As the football world gears up for another grueling season with their pre-season programmes, we wait with bated breath for the beginning of another term. Transfer news and rumours overcrowd feeds while pre-season competitions present an opportunity to dissect managerial plans and get an early look at new signings combined with youth talent. These matches are often unpredictable so I’ll be attempting to err on the side of caution and bank wins instead of chasing big prices.
To Win Match (90 Mins)
MLS All-Stars 15/10 | Draw 19/10 | Arsenal 19/10
MLS All Star | Avaya Stadium | Friday 29 July | 01:30
The MLS All-Stars have named a star-studded line-up to take on what will be a somewhat depleted Arsenal squad this week. There’s a host of recognised names set to participate for the All-Stars in the annual fixture - a match that has proved successful for the cream of the crop in MLS over the past two seasons. Admittedly some players will be slightly long in the tooth, but even bygone quality can make a difference in fixtures such as these. The All-Stars have beaten Bayern Munich and Tottenham since the inception of this match, both by 2-1 scorelines. With the likes of Laurent Ciman, Giovani Dos Santos, Kaka, Andrea Pirlo, Clint Dempsey, Didier Drogba and David Villa set to feature, another upset could well be on the cards.
Arsenal will look to build on what was a fairly underwhelming 1-1 draw with Lens in a friendly last Friday. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was on hand to net the equaliser in the 81st minute in his first match back from a five-month injury layoff. Arsene Wenger will have some of his regular defensive setup available for this clash, with Per Mertesacker, Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal named in the preliminary squad. However, the likes of Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil will all be absent following international exertions. New signing Granit Xhaka will likely play a part while American youngster Gedion Zelalem has been included, after spending last season on loan at Rangers. He will certainly be intent on making headlines in his home country.
Verdict: MLS All Stars Win/Draw *Odds to be updated on release
History indicates that this is not an easy fixture for the travelling side. The All-Stars are currently in season and will be fitter and better drilled than the Gunners. There is serious quality in the All-Star ranks and the best bet is to back them to get a result from this match.
To Win Match (90 Mins)
Liverpool 11/10 | Draw 5/2 | AC Milan 2/1
International Champions Cup | Buck Shaw Stadium | Sunday 31 July | 04:00
Liverpool have opted for a pre-season packed with football, probably a good option as Jurgen Klopp attempts to further press his style into the very fabric of the club. The Reds have spent readily during the transfer window, paying what most would consider exorbitant fees for unproven talent. Others would consider Klopp’s unflappable emphasis on teamwork above big names a suitable explanation for bringing in the likes of Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum, as well as four other signings not considered ready-made global stars. Portugal winning Euro 2016, Iceland beating England and Leicester City’s title-winning campaign of last season are all examples of a squad knitting together. So far, the Reds have won all four of their pre-season fixtures, scoring 10 goals and conceding none. A big test against Chelsea three days before this match will be their biggest test.
New AC Milan manager Vincenzo Montella will certainly have his work cut out for him this season. Not only is the manager expected to lose his first-choice striker but the club is likely to change ownership, ending Silvio Berlusconi’s 30-year period as the big boss. Sonny Wu of Golden Sand River Capital is reported to take over the club after extensive negotiations. Whether this will translate into a cash injection allocated towards transfers remains to be seen. AC Milan desperately need it, with a largely disparate squad in need of a rebuild. With West Ham expected to complete the transfer of Carlos Bacca, Milan will be required to move fast in acquiring a frontman capable of keeping the side in with a hunt of European football.
Verdict: Liverpool 11/10
Although the Reds have yet to be truly tested during pre-season, of all the big name clubs they have not only been the most active but looked the most impressive. I expect them to continue the good fortune with a victory over the Italians.
To Win Match (90 Mins)
Barcelona 3/10 | Draw 7/2 | Leicester 8/1
International Champions Cup | Friends Arena | Wednesday 3 August | 20:00
Barcelona’s pre-season will only begin at the International Champions Cup with an opening fixture against Celtic in Dublin. The La Liga champions will then make the trip to Sweden to meet unexpected Premier League champions, Leicester City. Lionel Messi returned to pre-season training a full week earlier than expected and has been included in the squad for this leg of their pre-season tour. Messi unveiled a new platinum blond hairdo that follows the recent trend espoused by Aaron Ramsey, Phil Jones and Samir Nasri to name a few. Perhaps the mighty Messi is a mere mortal after all. An exciting addition to the already star-studded Barcelona squad is Portuguese midfielder Andre Gomes from Valencia. With qualities likened to Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack, the powerful box-to-box player will perhaps add some needed physicality to the Blaugrana.
