I'll be the first to admit when I am wrong. Man, was I wrong about yesterday's matches. Atletico Madrid did score first in their clash with Barcelona, but after Filipe Luis' horror tackle on Lionel Messi, it was all downhill from there for the visitors. How they were even able to keep it 2-1 after eventually going down to 9 men was extraordinary. Stuttgart ripped all three points from Hamburg in the 88th minute of their Bundesliga affair through new addition Artem Kravets. Porto exorcised their Estoril demons in our final game of the day with the man with name so nice they say it twice, Andre Andre, sealed the victory for the Dragões for the second straight game. We have a handful of games today to satiate your football desires so let's get to it. We begin this day similarly to yesterday in Spain as a fish out of water is still trying to make his first splash.
SPANISH LA LIGA
Valencia CF vs Sporting de Gijon SAD (10:00 AM ET/beIN Sports ñ)
It was quite the puzzling hiring for Valencia when Gary Neville was announced as Nuno's replacement in early December. Neville had zero professional managerial experience with his highest work coming as an England assistant and youth development coach. He also had zero fluency in Spanish, a bit of a roadblock if you will. But as it eventually crept out that he was business partners with Los Che owner Peter Lim, the strange hiring made a bit more sense. However, the inexperience, language barrier, and overall football philosophy has come under even more scrutiny as Neville's men have yet to win in La Liga during his tenure. They've gone seven games without a W and not even their success so far in the Copa Del Rey has been able to quiet his detractors. He will hope to put that first tick mark in the win column at the Mestalla this morning against relegation zone inhabitants Sporting Gijon. Gijon have been one of the worst road teams in La Liga this season, losing eight of their eleven matches with a -14 goal differential. They are however coming off their most impressive performance of the season in a 5-1 destruction of Real Sociedad. But that was at home, and even at Valencia's lowest the Mestalla is a hostile environment to play in. He may be a Manchester United guy, which kills me as both a Liverpool and Valencia supporter, but I want to see Neville get his first win out of the way today and push Los Che back up into European contention. It won't be pretty, but I think it happens.
PREDICTION: Valencia 2 Sporting Gijon 1
FC Twente Enschende vs FC Utrecht (10:45 AM ET/NGSN USA)
Today's trip to the Netherlands brings us a game between two Eredivisie mainstays in FC Twente and FC Utrecht. Though neither are in the Dutch stratosphere of an Ajax or PSV, Twente are firmly entrenched in the second tier of first division Dutch sides right behind Feyenoord and AZ Alkmaar. They were in financial ruin not too long ago but kept themselves afloat and then some. Twente is one of only two non-PSV/Ajax clubs to win the Eredivisie (AZ is the other) since the new millennium. They are my favorite Dutch side for the sheer fact that they use Liverpool anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone" as their rallying cry pre-match and in the closing moments of a win. They slipped to tenth last year after finishing no lower than sixth in the previous five seasons. Utrecht has less history than that of Twente, but they are still a storied Dutch club. They were the merger of the three Utrecht teams in the early 70's including former Dutch champion DOS. They upset the hierarchy in the Netherlands with several impressive KNVB Cup runs over the years, most recently with back to back wins in 2003 and 2004. But enough of the history lesson, let's get to the real reason why I am picking this game. It is because each side features prospects near the top of the Eredivisie's scoring charts that have been highly courted in the January transfer window. Each at 11 goals on the year, Twente's Hakim Ziyech (21 years old) and Utrecht's Sebastien Haller (22) are on the radar of teams from mid-table clubs from Spain, England, and France. Both are on the brink of becoming regular internationals, Ziyech for Morocco and Haller for France. I say both score today, but I say Ziyech's is the winner for the home side.
