if they want to win the UCL for the fourth time in a row. They might not make it back to the final but a quarterfinal appearance isn’t an unreasonable expectation.

The two other teams in this group are CSKA Moscow and FC Viktoria Plzn. These two teams will battle for the third place spot of this group with the Russian side being the favorites. They are currently 6th in the Russian Premier League as Zenit and Spartak Moskova have gotten off to great starts domestically. Plzn are huge underdogs and despite being in the thick of things in the Czech league, it will be difficult for them to get results in this group. Their best shot comes on matchday one when they face off against CSKA.

It’s clear who the two best teams are in this group in Real Madrid and Roma. They’ll be the ones who advance to the knockout stages. Expect Madrid to finish at the top despite the transition to a life without Ronaldo.

Real Madrid and Roma advance

Group H

To say it’s been a turbulent season so far for Manchester United is an understatement. Between the comments made by Jose Mourinho and the two losses to start the season, the pressure is on in Old Trafford. Despite finishing second in the league last season, it was still defined as an “ok”. Losing to Sevilla in the Champions League Round of 16 didn’t help either. This is a big year for Mourinho as he enters in the heavily talked about "Year 3 Mou". It's usually around the time things implode and the Portuguese manager is let go. It will be an uphill battle in the league as both Manchester City and Liverpool are favorites to lift the trophy. The Champions League draw did no favors for the Red Devils either. Manchester United can’t afford to have performances like they did against Brighton if they want to do well in this group. They have made some upgrades and depth signings this summer, especially in the midfield with the addition of Fred from Shakhtar. Mourinho still has a lot of questions left to answer about this squad. Who will start on the wings is the first question. Defense is in question as well with Eric Bailly in and out of the lineup constantly. There is a lot of shuffling in those two areas for Manchester United and it shows on match days.

United’s biggest problem will be Juventus. The Italian champions had a fantastic summer picking up Emre Can, Joao Cancelo, Leonardo Bonucci, and some guy named Cristiano Ronaldo. Last season’s UCL campaign ended in infamy as a fantastic comeback in Bernabeu was canceled out by a late penalty awarded against the Old Lady. Juventus are bringing back a lot of their old squad but have replaced Gonzalo Higuain with Ronaldo, an obvious upgrade. The only real question for this squad will be the goalkeeping situation with Gigi Buffon now gone. The adjustment of Ronaldo on this Juventus team has gotten off to a rocky start but expect him to start scoring goals soon. Now it’s up to Max Allegri to see how he can field the best starting XI. Juventus will be very hard to stop in the Champions League this season.

Valencia is a sneaky underdog in this group. They have some young talent in attack with Michy Batshuayi and Goncalo Guedes, who made his move from Paris permanent this summer. They can catch teams on the counter with the pace on the wings too. After finishing 3rd in a group with Gent, Lyon, and Zenit last season they will be itching to make it back to the Round of 16. They certainly have the talent to make this happen.

Valencia has a chance to finish second in this group, especially if Manchester United slips up. However, Manchester United should have just enough to squeak into second. This is setting up to be a group to pay attention to.

Juventus and Manchester United advance

The Counter Press Serie A Preview

The Counter Press boys finish up their preview of the European leagues with a Serie A preview. They are joined by recurring guests @AvikarSaini and @GuerschonLynch. We go through all the Italian teams, give our predictions, including how Napoli will do as well as give some air time to SPAL

Follow Josh: @highbiscuits
Follow Vijay: @VJVemu

2018-19 Serie A Power Rankings: Juventus should dominate but the league will be fun
 Photo Credit: AFP

Photo Credit: AFP

Unlike years prior, last season’s Serie A title race was an eventful one. Maurizio Sarri and Napoli pushed Juventus all the way to the brink of breaking their championship streak. After Napoli’s 2-1 win in Turin against the defending champions, it looked like there might be a new team lifting the Scudetto. Things got even worse when Juventus found themselves down 2-1 at Inter Milan in the San Siro. But the Bianconeri showed why they are the cream of the crop in Italian football, making a stunning turnaround to win 3-2 thanks to a Gonzalo Higuain stoppage-time goal. In the end, it was Juventus who lifted the trophy. With the dramatic changes we have seen in the footballing landscape this summer, it seems like things will stay status quo when it comes to who will top Serie A. However the real fun begins when you look at how rest of the table is going to shake out.

Class 1: Title Contenders

Juventus

As I mentioned earlier, there is only one true contender for the Serie A title and it’s Juventus. They have only gotten stronger and the additions they have made could be enough to argue their worth as a top 5 European side. The big addition to Bianconeri is the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo. In what was a shocking move, Juve landed one of the most talented players of his generation and even at 33 years old, Ronaldo can offer a potent scoring threat. If you thought he was good in La Liga, just wait till he plays in Italy. Ronaldo will be scoring goals for fun in Serie A and he has the providers around him to make the fit of him in a Juve jersey work. As he was in his final season at Real Madrid, Ronaldo will play up top in a pure striker role. He will likely have Mario Mandzukic on the left wing as a hybrid striker at times who can make backdoor runs into the box. Juan Cuadrado, Douglas Costa, or even Paulo Dybala could slot in on the right with the latter cutting inside more to be more of a playmaker. However, it would be in Max Allegri’s best interest to start Costa as he shined for Juventus last season. His pace and tricky dribbling can fool even the best defenders and he is a decent enough passer to give crosses into CR7. Dybala will likely play centrally in a CAM role with license to roam around to gather and push the ball up forward. Emre Can is a solid replacement for the aging Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio, who left last week after 25 years with the club. Blaise Matuidi offers a solid box to box option while Miralem Pjanic can boss a game around in the midfield.

Juventus also got back Leonardo Bonucci in the swap deal with AC Milan which sent Gonzalo Higuain to the Rossoneri. There is likely to be another change in tactics with Allegri changing to a back four instead of their famed back three. Alex Sandro and new man Joao Cancelo will be on the wings with the likely duo of Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini as the last line of defense. Mehdi Benatia and Daniele Rugani are solid backups.

It’s not hard to see what the aspirations are for Allegri and his side. There is no doubt they should be feared by the rest of Europe’s top clubs as a Champions League contender. As far as the league goes, they are by far the most talented side and bring back the majority of the squad. As long as the key players stay healthy and Ronaldo can provide to be a solid threat in front of goal, Juventus should win the league by a double-digit point total.

Class 2: European competition spots

Napoli
Inter
AC Milan
Lazio
Roma
Atalanta
Fiorentina

Like La Liga, it’s always a rotating door of who finishes where in spots 2 through 6 of Serie A. It’s unlikely we will see a club like last season’s Napoli in which they really give Juventus a run for their money. However, it doesn’t mean the race for Champions League and Europa League spots won’t be entertaining. Each of these clubs in this list has something to prove and the talent to beat each other.

