Arsenal’s tricky schedule, Barcelona derby, Man City vs. Chelsea: Must-see games over the holidays

Some fans still might be trying to get home from Doha, Qatar, and there are people still celebrating in the streets of Buenos Aires. The blood alcohol content of some of Argentina’s players has not probably yet returned to normal levels (and good for them). The exhausting World Cup — which was somehow both a marathon and a sprint — is still pretty large in the rearview mirror, and now we get a bit of a break before club soccer returns to command our attention.

[puts finger in ear like old-timey newscaster getting a sudden update] I’m sorry, I’m being told that Liverpool is playing Manchester City later today. Oh.

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That’s right, friends, European club soccer is already back. England’s Carabao Cup and Spain’s Copa del Rey returned this week, and four of Europe’s five biggest leagues resume play next week. (The Bundesliga actually gives its players time off and won’t resume for a few more weeks.) Consider this your primer for dipping your toe back into the club waters: Here are the 11 matches you absolutely need to follow over the next two weeks.

Dec. 22: Liverpool at Manchester City (Carabao Cup)

City vs. Liverpool! Pep vs. Klopp! It gives you a sense of whiplash that one of soccer’s biggest current club rivalries is already on the docket (3 p.m., ESPN+). Liverpool and City have combined to win the past five Premier League titles and snare three of the past four EPL runners-up slots, two of the past four FA Cups, four Champions League final appearances (with one win) and, most pertinent to this exact moment, four of the past five Carabao Cups.

The megaclubs were drawn together for the fourth round — god bless random draws. Wolves drew fourth-division Gillingham (and looked very poor in advancing 2-0 at home), while Liverpool drew a trip to the Etihad. While it’s likely that we will see some reserves in the mix, there might not be as many as you think.

Of Liverpool’s current top 11 players (from a minutes perspective), only five played in Qatar, and only three topped 100 minutes (Netherlands defender Virgil van Dijk, Brazil goalkeeper Alisson and England midfielder Jordan Henderson). Midfielder Fabinho (Brazil) and right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold (England) combined for a pair of appearances, summer signing Darwin Nunez played 242 minutes for Uruguay and defender Ibrahima Konate played in five of France‘s seven matches. But stars such as attackers Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino and left-back Andy Robertson didn’t make the trip — Nunez, Salah and Firmino could all be of particular importance in the coming weeks with Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota injured — and despite the club’s stature, Liverpool amassed only 1,789 total minutes in Qatar, 12th among clubs in Europe’s Big Five leagues and fifth among Premier League teams.

Total World Cup minutes by Premier League club (not including stoppage time):

City, on the other hand, was the most represented club at the World Cup. Of the 21 players who have recorded at least one Premier League minute for Manchester City, 16 made at least a brief appearance in Qatar, seven played at least 350 minutes — Argentina‘s Julian Alvarez, England’s John Stones, Portugal‘s Ruben Dias and Bernardo Silva, Netherlands’ Nathan Ake, Spain‘s Rodri and Switzerland‘s Manuel Akanji — and six more played at least 190 minutes.

City easily recorded the most combined minutes in the competition — only Barcelona (4,301 minutes) was within 900 minutes of their total — which is jarring considering they had only one player on a team that reached even the semifinals (Alvarez). Where might their minutes total have ended up if, say, England (five City players) or Portugal (three) have advanced further?

How much of an effect will this have? It’s obviously hard to say. This club has the deepest squad imaginable, and while they could be spread thin at center-back at the moment as Ake, Stones, Dias and Akanji all logged heavy minutes, they could also be pretty well rested in attack. Neither Erling Haaland nor Riyad Mahrez played in Qatar, and English stars Phil Foden and Jack Grealish for only 340 minutes between them. Plus, both Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium) and Ilkay Gundogan (Germany) were on their way home by the time the knockout rounds began.

If the defense avoids heavy legs, the rest of the City squad could be ready to hit the ground running once EPL play resumes on Monday. And quite a few stars could see the pitch on Thursday evening as well, whether or not Grealish is back from his New York adventure yet.

