With around a quarter of the season already gone in Europe’s five major domestic championships, a picture of how the season may pan out is beginning to emerge. The situation could become clearer still after this weekend's action, which includes the meeting of first and second in Germany, and that of leaders against reigning champions in France.
Across the border in Spain, Real Madrid face a serious test in the shape of Hercules, the only side to get the better of Barcelona thus far. In England, Tottenham Hotspur fans should find out against Manchester United if their team has what it takes to go the distance, as will supporters of the side that emerges victorious from the crucial AC Milan-Juventus clash in Italy.
FIFA.com looks ahead to what promises to be an exciting weekend of football across Europe.
Premier League: Spurs face Old Trafford test
The only unbeaten team left in England’s top flight, third-placed Manchester United will doubtless be forced to work hard to maintain that record against a Tottenham side that would leapfrog their more illustrious opponents in the event of victory.
United will be without the injured Wayne Rooney, but should be able to count on an on-song Javier Hernandez and former Spurs forward Dimitar Berbatov. The Red Devils will be keen to avoid losing ground to leaders Chelsea, who travel north to take on Blackburn Rovers, and second-placed Arsenal, who welcome bottom club West Ham to the Emirates.
Manchester City will need to put last week’s heavy defeat to the Gunners behind them as they, minus the injured Carlos Tevez, make the trip to lowly Wolverhampton Wanderers. Meanwhile, Liverpool, sitting third from bottom, hope to prove to their travelling support at Bolton Wanderers on Sunday that a recovery is finally underway.
Lastly, due to their current positions in the mid-to-upper reaches of the table, the stakes will be even higher than usual during the two derbies on the agenda, Aston Villa-Birmingham City and Newcastle United-Sunderland.
The question: Aston Villa approach the Birmingham derby comforted by the knowledge that they have overcome their city rivals on the last six occasions. Can Gerard Houllier’s charges make it seven in a row?
The big game: Manchester United-Tottenham Hotspur, Saturday 18.30 CET, Old Trafford
The quote: “We’ll head to Newcastle with the aim of maintaining the good form we’ve shown up to now – we’re not treating the match any differently. But if our fans can go home happy at the end of the day, that would be fantastic,” Sunderland captain Lee Cattermole.
La Liga: Hercules seek unlikely double
Real Madrid, a point clear at the top and still to taste defeat this season, will be more wary than usual of their upcoming trip to Alicante to face promoted side Hercules. The reason for this is simple: the team currently in 13th spot is the only one to have beaten champions Barcelona, a result achieved away at Camp Nou for good measure.
Since that reverse, the form of the third-placed Catalans has improved, and they will view the visit of Sevilla as an ideal opportunity to keep their good run going. The Andalusian side have shown recent signs of recovery, however, with Luis Fabiano and Frederic Kanoute looking especially dangerous during last week’s win over Athletic Bilbao.
Sandwiched in second between the two Spanish giants, Villarreal cannot afford to drop points versus Sporting Gijon. High-flying Valencia’s mission at home to winless Zaragoza is identical, as is that of fifth-placed Espanyol in Galicia against a struggling Deportivo side.
The question: Atletico Madrid front man Diego Forlan has not found the net in the league since 11 September. Can he rediscover his scoring touch against Almeria on Sunday?
The big game: Barcelona-Sevilla, Saturday 22.00 CET, Camp Nou
The quote: “Most people are wondering how Villarreal can possibly be splitting Real and Barcelona at the moment. We know that we’re not on the same level as either of those teams on paper, but let’s see where we are at the end of the season. For now, let’s concentrate on the Gijon match,” Villarreal skipper Marcos Senna.
Serie A: Tough at the top
Lazio, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus all have awkward-looking encounters to negotiate this weekend. The Rome-based side will be intent on consolidating top spot away to seventh-placed Palermo, in a match that could take on a certain South American flavour, as Javier Pastore, the Sicilian side’s Argentinian star, and Hernanes, Lazio’s Brazilian midfielder, are both likely to play influential roles.
Defending champions Inter, meanwhile, lock horns with an ambitious but inconsistent Genoa outfit. AC Milan, lying second, would normally be confident of picking up solid wins at home while their city rivals play away, but their opponents this time around will have different ideas. Juventus, who sit fifth, would like nothing better than to continue their steady improvement by pocketing all three points at the San Siro.