Inter Milan had arguably one of the more better summers in all of European football. Luciano Spaletti’s side added more strength in key areas of the pitch as well as grabbing some solid youth presence as well. The biggest move they made was nabbing Roma’s Radja Nainggolan and grabbing Lazio’s Stefan De Vrij. Even at age 30, Nainggolan is a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the park and still is a good box to box presence. De Vrij came over on a free and was one of the trio of defenders Inter brought in (Kwando Asamoah and Sime Vrsaljko were the two others). Inter also picked up some nice wing depth in Monaco’s Keita Balde Diao, and Matteo Politano, who can step up for a now aging Andre Candreva. Along with Ivan Perisic, two signings will give Inter Milan pace and creativity from the wide areas. Mauro Icardi will continue to be a deadly scorer in front of goal and will no doubt lead them in scoring this season. Lautaro Martinez, who came over from Racing Club in Argentina this summer, is expected to be a solid backup. After barely nabbing 4th last year thanks to a final matchday win against Lazio, Inter Milan have had a really good summer. They were able to hang on to Icardi and improved offensively in both the midfield and on the wings. Along with that, Inter has some nice young prospects for the future. They should do better than 4th this year.

While they might not challenge for the title this season, there is still a lot to like in Napoli as well. Granted they lost two key members of the club in Maurizio Sarri and Jorginho but they were still able to hold onto everyone else. To replace their manager, Napoli brought in a top manager in Carlo Ancelotti. A knockout specialist, Ancelotti will inherit a squad still filled with attacking talent up top as well as a midfield with two solid engines. Most of the time when an upstart club makes a title run, their talent likely gets poached by the bigger fish the summer after. It wasn't the case in Naples this summer. The trio of Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon, and Dries Mertens all return while Simone Verdi and Amin Younes were brought in to help out on the wings. Arkadiusz Milik recovered from last year’s ACL injury and will fill in for Mertens, who is still resting after his spell in the World Cup. Piotr Zieliński slots into Jorginho’s role. he will be covered well with the likes of Allan and the ever-active Maren Hamsik alongside him. Both Allan and Hamsik will have big roles in Ancelotti’s system and the latter will still be expected to make late runs into the box or be available for long-range blasts. The backline should be the same with Mario Rui stepping into the left back slot as Fazio Ghoulam is still injured. Pepe Reina moved on from his spell in Italy and Napoli did well to bring in replacements. Alex Meret and Arsenal’s David Ospina should both be contenders for the starting nod. Last season Napoli hit their peak, they were one of the best teams in Europe to not win their domestic title. They played attractive football and made the Serie A title race fun. Even with Ancelotti at the helm, it will be a tough sell to say this will happen again. There are still questions about this squad, especially the defense which looked shaky in pre-season. Napoli’s offense and midfield should be enough though, to make sure they don’t make a dramatic leap down in the table.

Roma’s run to the Champions League semi-finals was magical. It featured some gritty away performances and an amazing comeback against Barcelona. Surprisingly it didn’t take a toll on them in the league as they finished 3rd, five points ahead of 4th place Inter. This year represents a new challenge. Roma knows they probably won’t repeat their performance in the UCL but finishing 3rd in Italy is very much on the cards. They have sold some this summer, letting Nainggolan leave and selling Allison off for a big fee to Liverpool. Eusebio Di Francesco did a good job of at least filling those spots with summer signings. Roma brought in three new keepers and four new midfielders so you can say they at least tried to replace two of their best players. The middle of the park is interesting as the likes of PSG’s Javier Pastore and Sevilla’s Steven N’Zonzi come to Stadio Olimpico. The Frenchman will offer a screening presence in front of Roma’s backline and can cycle possession if need be. Pastore will be looked to be a good link between offense and defense. Two youngsters in Ante Coric and Nicolio Zaniolo also arrived this summer. On the wings, the future is bright with Cengiz Under on one side and new signing Justin Kluivert on the other. There was the dilemma with Malcom spurning Roma at the last minute and if not for that, Roma would have had a trio of players the big clubs could come calling for in a couple of years. Edin Dzeko is undoubtedly the starter up top at striker with Patrik Schick his backup and a good option to bring on late. EDF and his side made some screwed moves this summer and definitely got younger. Losing out on Malcom really hurt and they will feel the losses of Nainggolan and Allison. But this squad is still talented enough to finish top 4 and gives someone trouble in the Champions League.

Lazio’s end of the season form was terrible as they missed out on Champions League action thanks to a 3-2 loss against Inter Milan on the final day. It didn’t get any better considering they were up 2-1 in the second half. It was a tough pill to swallow for the side and it’s now Simone Inghazi’s job to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The road back to a Champions League spot is going to be much tougher though and despite still having Ciro Immobile, who has had a career revival with the club, losing a player like Felipe Anderson really hurt. With his pace, Anderson was able to give Lazio a solid counter-attacking outlet and someone who can beat defenders one on one. Now they have a big gap to fill on the wings so they brought in Joaquin Correa from Sevilla. If anything Correa can give them some threat on goal as well as being able to track back and defend. The player to watch for, however, is big man Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. He starred for Serbia in the World Cup and should be a player who is surely going to command a humongous transfer fee sometime soon. At 6’4 and with the gracefulness of a top midfielder, SMS stands out in the middle of the park. If he’s able to have a great season, it will do wonders for Lazio. It’s going to be a tough season for Inghazi as he tries to replace the offensive workload done by Anderson. Correa is a good buy but who knows if it’s going to be enough. He’s going to need another big season from Immobile and SMS to step up as well.

Two other teams to watch for will be Atalanta and AC Milan. Milan has had a huge fall from grace since their glory days and they have been desperately trying to restore it. Finishing 6th last season helps the cause as it gets them back in Europe but they have a lot more work ahead of them. Bringing in Gonzalo Higuain certainly helps with the striker situation and gives Milan a real threat in front of goal. They also got a decent defender in Mattia Caldara in the Bonucci-Higuain swap deal. Getting Timothe Bakayoko on loan from Chelsea gives them midfield depth along with a younger face among the veterans of Lucas Biglia and Riccardo Montolivio. It will be an interesting year from Gennaro Gattuso and his squad. There are some good arrivals including Samu Castillejo from Villarreal. But they will be in a battle for one of the lower Europa spots.

Class 3: Mid-table

Sampdoria
Torino
Sassuolo
Chievo
Genoa
Udinese
Bologna

After finishing 9th last year, Torino leads the group when it comes to the midtable. They have some interesting players in attack to go along with captain Andrea Belotti with both M'baye Niang and Simone Zaza arriving. Both will make the striker positions competitive for Torino. Sampdoria finished right behind them at 10th and they added a lot of new faces to the club. Now it’s time to see if they can try and make another run into the top 8.

Other ones to look for will be Sassuolo, who beat Inter Milan on the first matchday, and Chievo who also gave Juventus a scare in Ronaldo’s debut. Both teams are expected to be mid-table at best but they won’t roll over easily. It won’t be an easy three points against them. Bologna also has a new manager in Filippo Inghazi and will be interesting as they explore working with a 3-5-2. If they fall, however, they could find themselves in a relegation fight.

