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Must-see games in Premier League, LaLiga, Bundesliga before World Cup



Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace last Saturday was the first of 13 matches the Blues will end up playing between October 1 and November 12. Most of their biggest English rivals will end up playing 12 matches in that span.

Borussia Dortmund will have crammed in a DFB-Pokal match, four huge Champions League battles, and matches against Der Klassiker rival Bayern Munich, Bundesliga leader Union Berlin and local rivals Bochum and Borussia Monchengladbach.

Barcelona will have played 12 matches, squeezing in October 16’s El Clasico around a trio of vital Champions League matches (two against Inter Milan, one against Bayern Munich), the first of which they lost on Tuesday.

Welcome to “Hell Month.” (We’re going with that because it sounds better than Hell Six Weeks.) With two-thirds of Champions League, Europa League and Conference League group-stage matches, nearly every major European derby — starting with Manchester City and Manchester United last weekend and rolling from there — and a countless number of huge league battles all crammed into an abbreviated timeline thanks to the impending World Cup pause, this could be the most important and exhausting month (or so) of club play the sport has seen.

We already saw some telling league matches last weekend, and Matchday 3 of the Champions League has come and gone, but my own head was beginning to swim with all of the important matches coming up. I figure yours might be as well. So let’s step back for a moment and take stock. What huge matches are happening, and when? What will be decided by the time the eyes of the soccer world turn to Qatar in mid-November? What questions will get answered? And what teams will we learn the most about as these weeks continue to unfold? Here’s a look at some of the most interesting storylines:

Was Barcelona’s mortgaging of the future worth it?

You could make the case that Barcelona’s home match vs. Inter Milan next Wednesday is the club’s biggest match in years.

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It was an open gamble, both exhilarating and, if we’re being honest, inadvisable, when Barca sold away assets (€500 million in future television revenue, plus 49% stakes in its in-house Barca Studios) to bring in the likes of attackers Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha, midfielder Franck Kessie and defenders Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen, Marcos Alonso and Hector Bellerin.

They had the pieces to put together one of the greatest long-term youth movements the sport has seen — midfielders Pedri (19) and Gavi (18), winger Ansu Fati (19), fullback Alex Balde (18) — but chose win-now mode instead. Win now, you see, and the money cannon will turn back on, and the selling of future money will be overpowered by the influx of present money.

Of the new additions, only Lewandowski has topped 500 minutes in all competitions so far — many have already been bitten by the injury bug — but Barca is, for the most part, winning now. They are first in LaLiga, having outscored six opponents by a combined 19-1 since opening with a scoreless draw vs. Rayo Vallecano, and their shots have generated more xG than their opponents in each of their first three Champions League matches.

But Lewandowski missed a series of chances (seven shots, 1.1 xG, no goals) against Bayern Munich, his old club, in a 2-0 loss in September. And on Tuesday at the San Siro, Barca seemingly got screwed by a late penalty no-call but had left far too much to chance before then, managing just seven total shots (two in the final 55 minutes) and falling victim to a screamer of a goal from Hakan Calhanoglu late in the first half. Their 1-0 defeat dropped them to third place in Group C midway through the group stage.

Odds will shift back in their favor a bit if they can take down Inter in next week’s return match in Barcelona. The two teams would then be tied in second place at six points, Barca would have a goal differential advantage, and advancing to the Champions League knockout rounds would therefore come down to (a) who beat last place Viktoria Plzen by more (in case goal differential ends up mattering) and (b) whether either team could take points from Bayern. Since Barca played Bayern better in their first match and gets the return match at home, you figure (b) is in Barca’s favor too.

All is not lost, in other words. But the loss in Milan introduced the distinct possibility of Barca selling away part of its future and getting another trip to the Europa League in return. Even if they were to run away with LaLiga, it would be fair to consider the club’s extremely risky maneuvering a failure if it isn’t rewarded with immediate Champions League spoils.

