A double dose of Rome versus Milan, an all-Madrid encounter, and second against third in Leverkusen are the highlights of the European league programme this weekend. On the eve of the first legs in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals, all eyes in England and France will be on each nation’s two representatives in the continent’s elite competition. FIFA.com previews the weekend action in Europe’s five biggest leagues.
Premier League: Big three in close race
The title race in England has not been this tight for many years now. Just two points separate champions and leaders Manchester United from third-placed Arsenal. However, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men remain utterly determined to become the first club to win the Premier League four times in a row. The Red Devils can keep their foes at bay by winning away to Bolton Wanderers.
United cannot afford to drop their guard, as they are under relentless pressure from Arsenal and second-placed Chelsea, who bounced back from a mediocre spell with a 5-0 win away to Portsmouth in midweek. The Gunners are away to Birmingham City, who have not won in three league outings, with Chelsea at home to Aston Villa. Coach Carlo Ancelotti will be hoping Didier Drogba maintains the rich vein of form which has taken him to 24 league goals so far this season, bringing him within range of prolific United marksman Wayne Rooney (26 goals).
The question: Aston Villa have yet to lose in the Premier League this calendar year. Can the men in claret and blue preserve that record at Stamford Bridge?
The big game: Chelsea-Aston Villa, Saturday, 16:00, Stamford Bridge
The quote: "If we want to win the league we're going to have to win every game. It's a tough ask, but I'm sure we can achieve it," Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes.
La Liga: Derby time in Madrid
Atletico Madrid rate as the least predictable team in the Spanish top flight this term. Los Rojiblancos are through to the last eight of the UEFA Europa League and the Copa del Rey final, and are the only team to beat Barcelona in the league, but they are marooned in no-man’s land in the domestic standings. Facing bitter city rivals Real Madrid at the weekend, Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero and Co are keen to prove they are better than the table suggests. Victory would be a considerable feat, however, given that their opponents have won all 14 of their games at home this term.
Champions Barcelona face a tricky away trip, although with FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi in sparkling form, the visit to fourth-placed Mallorca looks a little less daunting. The men from the Balearics will not be lacking in confidence, though, having won 12 of their 13 home games so far. Third-placed Valencia are without star striker David Villa for the trip to relegation-threatened Real Zaragoza.
The question: Atletico last won a Madrid derby in La Liga back in 1999. Can they finally end that miserable sequence?
The big game: Real Madrid-Atletico Madrid, Sunday, 21:00, Estadio Bernabeu
The quote: "We can’t allow ourselves to stop winning now, because we’re being pursued point for point by an incredibly good team, namely Real Madrid," Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta.
Serie A: Clash of the Titans in Rome
Rome is abuzz with talk of a potential comeback from favourite son Francesco Totti. The Italy superstar is close to fitness after a knee injury and could return for Roma, now unbeaten in 20 league outings, for the crunch showdown at home to champions Inter. A Roma win would really throw the cat among the pigeons, as Jose Mourinho’s Inter are only four points ahead of the side in third.
Not for the first time this season, AC Milan need to bounce back from an unexpected defeat. The second-placed Rossoneri were beaten 1-0 by Parma last time out, but will be hoping to make amends with a home success against Lazio even without suspended Andrea Pirlo and Ronaldinho. Fourth-placed Palermo play Bologna, while Juventus, who have slipped to seventh, will attempt to halt the slide against Atalanta.
The question: The Rome versus Milan double bill dominates the weekend. But in five Serie A clashes so far this season, neither of the clubs from the capital has succeeded in beating a team from Milan. Could that be about to change?
The big game: Roma-Inter, Saturday, 18:00, Stadio Olimpico
The quote: "Getting our captain back is a huge boost," Roma defender Juan.
Ligue 1: Montpellier aim for the summit
With Olympique Marseille and Girondins Bordeaux busy contesting the French League Cup final at Stade de France on Saturday, and Auxerre not in action against Monaco until Monday evening, Montpellier are the only top four club in league action this weekend. The promoted side are second and can go top with a win, although the trip to fifth-placed Lille is immensely challenging.
At five points adrift of leaders Bordeaux and having played a game more, former serial champions Olympique Lyon look a long shot for the title this season. That will only serve to motivate Claude Puel’s side even more for the all-French Champions League clash with Girondins next week. Lyon have realistic hopes of a morale-boosting win at home to doomed tailenders Grenoble on Saturday.
The question: Even without suspended defender Emir Spahic, can Montpellier hold out against Lille, the league’s top scorers with 52 goals?
The big game: Lille-Montpellier, Sunday, 21:00, Stade Nord Lille Metropole
The quote: "We want to be top of the pile, so we’re a little concerned at the moment. It’s understandable, because we’re only sixth – and we’ve not been this low for a long time. We still have nine games, and every one is a final," Olympique Lyon midfielder Maxime Gonalons.
Bundesliga: Chasing pair go head-to-head
A couple of days after a stunning Arjen Robben effort in extra time sent Bayern through to the German Cup final at Schalke’s expense, both clubs face tough assignments in the league. VfB Stuttgart visit the Allianz Arena for the prestige-laden encounter between the biggest clubs in the south of Germany, which also matches the two best teams since the mid-season break. The other cup finalists, Werder Bremen, entertain Nuremberg.
Should Bayern overcome VfB, they could end up the big winners of the weekend, as the other title contenders will be taking points off each other: third-placed Leverkusen entertain second-placed Schalke, with Bayer determined to rebound from a sobering 3-0 defeat to high-flying Borussia Dortmund last week.
The question: Leverkusen’s Rene Adler has been named first-choice goalkeeper for Germany, but has conceded fully eight goals in the last three Bundesliga fixtures. Can he now keep a clean sheet – with his closest rival for the Germany job, Schalke’s Manuel Neuer, up the other end of the park?
The big game: Leverkusen-Schalke, Saturday, 18:30, BayArena
The quote: "We shouldn’t put ourselves under pressure. We need to take as relaxed a view of the situation as we have done up to now and keep believing in ourselves. That’s important for the run-in," Bayer Leverkusen coach Jupp Heynckes.
The schedules in Russia and Turkey offer some mouth-watering fare this weekend. Spartak and Locomotive meet in a Moscow derby, while the fervour and passion in Istanbul will be ratcheted up yet another notch when Galatasaray meet Fenerbahce.
However, the context to the matches in the two metropolises is radically different. The Russian season is only two games old, but the Turkish Super Lig is building to its climax. Defying the pundits, surprise package Bursaspor are five points clear of Gala and six ahead of Fener. The leaders visit Istanbul BB.