Class 4: Relegation zone

Parma
SPAL
Cagliari
Empoli
Frosinone

Despite the relegation zone being all negative, there are some feel-good stories out of the handful of teams who will be fighting to stay alive. After years out of the top flight, Parma is finally back in Serie A. The famous club struggled for years to get back to the best of Italian football and they are finally here. They know how tough the transition is from Serie B to A. Signing a player like Gervinho isn’t a splashy move but getting him along with Jonathan Biabiany gives them some pace on the wings. Both are past their primes but can give Parma some flashiness at times. SPAL is a small team and have battled their way to stay in the league last season. It will be the same struggle last season. They are the ultimate Italian underdogs and should be very worried about them going down. Cagliari and SPAL barely survived last season, finishing a respective 4 and 3 points above the 18th placed Crotone. Empoli and Frosinone are the ones who really need to be worried though. Serie A is ruthless and the bottom two teams last year finished with less than 26 points each. There is a possibility we already know who is finishing last before Christmas. Hopefully, that’s not the case. 

Table Prediction:

  1. Juventus

  2. Inter Milan

  3. Napoli

  4. Roma

  5. Lazio

  6. Atalanta

  7. AC Milan

  8. Fiorentina

  9. Sampdoria

  10. Torino

  11. Sassuolo

  12. Genoa

  13. Chievo

  14. Udinese

  15. Bologna

  16. Parma

  17. SPAL

  18. Cagliari

  19. Empoli

  20. Frosinone

 

2018-19 La Liga Power Rankings: Can FC Barcelona repeat as champs?
 Photo credit: Aitor Alcalde / Getty Images

Photo credit: Aitor Alcalde / Getty Images

Spanish teams have had quite the decade when it comes to domestic football. La Liga teams have dominated both European competitions as Barcelona and Real Madrid have swapped Champions League honors while Sevilla has ran wild with Europa League in that span as well. With the Spanish Super Cup and the UEFA Super Cup completed, it’s time for the La Liga season to begin. There will be some changes in the hierarchy but nothing earth-shattering. Despite expectations for La Liga to go pan out exactly how many expect it to, it doesn’t mean it’s not a fun league to watch. Especially with the growing number of quality teams in the league.

Class 1: Title aspirations

Barcelona
Atletico Madrid
Real Madrid

If you have watched any of La Liga in the past couple of years, you already know which teams are going to be in this category. It’s the Big 3 of FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid. The battle between the three teams is always a slugfest. Each of these games is passionate and filled with excitement.

Barcelona is the expected favorites to repeat as La Liga champions and rightly so. The Catalans made some key reinforcements in the transfer market and held on to Ousmane Dembele as well. Keeping the young French winger was a huge move and credit to Barcelona for not giving up on him so easily. He struggled in his initial season and the injuries didn’t help either. Arturo Vidal, Lenglet, and Malcolm were all good additions despite the large transfer fees. None of the three will likely be starters but they will serve as depth signings. In the case of the latter two, they are young and hopefully can ease their way into the squad later on. Expect Ernesto Valverde to run with his patented 4-3-3 with Suarez, Dembele, and Lionel Messi up top. The real questions will be in the midfield as the backline/goalkeeper will likely be set as well. Who will the third midfielder be alongside Rakitic and Busquets? Arthur will have a shot at being in the starting XI and but his chances look grim. He faces stiff competition in Coutinho as the Brazilian now has the No. 7 shirt and had a great World Cup too. Valverde always seems to take the more stable option so expect Coutinho to be playing in the Iniesta role next season as a playmaker. He also adds his own own offensive threat of being able to curl one into the top corner from outside the box. The Catalans will be defensively compact and stable in possession like last season. While they won La Liga with ease, they still have the bitter taste of the Roma defeat in their mouths. A trophy or two should be in crosshairs for this team.

Both of the Madrid clubs had rather opposite summer transfer markets. Real, as we all know, suffered a huge loss in Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane. Both are losses Madrid did not expect to occur and it set them back. It was evident in Madrid transfer plans this summer. No big names other than Thibaut Courtois came in and no replacement for CR7. Now it’s Gareth Bale’s team offensively. Florentino Perez’s favorite Galactico signing will have the full reins in Julen Lopetegui’s system. With Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio likely up top with him in the attack, expect a lot more of the Bale of old or the one we see play for Wales. A guy who is much more comfortable taking on guys 1 v. 1 and burning them with pace. Hopefully, for Madrid’s sake, he can step up and show the quality which commanded his humongous transfer fee. The rest of the lineup should be the same as the same crew who won their 3rd straight Champions League title. This will be a tough year for Real Madrid and their fans. Their core group is a year older and they lost one of their most influential players in Ronaldo. There’s a high chance Real Madrid could walk away from this season with zero trophies to show for it, which in their terms is chaos. The loss against Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup could be a telling sign.

Speaking of Atletico, they had an aggressive transfer market. Particularly in the midfield with the additions of Thomas Lemar from Monaco and Rodri from Villarreal. Both played in the UEFA Super Cup and played well in their competitive debuts. The Frenchman Lemar was a natural fit in his given role and showed how much of a playmaker he could be for this team moving forward. Diego Simeone now has some toys he can play with offensively so expect Atletico to open up just a bit more than they have in the past. With Griezmann and Costa still up top for, they still possess a potent strike force which can strike at any time. We all know about the defense led by Diego Godin and Jon Oblak has shown why he can be a top 5 goalie in the world when he’s on his game. The only question is the right-back position as 33-year-old Juanfran is currently holding the starting role. Simeone’s team is currently the second-best in Spain at the moment and with enough balance in the squad, they can make another run at the La Liga title. Plus they are a dark horse in Champions League play with the signings they have made. Watch out for Atletico Madrid this year, they still have the same grind-it-out/going into battle attitude but with more flair than ever.

Class 2: European competition contenders

Sevilla
Villarreal
Valencia
Athletic Bilbao
Real Betis
Getafe

The battle between the big three are slugfests and so is the rotating door of who will finish 4th behind them. It’s same cast of teams who battle for the right. Usually their seasons include an ok Europa League campaign along with the occasional upset against a giant. Most fans are familiar with the Villarreal and Valencia’s of the world but there maybe a new team challenging for a European spot. It’s lesser well known team from Seville: Real Betis.

Betis had a robust transfer market, showing all of Spain they wanted to continue the success they had last year in the league when they finished 6th and qualified for the Europa League as well. Coming into the Benito Villamarin this summer were the likes of William Carvalho, Takashi Inui, Pau Lopez, and Sergio Canales. Add the addition of Marc Bartra in the winter window and you have a splendid year of transfers for Betis. It’s going to be a challenge this season as they have to balance their energy with Europe. Most teams struggle with this adjustment but at the same time, many clubs didn’t make the transfers Betis did. They are going to be in the chase for Europe qualification spots again this season but they won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time around.

Despite knocking out Manchester United in the Champions League, Sevilla still had a troubling domestic season by their standards. They finished 6th in the table and have to play in the qualification rounds of the Europa League because of it. Sevilla also bring in a new manager as Pablo Machin arrives from Girona. His 3-5-2 system created some problems for Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup and it bodes well for how they will do in La Liga this season. Obviously, it was different from the style they played last season but change is good sometimes. Ever Banega will still be pinging passes around in the midfield and bringing in Andre Silva from AC Milan was a smart move. Muriel and Pablo Sarabia should be the main attacking threats with the ever speedy Wassim Ben Yedder ready to come off the bench. Losing their second stable presence in midfield in Steven N’Zonzi will really hurt as he left for Roma a few weeks ago. Sevilla will be hoping they can restore some of the quality in the middle but they might struggle to find a guy who can screen the backline like the Frenchman could. Overall Sevilla is still a talented side and always seem to outperform what their squad sheet looks like on paper. Machin will have his side invigorated and revving to go.