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Who else will emerge from maybe the blurriest group-stage picture we’ve seen in a while?

Through three matches of the 2021-22 Champions League group stage, most of the spots in the Round of 16 had already been mostly decided. Per FiveThirtyEight’s SPI ratings, nine of 32 teams already had a greater than 90% chance of advancing, and three more were at 78% or higher, while eight teams were already under 10%.

Midway through this season’s group stage, the picture is far blurrier. There are still eight teams at 90% or higher, of course, but only six have been more or less eliminated. We’ve got a few dud groups — Napoli and Liverpool look likely to advance from Group A (Ajax is down to an 18% chance), Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund from Group G and PSG and Benfica (with Juventus clinging to an 8% chance) in Group H — but very little has been decided in the other five.

In Group B, Club Brugge has positioned itself beautifully to advance, but the other three teams (Atletico Madrid, Porto, Bayer Leverkusen) are all between 29-42%. In Group F, Real Madrid is playing the role of Club Brugge, but Celtic (18%), Shakhtar Donetsk (34%) and RB Leipzig (49%) are not yet safe.

In Group D, Sporting CP and Tottenham Hotspur are favorites to advance at 75% and 69%, respectively, but Eintracht Frankfurt (30%) and Marseille (26%) are one upset away from surging odds. In Group E, Dinamo Zagreb is almost done (13%), but Chelsea, Salzburg and AC Milan all have 4-5 points and are all between 57-65%.

Focusing solely on those with at least a 25% chance, there are loads of high-leverage matches on the near horizon.

  • Tuesday, October 11: Chelsea at AC Milan (Group E), Real Madrid at Shakhtar Donetsk (F)

  • Wednesday, October 12: Club Brugge at Atletico Madrid (B), Porto at Bayer Leverkusen (B), Inter Milan at Barcelona (C), Eintracht Frankfurt at Tottenham Hotspur (D), Marseille at Sporting CP (D)

  • Tuesday, October 25: Chelsea at RB Salzburg (E), Real Madrid at RB Leipzig (F)

  • Wednesday, October 26: Bayer Leverkusen at Atletico Madrid (B), Porto at Club Brugge (B), Bayern Munich at Barcelona (C), Sporting CP at Tottenham Hotspur (D), Marseille at Eintracht Frankfurt (D)

  • Tuesday, November 1: Atletico Madrid at Porto (B), Club Brugge at Bayer Leverkusen (B), Inter Milan at Bayern Munich (C), Eintracht Frankfurt at Sporting CP (D), Tottenham Hotspur at Marseille (D)

  • Wednesday, November 2: RB Salzburg at AC Milan (E), RB Leipzig at Shakhtar Donetsk (F)

Obviously the odds could change and diminish some of those later matches, but there remains a ton to be decided in the final three matchdays.

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How quickly can Graham Potter get Chelsea revved up (and is his old club really going to stay in this thing)?

I’m not ready to say we’ve got a title race on our hands in the Premier League just yet, and neither are oddsmakers. With 21 points through eight matches, Arsenal continues to lead Manchester City by a point and remains 11 up on another preseason favorite, Liverpool. But FiveThirtyEight still gives City a 70% chance of taking the title, while City lists their odds at -400, equivalent to 80% implied odds. October’s match between Arsenal and City was postponed due to side effects of other postponements following Queen Elizabeth’s death in September, so we might not learn everything we need to about the Gunners in the weeks ahead.

