With the final round of international fixtures for 2010 taking place in midweek, the game's top players are now free to concentrate on their club commitments. And full concentration is called for in a number of cases, with several of the biggest names in the European game well off the pace a third of the way into the campaign.
The leaders in England are a mere two points clear of their rivals and the margin in France, Spain and Italy is just a single point, making change at the top a distinct possibility. The exception is in Germany, where Borussia Dortmund have amassed a seven-point cushion. FIFA.com previews the pick of the weekend action in Europe’s five biggest leagues.
Premier League: Chelsea’s stumble gives pursuers hope
Following their shock defeat at home to Sunderland last week, Chelsea‘s hold on pole position is under threat. It will be a battle of the Blues when the west London side travel to struggling Birmingham City on Saturday, while second-placed Arsenal face bitter rivals Tottenham in the north London derby. For their part, Manchester United (3rd) will be expecting nothing less than three points against lowly Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford.
Fellow title contenders Manchester City travel to last season’s UEFA Europa League finalists Fulham, while Liverpool, who looked to be on the road to recovery before losing last weekend, are still mired in mid-table. The men in red will therefore be anxious for a fifth win of the campaign when they meet bottom club West Ham United.
The question: Will Chelsea slip from top spot for the first time this term?
The big game: Arsenal–Tottenham Hotspur, Saturday 13.45, Emirates Stadium
The quote: "He's gone away and worked really hard physically. A fit Rooney is one of the best players in the world. We all hope he comes back in great shape and ready to play for Manchester United and England in the future," Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand on Wayne Rooney’s potential comeback.
La Liga: Top two start as favourites
A week ahead of El Clásico between leaders Real Madrid and second-placed Barcelona, the top two will want to avoid any kind of slip-up at home to eighth-placed Athletic Bilbao and away to relegation candidates Almeria respectively.
The battle for position behind the front-runners potentially holds out the prospect of greater excitement this weekend, as third meet fourth when Villarreal entertain Valencia to kick off this round of matches. Bottom club Zaragoza travel to Getafe, looking for fresh hope in new boss Javier Aguirre’s first game in charge.
The question: Who will prevail in the showdown among the chasing pack?
The big game: Villarreal–Valencia, Saturday 18.00, El Madrigal
The quote: "Obviously, the media spotlight always turns on any game between Barcelona and Madrid. But what we have here is a different story. Footballers always focus on the next game and concentrate on their next opponents," Athletic Bilbao coach Joaquin Caparros, asked if the Real Madrid superstars might be distracted by the Barça clash on 29 November.
Bundesliga: Weekend programme promises thrills galore
A highly promising programme features a clash between north German arch-rivals, the meeting of two Champions League participants, and the showdown between two perennial title candidates – and none of these is the biggest match of the weekend. Hannover entertain Hamburg, Schalke meet Werder Bremen, and second-placed Bayer Leverkusen host Bayern Munich, but the action deep in the south-west eclipses the lot.
That is where Freiburg, up to a remarkable fourth in the standings, entertain runaway leaders Borussia Dortmund. The men in yellow and black, who are undefeated in 11 and have won all six of their away games to date, will look to at least maintain their seven-point lead at the top.
The question: Can unfancied Freiburg derail the Dortmund express?
The big game: Freiburg–Borussia Dortmund, Saturday 15:30, Badenova Stadion
The quote: "We have to win all our games up to Christmas," Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery.
Serie A: Troubled times for treble winners
Fifth-placed Inter swept all before them last term but have now gone three games without a win. The treble winners will hope to correct that away to mid-table Chievo, and will take heart from last term’s double over the men from Verona. Leaders AC Milan claimed local bragging rights with last week’s 1-0 victory over Inter, and now meet 12th-placed Fiorentina in their quest for a fourth win on the bounce.
Of the chasing pack, Lazio are away to Parma, Napoli entertain Bologna, and Juventus travel to Genoa, all determined to keep up the pressure on the leaders. At the wrong end of the table, 18th plays 17th when Brescia host Cagliari.
The question: Will I Nerazzurri return to winning ways?
The big game: AC Milan–Fiorentina, Saturday 20.45, Stadio Giuseppe Meazza
The quote: "We all have to give even more," Inter coach Rafael Benitez on a series of setbacks over recent weeks.
Ligue 1: Rivals in hot pursuit of leaders Brest
For the neutrals, the French top flight continues to offer entertaining twists and turns every step of the way. A newly-promoted club lead the standings, only three points separate the leaders from the team in eighth, and the dominant trio of recent seasons are sixth, seventh and eighth respectively. Yet another change at the top is a distinct possibility when leaders Brest travel to fifth-placed Rennes on Saturday.
Should the big match end in a draw, three other clubs could move to the summit: Lille face Monaco, Montpellier travel to Nice, and Paris Saint-Germain entertain Caen. The big three are poised to pounce, although all are away from home: Olympique Marseille visit Toulouse, Girondins Bordeaux travel to Avignon, and Olympique Lyon play Lens.
The question: Who will top the table after matchday 14?
The big game: Rennes-Brest, Saturday 19.00, Stade de la Route de Lorient
The quote: "We’re going to silence our critics. People are saying we’ve made a bad start to the season, but here we are, just three points off the leading group," Olympique Lyon midfielder Jeremy Pied.
In Russia, Zenit St. Petersburg have wrapped up the title with two games to spare, but neither they nor toppled champions Rubin Kazan will want to lose when the new champions visit the old this weekend. The home team badly need the points in the battle for second spot, currently held by CSKA Moscow, who entertain city rivals Spartak.
The Eredivisie schedule in the Netherlands features one of its classic encounters when leaders PSV Eindhoven meet third-placed Ajax. A clash between the champions of the last two seasons takes place in Enschede, where Twente entertain AZ Alkmaar.