There is plenty at stake on the final weekend before the midwinter break in Germany, Spain and Italy. The honorary title of Herbstmeister (autumn champions) is up for grabs in the Bundesliga, while Liga pretenders Real Madrid are looking to make up lost ground on an otherwise engaged Barcelona, and Serie A leaders Inter Milan are out to end the year in commanding fashion.
In France, where the players have to negotiate a midweek round of games before they can kick off their boots for Christmas, it is a case of Gourcuff versus Gourcuff as champions Bordeaux welcome Lorient. There is no rest for England’s finest over the festive period, however, with frontrunners Chelsea kicking off a hectic few days with a trip to West Ham United.
FIFA.com looks ahead to the last weekend of European league action of 2009.
Premier League: Top dogs with points to prove
After last Saturday’s surprising draw at home to Everton, Chelsea recovered their poise in the week with a 2-1 defeat of Portsmouth. The Blues will be eyeing another win when they cross London for a reunion with Gianfranco Zola, once voted the best player in Chelsea history and now struggling to steer West Ham United out of the relegation zone. Second-placed Manchester United have had a remarkably similar few days to the leaders, losing out to Aston Villa at Old Trafford last weekend before bouncing back with a comfortable 3-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the week. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men can expect an altogether sterner examination at Fulham, however.
Arsenal missed the chance to close the gap on the top two when they drew at Burnley on Wednesday and need to collect maximum points at home to Hull City to keep the chasing Villa at bay. The Birmingham side have a testing home engagement of their own against Stoke City, while the inconsistent Liverpool can expect a tough afternoon at Portsmouth, who still lie bottom but have proved no pushovers in recent weeks.
The question: Having won five games on the trot, can Birmingham City maintain their impressive form at Everton?
The big game: West Ham-Chelsea, Saturday 19 December, 16.00, Upton Park
The quote: “We know that we can win games when Torres is not playing, but that said, when he's on the pitch, you can see the respect that other teams give him.” Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano
La Liga: Rivals aim to capitalise on Barça's absence
With Barcelona on FIFA Club World Cup duty in Abu Dhabi, Real Madrid have the opportunity to cut the deficit between them to two points. That objective should be well within their reach when they entertain lowly Real Zaragoza at the Santiago Bernabeu, the scene of seven Merengue league wins already this season. Fighting to stay in touch with the leading duo are Sevilla, who are at home to Getafe, and fourth-placed Valencia, who have an awkward assignment in La Coruna.
Villarreal have climbed up to tenth following their catastrophic start to the season and another win over Racing Santander would see them edge closer to the leading pack. Atletico Madrid’s nightmare season shows no sign of improving, however, with another potential pitfall looming for Los Colchoneros at Tenerife.
The question: Imperious at home, where they have won seven out of seven, can high-flying Mallorca pick up a first away win of the season at Malaga?
The big game: Deportivo La Coruna-Valencia, Sunday 20 December, 21.00 CET, Estadio Riazor
The quote: “We know we are going turn things around, but to do that we have to give our all for 90 minutes week in week out, not just every now and again.” Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo
Serie A: Time to make amends
The top three in Serie A all fluffed their lines seven days ago, with Inter Milan drawing 1-1 at Atalanta, AC Milan going down 2-0 at home to Palermo and Juventus slumping to a 3-1 defeat at Bari. Inter and Juve will both expect instant redemption at home to Lazio and Catania respectively, although I Rossoneri face a much stiffer task away to Fiorentina, who might be losing momentum but need no motivating against the Milan giants.
Revelations Parma defend fourth place when they travel to Roma, the side immediately below them in the table, while Sampdoria will be keen to maintain their fine start to the season away at Livorno, with city neighbours Genoa hoping to do the same at home to Bari.
The question: A Roma player for eight seasons, Christian Panucci returns to the Stadio Olimpico this weekend with Parma. Can the veteran full-back mark the occasion with a win?
The big game: Fiorentina-AC Milan, Saturday 19 December, 20.45 CET, Stadio Artemio Franchi
The quote: “We can’t afford any more slip-ups. We have to beat Catania to end the year on a high note because elimination from the UEFA Champions League was a big blow for us.” Juventus defender Claudio Marchisio
Bundesliga: Honorary title still up for grabs
Three teams are in the running for the accolade of Herbstmeister, an honorary distinction granted to the leaders at the halfway stage of the season. The unbeaten Bayer Leverkusen, who play host to Borussia Monchengladbach, are the best-placed of the trio, though back-to-back draws against Hannover and Hertha Berlin have checked their title charge.
Schalke 04 lie just a point behind Bayer and can take to the top, albeit momentarily, if they beat Mainz in the Friday evening game. Fast-improving Bayern Munich are a point further back and will fancy their chances at home to bottom club Hertha. Beaten 2-0 by Schalke on their last outing, fourth-placed Werder Bremen travel to one-time leaders Hamburg, with both sides still well in contention for the championship.
The question: Absent through injury since 3 October, will Franck Ribery make his return for Bayern in the last game of 2009? The Frenchman was declared fit but is doubtful again after picking up a knock in training.
The big game: Hamburg-Werder Bremen, Sunday 20 December, 15.30 CET, HSH Nordbank Arena
The quote: “We haven’t played to our potential in our last two games but we’re still first and we can still finish the year as ‘autumn champions’.” Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Simon Rolfes
Ligue 1: A family affair
Title favourites Bordeaux seemed to be flagging during the autumn but have hit their stride in recent weeks, compiling useful 1-0 wins away at Lyon and at home to Montpellier. This weekend the reigning champions entertain Lorient, who are coached by Christian Gourcuff, the father of inspirational Girondins playmaker Yoann.
Six points behind Laurent Blanc’s men but with a game in hand, Marseille face a difficult trip to St Etienne, who desperately need to start winning if they are to haul themselves out of the drop zone. Les Verts gave Alain Perrin his cards this week and will be hoping l’OM old boy Christophe Galtier can revive their fortunes. Lyon got back to winning ways against Boulogne on Wednesday but with eight points separating them and Bordeaux, a second win in four days is imperative at mid-table Monaco, themselves winners in the week against Rennes.
The question: Free-scoring Lille have hit four goals in each of their last four outings. Can the northerners keep that amazing run going against Le Mans?
The big game: St Etienne-Marseille, Saturday 19 December, 21.00 CET, Stade Geoffroy-Guichard
The quote: “Bordeaux are on a great run and we’re just hanging on. But with games every three days, if you do get some momentum going it can make a huge difference. Let’s hope we can keep it going at St Etienne.” Marseille coach Didier Deschamps
There is a potentially decisive matchday in store in Belgium, where runaway leaders Anderlecht can extend their advantage over the chasing Club Bruges to ten points when the two sides meet on Sunday evening. A win for Les Mauves would put them firmly on course for their 30th championship.
Second meets third in the big game in Portugal as Benfica entertain Porto in the clássico. Unusually, the two heavyweights are looking up at Sporting Braga, who have every chance of consolidating their position at the top when they travel to Pacos de Ferreira.