Smart Money Soccer Picks For 8/21/2020 & 8/23/2020
We now, finally, are reaching the business end of the 2019-20 season. After a full year from when the season began, remaining are just two matches to wrap up this ever so strange year in soccer. And what an ending it’s shaping up to be. The two biggest games in European soccer take the stage on Friday and Sunday with the Europa League Final, contested between Inter Milan and Sevilla, and the Champions League Final, between Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG).
Both are shaping up to be cracking affairs. Sevilla is looking to continue their reign as Europa League kings. Meanwhile, PSG hope to finally justify the billions of dollars pumped in their club over the past decade.
Here are my tips for this weekend.
Inter Milan (+115) vs. Sevilla (+250) – Draw (+245)
I don’t quite know how to feel about Antonio Conte’s Inter. I suppose the best way to look at them is to compare the state of the club now with the end of last season. By that metric, they’ve massively improved. They looked like they might give Juventus a run for their money, particularly in the first half of the season. Despite their improvement from last season, there are still visible cracks in this team. Let’s not forget that they failed to get out of their Champions League group behind Dortmund and endured a miserable second half of the season in the league, throwing away opportunities to close the gap at the top on numerous occasions.
Still, Inter have looked resurgent in this Europa League mini-tournament. Romelu Lukaku has continued to prove doubters wrong, netting 4 goals in 3 games. The return of Nico Barella has also given the Inter midfield a new breath of life.
Going into the restart, my money would not have been on Inter to close out the tournament, but their results, namely their 5-0 hammering of Shakhtar Donetsk, have made me think otherwise. Antonio Conte is a world-class manager, and there’s few in the world you’d have over him tasked with winning a final.
Inter can become the first Italian side to win a European competition since they did it themselves in 2010 with the Champions League. With Conte at the helm, Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez continuing their form as one of the best strike duos in Europe, and the rest of their team maintaining their rich vein of form, I feel as though they might just pull it off.
I’ve watched Sevilla play several times now during this campaign and they are a good, good side. They play an eye-catching brand of soccer and they will take this game to Inter. Julen Lopetegui, once vilified in Spain for leaving the national team post days before the World Cup and then failing miserably at Real Madrid, has now proven once again why he was so highly regarded in the first place.
Sevilla play a quick, expansive style with full-backs Sergio Reguilón and Jesús Navas playing a starring role. Éver Banega, the ageless Argentine, continues to command the midfield, allowing for the full-backs and wingers to make diagonal runs between the lines.
For all of their quality, I do fear for Sevilla in that they may be a bit too one-dimensional. They thoroughly outclassed Wolves in the quarter-finals, but even Wolves on their off-day saw moments of daylight on the counter. Antonio Conte’s greatest strength is his knowledge of how to expose the one-dimensionality of teams. His Euro 2016 masterclass against Spain was a perfect example, and I just have a feeling that Friday will see a similar clash of Spanish and Italian footballing ideals. Sevilla will control the pace of the game but Inter will set up in classic Italian fashion: tight, stubborn, and compact. And Inter most definitely have the players to hurt you on the attacking end.
Pick: Inter to win in normal time. As I said, I think this final is going to be won by Conte, and Conte alone. Sevilla may be overall the better team, but Conte has unique know-how for these occasions and Sevilla’s style matches up poorly with Inter’s. It will be close but Inter will just nick it.
Bayern Munich (-200) vs. PSG (+165) to Win the Competition
There’s not much more to say really about this team. They are just breathtaking. Every soccer fan in the world thought for just a moment that Lyon might pull off the unthinkable after wasting three golden opportunities in the opening stages of the semi-final. But Bayern didn’t have time for any fairytale story. Ruthless, machine-like – it's the German way. 2-0 as soon as you blinked, and they comfortably saw it out and added a third right at the end.
Why They Might Win
Bayern now sit second in the all-time table for goals scored by a team during a Champions League campaign. They are only 3 behind Barcelona of 2011, and they’ve played 3 fewer games.