Other teams, however? We’ll learn a lot. There are currently seven Premier League teams with at least a 20% chance at a top-four finish per 538 or betting odds of +1000 to finish in the top four per Caesars Sportsbook: Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Brighton and Manchester United. 10 matches between these teams will take place between now and November 9:

  • Saturday, October 8: Tottenham Hotspur at Brighton

  • Sunday, October 9: Liverpool at Arsenal

  • Sunday, October 16: Manchester City at Liverpool

  • Wednesday, October 19: Tottenham Hotspur at Manchester United

  • Saturday, October 22: Manchester United at Chelsea and Brighton at Manchester City

  • Saturday, October 29: Chelsea at Brighton

  • Sunday, November 6: Arsenal at Chelsea and Liverpool at Tottenham Hotspur

  • Wednesday, November 9: Chelsea at Manchester City

Arsenal and Manchester United are only involved in two of these matches, while Brighton, City, Liverpool and Spurs are involved in three. Chelsea, meanwhile? Four! In an 18-day span! And that doesn’t include four potentially huge matches that mostly precede that run — at AC Milan in the Champions League (Oct. 11), at Aston Villa (Oct. 16), at Brentford (Oct. 20) and at Salzburg in the Champions League (Oct. 25).

No one has a rougher go during Hell Month than the Blues … who are also in the process of breaking in a new manager. Graham Potter finally got a chance to make his Chelsea debut in last Saturday’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, he oversaw an impressive 3-0 stomping of Milan on Wednesday. That was a particularly encouraging sign about how well and how quickly he might be able to implement his vision.

The coming weeks will set all the stakes for the rest of the season. Are these two wins a sign that they will rip off a hot streak and insert themselves into the Premier League race (or at least make themselves a likely top-four team again)? Will they stutter and give themselves a lot of work to do in January and beyond? Will they stumble at Milan and Salzburg and get dumped to the Europa League?

There is so much at stake for the West London club. There’s quite a bit at stake for the club Potter left, too. With a 3-3 draw at Liverpool last Saturday in their first match with Potter’s replacement, Roberto De Zerbi, Brighton sent a message that it is not particularly interested in disappearing from the top-four race. The Seagulls are currently fourth in the league with 14 points — one point ahead of Chelsea, two ahead of United and four ahead of Liverpool — and 538 currently gives them a 25% chance of a top-four finish.

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England’s Big Six clubs have had a mostly ironclad grip on the top four, so even still remaining at 25% at this point is an accomplishment. But if Brighton has staying power, we’ll find out pretty soon. They face Spurs on Saturday, then face a tricky trip to 10th-place Brentford next Friday before bracing for back-to-back Saturdays against City and Potter’s Chelsea. Take at least six points or so from those four matches, and odds are solid that Brighton will be in this race for a while longer.

Do Union Berlin and Freiburg have staying power?

The Bundesliga title race is a lot like the Premier League’s at the moment: The obvious favorite isn’t currently in first place, but the oddsmakers still expect them to get there. Bayern Munich is currently in third, two points behind both Union Berlin and Freiburg; they weathered an odd four-match winless streak in league play, and in their first two matches since the international break they outscored Bayer Leverkusen and Viktoria Plzen by a combined 9-0.

FiveThirtyEight still gives Bayern an 81% chance of winning the league for the 11th consecutive season, and Caesars Sportsbook lists their title odds at -1100, equivalent to 92% implied odds. Not bad for a team that isn’t even been in first place. The great thing about the Bundesliga, however, is that while the title race is rarely enticing, the race for top-four finishes is frequently bonkers. Seemingly anyone can make a run, and the races usually go down to the wire.

There are currently 11 teams with either (a) a 19% chance or greater at a top-four finish per FiveThirtyEight or (b) +600 odds or greater per Caesars Sportsbook: Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Freiburg, Union Berlin, Koln, Hoffenheim, Eintracht Frankfurt, Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen and Mainz. That’s nearly two-thirds of the league! Bayern and Dortmund have solid odds, but thanks in part to slow starts from RBL and Leverkusen, everything else is a crapshoot. And with that many teams involved, it probably goes without saying that there are lots of upcoming matches that could sway these odds in the coming weeks — 23 in all. Four matches (in bold below) could be particularly enlightening.

