As we here in the Northeast United States prepare to be blanketed by Winter Storm Jonas, the warmth of a packed schedule of European football games is very welcome. The early morning distraction from the impending full day of shoveling will be much appreciated by myself as well as hopefully you the reader. Last week's games, other than Liverpool's bummer of a result against Manchester United, provided ample entertainment. With the return of the Bundesliga this weekend, I am hoping for even finer results. So without further ado let's head off to Germany for the Bundesliga's first weekend of 2016.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen vs TSG 1899 Hoffenheim (9:30 AM ET/Fox Sports 1)
Bayern Munich opened up the Bundesliga's second half on Friday evening. With the main attraction out of the way, the second biggest draw of the weekend is Bayer Leverkusen's match at bottom of the table Hoffenheim. You are probably thinking to yourself how that game trumps the Borussia Dortmund/Borussia Monchengladbach match that is happening at 12:30. Just one name is necessary as explanation: Javier Hernandez. Chicharito's season in the Bundesliga has been marketing gold for the German league. Invigorated interest from across North America is almost in direct correlation to the Mexican striker's amazing form in Germany and in European competitions. Today he takes aim at a Hoffenheim team renown for their inclusion of US internationals, but struggling without one in their side in 2015-16. Though he isn't an American, Hoffenheim is hoping that a reinforcement from one of the England's top four can help them out of Germany's bottom three. Andrej Kramaric joined the club on loan this past week. Leicester's record signing had a difficult time usurping Shinji Okazaki and Jamie Vardy in Leicester's pecking order, so the challenge of a Bundesliga relegation battle can only help him when he returns to England. I don't think Kramaric gets on the scoresheet for his new club today, but I am damn near certain is getting on it for his as Leverkusen jump Monchengladbach (who I think will lose against Dortmund) into the final Champions League spot in the table.
PREDICTION: Bayer Leverkusen 2 Hoffenheim 1
ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE
Leicester City FC vs Stoke City FC (10:00 AM ET/Premier League Extra Time)
The teams boasting the front runners for Manager of the Year collide this morning in the Premier League as Leicester City hosts Stoke City at the King Power Stadium. Leicester has been sputtering of late, but still remain joint top of the Premiership with Arsenal on 44 points. Stoke City have been playing tremendous, and are on the cusp of being European interlopers themselves sitting in seventh pre-kickoff. What Claudio Ranieri has done with Leicester and Mark Hughes with Stoke this season has left every fan and pundit alike at a loss for words. Leicester's ascension from relegation fodder to title contender has been noted up and down but still remains an extraordinary feat. Hughes' transformation of Stoke from one of the league's ugliest to watch into one of the most technically fluid sides has been just as astounding. The Fleet Foxes versus Stoke-a-lona could easily be the fixture of the weekend, but with two in-form goalkeepers it may not feature as many goals as a neutral would hope for. Stoke's Jack Butland and Leicester's Kasper Schmeichel will get their saves, but I think that today is the day that Jamie Vardy gets his name back on the tippy top of the Golden Boot table as he nets his club a vital three points and heaps even more pressure on Arsenal as they prepare for Chelsea tomorrow.
PREDICTION: Leicester City 1 Stoke City 0
Celtic FC vs St. Johnstone FC (10:00 AM ET/Celtic TV)
Celtic met fierce competition at the top of the Scottish Premiership table for the 2015 half of the current season. Aberdeen have been valiant challengers to the throne, but it seems as 2016 roars in they are starting to waver in their opposition. Celtic have just a three point lead over second place at the moment, but they can double their money today with a win at Celtic Park against St. Johnstone. Celtic have been on fire in the new year. Their record is unblemished in 2016 and after a nervy 1-0 win versus Partick Thistle have won their last three games by a combined score of 15-2. 8 of those came against Hamilton Academical last time out, with 3 of the octet of goals coming from Leigh Griffiths. Health was a big issue for Celtic in 2015, and nobody's health has a bigger impact on the Bhoys than Griffiths'. His hat trick against the Accies gave him 27 across all competitions on the year, and Scotsman has set his sight on 40 goals for the year. That is bad news for a St. Johnstone side that has had a goal drought spanning five games, including a 3-0 loss to Celtic in December. There is no way that Celtic loses this game, it is just how well St. Johnstone can mitigate the damage inflicted.