After finishing 5th, Villarreal was the best of the Europa League qualifiers in terms of points. Javier Calleja’s men weren’t talked about much this summer although it doesn’t mean they had a poor one. In fact, the Yellow Submarines had a solid transfer window and brought in some decent players. They strengthened their attack by bringing in the likes of Gerard Moreno, and Karl Toko Ekambi while also promoting youngster Daniel Raba from the B team. With Carlos Bacca now back at AC Milan, it was wise to give Enes Unai and Roberto Soriano more attacking support and depth up top. Ekambi will be the man to watch as he is brought in from Angers for a decent fee. Other transfers included Ramiro Funes Mori, Javi Fuego, Miguel Layun, and Santi Cazorla as he made his return back to the Estadio de la Ceramica. Losing Rodri to Atletico Madrid hurt and they will miss having a young CDM in the central area of the park. There were some smart signings by Villarreal and a Europa League spot is in sight. Maybe if they overperform, they can knock on the door of the 4th place Champions League place.

Valencia were the best of this group in terms of points last season, finishing with 73 points, 12 ahead of 5th place Villarreal. In his second summer, Marcelino made some solid additions to Los Che but also raised some questions with this moves as well. He got some depth at center-back with Mouctar Diakhaby arriving from Lyon and Cristiano Picci from Portugal to shore up the right back spot. Geoffrey Kondogbia, who played exceptional for Valencia in the second half of the season, had his loan spell become permanent from Inter Milan. Uros Racic and Daniel Wass were brought in to help the midfield in their own ways. Racic or Kondogbia may slot into the spot which was left by Nemanja Maksimovic who left for Getafe. It will be a fight to see who will play alongside captain Dani Parejo. Wass will have a much tougher time finding a starting role with the abundance of attackers Valencia now have on their hands. Despite losing Goncalo Guedes back to PSG, Valencia still has a lot of guys who they can play up top. They brought in both Kevin Gameiro and Michy Batshuayi. They join a group of Simone Zaza, Rodrigo, and Santi Mina. It’s going to be tough to distribute the minutes. It could be a rotating door up front at the two striker positions. Valencia obviously has talent but with some of the teams around them getting better, they will have to scrape to finish 4th again.

Disastrous was the one word to describe Athletic Bilbao’s season last year. After Ernesto Valverde left for the Nou Camp, things crumbled for the Basque side. They finished a surprising 16th in the table and although they weren’t in any relegation trouble (14 points ahead of 18th place), it was a big drop off from the same Bilbao we have seen. It’s clear this squad still has some quality in Inaki Williams but there are big problems when it comes to how they can bounce back. Their transfer policy doesn’t always allow for much movement but they brought in two Eibar players and Yuri Berchiche from PSG. This is Eduardo Berizzo’s first summer so business might be slow but he needs to figure out how this is all going to work. They won’t have any Europa League games to deal with so they can go all in on getting a solid league spot. There is also a worry of relying a lot on an aged striker such as Aritz Aduriz. Athletic supporters will have to hope Berrizo can come in and get things back on track. Last season may have been a fluke but it also exposed a lot of problems in the squad. They could be in trouble this year as well.

Another team to look out for here could be Getafe. They finished three points behind 7th place and nearly qualified for Europe. It was a final matchday day draw between Sevilla and Betis which sealed their fate. After being promoted in 2016, this was a big jump for Getafe. Most teams who go down after a long spell in the top flight don’t always bounce back. If there is a dark horse, it’s Getafe.

Class 3: Mid-table shufflers

Eibar
Girona
Celta Vigo
Real Sociedad
Espanyol
Alaves

This part is also a tricky one as it’s a shuffle each season between quite of a few of these teams. There are some interesting ones though.

Girona will be one to watch for as they now have lost their manager after having a fantastic season by their standards (10th place). It was a good finish considering they were playing in the Segunda division just two years ago. Now it’s up to see just how much they will miss Machin. Girona has made some very solid transfers by getting two Manchester City players in Aleix Garcia and Patrick Roberts on loan. They also brought in Marc Muniesa from Stoke to shore up their defense. They might not finish as high as the upper mid-table like they did last year but Girona has seemed to make enough moves to at least stay out of the relegation battle.

After two straight 13th place finishes in La Liga, Celta Vigo seem to be sleepwalking through La Liga. It’s odd considering how this club was in a Europa League semi-final not too long ago. They made some moves in the window by picking up Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal and a teenager from Rayo Vallecano in Fran Beltran. This is sort of the case we have seen with Southampton in the Premier League. Celta Vigo has let their best talent go to bigger clubs and haven’t exactly been able to replace them. They might not be as in trouble as the Saints are but they are just one bad stretch of games from finding themselves fighting for their La Liga lives

Real Sociedad are also an interesting figure to watch for. They recently picked up Theo Hernandez on loan from Real Madrid and Mikel Merino from Newcastle. The computers also seem to love Sociedad, as 538’s La Liga predictions have them finishing 6th in the table.

Class 4: Relegation zone

Leganes
Levante
Huesca
Rayo Vallecano
Valladoid

As always, the three promoted teams are the ones that should be the most worried about going down. Huesca, Valladolid, and Rayo Vallecano will have to claw their way out of the bottom three and I think one of them will do it. Leganes could be in trouble after finishing a spot out of the relegation zone. Same goes for Alaves as well but the gap between them and the bottom teams was pretty big. Espanyol could be the upset pick to be in trouble for relegation but their defense should be able to save them. Levante is a team which should be worried too. They finished with 46 points last season and it’s not a hot take to say they might not finish around that same range again. It won’t be like last season where the bottom three going down were decided by March or so. This year will be much tougher.

Official table predictions:

  1. FC Barcelona

  2. Atletico Madrid

  3. Real Madrid

  4. Sevilla

  5. Valencia

  6. Real Betis

  7. Villarreal

  8. Athletic Bilbao

  9. Getafe

  10. Real Sociedad

  11. Eibar

  12. Celta Vigo

  13. Girona

  14. Alaves

  15. Espanyol

  16. Leganes

  17. Rayo Vallecano

  18. Levante

  19. Valladoild

  20. Huesca

The Counter Press EP 22 - La Liga preview

After reviewing the EPL last week, the Counter Press boys are back with another guest in Jeremy Beren(@JBBeren). We talk about the Spanish Super Cup, preview the upcoming La Liga season along with our table predictions as well as talk about the UEFA Super Cup.

Follow Josh: @highbiscuits
Follow Vijay: @VJVemu
Follow Jeremy Beren: @JBBeren

The Counter Press - English Premier League preview
2018-19 English Premier League power rankings: City favorites to repeat, but Liverpool hope to end the drought
PREMIER LEAGUE POWER RANKINGS.jpg

With the European football leagues getting underway this week, The Barber's Chair is taking a look at each of the major soccer leagues across the pond to see how each club stacks up this season. Yesterday, Jonathan Ramos examined the top tier in France, Ligue 1. Today, Vijay Vemu looks at arguably the most popular league in football, the English Premier League.

