Bill Connelly, ESPN Staff WriterSep 7, 2023, 12:24 PM ET


Bill Connelly is a staff writer for

It may be a marathon, and it may ask far too much of the game’s best players and best clubs, but you have to say this much for the European soccer calendar: It’s rarely actually monotonous. Every month has its own distinct personality, from the international break and increasingly important Champions League group stage matches of October or November, to the England-specific glut at the end of December and beginning of January, to the Champions League knockouts and title pushes of April, and so on.

September’s personality might be the strangest of the bunch. The season just started, we were just getting an impression of teams, the chaotic last stages of the summer transfer window reaped loads of change and general carnage … and then we hit pause for a couple of weeks for the first international break. It’s awkward, but it is what it is, and there are intriguing international matches as well as some Women’s Champions League qualifiers to get us through this first period. Then there are some seriously big club matches to take us from there.

With all of that in mind, let’s preview the month of September. Below are the five most interesting matches in eight different leagues and categories between now and Sunday, Oct. 1.

Men’s international matches

- Sept. 8: Spain at Georgia (Euro qualification)

- Sept. 8: Chile at Uruguay (CONMEBOL World Cup qualification)
- Sept. 9: Uzbekistan at USA (friendly)
- Sept. 10: Netherlands at Ireland (Euro qualification)
- Sept. 12: Burundi at Cameroon (AFCON qualification)

Qualification for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations -- which will take place in early 2024 because this sport has broken all semblance of reality, geography and time – wraps up over the next week, and most of the continent’s heavyweights (Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Morocco) have already qualified. Ghana and Cameroon haven’t, however. Without Thomas Partey, Ghana needs at least a draw against CAR on Thursday, while Cameroon, again with goalkeeper André Onana, needs either a win or a high-scoring draw against Burundi on Sept. 12.

Meanwhile, qualification for next summer’s Euros in Germany is nearing the midway point. Heavyweights like England, France and Portugal have started well; others, like Italy, Netherlands and Spain, probably need six points from this window to avoid future anxiety.

Spain lost 2-0 to Scotland back in March, part of a four-match, four-win start for the Scots in Group A. That might leave Spain to scrap with Norway and Georgia for the second automatic qualification spot. A loss or draw at the Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi would make things awkward.



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UEFA competitions

- Sept. 19: Newcastle United at AC Milan (Champions League)

- Sept. 20: Manchester United at Bayern Munich (Champions League)
- Sept. 20: PSV Eindhoven at Arsenal (Champions League)
- Sept. 21: Marseille at Ajax (Europa League)
- Sept. 21: Aston Villa at Legia Warsaw (Conference League)

The first week of Champions League play gives us an amazing battle of the brands in Manchester United vs. Bayern Munich and the first go-round in the Group of Pain, aka Group F, where the action starts with Borussia Dortmund visiting PSG and Newcastle visiting Milan. (It also offers what should be an aesthetically pleasing matchup between PSV Eindhoven and Arsenal.)

United vs. Bayern pits two teams who battled existential issues in August. Manchester United ended August still feeling like an incomplete team; they lost by two goals to both Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal on the road, they needed a late goal to beat Wolves, and they needed a late goal to complete a two-goal comeback against Nottingham Forest. They’ve scored five goals and allowed seven, they’re only now working young/new forward Rasmus Hojlund into the rotation, and their defensive depth is tenuous enough that they finished the Arsenal match with a center-back duo of Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans.

Bayern, meanwhile, are doing fine on the pitch. Since the addition of Harry Kane, they’ve won three league matches by a combined 9-2 and even overcame bogey team Borussia Monchengladbach in a 2-1 win on Saturday. But they failed in Thomas Tuchel’s ongoing quest to turn Bayern into a Premier League team: while they did add Kane, they fell short in their pursuits of England star Declan Rice, Manchester City full-back Kyle Walker, Fulham midfielder João Palhinha and Chelsea defender Trevoh Chalobah, among others.

The Bavarians’ roster looks fine, honestly, but Tuchel clearly doesn’t think so, and that is creating some odd tension. Bayern will be coming off a league matchup with Bayer Leverkusen before United visit. All in all, a huge week in Munich.

Play gets underway in the UEFA Europa League and UEFA Conference League as well, and I’m most curious about the Europa League’s Group of (Something Slightly Less Bad Than) Death – Group B, which features Ajax, Marseille and Brighton – and Aston Villa’s journey through a tricky Conference League group that includes early Eredivisie leader AZ and a young Legia squad with pretty high upside.

This is Villa’s first European action since losing to Rapid Wien in qualification for the 2010-11 Europa League. They’re the current betting favorite to win the Conference League, but they’ll want to avoid an iffy start.



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English Premier League

- Sept. 16: Brighton at Manchester United

- Sept. 16: Manchester City at West Ham
- Sept. 24: Tottenham Hotspur at Arsenal
- Sept. 24: West Ham at Liverpool
- Sept. 30: Liverpool at Tottenham Hotspur

As tends to be customary at this early stage in the season, the top of the Premier League table is a mix of stalwarts and upstarts. Manchester City’s already clear of the pack at 12 points, but five more teams have either nine or 10 points: financial heavyweights Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs, light heavyweight West Ham and mighty middleweight Brighton. Among those, we’ll learn the most about Spurs and West Ham this month.

