After a hard winter across most of Europe, the first hint of spring is in the air, but that’s not the only reason the continent’s football fans are looking forward to the coming weekend. Some of the biggest names on the scene face stern challenges, with battles of the titans in both France and Germany, and a cup final in England. FIFA.com looks ahead to the action.
Premier League: Chelsea bent on revenge
The big game in the English league – Manchester City’s trip to leaders Chelsea – looks enthralling for a number of reasons. Not only will the fixture bring together two exceptionally ambitious clubs with the undoubted financial resources to match, it will also have the added spice of personal duels both on the pitch and in the boardroom. The west London side have a score to settle, too, as they lost the reverse fixture in the north-west 2-1.
Fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur will be on their guard against Everton, for although David Moyes’s men exited the UEFA Europa League in midweek, their recent scalps include both Manchester United and Chelsea. The champions, driven on by a Wayne Rooney at the top of his game right now, beat West Ham United 3-0 in midweek, but take a break from league action on Sunday for the eagerly-awaited League Cup final with Aston Villa.
The question: Can Manchester City bounce back from a surprise FA Cup exit to Stoke City with a decent result away to leaders Chelsea?
The big game: Chelsea-Manchester City, Saturday, 13:45, Stamford Bridge
The quote: "I think we’ve maybe got a bit more strength in depth here and people are fighting for places, which is good,” Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp.
La Liga: Test of Atletico’s credentials
Any side that beats FIFA Club World Cup holders Barcelona clearly has something going for it. Atletico Madrid are the only team to achieve the feat in the Spanish top flight this term, but the men from the capital lie a disappointing 13th in the table. Now, Diego Forlan and Co have the chance to prove they really are better than their league position suggests when they meet third-placed Valencia, who boast the second-best away record in the division after Barça.
The top two would be expected to claim maximum points this weekend. Real Madrid go first, away to second-bottom Tenerife, where they will hope to pile the pressure on Pep Guardiola’s side. Barcelona, two points ahead of Los Merengues but a shade below their majestic best of late, play shortly after their chief rivals at home to Malaga, who have won just twice on their travels this season.
The question: In the reverse fixture, fourth-placed Sevilla beat Athletic Bilbao 4-0. Can the proud Basque outfit remedy the situation in Andalusia?
The big game: Atletico Madrid-Valencia, Sunday, 21:00, Vicente Calderon
The quote: "We had ups and downs last season too. I believe we’re definitely on the up again now," Atletico Madrid striker Diego Forlan.
Serie A: Rivals hot on Inter’s heels
It’s been a case of the wobbles for leaders Inter Milan recently with three draws on the spin. AC Milan and Roma are gnawing away at I Nerazzurri's advantage, and Jose Mourinho is also without suspended foursome Walter Samuel, Ivan Cordoba, Sulley Muntari and Esteban Cambiasso for the trip to Udinese. The stars will be in good company, though, as the coach has been similarly banished to the stands for disciplinary reasons. However, Inter’s 2-1 win over Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League indicates they are hardly a spent force.
AC Milan hope Ronaldinho continues his excellent run of form at home to Atalanta, but Roma face up to the tricky away meeting with Napoli without Francesco Totti and Luca Toni. Resurgent Juventus take on sixth-placed Palermo.
The question: Napoli remain undefeated at home this term, but can Roma spoil that excellent record?
The big game: Napoli-Roma, Sunday, 15:00, Stadio San Paolo
The quote: "We’re focusing on no-one but ourselves. Dreaming is permitted, and we’re always dreaming! But we have to keep our cool and keep playing quality football," AC Milan coach Leonardo.
Ligue 1: A tale of contrasting fortunes
The big game in France takes place at Parc des Princes in Paris, in a fixture redolent with nostalgia and the whiff of glories past. Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille approach this season’s duel with contrasting ambitions. The 12th-placed home side have won just once in the league this year, but the visitors have won four of their last five and could yet return to the title race with a vengeance. Both prestige and valuable points are at stake.
At the very top, leaders Bordeaux and chief pursuers Montpellier also appear to be at different points on the form curve. The champions are over their minor crisis and now visit Le Mans in search of a fourth victory on the bounce in all competitions, whereas the promoted side are at home to Rennes, looking to make up for last week’s surprise defeat away to struggling Saint-Etienne.
The question: Marseilles skipper Mamadou Niang shone last week with a hat-trick against Nancy. Can he wreak similar havoc on PSG?
The big game: Paris Saint-Germain-Marseille, Sunday, 21:00, Parc des Princes
The quote: "We’ve been a lot more consistent since the start of the year. That’s exactly the recipe which took Bordeaux clear in the first half of the season," Marseille coach Didier Deschamps.
Bundesliga: Triple dose of bitter rivalry
The title race in Germany could easily take on a whole new dimension this weekend, as all three candidates face stern tests of their credentials and will need very cool heads indeed to come through unscathed. In the most emotion-laden derby the Bundesliga offers, third-placed Schalke entertain bitter local rivals Borussia Dortmund, just two places below their traditional enemies. Friday evening’s game, in front of a 62,000-strong crowd, rates as easily the biggest battle in the Ruhr Valley this year, regardless of the league points on offer.
The following day, undefeated leaders Bayer Leverkusen entertain their own bitter rivals from neighbouring Cologne, and will set a new Bundesliga record if they avoid defeat. Bayern Munich are level on points at the top, and Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Co will know exactly what they need to claim first place when they host northern enemies Hamburg on Sunday evening.
The question: Hamburg have not lost in their last six meetings with Bayern. Will the northerners confirm their reputation as Bayern’s bogey side?
The big game: Schalke-Dortmund, Friday, 20:30, Veltins Arena
The quote: "It’s not my intention to travel to Schalke aiming to show how you play pretty football. My intention is to get a result. Providing the entertainment isn’t our job," Borussia Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp.
Derby connoisseurs will be focusing on Scotland this weekend. The fight for fame, prestige and honour is unquestionably at its most intense in Glasgow, where Celtic take on Rangers in one of the world’s great derbies. The Bhoys urgently require a win to at least temporarily interrupt Rangers’ imperious march on the title, and will be looking to in-form winter signing Robbie Keane to score the necessary goals.
In Portugal, champions Porto also have some catching up to do, as they are six points off top dogs Benfica and five adrift of surprise package Sporting Braga. Porto are in the capital at the weekend, where they must win away to fourth-placed Sporting to keep their title hopes alive.