With the end of the season just a few weeks away, the pressure on the various title pretenders around Europe continues to rise. Some, such as Manchester United, Barcelona and AC Milan, appear oblivious to the weight of expectation, and continue to pick up crucial wins, while others, such as Borussia Dortmund and Lille, seem determined to make life as nerve-wracking as possible for their supporters.
FIFA.com takes a look back at all the action from an eventful weekend in the five major European leagues.
Premier League: United close in on crown
They may have left it late, but in beating Everton 1-0 on Saturday Manchester United took a huge step towards claiming yet another English title. Javier Hernandez’s 12th league goal of the season did the damage for Alex Ferguson’s men.
Back in the chasing pack, Chelsea defeated lowly West Ham United 3-0 in an exciting match that was much closer than the final score suggested, while Arsenal’s hopes of end-of-season success appear to be over following their 2-1 reverse at Bolton Wanderers. The next two games could still see a turnaround in fortunes, however, given that the Red Devils are scheduled to first visit Arsenal and then host Chelsea on consecutive weekends.
While the title is no longer on the radar at Anfield, Liverpool’s fans were nonetheless treated to a goalfest as their heroes dispatched Birmingham City 5-0 in a match that featured a hat-trick from Argentinian winger Maxi Rodriguez. Tottenham Hotspur, meanwhile, let slip two valuable points in their 2-2 draw with West Bromwich Albion.
Top three: Manchester United (73 points), Chelsea (67), Arsenal (64)
Bottom three: Wigan Athletic (34), Wolverhampton Wanderers (33), West Ham United (32)
Top scorers: Dimitar Berbatov (21 goals), Carlos Tevez (19), Darren Bent, Robin Van Persie (both 15)
Weekend stat: 903 – The number of minutes that the previously prolific Fernando Torres had gone without scoring a goal, before finally ending his barren period against West Ham.
La Liga: Business as usual for Barça
Goals were not hard to come by this weekend in Valencia, where the home side, sitting third in the Spanish league, were demolished 6-3 by a rampant Real Madrid, whose midweek Copa del Rey triumph over Barcelona appears to have given them a timely boost. Despite leaving numerous first-team regulars on the bench, Los Blancos’ victory – featuring three goals and two assists from an outstanding Gonzalo Higuain – never looked in doubt.
Rivals Barça bounced back from their cup defeat to register a solid 2-0 win at home to Osasuna. With five matches to go, the Catalans retain a comfortable eight-point lead at the top of the table. Elsewhere, the Basque derby was won by Athletic Bilbao, who beat Real Sociedad 2-1 and consolidated fifth spot in the process. Fourth-placed Villareal were unable to make up ground on Valencia, losing 3-2 away to Sevilla, while Atletico Madrid overpowered Levante 4-1.
Top three: Barcelona (88), Real Madrid (80), Valencia (63)
Bottom three: Hercules, Real Zaragoza (both 33), Almeria (26)
Top scorers: Lionel Messi (31), Cristiano Ronaldo (29), David Villa (18)
Weekend stat: 50 – The number of goals in all competitions that the unstoppable Lionel Messi has now scored this season, breaking the previous Spanish record of 49, held by Real legend Ferenc Puskas. The FIFA Ballon d’Or winner has found the net 31 times in the league, and hit 7 in the Spanish Cup, 3 in the Spanish Super Cup and 9 in the UEFA Champions League.
Serie A: Napoli hopes fade
Just as their long-suffering supporters had begun to dream of Serie A glory, Napoli’s title aspirations were dealt a potentially fatal blow by this weekend’s 2-1 loss to Palermo. The result received an especially warm welcome from fans of Inter Milan, whose team moved into second place in the table with an impressive 2-1 win over Lazio, despite initially falling behind and being reduced to ten men.
AC Milan, meanwhile, continue to dig out valuable victories. A goal from Robinho, following a delightful pass from the outstanding Antonio Cassano, was enough to see off Brescia 1-0. I Rossoneri now hold an eight-point lead with four games to play, and will fancy their chances of securing their first Italian championship since 2003/04.
This round of fixtures also saw Bari, beaten at home 1-0 by Sampdoria, officially relegated to Serie B. Fellow strugglers Brescia must begin picking up points over the coming weekends if they are to avoid the same fate.
