Bitterly cold winter weather still has much of Europe in its icy grip, but there’s plenty of pulsating footballing action to warm the fans’ hearts. The weekend programme across the continent features a host of mouth-watering duels between famous clubs, all eager to restate their title credentials. FIFA.com casts an eye over the best of the forthcoming matches in England, Spain, Italy, France and Germany.
Premier League: Stern test for ambitious Arsenal
The eagerly-awaited meeting between the top two in England's chasing pack sees the teams approach the fixture in contrasting moods. Third-placed Arsenal, who dropped two points in midweek at Aston Villa, entertain an on-fire Manchester United side. Buoyed by an epic League Cup semi-final triumph over bitter rivals Manchester City, the reigning champions will feel they have a better chance than ever of putting distance between themselves and the Gunners. That said, Arsene Wenger’s men could catapult themselves right back into the title race with a win, and receive a timely confidence boost in advance of crucial meetings with fellow contenders Chelsea and Liverpool.
For their part, the tabble-topping Blues face strugglers Burnley. The west London side could well be strengthened by Côte d’Ivoire pair Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou, back earlier than expected from the CAF Africa Cup of Nations. In the tense battle for fourth spot, Tottenham Hotspur will seek to keep Liverpool, Manchester City and Aston Villa at bay with a win away to promoted outfit Birmingham City.
The question: Wayne Rooney has now scored 13 goals in as many matches. Can he fire United to victory away to Arsenal?
The big game: Arsenal-Manchester United, Sunday 17:00, Emirates Stadium
The quote: "The message to our rivals is that they should be worried about us. We have a great bunch of players and we’re fit, we want to play good football, and we want this club to win the title," Ricardo Carvalho, Chelsea.
La Liga: Battle of the perennial also-rans
Deportivo La Coruna and Sporting Gijon have each only lost twice at home in the Spanish top flight this term. Though that in itself is not particularly remarkable, it ought to serve as a warning to the undisputed big two in Spain. Leaders Barcelona travel to Gijon this weekend, with second-placed Real Madrid heading to La Coruna.
Beavering away as ever in the shadow of the dominant duo, two familiar names are vying for the role of third-best club in the land. Valencia are currently closest to toppling one of the big two from the leading positions, but Sevilla are currently down in an unaccustomed sixth spot. The pair go to the mat in Andalusia this weekend.
The question: Valencia have not lost away from home since a 3-1 defeat by Getafe in late September. Can they maintain this fine record in Seville?
The big game: Sevilla-Valencia, Sunday 21:00, Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan
The quote: "It’s like a final for us, and I reckon it’s the same for them. If we win, which is what we’re going there aiming to do, we could put distance between ourselves and our biggest rivals," David Villa, Valencia player.
Serie A: Napoli dream of the glory days
Many, many years have passed since Diego Maradona thrilled the Napoli crowds with his exploits in a light blue jersey. The leading team from Italy’s third-biggest city won the Scudetto in 1987 and 1990, and although that level of glory is currently out of reach, things are finally looking up at the club after years in the doldrums. If Napoli can beat Genoa at home, they would hit the heady heights of a direct qualifying place for the UEFA Champions League.
The current top three appear to have manageable tasks on paper. Leaders Inter Milan visit promoted Parma, second-placed AC Milan entertain Livorno, another of the top-flight newcomers, and third-placed Roma meet tailenders Siena. There is bound to be more of an edge when Juventus, defeated in six of their last eight league fixtures, and Lazio, anchored deep in the relegation mire, do battle on Sunday.
The question: Can Napoli stretch their unbeaten run to 15 league games?
The big game: Juventus-Lazio, Sunday 20:45, Olimpico
The quote: "If we work hard and make realistic plans, we’ll be able to hold our own with the big names in the future," Walter Mazzarri, Napoli coach.
Ligue 1: PSG aim to send out a signal
Unspectacular ordinariness has no place in a world-leading metropolis, so Paris Saint-Germain’s frustration at their position in no-man’s land in the French standings is understandable. Down to 11th after two consecutive losses, the men from the capital can make it up to their fans with a big win, but that would require an above-average display away to former serial champions Lyon, who are currently fifth.
The situation is considerably more promising at Montpellier. The promoted club, the subject of intense media scrutiny of late, can no longer truly be described as a surprise package, as they have confidently and consistently racked up the results to take them second. Another key test of their credentials comes this weekend in the home meeting with fourth-placed Mediterranean neighbours Marseille. OM won the reverse fixture 4-2 last autumn. Runaway leaders Bordeaux entertain second-bottom Boulogne-sur-Mer, with the smart money on maximum points for the champions.
The question: In the space of three days, Lyon were eliminated from both domestic cups and are now under severe pressure. Can Paris Saint-Germain seize the moment and plunge the fallen greats into an even deeper crisis?
The big game: Montpellier-Marseille, Saturday 21:00, Stade de la Mosson
The quote: "I have to admit the idea of taking revenge feels very good to me," Tino Costa, Montpellier player.
Bundesliga: Ruud awakening for Hamburg
To the delight of German neutrals and those responsible for marketing the Bundesliga, world-class goal-getter Ruud van Nistelrooy signed for Hamburg this week, although the potent Dutchman will not feature for his new club against Wolfsburg this Friday. The champions will probably be grateful for that, as the Wolves are a club in crisis. Coach Armin Veh was dismissed after just seven months in the job, and the onus is on the players to start turning round a poor season right away.
At the top of the table, leaders Bayer Leverkusen have yet to lose, but now find themselves increasingly under pressure from on-fire Bayern Munich. The top two will both hope for three points from games against promoted clubs: Jupp Heynckes' Bayer entertain Freiburg, while Louis van Gaal’s high-scoring superstars are at home to Mainz.
The question: Apart from Bayer and Bayern, only Stuttgart and Borussia Dortmund have won both matches since the mid-season break. The pair meet at the weekend, but which can maintain their winning run?
The big game: Stuttgart-Borussia Dortmund, Sunday 15:30, Mercedes-Benz-Arena
The quote: "I fit perfectly with Hamburg. This is a huge club with a rich tradition. Hamburg are known all over the world. I’m delighted to be here."
Ruud van Nistelrooy, Hamburg player.
Arguably the fiercest rivalry of the weekend will be found in Greece, where the Athens derby sees leaders Panathinaikos host sixth-placed neighbours AEK Athens. If at all, the passion and emotions will not lag far behind in the Netherlands, where Feyenoord take on arch-rivals Ajax in Rotterdam. The sides lie third and fourth respectively, with the customary quota of pride and prestige at stake.