Anyone concerned that the final round of UEFA Champions League
group matches heralded an end to the European footballing drama for
2007 need only cast an eye over a scintillating weekend fixture
list for reassurance. The timing could hardly be better, as a
clutch of leading clubs jockey for position in anticipation of the
decisive second half of the campaign.
FIFA.com looks ahead to the pick of the forthcoming action in England, Spain, Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere.
Premier League: Top four face off
Even on a weekend crammed with tasty fixtures, two clashes of the heavyweights in England are set to steal the limelight. All eyes will be on Liverpool and London where the top four come face-to-face in the space of just four hours. The Sunday afternoon drama begins with Liverpool, in fourth, entertaining second-placed Manchester United, followed in short order by a titanic London derby between leaders Arsenal and third-placed Chelsea. The double showdown between the Premier League's creme de la creme is guaranteed to capture the attention of the entire footballing world.
Who will emerge on top when the smoke clears? Practically anything is possible, as Arsenal, Manchester and Chelsea are covered by a mere three points, while Liverpool are eyeing a massive opportunity to re-enter the title race with a vengeance once and for all. All four English giants are safely through to the UEFA Champions League knockout round and have set their sights on silverware this term. The Blues are without injured Didier Drogba as they seek to chalk up a tenth consecutive unbeaten outing in the league, and will be keen to capitalise on the Gunners' first defeat of the season last week. In the north-west, the Reds have no intention of allowing bitter rivals the Red Devils to breach their Anfield fortress.
The big game: Liverpool-Manchester United, Sunday 16 December, 1.30pm (local time) / Arsenal-Chelsea, Sunday 16 December, 4pm (local time)
The question: Can Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez register a first Premier League victory over Manchester United at the seventh time of asking?
The quote: "They've closed the gap, and we have a job to do against Chelsea. The pressure's on us, but we're happy under pressure," Gael Clichy, Arsenal defender.
Primera Division: Valencia keen to bounce back
Real Madrid and their German boss Bernd Schuster are on a roll at the moment, with a commanding lead in the standings and comfortable progress in the UEFA Champions League. Spanish commentators are already mooting the best Real line-up in a decade, and few would bet against the post-Galactico generation at the weekend when they entertain 14th-placed CA Osasuna.
The men from the Spanish capital stand a reasonable chance of extending their lead at the top of the league, as pursuers Barcelona visit a Valencia side desperately seeking a decent result to escape a slump. Many feel a boxer is at his most dangerous when wounded, a maxim certainly applicable to coach Ronald Koeman's ensemble at the present time: Valencia finished rock bottom of their Champions League group and have already lost six times in the Primera Liga, so a win over the visiting Catalans would be a huge boost ahead of the festive season.
The big game: Valencia-Barcelona, Saturday, 15 December, 10pm (local time)
The question: Can Barcelona chalk up what would be only their second win in eight away fixtures and keep the pressure on Real?
The quote: "We'll have to play extremely well if we want to win in Valencia. We've been much better away from home recently and we're very confident, although it won't be easy, as Valencia are always tough," Lilian Thuram, Barcelona defender.
Bundesliga: Bayern to lose pole position?
At the start of the campaign, when the star-studded line-up assembled by Bayern Munich nonchalantly brushed aside all-comers with a string of scintillating displays orchestrated by summer signings Luca Toni, Miroslav Klose and Franck Ribery, few observers believed the Bavarians might stumble en route to the title. However, in the last round of matches before the long mid-season break, Ottmar Hitzfeld's team could be toppled from top spot for the very first time this term. The leaders travel to face Hertha Berlin without captain Oliver Kahn, fined and suspended by the club for one match for criticising Toni, Ribery et al.
Should Bayern lose and Werder Bremen defeat Bayer Leverkusen at home in the biggest match of the day, the northerners spearheaded by gifted playmaker Diego would sneak in and claim the unofficial title of 'winter champions' awarded to the side heading the table at the halfway mark. Elsewhere, third-placed Hamburger SV are determined to round off an excellent first half of term with three points away to promoted Karlsruher SC, themselves in a lofty sixth position after a fine run.