Dec. 26: Tottenham Hotspur at Brentford (Premier League)

The Premier League season returns in full next week, with seven matches on Monday and three more on Tuesday and Wednesday. There aren’t many truly high-stakes battles right out of the gate — first-place Arsenal faces 16th-place West Ham, second-place City plays 15th-place Leeds — but we do get a pretty interesting matchup at Brentford Community Stadium.

Brentford starts the back half of the season (well, more like back two-thirds, I guess) in 10th place, but the Bees are well rested — only wingers Bryan Mbeumo (Cameroon) and Mikkel Damsgaard (Denmark) recorded even 90 minutes in Qatar, and none of their players played in the knockout rounds — and are only three points out of sixth. Meanwhile, if there’s a team particularly impacted by the World Cup grind, it could be Tottenham Hotspur. Midfielder Ivan Perisic (Croatia), defender Cristian Romero (Argentina) and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris (France) all recorded heavy minutes for semifinalists, and attackers Harry Kane (England), Son Heung-Min (South Korea) and Richarlison (Brazil) all played at least 325 minutes. Richarlison returned with a hamstring injury, too.

In all, 10 Spurs regulars played in the World Cup, nine put in at least 214 minutes and five of those are at least 29 years old. If Spurs were to start slowly upon their return to action, you really couldn’t blame them, but any funk could be costly: They’re currently in fourth place, but they’re only three points up on Manchester United and seven up on Liverpool, and both of those clubs have a game in hand. Spurs start out with a trip to Brentford and a visit from a well-rested Aston Villa team that finished the pre-World Cup run in good form (sixth in xG differential over the two months before action stopped). They’ve got a couple of tricky hurdles to clear.

There are few more reliable entities in soccer than Athletic Club. The beloved Bilbao institution always plays just about the stiffest defense in Europe, and that’s no different in 2022-23: They’re currently allowing 0.7 xG per match in La Liga (first), and they’re both second in shots allowed per possession (0.10) and first in xG allowed per shot (0.08).

What’s different this season, however, is the upside that the duo of Inaki and Nico Williams are bringing to attack. They have combined for eight goals and four assists in league play, and Athletic is actually currently third in goals scored per match at 1.7. They are fourth in the La Liga table, two points behind Real Sociedad for third, and they should be well rested — only three players recorded minutes in Qatar (the Williamses and Spanish goalkeeper Unai Simon), and only Simon logged more than 252.

Of course, outside of the biggest Spanish clubs, just about everyone in La Liga is well rested as play gets ready to resume next Thursday.

Total World Cup minutes by La Liga club:

In terms of Champions League positioning, Athletic’s Thursday trip to Seville might be the biggest on the docket over the next couple of weeks. Real Betis is part of the three-way tie for fourth with Athletic and Atletico Madrid, and only right back Youssouf Sabaly (Senegal) and midfielder William Carvalho (Portugal) played more than 60 minutes in Qatar. (Midfielder Guido Rodríguez and defender German Pezzella both played small roles for Argentina.)

Betis sacrifices shot quantity (15th in shots per possession) for shot quality (second in xG per shot), and they should be near full-strength for Athletic’s visit.

Dec. 30: Benfica at Braga (Portuguese Primera Liga)

Of this past summer’s hires, few have worked out as well as Benfica luring Roger Schmidt away from PSV Eindhoven. After finishing a distant third in the Primeira Liga last season (17 points behind champion Porto) and losing star striker Darwin Nunez to Liverpool, Benfica have surged, topping PSG to win their Champions League group and dropping just two points in their first 13 league matches. They’re eight points ahead of second-place Porto and flying high.

However, they too could be ripe for a World Cup hangover. Defender Nicolas Otamendi and midfielder Enzo Fernandez recorded a combined 1,263 minutes during Argentina’s title run while four others, including key attackers Goncalo Ramos and Joao Mario, played at least 90 minutes in Qatar. Benfica players didn’t record a Manchester City level of minutes by any means, but if they suffer any sort of slow start with the resumption of play, Braga could take advantage. They are a surprising third in league play, three points ahead of Sporting CP and only one behind Porto for second. Only winger Ricardo Horta (Portugal) played any sort of role in Qatar, and their frantic, high-volume attack could wrong-foot Benfica.

