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WEEKEND PREVIEW: The BIG 7

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Manchester Derby: United can’t fear City

First, let’s put things in perspective; Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United are different, no longer the unbelieving whimsical they were two months ago, they have found a “never say die” attitude, toughened by the early season difficulties – they haven’t completely put it to bed but they have grown.

What changed? Jose is well aware that the transfer window is long closed and the other one won’t open until, at least, another 42 days. There’s no point in moaning to the media about his inability to get the players he wants anymore, it just no longer makes sense. Left with two options: Coach the players you have and secondly don’t berate them in public anymore. And that’s what he has done.

So much is made of the mythical “third season syndrome” that many have failed to see the significant difference this United have made. In 4 of their last 5 games Man United have come from losing positions and if victory over Newcastle and Bournemouth isn’t an achievement, surely, their performance at both Stamford Bridge and in Turin during the Champions League must have restored a trait that had been missing for a while: the fear factor.

City know this, they experienced it first hand earlier in the year when they inexplicably gave up a 2-0 halftime lead to a Paul Pogba inspired Man United, so United’s new found joy in coming from seemingly dead positions isn’t new to the Cityzens.

More so, City have in fact won just two of their past eight games in all competitions against the Red Devils, who have in turn claimed four wins during that time. But with United placed seventh on the table, Pep Guardiola’s men will aim to snap out of that bad run against their rivals while preserving a run of having not lost against a team outside of the top four in 53 straight games.

City is one of three teams still unbeaten in the league, they may yet end the weekend with that run intact as Guardiola showed in October’s visits to Anfield and Wembley that he can set up his side to be pragmatic. Such flexibility wasn’t a trait associated with the Spaniard before now, and it may well grab City a win.

Boca Juniors and River Plate get rare occasion to battle

It is the first time two Argentinian sides have met in the final of South America’s most prestigious club tournament. “There is no favourite, this will be a Superclásico like no other,” said the Boca striker Ramón Ábila.

Isn’t it just fitting that a clash between Boca Juniors and River Plate will determine who wears the crown of South American football? There has never been anything like it and there will never be anything quite like it.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri had said visiting fans would be allowed, going against a 2013 ban on visiting fans in Argentine soccer aimed at reducing violence. Macri later backtracked and left the decision to the clubs. The organizers will be grateful that both halves of Buenos Aires haven’t been invited to a peaceful city in Bolivia, Colombia or even any other South American city to hold a one-off final – a format that will be adopted from next year.

Boca Juniors will hope to win the title for record-equalling seventh time to match the feat of Independiente, another Argentine team. River Plate, on the other hand, are aiming for a fourth Copa Libertadores title, with the latest being in 2015.

Both sides have met in only three cup finals in their history. Boca triumphed in the national championship of 1976 and River won this year’s Supercopa, played by the winners of the Argentine first division and Copa Argentina.

Der Klassiker will test the resolve of Lucien Favre’s Borussia Dortmund

Uli Hoeness’ blunt admission is one of football’s rare quotes you’ll ever find: “We do not go to Dortmund as favourites, but as underdogs – for the first time in a long time.”

Following an almost forgettable year under Peter Bosz who was sacked and replaced with Peter Stöger, Borussia Dortmund hierarchy expected a turn of events with the appointment of Lucien Favre, but none of them would have envisaged that by November his team will be so good and thanks to an uncharacteristically slow start for Bayern, the Bavarians will consider themselves underdogs ahead of this clash. No one.

Borussia Dortmund have scored four or more goals in 5 games this season, two of those away from home, and amongst those to suffer such mauling are RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen, and even Atletico Madrid were not left out.

Lucien Favre’s Dortmund may pile more pressure on Bayern’s under-fire manager Nico Kovac, a win will send die Schwarzgelben seven points clear at the top, once that happens, they may begin to dream of winning another Bundesliga.

CAF Champions League Final

Al Ahly, the continent’s most successful club, have one hand on the trophy again courtesy of a controversial 3-1 first leg win in Egypt last weekend.

