Domestic football returns with a bang after the last international break of 2016, with four must-see games in Europe’s major leagues. We asked our ESPN FC experts to summarize what you need to know heading into a big weekend.
Man United vs. Arsenal: Can Wenger finally beat Mourinho?
We can all pretend that Manchester United vs. Arsenal isn’t about Jose Mourinho vs. Arsene Wenger, but it is. Oh, it really is.
These two men loathe each other and defeat is unacceptable for either one of them. But of course, with the exception of the Community Shield last season, Mourinho has never experienced that feeling. He has won seven and drawn six of 13 competitive encounters with the Frenchman, the highlight of which was the emphatic 6-0 thrashing his Chelsea side handed out on Wenger’s 1,000th game in charge. But are the tables about to turn?
Manchester United have started poorly this season while Arsenal are unbeaten since their opening-day defeat to Liverpool. Mourinho, usually so transformative upon his arrival at a new club, is struggling for form. Wenger is enjoying a run of 10 wins in his past 12 games.
Non-Arsenal fans have problems believing that the Gunners will ever find the consistency and resolve required to win a title, and defeat at Old Trafford will vindicate their stance. But if Wenger can find a way to finally defeat Mourinho, if he can lead Arsenal to a crucial victory, who knows? Maybe this could be Arsenal’s year. — Iain Macintosh
Atletico Madrid vs. Real Madrid: Simeone seeks revenge
The biggest fixture in La Liga so far this year is also a rematch of last season’s Champions League final, as Atletico Madrid host crosstown rivals Real Madrid in the Spanish capital’s derbi on Saturday evening.
Historic scrappers Atletico have often had the upper hand over their more glamorous neighbours through recent years, and are unbeaten over 90 minutes in their past 13 encounters in all competitions. But May’s penalty shootout defeat to Madrid, which followed similar late heartbreak in the UCL decider two years earlier, means that Diego Simeone’s side will be seeking revenge at their Estadio Vicente Calderon.
Atletico have had a mixed 2016-17 so far. The shift to a more attack-minded style suits emerging superstar attackers Antoine Griezmann and Yannick Carrasco. However the team now look more suspect in defence and have lost two of their past three league fixtures to slip six points behind table toppers Madrid. They will need to tighten things up knowing another defeat would all but end their title chances.
Zinedine Zidane’s outfit have yet to catch fire this campaign, with the Frenchman’s tactical acumen increasingly questioned, and superstar Cristiano Ronaldo not on top form, although they still remain unbeaten in all competitions. Zidane’s big decision is whether to risk key men returning from injury — including Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema and Casemiro — with a Clasico against Barcelona, some vital Champions League group fixtures and the World Club Cup all looming. — Dermot Corrigan
Borussia Dortmund vs. Bayern Munich: Edge to Tuchel?
The Bavarians might have been dominating the Bundesliga fairly effortlessly in recent years, but the Black and Yellows have more than held their own in the game known as “Der Klassiker” since the turn of the decade. Four wins and three draws in the 11 matches over the past five years attest to Borussia’s continued ability to trouble the German champions.
Saturday night’s resumption of hostilities at the sold-out, 81,000-capacity Signal Iduna Park promises another typically heated, noisy and breathtakingly pacy affair, an eponymous tussle between contrasting managerial styles — Carlo Ancelotti’s hands-off approach vs. Thomas Tuchel’s interventionist micromanagement — and a bit of drama courtesy of the return of former BVB captain Mats Hummels in a Bayern shirt.
There’s a battle of sharpshooters as another Dortmund old boy, Polish forward Robert Lewandowski, will square off against his successor, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the best striker in the current campaign (11 goals) so far, while Mario Götze will get a chance to prove that Bayern were wrong to let him go back to Westphalia.
Dortmund’s results have been a little inconsistent, but it wouldn’t be a big surprise if they were to beat the visitors and get back within three points of the top of the table. Stacked with young, exciting talent such as budding U.S. sensation Christian Pulisic, 18, they have shown glimpses of a great future, whereas Ancelotti’s more mature team have yet to fully hit their stride. — Raphael Honigstein
AC Milan vs. Inter: An era ends, another begins
The 165th Derby della Madonnina promises to be of genuine historical significance in this rivalry. With Milan’s takeover now due to be completed by Dec. 13, it is the last of the Silvio Berlusconi/Adriano Galliani administration that delivered five of Milan’s seven European Cups; the end of an era.
As was the case little more than two years ago, an Inter manager will also make his debut in the biggest fixture of the season at San Siro. Stefano Pioli has had less than a fortnight to work with a squad decimated by international call-ups, although captain Mauro Icardi, unseen wunderkind Gabigol and €33 million flop Geoffrey Kondogbia were left behind.
Milan have so far exceeded expectations. A triumph for coaching, Vincenzo Montella has placed faith in youth and adapted his coaching philosophy to fit the players he has inherited. Despite spending €100m less than Inter in the summer, Milan have been greater than the sum of their parts. Inter have been so much less. Pioli has more talent available to him but needs to make a self-centred group of Inter players come together as a team and fast.
Both teams aspire to return to the Champions League. The fact both have beaten Juventus this season shows what they are capable of. — James Horncastle