Premier League Power Rankings

One of the world's best leagues, the English Premier League, kicks off on Friday with Leicester City facing off against Manchester United. It's the beginning of a great soccer weekend (including Arsenal vs. Man City) and hopefully a fun EPL season. Let’s rank the 20 clubs and in the end, I’ll release my entire table predictions.

Class 1: Title contenders

Manchester City
Liverpool

Last year we saw Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City take the crown by the throat, ending the title race by Christmas. Their second-half spell wasn’t as dominant as their start, but it was enough to get the job done and win their third EPL title of the decade. Now with an invigorated squad filled with summer signings like Riyad Mahrez, City are favorites to repeat.

Pep retains the majority of his key players and will get a healthy Benjamin Mendy to fill in at left back this season. Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus are going to be goal poachers with Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane, and Raheem Sterling providing service. However, the title chase will be closer with one team, in particular, having an amazing summer in the transfer market: Liverpool.

The Reds had a fantastic season in 2017/18 and got even stronger in the summer, adding the duo of Naby Keita and Fabinho to shore up the midfield. Both players fit right into Jurgen Kloop's system, with the former having a great motor to press. Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mo Salah all come back healthy as well. Liverpool even went out and spent money on a quality keeper in Brazil's Allison, who sures up the backline and makes the Reds a dangerous contender in the Premier League. One question worth asking given Klopp’s system: will they run of steam in the second half of the season? If that happens in the middle of a serious title chase, we could see another Liverpool collapse.

Any year in the Premier League is a toss up, but with City being so far above everyone else and Liverpool improving, it’s hard to talk yourself into another big club being a title contender. At least right now. I expect the race to be pretty close, but for now, these are my two teams.

Class 2: European contenders

Manchester United
Tottenham Hotspur
Chelsea
Arsenal
Leicester
City

I’m just gonna get this out of the way right now... I don’t see Burnley making a push like they did last season. Sean Dyche’s team did a fantastic job of playing park-the-bus soccer and making the Europa League out of it. They made great use of set pieces and defended like crazy, but we know what happens when you mix a Europa League run with trying to compete in the Premier League. Ask Southampton and Everton; it creates a disaster in one competition or another. The Clarets are going to naturally have to make a sacrifice about which competition to care for; but even if they solely focus on the Premier League, they will need another monster season to qualify for Europe.

As for who will actually be competing for European qualification, expect the rest of the big guns to be competing for Champions League. Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho’s comments have made things especially wild around Old Trafford. The whole thing regarding Anthony Martial raised a few eyebrows but thankfully there are people at United who realize his value. Making Marcus Rashford the number 10 is a big deal; hopefully, he can get more playing time this season. Mourinho has a lot of decisions to make attacking wise and if he can’t get it right, he may be on his way out.

Antonio Conte is finally out at Chelsea, and the Blues have brought in their man from Napoli. Maurizio Sarri will bring an exciting style to Stamford Bridge and hopefully convince Eden Hazard to stay with him by getting more attacking help. Adding Jorginho to boss the midfield along with N’Golo Kante is a big boost. Chelsea fans hope Sarri can make Alvaro Morata look at least 20% of what he was last year. I think if Morata is given a chance in Sarri’s system, he will have a fine season. But one man who is on his way out is Thibaut Courtois. Chelsea reportedly have his replacement lined up in Kepa, but it means even more shuffling defensively. You also have to wonder how Conte’s back three now fit with Sarri’s 4-3-3 system. Marcos Alonso will have real problems playing as a full-time left back.

No movement in the transfer window have left Tottenham fans mad as there have been barely any incomings to the club. Losing Toby Alderweireld and Moussa Dembele won’t ease any of the tension. Spurs still have a super talented squad and manager Mauricio Pochettino will have his guys ready to go. Harry Kane will still be smashing in goals and the likes of Heung Min Son, Christian Eriksen, and Dele Alli will provide a ton of offensive support, but they needed an upgrade on their squad to take the next step into title contention. Sadly for Spurs fans, there was no upgrade at all.

Arsene Wenger is finally out and Unai Emery is in at Arsenal. The Gunners have a potent attack with Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette up front. Emery will have to figure out make the two strikers together instead of what happened last season when the latter was moved out to the left wing and looked all out of sorts. The midfield got a boost with the addition of Uruguay’s Lucas Torreira. He can be a good cover in front of Arsenal’s shaky backline and will look to be their backbone in midfield. It’s a project that Emery has got in his hands. Wenger left him a depleted squad, and it'll take a couple of years for Emery to get his type of players. Expect another topsy-turvy year from the Gunners.

Another team I would like to throw in for Europe contention is Leicester City. Even after losing Mahrez, they made some smart signings in Ricardo Pereira, Richard Ghezzal, James Madison, and Danny Ward. All of those signings strengthen a talented and dangerous squad with Jamie Vardy still up top, and Ndidi and Vicente Iborra solid in the midfieldl. Getting Jonny Evans to play in the back will help the backline depth, especially if Harry Maguire leaves (which he might this transfer window or next).

Class 3: Mid-table

Crystal Palace
Wolverhampton
Everton
Watford
Newcastle United
Fulham
West Ham
Burnley

The team who will get the most eyeballs here will be Wolves. Like Newcastle last year, they are easily a mid-table team and won’t be fighting for their lives this season. They brought in a lot of quality players in the past two years, and the way they ran the Championship showed they can make some noise in the table. I know it’s ambitious to put them in the top 9 but you can argue given the troubling summers the three teams behind them in the list, it’s not unreasonable. Crystal Palace had a good end to the summer and given the chaos in the middle of the table, if they keep Zaha they will be fine.

Newcastle has had a very troubling summer with Rafa Benitez expressing his concern for the lack of transfers. It’s not out of reason for them to be in the relegation race when the season comes to a close, but I think Benitez is a talented enough manager to pull them out of it.

Fulham will be fun too and they kept their best young players, which bodes well for them staying up. Everton is a toss up under Marco Silva; they could be in contention for 7th, but given how their pre-season has gone it seems they are in a fight for 10th place again. West Ham hope their signing of Felipe Anderson will be a big boost for them; he's a smart purchase who can spark the Hammers offensively like Dimitri Payet did a couple of years ago.

Class 4: Relegation Zone

Bournemouth
Southampton
Brighton
Huddersfield
Cardiff City

There are two teams here who are good bets to land in the relegation zone: Huddersfield and Cardiff City. Both clubs, talent-wise, don’t have enough firepower to stay in the Premier League. It was a miracle that Huddersfield stayed up last year, and this year will be even harder for them. They’ve made some signings which could help them stay up, so it’s an automatic drop but it’s hard to see them trying the same thing they did last year and have it work.

The last relegation spot will come between Brighton and Southampton. Much like Lille in France, Southampton's drop in quality has been shocking and sad to see. The Saints were once in the Europa League, now they are fighting for their Premier League lives. They are going to have to rely on a young core to get them out of this. Bournemouth is also in here but Eddie Howe can get the job done, much like Rafa at Newcastle.