The big game: Werder Bremen-Bayer Leverkusen, Saturday 15 December, 3.30pm (local time)
The question: How will Werder react to their elimination from the UEFA Champions League, and are Bremen good enough to halt Leverkusen's impressive run of five Bundesliga victories on the bounce?
The quote: "You're always under pressure at Bayern, more than I felt in my time at Barcelona. But we're going to Berlin in search of the win we need for the winter championship," Mark van Bommel, Bayern Munich midfielder.
Ligue 1: Marseille eye domestic comfort
It is hard to feel anything les than sympathy for Olympique Marseille and their fans at the present time, as coach Erik Gerets' men find themselves in an unenviable position. Dumped out of the UEFA Champions League 4-0 at home by rampaging Liverpool in midweek, the side from the south of France now travel to face third-placed Girondins Bordeaux. Marseille have hauled themselves out of the relegation mire with eleven points from their last five league matches, but there is a severe risk the mini-recovery could come to a shuddering halt.
Elsewhere, Paris St. Germain could ease their relegation concerns with a home win against Toulouse, for whom defeat would spell the beginning of a grim battle against the drop. At the other end of the table, leaders Olympique Lyon will be determined to atone for last week's limp 1-0 away defeat to SM Caen by seeing off seventh-placed OGC Nice at home, while rivals AS Nancy will attempt to keep up their pursuit of the serial champions away to Racing Strasbourg.
The big game: Girondins Bordeaux-Olympique Marseille, Sunday 16 December, 8.55pm (local time)
The question: Can Marseille bounce back and overcome the apparent jinx on their trips to Bordeaux, where they have not won in 30 years?
The quote: "A goalless draw would rate as a good outcome for us, provided we then go on and beat Le Mans at home," Lorik Cana, Olympique Marseille midfielder.
Serie A: Pursuing pack face stern tests
With AC Milan currently setting aside their patchy domestic form to focus on the final of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007 against Boca Juniors, city rivals Inter are busily putting distance between themselves and their Italian title rivals. The reigning champions and current leaders visit Cagliari, bottom of the standings and without a win in nine. Inter appear well-placed to maintain their undefeated record so far this season.
The drama and tension will likely be provided by the pursuing pack, as the teams ranging from second to fifth cannot afford any slip-ups, although all face tough away matches. Roma visit Torino, who desperately need the breathing space a win would provide. Juventus travel to Lazio, much improved of late despite their midweek Champions League reverse in Madrid. Udinese visit Catania , always a decent bet for a surprise at home, and Fiorentina are away to Sampdoria, who have only lost once in front of their home crowd.
The big game: Lazio-Juventus, Saturday 15 December, 8.30pm (local time)
The question: Roma have yet to lose away from home, with Juventus only defeated once on their travels. Is that situation about to change?
The quote: "We've done very well so far this season and we want to consolidate our position further. We still have to play Lazio and Siena before Christmas, and we're looking for six points," Giorgio Chiellini, Juventus defender.
Big games abound all over Europe this weekend. Dutch Cup winners and league leaders Ajax Amsterdam meet second-placed champions PSV Eindhoven, Greek champs Olympiakos in second take on top dogs AEK Athens, while leaders Sivasspor travel to face second-placed Galatasaray in Turkey.
In Scotland, meanwhile, Rangers host Hearts aiming to overhaul Celtic for 23 hours at least, with the Bhoys in action away to Inverness Caledonian Thistle on Sunday.
Belgian fans are gearing up for the evergreen clash between Cup winners Bruges in top spot and sixth-placed champions Anderlecht, while second visit first in Austria as title holders Red Bull Salzburg travel to leaders Sturm Graz. Finally, Portuguese leaders and champions Porto can pull further clear of the rest with a home win over third-placed Vitoria Guimaraes.