The Big Seven Matches This Weekend

The New Year is upon us and, while in many places around the world clubs are enjoying either a winter or off-season break, plenty are still in action during the opening weeks of 2018.

English football of course soldiers on through the winter months with a gruelling schedule which continues in the FA Cup this week as the big boys enter the third round of the competition.

However, there are also big games in Spain, Egypt and Cyprus to look forward to as 2018’s footballing calendar starts with a bang.

Here, we round up the biggest, best and most important matches from around the world over the coming days.

Zamalek vs. Al Ahly
Monday, 6pm

One may not expect it, but Egypt is home to one of the fiercest rivalries in world football when Zamalek and Al Ahly do battle in what has been dubbed one of the most violent fixtures in the game.

Injuries are even more common off the field than they are on it, and the fixture has even seen riots, military interventions, player walkouts and deaths due to the deep-rooted hatred between the two sets of fans.

There have been instances of fans attacking rival players in their own homes, and at one stage in the 1970s things escalated to such a level that the entire Egyptian league was cancelled as a result of the violence.

The Egyptian government banned derby games at each club’s home ground and even to this day the fixture takes place at the neutral venue of the Cairo International Stadium, sometimes attracting crowds of more than 100,000 whereas the two team’s regular home stadiums can hold just 46,000 combined.

Al-Ahly are seen to represent the everyday working Egyptian whereas Zamalek were born from Cairo’s wealthy elite during the British occupation of the country, so the rivalry transcends football – indeed even a basketball clash between the two saw a Zamalek man set on fire by Ahly fans after they lost 68-67 as recently as 2007.

On the field, though, the two are the most successful clubs in Egyptian and African football, sharing 51 of the 58 national league titles between them (39 for Al Ahly, 12 for Zamalek). Ahly have also won a record eight African Champions League titles, while Zamalek are second in that list with five.

Zamalek are already playing catch-up this season, though, with nine points separating them from leaders Ismaily and eight from Al Ahly, who sit one point adrift of the summit with a game in hand.

Ahly have won the title in 11 of the past 12 seasons so are still very much the dominant force in Egyptian football, but the only team to have upset their monopoly in that time was, predictably, Zamalek in 2014-15.

Sevilla vs. Real Betis
Saturday, 7.45pm

Saturday evening sees the Seville derby take place when Sevilla host Real Betis at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in their first league game back since the winter break.

The two sides have endured contrasting fortunes so far this season, with Sevilla still in the race for a Champions League place but currently sitting two points off fourth-placed Real Madrid having played a game more than the underperforming champions.

Real Betis, meanwhile, go into the weekend sitting 14th in the Liga table and, although they still have a six-point cushion to the relegation zone, they will still be looking nervously over their shoulders.

The home side do not go into the match in particularly good form, though, having picked up just one point from their three games immediately before the break, conceding eight goals and scoring just once in the process.

It was a spell deemed damaging enough to sack Eduardo Berizzo despite the manager’s ongoing cancer struggles, and new boss Vincenzo Montella got off to a winning start with a midweek victory over Cadiz in the Copa del Rey.

Betis, meanwhile, have won just one of their last nine games across all competitions – including four defeats in their last five – and have also lost seven and won none of their last eight meetings with their local rivals.

Middlesbrough vs. Sunderland
Saturday, 2pm

This year’s FA Cup third-round draw was one of the best in recent memory, and in addition to a Merseyside derby we also have a North-East showdown as Middlesbrough host Sunderland at the Riverside.

This was a Premier League fixture just last season, but those days will feel like a lifetime away for these two clubs, who have both already sacked their managers this term.

Middlesbrough’s Garry Monk was replaced by Tony Pulis off the back of a win, while Sunderland brought in another Welshman in the shape of Chris Coleman following a short-lived and ill-fated Simon Grayson reign.

Boro’s change has shown early signs of working, and they now sit only two points off the playoff places in the Championship, but Sunderland are rooted to the bottom of the table and staring down the barrel of a second successive relegation.

FA Cup duties will provide a welcome reprieve for the Black Cats in particular, then, especially considering they won the last time the two sides met in this competition, running out 2-1 winners after extra time at the Riverside in a 2012 fourth-round replay.

However, Sunderland have since lost four matches in a row against their near-neighbours across all competitions, including a 1-0 defeat in November’s Championship visit to the Riverside.

Brighton & Hove Albion vs. Crystal Palace
Monday, 8.45pm

Having not faced off for four-and-a-half years before this season, Brighton and Crystal Palace will renew their peculiar rivalry for the second time in a little over a month when they face off in the FA Cup on Monday night.

Nicknamed the M23 derby, this rivalry is not born out of geographical proximity nor a battle for trophies, but rather a similar trajectory up the divisions in the 1970s.

Both clubs rose from the old Third Division to the top flight under Alan Mullery and Terry Venables respectively, resulting in a number of memorable meetings between the two sides along the way.

Now both are in the Premier League once again, with only two places and one point separating the sides and neither exactly safe from the spectre of relegation.

Brighton have won just one of their last 11 games, though, whereas Palace have enjoyed a resurgence under Roy Hodgson and have only been beaten once in their last 11 outings.

The Seagulls have also only won one of their last eight meetings with Palace and have not beaten the Eagles in the FA Cup since 1932, drawing two and losing one of their three meetings in the competition since then.

Olympiakos Nicosia vs. Omonia Nicosia
Saturday 4pm

Saturday sees a Nicosia derby take place in Cyprus when out-of-form Olympiakos host Omonia in the capital.

Olympiakos have not won against Omonia in their last 5 meetings on all competitions, scoring just two goals in that run while Omonia have won four of those five games.

Olympiakos have garnered just 4 points from a possible 15 in the last few weeks, those points coming in their last two games.

Omonia are also struggling in 7th place but are 10 points ahead of the home side coming into this game with just two losses in the last five games.

Sporting Gijon vs. Cordoba
Saturday, 5pm

Two years ago, this match up would have been played in the La Liga but Cordoba were first to relegate in 2016 while Sporting are in the Segunda after coming short in 2017 in the top-flight.

Sporting seem to be the more stable of both sides in the quest for promotion but are 9 points off automatic qualification places and would hope to take 3 points off Cordoba who are presently in the drop zone with only 16 points from 20 games this season.

Sporting have wobbled after a good start to the season – they have won just once since the start of November – but Cordoba are in more desperate form having won just two matches since early September, their most recent win though, coming in the last match of 2017.

The two sides do not have recent history as their last meeting was almost four years ago, Sporting though, would be hoping to inflict another defeat on the away side who have lost the joint highest number of matches this season and have the worst defence in the Segunda.

Celta Vigo vs. Real Madrid
Sunday, 9.45pm

Real Madrid will resume their title defence away to Celta Vigo at the Balaidos on Sunday hoping to bounce back from the ignominious defeat in the last game of 2017 at home to FC Barcelona in the El Classico.

Celta Vigo are in the chase for a Europa League spot and would fancy their chances of cutting the 6 points gap between them and Villarreal in sixth place, against a makeshift Madrid defence that won’t be having Sergio Ramos on duty due to injury.

Celta have won just three time at home this season while Madrid have only lost once away from home. It surely would not be an easy ride for Real as the Balaidos is reputed for being one of the most difficult places for some of the top clubs to visit.

Celta have won against Real Madrid just once in their last 6 meetings but goals have been the constant feature of this fixture with both side scoring in all of the last 9 occasions they have faced each other in all competitions.