Ange Postecoglu’s optimistic and exciting Spurs should move to 13 points with a home match against Sheffield United, but they end the month with Arsenal and Liverpool.

They’re also figuring out their way forward. The club took some of the proceeds from the Kane sale to bring in Nottingham Forest’s Brennan Johnson, only the 22-year-old is nothing like Kane. His touches were very infrequent at Forest, though he’s a solid crosser and he had a flair for the dramatic last season: Three of his eight goals came in the last 15 minutes, and four gave the lead to a desperate-for-leads Forest team. We’ll see how he fits in alongside a James Maddison and Son Heung-min combination that has already produced five goals and two assists.

Meanwhile, West Ham not only begins Europa League play against Serbia’s TSC, but also takes on City and Liverpool. Last year’s Conference League title bailed out an otherwise moribund (and relatively unlucky) campaign, but they’ve begun the season with 10 points in four matches; last season at this stage, they had only three points. Their quick-strike countering ability has been outstanding thus far, and they have matching 3-1 wins over Brighton and Chelsea to show for it. Now they get to see what sparkly new attacker Mohammed Kudus can add against big-time teams.



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German Bundesliga

- Sept. 15: Bayer Leverkusen at Bayern Munich

- Sept. 16: Borussia Dortmund at Freiburg
- Sept. 23: Wolfsburg at Borussia Dortmund
- Sept. 24: Freiburg at Eintracht Frankfurt
- Sept. 30: Bayern Munich at RB Leipzig

The Bundesliga has not lacked for storylines thus far.

You’ve got Bayern’s ongoing Premier League obsession (as mentioned above), and you’ve got Borussia Dortmund battling a hangover after last season’s heartbreaking end: BVB have five points in three matches, but they were lucky to beat Koln and barely escaped with draws against maybe the league’s two worst teams (Bochum and newcomer Heidenheim). If they don’t snap out of their funk, their season could be waylaid by poor results against Freiburg and Wolfsburg and a poor start to Champions League group stage play.

Beyond the league’s two biggest teams, however, you’ve also got both Bayer Leverkusen and RB Leipzig playing incredible ball early on. RBL lost a trio of stalwarts – attackers Christopher Nkunku (Chelsea) and Dominik Szoboszlai (Liverpool) and defender Josko Gvardiol (Manchester City) – to transfer fees worth a combined €220 million, and lost midfielder Konrad Laimer to a free Bayern transfer, too. But thanks to brilliance from holdover Dani Olmo and bright starts from well-touted newcomers Xavi Simons and Loïs Openda, they have pummeled otherwise blemish-free Bayern (in the DFB Super Cup), Stuttgart and Union Berlin by a combined 11-1. Their only blemish: a 3-2 loss at an equally awesome Bayer Leverkusen.

Xabi Alonso righted Leverkusen’s ship last season – he inherited a 17th-place team on Oct. 5 but generated top-four-level results from there – and after some deft transfer work, they have been perfect in 2023-24. Attacker Moussa Diaby left for Aston Villa for a €55 million fee, with which they overhauled an already solid roster. They added veterans Granit Xhaka (Arsenal) and Alex Grimaldo (Benfica) in midfield and Bayern loanee Josip Stanisic in defense, and they diversified their attack with veteran Jonas Hofmann (Borussia Monchengladbach) and incredible youngster Victor Boniface (Union St. Gilloise), who already has five goals and two assists in all competitions. The Hofmann-Jeremie Frimpong combination on the right has combined for four goals and five assists, and emerging star Florian Wirtz has two of each.

Everything’s working for Leverkusen right now, which makes next Friday’s trip to Munich awfully tantalizing. Bayern head to Leipzig at the end of the month, too.

Spanish LaLiga

- Sept. 16: Real Betis at Barcelona

- Sept. 17: Real Sociedad at Real Madrid
- Sept. 24: Real Madrid at Atletico Madrid
- Oct. 1: Real Madrid at Girona
- Oct. 1: Athletic Club at Real Sociedad

It’s been a mostly normal start to the year in Spain: Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have taken 29 of a possible 33 points from their 11 combined matches. Neither Real Madrid nor Barca have established anything close to fifth gear, but they’re manufacturing results.

Meanwhile, Atleti’s resounding 7-1 win at stingy Rayo Vallecano was one of the biggest statements of intent we’ve seen in Europe this season. They were the best team in Spain over the last four months of last season, too, and they’re just as dangerous at the moment. Just a few matches in, we can pretty safely assume that the other 17 teams in LaLiga are battling for fourth.

The most well-positioned team for that fourth spot, however, is a new one.

Girona won the promotion playoff in 2022 and finished a comfortable 10th last season, and they have gone four matches unbeaten in 2023-24. They drew at Real Sociedad to begin the season, then beat Getafe, Sevilla and Las Palmas by a combined 6-1. Owned by the City Group, the club brought in Manchester City midfielder Yangel Herrera, plus a pair of Barcelona youngsters (defender Eric García, midfielder Pablo Torre) on loan. Their defense is passive, their possession play is solid, and while they’re probably not long for the top of the table, that home match against Real Madrid on Oct. 1 should have one hell of an atmosphere.