  • Saturday, October 8: Bayern at Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig at Mainz

  • Sunday, October 9: Koln at Borussia Monchengladbach

  • Saturday, October 15: Bayer Leverkusen at Eintracht Frankfurt

  • Sunday, October 16: Freiburg at Bayern, Borussia Dortmund at Union Berlin

  • Friday, October 21: Koln at Mainz

  • Saturday, October 22: Bayern at Hoffenheim, Eintracht Frankfurt at Borussia Monchengladbach

  • Saturday, October 29: Mainz at Bayern, Borussia Dortmund at Eintracht Frankfurt, Bayer Leverkusen at RB Leipzig

  • Sunday, October 30: Borussia Monchengladbach at Union Berlin, Hoffenheim at Koln

  • Saturday, November 5: RB Leipzig at Hoffenheim

  • Sunday, November 6: Koln at Freiburg, Union Berlin at Bayer Leverkusen

  • Wednesday, November 9: Freiburg at RB Leipzig, Hoffenheim at Eintracht Frankfurt, Bayer Leverkusen at Koln

  • Friday, November 11: Borussia Dortmund at Borussia Monchengladbach

  • Sunday, November 13: Union Berlin at Freiburg, Eintracht Frankfurt at Mainz

Just as they were last year, Freiburg and Union are perhaps the most intriguing stories of this early Bundesliga campaign, and they haven’t in any emerged from out of nowhere to currently tie atop the table. But over the next two weekends we’ll learn if one or both teams is likely to keep their current title hopes alive for a while longer (the odds of that aren’t amazing), or whether they will soon be relegated to simply jostling with the masses for a top-four spot.

Who is Napoli’s biggest competition in Serie A?

Napoli has destroyed three Champions League opponents — including Liverpool — by a combined 13-2 thus far. Playing at Ajax on Tuesday, they spotted the home team a 1-0 lead via a ninth-minute goal from Mohammed Kudus, then proceeded to lay the hammer down. They scored four times between the 18th and 45th minutes, then added second-half goals from Giovanni Simeone and the revelatory Khvicha Kvaratskhelia to win 6-1.

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Granted, their league form has mellowed out a bit even while remaining unbeaten — after dominating their first two opponents by a combined 9-2, they’ve outscored the last six by a combined 9-4 — but it’s safe to call Napoli a serious threat to land its first Scudetto since 1990.

FiveThirtyEight gives them a 44% chance at winning Serie A, and Caesars Sportsbook lists their odds at +225 (equivalent to 31%). But the next three teams in the Serie A table at the moment aren’t Inter (languishing in 10th), Juventus (seventh), Roma (sixth) or AC Milan (fifth) — they’re Atalanta (tied with Napoli at 20 points), Udinese (one point back) and Lazio (three back).

There are currently six teams with either an 11% title chance or greater per FiveThirtyEight or +800 odds or greater per Caesars: Napoli, Milan, Inter, Atalanta, Roma and Juventus. The numbers aren’t Udinese or Lazio believers yet, but Napoli’s biggest threat could come from any of five teams. And there are five matches between these contenders over the next few weeks.

  • Saturday, October 8: Juventus at AC Milan

  • Sunday, October 23: Napoli at Roma

  • Saturday, November 5: Napoli at Atalanta

  • Sunday, November 6: Inter at Juventus

  • Sunday, November 13: Inter at Atalanta

Udinese and Lazio play on October 16, then combine for five matches against these contenders in the weeks that follow. If they’re legit, they’ve got serious opportunities to prove it. But in the meantime, Napoli faces a couple of daunting road matches, as does Inter once its Champions League fate has been determined. The odds seem to point to AC Milan as Napoli’s most likely threat, but the picture will likely be much clearer after Hell Month. (Or, Napoli could lose a couple on the road and make the picture much blurrier.)

Who are Spain’s third-best team?

As far as both derby power and domestic title stakes go, one match rules them all in October: Barcelona’s October 16 visit to Real Madrid. Four days after fighting for their Champions League lives, Barca fights for first in LaLiga.

