The fourth round of the FA Cup in England is the next stage for 32 clubs in pursuit of the most famous domestic trophy in the world and an appearance at the iconic Wembley Stadium that hosts the final. The European bookmakers make Manchester City the favourites and they are by far the strongest team in England. City should have no problem in progressing to the next round by beating Watford at home.
The Manchester club are apparently the richest in the world. They are backed by a wealthy family from Abu Dhabi. The owners have the financial resources to outbid any other club in auctions for the best players in the world. If Lionel Messi decides to ply in England City are the club in the best position to finance a transfer fee and his wages.
Watford made a good start to the season on the back of losing in the Championship play-off match last year. However, things began to unravel and their manager Gianfranco Zola was sacked at the end of last year. Watford are currently in the bottom half of the Championship and could suffer a clear defeat in the match against Man City.
No English team has ever won four trophies in one season but Manchester City are still involved in the four competitions for which they are eligible. They are in the final of the Capital One Cup, favourites to win the Premier League and in the last sixteen of the Champions League. Barcelona will be tough to beat in that competition but City have the ability to score goals against any opponents, especially at home.
City qualified for the elimination rounds of the Champions League by finishing second in their group behind Bayern Munich. The coach did not realise that in a scoring one more goal in the final group match against Bayern his side won have won the group and avoided Barcelona in the next round. A fully fit Messi will be a major threat and Neymar looks world class.
City have the best players in England in all areas of the field and can beat Barcelona over two legs. Despite some much publicised errors Joe Hart is still the best English goalkeeper. Vincent Kompany is a fine defender and leader while Pablo Zabaleta is one of the best full backs in the world. David Silva is a genius in midfield and Alvaro Negredo, Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko are scoring goals for fun.
Some of the pundits in England are saying this is the most open Premier League in recent years. However, after the busy Christmas period and early matches in the New Year City, Arsenal and Chelsea are clear of the rest of the teams. At the end of February City could be well ahead as they have by far the easiest set of fixtures of the three teams still in contention.
City are certain to qualify for next season’s Champions League through their league position or by winning the trophy this season. Sadly for their vast global following that is not the case for their neighbours United. That club have been knocked out of the Cup and are well off the pace in the league. United are still involved in the Champions League but will have to strengthen their squad to have chance of winning that competition.
The two Merseyside clubs of Liverpool and Everton have fixture away from home against clubs well below them in the pyramid in England. Both matches are being shown live on TV so betting interest will be huge around the world. The TV companies are hoping for a giant killing but the two Premier League sides should beat Bournemouth and Stevenage respectively.
Liverpool and Everton are still very much in contention for finishing fourth in the league and qualifying for next season’s Champions League. The financial rewards for qualifying are so huge that the respective managers may rest key players for their matches in the Cup. Even weakened teams should be too strong for their opponents which means Liverpool and Everton will be in the draw for the fifth round.
Chelsea should also be in that draw as they can ease past Stoke City at home at the weekend. Chelsea have never lost a league match at home while Jose Mourinho has been in charge. He may also select a side not of the strongest from his squad of players but even a second string side can beat Stoke and progress to the next round and move a step closer to playing in the final at Wembley.
Soccer Matches in Other European Leagues
While the leading English clubs are playing in the fourth round of the FA Cup there is a full set of fixtures in the other European leagues. The matches involving Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain are significant in terms of who will win La Liga while Bayern Munich can continue to dominate the Bundesliga in Germany by beating Borussia Monchengladbach away from home.
The Spanish league champions this season will be either Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid. The first two are the superpowers of Spanish football but Atletico have the side to break the duopoly of recent years. Barcelona and Atletico have both accumulated 51 points to date while Madrid have won just one less. The contribution from Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale will be significant over the rest of the season.
Barcelona or Madrid have been champions in Spain for the last nine years. In the 2001-02 season Valencia won the league and Deportivo were second and only twice since then have the two superpowers not finished first and second. In total Real Madrid have won the title 32 times, 10 times more than their great rivals. Atletico are next in the table of winners with nine championships to their name.
The match between Barcelona and Real Madrid is known as the Clasico. It brings together sides not only separated by geography but politics and the whole identity of the area in which they play. Barcelona represent the area of Catalunya which would vote for independence from the rest of Spain if there was a referendum. Real are based in the capital and are seen as the establishment club with the backing of the government in power.
Barcelona and Real Madrid are both short priced favourites to win their matches at the weekend against Malaga and Granada respectively, at home in both cases. Atletico have to travel to Rayo Vallecano which is a tricky match and this weekend could see the two perennial champions establish a gap in the table from the other side in contention.
One of the many subplots involving Barcelona and Real Madrid regards who is the best player in the world. Ronaldo received the Ballon d’Or recently, awarded to the player voted as the best in the world. Messi won the honour in the four previous years and seemed upset that he was outvoted by Ronaldo this year. Both players decided not to vote for each other and in general backed players from their own club side and country.
Frank Ribery of Bayern Munich was also in contention to win the honour. He was voted the UEFA Player of the Year in 2013 but was outvoted by Ronaldo and Messi for the Ballon d’Or. Ribery’s contribution helped Bayern win the treble of Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League last season and they are still in contention for these competitions this year.
Ribery was quoted as saying he should have won the Balon D’Or. He argued that he helped Munich to win five trophies in total while Ronaldo won nothing with Real Madrid. He suggested that political voting prevented him winning the prize and he now has no interest in the concept. However, Ronaldo’s goal scoring record throughout the year for club and country ensured he won the honour for the second time in his career.
No team has successfully defended the Champions League in the current era of the most prestigious club trophy in world football. Bayern are clearly the best side in Europe but will have to maintain the high standards of last season to retain the trophy. Manchester City have the finances and ambition to become the best side in Europe so Bayern need to continue to excel in all areas of the pitch to keep their status as champions of Europe.
They can continue to dominate the Bundesliga by beating Borussia away from home on Friday evening. The Bayern squad includes the nucleus of the Germany national team, enhanced by outstanding overseas players in Ribery and Arjen Robben from Holland. They have strengthened their squad relative to Borussia Dortmund by signing one their best players in Robert Lewandowski.
Dortmund finished second to Munich in the Bundesliga and Champions League last season. They looked like the second best team in Europe but will find it even tougher to challenge Munich in the current campaign. Munich are good enough to win three trophies again but will face tough opponents in Manchester City, Barcelona and Real Madrid as they attempt to win the Champions for the second year in succession.