Leicester’s two opening pre-season fixtures against Oxford United and Nuneaton Town were won fairly comfortably as manager Claudio Ranieri got back to business. The Foxes opened up their International Champions Cup account with a victory of Celtic in Glasgow, albeit on penalties. The match proved just how important the presence of Riyad Mahrez is in the setup, his truly wonderful opener a poignant example of why Leicester simply must hold onto the Algerian. A double step-over combined with a delightful curled finish opened the scoring before Celtic struck back in the second half. It was by no means a perfect performance on the part of the Foxes but bode well given the fact that the side held its nerve during a penalty shootout. However, this match against Barcelona could be a rude awakening to the enormity of Leicester’s Champions League task this season.
Verdict: Barcelona 3/10
Leicester will likely look to use the same blueprint against Barcelona as Ranieri employed for the entire previous season; defensive solidity coupled with blistering counter-attacks. Barcelona will be wise to such tactics, as almost every side they face has no choice but to employ the same strategy. I feel Barca will win this match rather easily.
To Win Match (90 Mins)
Manchester United 8/10 | Draw 23/10 | Everton 3/1
Club Friendly | Old Trafford | Wednesday 03 August | 21:00
Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United were thumped 4-1 by Dortmund in their opening International Champions Cup fixture against Germany’s runners-up. It was only Mourinho’s second match in charge and already Twitter is abuzz with calls to axe the enigmatic Portuguese. Yes, many of the complaints were tongue in cheek but it is some indication of the kind of pressure a manager of Manchester United is under. The Special One may have looked concerned when overseeing the performance but shook off any criticism post-match, insisting it was simply a friendly loss to a side at a more advanced stage in their pre-season. The Red Devils meet an Everton side looking to put a stamp of authority on their pre-season preparations. But United will be back at Old Trafford and likely have a much stronger side at their disposal.
Everton have made a promising start to pre-season, winning both of their fixtures to date and doing so without the services of key defenders Phil Jagielka and John Stones. The Toffees still have a few fixtures to help warm up for this northern rivalry with neighbours Manchester United. Everton simply must begin to make some marquee signings to deliver on the investment of their new owner and instil players under the vision of manager Ronald Koeman. Everton’s victory over Barnsley came 3-0 courtesy of an early Kevin Mirallas strike coupled with a second-half brace from Ross Barkley. Such results are promising, but Everton have often promised so much. The departure of Stones is still a talking point while Romelu Lukaku has also expressed a wish to move on. If Everton wish to remain relevant this season, squad improvements will be needed.
Prediction: Manchester United Win/Draw *Odds to be updated on release
The Red Devils seem likely to make a relatively slow start to pre-season under Mourinho. Everton will simply have a lack of top quality opposition to test their skills against and may look to go through the motions as the season draws near. This could result in a dreary draw, or the home side could nick it. Take the low price on offer.
To Win Match
Bayern Munich 12/10 | 5/2 | Real Madrid 16/10
International Champions Cup | MetLife Stadium | Thursday 04 August | 01:30
Mario Gotze has moved back to Borussia Dortmund and according to Carlo Ancelotti, Bayern Munich will be making no attacking signings in this window. In all honesty, despite yet another injury to Arjen Robben, Bayern Munich are well stocked in positions up and down the park. The addition of Renato Sanches will add hunger and power to midfield. Munich have beaten Lippstadt 08, Manchester City and Landshut already in pre-season, the middle meeting seeing an almost immediate return for Pep Guardiola to his old club. With AC Milan and Inter Milan to come before this fixture, it will give Ancelotti time to test combinations ahead of a meeting with the Champions League title holders.
Real Madrid haven’t kicked a ball in anger since their crowning as Champions League winners and have PSG and Chelsea to come before this fixture with the German giants. Clearly Zinedine Zidane believes no real preparation is needed, with the three International Champions Cup fixtures the only ones planned before their UEFA Super Cup meeting with Sevilla. Ronaldo won’t be fit for any of the aforementioned matches, and will also be entering into contract talks with Madrid upon his return to the Spanish capital. The likes of James Rodriguez and Isco are the subject of much transfer speculation and should Madrid lose their mercurial talents, perhaps the club would’ve benefitted from more pre-season testing. Nevertheless, Zidane will probably look to flex his muscles in this illustrious meeting.
Verdict: Bayern Munich Win/Draw
Bayern Munich will simply be more up for this match than a Madrid side still attempting to bring players up to speed before their important Super Cup meeting. I can foresee a star-studded side employed by Zidane but one lacking the kind of zip and poise usually expected on Madrid. Opt for the Double Chance to rule out a lacklustre affair spoiling your ticket.
Written by Rick John Henry for @Hollywoodbets