PREDICTION: FC Twente 2 FC Utrecht 1
FC Bayern Munich vs TSG 1899 Hoffenheim (11:30 AM ET/Fox Soccer Plus)
Bayern Munich is cruising in the Bundesliga, and to be honest they should handle Hoffenheim fairly easy this morning at the Allianz Arena. But the story with Munich isn't about their form, but rather the re-emergence of a behind the scenes distraction that could potentially submarine them in the transfer market and in the Champions League. Two years ago, a "mole" in Bayern's locker room began to leak quotes to the press about despondency among the players following the unpopular dismissal of tenured medic Dr. Hans Muller-Wohlfahrt after 38 years. This year the new (or same) mole is stating that the unrest has returned with Guardiola's policies regarding how players use their downtime. As Guardiola prepares to set the managerial carousel in motion this summer, this is another unneeded distraction for a club that is too talented to fall anything short of a treble this season. But to do so, they are going to have to fend off a Dortmund team that won't go away in the Bundesliga and UCL finalists from a year ago Juventus in the Round of 16 in the Champions League. Bayern cannot afford to be unsettled in both of these conquests, especially if any more injuries like the one to defender Jerome Boateng begin to pop up. For today's game, look less at the scoreboard and more at the body language of the players. Are they just going through the motions or do they still have cohesion? Time will tell.
PREDICTION: Bayern Munich 4 Hoffenheim 0
ITALIAN SERIE A
FC Internazionale Milano vs AC Milan (2:45 PM ET/beIN Sports)
While the title chase in Serie A is being sorted out with the early morning games (Juventus is currently going top up 4-0 on Chievo as I write this), the latest installment of the Milan Derby takes center stage this afternoon. After a spectacular start, Inter Milan's low scoring ways have come back to bite them in recent weeks as they've fallen out of the Champions League picture altogether in less than a month. They must now fend off a revitalized Roma team and their neighbors in red and black if they want to keep their place in the Europa League. They have made a move to attempt to resuscitate their goal scorers by bringing in Sampdoria's Eder, Serie A's second leading scorer. Milan have their own potent striker in Carlos Bacca, but to be honest this game will have more to do with the men keeping the goals out than the ones trying to put goals in. It would not be a stretch to vote for Inter's Samir Handanovic as player of the year in Serie A. The Slovenian shot stopper has kept Inter in more games than they've deserved to be in with tremendous saves and great marshalling of the Inter defense. Many of these recent poor draws could have easily been inexcusable losses had it not been for Handanovic's brilliance. On the other side, Gianluigi Donnarumma continues to wow for the Rossoneri, just a month away from his 17th birthday. The previous meeting between these two ended 1-0 to Inter. I think that they are too much in their own heads right now and that scoreline flips to the other side of Milan today for their "home game."
PREDICTION: AC Milan 1 Inter Milan 0
FRENCH LIGUE 1
Paris Saint-Germain FC vs AS Saint-Etienne (3:00 PM ET/beIN Sports 3)
We end the day in France as the Battle of the Saints takes place in Saint-Etienne as the city's namesake takes on Ligue 1 leaders Paris Saint-Germain. PSG has had the French title all but locked up for a while now, having yet to lose in 22 games (19 wins, 3 draws) in Ligue 1 competition. However, their success for this season will be determined by how they do in the Champions League. PSG get Chelsea in the Round of 16 as they hope for at worst a repeat of their stunning defeat of the Londoners a year ago. The draw has been unkind to PSG in the past, so they've continued to bolster their roster in anticipation of such an event with domestic domination being a nice byproduct. Saint-Etienne have their own European aspirations as they take on Swiss side Basel in the Round of 32 in the Europa League. They trudged through two qualifying rounds before finishing second in their group setting up the February date with the titans of Switzerland. The reverse fixture was 4-1 in Paris, but PSG could only muster one goal in ousting St. Etienne from the Coupe de France with a late Edinson Cavani goal. I think this one will be close, but then again I thought the same thing about the Angers game. Les Verts fans will get a show, but they won't leave with a bounce in their step.
PREDICTION: PSG 3 St. Etienne 0
This should be a great dose of football for you on this NFL-less Sunday. Yes, I say NFL-less because what type of degenerate watches the Pro Bowl? Great, let's watch fifth alternates play zero defense and run go routes for 60 minutes. At least the players get to go to Hawaii. Us viewers get zero entertainment and a sideline interview every two minutes. So in closing, crack open a morning beer if you haven't already and enjoy some European football because there will probably be only two really early picks next week on Super Bowl Sunday. Have at it!