Bayern go into this as heavy favorites and I can’t say I disagree with the label. Robert Lewandowski, the best player in the world this season, needs just two goals to match Cristiano Ronaldo’s single-season goal-scoring record, while everyone else, from Müller to Davies and from Neuer to Gnabry just look unbeatable and scarily focused.
Why They Might Lose
That being said, and I’m well aware that most people don’t want to hear it, Bayern were given a right game from Lyon, particularly at the start of both halves. Bayern have persisted with their high-line, but Lyon found themselves in on goal several times. If it weren’t for Manuel Neuer and some horrendous finishing, Lyon may well have had a chance at an upset.
Let’s also not forget, and this one is going to drive people absolutely insane, that there were moments before things got out of hand versus Barcelona where Barcelona had some real opportunities. I’d actually venture to say that Barcelona were even the better team for the first quarter of the game. Jordi Alba fluffed an open square pass in front of goal and Messi’s cross agonizingly missed the head of three open players before hitting the post. Bayern are far better than Barcelona. But who knows how the dynamic would have changed if Barcelona took the lead at any point.
Look, I’m not trying to discredit Bayern’s dominance in these games. They ran out deserved winners in both ties. What I will say is that Bayern’s defense is far from unbreakable. And their habit of shipping chances to teams for fun that like to deploy fast, tricky players upfront is not sustainable forever. PSG have probably the best striking trio in the world in Neymar, Mbappé, and Di Maria. And if Bayern give those guys too many chances, they will pay.
Clive Tyldsley, when comparing the two teams at the start of PSG’s semi-final against RB Leipzig, mentioned that RB Leipzig were a cohesive, team-oriented side whereas PSG were far more a collection of individuals than anything else. He was spot-on with that analysis. PSG don’t really play any real brand of soccer. They tend to rely primarily on creativity from the individual talent at their disposal. But, for the first time in a while, PSG seemed to finally play as a collective unit. Neymar, Mbappé, and Di Maria were working off of each other, and midfielder Leandro Paredes seemed to have a brilliant understanding with all three of them, knowing exactly when to spring them down the line or over the top.
The thing about PSG is that even when they aren’t playing as a team, all you have to do is look at their players, and then you start to realize why they’ve made it to the stage of the tournament that they have.
Something Different About This Season
For the time being, PSG seemed to have shrugged off the reputation of bottlers that they’ve acquired over the years. In the 10 years since their takeover, PSG had never even made a semi-final, let alone a final. But it does feel there is something different about this season. Mbappe and Neymar’s relationship is infectious. And for all the criticism that Tuchel has taken during his time in Paris, he does seem to understand how to manage the array of personalities within the PSG dressing room.
Neymar and Mbappé will, again, be the center of attention on Sunday. Neymar can’t seem to buy a goal at the moment, missing a series of chances in both the quarter and semi-finals, but he was, by some margin, the best player on the pitch in both games. His assist for Di Maria’s goal against Leipzig was out of a video game and you just have this feeling that, after so desperately trying to find the scoresheet for a few games now, Neymar might just be saving his goals for the final.
Why They Might Win
Tactically, I think PSG have a very realistic path to winning this game. Captain Thiago Silva, one of the great leaders of his era, will be playing his last ever game for PSG. And you can count on him to be up for the occasion to organize his defense. If they set up tight and compact, while allowing Neymar and Mbappe to counter, Bayern really could be in some trouble. What they cannot do is switch off even for a moment because Bayern don’t care how well you’ve played. They can score at any time.
Pick: PSG to win the final. Mind you, this pick is for PSG to win the final, not the game in 90 minutes. That means that they can win in normal time, extra time, or on penalties for this to hit.
I’m going against the grain here for a couple of reasons. I think Bayern have covered their defensive weaknesses with loads of goals. And I think PSG’s attack is going to finally punish the Germans. I also feel that PSG want this just a little bit more. Bayern are young, focused, and – more than anything – winners, but this has been too long in the making for PSG. You could see from the celebrations in both rounds how much this means to them. I really believe it’s their destiny to lift the trophy. Also, from a pure betting standpoint. At +165, even if Bayern are favored, you are making a great value bet on PSG to see handsome rewards on a supposedly risky pick.
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