I could note that Athletic Club is smoking hot and only three points behind the two heavyweights, or that four other teams are within six points of the top — it’s not like Real Madrid and Barcelona have already run laps around the pack. But you don’t need to know the odds to understand the history of this league and those two clubs. They’re both unbeaten to date, and they’ve both looked the part.

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As with the Premier League and Bundesliga, however, that’s where it’s great to have a crazy top-four race to follow. And right now, five Spanish teams besides Barca and Real Madrid have top-four odds of either 19% or greater per FiveThirtyEight or +300 or better per Caesars: Atletico Madrid, Villarreal, Athletic, Real Sociedad and Real Betis. (Apologies to sixth-place Osasuna, who evidently hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt from the numbers just yet.) And while the LaLiga schedule is pretty heavily back-loaded and features lots of big matches in January, there are still seven matches between these teams over the next three weeks or so:

  • Sunday, October 9: Villarreal at Real Sociedad

  • Saturday, October 15: Atletico Madrid at Athletic Club

  • Thursday, October 20: Villarreal at Barcelona

  • Sunday, October 23: Athletic Club at Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at Real Betis

  • Sunday, October 30: Villarreal at Athletic Club and Real Betis at Real Sociedad

Atleti hasn’t finished outside of the top four since 2012 and has the best odds of doing so among this bunch, but Diego Simeone’s squad has been far from dominant this season. Road games against both Athletic and Real Betis pop up in the middle of a vital stretch of Champions League matches, and dropped points would damage their top-four odds significantly. But even if Atleti ends up finding its form and cruising, thanks to Sevilla’s early dismal play — they’re currently in 17th place with just one win — has opened the door for a four-way battle royale between the others.

Villarreal and Athletic each show up three times in the seven matches above. Each team has lost just once in LaLiga play thus far (though Villarreal’s propensity for draws has dropped them three points out of the top four in eighth place), and a continued run of form would do wonders for their own top-four odds.

Are things about to get weird in the Netherlands?

From other European competitions to North American playoffs, there is, of course, plenty of other intriguing soccer going on outside of Europe’s Big 4 leagues (and the biggest league, the Champions League). For my own benefit as much as anything else, I pieced together a schedule of particularly intriguing matches. If it’s of use to me, it might be of use to others, too.

  • Saturday, October 8: Liga MX playoffs begin

  • Saturday, October 15: MLS playoffs begin

  • Sunday, October 16: Marseille at PSG (Ligue 1)

  • Sunday, October 30: Lille at Lyon (Ligue 1)

  • Friday, October 21: Benfica at Porto (Primeira Liga), plus USL Championship playoffs begin

  • Sunday, October 23: Bayern at Wolfsburg (Frauen Bundesliga) and Monaco at Lille (Ligue 1)

  • Sunday, November 6: Chelsea at Manchester United (Women’s Super League), Barcelona at Real Madrid (Liga F), PSV Eindhoven at Ajax (Eredivisie) and Lyon at Marseille (Ligue 1)

  • Saturday, November 12: AZ Alkmaar at PSV Eindhoven

I’m including a couple of Lille and Lyon matches in there because both French teams have vital weeks ahead when it comes to getting into the Champions League race currently dominated by PSG, Marseille and, to a degree, Lens. But the Eredivisie race has my full attention right now.

Current Eredivisie top 5:

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1. AZ Alkmaar — 20 points (+11 goal differential)

2. Ajax — 19 points (+17)

3. PSV Eindhoven — 18 points (+15)

4. Feyenoord — 17 points (+11)

5. Twente — 16 points (+10)

Heavyweights Ajax (no wins in any competition since September 10) and PSV (two losses in four league matches) have dropped more points than usual of late, and while they remain the overall favorites, it’s not like AZ and Feyenoord in particular don’t have recent quality on their resume. A few matches in the coming weeks could turn that race on its head … or totally restore order. Either one.

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