Friday September 12th, 2014

The first international break of the season comes so early that clubs who built up any momentum in the campaign’s opening weeks fear losing it, while those clubs that started poorly, like Manchester United, could have a second chance. This weekend feels like the ‘proper’ start of the season, given that the Champions League group stage kicks off next week, and there are huge games across Europe’s top leagues.

None is bigger than the Madrid derby, which will be a repeat of last May’s Champions League final. Here's a look at the pressing storylines across Europe as club play resumes:

Questions ahead of Champions League final rematch

When you look at the 4-1 result, it’s easy to forget just how close Atletico Madrid came to beating Real Madrid in the Champions League final. It was only Sergio Ramos’s headed equalizer after 93 minutes that stopped Atletico from winning, and it took the gloss off an incredible season in which it deservedly won La Liga.

The importance of Saturday’s Madrid derby, coming in the third game of the season, has not been lost on either side; Atletico’s squad was taken out for lunch this week by chief executive Miguel Angel Gil, who reminded the players, nine of whom are new signings, of the values which the club holds dear now.

LYTTLETON: Hits, misses of summer transfer window

There is more pressure brewing at Real Madrid, whose last game saw Real Sociedad overturn a 2-0 deficit and win 4-2. President Florentino Perez had seen his team brush aside Sevilla in the European Super Cup with a midfield that lacked Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Angel Di Maria. Atletico coach Diego Simeone, who is in the midst of an eight-game suspension, had claimed that Di Maria, man of the match in the Lisbon final in May, was “the best player of them all.”

Still he was sold to Manchester United, and against La Real, Madrid’s midfield trio of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and James struggled. The Madrid press expects Asier Illaramendi to get a chance in the middle, and this could be his breakthrough moment.

“Rarely has a derby match raised so many doubts at Madrid,” wrote El Pais. “The reality is that nobody knows what plans coach Carlo Ancelotti will take to stabilize a project that has undergone profound and unexpected changes.”

It may be early days in the season, but with Barcelona the only side with a perfect record after two games, neither team can afford to drop points. The game is at the Bernabeu, where Atletico famously won 1-0 last season and held Los Blancos to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of August's Spanish Super Cup, which Atletico went on to win. A similar result Saturday will plunge Real Madrid into full crisis mode.

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Test for Arsenal, first glimpse at new-look Man United

Last season, the games between the top four in the Premier League were more dramatic than usual; Manchester City beat Arsenal 6-3, Chelsea beat Arsenal 6-1, Arsenal beat Liverpool 5-1, and so on.

Saturday sees Arsenal welcome reigning champion City to the Emirates stadium, and for once the spotlight won’t be on former Gunners Samir Nasri and Bacary Sagna, who both said they left the club ‘to win trophies’ in Manchester. Instead, we could see a debut for Arsenal’s new signing Danny Welbeck, sold by Manchester United for £16 million after Louis van Gaal suggested he was not up to its standard.

Welbeck scored twice for England earlier this week and could be a center forward solution for Arsenal with Olivier Giroud injured. The signing appeased fans, but Arsenal might have had more need for an extra defender and holding midfielder. With a match against Borussia Dortmund (and Tottenham, later this month) coming up, this is the start of Arsenal’s first real test of the season. 

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Meanwhile, every game is a test for Manchester United these days. Still winless after three league matches, the Red Devils face Queens Park Rangers on Sunday, where all eyes will be on how coach van Gaal fits new players Angel di Maria, Daley Blind and Radamel Falcao alongside current stars Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie.

Will he stick to the 3-1-4-2 which drew its last game, against Burnley? Or a 3-4-1-2 with Rooney behind the strikers? Or a 4-3-3, which would leave United a bit short in midfield? Either way, Juan Mata looks like the first casualty of the Dutchman’s reign. And we await the debut of El Tigre with great interest.

Is a Torres comeback really in the cards?

20 goals, 110 games, £50 million. Fernando Torres’s top-line Chelsea figures do not make great reading, which is why the London club loaned him out to AC Milan for the final two years of his contract, and will pay around a third of his wages. Milan wanted Torres when he starring at Atletico 10 years ago, and the obvious fear is that injuries have slowed him down and his spell at Chelsea has knocked his confidence.

But Milan coach Pippo Inzaghi believes that the team’s fast-breaking style of play will suit Torres, and if anyone can restore the Spaniard into anything like the striker he once was, then it might be SuperPippo.

Torres is set for his club debut against Parma on Sunday.

Franck Ribery set for Bayern return

Ribery has become something of a cause celebre in Munich this week, with reports that UEFA president Michel Platini suggesting he be banned from club football after retiring from Les Bleus receiving short shrift. The winger, who missed the World Cup through injury, could make his first appearance of the season (and first for four months)­ for Bayern against Stuttgart on Saturday.

Bayern has a run of six games in 18 days and can ill afford to be without the injured Arjen Robben (ankle), Javi Martinez (ACL), Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thiago and Rafinha (all with knee trouble). Mehdi Benatia could make his debut as Pep Guardiola looks set to stick with his new 3-3-3-1 system.

Over in Dortmund, Shinji Kagawa looks set to make his second debut for Bayern's chief challenger BVB, which could do with him given the injury to Marco Reus last week.

Storm clouds gather over Marseille

“The president made promises to me that he knew could not keep. I can accept the reality if I’m told about it truthfully ­ but if not, then it upsets me.” 

As press conference bombshells go, the words of Marseille coach Marcelo Bielsa were right up there. He savaged president Vincent Labrune, and with no sporting director to bridge the gap between the two, tensions are running high in southern France. Bielsa claimed that he did not want any of the players Labrune bought in the summer while the president, according to the French press, has been trying to avoid Bielsa. 

That tactic stunned former OM president Bernard Tapie, an avowed Labrune critic, who demanded Bielsa be fired for undermining his boss in public. 

“What’s he ever won anyway?” Tapie asked. 

That won’t happen, but a victory at Evian on Sunday should ease the mood before a scheduled meeting between the two men on Monday. With Monaco’s project flailing and Lyon fading fast, the opportunity is there for Marseille to finish in the top three in Ligue 1,­ but will ‘El Loco’ be the man to do it?

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