This is a tricky winter road trip.

Dec. 31: Arsenal at Brighton (Premier League)

If you look at the World Cup minutes list above, you might see an extremely advantageous situation brewing for Arsenal. They’re five points clear of Manchester City atop the table, and City might have the heaviest legs of anyone following the World Cup. Only three Gunners played more than 200 minutes — midfielders Granit Xhaka (Switzerland) and Thomas Partey (Ghana), winger Bukayo Saka (England) — and only defender William Saliba (27 minutes for France) was still active after the quarterfinals.

There’s one catch, however: While counting World Cup minutes tells us who might end up suffering issues later on, actual injuries are far more concrete. You know, injuries like that of Gabriel Jesus, who suffered knee ligament damage playing for Brazil in the group stage and will be out for at least a couple of months. Arsenal could address his absence in the January transfer window — they could give 23-year-old Eddie Nketiah a sustained run in the interim — but Arsenal is one of the teams that emerged from the World Cup at definitively less than full strength. That could make this trip to England’s southern coast a challenge.

Brighton was well-represented in Qatar — primarily by Argentina midfielder Alexis Mac Allister and the Ecuadorian duo of Pervis Estupinan and Moises Caicedo — but is clustered with Liverpool and Chelsea just outside the top five and could benefit significantly from a fast restart.

Dec. 31: Espanyol at Barcelona (LaLiga)

Barca’s first match post-Qatar is a derby. Espanyol skidded into the break, pulling just three points from their last five matches and falling to 16th, one point above the relegation zone, but only attacker Martin Braithwaite played in Qatar so if rest was needed, rest is what they got.

It was predictably a different story for Barca. Fourteen members of the squad played in Qatar: three went over 400 minutes (France’s Jules Kounde and Ousmane Dembele, the Netherlands’ Frenkie de Jong) and 12 went over 200, including mid-30s veterans Robert Lewandowski, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. This might not be a big deal — it’s still another nine days before they first see the pitch — but they’ll immediately face an opponent that is raring to go.

Jan. 1: PSG at Lens (French Ligue 1)

Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Achraf Hakimi: Three of the biggest World Cup stars all play for PSG, as do Brazil’s Neymar and Marquinhos and five others who saw action in Qatar. PSG’s first match is next Wednesday, but it’s at home against 19th-place Strasbourg. Soon enough comes a big test, though.

After back-to-back seventh-place finishes following promotion in 2020, Lens is currently in second place, the only team within single digits of PSG in the Ligue 1 table. Midfielders Salis Abdul Samed (Ghana) and Przemyslaw Frankowski (Poland) each topped 240 minutes in Qatar, but most of the squad is fresh.

I’m not going to try to convince you they or anyone else will be a serious threat to PSG, but they’ve lost only once in league play (1-0 to Lille in October), and if they can catch PSG flat-footed here, they could remain in the race for a while anyway. Franck Haise has a really intriguing squad, and this match is a great opportunity for them.

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Gab Marcotti believes it makes sense for Lionel Messi to extend his PSG contract, but feels there is no need to rush a new deal.

Jan. 2: Celtic at Rangers (Scottish Premiership)

The rivalry known as “The Old Firm” is must-see TV every time and it’s a potential must-win for Rangers, who are currently nine points behind Celtic. Both rivals resumed play with dramatic games: Celtic scored in the 87th minute to beat Aberdeen on Saturday, and Rangers have won a pair of 3-2 thrillers (they scored twice on poor Aberdeen in extra time to win on Tuesday). Celtic’s lead in the table was derived in part from a 4-0 pounding of their rivals in September, and now both teams have both Champions League play and the World Cup — four Celtic players recorded 1,233 minutes, led by Croatia’s Josip Juranovic, while Rangers’ Borna Barisic played 120 minutes for Croatia — in the rearview.

