We have one more weekend of European soccer matches before the start of the international break. There aren't many outstanding Serie A fixtures. However, there are two matchups with marquee names in Premier League -- Chelsea-Liverpool, Arsenal-Manchester City -- and RB Leipzig-VfL Wolfsburg. Also, Lionel Messi's possible debut at Paris Saint-Germain and intriguing matchups that will appeal to quick starters such as Sevilla FC or Brighton.
This giant tasting menu is for the weekend.
Arsenal at Manchester City
(Saturday, at 7:30 a.m. ET / 12:30 p.m. BST)
What does Arsenal do right now?
Let's try the "compliment sandwich” approach to discussing Arsenal's "two matches and zero points" start in Premier League play. Two positives will be presented in the midst of a harsh truth.
Positve 1: They are tilting the pitch quite well! The attacking third, also known as the. Arsenal's defensive three has allowed only 11 possessions. Only five other teams have allowed less. While Arsenal's opponents don't have any chance in this area (they've started only 12 possessions of the attacking third), the Gunners are moving the ball out their danger zone and that's helping to them finish more possessions at dangerous areas than their rivals.
Play 1:14 Burley: Arsenal job a 'poisoned cup' Craig Burley talks about Arsenal's difficulties in the Premier League's first two games, which has them at 19th place in the standings.
The hard truth is that they cannot save their lives by creating a quality shot. They tried 22 shots against Brentford and only one of them had an xG greater than 0.10. They did manage to create two of these shots against Chelsea but only managed six shots. Chelsea took 22 shots and five had an xG value greater than 0.10.
Chelsea may be the most successful team in Europe at the moment, so it might not be fair to compare a rebuilding Arsenal with that level. The Gunners also created fewer quality opportunities against Brentford recently promoted, and they attempted fewer shots (0.17 per possessive to opponents' 0.19) through two matches, and average 0.07xG per shot (worst performance in the Premier League) against opponents' 0.16 (second worst). The Gunners spent a lot of money, did not upgrade their attack and are now in a position where last year's strengths are almost the same as this year's.
Positve 2: Could we actually see their actual lineup this week? This is not so much a positive, but a non-negative. Arsenal fielded a lineup in Wednesday's Carabao Cup match with West Bromwich Albion that was closer to the future. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who had missed matches due to a positive COVID-19 testing, finally made it onto the field. Midfield re-addition Martin Odegaard, signed from Real Madrid after spending half of last season on loan from Arsenal), and goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, signed recently from Sheffield United, also took part in the match. Alexandre Lacazette, a forward, was absent from the field early in the season.
The win was 6-0. It was against a Championship team with a lot of reserves. However, it served to remind Arsenal that their poor start in league play wasn't due to their best lineup. It is unfathomable that Arsenal spent so much money to only have to rely on Lacazette and Aubameyang again. But they will be at least better with those two players.
Mikel Arteta, Arsenal manager, is under increasing pressure. Can they pull off an unlikely win at Man City this weekend for Arsenal? David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
All of this will be against City? It is unlikely. They defeated Norwich after a City-like defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. The team has not fielded a full strength lineup. Due to injury and rest, Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden have combined for 11 league minutes.
A potential Harry Kane deal has officially been canceled, and there was a brief period when Cristiano Ronaldo was rumored to be coming to the Etihad. City is still a work in progress. However, it would not surprise them to take three points on Saturday.
Chelsea at Liverpool
(Saturday, 12:20 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.m. BST)
Big names + packed Anfield = must-watch
It's early enough in the season to have a match of any league stakes. However, any time that two Champions League winners meet, it's huge. Two wins by Chelsea and Liverpool, a combined score of 5-0, have been enjoyed by both teams. Three of those victories were against teams that are likely to finish lower in the table (Crystal Palace, Burnley, and Norwich City for Liverpool). Both teams have been dominant on the ball and taken a lot of shots, while pushing around less competition.
Chelsea won the Champions League, and then added Romelu Lukaku to its team. Liverpool still has many unmet needs. Jurgen Klopp's squad has healthy centre-backs, which is a nice change. Harvey Elliott, an 18-year-old winger, might also mean that Liverpool's greatest needs have been met in-house.
Although the stakes aren't high yet, the quality of this match should be. It is the largest match at Anfield in 17 years. This is enough to make you want to see.
