This week’s UEFA Champions League quarter-final first legs are looming large on the footballing horizon, but coaches all over the continent will have warned their men to focus fully on the vital points on offer in the domestic programme at the weekend. AC Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich duly won their matches, but Olympique Marseille, Benfica, APOEL Nicosia and Chelsea were all held to draws. FIFA.com examines five interesting aspects of the weekend action in Europe’s major leagues, and also casts an eye over events in the Netherlands, Scotland and Belgium.
Juventus-Inter Milan, Matchday 29 in Serie A
Since regaining their place in the Italian top flight, Juventus have not lost at home to Inter, and I Bianconeri maintained that proud record in Sunday evening’s latest Derby d'Italia. Uruguay hitman Martin Caceres handed the men from Turin a 57th minute lead, before veteran sub Alessandro del Piero rounded off the scoring with just under 20 minutes to play.
Juventus remain four points off leaders AC Milan, 2-1 winners over Roma, but Inter are down in eighth and losing touch with the UEFA Europa League qualifying places. Juve are still undefeated this season and have now gone a total of 30 consecutive Serie A fixtures without losing.
Nicely on time for the run-in in the Dutch Eredivisie, Amsterdam giants Ajax have struck a rich vein of form. The Netherlands’ most successful club beat visiting PSV Eindhoven 2-0 courtesy of goals from Ismail Aissati and Siem de Jong and remain chief pursuers in the title race, a single point off leaders AZ. The men from Amsterdam have won their last seven straight games.
It is a totally different story for Valencia in Spain. After two defeats in the space of four days - 2-1 to Zaragoza and 3-1 away to Getafe - coach Unai Emery and his men are in serious danger of losing their grip on third spot in La Liga. Malaga beat Espanyol 2-1 to go level on points with Los Che, who are now under severe pressure ahead of next weekend’s derby with fifth-placed Levante, with media critics turning the spotlight on Emery too.
Winning over the demanding fans at the Santiago Bernabeu is a big ask at the best of times, but Karim Benzema has achieved the feat. The Frenchman scored twice and set up another in Real Madrid’s 5-1 demolition of Real Sociedad, and went off the field to a standing ovation. Emerging from the long shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo, the 24-year-old is quietly building a fearsome reputation for himself in the Spanish capital. Benzema, Portugal striker Ronaldo and Argentine sniper Gonzalo Higuain have together scored an almost unbelievable 92 goals in all competitions this season.
A Tunisian import has made history in Belgium, as Hamdi Harbaoui scored the only goal of the Belgian Cup final for Lokeren against Kortrijk. The 27-year-old struck after 77 minutes of the match at King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels, sealing the greatest triumph in his club’s history, and earning cult status in east Flanders.
Where would Schalke be without Klaas-Jan Huntelaar? The Netherlands hitman scored both goals in a 2-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen and moved onto 22 for the Bundesliga season, drawing level with great Dane Ebbe Sand, the last Schalke player to finish top scorer in the Bundesliga back in 2000/2001. The man nicknamed 'Hunter' now has 40 goals to his name in 39 matches this season.
250 - Liverpool had very little to celebrate after a 2-1 home defeat to Wigan Athletic. All the same, keeper Pepe Reina must have felt at least a little pride in becoming the first Spaniard to reach 250 Premier League appearances.
17 – Montpellier are the late show specialists in France. Thanks to Paris St-Germain’s 1-1 draw at home to Bordeaux, the southern outfit returned to the top of the table with a 1-0 home win against Saint Etienne, in which Olivier Giroud scored in the 89th minute. Montpellier have now fired 17 goals in the last 15 minutes of their fixtures this season.
21 – Veteran boss Otto Rehhagel has restored hopes of avoiding the drop to struggling Hertha Berlin. Saturday’s 3-1 win away to Mainz was Hertha’s second victory in five matches under ‘King Otto’, and the men from the German capital’s first away success in 21 weeks.
15 – England internationals Kieran Gibbs and Theo Walcott were each on target to pave the way for Arsenal to beat Aston Villa 3-0, the Gunners’ seventh win on the bounce. It was also the first time in 15 years that two English players have scored a goal each in a league match for the north London side.
Five memorable moments
No title party on rivals’ turf: Rangers staved off what would have been for them the ultimate horror - bitter rivals Celtic winning the title at Ibrox Stadium. Ally McCoist's Gers won 3-2 in a typically bruising 398th Old Firm derby in the 31st round of Scottish Premier League matches, assisted by the visitors having two men sent off. However, Celtic’s 43rd title triumph, and their first since 2008, remains a virtual certainty. With seven games to play, the Bhoys lead their Glasgow rivals by18 points.
Mixed feelings in Marseille: At the end of their weekend fixture, it was hard for the Olympique Marseille camp to choose between relief and frustration. The 1-1 draw with relegation-haunted Nice put an end to a disastrous fun of five league defeats on the trot, plus an embarrassing French cup exit to third-tier Quevilly, but coach Didier Deschamps’ side hardly bounced back in any kind of style. With Bayern Munich due in town for the Champions League quarter-final first leg on Wednesday, OM might have hoped for a more confidence-boosting result.
Double dose of poor fortune: Atletico Madrid will not forget their trip to Real Zaragoza in a hurry. With 28 minutes on the clock, Adrian hit Zaragoza’s right-hand post, and then watched in horror as team-mate Falcao directed the rebound against the left upright. The punishment for those misses was meted out in the dying seconds, as the game had entered its 95th minute when Apono struck the only goal of the game from the spot for the struggling home side.
Good times for Mexes: A reunion with old friends is always pleasant, and that was the case several times over for Philippe Mexes. The France and AC Milan star crossed swords with his former club Roma, where he spent no fewer than seven seasons, and helped I Rossoneri to a vital 2-1, turning in an impressive performance alongside fellow centre back Alessandro Nesta. Mexes, Nesta and Co will be brimming with confidence ahead of their first Champions League quarter-final meeting with mighty Barcelona on Wednesday, where the defender could help himself to an early birthday present, as he turns 30 two days later.
Hazard up there with the greats: Eden Hazard required just 36 minutes to steer French champions Lille to success, and not for the first time: he won a penalty and converted it himself to open the scoring against Evian Thonon Gaillard. Lille went on to win 3-0, as the 21-year-old Belgian moved onto 13 goals and ten assists for the season. Hazard thus joins Emmanuel Adebayor, Lionel Messi, Franck Ribery and Fabrizio Miccoli among a five-man elite who are into double figures as both scorer and provider in Europe’s leading leagues.
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