Fiorentina fans from the Rhineland, rejoice! Because Fiorentina have signed on for the inaugural Opel Cup, a three-team tournament in Mainz on Sunday, 5 August 2018. Their competition will comprise of Athletic Bilbao and hosts FSV Mainz. The matches will be played at the Opel Arena and broadcast for free by German channel SWR.
It’s not the most prestigious pre-season tournament, but it should be a good chance for the Viola to test their mettle against another pair of clubs with Europa League aspirations. It’s also a good chance to build some camaraderie, both within the squad as they take a long trip and also between some foreign teams, which is always fun.
For a bit of background, Athletic are the famously Basque-only club based in Bilbao. Despite only drawing from the ethnically Basque population of the region of Spain and France (a bit over 3 million people), los Leones have won the league 8 times and the Copa del Rey 23 or 24 times, depending on who you believe. Like Fiorentina, they’re a fantastic hipster club: because of their singular player recruitment policy, because of the difficulty of pronouncing Basque names for foreigners, and because they’re often quite fun to watch; Marcelo Bielsa took them to the UEFA Cup final back in 2012, and they’ve played a positive, aggressive style ever since. They’re also one of three clubs in Spain (along with Barcelona and Real Madrid) to never suffer relegation.
They came pretty close last year, though, finishing 16th in the table in a very disappointing season. However, injuries to several key players were perhaps the biggest factor in that performance, and they’ll be looking to return to the Europa places this year. The star names here are goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga (just 23 and already whispered about as maybe better than David De Gea), centerback Iñigo Martínez (a classic hardman with a surprisingly deep well of technique), leftback Yuri Berchiche (recently rejoined his boyhood club after a strong season with PSG), wingers Iñaki Williams (probably the highest-rated player in the side due to his devastating pace, strength, dribbling, and shooting), Markel Susaeta (the captain and still a tricky customer due to his fantastic dribbling), and Iker Muniain (remember when he was hailed as the next Messi?), and ageless striker Aritz Aduriz. New manager Eduardo Berizzo favors a 4-2-3-1, which seems to fit his personnel, but could opt for continuity with last season’s 3-4-3 setup.
Mainz also barely dodged the trapdoor last year, ending just 3 points out of the drop zone. However, die Nullfünfer are well versed in life near the bottom, having spent much of their history shuttling between the first and second flights. They’ve dipped lower, too, spending much of the 1970s and 1980s as an amateur side before climbing back into the Bundesliga in 2008. They were edged out of the Europa League in the group stages two years ago, though, so it’s not like they’re devoid of talent. Not much slows them down, either; Mainz is noted as one of the three biggest carnival cities in Germany, so expect to hear the Narrhallamarsch after the home team scores.
The star player is probably Jean-Philippe Gbamin, a powerful defensive midfielder who’s tasked with breaking up play and starting attacks. That attack is generally the domain of Germany U21 winger Levin Öztunalı, a tricky and direct dribbler; and of slippery striker Yoshinori Muto, recently returned from World Cup duty with Japan. Also watch for former Palermo attacker Robin Quaison and one-time Italian hope Giulio Donati, who bring plenty of experience with Italian teams.
Realistically, Athletic Bilbao are probably the best of these three teams in terms of quality, with the other two more or less equal behind them. However, with all three matches being played on the same day, expect lots of squad rotation and plenty of mistakes as the new signings learn their way around.