Play 0:56 Will Liverpool claim the top spot in Champions League Group B Steve Nicol reviews Liverpool's Champions League group, which includes Porto, Atletico Madrid and Milan.
Sevilla at Elche
(Saturday, at 1:30 p.m. ET / 6:30 p.m. BST, ESPN+)
Sevilla is a particular 'Sevilla’ so far
Only four teams have scored more than four goals in La Liga play so far, while 10 allowed only one goal. Julen Lopetegui's Sevilla is the only one to have done both. Although they haven’t won the league in 46 years and haven’t finished in the top 2 since 1957, they were one of the most likely beneficiaries of Real Madrid’s and Barcelona’s financial problems, and they have started well.
Los Nervionenses can be comfortable in lower scoring matches, and LaLiga at the moment is the most low-scoring. You shouldn't expect fireworks to beat an Elche team that has allowed and scored a combined goal in two matches. However, Sevilla is always interesting to watch. There are many long switches of play, stretched defenses, and lots of quality shots so far this season. They may end up in fourth place, but they could be on the verge of more, especially if they are able to take nine points into the international break.
RB Leipzig in Wolfsburg
(Sunday, 11:01 a.m. ET / 4:30 p.m. BST, ESPN+)
A battle for the Bundesliga's early heavyweight (or even cruiserweight) title.
The Bundesliga's only remaining perfect team isn't Bayern, RB Leipzig (lost in Mainz), or Borussia Dortmund (lost at Freiburg). It's Mark van Bommel's Wolfsburg from last year. They have followed the same formula as last year, despite a new manager: Keep the ball out of danger areas, keep it from getting into goal, and get some magic from Wout Wegehorst to win.
Weghorst scored one goal and created two more in their 1-0 victory over Bochum. He also scored in a bizarre DFB-Pokal match against Preussen Munster, which the club was disqualified for using too many substitutes. In a comeback victory over Hertha Berliner, he also received some assistance from Lukas Nmecha and Ridle Baku.
This is a much tougher test. Jesse Marsch's RBL was jumped by a motivated Mainz in the season opener. They lost 1-0 despite some good late chances. But they responded by crushing Stuttgart, 4-0 last Friday. Finally healthy January addition Dominik Zoboszlai has scored twice and created five opportunities in just 94 minutes. This was despite having 11 ball recoveries. RBL has been looking good since Mainz's slow start. This Sunday's headliner is at least among matches without Messi.
Everton at Brighton
(Saturday, 10:01 a.m. ET / 3 p.m. BST)
Crystal Palace in West Ham United
(Saturday, 10:01 a.m. ET / 3 p.m. BST)
How good is Brighton and West Ham?
Fourteen of Europe's Big 5 leagues saw at least two matchdays so far. We're down to nine perfect teams in the four leagues. These are not surprising: PSG in Ligue 1; Sevilla; Wolfsburg in Bundesliga; Wolfsburg in LaLiga; Liverpool in Premier League. To beat City twice, Tottenham had to win. However, there are two Premier League players that stand out: West Ham and Brighton.
Brighton has won over Watford and Burnley so far, but they are not Champions League contenders. It's not surprising that they have come out of the gate with high quality after a season in which they performed better than their point total allowed (fifth place in xG differential, 16th table). Rafael Benitez's Everton is the most difficult test they have seen, and it's also quite a "possession-vs.-anti-possession" battle.
Brighton has 59% possession thus far. They take their time moving the ball up the field and 60% of their passes have been made in their own half, which is fourth in the league. Everton are third in possession at 39% and average 3.0 possessions per possession, which is second to Burnley.
West Ham is coming off its best season in years -- they finished sixth and qualified to play in the Europa League. So starting with two wins won't be that remarkable, especially considering they beat Newcastle and what was for 50 minute a 10-man Leicester. They've looked great.
The Hammers won the game by dominating Leicester for the first 40 minutes. They attempted seven shots to Leicester's two, 0.58xG to 0.13, and won 71% of the duels. They treated Newcastle as a top team. They have the highest goal differential in the league, tied with Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as the highest xG differential. After two matches, it's all you can hope for. It was a little worrying that West Ham did not make any moves to increase depth with continental play on their horizon. We'll be watching to see if this causes a problem in terms of results. They are one step closer to being flawless at the first international break.