Full table prediction

  1. Man City

  2. Liverpool

  3. Manchester United

  4. Spurs

  5. Chelsea

  6. Arsenal

  7. Leicester

  8. Crystal Palace

  9. Wolves

  10. Everton

  11. Watford

  12. Newcastle

  13. Fulham

  14. West Ham

  15. Burnley

  16. Bournemouth

  17. Southampton

  18. Brighton

  19. Huddersfield

  20. Cardiff City

 

2018-19 Ligue 1 power rankings: PSG vs. everyone else

With the European football leagues getting underway this week, The Barber's Chair is taking a look at each of the major soccer leagues across the pond to see how each club stacks up this season.

Ligue 1 Power Rankings

With Ligue 1 set to begin on August 10, we will have one of Europe’s top leagues back in action. The French league will receive more attention as the national team recently won the FIFA World Cup, and with it came the attention of casual fans to less established French stars. Let’s rank which teams have the best chance to be crowned champions this season.

Class 1: Title Contenders

PSG (Paris Saint-Germain)

 Source: AFP

Source: AFP

The champions are in a class of their own, winning the league for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Since 2011, the Paris-based squad has been trying to become one of the biggest teams in Europe, and has been relentless in acquiring the best players by paying large transfer fees. Last season’s purchase of Neymar put them in conversation as a destination for top-tier players, and he didn't disappoint, scoring 19 goals in 20 Ligue 1 appearances before his debut season was cut short due to injury.

The World Cup gave further attention to PSG, and it also brought Kylian Mbappe to superstardom. He's only 19 years-old, and his improvement is what can bring PSG closer to competing with Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League. PSG were able to acquire his rights from Monaco and were also to get a hold of Gianluigi Buffon after the legendary goalkeeper departed with Juventus.

This could be a breakout season for the squad with several players like Mbappe and Presnel Kimpembe now a year older. However, several defenders are aging, so look for PSG to monitor the minutes of Dani Alves and Thiago Silva as they prepare for what they hope to be a long season.

Falcao Moncao 2018 AFP.jpg

Class 2: European qualification spots

Monaco
Lyon
Marsielle

Monaco, Lyon and Marseille are strong enough to challenge PSG for the Ligue 1 crown, but in the end they'll most likely be playing for second place.

Monaco has been the most consistent of the bunch, and the only team to win Ligue 1 in the last six years of PSG dominance. They've been focused on getting younger, acquiring players like Aleksandr Golovin, the Russian star of the World Cup who will be making his debut in a top European league. Other transfer signings like Willem Geubbels, who has plenty of potential at 16, is too young to have a major impact this season. However, Monaco still has Radamel Falcao, one of league’s top strikers.

Lyon and Marsielle are two teams that also made few changes from the previous season. Both made signings that were influenced by focusing on the future. The signings of Duje Caleta-Car for Marsielle and Tanguy Ndombele for Lyon are great for their team's long-term futures, but ultimately leave both squads a bit behind Monaco and a significant gap from PSG this year. Lyon will need Memphis Depay to have another great season to hold off Marsielle, and his development will have them at equal level with Monaco. Marsielle missed out on qualification for the UEFA Champions Leauge this past season, finishing a point behind Lyon. Look for that to be the major focus for Rudi Garcia's squad.

Class 3: Mid table

Rennes
Bordeaux
Nice
Saint-Etienne
Montepellier
Nantes
Dijon
Amiens
Guingamp
Angers

Nice will receive the most attention of the mid-table tier, as former French star Patrick Vieira makes his Ligue 1 managerial debut after managing New York City in MLS. NYCFC made improvements in Vieira's two and a half seasons in the Bronx. In his time there, they were an aggressive and entertaining club to watch as defenders pressed high, similar to Vieira's own style of play.

 Source: Getty

Source: Getty

Nantes is another team that made a managerial change with the Portuguese Miguel Cardoso looking to push the squad to a top-five finish. Theosan-Jordan Siebatcheu is a player to watch for Rennes, as he helped Reims receive promotion to Ligue 1 last season. The American-born Frenchman may push to join the United States national team, as he has not made the debut with the senior French squad.

The rest of the teams in this class will need players who are under the radar to have career seasons to catapult themselves to the top. Dijon is the team who has the best chance to improve as they jumped from 16th to 11th in the past two seasons since returning to Ligue 1. They finalized the purchase of Naim Sliti, and will look for Wesley Said to take the next step.

Class 4: Relegation dangers

Lille
Strasbourg
Caen
Nimes
Reims

Lille was once a top-level team in France, but they've suffered a drop in play in recent years. The focus is now on them to avoid relegatio after a large amount of managerial changes. A top-five finish this upcoming season is unlikely, but they will hope for a top-ten finish for the sanity of their fans.

The Counter Press EP 20
2018 World Cup Final preview: France vs. Croatia
 Photo Credit: AP 

Photo Credit: AP 

We have arrived at the final destination - Moscow, home of the World Cup Final, pitting two teams in France and Croatia who both deserve to be in this position. This past month of soccer madness has flown by with heart-stopping turns at every point. It's been a thrilling tournament and one of the best we have seen so far this century. Plenty of drama, stoppage time goals, underdog stories like home nation Russia and the resurgence of England, and the powers like Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany all bowing out before the semi-finals. Now the world holds its breath in anticipation of who lifts the trophy in 2018.

Croatia

Let’s not beat around the bush here; Croatia is the underdog. When the knockout brackets were first revealed, a Croatian run to the final was something many thought might happen but nobody predicted it in the way that it did. After two back to back penalty shootout wins, Croatia needed extra time again in their semi-final matchup against England, a team with tired legs but the deserved favorites. It usually doesn’t bode well when a team who has played 240 minutes in the past two games has to play catch up, but after England took the early advantage, Croatia slowly but steadily began to inch back into the game with Ivan Perisic's second-half equalizer. England’s back three was solid for much of the tournament but they were prone to mental lapses. While it certainly looked poor on Gareth Southgate’s side to lose focus like that, credit to Croatia for pouncing on them. It sort of felt like the second leg of Juventus vs. Spurs where Tottenham had two defensive lapses and the Italian side punished them. All it took was Kyle Walker to not check who was behind him when trying to defend a cross.

From there the tide shifted as England looked mystified and Croatia was dominating in the midfield, a strategy which always bodes well for them. In extra time again you wondered how Croatia’s legs would feel but they kept pushing on when Mario Mandzukic found the back of the net in the 109th minute for the winner. England's back line lapsed yet again as John Stones didn’t react quick enough to a bouncing ball in the box. It was a bizarre play as everyone on the pitch seemed to stop and watch the ball bounce towards Pickford; everyone except for Mandzukic. It was a nervy final 11 minutes as Croatia hung on to advance to their first World Cup final.

France

France faced a much tougher opponent in Belgium, but like their final opponents, they did much of the same thing they had done throughout the tournament: Grab a goal and hold steady.

