Happy New Year one and all! This is the first weekend of the new year so that means this is the first European football selections of 2016. While many leagues are still on winter break, many first divisions, most notably Spain, have made the decision to re-start their schedules early so their participants can have more time to prepare for the European Championships in the summer. Still, the pickings are slim but I will do my best to get some real good ones on the docket for you today. As Liverpool makes me regret waking up early after being up for nearly 24 hours the day prior, let's head to Scotland as I hope not to jinx yet another one of my supported clubs...again.
Celtic FC vs Partick Thistle FC (10:00 AM ET/Celtic TV)
Celtic is still at the pinnacle of the Scottish Premiership table entering the new year. However, they haven't built their normal double digit lead at the top just yet. As a matter of fact, they are still level on points with second place Aberdeen after both teams could only manage draws in their final 2015 contests. They have two games in hand to get some breathing room, but this most likely won't be another runaway league win for the Hoops. Parity has reared its ugly head in another league and no team in Scotland exudes that more at the time than Celtic's opponent today, Partick Thistle. The Jags are unbeaten in their last six games and have played with a confidence previously unseen by the club since their 2013 promotion. Their 2-0 loss on August 9th, which could have easily been a repeat of the 6-0 League Cup drubbing from last year, seems light years away with how the team has played recently. They were the team to hold Aberdeen in their last game of 2015, absorbing flurries of pressure yet keeping their composure and shape. They will have to do the same in the hostility of Celtic Park today. Celtic have a novel's length list of injuries right now including over half of their normal starting XI (Leigh Griffiths, Dedryck Boyata, Stuart Armstong, Scott Brown, Kris Commons, & Charlie Mulgrew) being sidelined. This is the best time for Partick Thistle to get the Hoops. But, while I think they won't make an embarrassment of themselves, I don't think that Partick will be able to get even a point out of this road game. They'll make Celtic work for it, but in the end the green and white take all the spoils, probably with a penalty kick.
PREDICTION: Celtic 2 Partick Thistle 1
ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE
Watford FC vs Manchester City FC (12:30 PM ET/NBC)
If you would have told me at the beginning of the season that Manchester City's first game of 2016 would be one of their toughest tests of the year, and it would be against Watford, I would have laughed you out of the room. But here we sit (me more somber as Andy Carroll just made it 2-0 West Ham) on this very day in 2016 with City needing to buckle down and take care of one of the EPL's surprise sides of 2015. Watford have been a revelation with the duo of Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney terrorizing back lines with their combination of power and shooting ability. They shrug off oncoming defenders like hornets (sad attempt at a pun, FAIL) and get powerful shots on target regularly. They won't have to worry about shrugging off Vincent Kompany today as the Belgian international, and City captain, will miss the next month at least after re-injuring himself after less than ten minutes against Sunderland. City will rely even more on their attacking prowess as their lack of solidarity in their team's spine may force a Goal Royale with Watford. After some hemming and hawing, I decided that I was going to go with the upset here with Watford. Vicarage Road has been a fortress for them lately, and I say that they put a sky blue head on a stake outside their castle this afternoon with a signature victory.
PREDICTION: Watford 2 Manchester City 1
SPANISH LA LIGA
Atletico Madrid vs Levante UD (2:30 PM ET/beIN Sports)
Atletico Madrid will know exactly what they have to do this afternoon to keep pace with Barcelona in the chase for the La Liga crown. Barca plays Espanyol at 10 AM. Atletico shouldn't need to commit any extra time to strategization though as they get dead last Levante today at the Vicente Calderon. Going forward I have a couple of ideas how they could improve their squad, but today should be a TCOB kind of affair. Levante have been lifeless all year and seem to be the only certainty for relegation from Spain's top flight. They can't score and they can't stop anyone which (Captain Obvious alert) is a poor formula for survival. Atletico, even with five international caliber forwards, have also been offensively challenged. But when you boast the league's best defense by a mile (8 goals allowed) it helps the proceedings a bit. Diego Godin has become a top 3 center back on the planet and keeps his defensive teammates organized better than any player I've seen in my football viewing lifetime. Hopefully they can inject some life into the offense today against the soon to be Segunda Division side. I've still got a soft spot in my heart for Fernando Torres.
PREDICTION: Atletico Madrid 3 Levante 0
PORTUGUESE PRIMEIRA LIGA
Sporting Club de Portugal vs FC Porto (3:45 PM ET/Univision Deportes USA)
Supremacy in Portugal is on the line today as the division's top two clubs collide in Lisbon. Sporting's loss to Uniao da Madeira before the break, their first loss of the year, means they will be chasing FC Porto for the first time since the early days of the Primeira Liga season. Porto will attempt to keep it that way as well as keep their own unbeaten start to the season intact. Porto are the second leading scorers in Portugal, but unlike Benfica and Sporting, the Dragões don't have one man that can get them a goal in crunch time. Vincent Aboubakar is the closest thing they have to that so far, but the Cameroonian can find himself out of games if he can't get into an early rhythm. He'll have to get in that rhythm early on because tonight's came is at Sporting's Estadio Jose Alvalade. As much as I want to see the chase of the Primeira Liga intensify, I can't see a result going either way in this afternoon's game. There will be too much caginess from both clubs who don't want to slip up and give Benfica, who sits in third, another chance to make up a full three points on them. However, Benfica will gain ground on both in that case as this one has a draw scent.
PREDICTION: FC Porto 1 Sporting Lisbon 1
I hope you enjoyed this opening installment to a new year of European soccer picks. Your hangover should be all but worn off by now so crack open a morning brew-ha and go across the pond with me. Be sure to come back tomorrow as we have at it yet again. Follow along with all the lunacy @TREVORutley and @B3WHYC3 on Twitter.