Chievo, whose good recent form has seen the Verona side climb to fourth, travel to Parma, languishing at the bottom of the league. Roma and Fiorentina, still incapable of putting together a good run of results, face mid-table opposition in the form of Lecce and Catania respectively.
The question: On the end of two resounding 3-0 defeats last year, can Juventus gain some revenge against AC Milan in this season’s first meeting between the sides?
The big game: AC Milan-Juventus, Saturday 20.45 CET, San Siro
The quote: “We’re set to take on a top team, but we’ll still be aiming to pick up three important points. We’ve been working on making sure everything falls into place. There’s no reason why that can’t happen against Inter,” Genoa forward Mattia Destro, on loan from Inter Milan.
Bundesliga: All eyes on Mainz meeting
Punters would have got long odds on Mainz and Dortmund running away with the German Championship at this stage of the season. Having started the campaign with a remarkable seven consecutive wins, the Rhineland side regained top spot last week following Die Schwarzgelben’s draw at home to Hoffenheim.
Aside from the battle for three points, the match will have a particularly poignant aura for Borussia supremo Jurgen Klopp, who enjoys legendary status in Mainz, having previously played for and coached the club with distinction.
Below the leading pair, a substantial six-point gap now extends down to Hannover in third, who could well create a divide of their own should they manage to come away from fourth-placed Hoffenheim with a win. In the meantime, Bayern Munich’s players once again have no choice other than to emerge triumphant from their encounter with Freiburg if they are to retain any realistic hopes of securing the league title.
The disappointing starts suffered by Schalke and Stuttgart have all but ruled them out of the championship race, but victories over Leverkusen and Wolfsburg would go a long way to resolving their more immediate concern, that of avoiding relegation to the second tier.
The question: Freiburg’s predatory forward Papiss Cisse has scored as many goals (eight) on his own as the entire Bayern team. Will he be able to notch another one at the Allianz Arena on Friday night?
The big game: Mainz-Dortmund, Sunday 15.30 CET, Stadion am Bruchweg
The quote: “At the moment, teams in the league are just not afraid of Bayern. We need to get back to a point where our opponents dread playing us,” Bayern midfielder Thomas Muller.
Ligue 1: Aspiring leaders lie in wait
Marseille, reigning champions and currently occupying second position, welcome surprise table-toppers Rennes; a win for L’OM would see them replace the Breton team at the summit. The omens are certainly good for Didier Deschamps’ men, as it was against the same opponents that they captured the French title at the end of last season.
Further back, third-placed Brest face a Saint-Etienne side sitting just below them in the table. Both clubs will be acutely aware that a win coupled with a draw in the Marseille-Rennes clash would propel them to the very top of Ligue 1. Making up the leading six clubs, Toulouse and Montpellier also entertain hopes of leapfrogging their way up the table, a goal that could become a reality with respective victories over Paris Saint-Germain and Lens.
Lyon, still struggling to clamber free of the bottom half, will seek to put their midweek French League Cup elimination behind them by taking care of midtable Sochaux at Stade Gerland, while Bordeaux will look to do the same away to a Monaco outfit desperate to exit the drop zone. Finally, Lille need to bounce back at Valenciennes, following two successive losses.
The question: Brest goalkeeper Steeve Elana has not conceded a goal for 701 minutes. Up against Dimitri Payet, top scorer in Ligue 1 with eight goals, can he continue this impressive streak?
The big game: Marseille-Rennes, Saturday 21.00 CET, Stade Velodrome
The quote: “During the last two seasons, we’ve tended to dominate matches and then get caught on the break. Valenciennes are particularly good at that kind of counter-attacking game. On Sunday, we need to show that we’ve learned our lesson,” Lille midfielder Rio Mavuba.
With seven matchdays gone in the Israeli Premier League, two teams, namely unexpected early leaders Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona and third-placed Maccabi Haifa, still boast unbeaten records. Both have tough away assignments this weekend, with respective journeys to Hapoel Acre and Hapoel Petah Tikva on the agenda. Maccabi Tel Aviv, third on goal difference, will head north to cross swords with Hapoel Haifa.
Surprise leaders Viktoria Plzen continue to take the Czech Liga by storm, and will look to at least maintain their nine-point advantage at the top by beating fourth-placed Teplice at home. Nearest challengers Sigma Olomouc cannot afford any slip-ups at Hradec Kralove, while Sparta Prague must see off Bohemians to remain in touch.