PREDICTION: Celtic 4 St. Johnstone 0
FRENCH LIGUE 1
Paris Saint-Germain FC vs Angers SCO (11:00 AM ET/beIN Sports 3)
PSG and Angers are the two best defensive teams in France. The league leading Parisians have let in just nine goals in 21 games while Angers have leaked just 13 at the back in the same number of games. However, their offensive statistics is where the disparity in class between the two shines bright. PSG has put 51 goals past opposing keepers this season while Angers, who sit just outside of the Champions League places at the moment, have scored just 20. Only four teams in Ligue 1 have scored less frequently than Angers, and none are even within a sniff of European contention. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has 16 goals for PSG by himself. So the short story I'm trying to tell here is don't expect the Ligue 1 upstarts to get into a shootout with the European superpowers this afternoon. As they've shown thus far in a surprising campaign, I don't think Angers will back down from the PSG challenge. Hell, I think they will be able to stifle PSG for the better part of the game. They did before in a 0-0 draw on the first of December. But in the end, the relentless attack of Laurent Blanc's side will be just too much for Angers to come away with a point. With Champions League starting back up soon, PSG plan to use their domestic form as a launch pad for European success. That continues with a clean sheet and a win today.
PREDICTION: PSG 2 Angers 0
SPANISH LA LIGA
Villarreal CF vs RCD Espanyol (12:15 PM ET/beIN Sports ñ)
Nowadays everybody wanna talk like they got something to say, but nothing comes out when they move their lips just a bunch of jibberish you mothafuckas act like you forgot about Villarreal. Horrible Dr. Dre reference/run on sentence aside, nobody in football circles is putting Villarreal in the title picture in Spain. It is easy to discard challengers to the triumvirate of Barcelona and the dueling Madrids, but despite several hiccups during the current season Villarreal will not go away. With a win against Espanyol they will got level on points with Real Madrid. They don't score alot, but neither does Atletico Madrid. Their defense is third best in La Liga behind Atleti and Barcelona. They proved early on that they are equipped to disrupt Spain's status quo and I believe they will continue to put the pressure on the top three until the end, especially with two of those teams being handed transfer bans limiting their future expenditure. Espanyol, Barcelona's Catalan capital compatriots, has a new owner with high ambitions. Those expectations are far off at the moment as Espanyol has yet to win in 2016. Villarreal continue that run of futility with a narrow victory on Espanyol's home turf.
PREDICTION: Villarreal 1 Espanyol 0
ITALIAN SERIE A
Empoli FC vs AC Milan (2:45 PM ET/beIN Sports)
We finish off this snowy Saturday in Italy with Empoli and AC Milan. Milan isn't back to their lofty heights of decades past, but the Serie A luminaries are starting to construct something remotely resembling a team at the San Siro. Despite countless blunders over the course of this year, they are still just 3 points away from a European place. The team directly in front of them, Roma, has now transformed into a pseudo-Milan that can't get out of their own way. But today's contest against Empoli is anything but a slam dunk for the Rossoneri. Though their old boss Maurizio Sarri may be at the top of the table, and in hot water, with Napoli, Empoli is still playing some beautiful football in the middle of the Serie A table. Expect an end to end game today between them and Milan, with plenty of shots heading at the 16 year old wonderkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. Milan had a huge win against Fiorentina last time out keeping their first clean sheet of 2016. I don't think they'll do it again but...OK, full disclosure now. Norwich and Liverpool are trying to kill me with their lack of defending, so I'm just going to end this preview by saying Milan is going to win so I can focus on keeping my liver intact to the afternoon.
PREDICTION: AC Milan 2 Empoli 1
Stay warm. Stay dry. Stay lubricated. This group of football goodness should keep you company over the course of the day and into a similarly gloomy tomorrow. Join me in cracking open an AM (or a third in my case) beer and let's enjoy a day of brilliant football from all over the land mass across the Atlantic.