Top three: AC Milan (74), Inter Milan (66), Napoli (65)
Bottom three: Lecce (35), Brescia (30), Bari (21)
Top scorers: Antonio di Natale, Edinson Cavani (both 26), Samuel Eto’o (20)
Weekend stat: 1 – It took just one goal for Sampdoria to leave Bari with all three points, but remarkably, it was the first time the Genoa side had hit the back of the net away from home in Serie A since November 2010.
Bundesliga: Champagne on hold in Dortmund
Although Borussia Dortmund’s players were aware that they could mathematically clinch the German title on Saturday, they were unable to turn that desire into a reality on the pitch, going down 1-0 to Borussia Monchengladbach. That scoreline, coupled with Bayer Leverkusen’s 2-1 defeat of Hoffenheim, resulted in Die Schwarzgelben’s lead at the top being cut to five points.
One of Bayern Munich’s principal problems this campaign has been their inconsistency, and this weekend offered another example of this phenomenon. Having turned on the style against Leverkusen last week, the Bavarian giants had to settle for a 1-1 draw with Eintracht Frankfurt, despite another goal from striker Mario Gomez, the Bundesliga’s leading goalscorer. Hannover’s fine 3-1 victory at Freiburg saw them leapfrog Munich into third place.
Further down the table, there were important wins for Stuttgart and Kaiserslautern, over Hamburg and Schalke respectively. Both sets of fans will be relieved to see the gap between their clubs and the drop zone continue to increase. Conversely, St Pauli and Monchengladbach – despite the latter’s success versus the league leaders – cannot afford any more dropped points in their fight against relegation.
Top three: Borussia Dortmund (69), Leverkusen (64), Hannover (57)
Bottom three: Wolfsburg (32), Monchengladbach, St Pauli (both 29)
Top scorers: Mario Gomez (23), Papiss Cisse (20), Theofanis Gekas (16)
Weekend stat: 19 – The number of goals conceded by Dortmund so far this season (in 31 matches). And while one of them came in Saturday’s surprising defeat to Monchengladbach, the club’s back line can console themselves with the fact that they are almost certain to finish the season as the Bundesliga’s most miserly defence, given that the team with the next best record, Ruhr rivals Schalke, has conceded 35.
Ligue 1: Lille stumble towards line
Lille slipped up in their quest to claim the French crown, their 1-1 draw at Lorient handing second-placed Marseille – otherwise engaged in the League Cup final against Montpellier – the chance to go top if they manage to get the better of Nice on Wednesday night.
Paris Saint-Germain failed to take advantage of Lille’s defeat and the absences of Marseille and Lyon, whose game in hand against Montpellier will also take place in midweek. The side from the capital were held to a 2-2 stalemate away to Brest.
In the lower reaches of the table, Monaco gave themselves some breathing space by beating Rennes 1-0, Nancy and Arles-Avignon drew 0-0, and Lens and Auxerre shared the points in a 1-1 draw that did neither club any favours.
Top three: Lille (60), Marseille (58), Lyon (53)
Bottom three: Caen (36), Lens (30), Arles-Avignon (14)
Top scorers: Moussa Sow (21), Kevin Gameiro (18), Youssef El-Arabi (16)
Weekend stat: 6 – Badly out of form, Rennes have now gone six games without a win. The Breton side face a battle to qualify for Europe, after having spent large parts of the season vying for top spot.
PSV’s 3-1 loss to Feyenoord saw them knocked off their perch at the top of the Dutch league, following Ajax’s 4-1 home win over Excelsior and Twente’s tight 2-1 victory against Den Haag. Just three points separate defending champions and new leaders Twente from the Eindhoven-based side, who now sit third.
There was a familiar look to the title-winning celebrations in Croatia this weekend, as Dinamo Zagreb’s 1-0 defeat of Osijek secured a sixth successive league crown for the club from the capital. With a 13-point lead and four games to go until the end of the season, Dinamo’s free-scoring Brazilian star Sammir can now look forward to adding another championship medal to his growing collection.
French League Cup
The Stade de France was the venue for Saturday night’s Coupe de la Ligue final between Marseille and Montpellier. L’OM had won the equivalent league clash just one week earlier, the winning strike coming from left-back Taye Taiwo. The Nigerian would rise to the occasion again at France’s national stadium, scoring the only goal of the game ten minutes from time. Having declared his desire to move on to pastures new at the end of the season, the international defender ensured that his time at the club would be remembered fondly by supporters.
Still in with a good chance of winning Ligue 1, Marseille have now won two League Cups in a row.