The finish line is in sight in many of Europe's major leagues, meaning the contenders will be under huge pressure this weekend. Spanish football's two superpowers will continue their fight for gold as the top three in Germany hit the road. With the leaders in England taking on their fierce rivals, two vital north-south duels in Italy and the two Olympiques squaring off in France, FIFA.com looks ahead to the forthcoming action.
Premier League: Liverpool aim to halt United
Long out of the running for the title, Liverpool will nevertheless have an important say in its eventual destination, starting with Sunday’s visit to leaders and bitter enemies Manchester United. Aside from trying to derail their near neighbours’ title push, Liverpool are also hoping to maintain their bid for a UEFA Champions League slot.
Waiting eagerly for a United slip-up are second-placed Chelsea, who travel to Blackburn Rovers intent on putting their midweek European exit behind them. Arsenal, the other championship contenders, are at home to a West Ham United side still in the thick of the relegation battle. Fortunately for the Hammers, fellow strugglers Wolverhampton Wanderers can expect an equally stern examination at Aston Villa.
The question: Manchester United have scored in every one of their last 15 matches in all competitions. Can Liverpool’s defence stand firm and end that impressive run?
The big game: Manchester United-Liverpool, Sunday 21 March 14.30 CET, Old Trafford
The quote: “We've got Arsenal next, which doesn't get any easier. They are a very good team as well [as Chelsea]. We have to show those fighting qualities if we are going to stay in the Premier League and I'm sure we are going to do just that,” West Ham United defender Danny Gabbidon.
La Liga: Clásico countdown begins
There are only three weeks to go before Real Madrid and Barcelona meet at the Santiago Bernabeu for a match that will go a long way to deciding the title. In the meantime, however, both sides need to concentrate on the job of collecting points from the division's also-rans, a task they will renew this weekend, with the table-topping Merengues entertaining Sporting Gijon and the chasing Catalans travelling to Real Zaragoza, who lie one place above the drop zone.
Fully 18 points behind the top two, third-placed Valencia have their sights set on returning to the Champions League but face a stiff task this weekend at home to improving Almeria, who are unbeaten in seven. Ousted from the continent’s premier club competition by CSKA Moscow in the week, Sevilla will be out to make amends and hang on to fourth when they visit Espanyol.
The question: Who will come out on top in the relegation scrap between rock-bottom Jerez and a Tenerife side two places above them?
The big game: Real Zaragoza-Barcelona, Sunday 21 March, 21.00 CET, La Romareda
The quote: “You have to take something positive out of every defeat. Losing 4-1 at Tenerife means we can sound the alarm signal, and there’s no question we’ll be up for the next match against Sevilla,” Espanyol forward Luis Garcia.
Serie A: Milanese duo look south
The Milanese giants have enjoyed contrasting fortunes at home and abroad over the last couple of weeks. Despite seeing their league lead shrink to a single point, Inter continue to make progress in the Champions League, having just put paid to Chelsea’s hopes. AC, by contrast, have stormed back into scudetto contention, which has come as come consolation for an emphatic aggregate defeat to Manchester United. With both sides in such unpredictable form, selecting a title winner is no easy task.
Beaten 3-1 at Catania last week, I Nerazzurri return to Sicily on Saturday to take on high-flying Palermo, who are pushing hard for a Champions League berth. I Rossoneri are poised to pounce should Jose Mourinho’s men falter again and could move top if they can see off Napoli, who lost to Fiorentina last week, at home on Sunday. The only side with a realistic chance of reeling in the Milan duo are Roma, who can ill-afford to drop points when lowly Udinese visit the Stadio Olimpico.
The question: After collecting just one point in their last four games, Lazio have dropped to 16th place and are just two points above the relegation zone. Can the Romans halt their slide at Cagliari?
The big game: Palermo-Inter Milan, Saturday 20 March, 20.45 CET, Stadio Renzo Barbera
The quote: “We haven’t won away all season. We need to set that record straight and I don’t see why we can’t do it on at Roma on Saturday, even if they are fighting for the title,” Udinese midfielder Paolo Sammarco.
Bundesliga: A three-way fight
The leading trio of Bayern Munich, Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen face tricky away assignments at Eintracht Frankfurt, Hamburg and Borussia Dortmund respectively, with perhaps the hardest task of all falling to Felix Magath’s side. Not only are Hamburg battling for one of the European places, the match also marks another return for Magath to the club where he spent most of his playing career.
Now three points off the pace, one-time leaders Bayer need to provide further evidence of their return to form at Borussia Dortmund, who have climbed up to fourth thanks in no small part to the strike partnership of Lucas Barrios and Mohamed Zidan. Werder Bremen, in sixth, have gone unbeaten for the best part of two months, a purple patch they will feel confident of extending at home to Bochum.
The question: After losing nine games in a row, Hannover have checked their fall with back-to-back triumphs. Can they make it three wins on the trot at Stuttgart?
The big game: Hamburg-Schalke, Sunday 21 March, 15.30 CET, HSH Nordbank Arena
The quote: “I had some very good times at Hamburg but that’s all in the past. I’ve worked at so many clubs in my career that I have a special match nearly every week now. This is just a normal match for me though,” Schalke coach Felix Magath.
Ligue 1: Six in the running
Three points are all that separate top dogs Bordeaux from Marseille in sixth. With the various championship candidates set to face each other on several occasions over the next few weeks, the conclusion to the season should be an exciting one. In chapter one of this enthralling saga Marseille play host to Lyon, in fifth, with plenty of fireworks in prospect after the thrilling 5-5 draw the two sides served up earlier in the season. Meanwhile, Laurent Blanc’s men will defend their lead against fourth-placed Lille, who are just two points behind them.
Waiting to take advantage of results from those two matches are surprise aspirants Montpellier and Auxerre, who have respective home games against mid-table Valenciennes and Le Mans, who look bound for the second division.
The question: Marseille’s home defeat to Lyon last year ended their hopes of taking the league crown. Can l’OM gain revenge this weekend or will l’OL repeat the trick?
The big game: Marseille-Lyon, Sunday 21 March, 21.00 CET, Stade Velodrome
The quote: “People thought we could keep forging on without putting the same ingredients in. The players know they need to react because the cushion we have is getting less and less comfortable. If we can get it back, we can reach our objectives,” Bordeaux coach Laurent Blanc.
There are two top-of-the table contests in Greece as first plays third and second plays fourth. Pacesetting Panathinaikos will stay out front no matter what happens in the ‘Mother of all Battles’, the name by which the Athens derby between Pana and Olympiacos is known. Seven points behind their sworn enemies and eliminated from the Champions League this week, the Kokkini are in desperate need of a win to keep their season alive. Facing off at the same time on Saturday are PAOK Salonika and AEK Athens, with PAOK looking to make inroads into Panathinaikos’ five-point lead.
Finally in Cyprus, Omonia Nicosia will defend their four-point advantage over city rivals APOEL when the two sides meet on Sunday. Anorthosis Famagusta stand third on goal difference behind APOEL and have the chance to move above the defending champions if they can win at ENP.