Be it Liverpool in England, Bayern Munich in Germany or Lyon in France, many of Europe’s big-name clubs have so far struggled to live up to pre-season expectations. The trio will have another chance to get back on track this weekend, though none have straightforward assignments. With no such worries are Valencia and Lazio, surprise leaders in Spain and Italy respectively, who will be aiming to continue their impressive run of results.
After the international fixtures of the last seven days, FIFA.com turns its attention back to Europe’s five major domestic leagues, where some fascinating match-ups are on the agenda.
Premier League: Derby with a difference
Having underachieved significantly last season, Liverpool fans had high hopes that the arrival of Roy Hodgson would herald a new era for the Merseyside club. However, a stuttering start to the current campaign has those same supporters nervously studying the league table in advance of a crucial derby with Everton. The Reds will take heart from the fact their fierce rivals have also found points hard to come by so far. After seven games without a win, the Toffees finally secured three points in a 2-0 defeat of Birmingham City a fortnight ago, a result that lifted them to 17th, one ahead of Liverpool.
At the other end of the table, early pacesetters Chelsea make the trip to Aston Villa, second-placed Manchester City face a tough test at Blackpool, and unbeaten Manchester United welcome Roberto Di Matteo’s enterprising West Bromwich Albion side to Old Trafford.
The question: After losing four times and drawing twice in their last six matches, can Wolverhampton Wanderers turn things around in Saturday’s high-pressure encounter with rock-bottom West Ham United?
The big game: Everton-Liverpool, Sunday 14.30 CET, Goodison Park
The quote: “The criticism is completely over the top. It’s easy to blame Roy Hodgson or Fernando Torres for our bad start. We’ve all got to accept responsibility,” Steven Gerrard, Liverpool captain.
La Liga: Leaders head for Camp Nou
Six years after securing their last league crown, Valencia are enjoying a dream start to the season. One of just two sides in the top tier still unbeaten (the other being Real Madrid), Unai Emery’s men boast the second-best attack and the joint-best defence, and are performing in a manner worthy of potential champions. The seventh round of matches sees Los Che face a stern examination of their growing title credentials when they make the trip north to take on fourth-placed Barcelona. While a visit to Camp Nou is perhaps not quite as intimidating as it has been in recent years, the Catalans have an unerring knack of getting the requisite result in big games, and know there is a chance of going top in the event of victory.
If Barcelona avoid defeat, Real, presently in third, could also find themselves in pole position should they manage to get the better of mid-table Malaga on their travels. If Los Merengues’ recent 6-1 win over Deportivo is anything to go by, the home supporters could have a long evening in store.
The question: Can Villarreal make it six wins in a row against Hercules Alicante on Monday night?
The big game: Barcelona-Valencia, Saturday 20.00 CET, Camp Nou
The quote: “Cristiano Ronaldo is a really great guy – he’s not arrogant at all. In the dressing room he’s even a bit of a joker,” Sami Khedira, Real Madrid midfielder.
Bundesliga: Mainz target history, Bayern eye response
With just seven rounds of the season gone, Bayern Munich can already be described as a club in crisis. Smarting from two consecutive defeats, inconsistent displays and the loss through injury of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, the 12th-placed defending champions currently find themselves closer to the relegation zone than the UEFA Champions League qualification spots. Against this uncertain backdrop, fans of the Bavarian side would doubtless have preferred to welcome other opponents than high-flying Hanover to the Allianz Arena on Saturday afternoon.
While Louis van Gaal and his players will be going all-out for victory, Mainz are just as desperate for three points, but for different reasons entirely. Having equalled the best-ever start to a season in the German top flight, the surprise leaders will create a piece of history if they secure an eighth win in a row at home to Hamburg. In one of the weekend’s other noteworthy fixtures, Bayer Leverkusen, defeated just once so far but still making do without Michael Ballack, may find the going tough against a fast-improving Wolfsburg team.
The question: Having found the net six times in seven matches, will Freiburg striker Papiss Cisse find a way past Werder Bremen’s leaky defence?
The big game: Wolfsburg-Leverkusen, Saturday 18.30 CET, Volkswagen-Arena
The quote: “We’ve got to start finding solutions quickly, because the situation is desperate. We currently lack aggression, desire and focus,” Hans-Jorg Butt, Bayern Munich keeper.
Serie A: Lazio mettle under scrutiny
Italian champions for five years running, Inter Milan have yet to hit top form this season, despite lying second in the championship race. Rather unexpectedly, with six matches already played, it is unfancied Lazio that are peering down at the chasing pack.
That could all change over the weekend, however, as a defeat for the Romans in Bari could allow any one of Inter, Napoli or AC Milan to take over at the summit, if they can successfully negotiate their matches with Cagliari, Catania and Chievo respectively. Juventus, meanwhile, will be looking to improve on their seventh position by beating Lecce in Turin.
The question: Will Lazio’s fine form, which has seen them go five matches without a loss, continue against a Bari side that boasts an unbeaten home record?
The big game: AC Milan-Chievo, Saturday 18.00 CET, San Siro
The quote: “You have to remember that the football world is the worst at spreading this type of nonsense,” Wesley Sneijder of Inter Milan responding to rumours his return to Real Madrid was imminent.
Ligue 1: Struggling heavyweights out to climb
The top three at the end of the 2009/10 season read as follows: Marseille, Lyon, Auxerre. Prior to Round 9 this term, those same teams find themselves in eighth, 17th and 14th places respectively. Having all avoided defeat away from home last time out, they will attempt to continue their arduous climb up the table in front of their own fans this weekend.
Of the three, defending champions Marseille appear to have the best chance of claiming three points, as they welcome a struggling Nancy side to the Velodrome. Lyon’s task should, on paper at least, be a lot trickier - not only are opponents Lille one of the division’s form teams, they have had a solid record at the Stade Gerland in recent years. Auxerre can also expect a challenging 90 minutes, although visitors Bordeaux have been disappointing as well thus far. Rennes will look to consolidate the leadership by winning at second-bottom Lens, while closest challengers Saint-Etienne travel to Nice.
The question: Can Brest secure their third win in a row, and their fifth consecutive match without conceding a goal, against Arles-Avignon?
The big game: Lyon-Lille, Sunday 21.00, Stade Gerland
The quote: “If we’re sitting in 17th place, that’s a clear sign that something’s not working. We’re all very aware that we’re walking a tightrope, and that a fall from such a height would be very painful,” Jean-Michel Aulas, Lyon chairman.
In the Turkish Super Lig, defending champions and table-toppers Bursaspor face a home test against a sixth-placed Karabukspor outfit that is only one win off the summit. Turkey can presently boast one of the tightest championship races in Europe, with the top six teams separated by just three points.
Finally, the match of the weekend in the Belgian Pro League sees first take on third, when Genk play host to a Standard Liege team seeking a fourth win in a row. Achieving that particular target at the Cristal Arena on Sunday evening would bring Les Rouches to within three points of the hitherto unbeaten leaders.