If you need extra motivation for watching this one (and you shouldn’t), there’s the American angle: Defender Cameron Carter-Vickers, last seen thriving against Iran in the World Cup, is a Celtic regular, while defender/midfielder James Sands and midfielder Malik Tillman are both important for Rangers. Tillman has been excellent in each of Rangers’ post-return matches.

Jan. 3: Newcastle United at Arsenal (Premier League)

Arsenal won’t have much of a chance to ease into life without Gabriel Jesus. Three days after the trip to Brighton, the Gunners will welcome Newcastle to The Emirates for an enormous clash. Newcastle currently stands in third place, and their first two matches back are against 13th-place Leicester City and 15th-place Leeds United. If you were paying attention above, only two Premier League teams recorded fewer World Cup minutes than the Magpies, who saw only four players taking the pitch in Qatar and only two (England fullback Kieran Trippier and Switzerland defender Fabian Schar) recording more than 70 minutes.

We all know why Newcastle has been able to increase its talent and level of play of late, and it isn’t the most heartwarming tale in the world, but it bears mentioning that the club’s new owners have not attempted shortcuts with loads of £100 million signings. But they’ve still lost only once in 2022-23 (2-1 to Liverpool back in August) and pulled 22 points from a possible 24 in their last eight matches before the break.

Newcastle probably wanted the World Cup break less than any team on the planet, but if they can pick up right where they left off, they’ll have a chance at a big win here and a continued rise in the table.

Jan. 4: Napoli at Inter Milan (Italian Serie A)

Serie A will become the fourth of the five major leagues to rejoin the party in just under two weeks. Only five Italian clubs saw their World Cup minutes top 1,000, and only three (Inter, AC Milan and Juventus) had even two players top 350 minutes individually — and one of Juve’s was goalkeeper and Poland international Wojciech Szczesny. Combined with the bit of extra rest, it’s fair to assume the league as a whole might not deal with too many Qatar effects.

It will, however, start play with a bang.

Napoli enjoyed maybe the most thrilling first three months of the season in Europe. After a series of astute moves, which included the addition of sudden Georgia superstar Khvicha Kvaratskhelia among others, they won their first five Champions League matches by a combined 20-4, and they pulled 41 of a possible 45 points from their first 15 Serie A matches. Only AC Milan (33 points) is within single digits. They had five guys top 250 minutes in Qatar, led by Poland midfielder Piotr Zielinski, and now they have to kick-start their momentum all over again.

Meanwhile, Inter needs momentum, period. They’re fifth in the table despite the third-best xG differential, and while they advanced semi-comfortably to the Champions League knockout rounds, they could use a boost. A Romelu Lukaku-shaped boost, perhaps. The Belgian star suffered a heartbreaking trip to Qatar, battling through injury to create a number of excellent scoring chances late in Belgium’s final match; none of them went into the net, however, and they were eliminated. He’s only played four times for Inter in Serie A play, and if he were to find his form again, that could make a massive difference. And if they beat Napoli on January 4, it could make a difference in the Scudetto race.

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Craig Burley looks ahead to Manchester City’s Carabao Cup clash with Liverpool.

Jan. 5: Manchester City at Chelsea (Premier League)

Chelsea was likely among the more relieved teams in Europe when the break hit, even if a number of their players risked wear and tear in Qatar — two topped 600 minutes (Croatia’s Mateo Kovacic, Morocco‘s Hakim Ziyech), four more topped 300, and 11 played in all. After an excellent October run under new manager Graham Potter, the Blues skidded into the stop, losing three straight matches in the Premier League (including a 4-1 trouncing by Brighton, Potter’s former club) and falling 2-0 to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup. That left them eighth overall and as close to the relegation zone (eight points) as the top four. FiveThirtyEight currently gives them only a 17% chance of finishing in the top four.

If they avoid early weariness, the Blues could ri ght themselves with matches against Bournemouth (Dec. 27) and Forest (Jan. 1), but back-to-back tests await against City. First, they’ll battle at Stamford Bridge in Premier League action; three days later, they’ll meet in Manchester in the third round of the FA Cup. Whatever their goals are for the rest of this campaign, they’ll need a couple of stellar showing here to provide a boost.



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