Beyond the underdog tale, we get a lovely Madrid derby on Sept. 24, while Real Sociedad has a couple of big opportunities to reinforce its own top-four credentials.

Italian Serie A

- Sept. 16: AC Milan at Inter Milan

- Sept. 16: Lazio at Juventus
- Sept. 24: Hellas Verona at AC Milan
- Sept. 27: Lecce at Juventus
- Oct. 1: Juventus at Atalanta

We eased into the Serie A season primarily with big-versus-little encounters in August, which allowed a number of Italy’s biggest clubs to start out well: Inter and AC Milan both have nine points after three matches, while Juventus have seven and Napoli have six. Both Lazio and Roma started poorly – Roma has one point in three matches, while Lazio lost its first two matches before rebounding with a road upset of Napoli – which could be costly with bigger matches on the way.

There are a couple of huge matches right out of the gate next Saturday. We’ve got a Milan Derby between teams with perfect point totals, and we’ve got Lazio attempting another big win away from home against Juve.

Both Milan clubs made a number of astute summer moves, some of which have already begun to pay off. New AC Milan winger Christian Pulisic has scored a pair of goals in 240 minutes, while new Inter forward Marcus Thuram has a goal and two assists. It’s too early in the season for anything with true title stakes, but this will be an enormous matchup.

A couple of upstarts have huge matches, too. After somehow avoiding relegation last season, Hellas Verona have begun this season with two wins in three matches, while Lecce have two wins and a draw. Each boasts a young attacker off to a lovely start – Cyril Ngonge for Verona (two goals in 222 minutes), Nikola Krstovic for Lecce (two in 89) – and a week after the restart, Verona will head to Milan and Lecce will head to Turin.

It’s probably too much to ask for either team to hover around the top four into October or November, but they’ll have the opportunity to do just that.

Other men’s leagues

- Sept. 24: Marseille at PSG (French Ligue 1)

- Sept. 24: Feyenoord at Ajax (Dutch Eredivisie)
- Sept. 27: Gent at Royal Antwerp (Belgian Pro League)
- Sept. 30: Celtic at Motherwell (Scottish Premiership)
- Oct. 1: Porto at Benfica (Portuguese Primeira Liga)

Motherwell is one of Scotland’s most consistently decent clubs. The club has existed for nearly 140 years, hasn’t been relegated since the 1980s and occasionally sneaks into qualification for a European competition with a top-five-or-so finish in the Scottish Premiership. But Motherwell also haven’t finished within 20 points of Celtic in a decade. One assumes a similar fate for them eventually this season, but for now they stand in second place in the Premiership with three wins and a draw in their first four matches.

Scottish Premiership table:

1. Celtic (10 points, +5 goal differential)
2. Motherwell (10 points, +3)
3. St. Mirren (8 points, +2)
4. Rangers (6 points, +4)

Motherwell will have a chance to solidify their position in September, playing Rangers on Sept. 23, then turning around and hosting Celtic a week later. That’s a rough eight days, but I’m betting the atmosphere at Fir Park on Sept. 30 will be worth tuning in for.

Oh, and you should take in a pair of huge Marseille matches as well. They play at an increasingly strong PSG on Sept. 24, then visit league-leading (and incredibly entertaining) Monaco on Oct. 1. And from a rivalry perspective, it’s hard to top Feyenoord vs. Ajax and Porto vs. Benfica.



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Women’s European matches

- Sept. 9: Juventus at Eintracht Frankfurt (Champions League qualification)

- Sept. 9: Arsenal v. Paris FC* (Champions League qualification)
- Sept. 16: Barcelona at Madrid CFF (Liga F)
- Sept. 30: Lyon at PSG (Division 1 Feminine)
- Oct. 1: Tottenham Hotspur at Chelsea (Women’s Super League)

With investment levels rising, women’s club soccer is getting deeper by the minute, but it remains a work in progress. In last season’s 16-team group stage, we had only a couple of knockout round spots up for grabs by the final matchday, and three of the four last-place group finishers lost six of six matches. (In a group with Chelsea, PSG and Real Madrid, Albania’s Vllaznia were outscored 28-1.) And as with the men’s side, there were plenty of blowouts in the qualification process.

We should be guaranteed at least a couple of high-level qualification matches this coming weekend, however, with matchups like Arsenal (third place in England last season) vs. Paris (third in France) and Juventus (second in Italy) vs. Eintracht (third in Germany). In all, there are 15 playoff matchups, the winners of which will advance to a second playoff round that features bigger names like Wolfsburg, PSG, Roma, Real Madrid and Manchester United. (Only the champions of each of the four biggest leagues automatically qualify for the group stage.)

After these weekend clashes, we ease our way into the domestic club season as well. Actually, no, we charge into it. The biggest matchup in France – Lyon vs. PSG – shows up at the end of the month, while Madrid CFF, last year’s fifth-place finisher in Liga F, get a shot at defending champion Barca next weekend.