France hasn’t looked too flashy in this tournament and outside of the Argentina game, their offense has looked lackluster. But it doesn’t matter to Didier Deschamps men. They just keep getting the job done and have gotten the results necessary to advance. They did the same thing against Belgium. France let Belgium dictate a lot of the possession this game and pick them off on the counter, a strategy Belgium used against Brazil, but it was a lone goal off a set piece from Barcelona center-back Samuel Umtiti that sent them through.

The game turned from there as France hunkered down and absorbed all the Belgian pressure. Belgium had a lot of chances on goal but couldn’t seem to beat Hugo Lloris and the French defense. To France’s credit, it was a tough backline to beat as Umtiti and Raphael Varane held down Romelu Lukaku and N’Golo Kante did a good job breaking up key passes while neutralizing the dangerous Kevin De Bruyne. It wasn’t the most pretty win or the most aesthetically pleasing win but once again, it’s just about getting the job done. Now France finds themselves one win away from winning a major tournament and can finally exercise the demons that haunted them after Euro 2016.

It’s a similar situation with France face as - like Portugal in 2016 - they face an inferior opponent in a final but they should be ready for this one. Losing at home in a European final doesn’t just wash away easily and it shouldn’t. There is a lot of those guys playing now who were there in Paris that day, watching Portugal go crazy as they snatched a cup winning goal without their best player in Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch. One has to be wary about France playing inferior opponents but they should be solid.

The key in this matchup will be the midfield. It’s Modric and Rakitic versus the likely trio of Pogba, Matuidi, and Kante. Simply put, whoever controls the middle wins, but this one is much more crucial for Croatia, especially since their wings will have to defend a lot more with Mbappe and Griezmann able to leak out for counters. Strinic can’t be left alone against Mbappe as we saw what happens when you give the wonderkid any sorts of space. This will force Perisic to track back and at least account for Mbappe presence, so a lot of the offense will come through the middle of the park with the Croatian duo springing passes to unlock the French defense. France has three high motor players of their own with two of them having enough offensive quality to scare Croatia’s backline. If Matuidi and Pogba are able to get up in attack with Giroud being the holdup man and occupying the center-backs, Croatia could be in for a very long night.

Croatia will have to play a lot of defense while somehow making sure that they have enough time to get Rakitic and Modric going. This opens up Mario Mandzukic as a key man for Croatia as he alone will probably be up in attack unless Andrej Kramaric starts as a CAM with the duo in a double pivot behind him. But you could see Rakitic and Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic in a pivot with Modric up top. There is a lot of shifting which could go on in the Croatian midfield as manager Zlatko Dalic has a lot of options.

Prediction

Croatia has been fun and like France, they haven’t been flashy but they are effective. This team won’t quit and I see them coming back in this one to equalize some time in the game. But then France is going to get a winner in the second half and hold on. It will be a World Cup to remember for Les Blues.

2-1 France

2018 FIFA World Cup Semi-final preview: England vs. Croatia
 Photo credit: REUTERS

Photo credit: REUTERS

We are now at the second semi-final of the World Cup, and while we had a clash of powerhouses on one side, on the other there's some surprise teams hoping to make the final. Both England and Croatia needed some luck to get here, but now each faces their toughest test of the knockout rounds in each other. It’s just shows how wild and unpredictable this World Cup has been.

Croatia

After topping Group D, Croatia needed back-to-back penalty shootout wins to advance to the semi-finals. The first one took place against Denmark after a gut-wrenching save on a Luka Modric penalty shot in the dying moments of extra time kept the Danes in it. But Modric and his teammates stepped up and thanks to some poor penalties by Denmark, the stage was set for Ivan Rakitic to win it.

Their next match against Russia was another slogfest as Croatia came back from an early goal to tie the game and eventually take the lead in extra time. However, Russia came back strong and equalized to force penalties. There goalkeeper Danijel Subasic came up with a huge save and two missed spot kicks from the hosts, opening the door for Rakitic yet again to win it and send his country to the next round.

It’s been a stressful journey for Croatia but there are on the doorstep of reaching a semi-final. This wasn’t entirely out of left field considering their runs in Euro 2016 and how the group stage went. It was just how they got to this point which was interesting.

England

England didn't have the same struggle on their end, but they did avoid crisis in the round of 16 against Colombia. A tie at the end of stoppage time meant English fans worst fears: penalty kicks, a heartbreak they're all too familiar with. But this time it was different, as Eric Dier exorcised the demons of World Cup past and lifted the Three Lions to the quarterfinals, where they cruised to an easy 2-0 win over an upstart Sweden team.

The key for England to advance will be the midfield. Can the trio of Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli, and Jesse Lingard somehow slow down the duo of Rakitic and Modric? Both Croatian midfielders do a lot of work and usually set up in a double pivot, each playing a different role with Modric being the controller and Rakitic being the guy who has an insane work rate and can clean up if necessary. Give them enough time and they will run the game with ease, especially Modric, who has a legitimate shot at winning the Golden Ball.

If the Croatian midfielders are able to spring passes forward to the likes of Ivan Perisic on the wing, England’s back three could be in major trouble. It will be up to Henderson to make sure he can make life difficult for Croatia. Lingard will be asked a lot as well but given his role at Manchester United, defending for a lot of the time shouldn’t be a tall task. While Croatia does have holes in their defense, England can’t forget they are facing two high-quality guys who can break them if given the chance. Modric and Rakitic are game changers and control just how well this Croatian team will play. Whichever team controls the middle of the park wins this game. 

Prediction

Both England and Croatia have done well to get here. Granted it wasn’t the strongest opposition but they played with the cards they were given. It’s a tough matchup for both teams and it’s an even one too. I have to go with the stronger side here and it’s Croatia.

2-1 Croatia

2018 FIFA World Cup Semi-final preview: Belgium v France
 Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

Belgium v France can arguably be considered the final of the tournament. Belgium has eliminated Brazil and were resilient in their comeback again Japan. France has been dominant with a solid mix of youth and experienced European club-talented players. How do both teams match-up against each other? Let’s preview their chances and see who has the best chance to move forward

 Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

What makes Belgium dangerous is their ability to win games  They dominated Japan in possession and shots, but needed to come back from down 2-0 to advance. Their resiliency set up a quarterfinal match-up with Brazil. They made changes to their starting XI to counter Brazil, and their strategy paid off in a 2-1 win.

Belgium will have to play a similar style to beat France and advance to Sunday's final. Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba are France’s key threats up top - Belgium needs to keep them at bay and win the battle in the midfield to move on. Belgium also needs to do work offensively. They only had three shots on target against Brazil, although they managed to score twice. The French backline is young and capable of making mistakes; finishing from Lukaku and its other attacking players must be an area of focus.

 Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

France has been waiting for this moment since 2006. It's their first semi-final since finishing as the runner-up in the 2006 tournament. Their generational talent is just as important as Belgium’s, and this won't be the last World Cup we see with this youthful squad together.

Olivier Giroud, Griezmann, Mbappe, and Pogba have been pivotal for the French attack. 19-year-old Mbappe has been the darling of the tournament; just think, he'll be in his peak the next two World Cups. His runs have been nightmare for defenders who can’t seem to deal with his speed. Pogba and Griezmann have also demonstrated their leadership, controlling the tempo of the game. They were the more accurate team in terms of passing against Uruguay last round, controlling a large portion of the ball. They didn't score as frequently against a more disciplined Uruguay team than they did against Argentina, but they did show they can beat you on the ground or in the air, with a nice header from Raphael Varane.

