October 24, 2021. For a while now, it has been a day that has been marked as a blockbuster Sunday for sports fan around the world. The cricketing world, not just in the subcontinent, will be glued to their screens for the India-Pakistan clash at the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup.
For football fans, however, there is more than just one epic rivalry waiting to unfold its latest chapter. From a duel between Cristiano Ronaldo and Mohamed Salah in the Premier League to a relatively star-less El Clasico in La Liga and Lionel Messi coming up against Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli as Paris St Germain play Marseille, it’ll be a day of storied rivalries being center stage on the sports field.
Manchester United vs Liverpool
Cristiano Ronaldo and Mohamed Salah will go head to head for the right to be billed as the Premier League’s top dog.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp risked irking Manchester United striker Ronaldo ahead of the crunch clash when he hailed Salah as the best player in the world last weekend.
The Egypt forward has been in superb form, with his sublime strikes against Manchester City and Watford already goal of the season contenders. But Ronaldo hasn’t been far behind with a series of crucial goals underlining his superstar status.
While Paris Saint-Germain duo Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe can also stake their claim to be the world’s best, in the Premier League there is little doubt that Ronaldo and Salah are the main men. And their individual performance will be very important for their teams on Sunday.
Without a win in their last three league games, United are four points behind second-placed Liverpool. United need Ronaldo to continue his knack of rising to the big occasion, while unbeaten Liverpool hope Salah can continue his blistering streak.
Salah has scored 12 times in 11 games this season, with Ronaldo netting six times in eight matches since returning to United from Juventus in August. Salah became the first Liverpool player to score in nine consecutive games after striking twice in the Champions League win at Atletico Madrid on Tuesday.
Just 24 hours later, Ronaldo stole the European spotlight with the late headed winner that completed United’s fightback from two goals down to beat Atalanta 3-2.
So who will be this season’s preeminent force? Sunday’s crucial showdown at Old Trafford will go some way to deciding that question.
Real Madrid vs Barcelona
With Ronaldo in Manchester and Messi in Paris, the El Clasico in Spain is devoid of much sheen but the contest remains crucial to the two top teams, both of whom are not the title holders for once.
This Clasico is a meeting of two historic clubs, each of them trying to strategise, fix and rebuild while simultaneously flapping their arms just to keep heads above water.
With Messi and Ronaldo gone, La Liga is trying to harness the image of Spanish football as the world’s new talent factory and the Clasico – its most marketable fixture - as a window into the future. On Twitter, La Liga’s official account asked on Thursday: “Which teenage star are you most excited to watch in #ElClasico?”
In the absence of big names, both Carlo Ancelotti and Ronald Koeman have embraced youth. Koeman can take credit for promoting several of the players Barcelona are most excited about including Pedri, Gavi, Nico Gonzalez, Ronald Araujo and Sergino Dest. Ansu Fati, the 18-year-old new No 10, is the new star with a new contract to boot.
Ancelotti has put faith in Miguel Gutierrez at left-back and Eduardo Camavinga in midfield. The 21-year-old Vinicius Junior made his Real Madrid debut in 2018 but under Ancelotti is in the form of his fledgling career.
Gavi might not have been given his chance had Barcelona been able to grant Koeman his wish to sign Georginio Wijnaldum, who chose Paris Saint-Germain. Miguel has seen his route to the Madrid starting line-up shortened by an injury to Ferland Mendy.
There also remains a loyalty to the old guard, a justifiable belief that Gerard Pique at 34 is still Barcelona’s most important defender or that Luka Modric at 36 is still Madrid’s finest midfield playmaker.
The result on Sunday will be two sides made up of separate generations.
The 17-year-old Gavi may play alongside the 33-year-old Sergio Busquets or the 20-year-old Rodrygo in support of the 33-year-old Karim Benzema.
Whoever wins the Clasico on Sunday will, for a few days, own the narrative, take confidence and momentum, and perhaps plunge their opponents into a period of crisis and doubt. But beneath the scrap for points and position and power is a deeper duel, a fight for relevance again and reassurance that better days lie ahead
Juventus vs Inter Milan
Juventus, another former Ronaldo team, will see its new found solidity put to the test when they face Serie A champions Inter Milan at the San Siro in the ‘Derby of Italy’, traditionally the biggest domestic fixture of the season.
Inter dethroned fierce rivals Juve last season, prompting the ‘Old Lady’ of Italian football to bring back Massimiliano Allegri as coach in the hope of returning to the top following an underwhelming campaign under Andrea Pirlo.
After a miserable start to the season which included the sudden departure of Ronaldo, Juventus have got back to their cynical best, eking out a run of results which have moved them to within one point of the Champions League places and three from third-placed Inter.
Wednesday’s 1-0 win at Zenit Saint Petersburg, which put Juve to within touching distance of the Champions League last 16, was their fourth single-goal victory in a row in all competitions, a run started with their shock defeat of European champions Chelsea last month.
However, despite a six-match winning streak performances have been more dogged than exciting, with both Allegri and match winner Dejan Kulusevski criticising their own display in Russia as “very bad”.
Now Juve have probably their toughest match of the season so far at the San Siro against holders Inter, who reignited their own Champions League campaign with an impressive 3-1 win over surprise package Sheriff Tiraspol on Tuesday.
It’s the first real test of their credentials as although they were beaten at league leaders Napoli – who they still trail by 10 points – early last month they were missing a host of players who came back late from international duty.
This time they are hoping for the return of Paulo Dybala, who provides much of Juve’s attacking spark and who Allegri said on Tuesday could play a part at Inter after nearly a month on the sidelines with a thigh injury.
Simone Inzaghi meanwhile has almost a full squad to pick from and will stick with a league-leading attack that has rattled in 23 goals in eight matches.
Paris Saint-Germain vs Marseille
While Barcelona face Real Madrid, Lionel Messi gets his first taste of French football’s biggest rivalry this weekend as Ligue 1 leaders Paris Saint-Germain travel to face Marseille.
A few hours after a Clasico without Messi, the Argentinian will take to the field at the Velodrome in the fixture known as “Le Classique”. It is a rivalry that grew in the early 1990s, when Marseille were the dominant force in French football and, for a short while, in Europe.
These days Qatar-owned PSG reign supreme in France, even if they missed out on the Ligue 1 title last season to Lille and their performances in this campaign have not always convinced. They have won seven of the last eight meetings of the clubs across all competitions and have lost just once to OM in the last decade.
That 1-0 defeat in Paris came in a near-empty stadium at the start of the pandemic-affected last season. This time there will be a full house at the Velodrome as PSG aim to extend their 10-point advantage over Marseille, who are third and do have a game in hand.
Messi scored twice for PSG in their 3-2 win over RB Leipzig in the Champions League in midweek. All three of his goals so far in a Paris shirt have come in Europe. Indeed he has played more minutes so far in the Champions League than he has in Ligue 1.
Kylian Mbappe, who scored the other goal against Leipzig, has been the main man for Mauricio Pochettino’s team this season, while Neymar has struggled for form. The Brazilian could return from an adductor muscle problem at the ground where he was sent off in October 2017 as the heated atmosphere got to him.
Marseille, who played Lazio in the Europa League on Thursday, have entertained this season under Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli but it remains to be seen if they are capable of competing with a PSG team that have won nine out of 10 league outings.
So, which European football clash are you most excited for this Super Sunday?
With AFP Inputs