Europe’s elite club competition casts its long shadow over the battle for domestic league points this weekend: just days ahead of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg ties, the continent’s giants are keen to bolster their reserves of confidence with good results at home.
La Liga: Goals in the offing?
The clash between 12th-placed Atletico Madrid and leaders Barcelona is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious in the Spanish top flight, and recent history would suggest the crowd can look forward to a goalfest. The net has bulged no fewer than 27 times in the last four meetings, with seven goals per game in the last three.
Real Madrid will be banking on maximum points from the encounter with tail-enders Xerez, and the men from the capital certainly cannot afford the five-point gap to the top to grow any larger. Pursuers Valencia (away to Sporting Gijon) and Mallorca (away to Tenerife) also appear to have easy tasks on paper. At the wrong end of the table, 18th-placed Valladolid would leapfrog Real Zaragoza should they win a relegation six-pointer.
The question: Can Atletico exact revenge for a 5-2 defeat in the reverse fixture against Barça?
The big game: Atletico Madrid-Barcelona, Sunday 21:00, Vicente Calderon
The quote: "I don’t know how Real Madrid will approach the game against Xerez. What I do know is that we’re in good shape, and I’m convinced we can beat Atletico. It’s important we play well. The better we play as a unit, the more we’ll achieve," Bojan Krkic, Barcelona striker
Serie A: Chasing pack hoping for Inter slip
Once it was Juventus, then it was AC Milan, now it’s Roma: the role of chief rival to Inter has changed hands with some frequency in recent weeks. The only constant is the team they’re all trying to catch, as Inter appear to be advancing inexorably on a fifth Scudetto on the spin. The champions meet fourth-placed Napoli this weekend, and could put distance between themselves and another possible title contender.
Roma feature in the second-biggest game of the weekend against fifth-placed Palermo, while third-placed AC entertain lowly Udinese, hoping to close the gap on the top two. Juventus, down in seventh after failing to win for five matches, will attempt to turn the corner against eighth-placed Genoa. Lazio and new boss Edy Reja travel to Parma.
The question: In their third match under coach Alberto Zaccheroni, can Juventus return to winning ways?
The big game: Inter-Napoli, Sunday 20:45, Giuseppe Meazza
The quote: "You ask why we’re in this position? There are definitely a number of factors, but there’s no easy answer. If we knew it, we wouldn’t be in this position. We need to keep up the hard work, give it 110 per cent, and hope we pull out of it at some point, " Giorgio Chiellini, Juventus defender
Bundesliga: Ribery set to start for on-fire Bayern
Year after year, one Bundesliga club tends to emerge as the chief obstacle between Bayern Munich and the title. Wolfsburg sensationally snatched the crown from the Bavarians last term, and unbeaten Bayer Leverkusen still have their noses in front of Louis van Gaal’s side this season. The champions meet the leaders at the weekend, with Bayer determined to win again after a draw with struggling Bochum last time out.
Bayern are firing on all cylinders at present and have won their last eight in the league. Not only that, but Franck Ribéry is finally fit after a long lay-off and is expected to start on the opposite flank from in-form Arjen Robben at home to Borussia Dortmund. As things stand, German football fans are seriously questioning whether any other club truly has what it takes to thwart Munich this term.
The question: Can Bayern make it nine straight wins in the Bundesliga, and potentially return to the top of the standings for the first time in more than eighteen months?
The big game: Bayern-Dortmund, Saturday 18:30, Allianz Arena
The quote: "I’m very relaxed about the debate over who’ll win the league. We want to hold onto top spot for as long as we can," Jupp Heynckes, Bayer Leverkusen coach
Ligue 1: Champions in a trough
After many carefree and blisteringly successful months, Girondins Bordeaux now face the challenge of overcoming a minor crisis of sorts. The leaders will attempt to return to winning ways at home to strugglers Saint-Etienne after two league games without a win and a shock cup exit in midweek. Points are needed too, as surprise package Montpellier have snuck up to within three points of the champions. The promoted high-flyers will hope for a maximum return at home to last-placed Grenoble.
Faded glory blossoms back into life when famous names Monaco and Olympique Marseille do battle for fifth place. The southern rivals are engaged in a bitter fight for European qualifying places, with both clubs seeking to overhaul Olympique Lyon, a spot ahead of the pair in fourth. The former serial champions are desperate to avoid slip-ups against Lens.
The question: Can promoted Montpellier continue their extraordinary season and cut the gap to leaders Bordeaux even further?
The big game: Monaco-Olympique Marseille, Saturday 19.00, Stade Louis II
The quote: "We made mistakes against Rennes [in a 4-2 defeat last weekend] and we have to learn from them. We weren’t experienced enough in dealing with such a big lead in the table. The league is clearly the priority ahead of the Champions League. Whenever we fall behind in a match, we pick ourselves up and try to increase the pace," Fernando, Girondins midfielder
The Liga Sagres programme in Portugal features a Lisbon derby, although it is a mismatch on paper as leaders Benfica take on bottom club Belenenses. Pursuers Sporting Braga entertain Maritimo, and third-placed Porto meet second-to-last Leixoes Matosinhos.
Any clash between the champions and the cup holders would normally count as a big game, but in Switzerland, Zurich and Sion are struggling in the Super League. The pair are currently seventh and eighth in the ten-team section, fully 15 and 17 points respectively off leaders Young Boys Bern, who meet Lucerne.
The Premier League takes a backseat for an FA Cup weekend in England, where the competition has reached the last 16. League leaders Chelsea face Cardiff City, and Bolton Wanderers meet fellow top-flight outfit Tottenham Hotspur. Another all-Premier League clash pits Manchester City against Stoke City.