Les Bleus seems confident they can contain Hazard in a similar fashion they did to Lionel Messi. This is not the same squad as Argentina however. Belgium has French legend Thierry Henry on its bench creating an intriguing match-up and is highly disciplined and deadly on counters. France will have to be in top form to beat this Belgium side who will seek to reach their first ever final.

Prediction: France 3 - 1 Belgium

The Counter Press - World Cup Quarterfinal preview
World Cup Round of 16 Preview: England vs. Colombia
 Photo credit: Getty Images

Photo credit: Getty Images

 

Colombia vs. England

 

It’s a shame that both teams won’t have a chance at making the semi-finals but that’s the luck of the draw. Sometimes you will get some really even matchups in the Round of 16, and this time it’s between two countries who have something to prove.

England finished second in Group G and wasn’t really that bothered. It was tough sledding for around 60 minutes against Tunisia as a penalty led the African team back into the game. But England kept pelting the Tunisian goal with chances and eventually one went in. It just happened to take place in stoppage time, off a set piece, and scored by Harry Kane. They went on and crushed Panama in the next game and didn’t look back.

With six points, they had already clinched qualification to the next round before their final game against Belgium. Both teams benched a majority of their top name players as Gareth Southgate used this match to rest and play some of the guys who weren’t going to normally play in the World Cup to begin with. It was a game which England controlled for a majority of it. But it was the Belgians who got ahead thanks to a wonder goal by Adnan Januzaj, setting England up for a match with Group H winners Colombia. This will be the hardest team they have faced yet, and England will have to make sure they have a solid structure in defense, especially with the back three, as Colombia will threaten to pounce on any mistake.

Colombia won a chaotic Group H (which was my favorite group). Their campaign started off on a tough hill as an early red card against Japan in their first game saw them go down 1-0. Colombia got the equalizer before the first half ended but the second half provided a different story. Japan got a great chance on goal with a man advantage and converted, resulting in a shocking 2-1 win. In a must-win game, Colombia battered a dejected Poland squad 3-0 with stars James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao leading the way. Both were super instrumental in all of Colombia’s goals with James providing the assist of the tournament so far with a great outswinger towards Juan Cuadrado as he raced past the Polish backline. Colombia controlled its own destiny heading into the final game, and a header by Yerry Mina in the second half was enough to see them past a sneaky Senegal team. Just like that, even after the debacle in the first match, they were through.

Now Colombia moves onto face England and it will be a big test for them. Yes, Colombia has been here before but this English team is well drilled and dangerous. They might not look the most flashy but they get the job done. Colombia is more of the opposite. It’s more about the flair and the creative powers of their top two midfielders in James and Quintero. If neither of those guys can get it going, it will be tough sledding. The health of James is also key. He limped off after 30 minutes against Senegal and his status for the game is in question. In all honesty, this will be the difference in the game, if James can’t play you honestly can’t give Colombia a shot. Not like a team against England.

Prediction: All reports have made it seem like James will play. Colombia’s attack is dangerous and even though England’s is too, Colombia’s are way more dynamic and creative. I expect this to be a shootout and one of the better games in the tournament. Dele Alli will be the key for England. If he can be a big presence in the midfield and slow down James, England will have an easier time controlling the game. When the pace of the game is slow, it fits England. If they start running around all over the place, the edge goes to Colombia

This is going to be a wild game.

3-2 Colombia

FIFA World Cup Round of 16 Preview: Brazil-Mexico and Belgium-Japan
 Source: AFP

Source: AFP

Brazil v Mexico

Mexico seeks to not only defeat Brazil for the first time in history but also score their first goal against the Seleção. Will Brazil continue on to capture its record sixth FIFA World Cup trophy? Let’s review what each team has done in the group matches, and its chances of moving forward.

In its first match, Mexico beat defending champion Germany 1-0, giving them confidence that they can the quarterfinals for the first time since 1986. A brutal 3-0 loss to Sweden has now changed their trajectory, and instead of facing Switzerland in the round of 16, they will now face Brazil.

Juan Carlos Osorio shut down his doubters as Mexico conquered the Germans and then played great in the South Korea win. He's stuck with almost entirely the same players and substitutes, which was a fear among some fans who were not pleased with his rotations. Mexico struggled to score in matches prior to the tournament, but they were able to capitalize on enough chances in their first two matches. In their loss to Sweden, they managed to possess the ball 67 percent of the time, and outshot Sweden, who finished atop the group. Luck and crucial mistakes can change the course of not just one game but the entire tournament. Mexico learned that the hard way, and will now have to beat Brazil to get to the Round of 16.

Brazil arguably had its best showing in its final group stage game against Nigeria. The Seleção hasn't had their star, Neymar, at 100 percent, but Philippe Coutinho has been brilliant, demonstrating great control of the ball and the game as his passing and scoring ability has been on display. Brazil will play openly against Mexico, leaving them open to Mexico’s counters, so they'll need to rely on their midfield to outplay El Tri. Mexico has been lacking a solid defensive midfielder; instead Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera have had to both share duties there. That vulnerability will leave Coutinho free to roam behind as a 10, and Neymar to cut in the middle of the field if Mexico gets caught off guard.

Brazil has a few injured players to keep an eye on like Neymar, Douglas Costa, and now Marcelo. Brazil should be favored, but several of the favored teams in this tournament are either already eliminated or have not had the start they envisioned.

Prediction

Brazil 3 - 1 Mexico

 Source: AFP

Source: AFP

Belgium v Japan

Belgium is the dark horse many predicted to win the tournament. They swept the group stage, including five goals against Tunisia. Romelu Lukaku is tied for second with four goals in the tournament, Eden Hazard has been great as a leader and also scored a fantastic goal in their match against Tunisia, and Kevin De Bruyne has continued the success he's had with Manchester City.

Lost in it all has been the play of Dries Mertens, Axel Witsel, and others who have made the team appear like a machine this tournament. Belgium played mainly reserves in their clash with England as they valued rest, injury, and fair play over who they would face. Ultimately, Belgium defeated England with a great goal from Adnan Januzaj, who has been relegated to a bench role, scored the lone goal against England, a great shot to put them atop the group and set the stage for a meeting with Japan, who they're heavily favored against. Expect Hazard and De Bruyne to generate much of the attention and create most of the opportunities, leaving a player like Mertens to take advantage of the opportunities his opponents give him.

Japan was lucky to advance to the knockout phase. A tie-breaker between them and Senegal ultimately came down to fair play rules. Nonetheless, they are here and have the chance to spoil Belgium’s pursuit of their first ever title.

This Japan team does have talent, led by several players with European club experience like Makoto Hasebe, Shiniji Kagawa, Yuya Osako, and Keisuke Honda. They'll be heavily attacked by Belgium’s attacking front, and head coach Akira Nishino will be responsible for creating a plan to stifle Belgium’s combinations. They'll have to beware of Lukaku’s ability to put himself in positions to score, De Bruyne’s long passes, and how best to counter attack their opponents.

Prediction

Belgium 3 - 0 Japan