Play 1:34 Laurens. Real Madrid showing off their Mbappe bid Julien Laurens explains how Real Madrid moved to sign Kylian Mbappe a year before he becomes an independent agent.
Real Madrid at Real Betis
(Saturday at 4 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. BST, ESPN+)
Real Madrid is a must-see
In 20 LaLiga matches, there have been only 39 goals -- less than one goal per match. Two Real Madrid matches have produced eleven of those goals (a total 28%). Los Blancos defeated Deportivo Alaves 4-1, and then lost an early lead to draw 3-3 with Levante. Vinicius Junior scored three goals, KarimBenzema had two goals and two assists and in what has been the most impressive show of solidarity Real Madrid has shown toward LaLiga in many years, the team gave opponents quite a few high quality scoring opportunities.
Real Betis will be testing both sides of this generosity. Manuel Pellegrini's squad doesn't believe in high-quality scoring chances, but it prevents too many trips to their third.
PSG at Reims
Sunday, 2:45 p.m. ET / 7:45 p.m. BST)
play 2:26 Could Messi and Ronaldo face each other again? PSG vs. Man City is the headline UCL draw Gab Marcotti, Julien Laurens and I discuss the possibility for Messi or Ronaldo to renew their rivalry.
I don't know why you should watch PSG-Reims.
None at all?
FC Groningen at PSV Eindhoven
(Saturday, 2.30 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. BST, ESPN+)
The Champions League dilemma: Creating a more competitive league or rewarding champions
PSV has not been in the Champions League knockout stages since 1988, when they won the European Cup. They have also never won a group stage match since 2016. They won't be changing this year as a result of their loss to Benfica during the final qualifying round.
It was disappointing to lose to Benfica, the 1988 runner-up, because they were ahead for the final 58 minutes and Eran Zahavi missed a golden chance in the second half. They have outscored two Eredivisie rivals by 6-1. Ajax was thrashed 4-0 to win the Johan Cruyff Shield. Midtjylland and Galatasaray were outscored by 11-2 each in the first two rounds. They have played only 30 minutes in nine matches so far, including the first half against Benfica. This was enough to keep them out the Champions League.
It was disappointing, in fact, that PSV and Benfica played each other.
The Champions path and League paths are used to qualify for the six final Champions League spots. In the Champions path group stage, there were four Champions path spots. This was the final round in which 24 European league champions competed for the four Champions path spots. The League path gave 11 second- and third-place teams from different leagues the chance to win two additional group-stage tickets.
It makes perfect sense, it is the Champions League after all and league champions deserve preferential treatment. This is the same idea that guides how groups are drawn. The teams in Pot 1 (the "top seed" for each group) this year were six league champions, and the winners last year of the Europa League and Champions League.
This is however a good thing in practice. The final two League path pairings were ranked by EloFootball.com. 27 Benfica beating No. 36 PSV and No. 38 Shakhtar Donetsk taking down No. 48 Monaco. Only two of the Champions path's final eight teams ranked among the top 50: Salzburg (No. 25) and Young Boys (No. 34). 34 No. 78 Malmo beat No. 94 Ludogorets beat No. 238 Sheriff Tiraspol won a huge upset over No. 52 Dinamo Zagreb.
The Sheriff's victory over Dinamo gave the Moldovan Divizia Nationala their first ever Champions League participant. It was quite an exciting story that sent many down a conflicting Wikipedia rabbit hole. In what is sure to be a packed Sheriff Stadium, the Wasps will host Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk. They'll almost certainly finish last in their group. They will win a huge moral victory with every point they score in their six contests. Monaco and PSV could have done more harm than good.
Champions League qualification could be compared to college basketball's NCAA Tournament which grants automatic bids for 31 conferences, despite the fact most don't have a chance at winning the title. The NCAA Tournament offers more at-large bids to the PSVs around the world, and also brings the stakes associated with single elimination. One good Sheriff result, or even a major upset, won't likely change any title path.
This is clearly an aesthetic issue with no clear answer. However, simply asking the question will make me an arrogant American once more on Twitter. Were we willing to give league champions preferential treatment so that Sheriff gets a chance in the spotlight? Are we aiming for the Champions League to reward better teams for playing well even though they aren’t league champions? Do you think the Champions League "champions" concept is silly? Only two of the six Champions League winners have been domestic champions?
PSA: Life is much more fun when you watch soccer teams. You should be watching PSV whenever you can, regardless of where they are playing.