As if the objective isn’t high enough, Esperance will be required to overturn the deficit without two key members of the first team Cameroonian Franck Kom and Chamseddine Dhaouadi.

CAF will hope that the deployment of VAR will bring solutions rather than more problems in what is set to be an explosive end to this tie with everything on the line.

Mercedes will look to end the war in Interlagos

It’s hard to believe that Vettel’s last win was at the Belgian Grand Prix, seven races ago. For so much of the year, the German was Hamilton’s main championship protagonist but a string of errors saw him quickly fall away, and so did Ferrari.

Having lost the driver’s championship last time out, Ferrari will be hoping that their star driver can get his mind on the second objective, the team objective, and deliver a monumental win that could tilt the constructor’s championship in favour of the Italian team.

Should Mercedes leave Brazil with a 43-point lead – which will most likely happen unless they have a need to retire a car at any point – the title would belong to them for the fifth season in a row but if Ferrari can close to within 25 or 30 points, it would certainly be game on at the season finale in Abu Dhabi.

Novak Djokovic has a date with destiny

The unofficial fifth Grand slam of the year is back this weekend, although there are notable omissions – Rafael Nadal who, surprisingly has never won the year ending event and Juan Martin Del Potro.

While Novak Djokovic might be eyeing the possibility of matching Roger Federer’s record of six ATP Tour Finals wins, he might be required to see off the veteran Swiss – which is usually not an issue having defeated Roger Federer in 3 finals before.

Novak Djokovic

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic plays a point against Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka during their 2013 US Open men’s semifinals match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on September 7, 2013. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand

Roger Federer might also wish to add one more title to his collection even as he approaches the end of his career, but before he can entertain the thought of putting one across his nemesis, he would have to contend with three great players who are part of his group – Kevin Anderson, Dominic Thiem and Kei Nishikori.

Tony Bellew finally gets a chance to prove his mettle

When Tony Bellew steps into the ring for Saturday’s world title challenge in what is admittedly the toughest fight of his life, he will also be granted an opportunity to earn the respect he has always clamoured for with a win over World Cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk.

Usyk (15-0, 11 KOs), a relatively least experienced boxer when compared to Bellew (30-2-1, 19 KOs), arrives with a fearsome reputation and holds the WBA, WBC, WBO and IBF belts. Add to that, he’s being mooted to take on the World Heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua in 2019, a clash that could well happen but Joshua will currently have his mind on the winner of the Wilder-Fury bout in December.

Usyk’s reputation precedes him; a strong left hand and his combination punches have brought him this far, how much further it will take him is left to imagination. However, his willingness to leave his comfort zone and take up a bout in Manchester will definitely catch the eye of the world he’s seeking.

Although Tony Bellew twice stopped former heavyweight champion, David Haye, twice, his admission that “This guy is my hardest ever opponent and it will show — but I believe I will find a way” will leave some concern in the minds of even his staunchest of supporters.

Good luck finding that way Tony, good luck.

AC Milan vs Juventus

Ok, we have exceeded our total number of talking points for the week, so let’s discuss this rare bonus, shall we?

Juventus were humbled on Wednesday night and I thought Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal deserved to be on the winning side, and it could have been, but for a pair of clumsy finishing by Miralem Pjanic and Juan Cuadrado Juve could have been out of sight by the time Juan Mata drew Man United level on 86 minutes. This defeat, their first all season, will hurt particularly in the manner it came.

 

Although Juve hurt, they will have enough in the tank to take on Gennaro Garrison’s AC Milan;  a side the Bianconeri have only lost to twice in the past 18 meetings. Such dominance is sure to breed overconfidence.

Interestingly, both Leonardo Bonucci and Gonzalo Higuain will face their old clubs – or not exactly so until AC Milan take the option to buy the Argentine striker who is currently on loan at San Siro.

Juve may have lost a Champions League game, but there is a chasing pack in the Serie A and another defeat will be devastating.

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